Monday, June 30, 2008

Gay Day, 2008

So I went to Gay Day yesterday. Bought the camera, aforementioned, the Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ-50K with Leica 35-420 mm equivalent lens. I jest a little, but the strategy was exactly that ... when one finds himself in the status of "immanent agoraphobia", well, you gotta do something to get your royal Canadian rear end out of the house.

I left with high hopes and returned low and a little disappointed. I am not particularly happy with the photos, and I only met one person whom I knew notwithstanding a set-up with a group that had, objectively, no possibility of working. All that said, the day was a great success for me personally, and I am glad that I challenged myself to revisit old haunts that have been occupied somewhat inelegantly, I would aver, by uncomely newcomers.

I will try to make that last statement the summit of sanctimoniousness for this post as I promised myself honesty here and a refraining from pontification or ponderous rumination. So off my pedestal and into the street ...

... or leastwise onto the curb. Over the course of four and half hours of wondering around, I sat twice on the curb, the first time to eat a ponderous twelve-inch Polish with fried onions and peppers. I did not add any mustard in deference to the freakishly white German soccer jersey I chose as my fashion statement. The other curb sitting was in aid of a "Cape Cod" which is a large amount of cranberry juice, a bunch of ice, and undetectable Smirnoff vodka. In each of the curb sittings, I was next to a gaggle of young dykes, cooing and jumping around and showing off and trumpeting their presence to any other young dykes that passed ... where does this tribe of young dykes come from? They hardly make an impression on everyday living in San Francisco, but they are a mighty and frankly vivacious presence at the fair. The femmy ones seem to affect a rather Latina style, and the butch ones are, well, butch. They clearly have a communal affect, and they look inwards to it. I see them as a modern counterpart to the much more angry lesbian separatism of the 70s that had such a deleterious effect on the relationship between gay liberation and the very hostile feminism of the period. This unadvertised separatism is more of the de facto type ... they have codes and signs and ways of being, and they just do it as a unity, not seeing their apparent separatism negatively as against the other, but positively as in their own name. I liked it, albeit forming my impression from not a lot of evidence ... the perquisite of a blogger, I suppose.

I did not see as many young gay guys in gaggles at the fair ... most of the young gay guys I saw were in couples. I think the unattached who might in previous years have tribed around nowadays just go straight to the big parties of sundry descriptions and skip the celebration on the mall. Lots of middle-aged gay guys and dykes in all manner of groupings. Young guys, though, don't seem to get the need to be seen on the square.

But the most salient visual impression of the celebration part of the day was this: where are all the attractive people? Now it is true that the younger one is the easier it is to be attractive. But adjusting for age, the dominant impression is a long dragging conga line of self-absorbed slobs who mark themselves with visages of flat unconcern and too-cool boredom. (Again, the young dykes were the most salient counterpoise to that.) The sackcloth and ashes male fashion du jour does nothing to undercut that impression. The "celebration" had the moral cast of a shopping mall rather than some collective exercise in statement and presence and unity. The underlying me-me-me-ness of our society in these Weimarish days was just too visible. Self-absorption puckers the face, and the face of our society is contorted. We have given up, we have surrendered to the pleasures of consuming and greed. You see it everywhere, you expect it all the time, you cannot be surprised. But when you bathe in it on Gay Day at Civic Center, it is deflating.

Parenthetically, I do not consider that view sanctimonious. I had to remind myself to smile and beam "having a good time" as well. It is hard to admit that one has given up, but the old activist, the self-consciously retired activist, made himself go to Gay Day through the device of consuming a new camera. I want to break into solidarity, but I am trapped in the culture of the me-me-me too, and perhaps just as innocently or connivingly as most people are. That got me thinking a lot about that particular tribe of gay men, the gay fairies, and how they resist collectively, and yet are fundamentally separatists just as the young dykes appear to be. Their de facto separatist communalism seems the only way not to be trapped into plainness by our ideological greed. It is attractive, but it is dangerous.

Back to the fair. When I shoot candid people photos, I like to find a pole or some other immobile object, lean against it with the sun at my back, and pick out faces. It helps if there is clot of people nearby as it tends to disguise the ghoulishnss of the photographer out to steal souls, as it were. At one point, as I sat on the stone edge of a dry fountain, a group of amply fed black youth, obviously straight, performed this function for me. They milled about and crowded in on me. The key term of the day seemed to be "nasty". Everything was nasty this, nasty that. At one point, the largest of the boys asked one of the girls to take his picture, and she refused loudly saying that would be "nasty." So he turned to the only white kid among them and handed him the camera silently, and the picture was made. I heard one kid say, "Don't let him touch you, he's gay." The only homophobic comment of the afternoon ... although I think they meant "gay" in the same way they meant "nasty" ... just another in a long string of words with which they can express their overweening posture of contempt for everything, their own company included. I was happy when they vanished into the mob.

The parade itself was considerably more moving. Next year, I must get down to the staging area early as that is where the enthusiasm is concentrated. The parade folks really do a good job of getting the thing up and moving. I ambled the length of the parade route on the Market Street sidewalk behind the cheering and involved crowds lined 3 to 10 deep, and the float that entered the route at the time when I started exited the route at the time when I finished. That's moving along. Probably the best place to photograph the actual parade would either be as they enter Market Street or as they leave it at 8th Street.

There were the bands and the floats of semi-naked men dancing, and the cable cars and politician-mobiles. Lots of Latino guys and gals in feathers and balloons. Leather strutting, and friends of gays, and entreaties for support especially for marriage. But no particular overarching theme, which is strange considering te marriage politics. The speeches from the main stage were mostly endless recitals of the names of committee members. The audience applauded by rote.

But the overwhelming impression of the celebration remains the uncommitted boisterousness and the underlying sullenness. O, lots of exceptions ... the plump middle-aged men being married, obviously transported in their tent-sized matching Hawaiian shirts. I felt a tear too. And the proud demonstrations of the various enthusiasts ... the get-vaccinate-for-hep folks, the SM practitioners, every manner of religious we're-for-you-too types. But these particular enthusiasms were like little islands bobbing up and down in a sea of unconcern.

