"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

"I love you and I'm not afraid." -- Evanescence, "My Last Breath"

“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Genes and Epigenes

In sexual orientation. Interesting video from National Geographic that summarizes some of the findings on the role of genes in sexual orientation:

A follow-up from one of Andrew Sullivan's readers:

The National Geographic clip on twins was fascinating, not least for the language it used. At eight weeks, the clip says, the brain of a fetus with a Y chromosome is bathed in testosterone. "Not enough, " it hypothesizes, and the brain isn't sexualized to be attracted to women. The clip doesn't say if a fetus without the Y would receives 'too much' testosterone or 'not enough' estrogen at eight weeks to develop a same-sex attraction.

Later, the clip speaks of switches in the brain causing disease, and it flashes back to the gay twins as it emphasizes the word 'disease,' visually implying the gay twin is diseased, the straight twin isn't, because of the way the switches in their genes were activated. In both instances, the underlying tone is a tone of "being gay is wrong, a genetic disease." This tone, it feels to me, forgoes any question of potential gain for same-sex attraction, re-enforcing negative social bias.

I also thought it amazing that the research suggests attraction to men is the norm, attraction to women must be activated with a testosterone bath. I would have assumed the opposite, that attraction to men must be activated. (I am a heterosexual woman.)

This lays bare one of the pitfalls of popularizing science: the "not enough" testosterone comment would perhaps have been better phrased as "below a certain amount." The reader's objection to the assumption of normalcy in heterosexuality is legitimate, I think, although I think the "disease" comment is stretching a little -- I didn't get that impression at all when I watched the video, and I was looking for it. Sullivan comments:

Describing natural phenomena that are not of the norm, without describing them as somehow defective or diseased, is difficult given our cultural inheritance. I don't think all of it can be called bigotry as such; most of it is simply driven by majoritarian default assumptions. Freud saw homosexuality as not normal. But he didn't draw any "disease" assumption from that and saw heterosexuality as equally worthy of explanation.

What I see over and over again in these discussions regarding "normal" is another example of sliding definitions. In psychology, "normal" describes a range of behaviors, not a specific behavior out of a group. Therefore, it is perfectly legitimate to say that same-sex orientation is as normal as opposite-sex orientation; it is not legitimate to describe it as "abnormal" in any way.

One mistake that Freud's followers made -- not Freud himself, as Sullivan notes -- is that they consigned same-sex orientation to the realm of pathology, at great cost to their patients. There was no real support for it, and in fact, every reason to be wary of it -- they were dealing with populations that were, by definition, in emotional difficulty. It wasn't until the work of Evelyn Hooker in the 1950s that anyone thought to consider the vast majority of gays, who are happy, well-adjusted people.

As it stands, this summary confirms what I've been saying for a while: if you're looking for a "gay gene," give up. There's probably isn't one, because the genetic basis of human behavior is much more complex than that.

Timothy Kincaid at Box Turtle Bulletin also ran this video with a short commentary. The comments are worth checking out, if you can scroll past the flame wars.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Outside the Law (Updated)

Saw this report on a follow-up investigation to the Irish child abuse scandal involving the Catholic hierarchy and priesthood. This struck me:

It found that the Church placed its own reputation above the protection of children in its care.

It also said that state authorities facilitated the cover-up by allowing the Church to operate outside the law.

That's what "religious organizations" are demanding in the U.S. -- that they be allowed to operate outside the law in regard to statutes concerning discrimination.

Do you really want to trust them?

This is the second report, concentrating on Dublin. Note this:

Thursday's report comes six months after the publication of the Ryan report in May, which took submissions from 2,000 people who said they had suffered physical and sexual abuse while in the care of Catholic-run institutions.

The Ryan report, also known as the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, found church leaders knew that sexual abuse was "endemic" in boys' institutions.

This is the Church that says that gay couples are not fit to raise children.


Via Andrew Sullivan, this choice bit by Patsy McGarry in the Irish Times:

One of the most fascinating discoveries in the Dublin Archdiocese report was that of the concept of “mental reservation” which allows clerics mislead people without believing they are lying. According to the Commission of Investigation report, “mental reservation is a concept developed and much discussed over the centuries, which permits a church man knowingly to convey a misleading impression to another person without being guilty of lying”.

