Wednesday, November 03, 2010

After the Deluge

On the morning after the deluge of an election we just suffered, I dragged myself out of bed at 5, only a half hour earlier than usual, and walked the dog through the silent cool morning. I have been enjoying seeing Orion peer over the trees of late. Orion's appearance is a sign that Christmas is soon to be upon us. I was up early so I could make my way down Highway 1 to California State University Monterey Bay for an all-day Registrars meeting.

The drive down Highway 1 is one of the sweetest highway drives on the planet I am quite sure. This morning the mist lay low on the water and in the cliffs. The surf has been outrageously high, so even in the dim morning light, the side of the road was graced by smoking hot surfers struggling with their wet suits. I saw a bevy of red-tailed hawks, and any number of silhouetted herons and egrets.

The drive was about a hundred miles to Seaside which is just shy of Monterey, the town made famous by John Steinbeck. And as I got past Santa Cruz, the great agricultural fields of that part of the world hove into view, replete with their armies of migrant farm workers.

The election just past is about a population that rejects the notion of a world that changes. You need only drive by fields of artichokes to know that this is not the world that they imagine. This is not the world which has made their infernal greed and self-absorption possible. But no matter, they are stamping their feet, and they are demanding that tough politicians call a halt to it all and remake their world into what they fantasize that it once was.
The proof of their lie is certainly visible at the austerely modern and almost vacant campus of CSU Monterey Bay. Don't get me wrong ... this is a noble experiment staffed by people who are dedicated to its expansive mission. That mission is evident all over its web presence. The experiment talks a lot about quality education, small classes, dedicated professors, and especially diversity. What was readily apparent, even in vastness and absence of humanity, was that the student population here is disproportionately Latino and Black. The long and the short of it, tea baggers be damned, is that the children of the exploited laborers who pick the tea baggers' artichokes and mow their lawns and change their discarded elders diapers are the future of California. Their education is the highest calling, higher indeed than the gold standard stuff that is the mission of the sainted and essential Major Research University (MRU) that keeps my lowly lifestyle supplied with shekels. The CSU Monterey Bay's 2008-2018 Strategic Plan (pdf) has a telling graphic that states its entire case.
Look at the middle figure in each of the two graphs. A perfect example of a picture being worth a thousand words. Anyone who needs this explained is not paying attention.

My purpose here is not to argue the obvious good of a society educating its residents, be they "legal" or "illegal". And my purpose is only partially to note that ineluctable and eternal rule of history that "people move" ... yes they do. More so, my point is the enormous good that is done by rational and sensible government. CSU Monterey Bay is built on the decommissioned Fort Ord; its spare architectural quality is a combination of its newness, the flat local geography, and the fruits of resurrecting decommissioned concrete bunkers, as it were. And it is an enormous contribution to the possibility of a fruitful and prosperous future, funded entirely by government money.

More than anything, though, my point here is what I turned over in my mind as I drove north on Highway 1 after the meeting. The afternoon was unseasonably hot, there was more traffic, and the mist and mystery was overlain by the haze of traffic and human invention. I did see another smoking hot surfer, and a white-chested raptor that I could not identify. But mostly I thought about how the Democrats cannot defend a place like CSU Monterey Bay, how they cannot use it as an example of how rational government raises all.

The madness that has swept this country did not come from nowhere. It came from that perpetually frothing 20% who are just mad at everything and so overwhelmed by the simplicity of their own obviousness that they gurgle when they are not frothing. But moreso it came from the Democrats who insist on acting like Jimmy Carter. For that is what Obama instantly became the moment that his heels were rested from dancing the inaugural night away. He forgot that the failure of the previous two Democratic presidents was written by their pandering to their enemies, their failure to motivate their own followers, the fear of using their own power.

I am utterly pessimistic about this country, my adopted refuge. The home of the greatest scientific inventions in human history, its politics immune to reason.

There will be plenty of time to think about this as the Republicans go about systematically ruining our future in the next two years, and as Obama finds ever greater depths of craven apology.

But for today, I at least enjoyed a long drive on this spectacular coast, and was able to amuse myself with speculation.

All photos, except the graphs, by Arod, taken today at California State University Monterey Bay

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Frank Rich's piece on the little mosque in Manhattan today, as is the norm with Rich's writing, cleared the haze so as to better focus on the key determinants. He argues that the hysterical right opposition to the mosque betrays their hero General Petraeus and his efforts in the Afghanistan war which increasingly only the far right supports. In other words, the right wing, if it were true to its principles, should favor Park51, as the wee mosque is often agnostically labeled.

It has been some time since the American right wing has been true to any principle other than naked cynicism, and this is Rich's underlying point. But the corollary of this argument to me is that a principled opposition to a cynical religious project by secularists should not be stymied by the fact that the far right is in its usual purple rage about everything and anything. I oppose the project because I believe that civil society has the right to defend itself against religion and its lies and depredations, and its cynical sleight of hand and misdirection. I don't see Islam as a religion of peace any more than I see Catholicism as a defender of life or an educator of youth. New York has the right to determine zoning, and it should determine that no further religious structures should be built near the former twin towers.

All the current ratatat-tat-tat about the aforementioned little mosque in Manhattan has got me thinking in a larger sense about place. And the place of place. It is a curious contradiction in secular society that religion places so much emphasis on place, and then, their faces plain with unctuous honesty, asks us to forget about it when it suits their ends. In other words, religion proposes that certain places are more holy than others, and demands that everyone respect their determination of which places are to be so deemed. But then it backs up and says that it has the right to change the meaning of any given place without reference to any thoughts or opposition that secular society and secular individuals might have about it. They always insist that they be recognized as holding all the cards and that we submit to them.

Christian churches have argued that zoning does not apply to them, that environmental legislation does not apply to them. They run tax-free businesses that compete with their non-religious neighbors. They demand special access to education and the public purse. I am against all of that for all religions. I think secular society should always be righteously suspicious about religion in all its endeavors.

Liberal thought betrays itself when it adopts without critique the prejudices and demands of religious thought. And nowhere is the conceit of religion more evident than in its demands about place.

