Friday, December 21, 2007

Atheism vs.Faith

Eric, over at Beyond Assumptions has written a fine essay on his views of aggressive atheists, like Richard Dawkins, from his perspective as a Jew who is thinking deeply about his faith I recommend it highly - it is very thoughtful, and a good read. One point struck me:

What do most atheists turn to once they get rid of all the so-called superstition from their lives? For all the ones that turn to science, there are also those who turn to politics and theorists. They turn to the likes of Foucault and Derrida, proclaiming them as their new gods of reality. They turn to feminism and Marxism. Everything is a social construct don’t you know. My identity is caught up in the stream of society, writing upon me and shaping me. Oh me, oh my; I’m a slave, I’m oppressed, the dominant culture is effacing my real self, the dominant culture is forging me a new real self, I’m nothing but a forgery. Autonomy is a mere illusion.

And what do conservative types who stop believing in God tend to turn to? Neo-Nazism, of course, chalk full of racist ritual that does a white body good. I suppose some of them also become Lefties as they abandon their religious values.

A few might also turn to Libertarianism, of course. Others will turn to whatever other “ism” looks fairly kosher this week. But what becomes quickly apparent is the “isms” still exist without religion. They turn away from God only to worship the secular theology of Racism, Sexism, and Classism, the holy trinity of Progressive politics that offers the real explanation of what is going in the world beyond what we see with our own eyes (because you know its all invisible of course, hard to see unless you have the true faith, sort of like the way God works in the world).

I couldn't have said it better. I find my Christian teachings on morality, life, injustice and suffering far deeper, and far more humane than any of the modern "religions."

A Christmas Malcontent

I’ve never liked Christmas. As a child, Christmas day was invariably a disappointment, because my siblings always seemed to get more gifts, and better gifts than I did. As an adult, I find all the accumulating obligations of Christmas stifling. The shopping to be done, lights to be hung, and the all myriad preparations for the big day hang over me like the tedium of an unsatisfying job. All for a holiday that never really brings me much pleasure.

Other men have told me that they especially liked Christmas morning when their children were small. How they loved orchestrating the magic for their little ones, and seeing the bright wonder of it all in the light of their small eyes. But not me - I did my fatherly duty, but it never brought me joy. When I watched my children open their presents I always felt a certain simmering disquiet, because I was troubled by the way they would cast one present aside - one they had begged for – in their frenzied rush to open another. To me it seemed a perfect demonstration of the sin of greed, and I would feel an uneasy premonition they would live a life without savoring simple joys. There are feelings you can speak of, and feel some connection with others who relate to them. But not this feeling - I'm alone in this.

I know there are deeper reasons for this. The jealousy I had over the gifts of my siblings quickened my inner sense that I was unwanted, that I was a just careless afterthought of my overworked parents. Christmas is an intensely social time, and I am happiest by myself, or in small groups of people I know very well. The mythology of Christmas is supposed to foster joy, but I have an inner nature that invariably orients my mood in opposition to those around me. Among sad people I tend to be happy and full of humor, among angry people I tend towards complacency, and among happy people I tend towards moroseness. This is the reason I find solitude so liberating - When I'm alone I'm free to settle inwards, find my own authentic mood and follow it where it leads, unclouded by the discordant feelings triggered by others.

This is also the reason I don't relate well to events that are supposed to elicit a particular feeling. For example, I didn't feel happy or proud at my children's graduations - I felt numb and uncertain. While I expect I have all the typical feelings of any good parent - love, anger, hope, joy and sadness - they rise within me at unexpected times, and they follow no external bidding. Watching my son practice the piano at home I feel a sense of joy as he struggles to master something. At his piano recitals I feel like a bug under a glass. I check my watch when listening to my daughter in concert, but when she's singing along with the radio next to me in the car, the sound of her voice washes over me like a benediction. My wife took all the videos at events and occasions. I took my videos of them playing with their toys at home, waking up after an afternoon nap, or building an igloo after a snowstorm.

So Christmas to me is a season of inner murkiness, of feeling remote from the prevalent mood of others. I find myself looking forward to New Years Day, and longing for a season of no particular color, when I can find myself again. Hoping to awaken from my own little solstice.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Someone Else I Like - Camille Paglia

I always jump on her latest monthly piece whenever it is posted. No one says it better than Camille:

If the "surge" is really working in Iraq, all my fellow Democrats should rejoice, because it's one more step toward getting U.S. troops the hell out of there. Let Bush have his face-saving claims of victory -- who cares? Just bring this stupid, wasteful war to an end. Our brave soldiers and their families have suffered enough. And the toll in death, mutilation and trauma among hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iraqis is obscenely high and will never be fully documented. I remain skeptical about long-term political prospects in Iraq, whose nationhood was a convenient British fiction after World War I and whose border territory may eventually be devoured by its neighbors, including Turkey and Iran.


But primary and secondary education, which should provide an entree to great art and thought, has declined into trivialities and narcissistic exercises in self-esteem. Popular culture, once emotionally vibrant and collective in impact (from Hollywood movies to rock music), has waned into flashy, transient niche entertainment. The young, who are masters of ever-evolving personal technology, are besieged by the siren call of materialism. In this climate, it is selfish and shortsighted for liberals to automatically define religion as a social problem that needs suppression or eradication. Without spirituality in some form, people will anesthetize themselves with drink or drugs -- including the tranquilizers that seem near universal among the status-addled professional class of the Northeastern elite.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Men Supporting Men - This Can't Be Good!

Feminists love to claim that men bear the primary responsibility for our culture of violence and injustice, and that men have a corresponding obligation to work on themselves to make our culture better. But they are being disingenuous, because what they really mean is:

“By all means, work on yourselves - but do it in ways we approve of, and work on the things that we think are important, in their order of relative importance. But don’t you dare meddle in woman’s work!”

This post, by Pam Spaulding at Pandagon is a fine example of this. She picks up on a complaint about the New Warrior Training Adventure that was reported by Wayne Besen. New Warrior grew out of the mythopoetic men’s movement, with the belief that by using the ancient process of initiation, men can heal themselves and other men, and discover a positive purpose in their life. To date, more than 35,000 men from all over the world have done this.

Feminists talk a good game about “deconstructing narratives” about gender – however, this doesn’t apply to their own, deeply bigoted, narratives about what men are like. Particularly men in groups, because their image of men working together is limited to gang-rapes, beat-downs, KKK rallies, torch-wielding mobs and pillaging soldiers.

Pam seizes upon this lawsuit, by the family of a man that committed suicide fifteen days after attending a New Warrior weekend training. Unlike Pam, I’ll link to the original story in the Houston Chronicle so my readers can get a more complete picture from the start. I have deep sympathy for the man and his family, but all I can do is point out that New Warrior is not for everybody, and it is not advertised as such by the Mankind Project, its parent organization. Based on my experiences, many of the allegations about this man’s weekend do not ring true, and absolutely everything that Les Sinclair, the mankind project spokesman, says coincides closely with my experience. In particular:

"The initiation is a real wake-up to life. We teach men to be accountable for the choices they make or the actions they don't take. We look at the emotional wounds that have taken a man's power away...He may have low self-esteem, he may feel like he doesn't measure up to other men, he's afraid of men or he's afraid of women, or he's afraid of life in general. We look at what was that key emotional wound that took his power away and set up some form of psychodrama for him to overcome. It is a very powerful process."

Pam’s article is a pure snark job, picking up the story third-hand, from Wayne Besen's column. She sees enough on the surface to provide some meat for her bigoted commentators, and stops there. She copies some of the short ritual descriptions from Besen's piece, without checking the comments on the article, and noticing that there were denials that they occur. And once she comes across allegations of anti-gay bias in the organization she has all the story she needs! It seems some members of what Pam characterizes as “pray the gay away” organizations encourage their members to go to New Warrior. That fits her model that men in groups are obviously homophobic. So she stops there, because she has what she needs to provoke comments like:

That’s an awful lot of stuff to go through just to have a circle jerk. A couple of hours with a boy scouts pack could get them to the goalposts in a lot less time.

Alright, this one scares me. Any time emotionally fucked up pseudo-straight white men start talking about birthrights, it’s time to leave the party.

I’m confused Pam, I am not an expert in thise matters but I thought gay men were in touch with their masculinity…and someone else’s.

In fairness, not all the comments were so bigoted. And one commenter actually took the trouble to look at a follow-up posting by Wayne Besen. This follow-up, posted after the one Pam quoted, and well before her article (why look deeper when you find such juicy, satisfying stuff!) was written by Wayne to report what gays said:

Indeed, New Warriors has a large gay following and many who attended consider it helpful to their coming out experience. I received more than 25 letters from gay men who said that the program helped them accept their sexual orientation.