Of course, I am being a bastard ... people were partying. Who am I to grump it up. I kept trying to smile.

But the end result for me was the feeling of no way out. That is what I referred to in my immediately previous post when I said that I feel like our best historical referent is the German Jews of 1920 (not to mention the German homos of the same epoch). Things look good, people are having a good time. Things are getting better all the time. But the forces gathering, the unspent energies, the unresolved contradictions are gathering too. One is left with the sinking feeling of the darkness ahead. One wonders why we have let go of the urgency of working together, why we have passed to others the responsibility for our fate. One wonders if all the "Obama Pride" stickers being handed out ... I actually sported one ... meant anything, if they might save us in a pinch.

One wonders, wonders, when one walks home up Market Street, pleased with oneself but deflated. Not sure what to make of it all. Wondering.

Photos by Arod. More here. Here's what I wrote last year.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Murder and Mayhem

It is the eve of a big day which I am more looking forward to than I have for many years ... more on that later. The big day is Gay Day, as I still prefer to call it. It is particularly big this year because of the signal victory we have had on the right to marry. The mood tomorrow will be unrestrained joy.

I cannot help but brood, though, that we may be like the German Jews of 1920. We count our gains even as our enemies gather and darkly plot, and even as they vainly preen and prepare for the day when their implacable and ancient hatred for us can be put to dark mendacious use. I said to RB today that the horrifying notion that there may be open water at the North Pole today portends disaster for gay men. He needed some convincing ... perhaps you do too. I will try.

But before that, I proffer that I am just meaning here only to catch up a little on the meanderings of my mind over the last little bit. I have been thinking a lot about the Prussian and German states, and I have something to say, but I keep retreating from the nuanced view that I have been angling to adopt to precisely the view that I had in my decidedly more doctrinaire 20s. We shall see how that turns out ... suffice here to note that it has kept me from writing.

In the meanwhile there has been a startling coincidence of omens in this city that thinks itself above all that. It inspires a dread ... not a panic or a dismay ... dismay is so the affect of those who retreat before history and affect their iPods and disdain in the place of knowledge and implication. You have to look, you have to see what stands in front of you, you have to draw the conclusions and understand that we are not immune from the history that has proven itself again and again and once again.

I went to Berkeley yesterday. Actually, the border of Berkeley and Oakland, on Alcatraz Avenue, for those of you who have some intimate knowledge of the peculiarities of that neck of the woods. I went to the home of a good friend of mine who works for me annually for a few months in catalog production time at MRU, where I labor for my sustenance. Perhaps on the occasion of another trip I will describe how American the so-called East Bay feels to a San Francisco boy who ventures beyond the 'friscan bounds only via train to his labors at MRU. What I noted was that I could not see Oakland from the Bay Bridge and on my return I could not see San Francisco. This fog not the celebrations of fog on kitty kat feet of Carl Sandburg fame, but the fog born of smoke from a thousand fires burning north and south and east of here. They would be burning west of here too if it were not endless ocean.

My throat burned, and the sun sat vague and shrouded. If it were not real, it would be a National Geographic special on some projected disaster of the far future or purported of the ancient past.

But it is real. Just as the North Pole is melting, California is burning. And our leaders and denoters fulminate about oil speculators.

Meanwhile, as I drove in the urban noise and clutter of Oakland, I was trying to apply my new policy of undercutting my easy anger at the idiocy of others ... as in viewing bad driving as humorous rather than a threat worthy of response. Why? Because I have been deeply affected, and frightened, by some Salvadoran gang member who slaughtered three innocent men apparently because of traffic anger but more likely because of mistaken identity. Read the story ... the sorrow is staggering. This kind of violence in the context of the cynical Scalia-court decision on handguns sends chills through anyone not infected with the ideology of self and scorn that is at the root of the American dilemma ... how do we make freedom without empowering the baseness of greed.

This is not Detroit ... this is not Philadelphia. This is San Francisco, liberal heartland, and some 40-something driving home from a BBQ is shot dead with his two near adult sons because he looks Hispanic ... get it ... some Salvadoran asshole offed this guy as a gangland duty.

The planet is burning and murder is crowding in.

But my little life has a burst in store. I bought a new camera ... a Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ50K ... and I am going to shoot cute boys at Gay Day tomorrow. You know, shoot, not shoot ... shoot, man, don't shoot.

That is modern life for the awake. We know we are screwed. We want to have our fun anyway. How do you do that without compromising your ethics? All those monster vehicle drivers, all those cell-phone assholes, all the guzzling CEOs and their wannabe henchmen, all the jackasses who litter the planet with their thoughtless garbage, and the gangsters big and small who kill and intimidate and strut around all proud and self-esteeming ... they do not contemplate ethics. They take what they want and they damn the future.

We are the damned. We are the ones who will choke on their smoke, and who will embody their bullets. We are the Jews of German 1920 who thought things were getting better.

So that is what Gay Day makes me fear. Even so I will take my new camera and try to make of my pessimism a day of bright photography. Perhaps the sun will break through the smoke of a thousand fires. Perhaps no bullets will fly. Perhaps one more day will pass before the North Pole melts. Perhaps.


Saturday, June 21, 2008


Notable article in the New York Times today that points out that the Obama campaign plans to compete in all 50 states ... this consequent upon the feedback relationship between their ability to raise money in all states, and the fact that they will thereby have lots of money. The article notes that even in states such as Georgia that they are not going to win, such activity will help Democrats in other elections. I should add that it will help build the party's base structure and create further opportunities as history and its horrors unfold.

