Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Anglican Schism—Not (Yet?)

The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, kept the worldwide Anglican communion together, at least in the short term, but at the cost of imposing unprecedented sanctions on the US Episcopal church to force it to abandon its liberal policies towards gay people. A communique issued late last night after a fraught five-day meeting in Tanzania of the primates - archbishops and presiding bishops of Anglicanism's 38 provinces - laid new ground rules for the US church and gave it until September 30 to comply. The plan allows, effectively, for the setting up of a church within a church in the US with the appointment of a senior cleric to oversee dioceses which feel unable to accept the Episcopal church's liberal leadership.

So this is the deal, and you can read even more about it, and about what everyone else has to say about it at Thinking Anglicans

What does this mean? I suppose it discourages litigation over church property for the time being and, at least for now, peels off some moderate conservatives and gets them back to the table. But the bottom line is the same, so it’s yet another attempt to stall until everyone simply gets sick of the whole thing—which is unlikely to happen. The pot will keep boiling and is virtually guaranteed to spill over again when that Sept 30 deadline comes. Then there will be more mopping up operations, more conferences, more negotiations, and more stalling and fudging.

In the real world there has been a new intellectual mini-trend advocating atheism but no one in the Church seems to have noticed. Dawkins book, The God Delusion has been on the NYTimes bestseller list for 5 or 6 months but neither liberals nor conservatives in the Church seem to care because as far as I can see they just aren’t interested in religion. They’re interested in sex, in a variety of moral, social and political agendas, and in institutional politics and power plays. A pox on both their houses. I come from the liberal house so I can understand what went on there—but I doubt that conservatives were doing any better.

I dragged on in the Church for 30 years, as fashions changed but the fundamental assumption, that religion was unimportant, uninteresting and untenable did not change. What was the Church for? First, it was a facility to provide people who were idle and lonely, with busy-work, social contact, and a bogus sense of purpose. This was called “empowering the laity.” Secondly it was a vehicle for promoting politically correct views about social issues, the environment and, of course, sex. This was the rationale for the Church’s continued survival: to provide idle, lonely people with social contact, activities and a sense of personal worth and to push social and political agendas.

Promoters of the gay rights agenda in the Church got into the business because they didn’t believe religion was important. They didn’t believe that maintaining buildings as holy places was important. They didn’t believe that liturgy was important, except as means to “community-building” and a vehicle for inculcating politically correctness. They believed that what was important was proclamation—promoting their pet doctrines to the world. Their pet project for the past 15 years was proclaiming the gospel of “inclusiveness” and they overplayed their hand through sheer arrogance: they couldn’t imagine that anyone would have either the power or the intellectual credibility to pose a serious threat.

The Episcopal Church should never have gotten into this business in the first place. No one paid any attention to the official view on gay sex or cared any more than they cared about official doctrine on heterosexual cohabitation. The Church gave tacit approval and there was no point in making an issue of it. But TEC painted itself into a corner: now backing down on same-sex unions and the ordination of sexually active homosexuals would constitute an expression of disapproval—tacit approval isn’t possible any longer.

They’re stuck, and have just postponed the showdown. When the deadline comes they’ll either have to go with the program, selling gays down the river, or else it’s back to go—more fighting, stalling and fudging, power plays, politicking and legal action. The only difference on this round will be the existence of a conservative “church within the church” on the ground, in the US, with official standing in TEC, to make things even worse. Remember, you read it here first.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Book finished!

I finished my book! I had notes, snippets and a long proposal, but basically wrote the thing, 80,000+ words, from just after Christmas until yesterday. I'm beat! I dread, though, having to go through and fix up the footnotes, which are legion.

I got into a little trouble with the publisher though--they made me take down the 9 chapters I had up at my site. So there's now a message there saying that the book is in progress. However I'll check with the publisher to see if it's ok for me to send around chapters for comment. If so I'll email stuff on request. I have it in the form of separate MSWord files for the Introduction and 11 chapters that follow.