"The ManKind Project gave me the confidence and wherewithal to finally say, 'I am a gay man,'" said one participant from Wisconsin.

"The program helped me become a better husband,' wrote another gay man from the Washington, DC area. "As I knocked down the walls, I became more comfortable with myself and able to give 100 percent to my partner. The program literally saved my relationship."

If feminists really care about fighting bigotry then some of them ought to take a close look at themselves. Why skim the surface of the news, and select little snippets that might cast men in a bad light? Why is this so satisfying? Why can’t they make an effort to deconstruct and question their own bigoted narratives? Do they really care about gay men, or do they just use the unjust treatment of gays as a stick to beat other men with?

I’ve been on the New Warrior training weekend, and it was one of the genuinely transformative experiences of my life. It isn’t easy – either physically or emotionally. I’ve recommended this training to every man I know well. I know dozens of men that have gone through, and with two exceptions, they all reported the same sort of transformative experience that I had.

It teaches you about integrity and accountability. It teaches you that you have strengths you didn’t know of, and that other men have wisdom to offer you. It is scary, it is fun, it is joyful.

It isn’t at all the way women would do this – and that is why it works. Men have been initiating each other for thousands of years, and we have lost much because this has dwindled to the negative initiations of gangs and boot-camps. Men know how to see through each other, how to challenge each other, and how to support each other. Men have strengths they can call on to fight their inner battles. Men can, and should be held accountable for what they do. Men have the emotional sensitivity and compassion to help and nurture other men, and to do good work in the world.

This wasn’t a one-time thing for me. I joined the support groups after the weekend. I went on other trainings, and I even got to meet two of the founders of the movement. It isn’t misogynistic, and it is not at all anti-gay.

A cult, you think? There is a reason many men stay with the organization – it fills their needs and adds value to their lives. I was participant for many years, but this cafeteria Catholic is no cult member. I left it years ago, with no pressure whatsoever. I left it because I moved on in my life, but I have great respect for the men, the organization and the work they do.

Here are some links for those who are interested:

In the Company of Men ManKind’s ‘New Warriors’ Embrace Nature, Each Other, ‘Sacred Masculinity’
Band of Brothers
A Small Band of Warriors...
Mankind Project - New Warrior Training Adventure

Friday, December 7, 2007

Christopher Hitchens - Today's H.L. Mencken

I'm so glad this courageous man, Christopher Hitchens has decided to become an American citizen. We need men like that. Just reading him shred Mitt Romney, for his windy, worthless speech is astonishing.

I agree with him sometimes, not always, but he is someone I admire greatly. Sometimes when I write I imagine myself trained in his gunsights, and I go back and think some more about what I am saying. A good thing.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

This Gives Me Chills

A find this story deeply troubling. A young girl who killed herself because of a cruel Myspace prank. Who did it, and why they did it. I'm just speechless.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Humble "Cafeteria Catholic"

I remember the way I felt on my very first day of school, when I walked into that first grade classroom, and took my seat along with eighty - eighty! - other children. The old nun looked like the agent of some strange, otherworldly order of humanity. The black habit, the white bib. I couldn't figure out whether the wrinkles on her face were due to age, or the constriction of the headgear that pressed in on her head from all sides. The "her' part took a few minutes for my six year old mind to work out - she had, as I recall, a healthy gray mustache that made the issue a bit uncertain.

She may have been quite old, but she was quick to cover the distance between us on that first morning, pull me out of my seat, and toss me roughly into the corner. The engines of working class Catholic education knew how to deal firmly and decisively with any early signs of being a class clown. It maintained its vigilance over me all through my 12 years of Catholic education. The nuns, charged with the care of my small, unformed body, were careful to restrict their abuse to face slapping and hair pulling, often at the same time. When I got to high school the monks took the baton and used their fists in the service of good order.

Catholicism is something I know well. I've known lots of nuns, monks and priests, many closely. As an altar boy I recited my prayers, kneeling on the side of the priest at the foot of the altar. These were Latin prayers, that I memorized from a large, laminated card, and I learned them well enough that some phrases still roll around my head. I lit the candles, rang the bells, and poured water from the cruets so the priest could wash their hands before the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

I know the church - well enough to know that has a warped and twisted view of sex. It is narrow-minded. Bigots find it a welcoming refuge. Its majestic rituals are easy to mock. There are, of course, gaps in my knowledge. Personally, I never had to deal with the emotional scars left by someone of the "Father Fasthands" sort, but that such things happened doesn't surprise me. No one who understands the history of this archaic institution - the battles over heresy, the Inquisition, the Medici Popes, the wars of the Reformation, the Concordat with Hitler - should be at all surprised that things like that happened. No, name any sin, and it well and truly modeled by the Church.

Yet I have a deep and enduring love for Catholicism, one that has grown over the years.

I don't attend mass often, but when I do I always get the sense of real spiritual challenge. The Eucharist remains for me a significant encounter with of Christ the Reedeemer. I don't join in the singing and recitations - I stand and kneel still in the attitude of Latin Mass silence and reflection that the nuns taught me as a child.

My parents taught me about love, and showed me it is not, in its highest sense, a passion but rather a lifetime commitment. My older siblings helped me see a bit forward in my life, to chart the waters just ahead of me. My wife and my children reinforced as an adult what my parents modeled for me as a child. But my sense of the moral order of things, and my view of myself as a single, solitary man in the vast universe, was laid down early and completely by the Roman Catholic Church. It began with coloring books about Jesus, and it still continues with each sacrament.

Oh I've looked around. I've heard the flickering of Buddhist prayer flags in the high dry breeze of the Himilayas. and I gave the prayer wheels beneath them a good spin as I continued on my way. I've felt the waters of the Ganges. I've walked shoeless beneath the arches of Suleiman’s Mosque, and kneeled next to Bedouin Arabs as they unrolled their prayer rugs in the caves of Jordan. I once wrote a prayer on a small piece of paper, and wedged it into the cracks in the Western Wall, hoping the rocking prayers of the rabbis would lend it a favor my life had no claim to.

I've done old things like Sufi dances, and new things like holding hands in a circle and welcoming the Light. I've sat cross-legged and naked in the darkness of sweat lodges. The heat, steam, and sweat of others suffocated me within the womb of the oldest religious ceremony on earth. My voice joined the song of the Native American water-pourer, and when we sang the prayer for "our brothers the birds and the creepy-crawly things" I started to weep.

I've seen the places of my own religion too. I've been to Saint Peter's, I once laid myself down on a bench in the Sistine Chapel, and before the guards chased me away I was able to completely lose myself in Michaelangelo's creation: the bible seen as the high, arching backbone of history. I've knelt at the Crusader's star in Bethlehem, I've walked Christ's route along the Via Dolorossa, and I've seen the sunlight fire the blue light of Chartres.

I went to all those places as an aimless wanderer with no place to go and I left them the same way. It took me a lifetime to learn that religion wasn't a place for me, but rather a disposition written within me, on my soul. God placed it there, but the church organized it and taught me what it meant.

It is easy to remember how angry and mean the nuns seemed, but they taught me many good things. I remember their emphasis on mite boxes, and how important it was to give to the poor. They comforted us with the knowledge that each of us had a Guardian Angel kneeling beside us. They taught me about the trinity, the seven deadly sins and the seven cardinal virtues. I wrote them again and again on sheets of looseleaf with a fountain pen, and still I forgot them. Until much later.

Once in the city that used to be called Bombay, I was walking down the street. A woman came up behind me and started screaming. I turned and saw her face, and the scrawny, near-lifeless baby she was holding. I recoiled - never had anyone looked at me like that. I knew that in her eyes I was powerful beyond measure. The bills in my pocket were the calendar pages of her baby’s life. A curious thought rose within me. What did I have to live for? Where did I have to go? Where did I belong? I felt the strangest impulse to empty my pockets, clean out my bank account, and give every last thing I had to her. To give all, to risk all, to have nothing - and yet be entirely free.

I turned my back and walked on.

It was only later that I understood what happened, realizing that that feeling was something that the nuns and monks had taught me. Jesus calls us to love with reckless abandon, but that the seven deadly sins - in this instance avarice – make us hide. I heard a call, but continued wandering aimlessly, and when I came home it was to go through the motions of my empty life.

The nuns taught me about the doctrine of grace too - that the love of God is freely bestowed on the deserving and undeserving alike. And grace has made all the difference in my life. Because something astonishing happened. I had completely and totally forgotten about the little prayer I scrawled on a piece of paper and wedged into the Western Wall. It is, to this day, the only prayer of mine that has ever been answered, and it came in the form of a second call.

I didn't turn my back on this one. I sealed it with a sacrament, standing before God and pledging my love for the gift He gave me. My beloved wife. It is easy to think of a gift in the sense of a reprieve, an exit, something to make things easier. She was a gift of a far different sort, one that enabled me to say, with the pure fire of a fully-intended vow, that I would be hers forever. No matter what. Come what may. Freedom isn't about the ceaseless maintenance of alternatives and options - it is about the ability to give just once, completely.