Of course, this strategy has been obvious for a decade and more. But the yesterday's-wisdom regurgitators who have dominated the Democratic Party, not to mention the nattering classes, constantly blabbed about the Southern strategy that has been dead since Humphrey or suburban soccer moms or the hastily re-invented white working class male of this cycle. Hillary believed it, and look where she is. The Obama campaign understood the new world from day one, and they are determined to carry that forward. Bravo!

I heard a sinking-stomach rumor that Sam Nunn is under consideration for veep. If Obama does that, he will lose and he will deserve to lose. That is the sort of thinking that got us the Lieberman creature as one of the holes in the dinghy that sunk Al Gore before he found the light of environmental activism. Obama needs a veep who would have the same dynamism in office as he will have, someone in his age range, someone who can campaign to Democrats in Georgia to inspire them for the future not the sordid past that Nunn represents. I need hardly add that Nunn is a blazing homophobe of the first water, and we homos do not forget such bigotry easily ... leastwise I hope so. (RO and JG will no doubt point out to me that I am forgetting Obama's snub of Newsom and San Francisco for what amounts to anti-gay self-preservation ... I do not forget, but I think of it as low bore tactics and leave it at that in the face of the greater exigencies. BTW, the Firefox spell checker does not recognize homophobe as a word!)

This election is about confronting the future as it is, not as it appears to be in the mendacious constructions of the 'publicans or the idiotic self-servicing of the pundits. That future has staggering challenges and will involve loss and retreat. Hardly anyone wants to admit it, but the flooding in the central U.S. right now is a harbinger ... it is irrelevant whether this flooding or that flooding can specifically be laid at the doorstep of global earning. The extreme weather of the future is going to make large parts of the planet uninhabitable, and those parts, including the poetic white-picket fence small towns so vivid in the imagination of CNN, are going to be drowned or burned out. We need a politics that confronts that, and Obama is laying that groundwork.

No point in piddling around ... that's what Obama is saying ... they are going after the whole country. No point in us piddling either ... he is the only choice, and the only shot at mitigating the disasters that the 'publicans have foisted upon the nation and the world.

A note on poor Tim Russert:
Look, I feel sorry for the guy, and his rise from the dumpsters of Buffalo is certainly Horatio Alger stuff. It was moving all the endless praise and chattering, and his son, eerily resembling him, has a shot at being a force in journalism. You have to root for the kid. But let's be real: Russert was the poster boy for the crap TV journalism that litters the political landscape. He didn't ask tough questions ... he framed the day's conventional wisdom into a question and then asked it with a scowl. That passes for toughness. Like all the in-crowd in Washington, he was dependent upon the favors and good graces of politicians. So he started as a Democratic aide de camp ... so what. The phony balance angle meant that he swallowed the talking points du jour whole, and the result is scowling and posturing, and an electorate who decides things based on somebody's pastor or somebody else's emotion or somebody else's absolutely invented-from-whole-cloth self-image as a maverick. Phony journalism. Au revoir, poor Mr. Russert ... now we wait in trepidation as they bring on the next scowling poseur.

Keith Olbermann, who appears to be angling for the new poseur role, ended his segment on Russert with a pointed reference to the rainbow outside the cathedral and the coincidence that the service had been closed with a ukulele version of Over the Rainbow. I wrote about that here. My point was that the ukulele version to which I refer, and which is likely the one to which Olbermann referred, had reduced Judy Garland's version (which I see as an appeal to reason against the pointless cruelties of life) to a kind of pure sentimentality. What a perfect metaphor for the phony political journalism that Russert represented. We are looking for reason and thoughtfulness, not an appeal to unexamined sentiments. The significance of the rainbow coincidence was lost on Olbermann.

Photos by Arod: the top one, dawn in San Francisco, the bottom is San Francisco street art as close to a rainbow as I could find in iPhoto on a short search.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

National Martini Day

Big day at MRU (work) today, so I got up at 5 which is only 20 minutes earlier than usual. I left the dog-walking chores to RB, my sainted ex, and actually drove my ancient '86 Honda Civic the 38 miles through the dawning day, NPR my only companion. And it was via NPR that I learned that today is National Martini Day. Now, if you google "National Martini Day", you will find sites that variously proffer June 19, June 17, November 7, and June 1 as National Martini Day. I say that the nation would be better off if every other day were National Martini Day, but that would be o so not-PC. O, the hell with it, I say it anyway.

I'm going with today as NMD because it has broad support and it is convenient to my purposes.

Under the influence of my good friend and bartender, I have given up other inebriants of my life, by which I mean most particularly beer, in favor of fine spirits expertly prepared ... it is a privilege of being half way to the big 110. When I started this experiment turned lifestyle, I could barely finish a martini. Now a pair of them is an occasional treat consequent upon good behavior and a deserving attitude, and I have no trouble therein. (My cute young doctor, whom I like to call Doogie, tells me that an adult male is entitled to three drinks a night, that being any combination totaling three of 1.5 ounces of liquor, a bottle of beer, or 5 ounces of wine ... he is an oenophile, so I assume that he means fine wine, although I just go for the cheap French and Italian Trader Joe's varieties. I try to stick to his limits.)

Not all martinis are equal ... if you want some truly horrifying recipes, check our Hungry Girl or Home Baked Memories. Both of these sites illustrate the regrettable modern tendency to forget that you can't improve on a classic!

I prefer the gin martini. I had quite a time making myself a nightly Tanqueray martini last time I visited my parents in Ontario. For a while, I preferred the Vesper martini, also known as the James Bond martini.

Of course, in fact, I strictly speaking prefer any martini that RL makes since his attention to detail is so precise that his martinis always have the extra 2 percent that distinguishes the good from the great. But tonight, RL is not here, and I must make my own martinis ... the first a Tanqueray and the second based on Plymouth Gin.