Read her article -- it's a real eye-opener about one of the ways the Church hierarchy protect themselves without -- in their own minds -- actually sinning.

And don't forget that this is coming after a decade or more of revelations about similar scandals in the U.S., Australia, and other countries in which the Church occupies a privileged position.

These are the people who have the nerve to call me and those like me "intrinsically disordered" and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars funding campaigns to take away our basic rights. Frankly, they should all be jailed, not only the pedophiles themselves, but their enablers, up to and including the current pope.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wingnut Science

A couple of prime examples, courtesy of Ed Brayton. The first concerns that work of the devil, evolution -- or, as the wingnuts call it, "evolutionism":

He explained that Darwin accepted homology and morphology, believing common origins would be evident from similar body traits.

"The idea is that a man has a head, arms and legs and an ape has a head, arms and legs, so that shows similar ancestry and, therefore, a common lineage," Phillips said. "That was one of the fundamental bases of Darwinian thinking that came from the Galapagos."

However, he said even evolutionists don't believe that anymore because DNA has proven it's utterly false.

"We have eyeballs with retinas and rods and corneas, but so do giant squid - just like humans," he said. "Nobody thinks we came from the same common lineage. Creationists argue that it's because we have a common Designer, not a common evolutionary ancestry."

As Brayton observes, scientists don't believe in homology any more? That's a surprise, especially to scientists. And the evidence from biochemistry and genetics -- that is, DNA -- is overwhelmingly supportive of common ancestry.

My first thought on reading this one was that no one can be that ignorant. I'm still not convinced (although the example of head, arms and legs went a long way toward persuading me), but rather than assume mendacity, we'll be compassionate and assume stupidity -- after all, that's something they can't help, and deserving of our pity.

The second is the lie-fest around global warming, or, in the circumlocution du jour, "climate change." Brayton cites, among others, Nate Silver:

But let's be clear: Jones is talking to his colleagues about making a prettier picture out of his data, and not about manipulating the data itself. Again, I'm not trying to excuse what he did -- we make a lot of charts here and 538 and make every effort to ensure that they fairly and accurately reflect the underlying data (in addition to being aesthetically appealing.) I wish everybody would abide by that standard.

Still: I don't know how you get from some scientist having sexed up a graph in East Anglia ten years ago to The Final Nail In The Coffin of Anthropogenic Global Warming. Anyone who comes to that connection has more screws loose than the Space Shuttle Challenger. And yet that's literally what some of these bloggers are saying!

It seems, however, that Andrew Sullivan has located the modus operandi:

The key to these bloggers' mentality is simply to find some tiny thing and focus all attention on that in order to persuade people that the bigger reality is untrue or irrelevant. This is not an argument; it's a technique. It's a technique to persuade people not to examine all the evidence, since the source of the evidence - secular humanist scientists - are evil suspects and against God and in favor of making your gas bill higher.

You can't actually persuade people that way, of course. But you can fortify their resistance to examining all the evidence.

I would argue one point with Sullivan: you can persuade people that way, particularly those who want to be persuaded. Or maybe I should say, not "persuade" so much as "confirm." The creationists have been doing it for years -- that's the root of all the so-called "controversies" in evolution: niggling details that haven't yet been resolved to everyone's satisfaction that the creationists blow up into a disparity that "disproves" Darwin's theory. As if.

So this is what happens when you practice faith-based science -- your grip on reality gets weaker by the minute.

Update: If you want to see how that sort of thinking carries over into real life, read this post at Mahablog. Quoting Steven Benen on the "stolen" 2008 presidential election:

One in four Americans — and a majority of self-identified Republicans — believes this was made possible due to the secret, carefully-executed, coordinated national efforts of a community group that can’t recognize fake pimps?

'Nuff said?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

De Facto Hiatus

I've been under the weather and it's catching up with me, so don't expect much for the next couple of days. (Now that I've said that, of course, I'll probably snap right back and start posting like a lunatic -- but don't count on it.)