Yes, the old nuns were right. The sacraments are a gateway to God. When my children were baptized, I knew I was given a lifelong responsibility, yet had to face that responsibility with humility - one of the seven cardinal virtues. They do not belong to me. The prayers said that I owe them everything, but I have no claim to them. At the funeral masses for my parents, as their caskets were wheeled down the nave towards the early morning sun I knew the words that were said - "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And may perpetual light shine upon them" - will be offered one day for me. I will need them.

So with some sacrifice, my wife and I rejected the advantages of our well-funded pubic schools to send our children to catholic schools. They are better than they use to be - the meanness and abuse is gone, but the teachings remain. Better they learn those teachings, grounded in a few millennia of human experience, than the trend-chasing multicultural pandering that passes for education these days. As I write this, my son is taking a theology class in a fine Jesuit University. I wish him luck - when I read modern theology I have the same reaction I have to Modern Language Association literary analysis - it is all incoherent jargon. I'll stick to Dante and Aquinas.

I feel I've offered my children the best possible foundation - a systematic point of reference about the world and themselves. A way of thinking about right and wrong. Some possible answers to deep questions they might have about themselves. The sorts of questions no parent can answer, no other person can answer.They are free to embrace it, ignore it, or perhaps improve upon it.

I think many non-Catholics have an odd view of what goes on in the church. Some suppose that priests are like mullahs, using their weekly sermons to berate parishioners on the evils of birth control, gays, and premarital sex. It has been decades since I've heard any discussion of these subjects from the pulpit. Almost all sermons I've heard are about the offsetting the temptations of materialism and laziness with faith, charity and the love of others. Critics of the church often demonstrate how parochial they are by assuming the Church is ignorant of the pressing issues of the day. Nothing could be further from the truth. The church is the most diverse institution in the world - issues have to be weighted for their relative importance to the refugees of East Timor, the sub-Saharan poor and the elderly in the empty pews of Europe. My preaching, as often as not, is received from a man from a remote village in India. When he arrived in our parish, one of the Sunday bulletins had a picture of him outside in the snow - because he had never seen snow before.

Some things are settled questions for me now. I believe human life begins at conception and ends at natural death, and is sacred throughout, and this informs my conviction that abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty are wrong. I am firmly in the church's camp on those. I'm quite firmly against their teaching that being gay is somehow "objectively disordered" and that the gift that was given to me is denied others. I've yet to make up my mind on institutional issues like priestly celibacy, or the ordination of woman. I don't believe in papal infallibility - a pretty recent doctrine as such things go, first formulated in 1870. Most non-Catholics don't even understand the doctrine. Not every word from the pope's mouth is supposed to be infallible, but only some words, carefully formulated as "ex Cathedra" assertions of truth. The last such teaching - that Mary was bodily assumed into Heaven - was made in 1950. And no, I don't believe it.

I believe some things the church doesn't teach - for example that the Shroud of Turin actually is the burial cloth of Jesus. And I believe this despite my rational skepticism based on the Carbon-14 dating.

I believe Jesus Christ was a real historical person, that he was divine, I believe Mary was a virgin. That Christ was crucified and rose bodily from the dead. I feel some connection with the Holy Spirit as I write this. I believe that the Church is the living repository of the truth of the Gospels. I believe in the Judgment - both mine of myself, and that I am accountable to God for His gift to me. When I do go to Mass, and hear the words of the Nicene Creed, I hear not one word I disagree with.

These, for me, are the anchors of faith. Not reason. The boundaries of human reason were demarcated by Kurt Godel in 1930, when he proved that if you believe in the consistency of logic, you must believe that there are real truths that are not logically provable. Such are the beliefs I have.


I once walked along the Roman street that runs thirty feet beneath the floor of Saint Peter's Basilica. I listened as the old Jesuit explained the history of where we were, what was built around us, and above us. That the Roman engineers leveled a hill that once ran above us, in order to bury this street, this necropolis of their dead, so as to make the stones and earth of it a foundation for their basilica. He walked us along the street, pointing out the excavated Roman graves and their elaborate mosaics to the old sun god - Helios. He walked down to the end of the street, and pointed to the etched graffiti by the early Christians around the one simple first century grave that was carefully left undisturbed amid all the building. The first basilica was built around that grave, as was the current basilica twelve hundred years later.

The church is built on the legacy of Peter. A simple man, who wrote little, if anything. Christ has Divinity, Paul had inspiration. The Romans we know of from those times all had creativity, eloquence, or power. Peter had none of these. The New Testament is a pretty remorseless illustration of all his faults: He was boastful, vain and cowardly. Certainly not the brightest of the Apostles. Paul made him look like a fool at Antioch, and the apocrypha tells us that he was a coward right to the end - Peter fled Rome when threatened with death – Christ had to lead him back.

Incredible that this simple, weak man had a two thousand year old institution built around his bones. An institution with adherents on evey continent, every class, every ethnic group. An institution that survived Nero, Atilla, Suleiman, and Stalin.

So when I consider my Church, I look upon it as Peter. When I consider myself, I always think first of Peter. When I consider the Church's teachings, I consider them as challenges to me, not, like Paul would, as injunctions for others. Like Peter, I have too much work to do on myself.

I think often of that little dirt grave, the second century graffiti (Petros est) over it, the edifices built atop it, and Bernini's elliptical, embracing colonnade in St. Peter's Square. The reach and scope of the church, I am proud of it. Proud of the wisdom it has gathered over the centuries, and of its breadth within humanity. But pride is the first, and deadliest, of the seven deadly sins, because it leads to a misplaced, misdirected faith in ourselves, or the institutions we are proud of.

The rock of the foundation piers that surround Peter’s grave won’t last forever. Only Christ is eternal. I have lots of foreboding about what will happen in the world. About the war, suicide bombers and the clash between Islam and the West. I'm convinced that the rushing winds of the media are swirling the embers of centuries-old grievances into some new, hellish firestorm.

I'd be a fool to put my faith in any church, or in Peter.

I thought of that little dirt grave when I watched John Paul II's funeral, and they recited the Litany of the Saints: from John the Baptist and Peter to Maxmillian Kolbe. I was struck by the inspirational power of the Church, how in every age its teachings have produced men and women of heroic virtue. I considered the millions that attended, and wondered what it felt like for all the heads of state, normally the center of things, to be relegated to a silent periphery. For Iran, Israel and Syria forced to sit in proximity, and to awkwardly shake hands. As John Paul was carried up the steps of the basilica, there were shouts from the crowd for immediate canonization.

I was deeply moved by this. It seemed a vindication of Catholicism, and how one extraordinary man marshaled its teachings and the divisions of the faithful to defeat Stalin's legacy. How for one day the church seemed the center of the world, and able to quiet some deep and dangerous tensions. But I then realized that all of this - the basilica, the square, the architecture, the Latin, the cardinals and the curia are Roman, not Catholic. They are the last vestiges of the Roman Empire in the world. Looked at one way it can seem strong. I see it as a tempting illusion - the church appropriating the once strong but now weak structure of the Empire in a vain hope for protection. Something Peter might do.

John Paul was such a dynamic leader that he made it seem possible to steer this institution through all the scary things we face. This ship might be our only refuge, the fisherman our only pilot. And that is why many Catholics have contempt for people like me, the cafeteria approach of just picking and choosing the doctrines and codes of Catholicism I like. For not being obedient, for not being good, loyal crewmen. When under pressure groups always get angry at their wavering members.

Then he made the disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles off-shore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified "It is a ghost," they said, and they cried out in fear. At once [Jesus] spoke to them, "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter said to him in reply, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how [strong] the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, "Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?"
(Matt. 14:22-33)

I have my family, but I am alone in the world. While love is the highest of the cardinal virtues, the love I have for my wife and children is an easy thing. Nothing like the heroic virtue of the saints, this love of mine is just one isolated peak in an otherwise plain life. I want to believe this Church will stay afloat in the coming storm, that it might chart some course for the world, and be a haven for my children. I love it, but humbly, because I know neither the church nor myself am immortal.

This ship, my church, can carry me just so far. My foreboding about the coming storm has a deeper root. As a middle aged man, I’ve learned the narrow limits of what I can do, I’m losing the unquestioned sense of immortality that young men have, and when physical strength wanes the world seems like a more fearful place. So I cling to what seems like the best hope, yet I know from my life that giving in to fear can be sinful.

Peter, closest to Christ, heard a call in the wind and risked his life by stepping out onto the waves. Peter, when Christ was long gone, fled Rome to save himself. Both times Christ saved him, the first time to save his body, the second time to save his soul.