Before I wax philosophical, I do have one less-than-edifying martini story ... when I was a mere stripling, perhaps 24, I was invited to a party thrown by a bunch of socialists in a ramshackle old building that I had formerly inhabited. I invited my friend TG who was an 'fb' ... i.e., a person with whom I both played and dallied, as it were ... even though he didn't know a socialist from a hornswoggler. I suppose I invited him because he was fun and sexy and I had ideas for a tryst after all the ideology and enforced dancing. I stopped by his apartment in the West End of Vancouver ... nowadays a hard scrabble working stiff like TG could not possibly afford to live in the West End, but this was in the 70s and life was still possible, as it were, unencumbered by cell phones, SUVs, and the arrogance of the overstuffed ... but I digress. TG had some friends there and they inveigled me into drinking not one but two martinis. For a "stripling" unaccustomed to the quotidian quintagenarian habits he would ultimately affect, two martinis was like a couple of grenades in a powder keg. Boom! TG's friends came to the socialist party, after pouring me into their auto. Gawd noze what happened to them, but I was quickly a quivering ball of drunken idiocy, and there are those who did not allow me to forget my discomfiture for years thereafter ... and of course my plans to waylay the comely TG came to naught ... at least on that night.

So as to the philosophical waxing ... life is a bitch ... or as one whispers in the office, a beeyatch. You do yer damnable best, and you are still back on the bloody train the next morning at 7:19 sharp, with the same cast as the day before, each quickly sinking into their habits be it sleeping, or tappity-tapping on their iPhones and computers, or reading the newspaper, or, as in my case, pointedly stuffing my ears with plugs and yanking out whatever monster tome of ancient times presently has my fancy. When it is all over ... and that involves another train trip ... and the dog is walked and I have made my nightly calls to my sundry old lady friends ... well, then it is time for a martini or whatever other fine spirits are on offer. I enjoy that part of life. I often sit, as I am now, at the counter and watch RL cook and prepare our libation. Tonight I am watching the sainted ex, RB, who has consented to cook for me in RL's absence. But it is the same routine ... I am fatigued from work, filled with speculations, and earnestly desiring the little layback, the tiny release, the satisfaction of that perfect martini.

So ... with due respect to those whose freely choose to refrain ... damn the puritans, screw the sanctimonious ... have a martini ... lift your glass to me or thee or to whomever you choose. And smirk and smile and call out, Long Live National Martini Day!
Photos by Arod of bar windows on Columbus and Polk street respectively in San Francisco.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

'Tis Pity She's a Whore

Roy and I attended the American Conservatory Theater production of John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore on Saturday. So a couple of quick notes ...

'Tis Pity She's a Whore is a 1630-something revenge play, a sort of combination of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet with an incest theme. I enjoyed the fast interweaving of scenes and subplots, the comic relief, the skulduggery and dark corners. Not to put to fine a point on it, but classic drama incorporates techniques of oral performance because its audiences were schooled in the oral text. The audience wants to be told when someone is hiding, when someone is thinking something other than what he says; they expect it.

The performance at ACT was sublime, notwithstanding the rather pissy review in the Chron. Two points, external to the action. "Walt Spangler's industrial-baroque cathedral set" served both to invoke the period by reason of how its barren complexity motivates the complexity of action and interplay of choreography. They made plays with fewer gee-gaws back then, and audiences were better trained in suspension of disbelief. The set invoked that history. But the most striking aspect of the set was composer, cellist and vocalist Bonfire Madigan Shive situated like an angel amidst a riot of seeming organ pipes. Her haunting, electrifying music, both instrumental and vocal, punctuated the fear and the dread and ultimately the horror. The audience rewarded her with the most heartfelt of the ovations. Hers is a striking talent that must have greater play as life winds on.

This is a gruesome play, too gruesome, frankly, to have been written in our more squeamish century. Perloff, the director, led at least me to believe in the climactic moment that it was the fetus that was slaughtered, but all the references are to the murdered sister and lover having her heart ripped out bodily. The notion of the slaughter of the unborn seems a nod to modern sensibilities ... the Aztec-ish heart extraction seems blunt to us.

The audience laughed at a few things out of key ... several references to the inferior position of women, and pointedly to a line where Vazquez trumpets that a Spaniard out-revenged his dead Italian master. As an audience, I prefer to pretend that I am somewhere else ... more's the pity that the yappy old bags behind couldn't shut up long enough to pretend anything that their tiny, perfume-addled minds might imagine. Ooops, too cranky.

I guess what I want to say is this ... I do not think that there is any specific that is eternal in this play. We shouldn't force this kind of thing into a tyranny of relevance. Incest may be more prevalent than we prefer to imagine, and it is probably less fraught with slaughter than this play imagines. But the joy in a performance like this is to cast oneself back and imagine sitting in a crowded odoriferous and noisy throng in 1630 watching all the action ... to imagine being in a world where any entertainment is always available, but rather a world in which entertainment is rare and scarce and treasured. To imagine the vicarious thrill of bloody revenge performed, and the thrill of clerics represented as cheats and scum.

In that sense, this performance was sublime. It proffered the antique in the performance, and the modern in the set and the music. Two and half hours plussed passed as a mere moment, and I wanted more notwithstanding the littering of bodies as curtain dropped.

One note to Carey Perloff, ACT's superlative Artistic Director ... your web site should not be so stingy with photos. All these magnificent sets should be memorialized. And many would be the happy to see DVDs of production made available for purchase after the show has closed. I am for the transparency that the Internet era promises, and places like ACT should be in the lead making their fabulous entertainments available broadly.

A few photos from the web tomorrow if I get a moment. Tonight's cocktail, by the way, a Sazerac ... sublime.

My Poor Giants

Tight Richie Harden beat the Giants today, making it an A's sweep over the weekend. The big boss went ot the Friday game with his son ... he is from Chicago, so he must be used to pitiful lost causes ... but I have been hoping that he will not fall prey to the temptation to endorse the poor sisters of San Francisco baseball, the distinctivelymor suburban A's. A freezing night of a lackluster Barry Zito not finding the strike zone again, and a bunch of hitters who can't buy a key knock at home. Ouch.