Various senses of place. We all enjoy what I will call the Walt Whitman sense of place: the numinous refraction of the calm majesty of life in the quiet and solitude of nature, in the waves of sensation created by wind and light and weather. As the trees bend and the grain undulates, as the birds soar and the insects hover, so our souls move in syncopation, stirring our being in harmony and in contrast to the land, water, and sky which are our home.

We liberals seek to hold on to that beauty through parks and reserves and respect for nature. I say it is precisely our secularism that opens us to the necessity of preserving nature ... those who have bought into some gawd or other can cheaply and egotistically dispense with nature in favor of the supernatural. They abandon the presence of place for the immanence of the divine. It is this "zero-sum divider" that permits the religious to adopt all manner of positions that are inimical to the expressed spirit of their own imaginary system. Yes we may be stewards of the earth, they say, but given the greatness of gawd, we still want our Hummers. When they experience the Walt Whitman sense of place, they pin it on their gawd, and thereby are vastly more likely to miss the responsibility of civil society to protect the beauty, to guard nature against our baser instincts.

Then there is the architectural sense of place. Staring up at the Empire State Building in amazement. Contemplating the Golden Gate Bridge. Indeed, marveling at Saint Chappelle in Paris. I find great comfort in the still majesty of great cathedrals and I loathe with an abiding passion the unwashed tourists who have no sense of place. I love to contemplate the ancient stones and wonder at the horrors and the pageants that they have witnessed.

It is a curiosity of modern secular life that we can imbibe place without being its victim, that we can appreciate the whispers of ancient and outmoded thought without giving up our intellect to it. The religious hate this. To this day, muslims carefully guard access to their holy places and are deeply suspicious of the presence of blasphemers and those think it is all a bunch of piffle. christians in the West put up with it because they are such an endangered species, except in this font of religious idiocy, these good old United States of America. Johann Hari's recent piece "The Slow, Whining Death of British Christianity" amply captures the political contradictions.

There is another sense of place which the religious loathe, and that is the sense of private place. At the end of long day, after the dog walk when I close the front door for the last time, I am wrapped in my personal space, the private realm where my objects and my "family" and my animals and most importantly my books warm my being and give me for those few short hours before sleep a sense that I am whole and free and, frankly, safe. The sense of private place is the great invention of modern life. It is what allows us in a practicable sense to be autonomous individuals, to choose how we live and with whom we live. Without private place, the forces of social conformity, religion chief among them, have vastly greater pull upon our lives.

When I used to hang out in Indonesia, I frequently had the experience of my host checking in on me or sending some offspring to intervene with me when I had been locked alone in my room for too long. There is a cultural predilection in Indonesia that the person alone is lonely and abandoned. They sought only to make me happy, not realizing that my happiness at the moment when the door was closed was predicated precisely upon my being in solitude.

I love Indonesia. I am fascinated by religion. I live for the exquisite whispers of place and context. But I am a free person, and I live in a free society. I am, and we should be, suspicious of those who seek to predetermine place and context, who seek to tell us who to love, what to think, and how to act. No part of me forgets that threat ever. And when I think of the horror of 9/11, I realize that it was an imposition, still broadly unrepented in the muslim world, upon a free society of exactly that idea that something, a religion, is greater than freedom. The idea that such an idea can build a temple to itself in the very shadow of the horrors of what it means is anathema to me. It should be anathema to anyone who loves our freedom from religion and its bloody trail of misery.

That is because place does matter. We, the lovers of freedom, must demand and secure our own sense of place and not surrender it to those who loathe everything we stand for.

All photos from my 2006 photo essay on Paris.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Secularism and the Bane of Religion

My post on the little mosque in Manhattan caused a minor dividing among those I know. About half of those who commented upon it loved it and half hated it. I lost a long-time Facebook/Twitter friend whom I have never met because of it. I suppose I am actually pleased that the vast noise of public life is such that it has precious little possibility that I will have to defend this beyond the circle of my near and dear.

The most cogent and extended critique was from an old friend on Facebook, but alas his critique in my view simply exposed the degree to which liberal thought has devolved into sentiment and wishful thinking. (If he wishes, I will be happy to quote his entire reply as a comment to this post.) The right wing is given entirely to hysteria and lies, and the left wing adjudges its positioning almost exclusively as counterpoise to those it opposes. So the reactionary christians hate the muslims, so the muslims must be okay. Not my view. I do not determine what I think by reference to a bunch of whack job christians who think that Einstein is a liberal plot.

I am interested in figuring out how secularists should defend a free society against religion. I make no bones about it: I think that religion ... all religion ... is a proximate threat to a free society and the autonomous individual who seeks to exercise his or her rights within that free society. Frankly, private religious belief is harmless, if silly. But the public practice of religion is inimical to a free society, no matter the assorted niceties, because its underlying and motivating ideology is about the reduction of the free individual to the demands of an irrefutable truth. All the falderal about communities of faith and dialog and respect among the believers is a frank and open lie; they're winking at us. Those who believe without the possibility of contradiction that there is only one truth and their group has it, then ultimately that is the source from which they will act once they get the chance. The liberal religious, pretending that things are nice, will have no impact upon the ideological religious should the latter have the power to enforce their views. On this, see Iran ... see Saudi Arabia ... see Russia for that matter, or Nigeria.

The religious only ever pretend, fooling even themselves a lot of the time, that they are tolerant. Their tolerance is the product of their impotence. And they always seek to reverse that impotence. With the power to act the tolerance vanishes.

I don't trust religion, I don't have to, and no amount of billing and cooing among the believers and the sycophants will change my mind. They have slaughtered too many. And fags are always at the top of their bloodstained lists. Call me parochial, but I keep a running count of which religion slaughters the most fags. You know, and I know, that the trail of blood is long and horrible. I have some pictures of teenagers being hanged in Iran for those whose experience of the horrors of religion is less visceral than it is for me.

So back to the wee innocent harmless mosque in the shadow of those towers that no longer cast a shadow.