However, since you're such a good audience, here's a little something:

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reviews in Brief: Hyouta Fujiyama's Sunflower

Somehow I've managed to avoid reviewing Hyouta Fujiyama's Sunflower here, even though for a long time I've thought it was her best to date (although at this point I find myself going back to Freefall Romance again and again). At any rate, this is a two-volume schoolboy romance from the same group, the Kinsei Cycle, and very well done.

Ryuhei Ohno is an impossibly cute middle-schooler who has a crush on his sometime substitute tutor, Kaname Aikawa. As might be expected, cute, shy (and huge!) Kaname-san has his own feelings toward someone else, the almost-as huge Furuya. Needless to say, this romance does not go Ryuhei's way. We next see him as a first-year high school student at the notorious Kinsei High, the academically excellent all-boys school where 90% of the student body is rumored to be gay or bi, where he meets classmate Kunihisa Imaizumi, who happens to sit in front of him in home room. Imaizumi is somewhat aghast when he learns of the school's reputation from Ryuhei -- he's from an outside school -- and doesn't want anything to do with it. The two boys are stand-outs -- Ryuhei placed first in the entrance exams, Imaizumi first in the exams for transfer students -- and are targeted by Noze, vice-president of the student council, to become his assistants. Ryuhei at first refuses, but is talked into it by Imaizumi. The problem is, Ryuhei diesn't really like Noze, and the friendly relationship between him and Imaizumi finally leads to an explosion, which is when Ryuhei realizes he's fallen for Imaizumi. In due course he confesses and is rebuffed by Imaizumi.

Fujiyama has allowed the developing relationship between Ryuhei and Imaizumi to unfold slowly and subtly, and it's a delight to watch. She uses the same device that she uses in Freefall Romance, in that Imaizumi rejects Ryuhei, but not very forcefully or convincingly. Ruyhei, being all eyes-on-the-prize determination, won't really take no for an answer, and ultimately forces Imaizumi to examine his own feelings of "friendship" to understand what he really feels.

The drawing is superb -- Fujiyama's style taken up a notch. She's done wonderful things with layouts, close-ups, and image fragments. You just stop sometimes because a particular image is so beautiful. Tones, shading, details are all beautifully handled.

There are two side-stories, the first at the end of volume one about Aikawa and Furuya, two lovable guys with a lot of charm. Aikawa is terribly insecure in his new relationship,and Furuya, once he figures out the problem, is all comfort and reassurance.

The other, at the end of volume two, is about Fumiaki Kozue, president of the student council, and Leiji Sumiyoshi, the president's assistant and Kozue's self-appointed bodyguard. The two are "sex buddies," as Kosue tells Imaizumi early on, but there's more to it than that. This ia a marvelous story, complex and multi-layered, and digs pretty deep into both young men's characters.

I'm not sure at this point if I'd still call this Fujiyama's best, but it's up there. From Juné.

Skeletons in the Closet

Via a good friend, this choice piece from Stephen Colbert:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - Skeletons in the Closet
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

"The End of Gay": A Preamble

This is one of those topics that I keep meaning to come back to, and I'm building up a store of links and articles, but I'm not quite ready to dig into it yet. However, this piece by Jennifer Vanasco does look at one of the aspects of assimilation that I've noted before:

Not even gay people can tell that Jenny is gay, and it makes her sad.
"While society has gradually grown more accustomed to the idea that gay people can be flamboyant or perfectly ordinary, we in the gay community don’t always recognize our more subtle brothers and sisters on the street. We assume heterosexuality. Even in our own neighborhoods and our own shops."

“How can you be part of a community if no one can see you?” she asks.

Humans are a tribal animal, and if you’re gay, the LGBTcommunity is your tribe. We want other gay people to recognize us, because it makes us feel less alone. It makes us feel like part of something.

Or, as I've put it, it was a lot easier to know who to ask for a date when gay bars catered to gay people.

There's also the identity question -- what Andrew Sullivan tends to lump with "identity politics," which is not the same thing at all, but Sullivan isn't really very good at fine points.

