The Words We Mutter Under Our Breath

Some years ago, as I waited to be served food by a prickly employee of an eating establishment, I sensed my temper flaring. She and I had had run-ins before; she had always seemed unnecessarily querulous and brusque in her interactions with me; the  milk of human kindness seemed to have curdled long ago in her. I anticipated more trouble in this encounter; I was on edge, wondering which pronouncement of mine would be met with curtness or indifference. I wasn’t mistaken; a few seconds later, I was subjected to a familiar, rage-inducing rudeness. I placed my order, picked up my food, and walked away. As I did so, I muttered under my breath, “Fuck you, you fucking stupid bitch.” My short and bitter rant was loud enough to be overheard by someone–not a complete stranger–standing next to me, who promptly did a double-take and said something to the effect of “Wow, that’s harsh.” Now mortified, I mumbled something about having a bad day and walked quickly away. (I was especially embarrassed because I had just interacted with a service worker, someone who at the best of times is underpaid and overworked.)

It wasn’t the first time–and sadly, I don’t think it will be the last–that I will say something quite unhinged, in a hushed tone of voice, in words only audible to myself. On various occasions over the years I’ve deployed almost exactly that same line above on the conclusion of an aggravating social encounter–with ‘bitch’ replaced by some other derogatory term, sometimes racist, sometimes homophobic, sometimes sexist, sometimes fat-shaming. In the encounter I make note of above, I had been detected and called out; on most occasions, I am the only audience for these private expressions of my feelings.

I do not know if this history means that deep down at heart I’m a sexist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic person; I do know that I’m afflicted with many kinds of implicit bias, and they play a role in my understanding of the world and my relationships with those who inhabit it; I do know that being exposed to all those strands of thought as I grew up, and living in societies that still suffer from those afflictions predisposes me to fall back, lazily, in the cauldron of unfavorable circumstance, to those very same attitudes when I express anger. They suggest themselves to me as the right kind of ammunition to deploy against my imagined foes, the only balms that will assuage my psychic wounds. (Conversely, with probability one, someone has referred to me in precisely the terms above after an aggravating encounter with me, with their favorite prejudiced expression for folks of my ethnic persuasion inserted into the schema above.)

These are not flattering reflections on oneself; my utterances are only partially excused by being made in a fit of anger. Perhaps I can congratulate myself on having found a ‘safe outlet’ for my frustrations; after all, all I did was rant a bit to myself. My words did not lead to prejudiced action or violence or politics or some form of systematic discrimination against those who, unknown to themselves, had been subjected to abuse my me. But perhaps that lets me too easily off the hook; and perhaps it lets off our societies and our times too easily as well.

Hillary Clinton’s War Abroad Will Come Home Soon Enough

Hillary Clinton’s response to the Orlando massacre reminds many why they are nervous about a person who carelessly voted for the Iraq war becoming US president:

Whatever we learn about this killer [Omar Mateen], his motives in the days ahead, we know already the barbarity that we face from radical jihadists is profound. In the Middle East, ISIS is attempting a genocide of religious and ethnic minorities. They are slaughtering Muslims who refuse to accept their medieval ways. They are beheading civilians, including executing LGBT people. They are murdering Americans and Europeans, enslaving, torturing and raping women and girls. In speeches like this one, after Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, I have laid out a plan to defeat ISIS and the other radical jihadist groups in the region and beyond.The attack in Orlando makes it even more clear, we cannot contain this threat. We must defeat it. And the good news is that the coalition effort in Syria and Iraq has made recent gains in the last months. So we should keep the pressure on ramping up the air campaign, accelerating support for our friends fighting to take and hold ground and pushing our partners in the region to do even more.

On Facebook, Corey Robin responds and draws a damning conclusion:

Forget about policy, just examine the rhetoric. The way Clinton escalates and turns it up to 11, moving us away from Orlando and a police investigation, away from any domestic considerations and social concerns, to the platform of civilizational warfare, to a cosmic evil that isn’t containable but must be destroyed and defeated, to internationalizing and militarizing the whole thing. This is the language of George W. Bush.

I’m afraid Robin is right. The little excerpt above is very similar in tone to the kinds of speeches George W. Bush made when he was infected by the spirit of 9/12–which seems to mean ‘national unity’ for some, but which in point of fact turned out to be a paranoid, vengeful, misdirected, wasteful, rage. It resulted in the war crime called ‘the Iraq war’ and if you really take causal analysis seriously, ISIS itself.