As a cafeteria Catholic I never know which choice I am making. But choose I must, and may Christ save me.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Big Brother Checks Every Word

Racism used to be about lynchings, beatings, the KKK. Nasty slurs and hatred. Discrimination. Threats. Now it's also about your choice of words when describing cake decorations.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Robert Jensen's Cartoon View of Men

I came acros this post on Hugo Schwyzer's blog on the new book by Robert Jensen, Getting Off: (Pornography and the End of Masculinity)

I think I'll pass on the book. Why spend money on a book that will inform me that hardcore porn can be hateful, cruel and repugnant? Duh! Maybe there are some people out there that view extreme porn as a positive good, as something to be celebrated and welcomed. But the plain fact is, porn is not good for the soul - this was a lesson the nuns and priests taught me way back in grammar school, and I've come to experience the truth of what they said as an adult.

I'm glad I won't be wasting money on his book, because his website was quite enough for me. It seems that most of Jensen's porn journalism focuses on the more extreme, hateful and misogynistic aspect of today's porn industry. This helps to make Jensen's astonishing revelation - that porn is ugly, mean and cruel - even more lame. No doubt this gives the book an extra buzz factor. And by concentrating on the most extreme and degrading porn, he's able to align himself with some feminists that claim that male sexuality is inherently sick and abusive.

He seems to delight in exposing feminists to its most extreme manifestations, so that feminists who might be wavering in their hatred of men might be set right:

A story about that: I am out with two heterosexual women friends. Both are feminists in their 30s, and both are successful in their careers. Both are smart and strong, and both have had trouble finding male partners who aren't scared by their intelligence and strength. We are talking about men and women, about relationships. As is often the case, I am told that I am too hard on men. The implication is that after so many years of working in the radical feminist critique of the sex industry and sexual violence, I have become jaded, too mired in the dark side of male sexuality. I contend that I am simply trying to be honest. We go back and forth, in a friendly discussion.

Finally, I tell my friends that I can settle this with a description of one website. I say to them: "If you want me to, I will tell you about this site. I won't tell you if you don't want to hear this. But if you want me to continue, don't blame me." They look at each other; they hesitate. They ask me to explain.

What got me interested in this topic, as discussed in Hugo's blog, and also over at feministing is the discussion of whether Jensen is a "self-hating male." Consider this quote:

“I cannot escape a simple conclusion: If men are going to be full human beings, we first have to stop being men.”

Jensen's point relies on his assertion that extreme porn is mainstream:

"The pornographers are not a deviation from the norm. Their presence in the mainstream shouldn't be surprising, because they represent mainstream values: The logic of domination and subordination that is central to patriarchy, hyper-patriotic nationalism, white supremacy, and a predatory corporate capitalism."

Something is in the mainstream when it can be admitted to, enjoyed and spoken of in everyday, non-intimate company. Sports is mainstream. Oprah is mainstream. Reality TV is mainstream. Disney and Miramax are mainstream. I'd say something is in the mainstream when you can advocate for it on The View. If this stuff was mainstream he wouldn't have had to introduce it to his feminist friends - they would have known of it already. Quoting porn industry revenues of $4 billion says nothing about how mainstream something is. The drug industry is an order of magnitude larger than that, and hardly mainstream. People do drugs, and they often lie about it to their friends and families. Lot's of men enjoy porn, but they also hide it and feel ashamed of it.

Yes, this stuff is prevalent and easily available, but hardly mainstream. So all his profound claims about men and masculinity that follow from that premise are unfounded. If you visit Attica and talk to some black prisoners, you'll get a pretty distorted view of black male culture. If you talk to contestants in preteen beauty pageants, you'll get a pretty distorted view of modern family life. Want to learn what college students are thinking? Then visit Daytona Beach during Spring Break, of course! Want to learn what's on the mind of Middle Americans? Mardi Gras is the place to be! Naturally, the best way to learn about Muslims is to seek out and speak to the ones that download and enjoy beheading videos. You'll learn all you need to know about women by visiting romance novel publishing conventions!

I'm convinced Jensen's purpose isn't to expose nasty porn. His purpose is to use the characteristics of extreme porn to excoriate men in general.

I was going to ignore him, but then I had the feeling that Robert Jensen was the same guy that write this silly article about masculinity that annoyed me a while ago. He gets into a two confrontations - one with someone he characterizes as an "alpha male", and one with another academic that turns personal. He witnesses a third confrontation between someone he characterizes as a "computer nerd" and a stewardess. These confrontations are upsetting, but rather than process them personally, and draw lessons about how he might have acted, he draws some cosmic conclusions about masculinity in general:

Masculinity in three acts: Attempts at dominance through (1) force and humiliation, (2) words and argument, and (3) raw insults. Three episodes about the ways masculinity does men in, neatly played out during one long weekend.

Well, Robert - masculinity isn't about dominance - that is your narrow, cartoon view of masculinity. Maybe you are not happy with masculinity, but many men are. Men who gain legitimate authority through skill and hard work. Men that take pride in behaving honorably, and with integrity. Men that make hard, difficult commitments to the love and care for others, and have the inner strength to see it through in difficult times. Men that train and prepare so they can save and protect others when needed. Men that are surgeons, nurses, artists, firemen, fathers, schoolteachers and businessmen. For some reason Jensen thinks that 3 confrontations over the course of a weekend - never mind cops deal with 3 or more confrontations every hour of their working lives - tell him something about masculinity. Normal, everyday encounters, where men just live their lives, do their jobs, and avoid trouble don't factor into his view at all.

So is Robert Jensen a self-hating male? Quite the contrary. Based on what I've read, he's rather full of himself. He has an introductory piece on his website, authored by Don Hazen:

"Robert Jensen -- Radical Man

So that you understand, Robert Jensen is a true radical, His positions on masculinity, race, and pornography are way out of the mainstream. He thinks that concepts of masculinity make men less than human and should be junked. "Men are assumed to be naturally competitive and aggressive, and being a "real man" is therefore marked by the struggle for control, conquest and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants and takes it."

No he doesn't hate himself at all - he is too enamored of his own radicalism. Yes, such a daring, radical thinker! Us poor, dumb, mainstream people can't even get up and go to work, because our brains are fried from all the hardcore porn we've downloaded. And there Jensen is, a lonely beacon of light in the distance, telling us conquest and domination are wrong. And once again the only masculinity he can see is about control and domination. Nothing about skill, courage, creativity, honor, dependability, hard work, discipline, or faith.

The irony here is that he claims men use porn to indulge their hatred for women; Jensen uses porn to indulge his hatred for masculinity.

I read just about everything on his site, and the only original thought I could find, from this "radical man", is this piece of nonsense, from an article that relates Blow Bang porn to cluster bombs:
What do blow bangs and cluster bombs have in common? On the surface, very little; pornography and war are different endeavors with different consequences. In pairing them, I am not making some overarching claim about the connection between patriarchy and empire.

But I can say this: To be effective, contemporary mass-marketed pornography and modern war both require cruelty and contempt. The pornography I watched in the summer of 2001 was about the cruelty of men and men's contempt for women. The war I watched in the fall of 2001 was about the cruelty of Americans and Americans’ contempt for people in other parts of the world.

Although I have been involved in intellectual and political work around both issues for more than a decade, I was surprised at how strong my emotional reactions were to both the pornography and the war, and how similar they were -- just how deep the sadness went.

No, no "overarching claims" here - except those in the second paragraph. In general, if you want to make sweeping claims about culture, it's best to put aside the porn and Wolf Blitzer - a trip to the library might be in order. Yes, modern war "requires cruelty and contempt" - far different than the humane care with which the Romans, Genghis Khan and Atilla conducted war. The "cruelty of Americans"? - has he ever read about the Russian Front in World War II? Lots of cruelty - probably a thousand Russians and Germans died for every Afghan killed in 2001 - and nary an American in sight. I was astonished Jensen has a Phd when I read the above - no facts, no reasoning. Just dissociated concepts united solely by his feelings about them.

All the rest of the stuff is just rants about patriarchy, racism, and capitalism. He has an extensive list of articles on his site that covers the tired privilege dissection shell game. Agony pieces about his "coming to terms" with his white privilege. Nothing new or original there. The discussions of feminism, white privilege and imperialism pretty much tells me he sticks to safe topics that will be well received in academia and leftist circles - his own little mainstream of echoes. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for this "radical man" to write something critical of members of a marginalized group or positive about heterosexual white men - he isn't radical enough to dip his toe in dangerous waters like that. No he is a true ideologue.

He doesn't even like Thanksgiving:

After years of being constantly annoyed and often angry about the historical denial built into Thanksgiving Day, I published an essay in November 2005 suggesting we replace the feasting with fasting and create a National Day of Atonement to acknowledge the genocide of indigenous people that is central to the creation of the United States.