The New York Times reports that the hapless sponsors to he project were unprepared for the storm. That was foolish ... but their innocence, like the much ballyhooed innocence of religion ... has the ring of a convenient stance. Evidently they will need to raise a $100 million. The innocent don't do that. So we secularists, seeking to defend our society against a religion which openly states that we should be forced to believe their ideology and practice their religion, surely have the right to ask where that money will come from. How much of that money are we prepared to accept as coming from Saudi Arabia? Remember, now, that Saudi money has played an enormous role in the recrudescence of the most reactionary forms of Islam throughout the world; it has built and financed countless madrassas that preach a virulent hatred of the secular.

And what happens even if the mosque is built with clean money? What prevents its sponsors from being overwhelmed by a tidal wave from the vast right wing of the Muslim world? A mosque is a vastly easier place to infiltrate and take over than a church. What plans do these people have in place to prevent the hatreds that besmirch mosques all around the world? Do they have a plan to prevent it from becoming a cesspit of homophobia? Will they set up a shelter for women seeking refuge from the reactionary views of Islam on the place of women and the routine and accepted violence that is visited upon them? Are they willing to discuss these issues openly?

We have the right, indeed the duty, to ask these questions. Just as we have the right and the duty to ask them of the Roman persuasion with its history of hatred and bloodlust. But the same liberals who cackle and shriek when another priest is exposed with his hands down some skinny boy's pants choose to give a pass to a religion that actively and currently executes juveniles for the act of loving each other.

Liberal muslims, such few as they are, act as apologists for the unthinkable. We do not need to apologize with them.

And liberals at the very least should apply to islam the same standards they apply to the papists.

Some argue that this is a private property issue, that those who own the land can do what they want. Not exactly a liberal position we would want to apply to your next door neighbor's desire to turn his home into a strip club or the desire of some right wing whack job to dump toxic chemicals into the water supply. As I argued in my previous post, because religion demands of the state special tax privileges, the state has the right to examine the motivation and appropriateness of any temple that comes along. Certainly those of us who are the victims of religion have the right to question as we choose whether this abuse of tax privileges is warranted in one or another circumstance.

Ah, but surely that is a breach of the freedom of religion. But just as my freedom does not mean that I can piss on your lawn, so their freedom does not mean that they can use their tax privileges to oppose my liberty or life. The freedom of religion is the freedom to choose what you want to believe. It is not the freedom of organized religion to do whatever it damned well pleases.

So we come to the heart of the matter. There are lots of mosques ... too damned many in my view, but I have that same view of churches and temples and altars of all manner ... so why not a mosque two blocks from the scene of the Twin Towers massacre? There are two reasons why rational secularists can reasonably disagree with this locating: firstly, because it is an offense to a free society that an ideology that actively opposes it can dance on a battleground and, secondly, because this has the potential to be seen and used as proof to the believers that they were right and that the massacre of innocents was a blow in their favor.

As I said before, they have no shame. And we who oppose religious tyranny are free ... so far ... to call that shame down upon them.

My good friend wrote, "Religion does not cause such attacks, it merely excuses them." Sorry but that is nonsense on the one hand and a specious distinction on the other. If it excuses them in advance: if religious ratiocination is the agar on which the germs of murder grew, then what is the actual distinction between cause and prior excuse? This is what is relevant: what the 9/11 murderers did is another episode in a dominant theme in Islamic history certainly since the earliest post-prophet conflicts, the era of the so-called rashidûn, the "rightly-guided" caliphs who followed Muhammad, three of whom were murdered by fellow believers. Only old Abu Bakr managed to die in his bed. More than one observer, myself included, notes the direct lineage of the 9/11 murderers in the Khawârij, or kharijites, of the early islamic period. These were the fanatics who took the prophet at his word and thought that the faithful in community should actually control government. That strain of islamic thought has never died despite occasional bloody repressions. So ... and I am prepared to argue this at considerable, even intolerable, length ... the 9/11 murderers are thoroughly islamic. Moreover, the protest against their slaughter was muted at best in the muslim world, and to this day remains a heroic episode for vastly more muslims than are ashamed at it.

Liberals may think that muslims bear no responsibility for 9/11, but that is not the view of the muslim world. Remember, they are corporatists; we are the individualists. We excuse their religion where they broadly accept that the murderers acted in the name of their religion even when they do not agree with the act.

My friend objected that I was adopting the Huntington thesis. The curiosity here is that I believe that that the Muslim world generally does adopt the Huntington thesis. They do accept that there is a clash of civilizations. Some account needs to be taken of that.

Now, let me retrench a little. I do not think that there is any realistic hope that islam will moderate or develop a wing of genuine secularist accommodation. But I do think that economic forces will eventually carve out some areas in the muslim world that will pay less and less real attention to the demands of religion. Some have argued that the articulation of islam in the western world will create a ground upon which such a rational incursion into the medieval structure of the religion might occur. I don't see it, and current evidence does not support it, but if that is to occur, it will do so only in the context of a deliberate and pointed challenge. To paraphrase Mao, ideologies do not change because of tea parties. They change because of struggle.

We have to have to guts to challenge the reactionary and bloodthirsty character of islam, to call it to account. Caving in to it, treating it like a neighborhood Italian-American Culture Club of sorts, will only pave the way to further calumnies.

The religious are more panicked at being exposed than ever because their nonsense is more exposed than ever. That the rising tide of religiosity is able to dominate so much of the globe reflects not a return to religion but the bloodthirsty demand of religion that it, and it alone, has great and deep and ultimate truth. We have to say, "No."

And that is what I am saying. No! Build your temple somewhere else. We are a free society. We do not accept the reactionary demands of any religion. And we do not have to. Yet.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Ground Zero and the Much Ballyhooed Religion of Peace

A few weeks back a young socialist friend of the gay family was in town, and we got into a rollicking argument about "islamophobia". His position, reduced by his opponent, was that there are nice Muslims and the bad ones are rare and contrary to the spirit of the thing. My position was that in matters of religion no matter how large the pile of nice believers, you must always look to the leaders. It was, as I say, a rollicking argument, and my young friend eventually was exhausted by my intansigence, pronounced me an islamophobe, and terminated the discussion.