Perhaps the most crucial sentence in the excerpt is the opener. For there, Clinton makes quite clear that no matter what we learn about the actual motivations of the killer, her focus on ISIS will not waver. That is where the easier action lies; that calls for saber-rattling and bombing, all the better to unify a nation with (the one doing the bombing, not the one getting bombed, as Libyans and Iraqis will testify.) In the next four sentences, the rhetoric is ratcheted up with ‘genocide,’ ‘medieval,’ ‘slaughtering,’ ‘beheading,’ ‘executing,’ ‘torturing,’ ‘raping,’ and ‘enslaving.’ The following four sentences showcase  a segue into aggressive plans for action, which are curiously and ironically informed by a sense of futility: the threat of ISIS “cannot” be contained; it requires–implicitly–a fight to the death. (Which as we all know, often tend to take down more than just the protagonists in the battle.) And then, finally, to wrap up, there is the nod to a global battle–waged on distant lands, from air, naturally, the American way, while hopefully, ‘allies’ sacrifice their foot soldiers to the maws of war.

There is no mention of homophobia, guns, masculinity, cultures of violence; there is no mention of domestic pathology. There is a problem; and here is a bomb that will fix it. Somewhere else. Never here. But those bombs will find their way back here soon enough; in the persistence of states of war and the bolstering of the military-industrial complex, in depleted budgets for social programs and infrastructure and public education–wars cost money after all, in the militarization of police–as military weapons end up in police departments to be used against protesters in inner cities, in the criminalization of dissent,  in the crackdown on whistle blowers and the increasing pervasiveness of surveillance–because wars require national unity and secrecy.

Wars are not just waged abroad.

ISIS, America, ‘Failed States,’ And Gun Control

In the Orlando massacre, ISIS met, once again, the enemy it wanted: a society riven by a culture of violence, hyper-masculinity (and its inevitable attendant, homophobia), awash in guns, susceptible to fascist demagoguery, infected by a paranoid, self-destructive Islamophobia. That society’s lawmakers have passed over two hundred anti-LGBT bills in recent times; they also refuse to limit access to assault rifles that allow a lone gunman to shoot over hundred people in an enclosed space. Its political candidates exploit the socio-economic decline and corrosive anger resulting from rampant economic inequality to stoke fears of immigrants and foreigners and people of color; as if on cue, a fascist has become one of its presidential candidates this election season. ISIS could not have asked for anything more. It stands on distant heights, looking at the scenes arrayed before it, and it sees a polity ripe for exploitation. It wonders when this divided house will fall.

The power of ISIS in material terms is insignificant, for its rule is confined to a few pockets of territory in the Middle East; its progress in gaining square miles is merely fitful. Its soldiers and weaponry are as susceptible to munitions as anyone else’s. But ISIS rules America’s imagination, and that might be its most important conquest yet. ISIS would like nothing more than to see American saber-rattling and war mongering, coupled with a fierce desire to track down and persecute imaginary Fifth Columns; these are all are part of an explicit ISIS prescription for success in America.

It is the day after the Orlando massacre, and there is little to do in America other than sign petitions, make note of outrageous hot takes–like Donald Trump’s suggestion that Obama had something to do with the massacre–curse the NRA, and quibble about who or what should be blamed. America is at a loss. Such confusion–over political strategy and tactics, in response to a phenomenon that occurs with metronomic regularity–indicates a state ripe for the kind of infection the ISIS aims to spread; it is entirely opportunistic–for it first took root in post-war Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

A comparison of the world’s greatest superpower with the world’s ‘failed states’ might seem risible; but it is not so when it comes to the matter of mass shootings and gun control. For failed states are characterized by broken political discourse, by vacuums of power; such is arguably the state of affairs when it comes to these massacres in America. Political parties know not what to do; the populace is convinced of its helplessness. Guns and those who use them and sell them rule the roost–just like they do in ‘badlands’ the world over.  The culture of violence they enable, the disputes they help settle, the temper tantrums and inchoate prejudices they transform into homicidal rage, these continue to corrode the fabric of America’s polity.

Homophobia, guns, the violent resolution of disputes; these are part of the American cultural and political fabric. They enable ISIS too, just like its beheading videos do.