I am terribly obvious about being gay. I'm not a flamer, by any means, I'm just very open about seeing things from my point of view -- i.e., that of a gay man -- and refusing to adopt any protective coloration. In fact, one reason I'm so obvious is that I got tired of women coming on to me and men passing me by (except, for some reason, the occasional straight guy). (File under "Stereotypes, masculinity")

This is one reason I'm pretty much convinced that, in spite of all the wishful thinking of "mainstream" gays, gay culture is not going to wither and die. We need it. We need to come home every once in a while, we need it as a refuge for our young people who are trying to figure out who they are, and we need it as a reminder to the rest of the world that no, we're not just like they are, and that's part of our value. That's one reason I lose patience fairly rapidly with the nervous nellies who keep screaming about excessive behavior at Gay Pride parades because we'll turn the straight people off. Jeebus! It's our holiday, FTLOP, get over yourselves. Has it occurred to anyone that the major portion of the audience for these things is straight people who come to see the parade --and bring their kids? (At least, that's the way it is in Chicago. I've ridden floats past rows of Latinas with their children, all cheering wildly.)

At any rate, read Vanasco's piece. It's entertaining as well as being spot on.

Atypical Me

Interesting observation by Jonah Lehrer:

Just consider health care: the only way we're ever going to reduce medical costs is to restrict procedures that haven't passed evidence-based efficacy tests. Maybe that means 40 year old women don't get mammograms, or that we treat prostrate cancer less aggressively, or that we stop performing spinal fusion surgeries. Although there's solid evidence to question all of these medical options, such changes provoke intense debate. Why? Because our emotions don't understand statistics. Because when we have back pain we want an MRI. Because when it's our father with prostate cancer we want the most aggressive possible treatments. And so on.

The point is that there's often an indefatigable gap between the rigors of cost-benefit analyses and the emotional hunches that drive our decisions. We say we want to follow the evidence, but then the evidence rubs against a bias like loss aversion, and so we make an exception. We'll follow the evidence next time.

I suspect Lehrer's right on this, although you couldn't prove it by me. Having recently been through my own scenario -- in my case, prostate cancer -- I find that, looking back over the process of making a decision about how to proceed, I didn't do any of the above. First, I demanded -- and got -- a lot of information on what the indicators meant, the options for treatment, side-effects and consequences, and right down the line. (One session with a doctor lasted for well over an hour, and that was only one of several.) And then I based my decision on what I considered to be acceptable results.

Now, it may just be that I'm able to deal with my own illnesses more rationally than I can with anyone else's. I think if it had been my (hypothetical, unfortunately) boyfriend with prostate cancer, I would have been more or less in full "by any means necessary" mode. I think it's also partly due to the fact that the doctors I dealt with were very forthcoming with information, very sensible, and, perhaps, somewhat appreciative of the fact that I wanted to understand as completely as possible what was going on (which I suspect is not a reaction they meet very often). In fact, one of them told my I had a very good, positive attitude.

And I wonder, given that portion of my own history, how much of the response that Lehrer describes is due to doctors and other providers whose attitude is just the opposite.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Old News, Same Response

I tend to get a little more than fed up with the politically correct left from time to time, particularly when their comments reveal that they obviously don't get it. I just ran across this article at Pink News, a reaction to the reaction to that atrocious article about Stephen Gately's death by that homophobic bitch Jan Moir, which I commented on as part of this post.

This one is by someone named Adrian Tippets, and he is sooo lost.

But silencing viewpoints is more likely to breed homophobia than end it. How, other than by debate, does one challenge prejudice? When we deny the freedom to speak each time we hear something we don’t like, as Thomas Paine reminds us, everyone becomes a slave to their own opinions.

Freedom of speech is not just about the right to speak your mind. It is also the right to listen, to have opinions of all sides exposed to scrutiny. It has no value without the freedom to think differently. Moir gives expression to doubts that are lingering in the back of many people’s minds. For all we know, there may even be a grain of truth, somewhere among her bizarre utterances.