Before I go on, lest my young friend read this, I have to add that I enjoyed the discussion, admire his commitment, crave his respect, and desperately want him not to not like me.

But his representations on islamophobia fill me with dread. When socialists, let alone liberals, defend religion, they tread on very thin ice. Even more egregious is the theft of the application of the suffix -phobia to a religious point of view. We can never forget that religion is an implacable enemy of freedom, and that when it pretends to be a friend to anyone who seeks freedom, it is lying in order later to show its true intentions.

So first, the -phobia nonsense. It was an innovation of the gay movement to understand that the loathing of gay people by our enemies had the characteristics of a mental disease. The red-faced, palpitating rage and the visceral revulsion suggested that those who hated us could not see our humanity through the twisted lens of their own disturbed psyches. We called that a phobia in the same sense that an irrational fear can propel a person to irrational acts.

But to label as a phobia the entirely rational opposition to a religion which has a 1300 year history of murder, repression, torment, and, yes, terrorism ... well, that is a retreat from reason. I am not afraid of Islam in some irrational sense like some people are afraid of open spaces or homosexuals. I have studied it, I wrote a dissertation about it, I have travelled in Muslim countries and have counted Muslims among my friends. But no amount of familiarity has blinded me to this indisputable fact: Islam is an enemy of freedom; it demands not merely of its adherents but of everyone that they surrender their individual rights to its demands.

Defense of the freedom of religion does not require the endorsement of religion. I support your right to believe any nonsense you want, to elevate any fairy tale you want to the status of life-determining philosophy. But I demand that the state protect the rest of us from religion's incessant need to force others into that idiocy.

There is presently a lot of liberal angst about the conservative opposition to a mosque proposed for land close by the former Twin Towers. Liberals need to think again. I'll get back to that. In the meanwhile, imagine this: what if Fred Phelps bought the yawning empty pit next door to the San Francisco Gay Community Center on market Street and proposed to build a church there which would house a God Hates Fags Research Center. would we oppose that? What if the Dutch Muslims wanted to build a shrine on the same street where some of their co-religionists bloodthirstily murdered Theo Van Gogh? What if the Catholics wanted to build a cathedral outside Auschwitz called the Cathedral of Pius XII?

The religious always say that certain places are more holy than others. This too is a fantasy, but we are forced to accept it. So I accept that I can never wander into the Kaaba unless I believe their nonsense. I accept that I should adopt an attitude of reverence when I am in Notre Dame de Paris. But they don't accept the corollary that they have to stay out of my places, keep their moralizing demonology to themselves outside of their little perquisites.

So I think the notion that a mosque be built next to Ground Zero is an offense to freedom-loving people. Have these people no shame? Their religion was the proximate cause of a foul murder. That many of their number do not endorse murder is irrelevant. Most Germans probably didn't want Jews exterminated under the Nazis, but that was of no consequence in the event. Most Iranian Muslims are against the bloody executions carried out in their names, but it does not stop their leaders.

Secular society thrives because we have established that religion and the state are separate. Islam has not quite learned the lesson, and certainly Christianity is doing its best to unlearn the lesson. Religion seeks its special privileges, including tax holidays, special spaces, and public respect which it does not merit. But when we cash in the other side of the deal by telling religion to keep away from the sites of its particular horrors, they cry out phobia phobia phobia.

Individuals should be free. But religion must always remain under suspicion. For it is always ready to reclaim its blood right to destroy the society which tolerates it.

The mosque at Ground Zero would become an international Muslim tourist mecca. Secularists are right to demand that it never be built. As a gay man, I know what that religion has in store for me should it assume power. What if some fanatic wanted to build a mosque on Castro Street in San Francisco? No way.

That's what we have to say to religion ... no way. Keep your bigotry to yourselves. Respect the spaces where your religion has created horror, just as you demand that we respect your special spaces. And show some shame for the horrors committed in your name.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Notes on Avatar

Always a little late the party, I managed to bring myself to see Avatar over two nights this long weekend. Each viewing was accompanied by a pair of martinis, and chicken on spinach or cauliflower. When the roommate leaves, me eating habits become elemental, and my drinking habits alternate among martinis, bourbon on the rocks, and Liberty Ale. It;s a reduced life, but the solitude is pleasant. In that mood, I climbed the stairs to take advantage of my upstairs neighbor's absence to use his Hi-Def TV for my Avatar experience.

I don't like adventure films, and I define the genre broadly. They seem contrived, and because they rarely are based on genuine psychological portraits, they tend to employ cheap plot tricks whose only point is to induce thrills in those who enjoy the suspension of disbelief. I have no problem with that ... I am not trying to be a snob. I just don't enjoy this particular set of cheap thrills. Of course, my reductions here are informed more by extrapolation than by filmic experience. I have probably choked my way through fewer than a dozen "adventure" films in my life. I couldn't force myself to watch the third Lord of the Ring after almost ripping my hair out watching the second ... "will this never end" I quacked. I did enjoy The Shining, but you know how long ago that was.

So I came to Avatar a skeptic.

And I left a skeptic also. That said, I quite enjoyed it.

But first the good part. The special effects, even without 3D,were fabulous. But what I would want ... and I recognize that I am in a tiny minority here ... would be a steady state, plotless, anthropology-style excursus on life on an alien planet. All the drama and the cheap plot just get in the way of a perfectly lovely fantasy.

So to the cheap plot. One wonders why Mr. Cameron employs such a thin kitbag of character stereotypes. Tuf and gruf, goofy but likeable, balsy female pilot, hero with a heart of gold but confused. Of course such banalities of character loom as Einsteinian relativity beside the single-digit algebra of the native population. It is a curiosity that liberalism prefers to depict primordial or universal religion in terms so reminiscent of the popular representation of Native American religion that I expect a pow wow to break out. And indeed, eventually one did.