 

CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity: Masterfully Flawed Apologetics

CS Lewis‘ Mere Christianity is rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece of Christian apologetics; it is entertaining, witty, well-written, clearly composed by a man of immense learning and erudition (who, as befitting the author of the masterful Studies in Words, cannot restrain his delightful habit of providing impromptu lessons in etymology.) Lewis is said to have induced conversions in “Francis Collins, Jonathan Aitken, Josh Caterer and the philosopher C. E. M. Joad” as a result of their reading Mere Christianity, and it is not hard to see why. The encounter of a certain kind of of receptive mind with the explication of Christian doctrine that Lewis provides–laden with provocative analogies and metaphors–is quite likely to lead to the kind of experience conversion provides: an appeal to an emotional core harboring deeply experienced and felt needs and desires, which engenders a radical shift in perspective and self-conception. Christianity offers a means for conceptualizing one’s existential and pyschological crises–seeing them as manifestation of a kind of possession, by sin, by the Devil–and holds out the promise of radical self-improvement: the movement toward man–all men–becoming Christ, assuming a moral and spiritual perfection as they do so.  All the sludge will fall away; man will rise and be welcomed into the bosom of God; if only he takes on faith in Christ and his teachings. This is powerful, heady stuff and its intoxicating powers are underestimated only by those overly arrogant about the power and capacities of reason and ratiocination to address emotional longings and wants.

It is clear too, from reading Lewis, why Christianity provoked the ire of a philosopher like Nietzsche. For they are all here: the infantilization of man in the face of an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-good God; the terrible Godly wrath visible in notions such as damnation; the disdain for this life, this earth, this abode, its affairs and matters, in favor of another one; the notion of a ‘fallen man’ and a ‘fall from grace’ implying this world is corrupt, indeed, under ‘occupation’ by an ‘enemy force.’ There is considerable self-abnegation here; considerable opportunity for self-flagellation and diminishment. No wonder the Existential Stylist was driven to apoplectic fury.

Lewis takes Biblical doctrine seriously and literally; but like any good evangelical he is not above relying on metaphorical interpretation when it suits him. (This is evident throughout Mere Christianity but becomes especially prominent in the closing, more avowedly theological chapters.) Unsurprisingly for a man of his times (who supports the death penalty and thinks homosexuals are perverts), the seemingly retrograde demand that wives unquestioningly obey their husbands, which might have sparked alarms in a more suspicious mind about the sociological origins of such a hierarchy-preserving notion, is stubbornly, if ever so slightly apologetically, defended.

Lewis’ arguments are, despite the apparent effort he takes to refute views contrary to Christian doctrine, just a little too quick. His infamous trilemma arguing for the Divinity of Jesus and his dismissal of the notion that his supposed Natural or Universal Law of Morality cannot be traced to a social instinct are notoriously weak (the former’s weaknesses are amply referenced in the link above while the latter simply pays no attention to history, class, and culture.)

But Mere Christianity, even if deeply flawed, is still worth a read: you witness an agile mind at work; you encounter a masterful writer; you find yourself challenged to provide refutations and counter-arguments; you even feel an emotional tug or two, letting you empathize with those who do not think like you do. That’s a pretty good catch for one book.

Same Sex Marriage Is Legal; Prepare For Doom, America

Same sex marriage is now a constitutionally recognized right in the United States of America. As usual, Justice Kennedy has confirmed that he is the only judge required for the Supreme Court to function. But danger awaits America.

All across the land, divorces will break out, children will disobey their parents, and pedophiles will prey upon adolescents. Traditional marriage will crumble; the family as we know it will be no more; disease–the sexually transmitted variants–and pestilence, for what else is homosexuality?, will stalk the land. Church, synagogue, mosque, and temple attendance will drop; disco will be played in clubs again; wedding planners will be driven nuts by not one, but two brides (and sometimes, two grooms); heterosexual Americans will cower, trembling, for fear of being inveigled into homosexual relationships; figure skating clubs and cooking classes will report dramatic increases in enrollment; at baseball games, the seventh innings stretch will now feature, exclusively, “Raise Your Glass“, “I Will Survive“, “Beautiful“, “I’m Coming Out“, “Dancing Queen“, “Born This Way“, and “Y.M.C.A.“; closets will empty; men will dress better; women will cut their hair; the increase in consumption of wedding cakes will send national diabetes and obesity rates to all-time highs; the Stars and Stripes will be replaced by the rainbow flag; standards of grooming will improve; ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ will become double entendres; jocks, otters, bears, and wolves will become the new national animals; dykes will be found everywhere, not just in the Netherlands; members of the Federalist Society–young men at our nation’s best law schools–will be overcome by uncontrollable fits of weeping at the fall of their patron saint, Justice Scalia; limp wrists and lisps will be required for entry into the Armed Forces; sexual promiscuity will be enforced by state and federal  law; the legalization of ecstasy will proceed quicker than the legalization of marijuana; Harvey Milk will appear on currency notes; Spandex and Speedos, say no more; musicals will be sold out for years; piano bars will remain open all night long; cologne manufacturers will not be able to keep up with demand; ‘girlfriend’ will be overused; Liza Minelli, Donna Summer, and Barbra Streisand will be Joint First Ladies For Life; video rentals of All About Eve and Steel Magnolias will skyrocket (Netflix’s servers will break down);  floral arrangements will become highly valued art; ‘tossing the salad’ will not be restricted to kitchens; Bette Davis impersonators will find regular work; Calvin Klein underwear will be worn–on the outside–to bar mitzvahs; lines at Pottery Barns will stretch for blocks; men will talk about interior decoration all day and all night; the WNBA will become bigger than the NBA; boys will wear feather boas to play football; barbershops will offer pubic hair trimming; firm handshakes will be replaced by slaps on the butt; crew cut women will clog the aisles of Home Depot; flannel shirts will be back in fashion again; women’s soccer will become ‘America’s Game.’