The plan was to publish the book in January 2008. But I beat the publisher's May 1 deadline by 2 1/2 months so maybe they'll get it out sooner. Dunno. I've never written a book before. I'm just really, really happy!!!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Guardian Unlimited | Comment is free | This isn't about guns

The Glamour of Barbarism

Guardian Unlimited | Comment is free | This isn't about guns

Back in the Bronze Age everyone was a barbarian. The fundamental theorem of barbarism is: women breed—men fight. Some corollaries are: female achievement consists in having as many babies as possible, preferably male, and is rewarded by respect in the community, improved status in the home and security in old age. Male achievement consists in beating up other males and having sex with as many women as possible, preferably impregnating them. Its reward is prestige, power and wealth, including a stable of concubines.

Male barbarism is glamorous. I don’t know whether that’s because it’s been glamorized in literature from age of the epic to the age or rap, or because we have an innate tendency to find it attractive, and so glamorize it. For whatever reason, it’s wrapped up with romantic notions of honor and courage and confers prestige.

In affluent countries, barbarism only survives in a few isolated pockets—primarily among the underclass in urban slums. There we can see the world Homer described close up, without the literary varnish, and most of us don’t like it. But we still glamorize the young barbarians, the contemporary epic heroes.

Commentators on the linked article, describing the shooting of a 15 year old black kid, agonize over how to explain the fact that it’s disproportionately black males who are involved in this kind of violence. Is it poverty, the absence of male “role models” in single-parent families, discrimination, rap lyrics, the welfare state? No one can figure out why it’s disproportionately blacks who engage in violence—lots of Asians are poor but they aren’t as likely to shoot one another; middle class white kids listen to rap and fanticize but don’t do these things. N4White writes:

My nephew's a white, 13 year old kid, born in Tottenham, but raised in white, middle class, suburban Hertfordshire. He's a big Hip-Hop fan and he and his mates record their own tracks at a mate's house. He was playing me stuff the other day and every track made references to him and his mates "shanking" or shooting people for lack of respect. Loads of references to dealing, banging on about the number of women they had on the go etc. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

He's a lovely kid, does well at school, has a very close and loving family etc but he seems to aspire to living on some sort of grim estate and a life of murder. When I asked him why him and his mates were rapping about all this stuff, he told me "'s life. That's how life is." Eh? He's a school kid in Welwyn Garden City! He's no more likely to shoot someone than I am, but it does worry me that he thinks there's something inherently cool about the gang life... black kids at school are thought of as being hard and therefore cool regardless of what they're like as individuals, and a lot of white kids aspire to being like the black kids they know or see about - cos then folk will think they're cool. Unfortunately, from my own observations it would seem that a lot of those black kids aspire to the gang life.

Dead on, but I think it needs to be spelled out. This is racism: young black males are typecast as barbarian heroes, a role that confers prestige. 13-year-old white kids from middle class suburbs may fanticize but can’t actually play that role convincingly any more than I could play Othello. They just don’t look right. Moreover, most don’t have the opportunity and by the time they’re old enough to be seriously bad they recognize the opportunity costs.

But black kids “regardless of what they’re like as individuals” are typecast and can step right into the prestigious Bad Black Dude role. They don’t even have to make much effort: lots of people just assume they’re barbarians unless they make an significant effort to show they aren’t. Most don’t become barbarians, but some do—and they do because, unlike most middle class white kids, they can.

Hip-hop didn’t create that role. It only gives literary form to a pervasive cultural myth that casts young black males in the role of barbarian heroes. Censoring it won’t help. I don’t know what would. Of course poverty, discrimination and the disorganization of lower class life contribute, but there’s also the pervasiveness of cultural racism, that persists in spite of all the good will in the world. It isn’t only, or maybe even primarily hard racism—discrimination in employment and other practices that lock in poverty—though there’s certainly enough of that. It’s soft racism, the assumption that young black males will be “hard and therefore cool,” not just by aspiring adolescents but by white liberal adults who are at once scared and titillated, and who imagine that it would be “racist” to condemn young black males for playing the barbarian hero role into which they’re typecast by racist mythology.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Changing Tastes