. . .
Imagine that Germany won World War II and that a Nazi regime endured for some decades, eventually giving way to a more liberal state with a softer version of German-supremacist ideology. Imagine that a century later, Germans celebrated a holiday offering a whitewashed version of German/Jewish history that ignored that holocaust and the deep anti-Semitism of the culture. Imagine that the holiday provided a welcomed time for families and friends to gather and enjoy food and conversation. Imagine that businesses, schools and government offices closed on this day.

If he really thought about things in depth - which he doesn't - he'd have to admit the painful truth that he does indeed have a privilege. Not male privilege. Not white privilege. But the privilege of a ready made audience, who, as long as he uses words like misogyny and patriarchy, and frequently mixes in disparagement of American culture and capitalism, will rejoice at every word without reading carefully enough to see how vacuous those words are.

Are there problems with our conception of masculinity? Of course - I knew that before I read Jensen, and I've read enough Jensen to know I'll gain no insight from further reading.

Update: Hugo's third post in the series also quotes Jensen. When I read the posts, I'm wondering if my characterization was unfair.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Pitiless Nature of Ideology

As I mentioned here, I believe ideologies can blind us. I also consider them dangerous. Consider Kiuku's Post About Separatism at Feminist Critics. It has the pretense of insight, study and reasoning, but not the substance. It leans on a cursory understanding of Evolutionary Psychology, claiming men are biologically unnecessary, and that men naturally use violence to compensate for this. All to a repugnant purpose, and the comment discussion reveals some merciless proposals for its implementation.

I stand by the comment I made:
No, men aren’t necessary. Neither are gays, jews, blacks, whites etc. As technology progresses women won’t be necessary either - cloning and artificial wombs will suffice quite nicely. In fact people aren’t necessary either - the universe will continue along quite well without us.

Separatism - from all who are unnecessary? Separatism - from men because of their intrinsic evil? To paraphrase Orwell - there are some things that are so completely and obviously wrong, that only intellectuals can believe them. This is as clear an example as I’ve ever seen.

I'm glad I refrained from being drawn into a toxic discussion. But I am following it. Kiuku, the Separatist, is painstakingly going though all the comments from the (largely male) "sentient beings" - the unnecessary ones. And everyone is engaging in pointless arguments, treating the post with a respect it doesn't deserve.

BTW - I don't see this as at all representative of Feminism - most feminists are reasonable, caring, intelligent people. I consider it hate speech of a particularly dangerous sort, but as I said in this post, better to have it exposed than suppressed

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

When Narratives Collide With Reality

Thanks to A Typical Joe for helping me learn an important lesson.

I wrote earlier on the interesting phenomena of the Folsom Street Fair poster controversy. I maintained then, and still maintain, that the fair organizers chose that poster for its religious implications. I agreed with Andrew Sullivan that it was just cheap blasphemy, and I felt that the fair organizers welcomed the bigoted reaction they got.

So I was convinced by this that there were some members of the San Fransisco gay community (even though the FSF is not, strictly-speaking, a gay event) that did things that were deliberately intended to provoke bigoted reactions from religious conservatives.

And this story seemed to reinforce my views. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, dressed in clown outfits, attend mass. I see the videotape, see the outrageous getup, and the archbishop's hesitation before giving them communion.

I watch Bill O'Reilly on the topic, and I'm as upset as he is by what I see as mockery of the Eucharist.

So I felt I knew what was going on - the Sister's attending a regular Sunday Mass, and having themselves videotaped, hoping to record the scene of anti-gay Catholic bigotry they provoke. Sunday Mass as a stage for some political theatre. I summarized my view in a comment on Joe's blog:

I know the Sisters do charitable work, but I have a problem with this stunt. I’m considering the people who went there to celebrate Sunday mass, and found themselves cast into an unwilling role in a videotaped political drama. I don’t think that is fair.

My suspicion is that the Sisters did it because they wanted to provoke a bigoted reaction. I’m sure Catholics could go to gay bars, order a few beers, and start saying the rosary, and that might provoke a similar reaction. In general, I think if we want tolerant society, it is best to refrain from things like this, and allow different types of people some space to be themselves.

Except I was as wrong as I could be, because the story doesn't fit the narrative I had imposed on it. One of the Sisters wrote a note to Joe, saying:

The video was actually shot by a right-wing, very homophobic group based in San Jose, CA called Quo Domine. They filmed in secret and then sent the tape to other right wing blogs like “Americans for Truth” and to Fox News.

Their intention was to create a controversy that would perpetuate the right-wing attack on “San Francisco values.”

The group has attacked Most Holy Redeemer parish in the past, because they vehemently oppose the church’s open ministry to queer people, whom they believe are living in sin and should repent. The group holds a fundamentalist inspired vision of the Church that does not welcome diversity.

The sisters who attended that day did so because they, like others in the Castro-neighbourhood parish, genuinely wanted to welcome the bishop on his first pastoral visit and because they wanted to remind him that this was a gay-affirming parish.

The Sisters were attending mass in a gay-welcoming parish, called Most Holy Redeemer. They are certainly no strangers to the parish - they've even run "Revival Bingo" events at the parish! The Archbishop was - to his credit - reaching out of his comfort zone in visiting a somewhat divergent parish in his diocese. The video was shot not by the Sisters, but by a conservative religious group, named Quamdiu Domine. That group doesn't like the idea of a gay-inclusive parish, and wanted to embarrass not the Sisters but the archbishop. And when the story was presented, he caved under the pressure.

And this is even more interesting. The group, Quamdiu Domine, that filmed the video has a link on this page to what they claim is a parish bulletin that has a note from one of the Sisters - Delta Goodhand. The note thanks the Archbishop for coming to say mass. Again, the group is outraged that the Sisters participate so easily in the parish. You can see Delta's note on the bottom left of the bulletin PDF on this page. But when you go to the parish website, and look at the same bulletin (10/14/07) - downloadable from this page - there is no such note. There is a "save the date" notice in the archived parish bulletin in the same place where the Quamdiu Domine version has the note from Sister Delta. So either the parish is going back and rewriting history, or the conservative group is doctoring parish bulletins.

Clearly I have too much time on my hands!

I'm still no fan of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and I'm certainly no fan of Quamdiu Domine. Nevertheless, I learned an important lesson: the world is far more complex than the stories we tell ourselves.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Men and our Babies

I'm a man that loves babies!

I started thinking about men and babies back when I was reading the Male Privileges Checklist, and saw privilege number 11

If I have children and provide primary care for them, I'll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I'm even marginally competent.

And this advice to a prospective father, found in the comment thread in a post by Hugo Schwyzer:

BTW, your job as long as she’s breastfeeding, which takes six to eight hours a day for the first several months or longer, is to change all diapers when you’re home and especially to balance the nighttime drain on her by getting up and getting the baby, changing it, bringing it to her in bed and delivering it back to the crib. That’s the best advice we got before our first daughter was born. You’ll still get way more sleep than she will and her resentment level will be way down.

Woman and babies just seem to go together quite naturally. We have a certain iconic view of the mother and child bond, and properly so, for there is great beauty there. A mother holding a baby seems a natural and almost holy thing. I think of all the iconography around Mary and the infant Jesus.

I consider myself fortunate because I discovered the joy of caring for babies when I was a teenager, when I needed to care for my brother's son. He was a difficult baby that suffered from terrible colic, but I learned to deal with him. I listened to his screams, fed him, changed his diapers, got puked on, and paced endlessly with him so he could sleep. My ability to deal patiently with his sometimes unpredictable moods because a source of pride in me, and I think I formed a somewhat different anticipation of fatherhood than some men have. Sure, I pictured taking my future son to his first ballgame, and teaching a future daughter to ride her bike. But I also wondered what it would feel like to hold and feed a baby that wasn't just a friend’s baby, or a relative's baby. But a baby of my own! What would that feel like?

So I’ve always felt comfortable and adept at dealing with babies. My children are grown now, and I miss that "baby fix". It is pretty well established that infants need lots of physical closeness and warmth to develop properly. I've heard that some hospitals that treat infants in long term care, recognizing that nurses don't have the time to sit and rock them for hours, allow volunteers to come in and do it. I'm not certain of that, but I recall hearing of it, and I remember considering it. But it never got further than a brief wish. Somehow I was certain that all such volunteers would be woman, and I'd be considered weird.

Men and babies just don’t seem to go together. I know when I was outside with my own children and they started fussing, guys would look at me and seem to smirk. I sensed a certain relief on their part in not having to deal with it themselves, and sometimes a certain dismissive contempt of me for being in that position. Woman would offer advice, and sometimes say even say "Do you want me to try and settle him down?" We're just not expected to be good with infants, and I don’t think this attitude serves anyone.