America will become Sodom and Gomorrah; Jesus will weep; Justice Scalia will continue to not get laid.

On Not Watching Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible

A dozen or so years ago, my now-wife-and-then-girlfriend’s roommate, a young woman who worked as a community organizer, told me that she had recently seen Gaspar Noé‘s recently released Irréversible. She really liked it: it was a disturbing movie, hard to watch because of that notorious eight-minute rape scene and all the other violence, but I, a supposedly serious fan of the movies, should still see it. It was good, challenging movie–well-made and cleverly constructed, an innovative deployment of the cinematic medium. I listened carefully to her descriptions of the movie and said I would check it out. A little while later, once I got my Netflix account, I placed it on my DVD queue, and then later, my ‘Watch Instantly’ list.

I have still not seen Irréversible. It sits there on my queue, waiting to be selected.

I asked my wife whether she was interested in watching Irréversible. She admitted  she was not terribly enthusiastic about the prospect of sitting through an extended violent rape scene.  So I waited for a suitable opportunity to watch the movie by myself.

I kept waiting. Irréversible is still on my queue, but whenever the opportunity to watch it arises, I blow past it and pick some other movie.

I know my reactions are not unique; Irreversible evoked similar responses from many who saw the movie and critiqued it. Its violence, directed against gay men and women, was easily accused of being gratuitous, misogynistic and homophobic, of pandering to those who sought titillation in violence.

But I was not making a straightforwardly political statement of disapproval by not hitting ‘play.’ Rather, I was simply owning up to an intense emotional and aesthetic discomfort. Some kinds of violence have simply become too hard to watch on the screen. (The torture porn of modern horror movies is another example.) Perhaps I have gone old, perhaps I have gone ‘soft.’

Modern cinema revels in the ‘unflinching look’ – all the better to rip of the mask off previously sanitized examinations of mankind’s cruelty to itself. These perspectives–the protracted sequences of beating someone’s face to pulp, the close-ups of missing limbs, the lingering over terrifying torture and disfigurement–are supposed to work by persuading us that we condone the presence of violence when we refuse to reckon with its grim reality.

But I am long persuaded. I am disgusted and appalled; I am left nauseated and sleepless. I do not need to be told anymore that there is nothing remotely sexual in rape, that it is an act of violence, brutal and unsparing in the damage it inflicts on its victims. My movie-watching over the years has not made me numb to cinematic depictions of violence; instead, I have been broken down. My stomach is not as strong as it used to be–if it ever was. Another eight minutes of persuasion will do me no good. Their rhetorical pressure will be unbearable.

Irréversible still sits on my queue; I leave it there as a reminder that my tastes in cinema have changed.

Ross Douthat is Feeling Sorry for Bigots

Ross Douthat doth protest too much:

I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying.

I have news for you, Ross: you are being self-pitying. This bemoaning a straightforward victory for common-sense–the vetoing of Arizona’s benighted SB1062–is a particularly pathetic exercise . An entire Op-Ed to tell us bigots are on the run, and will be ‘forced’ to do so?

What makes this response [to Arizona’s benighted SB1062] particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

This is sophistry. Call a spade a spade; it’s “carving out protections for bigotry.”

If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job.

What would really help is supporters for traditional marriage renting a clue and reading a book or two about marriage’s historical origins and its placement within the political economy of society, its role in the subjugation of women and the enforcement of patriarchy. Then perhaps this utterly profane institution will be demoted from the ranks of the sacred and take its rightful place among other social customs, each with its own historical origin, each rooted in human needs, and each serving very particular ideologies. Also: why not replace “traditional marriage” above with “the bigoted exclusion of gays from social rituals”?

Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.

Here are the exceedingly simple terms of the surrender: stop being bigoted assholes; stop feeling sorry for yourself.