Can we see the obvious? No one "silenced" Jan Moir. She not only had her piece published in a newspaper with a circulation of some 2 million, she did a follow-up piece in which she played the victim card, as well as dodging the issue:

The point of my column – which I wonder how many of the people complaining have fully read – was to suggest that, in my honest opinion, his death raises many unanswered questions.

That's a flat lie. The point of her column was to cast aspersions on Stephen Gately and demean gay men as a group. I don't see any other possible interpretation. The "unanswered questions" are in her own head (and I shudder to think what it must be like in there). If she maintains that 33-year-old men don't just drop dead, well, she's wrong. I happen to have known someone of about that age who died of exactly the same causes. In his case it took longer, but it was beyond anything the doctors could do -- they simply could not drain his lungs fast enough. If he hadn't been in the hospital, he would have gone much more quickly. As for "intimacy with a stranger," that's certainly none of her business, and bringing it up is nothing more than a naked attempt to buy into the "unhealthy lifestyle" mantra so beloved of the professional homophobes. If open relationships or three-ways give her the willies, she shouldn't participate in them.

Now Tippets is trying to justify her, as you can see from the quote above. And if you read his commentary, it becomes painfully obvious that he has no idea what he's talking about. It's straw man followed by red herring followed by logical disconnects that don't even have names yet, used to argue positions that have nothing to do with this story at all.

Let me state it clearly: Jan Moir stated her opinion on something that was really none of her business to begin with. She did so offensively and quite obviously to damage as many people as possible with her insinuations. Now, of course, she can't deal with the criticism (have you noticed how that works) and is squawking about freedom of speech. And here's some airhead who, presumably, is to the left of Attila the Hun, trying to defend her from the legitimate consequences of that "free speech."

Got news for you Adrian, and Jan Moir as well -- nothing's free in this world. And whatever you do or say is going to come back and bite you in the ass.

The Federal Dilemma

A reader pushes back at Sullivan on his states' rights stance:

Yes, I have heard the whole "laboratories of democracy" spiel, but can you please explain why you and (other?) conservatives in this country are so enamoured with states' rights? Why is the "state" the political subdivision you think should be able to decide such things as gay marriage, abortion, segregation, etc., etc., etc.? Frankly, I have never understood why states rights have anything to do with complex political issues - particularly when it comes to issues, like civil rights, where there is a clear wrong answer and a clear right answer).

I happen to agree with this one wholeheartedly, at least the part about civil rights issues. We know from past experience -- especially the recent past -- that putting civil rights before the people of a state is going to get you mixed results, and that state legislators are even more negligent than Congress at tailoring laws to conform to Constitutional principles. (One need only look at laws passed in Missouri and Alabama mandating the teaching of creationism in public schools for a good take on that one. Local governments are even worse, as witness Kitzmiller -- the Dover school board case in which the pro-creationists admitted that creationism is not science.)

Sullivan responds:

Because these are areas of deep and principled disagreement and this is a vast and diverse country. Getting Massachusetts and Alabama to agree on a deep moral issue is almost impossible. And I remain a conservative who wants to see necessary change occur as far as possible with as broad a consensus as possible and who believes that decisions made closest to the ground are the least worst ways of avoiding massive errors or hideous unintended consequences. This means that injustice will remain longer than it should in an ideal world. But we live in a real world. And that distinction between theory and practice matters to an Oakeshottian like myself. But it also means that justice when it arrives is real, more durable and can more easily become part of the fabric of a society.

I won't remark on the irony of Sullivan's comment that "we live in a real world," except to note that the irony exists.

To me, this whole comment is wrong-headed. I think that Sullivan's reader is correct in that certain areas, such as civil rights, are national in scope and must be dealt with on a national level. The mere fact of the Fourteenth Amendment should make it plain that states cannot be relied on to come to correct conclusions in those areas.