The belief that we somehow lack the basic skills and disposition to deal with babies is foolish. As generals, we can sort out the logistics of an amphibious landing, but we can't juggle an infant's nap and feeding schedule, or negotiate getting them into a car seat with their baggage? As cops we can safely disable a violent, psychotic person, but we can't be trusted to tolerate the shrill screams of a newborn? As EMTs we can carefully extract the wounded from a horrible car wreck, but we somehow lack the delicacy needed to cradle an infant in our arms? We can work double shifts at a factory, or burn the midnight oil getting a big project done by the deadline, but we can't handle a few weeks or months of sleepless nights?

I'm not looking at this as another one of those ideological arguments over something that is really just an act of love. To me it's not really about being helpful, or being fair, or being equal, or graciously giving mom a break from the stress. It is about men getting a direct and immediate feeling of fatherhood by caring for our babies - right from the very beginning.

My wife very much wanted to breastfeed, but for various reasons it didn't work out. And part of me was glad, because in those long ago nights when I struggled out of bed listening to the screams of my first child, my daughter, I discovered myself as a father. I learned the need for patience. I learned humility, because I knew that in the eyes of this tiny person - who I loved more than my own life - I was but a dim, faceless shadow. I learned that the true measure of strength and love is the willingness to commit totally to a forever one-sided relationship.

She would continue screaming on my shoulder as the bottle warmed, and not until we sat in the rocker, and she began pulling nourishment from the nipple, did she quiet. And such a quiet! Just the faint sounds of faraway traffic. Just the sound and rhythm of her gulping, and the way she slows down and relaxes once the panic of her immediate need recedes. No longer drinking desperately, she can drink with ease, and with pleasure.

And then the miracle happens, because - as she continues to drink - her eyes open and they roll towards me. She looks not at my eyes but through my eyes, with a fixed, unblinking gaze that Mellville described as "feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence."

Once she is sated, I lift her and form the bone and muscle of my shoulder into a cove for her slumber. She sleeps, and I remain awake. The warmth of her small body blankets me with peace, and with completeness. She drifts back to that unknowing place where infant souls dwell. And as I rock her my thoughts return to my world. A world of plans and responsibilities, of things I need to do tomorrow, and things I’ll need to face years from now. Of inner doubts and now suddenly sharpened fears, because I am charged with a most precious and most undeserved gift.

I know as I rock her in the night that the world outside is the same as it has always been - but my view of it shifts and reforms itself with each sway of the rocker. My world is newly built upon the foundation of her faint breath. I am a man with a mission. I am forever her hostage; on my shoulder rests the full, fearsome weight of her. And bear her I shall.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Fun with AOL Search Records

Last year, AOL inadvertently exposed a data set that contained over 20 million searches performed by hundreds of thousands of users. It was only exposed for a brief while, but in that brief period it was copied all over the internet.

The records are fascinating to browse, and there is even a site dedicated to characterizing people based on their search activity. Like the person characterized as a "pet owner, parent, and possible animal fetishist." Someone figuring out how to commit murder. And my favorite, someone who is searching for their computer.

It is fun to browse. And yes - there are some real sickos out there.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Bigotry, Hate Speech and Free Expression

The Web gives me chills sometimes, because of the venom and hatred I see there. It is frightening to see the comments on a web post like this descend into a flurry of vicious attacks by the participants. The dynamic is perfectly predictable in all instances. People who believe they are protected by anonymity become wildly supportive of their group perspective and grievances on an issue. Those on the other side, unable to target the known qualities of a particular person, seize instead on the characteristics of the group that person represents. And the vitriolic spiral starts.

This happens so often that it seems that the promise of the Web was just a foolish dream. There was hope that the ability to communicate and build online communities would draw us together in a web of insight and understanding, but we find to our horror that this technology just pulls us down into a maelstrom of hate.

So what to do about it?

I've read a number of blogs lately that advocate criminal restrictions on hate speech. I formulated my initial perspective on this from a post by Thinking Girl - in particular her statement:

In regards to hate speech, it is hard to understand why one person’s (or group’s) right to freedom of expression should trump the right of a group not to have hateful things said about them. Why should the rights of the haters be held above those of the victims of hate speech? Societies that tolerate hate speech institutionalize that form of violence.

And these claims from Crooked Timber:

If particular groups are so stigmatized and marginalized because of hate-speech messages that their members cannot get their voices heard in the public sphere (they may speak, but most people will not listen to people like them) then the freedom and equality of citizens is undermined, and the formal right that those people have to legal, civil and political equality is of lesser value than the formally similar rights of others. Far from liberty being endangered by hate-speech legislation it may—and whether it is depends very much on the specific social and historical circumstances—ensure that many people continue to enjoy effective liberty.

Free speech has real benefits. Popular ideas and powerful elites can be challenged, even mocked, and adversarial processes often lead, over the longer term, to better, more complete understanding. Societies ought to adapt over time to social pressures and new knowledge, and relatively free speech is the lubricant that allows change to happen less violently. Restricting speech can lead to stasis and rigidity, because it robs societies of the sometimes painful truth about themselves.

I'm not an absolutist about it. There are restrictions today on libel, slander, on knowingly false advertising, disturbing the peace, threats, harassment, and incitement to riot. And these are all very reasonable in my view.

But I am against extending that suppression to insults, mocking, and the sort of vile commentary I see all over the internet. I'm against the legal suppression of hate speech, but I'm totally in favor of people making their outrage clear through campaigns, boycotts, and complaints to ISPs about terms of service violations. These efforts are often very successful, particularly when you watch some people go to extraordinary lengths to avoid giving any offense to certain groups.

The first reason I'm opposed to hate speech suppression is that such suppression requires selection of particular groups that need protection. Some might claim that a general prohibition, similar to Canada's, on hate speech directed at sex, race, sexual orientation, religion, and national origin would protect everybody. But I think they are really being disingenuous. Many people identify every bit as strongly with their profession as others do with their religion. Lawyers are often hated, frequently mocked, and are sometimes spoken of as parasites on society. They've been targets of murderous attacks - yet no one argues we should protect lawyers from hatred. And hate speech suppression really isn't about marginalization in general - just some types of marginalization. I'm doubtful that anyone would argue that pedophiles are a group worthy of protection, even though they are marginalized, are frequent targets of hate speech, and they could probably be systematically targeted for violence without triggering lots of outrage. No, proponents of hate speech suppression always have narrow, quite particular groups in mind for special, more vigilant protection.

That's why you could never arrive at a workable, fair standard, which is my second problem with hate speech laws. Any hate speech standard would have to classify both the speech and the target group. Development of such a standard wouldn't be anything like a deliberative process - it would be an exercise of naked political power, and one that would likely trigger lots of hate speech. The process of enacting such laws and deciding on mechanisms to enforce them would be more venomous and poisonous than the Clarence Thomas hearings, because the stakes would be higher. If you think we have hate speech now - just wait.

The battle for protection will be won by the groups that are most cohesive, most vocal and most successful at marshaling their activists. There is a certain paradox in that "battle for protection" that proponents of hate speech suppression don’t acknowledge. The claim is that hate speech marginalizes people, and frightens them enough to drive them out of the public arena. Yet proponents of hate speech laws claim at the same time that these groups would be able to enact their wall of protection into law. It doesn't add up, unless you assume there is a group that is powerful enough to force the law through, yet benevolent enough to do it not from self-interest, but out of selfless regard for a weaker group. I'm guessing that enlightened liberals are the group they have in mind for this.

Alternatively, proponents might believe that the movement to enact these laws wouldn’t just represent one group, but rather a mix of marginalized groups – groups that are individually weak yet powerful when standing in shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity. That's my third objection, because it supposes that hate is always unidirectional - from the powerful haters to the oppressed victims. Never from one marginalized group to another marginalized group. Just a couple of Google searches will yield lots of hate speech by one victim group directed to another. Consider one example that is particularly hard to unravel - in a hypothetical hate speech trial involving this black, ex-Gay, Christian - would anyone be willing to wager on whether he would be the plaintiff or the defendant?

Since hate speech by one marginalized group against another is prevalent, hate speech laws could easily become another instrument of oppression. Divide and conquer has been long recognized as an effective strategy employed by the powerful, and selective enforcement of hate speech laws between one marginalized group and another is an excellent tool for promoting division.

I'm always puzzled by one particular sort of blindness. Given what we know about OJ juries, the manslaughter charges in Jena, and the Duke rape case, on what basis do we suppose that hate speech laws, which require reasoning about subtleties like intent, context, and the historical basis for group sensitivities, would be any more fairly executed than laws that involve facts, testimony and evidence? Those that argue for giving communities more power to jail people for speech have some obligation to explain why they expect anything approaching justice and fairness in their execution. I sense a sort of magical thinking in hate speech suppression advocates - clearly they believe that laws are unjustly and unfairly applied now, but these new laws will, of course, only be used with the most painstaking regard for fairness.