Tomorrow night is Time Lincecum against Justin Verlander. I plan to lash my self to the boob tube and enjoy baseball at its best. I figure we lose 1-0 in the top of the ninth.

Photo of Rich Harden, fellow Canadian.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Picking Winners

Giants win! Swept the hopeless Nats in Washington. Baseball is a zero-sum game (see principle number 1 in the header to this blog) ... I get one, you lose 1. No other way around it. Wins count, losses don't.

Now, of course, there is a lot more to baseball than wins and losses, and the joy of the game is precisely in that non-zero-sum game aspect. But at the end of the day, as the wee Scott McClellan likes to say, it's all about winning. And losing doesn't count.

I assert, contrarily, that in human affairs there is no such thing as a zero-sum game. Sometimes a difficult idea to defend. Look at the Obama-McCain race ... one wins, the other loses, and if McCain wins, we are in big trouble. But even in something as cut and dried as an election, there are so many factors at play that reducing it to one result loses the observer all perspective.

In my personal reading, I am now at the end of Christopher Clark's Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947), and as we all know, Prussia comes to a terrible end. It is hard not to look at Prussia in 1945 as the losing end of a horrible zero-sum game. Indeed, historiography has long held a singularly black/white view of Prussia.

Clark's strength as a historian is that he resists the black/white, off/on, winner/loser view. In that, he curiously represents another social contradiction often falsely seen, even here, as a zero-sum game. And that contradiction would be the rise of the theory-mongers in the academe and the terrible damage that they have done to thought and research. At least, that is the narrative preferred by many, again myself included in most contexts.

But it is a narrative that fails the moment it becomes universal. Take this as a proof. In looking to fill in a few of the date-type details about which a "social historian" such as Clark is sometimes lax, I managed to pick up 2 of the 3 volumes of a well-regarded and authoritative 60s history of Germany, Hajo Holborn's A History of Modern Germany; the Wikipedia page points out that the incomparable modern historian and biographer of ideas and thinkers, Peter Gay, was his student. This connection is a little ironic in the context which I will argue.

Holborn's book is hard core history for date lovers. It is clipped and chopped, neatly separated by subheads. It is authoritative and reliable, and this sort of reference work is valuable on the shelf of any history-buff. But one does not feel compelled to read the thing from cover to cover because ... and this in itself is an artifact in the changes in intellect over the last several decades ... the constitutive unity of enduring contradiction seems absent from the work. Holborn wants to pick winners and losers.

More to my taste is Clark who lives perpetually in the unresolved contradiction. One does want, from time to time in these social histories, a chapter that delineates the events in order. But this lack is more than amply repaid by the subtlety with which an author like Clark ... or Tim Blanning about whom I have written before ... brings the contours of an era to life. It is not just his persistent focus on the state and the contradictions that underlay it and from which it could never separate itself; it is also the way in which he describes the interplay among forces forged in that contradiction, and yet seemingly immune to the sorts of developments, obvious in hindsight, that might have saved their supporters.

I am going to try to return to the Prussian state in the next few days. What I want to address today is that the theory game that ravaged the humanities over the last three decades is itself also not a zero-sum game. It has, as I argue here, been the proximate cause of the rise of what I am broadly calling social history, and this has been very productive of new understandings. It might drive those who prefer winners and losers to drink because this is history that sees good in evil, and that sees redemption in defeat. But it is history that demands deeper reflection on what it is to be human.

In the literary zone, the "depredations of theory" are a little more difficult to champion, the more so because they had the tendency to draw attention away from the text. That is an unfair statement, as any graduate student will aver, because the new literary movement was precisely the force that opened up the notion of the text, such that genre conventionally defined could burst its boundaries. Literary theory has troubled genre and text, and notwithstanding the pointless obfuscations of the Julia Kristva's of the world, it raised challenges to parsed out traditional criticism that have enriched our ideas of what constitutes work and influence and meaning. As with Holborn, this is not to toss old critics into the trash bin, but rather to note that intellectual dialectic can never stop, even when it backs itself into a corner.

More than anything, my graduate student battles with the theory ninnies made me a part of an eternal evolution ... a punctuated evolution ... in which ideas about ideas, or tellings about tellings, always fall back into themselves the better to reconstitute themselves on the next level whatever that may turn out to be. My best graduate student friend, JS, who has drifted out of my life, called me a conservative formalist at one point. I took that as a high honor, but I think it is wrong now. I think I am a half-breed chameleon ... I want to be present and involved even as I grouse about it all. But you can't be present if nothing is happening, and whatever is happening is that at which you must choose to be present.

A little circular, I guess.

From such struggles we get the revolutionary work of my adviser at Cal, Amin Sweeney especially in his A Full Hearing: Orality and Literacy in the Malay World ... about which I really must write something at some point ... and the pleasurable works of Clark and Blanning.

So much intellectual discourse is between the Weltanschauung ... one of my favorite words when I was 19 ... of those who want to pick winners and losers and those who want to live in unresolved contradiction. I am of the latter type, notwithstanding that I always pick the beloved Giants to win any given game.

Photo by Arod of a window on Castro Street.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Hanging City-side

Martini in hand, pizza on the way, Friday night, feeling loose. Spent the day in San Francisco, going to the doctor, having a nice breakfast, and then working from home. All good, notwithstanding how annoying the modern interlopers into the urban zone can be. Tailgated by some young woman in a huge SUV ... panting at the switch, doing everything to get by me in heavy traffic. Who needs a private bus to get around a tight city? Later, some idiot behind black-tinted windows in a large car, and sporting an Obama sign in the front windshield, got all furious because I honked at her because she was blocking a couple of lanes of traffic. Kept honking for three blocks ... what, she wanted to fight? Some drivers are such jackasses.