Notwithstanding the central action of an improbable battle in which arrow-firing cavalry brings down a massive modern air force, and notwithstanding the underlying theme of the struggle of nature against technology and the fight of primary extractors against the military/industrial complex, I think this is fundamentally a religious film. The society of the natives is riven with religion, and indeed nature itself on Pandora is religious in its geo-biology. Not too much intelligence is spilled in constructing this pantheon ... there is a simple pantheistic god and lots of mystical communicating via trees and dandelion seeds and what not.

I am sure that most people came for the adventure and the special effects. I wonder what they make of the pantheism. Is it just that this sort of religious prattling is common in scifi? Or do they just not care.

A recent states that fully 18% of Americans no longer profess a religion. I suspect the figure is actually radically higher, but most people like to pretend they have a religion because it is generally thought to be expected. That Avatar's religious message exacted so little chatter is a sign to me that the religious debate in this country is controlled by that tiny array of fanatics who strike fear into those who would say the emperor is nude. Many more Americans are actually pantheistic quasi-animists than would admit or even know it. I think that is why the religious content of this movie provokes so little discussion.

Religion and war go together of course, and so too in the movie. But while the religion presented at least had some intellectual pretenses, the military stuff was a joke. I mean, cavalry in a jungle. 2,000 troops are all they could muster? And suddenly firearms appear without apparent explanation.

But that too, I suppose, is part of the adventure genre. It is not about the sense of it, nor is it about the factors or the psychology. It is about setting up the action and then riding it.

I enjoyed the ride, but I could not suspend disbelief. I'm waiting for the documentary.

Photos by Arod, from Quane Alley, I believe.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Gutpela gaden mekim gutpela kaikai

In 1983, my best friend Ian ... sometimes referred to as Frobisher in these scribblings ... suggested that I accompany him on a trip to Papua New Guinea where he planned to observe and photograph an total eclipse of the Sun. We tacked on to those 6 weeks an additional 4 weeks of travel in Indonesia. That trip was a turning point in my life in every sense.

The most difficult part of the trip was an excursion in the highlands. We walked for five days from Lake Kopiago, where the road ends, to Oksapmin. Many stories to tell about that trip and I promise to get to that at some point. Todays post is in aid of a promise made to a new friend on Twitter who wants to see the T-shirt I got in Oksapmin. There was a recently started gardening project that supplied food for cash to mining operations. We each bought the T-shirt. It reads:

Gutpela gaden mekim gutpela kaikai

Which means

Good gardens make good food

A lesson that any steward of the earth might profitably learn. Imagine if BP had taken such words to heart.

Anyway, here are the T-shirts, front and back. The other one was from the Port Moresby Sing Sing that we attended and photographed. All my photographs are in slide form, and it is in my stack of projects to rip those to a hard drive.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Chattels, Personal Change, and Chugging Along

I have not been blogging, and so I bought myself a "Western Digital My Book Studio Edition II 4TB Quad Interface Dual-drive Storage System with RAID".

That's not a non-sequitur. And nor is any of this.

My roommate who longed eschewed social media has taken up blogging with a vengeance in aid of his great hobby, fine cocktails. As I write this first blog that I have attempted since March, he is busily photographing tonight's offering, the Singapore Sling. His still life photography is very fine indeed, as I think anyone perusing his blog will agree. But tonight's photograph presented a problem. He uses objects from around this madhouse of my numerous collections and accretions for his still lifes. He asked me if I had an idea for objects that might evoke Singapore. Well, alas, Singapore's national identity is pretty much wrapped up with squelching anything with character or difference in favor of a landscape of towering apartment blocks unhindered by vegetation or affectation. He settled on some fresh bamboo from the garden.

Photography is at the root of my own blogging behavior, and a few months back I made an error in regard to its electronic piece. I switched from iPhoto to Aperture without spending the time to master Aperture, and meanwhile my storage capacity slowly got close to maxing out. That's where the RAID drive comes in. If I stretch my space, maybe I can settle back into it.

I did a similar thing with a 60-gallon tank in the living room. I've always had water problems in that tank, so I moved the last of the fish into a 40-gallon tank that had some space due to the final demise of an ancient Rottkeil. This opened up a vast surface that permits me to play and move stuff around and create a new installation. I bumped into some wayangs today ... shadow puppets from Java for those not as anchored in the Indonesian reality as I am. I figure I will make some bases and stand up a bunch of my wayangs on that surface, and then for good measure make add back in a 10-gallon tank with some plants and fancy goldfish.

You see, I have always used chattels to burst through personal blocks.

I am a thing person. I like things. And things are attracted to me. Things seek me out magnetically and stick to me. Eventually things and I make a deal: I give them a little spot and they stay there, nice and pert. I dust them off twice annually ... for the Christmas Party and the July first or fourth party, depending on the year. And once in a while I move them around. I like to fondle things and, to be frank, I talk to them as if they live.

So it is not such a stretch to use these bloody things to burst through my personal blocks.

Of course my inability to re-seize my photography life from the not-so-difficult embrace of Aperture is really an excuse. Here's another excuse. Twitter has seized control of me. I'll write a post about its sublime joys in due course, but suffice to say that I spend the time I used to spend blogging composing 140 character koans. And it provides the same little blast of 'lectric sociality. I like to say ... If Facebook is the broad Mississippi, then Twitter is a fast-rushing mountain stream. In that paradigm, blogging is the open ocean. In another vein, if Facebook is marijuana, Twitter is crack, and blogging is old-fashioned alcoholism.

So, I'm evidently not a crack addict and pointedly not a stoner, as if there is anything pointed about pot. But I like my booze, and I like blogging.

So I bought a RAID drive, I emptied my 60-gallon tank, and I sat down and wrote this post. There.

Photos by Arod from my trip to Toronto, my old hometown, in April. First time I have looked at them. Feeling ok.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dan Choi

There is a bit of glee in online gay lib circles tonight because Dan Choi, the gay military hero, handcuffed himself to the White House fence. He was arrested and he will be charged.