Finally, anyone arguing for hate speech suppression as a means for addressing injustice has an implicit, but deeply flawed, model of their use in overturning oppression. The hope is that marginalized groups, once granted protected from hate speech, will be empowered to seize their share of society’s benefits. But hate speech laws will greatly strengthen the power of the state. There is no basis to suppose that a marginalized group, once it successfully gains its share of the state's power, will repeal those laws. Human nature being what it is, the group or groups then in power will use these laws as a tool to extend a more rigid hegemony. The new order would enforce its newfound power by using hate speech laws against people who express anger at the new, unjust order.

So the best, but highly unlikely, outcome of hate speech laws, is a temporary relaxation of today’s injustice, at the cost of worse injustice later. The far more likely outcome is more hate, and more injustice, today.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Color Blind Juries?

Hat tip to A Typical Joe for provoking some interesting thought. He quotes a speech by Malcolm Gladwell, author of "The Tipping Point" and "Blink."

Gladwell points out that orchestra conductors used to claim that female musicians were inferior, because all the great orchestras consisted of men only. But when the practice of auditioning musicians changed, by placing the musician behind a screen so the conductor couldn't see them - suddenly lots of woman started getting selected.

Gladwell proposes something similar for jury trials - not allowing the jury to see the defendant. Gladwell and A Typical Joe think that might remove some bias from the process, and perhaps narrow differences in the black vs. white conviction rate.

It seems to make lots of sense. I'm wondering why we consider the current trial process as something fixed and unchangeable? Academic studies of psychology have clearly documented the effect of bias on decision making, and the nature of social science experimentation itself controls, or attempts to control, for bias.

So we've learned a lot about decision making and bias - why not put that knowledge into practice in the courts?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"Mad Men" - More About Today than Yesterday

I very much enjoyed the show, and find it hard to wait till it resumes next year.

I enjoyed it primarily as a reflection on the attitudes of today. The writers focus on a vary narrow slice of 1960s life in order to make some pretty heavy-handed points that illustrate the radical truth of today:
1) marriage is a soul-killing, exploitative institution, devoid of love, fidelity or tenderness.
2) men are obsessed with wealth, status and power, and completely lack compassion or empathy
3) the only men worth studying are the top 1% that have economic and media power
4) cultural beliefs are a complete fabrication, created to serve the interests of a small group of manipulative, powerful men.
5) such fabricated attitudes are so pervasive, and so persuasive that they make it impossible for any woman to find legitimate happiness.

So when I watch it I like to reflect on what our era will seem like 50 years from now. What kind of standards will we be judged on? From the perspective of 50 years hence, what will seem important, what will seem unjust, what will seem ludicrous? What will tomorrow's radical truth be, and what role do we play in it?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Playing Games With Privilege

During the past few weeks, I've been visiting feminist blogs, trying to figure out where I stand on a number of issues.

Inevitably, when a man tries to comment on a post, the discussion focuses solely on whether the commenter admits he has "male privilege" - this becomes a litmus test of whether he is a serious participant, or someone who is dismissively considered a troll. Woman love to point out the Male Privilege Checklist, and in particular the final privilege - the ability to be blissfully ignorant of privilege. Feminists believe so much in the issue of privilege admission as a litmus test that white feminists are anxious, almost desperate, to point out on WOC blogs, that of course they admit to having "White Privilege."

Well, I'm not a Feminist, and I'm not a Male Rights Activist either. I think that the notion of judging people by the privilege they have, and the privilege they admit, is superficial. Even to the extent that I think my own Female Privilege List is silly. Because in some circles, the admission of privilege supports an ideological view of the world that slots people into fixed moral categories. Whether it is the fight of feminism against patriarchy, the fight of marginalized peoples against western white oppression, or the latest addition, the fight of transgender people against - and I plead willful ignorance of some of these post-modern nuances - against social constructions of gender, heternormativity ... whatever.

All of these ideologies have one thing in common - they slot people into fixed categories of relative moral worth, while at the same time accusing others of doing the same thing. People with privilege lineage suffer from moral blemishes that obscure their view of others; people with victim lineage have clear and accurate views of the evil that others do. The views of anyone with privilege lineage are deeply suspect, because they lack what is called "epistemic knowledge" - a valid standpoint from which to make any worthwhile value judgments.

In general, these ideologies confuse power with ethics, and make the implicit assumption that privilege always causes bias, and victimization always makes the truth clear. It ignores the fact that sometimes privilege grants the space and perspective to discover empathy, while victimization sometimes breeds rage and blind hatred.

So yes I do have privilege - the privilege of rejecting all these confining, myopic ideologies that claim to tell me the right and proper view of every social exchange. Ideologies that sometimes lead to vicious fanaticism. I'll make a moral assessment of myself and others that is based on my religion, my values, and my experience, not some historical grievance theater that is, quite often, more about revenge than justice.

Update: thanks to Philosophers Playground for the reaction to my original version of this, one that helped me clarify my thinking and express it better.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Sadness and Gratitude for a Soldier's Sacrifice

As someone who originally supported the war, and has since become saddened and disillusioned the painful, hate-filled political football it has become, I was moved by this latest Christopher Hitchens essay.

How sad it is that fine, brave young men like Mark Dailey have to die. I"m overcome with wonder that our country, in what seems like a selfish, narcissistic age, still produces men like this. Men who go to war and risk their lives for the noblest principles, and somehow maintain them even in the face of such a brutal mess.

May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A Model of Quiet Determination and Courage

Two people I admire greatly: Christopher Hitchens writing in support of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Her book is riveting - an inspiring story of her determination to live her own way, and her courage to continue this in the face of very real, very credible threats against her life. I'm outraged that she doesn't get more support. I'd certainly be willing to contribute to a fund to protect her from the very real danger she is in.

And then I read this post. Having read Ayaan's story, and having seen her and listened to her, I'm thinking that the practice of Female Genital Mutilation is something that all reasonable people could agree should be stopped. Feminists would think it is an outrage. Western defenders of human rights would think it is an abomination.

How shallow of me to think that! Apparently, this writer, someone who claims to be a "radical theoretician", says we should, perhaps take a different view of the practice. The way I read it I'm getting the message that my view on this is of absolutely no value because of who I am.

I don't know if the world is going insane, or I am. There seem to be no fixed moral certainties anymore.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Fathers are Much More than "Male Role Models"

I'm getting pretty tired of seeing things that treat being a father as just a "male role model."

A father is not a male role model. A father is an adult male that a child knows:
a) will take a bullet for them.
b) will work hard for many, many years, doing things he may or may not like, in order to provide a loving, secure home for his children.
c) loves the child enough to consider the well-being of that child the foundation of his worth as a person.

You can be a male role model if you teach a kid how to ride a bike, throw a curve ball, learn a trade or act on a date - all good and wonderful things. Fatherhood is an irrevocable, lifetime commitment to sacrifice - with grace and pride - for the benefit of a child. A child derives great benefit knowing that someone made those sacrifices for them.

Friday, October 5, 2007

New Sim City!

My favorite game - update due in November

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Why Gender Bias is Different

My fun with Privilege Lists the other day made me realize something.

I started with the "Male Privilege Checklist" and discovered that the privilege list paradigm had its origin in an older White Privilege List. Feminists like to make the claim that gender bias isn't any different than racial, ethnic or religious bias. The hurt is the same, the unfairness is the same. What they - Feminists and their opposing Men's Rights advocates - don't realize is that they have a fundamental hope that the other bias victims lack.

The hope is that they can be reasonably sure, on average, that their children will suffer less bias than they have. Even if nothing is done to address bias, they can reasonably expect their descendants will suffer no bias, on average. Feminists get this for free. Men's Rights advocates get this for free. Victims of ethnic or religious bias don't have that hope.

So gender bias really is different.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Female Privileges List

I came across this Male Privilege Checklist on Alas, a Blog. It is a list of privileges that men have in our society, and the very last privilege in the list summarizes the primary point: We, as men, don't realize how easy many things are for us. Some privileges are so ingrained, so wired into our social system that we don't even see them.

Here is the beginning of their list:

The Male Privilege Checklist

1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.
2. I can be confident that my co-workers won't think I got my job because of my sex - even though that might be true.
3. If I am never promoted, it's not because of my sex.
4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won't be seen as a black mark against my entire sex's capabilities.
5. The odds of my encountering sexual harassment on the job are so low as to be negligible.
6. If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.
7. If I'm a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped are so low as to be negligible.
8. I am not taught to fear walking alone after dark in average public spaces.
9. If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question.
10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.
11. If I have children and provide primary care for them, I'll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I'm even marginally competent.
12. If I have children and pursue a career, no one will think I'm selfish for not staying at home.
13. If I seek political office, my relationship with my children, or who I hire to take care of them, will probably not be scrutinized by the press.
14. Chances are my elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more likely this is to be true.
15. I can be somewhat sure that if I ask to see "the person in charge," I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.