So the traffic annoyances are my excuse for heading this post with an awesome pic of Rafal Nadal ... the ugliness of modern life versus the beauty of the athlete at the moment of impact. That's why I watch sports. My good friend LB watches tennis and will no doubt fill me in about whom I should be rooting for in this and sundry other matches. But all agree, I would suggest, that this man is a babe.

Popped on the boob tube ... Lincecum is beating the Nats 9-1 in the 7th. Sweet. In other sports news, did you see the Pittsburgh goalie push the ultimate Stanley Cup winning goal into his own net with his butt? Strangest goal I've ever seen ... and hockey goals are a strange lot. If I ever return to Canada, I have a lot of hockey to look forward to ... meanwhile, it is a baseball lifestyle.

So to the day ... I call my doctor at Kaiser "Doogie Howser", leastwise behind his back. He seems so young, and he is certainly earnest. He told me mock-stern that I owed him a sigmoidal colonoscopy. I blushed, really, and admitted that I am a health-care avoider. He's such a sweet guy that I hardly know why I avoid him. I managed to forget to ask for a Cialis scrip. But the real subject of our conversation was my persistently high LDL levels ... moderately high, I must add, though high nonetheless ... notwithstanding that all the other indications are excellent. He set out a plan ... I have 10 weeks to get it under control or he is going to put me on Zocor. Oy. Lectured by Doogie, embarrassed into being a good citizen. I even have a reading assignment. Still, one cannot complain. The quality of care at Kaiser, at least so far as I know as someone without a significant physical complaint, is high.

I'd marry Doogie in a flash.

Doogie sent me to gastroenterology to schedule the colonoscopy. The charming older Filipino lady with a gold cross laid out in front of her keyboard carefully explained to me how to perform a solo enema on myself prior to the procedure. I don't think I should use the terminology she used if only to spare my readers an embarrassing reflection on the humiliations of being human. But I could barely keep myself from laughing out loud as she went through her paces. I mean kneeling doggy style for crying out loud. Anyway, all for a good cause. And I will finally be able to write my dear friend Dodge and tell her that I have filled my part of a bargain made some years ago.

Fresh from gastroenterology, I headed to the Curbside Cafe on California near Fillmore. This has become my auto-retreat from Kaiser whenever I have a medical experience. I had a perfect omelette with spinach, brie, and sun-dried tomatoes ... I decline to comment on whether or not that contributes to my 10-week challenge to cut the LDL. The waiter is a French dude, 20-something, with the face of a horse and tight bod shoe-horned into shiny black duds. He has that stern and welcoming attitude of the French waiter, and he also has the amazing hand-eye coordination ... a joy to watch him put a glass of water before me.

I spent the rest of the afternoon "working from home". Mostly I was attempting to establish a connection to a server that will rule my life for the next 8 weeks. Server connections are fraught with firewalls and authorizations and that great modern curse, the virtual private network or VPN. Our IT guy is working gamely, but there are offices and offices to move to action, and IT is more often than is healthy mired in the defugalties of bureaucracy. We are still not quite there ... even though I am sitting on an email that appears to answer the issues and only waits upon my finishing this post before I return to the fray.

So the pizza has come and gone and so has the martini, and I am ready for bed. I had great plans for this post, but they must remain subject to what I have actually written. Some time over the weekend, I project further perorations on the development of the German state in the late 19th century ... and what that illustrates about the present breathlessness here and in China. I hope that will fascinate more than my virtual encounter with gastroenterology.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Tienanmen and 1848

Yesterday was the anniversary of the shooting of the insurgents on Tiananmen Square in 1989. It is telling that it is almost 20 years ago because Tiananmen is just a distant memory, Reaganesque in how passé it feels. I say this with bitterness and sarcasm, because it is passé only because it is inconvenient. Our America is so addicted to the fruits of the Tiananmen massacre ... the cheap DVD players and the iPods ... that we don't want to hear about it. Most Chinese almost certainly don't want to hear about it because they have adjusted to the quotidien reality of rising, albeit radically unfair, China.

The history-minded, however, cannot forget it, and must not. Let me explain by way of a rather circuitous route. I am reading about Prussia (Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947), and today's entry was the period after the events of 1848, in particular the massacres, through the stunning collapse of Austria in the little remarked-upon but critical 7-week Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Christopher Clark, the author of the aforementioned tome, does a good job of outlining the dynamics which the "paradigm-busting" 1848 events engendered and which continued to haunt German politics through at least 1918 and certainly arguably 1945. The problem with reading German history, of course, is that we all know how it comes out ... and it comes out with such drama and horror that one feels constrained to try to pick out of each event the teleological source of the end game of 1945. (As an aside, which anyone who readily wearies of arcane and self-indulgent convolution can easily skip, I have long been taken with the notion of the teleological ... the notion of end causes, which is to say those sorts of ideas that find in the result the necessary cause. So Christianity is teleological in the sense that the fanatics view all of history as being drawn toward the inevitable apocalypse, and Marxism is teleological in the sense that all events are merely pre-history, the necessary steps toward the inevitable revolution that draws them to it. Marxism's teleology was born of the 1848 events, so this little aside will have to find a little ex-post-teleological justification in that obvious event.)

Picking out the precursors of the Nazi horror is a silly exercise, but hard to avoid. The lazy just stick it all to Frederick. I think the better spot to start is the failure of the 1848 to mature. That is not to say that there are not plenty of other spots to look at ... but the enduring unresolved dichotomies of German history were brought to fruition in the inability of the revolution to take state power. Specifically, the contradiction between imperial military control and the struggle for civil government ended only in the catastrophic defeat in 1918. We know that the 1918 defeats were the necessary if not necessarily inevitable prelude to the 1933 events that led to the greatest slaughter in human history.