You guys think giving up the homosex habit is tough? Try quitting cigarettes. So far I haven't been able to do it permanently, not that I don't keep trying, and trying and trying. I don't think there's anything morally wrong about smoking--it's just the costs, risks and consequences that get me down. A pack costs $5.52 and, at 1+ packs a day that's real money. It's a little less if I buy by the carton, but then I'm committed to smoking another 10 packs. People regard smoking as a dirty habit, my kids condemn me, it messes up my teeth (and my dentist and dental hygienist make sure to have moralistic little conversations about it while I'm sitting in the chair with my mouth full of their machinery); I don't care for the risk of lung cancer; and I smell.

If there were a pill or a talk therapy or brain zap that could stop me you had better believe I'd try it. Not that I think others should take advantage of such a procedure if they don't mind the costs, risks and consequences. De gustibus.

Why is sexuality such a loaded issue? If you like men, fine; if you like women, fine. Who cares? If you're living in circumstances where homosexuality is socially acceptable and it isn't inconsistent with your moral convictions, fine--no reason to try to change your sexual preferences. If you want to be a Mormon or a fundamentalist then maybe you have a reason to want to change your sexual tastes. Fine also. Why is this supposed to be a bad? What's the big deal?

Years ago when I lived back in New York a friend whose family was working class set out to learn to like ballet. We went to a performance together at Lincoln Center and I was bored to death. I don't have any interest in dance and have no desire to learn to like it. By now however I suppose she's learnt to like ballet. Good for her. I have no interest.

Why is this whole business about sex and sexual preference so loaded? It always seems to me that people who imagine that they're liberal on these matters are still dogged by idiot, puritanical doctrines. The perennial theme that sexual orientation is innate and unalterable is a case in point. Who cares? If a heterosexual person set out to cultivate same sex desires in order to have more scope for sexual pleasure I think that would be a reasonable thing to do--all things being equal, the more sources of pleasure you have the better off you are. I suppose I'd be better off if I liked ballet because it would be yet another source of pleasure, but I've got enough pleasures, I don't like ballet and I'm too lazy to cultivate the taste. Maybe I'd be better off if I were sexually interested in other women, but I'm not, never have been and have no interest in cultivating the taste. Given what I'm like, it would probably take a very substantial effort to cultivate either of these tastes and I doubt that I'd succeed, but I have no real interest in trying.

I suppose I understand why this business of sexual preference is loaded: it's the consequence of 2000 years of moralism and puritanism, the idea that sex is a bigger deal than ballet, and that sexual tastes are a bigger deal than tastes in entertainment. Liberals though are just knuckling under to this view instead of being honest, with themselves and others, and telling the real story--that it just plain doesn't matter whether you have sex with members of the opposite sex or members of the same sex, that it doesn't matter whether you like men or women or both, any more than it matters whether you like ballet or not. Promoting the doctrine that sexual orientation is innate and unalterable seems like nothing more than caving into conservatives: don't blame us--we can't help being gay; ought implies can.

I suspect that sexual orientation is like handedness--innate but amenable to modification--but that like handedness it probably isn't worth changing. I'd suspect also that it's a matter of degree and that some people are ambidextrous--and that the ambidextrous are truly blessed. If however this is the way it is we should be honest about it and not pander to puritanical fundamentalists by pretending that sexual tastes are a bigger deal than handedness or a taste for ballet.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

What's Left?

Comment is free: Nothing left of Nick
Cohen's misfortune is that his book has appeared at the very moment when the arguments of the real left - the anti-war left, the only left worth the name - the left that mobilised hundreds of thousands of Americans to demonstrate against their government in Washington last weekend (an event I was honoured to be able to participate in) in favour of national independence, international law and against imperial aggression are being spectacularly vindicated - a vindication that is mainly of value as a call to further action against war and injustice.

I'm still trying to get ahold of this book--everyone else seems to have a copy and the reviews are coming thick and fast. It seems dishonest to comment before I actually read it but I do think I get the drift. Besides, this is my blog and I can speculate if I want to.