. . .

Well, I had some fun putting together my counterpoint: The Female Privileges Checklist.

Female Privilege List
Privileges I have as a woman, that "others" - mostly men - don't have.

1. I’m under less pressure than others to engage in risky, dangerous and unhealthy behaviors - one of the reasons I get to live longer than others do.
2. I can choose professions that are less lucrative, and not be called a loser.
3. If I don’t rise to the top of my profession, it’s OK – people won’t judge me the less for it.
4. I’m entitled to the benefits of a safe, orderly society, but no one expects me to risk my personal safety to maintain it.
5. I have the right to have the overwhelming majority of personal risk suffered in defense of my country handled by others.
6. I’m allowed to avoid violence, and even run from it, without the risk I’ll be laughed at.
7. If I see someone else in danger, I’m allowed to stop and think carefully about my personal risk before saving them, without my courage being called into question.
8. I have the right to avoid risky, dangerous challenges, and not be called a coward.
9. I’m allowed to cry as a child and tell my parents I’m scared of something - my parents won't be disappointed with me.
10. I have the right to have most of the really dangerous professions handled by others.
11. If I commit a crime, I get less jail time than others would get for the exact same crime.
12. When I find myself with others in a terrifying, life-threatening situation, I have the right to be evacuated first, once the children are safe. Others can wait.
13. If I get slaughtered as part of some atrocity, people will be especially outraged and will call particular attention to the fact I was slaughtered. When others are slaughtered, it isn't quite as upsetting.
14. I have the right to give my child up for adoption, and thus totally repudiate any personal and financial responsibilities I might otherwise have.
15. I can choose whether I want to be a parent or not, knowing that society will compel the other parent to meet their financial responsibilities - whether they want to or not.
16. If I am personally attacked, I expect otherwise safe, otherwise uninvolved people to come to my defense.
17. If I see someone else being attacked, I’m not expected to risk my own safety to defend them. It's OK for me to wait for others to intervene, and it’s also OK for me to criticize others if they don’t.
18. In any dispute involving custody, I’m granted the presumption that I am the better, safer parent.
19. I have the right to interact with children not my own, and not have people look at me suspiciously.
20. If I choose to become a parent, people understand if I want to focus entirely on the personal, day-to-day care and nurturing of my children. Society expects my spouse to make enough money to make this choice possible.
21. I can get real nasty when someone makes me mad, and call them ugly, a loser, a nerd, a geek, a disgusting creep, a revolting little worm, a worthless piece of garbage, a scum bag, a wimp, a pervert, a jerk-off, an old fart, or a fat slob. After all, I have the right not to be treated meanly at work, and the right not to hear harsh things that might make me uncomfortable. I have legal recourse if that right is not respected, and I have the right to make this perfectly clear on my job interview.
22. I’m allowed to embrace and cultivate my spiritual qualities, and adopt a more elevated and more refined view of life - because other people handle all the "dirty work" like: yard work, garbage hauling, construction, fishing, mining, sewage disposal, street cleaning, long distance trucking, baggage handling, painting, sandblasting, and cement work.
23. If I fail at something, I can go to college and study the historical forces and social constructs that make it harder for people like me. If others fail, it’s because they just don’t have what it takes.
24. If I fail at almost everything, I can always teach college courses that explain why people like me fail a lot.

Please acknowledge when forwarding or copying this list

What do you think? I'm not saying anybody has it objectively easier or harder - life is pretty hard for everybody. But I guess you can tell which side I'm naturally more sensitive to.

Update: Pete Patriarch did a similar list.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Is Calling Someone a "Loser" Catholic?

I don't think so. But for a while, this video is hysterical - Bill Donohue talking about dildos, sex toys and jockstraps. He warms to his topic - he knows he's got a winner here. He's confident that he can bring Miller beer to heel: "Miller doesn't know what they're in for!" Bill understands the medium, and his audience.

His adversary doesn't, saying these boycotts, like one attempted against Walmart, have failed. Donahue, not to have his effectiveness at bullying questioned, jumps in, dismissively, "We won that one buddy - keep up to date." His adversary makes the ludicrous point that this Fair isn't a problem in San Fransisco.

But Bill goes to far. Arrogant with a clear win, he becomes mean. After the commercial break, Donahue's takes advantage of his last words to issue a gratuitous insult: "You're a loser!"

So mean, and so un-Christian.

Apparently Fox News did too - they cut out the last, disturbing turn in their version.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Folsom Street Follies

There is a fascinating dynamic around this:

Christian groups claim it is provocative, and are trying to boycott Miller Beer, one of the event sponsors. Some people claim that this demonstrates Christian anti-gay bias, because of "selective outrage" regarding parodies of the Last Supper.

I agree with Andrew Sullivan, who says it is an unnecessary provocation.

Here is what is happening: You stick your thumb in a favorite target's eye, then use the target's outrage as evidence of their bigotry - because the target - a frequent punching-bag - hasn't been scrupulous in responding to previous slights by others.

And no one is supposed to notice that the conscious and deliberate (this is an advertising campaign after all) selection of the target is itself evidence of bigotry.

The Fair press release claims innocence and surprise, and a certain smug pride in pushing the envelope:

Andy Copper, adds “We hope that people will enjoy the artistry for what it is – nothing more or less. Many people choose to speculate on deeper meanings. This is one artist’s imagining of the ‘Last Supper’, and we have made it our own. The irony is that da Vinci was widely considered to be homosexual. In truth, we are going to produce a series of inspired poster images over the next few years. Next year’s poster ad may take inspiration from American Gothic by Grant Wood or Edvard Munch’s The Scream or even The Sound of Music! I guess it wouldn’t be Folsom Street Fair without offending some extreme members of the global community, though.”
To Andrew's point about gutlessness, and it's defender's reference to "parody", "irony" and "camp" - here is my parody of what next year's press release might be:

September 25, 2008

Poster image draws inspiration from the annual Islamic Hajj, in a poster entitled: Masjid al-Harem.

Folsom Street Events has released its latest poster design for the 25TH Annual Folsom Street Fair. This year, the official poster, drawn by renowned artist Theo van Gogh, uses well-known community members as players in a strikingly original interpretation of the annual, worldwide pilgrimage to Mecca. The poster is the second in a series that draws from well-known paintings, album covers, movie posters, or other iconic images. Community members celebrate exuberant sexuality by donning their S/M regalia, and dancing around not the Kaaba, but a 10 story phallus.

According to Andy Copper, Board President, “We are extremely pleased with the outcome of this poster, and we are looking forward to a particularly inspirational event season. There is no intention to be particularly pro-religion or anti-religion with this poster; the image is intended only to celebrate the sacred roots of raw sexuality. It is a distinctive representation of diversity with women and men, people of all colors and sexual orientations. Just as Mecca draws people of all races throughout the world, we hope people from all continents will come come celebrate with us!”

Folsom Street Events acknowledges that many of the people in the leather and fetish communities are spiritual and that this poster image is a way of expressing that side of the community’s interests and beliefs. This year, Folsom Street Fair is dedicated to “San Francisco Values,” previously used against the San Francisco community for its support of sexual diversity and now used by Folsom Street Events as a way to reclaim power by the fetish community.

Andy Copper, adds “We hope that people will enjoy the artistry for what it is – nothing more or less. Many people choose to speculate on deeper meanings. This is one artist’s imagining of a pilgrimage that is at one both sexual and sacred - all we did was adopt the iconography of Mecca and make it our own. The irony is that homosexuality has a long and wonderful history in Islam. In truth, we are going to produce a series of inspired poster images over the next few years. Next year’s poster ad may take inspiration from American Gothic by Grant Wood, the flag raising at Iwo Jima, or even Raphael's 'The School of Athens' - community members are already preparing for roles in that one!"

When asked about the murder of the poster artist, Theo van Gogh, and the worldwide rioting that has claimed dozens of lives, Copper said: "I guess it wouldn’t be Folsom Street Fair without offending some extreme members of the global community, though.”

Let me summarize my thoughts this way. I consider myself a Christian, and am not personally offended by the poster. I think there are Christian anti-gay bigots and I think there are gay anti-Christian bigots.

I am not offended by sincere, deep, and pointed criticism, so I support Salmon Rushdie, Christopher Hitchins, Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. . . the list goes on. I admire brave people who challenge and take great risks.

What I am offended by is childish pride in giving flippant, shallow offense. What I fear is the balkanization of our society - a pluralistic society is a rare, precious thing, and groups that dance around the edges of gratuitous insults play with fire. When societies unravel everyone suffers.