The great example, of course, is racial discrimination. It was not the states, nor any single state, that provided an example for the others to follow. (Well, one can take the position, I guess, that some did -- but the problem is, the rest didn't necessarily follow.) Sullivan's reader is quite right -- this is not a matter of "good, better, best," but of moral and legal absolutes. (And one of the few examples I can think of in which morality [in its commonly accepted sense, at least] and legality occupy the same universe.) Yes, as we can see from the reaction in some quarters to the election of our first black president, racial prejudice is alive and kicking in this country -- but it's no longer legal and it has to be expressed in code, which I think undercuts Sullivan's argument quite effectively. The point is that legal racial discrimination was outlawed through the federal courts and the federal legislature, not by building consensus in the states. And I think my statement about speaking in code is vastly important here: to the country at large, it is no longer acceptable to express those prejudices openly -- those groups who do accept that are outliers and not groups that represent a majority or even something that the majority wants to be associated with. Attitudes will follow the law, even if it takes time. Sullivan is quite willing to spend the time before taking action -- why not after the fact? After all, one thing that people do need is an indicator of what's acceptable, and the law provides that. (The recent case of a private swim club in Pennsylvania, I believe, that barred minority children from the pool after agreeing to a visit should indicate just how thoroughly we as a nation have adopted a stance against racial discrimination -- the club has now gone bankrupt after the fallout from that incident.)

(Granted, race is a tricky one, simply because, as I'm firmly convinced, "we" and "them" is a basic human viewpoint, intimately tied up with not only group identity but personal identity, and race is a handy and, I think, fundamental, identifier. But for the issues under examination here, it serves admirably.)

As for Sullivan's reliance on "deep moral issues," let me state quite clearly that I don't believe that is an appropriate area for government involvement. I'm not going to discuss here those aspects of morality that we can call "secular" and that are the foundation of any workable society -- things like "thou shalt not kill the neighbors" and the like. Actually, now that I've written that, I will, because it's germane. In that aspect of morality, the government must be the final arbiter, and I don't think leaving it up to fifty more local governments is going to help matters. The government must remain neutral in those areas involving personal morality, however, and attempt to reach solutions when those areas become subject to the law (I'm thinking of things such as rape and child molestation, and yes, abortion and contraception) that are both pragmatic and that serve the needs of as many as possible.

One of those fundamental liberties that we cherish in this country is freedom of conscience, and that, I think, is where Sullivan has real problems. He falls into a trap that I've seen over and over again in these sorts of discussions, the assumption that there is one overriding moral code that everyone subscribes to and that applies across the board. This is patent nonsense -- if it were the case, we wouldn't be having these debates to begin with. The Christianist right says that human life begins at conception and that gays are "intrinsically disordered." The first is a matter of debate in this country, while the second is simply ridiculous. Yet these are both presented as fundamental moral questions requiring the action of legislatures and courts. In the terms in which they are presented, however, they are matters of personal morality, not civic morality (although I'll grant abortion does move into that realm) and that the government, in the eyes of "conservatives," must enforce this "universal" moral code -- which has its basis purely in religious doctrine. You'll pardon me if I'm not impressed, particularly with the idea that states are better equipped to deal with these issues than the feds. (In the case of gay civil rights, particularly, I haven't seen anywhere in the Bill of Rights that says "except for gays and lesbians," and believe me, I've looked. Antonin Scalia, please take note.)

What Sullivan fails to acknowledge is that, as in the codification of racial prejudice, it is the federal government that, to put it bluntly, lays down the law. Yes, the feds' actions are responsive to public opinion (unless it concerns the profits of major industries), but they are also based on constitutional considerations that states don't always adhere to, as noted above, and the grace of federal jurisdiction is that it is that one step farther removed from the people's will, which, let me remind you, is not the final arbiter here. (The idea that because a legislature passed a law it must be constitutional is ludicrous -- we know better.) One need only look at the history of civil rights issues in this country to realize that the states made a mess of things and the federal courts and Congress had to step in and fix it. Why don't we just cut out the middle man?

I think anyone looking at it objectively must admit that there are certain areas in which the states are not competent as authority, and civil rights is the major one. Yes, states are more likely to be responsive to constituents' opinions and attitudes, but that's not necessarily a good thing. On the abortion question, the debate is already at the federal level and has been for decades. On gay marriage, the feds have already interfered with states' rights -- on the wrong side -- and need to backtrack and get out of it, with the proviso that there is a fundamental right at issue here and ultimately the federal courts are going to have to decide it because the states can't do it.