Unresolved contradictions don't go away. The German state that was founded in the euphoria of the crushing defeat of Austria in 1866 was founded precisely on those contradictions and they continued to play out over decades to come. The inability of the state, and the "liberals" who supported the notions of open democracy to overcome the imperial hangover kept the Junkers and conservatives in a position to lionize military primacy. When the crisis of 1914 erupted ... and it amounted to the last gasp of the dynastic politics that had kept Europe at war for centuries ... there was no political ability to resist what the imperialists thought was just another 19th-century war. It was not a 19th-century war, but rather the first inkling of how bloody the 20th century would be.

China should pay attention. The crisis in China to this day bears the scars of the unresolved contradictions of Tiananmen. The insurgents wanted nothing more than a stake in their own government. Had the power decided to accommodate them on some level ... and it is worth noting in this context that Frederick William IV did in fact accommodate his rebels for some months before the reaction took control again in November 1848 ... the contradictions might have assumed another form. But the reactionaries who run China cannot envision any accommodation that does not leave them in control. The Prussian situation in 1848 did have the beneficial effect of allowing the state to mature to the point where German unity could be achieved after the defeat of Austria. But the Chinese has given no quarter to its critics. The contradiction between economic growth and political stagnation grows more acute.

Contradictions do not dissolve. They find new, more fertile ground upon which to explode. In China, we have to look to the effects of an American economic collapse or to the effects of a Chinese environmental collapse. In such dire straits, what legitimacy do the Tiananmen murderers have? What do they have to offer to their aggrieved middle class ... more to the point, how effective will their policy of steel and boots be to the ignored rural masses and their sons and daughters who toil unrequited in the new massive cities? What flexibility will the state have; what elements from within will have the ability to rise above the paradigm and crate something new?

Things can last for a long time in the face of irresolvable contradiction. But a long time is not forever. I hesitate to suggest that the froaen dynamics from Tiananmen will result in a Nazi-esque episode ... but any review of Chinese history suggests that the unraveling of contradiction tends to be very expensive in terms of human life and happiness.

Happy Birthday, our brethren from Tiananmen.

Top photo from the web of the single moment that tells t all about Tiananmen ... a moment that the reactionaries who rule China wear as teir shame forever. Bottom photo by Arod of a Pan figure from Sanssouci, Frederick's "boys' club" in Potsdam.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Obama and Hillary

I had a friend at a job in the late 90s who couldn't stand Hillary because she had two L's in her name. Since my friend's name was Hilary and she was of English descent, I could see the point, I suppose. But her jocularity is the same game that our "pundits" practice in handicapping ... double entendre intended ... electoral contests. Anything inessential is beaten to death; anything real is ridiculed. (I managed to hold my breath for a moment this evening and watch a little of the now sad Anderson Cooper ... who in gawd's green kingdom gave a job to that dribbling idiot Gloria Borger, "senior political analyst" ... they ought to change senior to sophomoric.)

The loathing of Hillary got pretty bloody thick. The truth is that this was like a basketball game where they traded baskets until the whistle blew. Obama won by a couple of free throws, but he did win. Winning is what it is about, and he pulled it out. More's the pity that the self-absorbed leaders in Michigan and Florida did not think their way out of the hole they dug in January because the result might have been different. But that does not matter now.

I came to like Obama over the campaign even as my admiration for Clinton did not abate. I thought she played dirty every now and then, and the experience and tough hide argument got pretty thin. But a contest is a contest. And this was a good one.

Hillary made me nervous because she is such a lightning rod for right wing loathing ... and for the loathing of the liberal toadies in the press who do their budding. (I have pretty much given up on Keith Olbermann as well because the man cannot hide his irrational distaste for Clinton. It seems as if he trots it out as a kind of defense against the right-wingers who loathe him ... "see, I can dish it out to liberals, too.")

Obama made me nervous because of the vacuousness of the hope message. It was a winner among young voters, and that makes me think less of them ... not a difficult task, frankly. But it propelled him through the primaries, and now he has a chance to be a genuine paradigm-shifter. He also made me nervous because of the low-bore homophobia of his refusing to be photographed with Mayor Newsom. I can see the rationale given the ludicrous attacks that the right mounts, but I want somebody with more guts than that. My friend June can't get over the fact that he stayed for so long in a church with a frothing racist as pastor and then pretended he had never noticed. I figure that it is a pretty poor right-wing slur if that is all they can get on him, the more so given that right wing preachers are considerably more outlandish than foolish rev Wright.

But now, we cannot hold these ultimately small lacunae against him.

I hope that he picks Hillary for vice ... but he would have to make a public statement that Bill is to can it and keep back. Their first job would be to stump the country together and build a national Democratic movement to take the government. They have to make clear the danger of a continued Republican presidency. And they have to make the idiocy of the press irrelevant by the clarity and courage of their vision. They have to think like insurgents, and they have to lose the Terry McAuliffe types who think like pundits ... they look at yesterday's conventional wisdom and try it again.

What last worked for Democrats was a man from Hope, curiously enough. And he threw conventional wisdom out of the window. Obama needs to do that again. Hillary needs to support him in that. And Bill needs to shut up.

So I'm for Obama. Obama in 2008!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Gawd Times Three

Three curious stories about religion in the news ...

Texas and the baby stealers: The great Texas baby theft is a precious case of the interface between sexual panic and religious mania. As we all know by now, someone received a call from someone who claimed to be a 16-year-old girl who was about to be abused. So the Texas authorities moved into a religious compound and rounded up all the children and started shipping them off to foster homes. Overreaction? Of course. Justified? Depends on the viewer, but the Texas Supreme Court didn't think so.

Now let's be clear ... the polygamous Mormons are a bunch of whack-job religious nuts who are bound and determined to cloister their unfortunate offspring in a sterile world vaguely modeled on some halcyon past. In fact, of course, like all hyper-traditionalists, their notion of the past is simply the most recent thing that they have invented as being from the past.