This was a terrible mistake. It is, as we used to call it in the 70s, adventurism. Lt. Choi has placed himself above the movement, requiring that the movement adjust to his personal decisions. Obviously, sometimes that is the right thing to do. When he came out on Rachel Maddow, he took a personal decision that gave a face to a social movement. He knew he stood to suffer, and he bravely faced the consequences of his actions. Recently, in the wake of the Obama administration finally stirring ever so slightly to life on the DADT question, he returned to active duty to the warm embrace of his comrades.

Now he has made himself ineligible for military service. He committed a crime ... albeit one of civil disobedience ... in front of the Commander-in Chief's official residence. This is beyond courage and into the realm of recklessness. When he came out, he gave voice to his closeted and hidden comrades. When he chained himself to the fence, he forced them to seek shelter.

The curiosity of the current phase in gay liberation stems from two contradictions.

Firstly, with gay marriage and DADT, we have finally come to a point where our movement is clearly and unambiguously demanding normalization, admission to the ordinary and the expected. This is why some on the left have belittled gay marriage, and bizarrely why some gave ultraleft cover to Obama's embrace of the bigoted pastor Warren because he tries to save children in Africa ... in other words, why worry about silly old marriage when children are dying. Back in my day in the gay movement, the ultralefts denounced Leonard Matlovich, the Dan Choi of era, because they were against the military.

The ultralefts are wrong ... and they are few, so I have to confess that this is a bit of a straw man argument. The point of it, though, is that now is a moment when we are clearly showing the middle middle of American life that homosexuality is not a threat to anyone, that it is normal, that we just want in. The decorated military man, stiff-spined, clean-cut, clear-voiced, speaks those words into the living rooms of millions. But he throws all that out when he chains himself to that fence.

The second contradiction is the yet-again recrudescence of the bizarre ultra-right just as America finds itself broadly turning a corner. I think the ultrarights are also few, though not as few as the ultralefts. But the media makes them into many. I think that creates a frustration on the left. There were comments today about how slim was the media coverage of the occupation of Nancy Pelosi's office by a crew of ENDA supports; if teabaggers had occupied an office it would be the biggest story of the week. Certainly true, but it again misses the point. The teabaggers are extremists; they call for executions, tax evasion, secession, armed resistance. We have the opportunity of showing ourselves as sane in a moment of mass political insanity. How dare my brothers and sisters occupy the office of one our supporters in the very days when she is desperately trying to gather votes to pass health care reform? Are they nuts; do they not have any sense of timing? If I did not know better, I would say they were in the pay of the teabaggers because these friends of ours are in the bizarre position of playing into the hands of the reactionaries at a moment of the highest political drama.

There is something a little infantile in these two mistimed actions today, as if they could not bear being out of the spotlight while the entire nation is gripped by the fight over health care.

Dan Choi made an error today. He lost his sense of timing, his strategic vision, and his iconic status. It will be for naught; it will not help the fight against DADT. I doubt it will hurt, but it will not help. It will certainly hurt him. He threw a lot of "cred" away for nothing, and he did it independently, without consultation, on his own. There is a fine line between the heroic and foolhardy, and that line is motly about an excess of ego. I think this is a case in point.

Adventurism is always an error. Lt. Choi is a military man. He ought to know that. Sad.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Figure Skating and Masculinity

A little context: I am writing this as I watch the Canada/U.S. hockey game ... nothing lacking in the masculinity department there. I am a huge Winter Olympics fan, and this year has been the best because I a working a DVR for the first time. I love figure skating ... men's, dance, pairs, women's, pretty much in that order. I watched pretty much every minute of the men's short and free programs. I thought Lycacek clearly won, Plushenko deserved the silver, but Takahashi was lucky to get the bronze. Lambiel, whom I have long admired, needed one more clean jump to move up; Takahashi free skate was athletic, fun, and lively, but hardly the classic grace and beauty of either Lambiel or Weir. Patrick Chan of Canada was overscored as a home ice kind of thing. I thought Johnny Weir was robbed of 5 points on the short and 10 on the free; if that's true, he should have the bronze. He certainly skated more cleanly than any of those in the 3, 4, and 5 spots, and he clearly beat Lambiel and Chan. All the results are here.

So that out of the way ... what is it with all the whining about masculinity and the quad. If Plushenko figures a quad equals the gold, then why don't they have a quad contest, sort of like ski jumping. Everybody gets two shots with marks and the best combined score wins.

But that is not what figure skating is. Rather, it is a combination of athleticism and aesthetics that is judged based on that. We all know that skating judging is notoriously corrupt ... and that in my view is why Weir placed as low as he did. efforts have been made to clean up the scoring, and I think those efforts are only half complete. Lots of people think that way, and some have taken this conjuncture as an opportunity to challenge, again, the basic nature of men's figure skating. Most famous is the great Canadian skater Elvis Stojko.

Stojko was a stirring skater, a short fireplug with a muscular athleticism combined with just enough grace to make him a champion. I never particularly favored his form of skating though. I always thought his arms slapped around like swords. But short guys have that problem in skating ... they lack those long lines that we equate with grace.

Stojko and others have argued that figure skating needs to be more masculine. A curious notion that accepts an unexamined notion of what constitutes masculine. Perhaps it would be more masculine if they wore work boots and skidded along the ice before jumping. Is that what they mean? More seriously, at least part of what they mean is that something should be taken away ... the grace, the artistry, those gestures associated with the feminine, certain kinds of costumes.

It's all nonsense. Evan Lycacek is consummately graceful and I see nothing about him that is not masculine. I'm convinced he is gay ... if there were a girlfriend or a wife, NBC would have been all over her like fur on Johnny Weir. He sounds gay to me too, but I confess that my gaydar is notoriously given to false positives and false negatives.

Johnny Weir is a big old queen, but again I do not see why his skating is not masculine just because it favors the graceful and the articulated.

Masculinity is always metaphoric. That is, the concept stands in for something else. That something else is a socially projected notion of what a man should be. For the Greeks and Romans, a man was someone who went to war; killing made the man. That has been true in military societies for millennia. It was true in our society within my lifetime. Increasingly there is a move to include some form of family-style sensitivity in the masculine ... how often do we have to listen to butch film stars ramble on about how fatherhood made them into a better person. The older form of masculinity didn't waste much time on becoming a better person through love and feeling. Nor does the Stojko school of figure skating.