When I was in Kenya, after crossing the equator to the Southern Hemisphere, the first thing I did was run to the nearest bathroom to see if the water really spun down the drain in the opposite direction. The drain, like most things in Kenya, didn't work very well and, as far as I could see, the water just went straight down very slowly with a good deal of burping, gurgling and hiccoughing. I put this down to it's being so close to the equator that there was no clear result.

Politically, things don't spin in the same direction that they do in the UK on this side of the Atlantic and that may be why Cohen's book and the criticism it's gotten seem peculiar to me. "The anti-war left, the only left worth the name" is especially puzzling to me as an American because here in the US there's so much more for the Left to do.

We don't have any social safety nets to speak of in the US. You use up your unemployment or go beyond the the 5 year lifetime cap on welfare, now known as "Temporary Aid to Families" and your own other option is begging--if you're lucky, from family members, if not at the entrance to your local supermarket. Your social worker may be able to get you on Disability, which pays minimally if you can produce documentation to show that you have some chronic mental or physical illness but otherwise you're on your own. The Salvation Army may help out. We don't have the National Health. If you aren't insured, you go to the nearest hospital emergency room for routine doctor's visits--they can't turn you away. If you have some income, they'll arrange a payment scheme, if not they'll just pass the cost of your visit--many times more than it would have been if you'd just gone to a doctor (which you can't afford) on to paying customers, that is to say, on to their insurance companies.

We have a huge growing gap between the rich and the poor and the world's biggest gap between the pay of corporate CEOs and hourly workers. Of course it depends on which CEOs you're looking at and which hourly workers but whichever groups you choose to compare the difference between the gap in US and other countries is huge. In one study, adopting one set of criteria, American CEOs were paid 532 times the salary of average hourly workers in their firms whereas, by the same criteria, the figure in Japan was 11 times. No other country went beyond double digits.

The US, never particularly generous, turned hard right in 1980, when Reagan was elected and has been going further right on bread-and-butter issues ever since. Apart from the demolition of New Deal programs virtually all the policies intended to counteract the affects of discrimination against women and minorities have been taken down. School bussing to achieve racial balance went early on and schools have become increasingly segregated. Affirmative action is almost gone and anti-discrimination regulations are rarely enforced.

I'm stuck here because of my job. If I were an engineer or a nurse or had any skills that would get me a job somewhere else I wouldn't live in the US. The US is, by my criteria, a hellhole. These social policies are contrary to my deepest moral convictions. The essence of Left as I understand it is the commitment to establishing a cradle-to-grave welfare state. Everything else is peripheral and non-priority, so I am not going to get excited about one war more or less.

I do, of course, oppose the Iraq war. I demonstrated against it at the sabre-rattling stage, and would have joined the demonstrators in D.C. if it were feasible. To repeat--because I don't think anyone will notice what I just said unless I repeat it again and again or shout: I OPPOSE THE WAR IN IRAQ!!! I oppose the current regime's assinine, ham-fisted, idiotic, destructive foreign policy.

I'm not all that upset about imperialism as such though. What matters is the establishment of a welfare state. If an imperial power takes over and establishes one, in the US or elsewhere, I think that would be a good thing. Better a benevolent foreign despot treating colonial subjects to bread and circuses than a democratically elected regime under which people are begging in the streets. So, if the EU were to raise an army, invade the US and establish social democracy I would throw roses at the tanks. What matters is quality of life--not who runs the show.

I suppose once you have the National Health and social safety nets, once you know you aren't going to be begging at the freeway entrance or bankrupted by major illness you can afford to gas on about the evils of colonialism. Having forgotten what it's like to live in a hellhole like the US, to work without a net, you might imagine that the anti-war left is the only left worth the name. It's easy to forget what it was like to live like this, the overwhelming risk and chronic insecurity for those of us who are lucky and the pure misery for those of us who aren't. But anyone in the US should recognize that there's plenty for a left that's worth the name to do here besides worry about war, imperialism or, more generally, about foreign policy.