But I would assert, as will surprise no one who reads my religious opinions, that the notion that women are godly only if they wear sack-like ankle-length gingham is no more ridiculous than the notion that the leader of the "only true church" proves his holiness by wearing ruby slippers and an expensive white frock. It is curious that the one true church defends the notion of priestly abstinence which finds absolutely no biblical support but the American state rounds up believers in polygamy which has extensive biblical support. Hmmm. When is theology not theology? ... why when it disturbs 'publican lawmakers.

Snideness aside, that is precisely the issue that the stolen children of the Silly Mormon sect piques (they are the Silly sect because they didn't get the memo a hundred odd years ago): why is it that the state is called upon to resolve religious questions? Way back in 1648, the Peace of Westphalia established the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whose province, his religion, which is to say that the residents of a given prince's realm are obliged to follow his religion) ... and all of us for whom religion is the dread of repression must never forget this essential statement of the state's interest in religious control. But tolerance and constitutionality, not to mention the frequently ignored American Revolution, established that cuius regio, eius religio was a torment of the past. The state's only interest in religion is to guarantee its free expression, never to pick sides.

The theft of the Texan children is rarely compared with the fight for gay marriage, but the issues are precisely the same from the religious point of view. If marriage is a holy institution, then the state's only interest is in guaranteeing the free expression of that institution for any religious point of view. In that sense, gay marriage is non-controversial since there are churches who perform the rite. (Don't get me wrong, I think that religion is a secular institution conferring certain secular rights, and by that same logic as above, the state cannot discriminate according to a particular religious point of view.) So the state is enjoined from favoring one religious point of view over another ... it cannot say that pagans in Berkeley are forbidden from celebrating the union of two dykes, and it cannot say that a bunch of Texan maniacs are not allowed to marry more than one woman.

Now, a 14-year-old girl should be free to decline to marry her cousin ... but that is not a religious argument. It is a constitutional argument about the autonomy of the individual. (The neo-communitarians of the atheist left should take note that their collectivist arguments are more in the scope of cuius regio, eius religio than they are in the tradition of Jefferson or Lincoln ... but I digress.) Such an argument should not be confused with religion.

The religious principle of the secular state is this ... you are free to believe whatever madness you choose, but you cannot impose it on anyone else.

In that sense, though, the stolen children of the polygamists have a tremendous opportunity ... for the first time they will see the real world, the world outside the sterility of the tiny minds of their dictatorial elders. How many will find in these few moments the inspiration to make a better life than one provided by religion. The girls might get the strength to flee as soon as they can. The boys might get the sense to realize that only 1 in 10 of them are slated for heaven ... the rest will be dumped like human detritus. Notwithstanding all the breast beating of the shallow press, the boys are victims too.

Cry me a river: Obama's other shoe has fallen and he has left the church of the ego-maniacal "reverend' Wright who, having been caught out with a bunch of left-wing prattle disguised as religion, decided to suck up every bit of attention he could garner from the zombie press. Obama's statement was all about saving others, but this was a calculated move that frees up political space. I am not opposed to that ... pretty much all politician religion is about stance and perception and not about belief ... Jimmy Carter being the exception ... so it would be disingenuous to hold Obama to a higher standard. He is now free to be gawdly but church-free until mid-November when the president-elect can pick a more ecumenical and presumably Washington-based clean (read white) church that will be happy to have him. His present troubles mean that he will probably be the most publicly christian President since Carter, but it will liberal and happy and smiley rather than reactionary and glowering and hate-fulled as we find with the sanctimonious supporters of the current incumbent.

But none of this should obscure the embarrassing fact that the Presidency of this country is being held hostage to religious shibboleths. Moreover, we cannot hide from the fact that the enforcer of these shibboleths is the "liberal" press, most particularly the news channels, even more pointedly the increasingly craven Anderson Cooper. Andy, baby, have some balls ... step away from the sulphurous pit, and speak the truth. Rev Wright is just another loud-mouthed pastor berating the faithful and endeavoring to torment the non-believers. He is nothing. Obama is the man ... ask him what he thinks about health care.

I think Obama is the next prez. I'll write out my rationale for that soon enough. He might even be a great president, but to do that he will have to inspire Americans to overcome their worst instinct which is the primacy of greed in the face of disaster. It's a tall order. But he is so superior historically to the wizened and washed-up McCain creature that I think he has the edge. The fact that Cooper and the hordes of "commenters" who do not rise to his unimpressive heights can find only a rev Wright from which to dump on Obama is a signal of his strength, not his weakness. When he wins in November, no one will be calling on the old reverend.

Hamas and Porn: The New York Times reports that Hamas, presiding over the more or less total collapse of civilized life in Gaza, takes a little time out of its rocketing duties to censor porn on the Internet lest anyone, gawd forfend, see a little flesh.

I cannot imagine how hellish life is in Gaza. But no matter how hellish things are, theocratic rule cannot help but make them worse. The Times reports that opponents of the regime are tortured ... how touching that a regime that cannot find a way to feed its citizens can at least gather its forces to tear at their flesh.

Religion is always concerned about control before relief. When it focuses on relief it is either because control is assured or because control is beyond its grasp. Here in San Francisco some earnest souls have managed to build a new church on Polk Street, right next to a restored building that houses some Citicorp office ... two vipers side-by-side, offering not services in the proper sense but blood-sucking instead. What was once a lively block of lowlifes is now a dead zone. The christians in question will no doubt vacuum up sundry street folks in support of whatever state contributions they can acquire. They'll thump their breasts and pose as natives in a city in which their only legitimacy is the real estate they control. Nauseating.

How nauseating it must be for rationalists in Gaza. They must know that their future prosperity lies in some kind of accommodation with the enemy, and they must know that their present overlords are retrograde in any sense. They cannot win for losing, and they lose for winning. But, meanwhile, they are deprived of even a moment's diversion looking at a little flesh on the 'net. What a curse are the gawdly.

Photos by Arod. The top two from murals on Hayes Street, the bottom from a window display on Castro Street (I think) ... meant to display our fabulous public pornography by the rather loose standards of the eastern theocrats.