The unspoken, and now oddly unspeakable, side of the masculinity trope is that gay is not seen as masculine. Nobody admits that Johnny Weir is gay, not even Johhny Weir. They call him "controversial". He is certainly, as I said, a big queen. And in his personal demeanor it would be hard to find something that we would ordinarily call masculine. Except he works out like a fiend, he suffers through pain, he marches past ridicule, he calls his own shots, and he doesn't give the time of day to those who revile him. Tough, strong, self-reliant.

Tough, strong, self-reliant. What's not masculine about that. But, of course, there are plenty of female athletes who are tough, strong, and self-reliant, and they'd punch you in the nose if you called them masculine.

Masculine as a concept is also always relative. There is no masculine without feminine; from another angle, there is no masculine without the effeminate. Curious that there is no masculine equivalent of effeminate ... and that goes to another issue in masculinity. In conventional sex roles, the crime of a woman is not to be subservient to a man; the crime of a man is not to dominate either women or men. Much, of course, was made of this during the sexual revolution, but a point was missed. So many men, I would argue the vast majority of men, live masculine lives of ethics and fairness and humanity. The flaw in the feminist view of the masculine was its glib acceptance of the stereotype proffered by the most extreme advocates of chauvinism. That is a flaw which the Stojkos repeat.

I am a gay man who like masculine gay men. I like the queens too, gawd noze. But I am filled with admiration for my brothers who pursue "masculine lives of ethics and fairness and humanity". What has that got to do with figure skating? Does Stephane Lambiel's well turned hand in mid-spin bespeak a lack of masculine ethics and fairness and humanity? On the contrary, I think it speaks to the fluidity of masculinity, to its possibilities, its limitlessness.

So many of the sports we consider masculine are made of grace and beauty. The ski jumping has these scrawny youth striking glorious poses against the wind. The long strides of a speed skater evoke ballet more than football. Why are these masculine, and not figure skating.

It all goes back to the metaphor, the relativity. If your masculine is John Wayne, skip the skating. If your masculine is Dan Choi or Evan Lycacek, enjoy it all.

Photos by Arod of signage around town. This post is not all I want it to be, but I have to get back to blogging. I have become quite a tweeter, and I enjoy the form enormously. But I have to carve out the time again to blog. So choke it out, spit it down ... is that too masculine?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Obama, Haiti, Oracle

On the eve of what is shaping up to be a disastrous loss in the Massachusetts Senate race, and in the wake of the still patchy relief effort in disastrous Haiti, and in celebration of pretty near exactly a year of the Obama presidency, my mind wanders to that central question in modern life, the database. That is what I mean by Oracle in the title, though there are more ways to parse data than Oracle, as we know.

Every major disaster seems to follow the same script, and five days in there is a lot of confusion on the ground, those in need are not getting relief, and the international effort is bogged down. Chaos among the afflicted begins to mount as the initial shock recedes. I know I am in danger of appearing callous, and given that my only experience of disaster was the 89 earthquake here in San Francisco, I do not want to make light of the challenges faced by those who bravely go where no one wants to be.

But in this instance, as in so many, it seems to me that we are not making effective use of the new tools at our disposal. No doubt that failure is conditioned by the inertia that marks most politics at most times. But there are times in human history where entropy gives way to revolution, and this ought to be one such time, the more so given the revolutionary impact that electronic life has had on everything else.

Because what we have here is a database problem. There are evidently initial response and rescue teams scattered around the globe. They rapidly converge, but not rapidly enough, and once they are on the round, the means to move them to the actual hot spots are sadly lacking. Roads are always impassable after disasters; the afflicted always get in the way; there is always a fog surrounding information and communication. SO what those rescuers need are helicopters. In the case of Haiti, it is simply shocking that we did not have a hundred, two hundred helicopters in situ within 24 hours. That should always be the goal. And the instrument to deliver that goal should be the US Navy and Air Force.

We know people will need water and food. The world community should be stockpiling emergency supplies not where disasters happen, but where there are large concentrations of airplanes and runways. In other words, every major international airport should have a supply of water that can be rapidly airlifted to the nearest landing strip to the disaster from where those helicopters previously mentioned should move it to the site of the disaster. That coordination is all about a modern system database.

I work every day with a system database that runs one of the world's most remarkable major research universities. From my central seat, I can tell you that the database is like a teenager ... beautiful, powerful, unruly, prone to bad decisions, needs a lot of sleep (bug fixes), and always promising to be more tomorrow. But regardless of the madness that surrounds administering such a Borg, it actually works remarkably well given the immense human complexity that it endeavors to manage.

Another example of a database is the Obama campaign. The press talks about his Internet outreach and fundraising, but behind all of that was a database operation that tracked people, kept statistics, managed communication, updated and ran a web site, and evidently did a pretty good job of security also. My problem is this: notwithstanding Obama's promise to run his Presidency as he ran his campaign, why did he abandon success and repair to the tried and true? Where was that database when it was time to mobilize mass events in favor of health care reform? Where was that database when it came time to retain Edward Kennedy's Senate seat?

When I first arrived at MRU (that is the name that I give to the major research university where I hand-count bits and bytes in exchange for a few shekels delivered twice monthly), I tended to share the attitude that the database was the enemy, the great impersonal beast that wanted only to devour our individuality and reduce all variation to flat form. But I was professionally required to sell the database to the reluctant, and in doing so I came to understand that human variosity always survives the systems that are designed to contain it ... those systems strive to keep up. But persnickety abstinence is no strategy to deal with technological change, notwithstanding the Andy-Rooney common sense that is so au courant among my dear friends who like to mock social media. I have seen every excuse to resist the database. The issue is not to resist it, but to harness it to our oldest and most persistent problems.

Like disaster. And social change.

The greatest idiocy of the self-styled conservatives of the present era is their failure to see that American military might can be turned into a worldwide force for betterment and disaster relief and implied threats to the assorted ancien regimes that still haunt the planet. But this is a re-imagining. And at the heart of that re-imagining is to understand just how powerful the modern database has become. Unleash Google on disaster relief. Or unleash the amazing students who constructed the course catalog that MRU released and that I manage ... they saw in an entirely different light a problem that I understood thoroughly ... and they changed my way of understanding my own information.

So this becomes the question: when will government and international relations catch up with the technology that runs Amazon and eBay and Facebook? When it does, the Haiti earthquakes of the future will entail much less suffering.

Photos by Arod, from around town. From my ongoing series that I call "Flat Faces".

Saturday, January 09, 2010

War and Liberalism

I watched much of the new National Geographic documentary reprise of the Vietnam War the other night. Wonderful footage, but bad history. More importantly, it represents the larger liberal retreat from its position on the war at the time to a warm and fuzzy embrace of the "soldiers." The documentary was not really about the war so much as it was about how Americans who were soldiers at the time reflect now on what they felt and experienced then. That's lovely and everything, but it is not history.

This certainly derives from the current liberal ambivalence about the assorted Middle Eastern wars. While there is without doubt an isolated if principled party of across-the-board opponents to any of these wars, broadly liberalism has accommodated itself to this era by focusing on supporting our troops and defending the nation against the threat of Islamic extremism even as it affirms that Islam is a religion of peace which we all respect. So the National Geographic documentary cast this attitude backwards even while noting the sometimes hostile welcome that some soldiers experienced on returning from Vietnam and while crediting the enemy with no good traits whatsoever.

I like my historical thinking to be clear. Notwithstanding the moral and ethical dimensions of war, whenever we look at history primarily from a moral perspective we are bound to end up where we started, that is with our own unchallengeable point-of-view. History in that sense, and perhaps that sense alone, is like science: all points of view must be subject to disproof. In general, a moral view of war resists disproof.

My own view of Vietnam has certainly changed. Back then, I viewed it first and foremost as a crime, and the fact of its being a mistake I saw as the just deserts of an imperialist nation. I was a radical youth of the 70s and I could not understand how an honest person could embrace the war. I certainly had no sense of nuance about it. For me, the possibility that the North Vietnamese Army or the Viet Cong might commit atrocities or ultimately be opposed to freedom was inconceivable. Life is simpler when your youth is spent in an era of ideological clarity.

Fortunately ideological clarity muddies up pretty quickly, and aging certainly has the fortunate tendency of driving liberals away from ideology. My case is one in point. I think what is clear now is that the war was primarily a mistake, on in which decision after decision concatenated to drag the nation into a quagmire in precisely the era which started with an opportunity to become a champion of freedom. The opportunity was quickly lost - swept away in the ineluctable circumstances of Korea and the entirely avoidable circumstances of Vietnam. The opportunity was short-lived, and the failure to embrace it led to a decades long triumph of the right in foreign policy. That to me is the American contribution to the Cold War.

The most tragic American figure is, of course, Johnson who could not imagine himself a president who lost a war. He tried every different strategy, but the enemy's strategy simply did not admit of failure. It is key to realize that that too was an opportunity that had a finite window. They could not do it now. I'll come back to that in a moment.

Now as if to contradict my opening thesis, there is no doubt that the American soldiers were the biggest chumps in the war. They had no stake in it other than to survive. They could neither win nor lose. This was an era in between the "greatest generation" and "post-9/11 hero" idea of soldiery. A lot of that has to do with the draft - in a society whose institutions were in the grip of conservatism while its sociality was ripping tradition to shreds, being drafted was like being tossed through a time warp. One day "do your own thing", the next day "die is a paddy". We on the left in that era were wrong to eschew the soldiers. I remember that especially among the Trotskyists there was much reference to Trotsky and Lenin's championing of the soldiers, but those bookish and democratic centralist ideas did not have wide application. The soldiers were an embarrassment to people who saw the war as a "drag" and they were fodder for people who saw the war as evil.

But the war was neither a drag nor evil. It was a struggle for supremacy that was lost before we began.

I saw none of that in the National Geographic piece.

I also saw no analysis of the military aspects of the war. This is of a piece with one of the great failings of liberal thought. Let me put it this way: I think military history should be a part of the curriculum of every high school and college in the country. There is no history without war, and understanding war both in general and in its specifics is the sine qua non of understanding history. Love 'em or hate 'em, Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, Frederick, Napoleon, Rommel, and Giap are great teachers whose lessons transcend the particulars of their era and their purposes. they understand strategy and tactics, the interplay of the large and the small. They understand psychology. They understand the long-lived and the ephemeral. But most importantly, given that virtually every social structure we have was forged in war, refusing to study it out of moral superiority to it is an arrogance that we cannot afford.

Bizarrely, the modern right has abandoned the study of war also. We know that they have abandoned pretty much any principle with which they might have formerly been associated. They liked Iraq and Afghanistan when dubya was in charge; now they're "agin it". They want to bomb anybody who vaguely resembles anybody who might not like us. They have no strategy; they just oppose anything we support.

But Obama has no strategy either, and he is being merely responsive. Just like Johnson, even though I think he more plays the role of Nixon than Johnson. Just as with the Viet Cong, there is no way to defeat the enemy; all we can do is outflank them and make them irrelevant in historic terms. So a strategy looks to do that. But this, frankly, is an easier enemy than the North Vietnamese because they have no state, they have precious few followers, and the societies which they haunt yearn to join in the era of obscene riches that is the postmodern free-trade mania. That is the sense in which the Viet Cong strategy will not work for the jihadis. Where the issue in Vietnam was to find a way stem the rising influence of the Soviet Union by defeating their proxies in a war in which they were not involved, the issue in the war on terrorism is to invest the Muslim world in the larger world and its issues over and against their millennia-old cultural and political inversion. We have more tools for that fight than we did in the 50s and 60s.

So the National Geographic documentary did us a disservice. Not merely did it misrepresent and muddy the history of the war, but it infused our view of it with current moral attitudes founded not on insight but on self-absorption. That is a metaphor for what ails liberalism at a time when we should be looking to be triumphant.

Photos by Arod from the Canadian National War Museum in Ottawa.