Like the sovereignty of the people, it would appear that states' rights are subject to certain limitations as not only a theoretical matter but a practical one as well. Maybe conservatives should take that into consideration.

Science Fun

OK, is this cool, or what?

This is a juvenile coelecanth, the fish that was supposed to have been extinct for 80 million years.

Cute little devil, isn't it?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Married in Texas? Maybe Not.

I've seen this a couple of places. Here's the report from Pam's House Blend:

In 2005, the state of Texas overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state Constitution that was added as Article I, Section 32. That section now reads:
Sec. 32. MARRIAGE.

(a) Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman.

(b) This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage.

From McClatchy's report:

...Radnofsky, who was a member of the powerhouse Vinson & Elkins law firm in Houston for 27 years until retiring in 2006, says the wording of Subsection B effectively "eliminates marriage in Texas," including common-law marriages.

It sounds weird, but when you read Subsection (b), it certainly looks as though it's now impossible to have your marriage recognized in Texas, no matter who you are.

I love it when idiots shoot themselves in the foot.

Sullivan on the Costs of Health-Care Reform

This is just a quickie, because I had one of those nights and I'm running late again -- or will be in a minute or two. (Pulled muscle or something in my side -- barely slept at all.)

At any rate, Andrew Sullivan makes a point in this post that I have to comment on.

I'd love a polity in which a real conservative told people that costs should be controlled first before anyone gets insurance extended to them. The idea is to make the prize conditional on the sacrifice.

This is Sullivan being theoretical again, as far as I can tell. What he doesn't acknowledge is that health care is in a crisis in this country, and in a crisis, you can't necessarily go by what you'd like to do, conservative or liberal. Nor does he acknowledge that every serious plan that's been offered actually reduces the national deficit.

It's about multi-tasking. Ever hear of "pay as you go"? The point is, we need to get coverage in place for the 47+ million people who don't have it. That's almost 12% of the people in this country, and that's an unacceptable figure.

And looking at that bit, it's pretty much unbearably smug. Oh, right -- this is Andrew Sullivan. This is someone who isn't going to be asked to make a sacrifice, and who already has his prize (one assumes -- I've never seen him write about the horrors of being uninsured).

You want to pay the bills for universal coverage? Tax the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies on excess profits -- the money they're raking in by selling services that they don't provide and getting exclusive rights to drugs that we paid to develop. (As for the drug companies, they should be paying the government royalties, the way oil companies do for drilling rights -- except they should be paying fair royalities, unlike the oil companies.)

Later -- I have to get going.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Send a Coathanger, Revisited

In light of this post at AmericaBlog, I thought that the "Send a Coathanger" campaign that I mentioned in this post should be expanded further.

Send a coathanger to you local bishop.

The "Preach In" Against Gay-Inclusive Hate Crimes Laws

These people are ludicrous. Here's the report from Timothy Kincaid at BTB.

Yesterday a collection of the nation’s most obnoxious anti-gay activists showed up in Washington DC to have a showdown with the government. They were there to defy the new law criminalizing preaching against homosexuality and to be arrested for preaching the gospel. (Christian Post)
Conservative pastors rallied outside the Justice Department on Monday to test the limits of the newly expanded hate crimes law.

Calling the new law – which broadens the definition of federal hate crimes to include attacks based on sexual orientation and gender identity – a clear threat to religious liberty, the group sought to defend their freedom to proclaim biblical truths.

Of course there were no arrests and, from all reports, the police on duty were bored to distraction. Kincaid asks

But why are these anti-gay activists convinced, against all evidence to the contrary, that preaching against homosexuality is now illegal? How do we explain their irrational thinking and baseless paranoia?

This is not paranoia, this is posturing, pure and simple. Does anyone think that the likes of Rev. Rick Scarborough, Matt Barber, Harry Jackon and Janet Porter are going to put themselves in a position where there is the slightest possibility that they would actually spend time behind bars? They don't have that kind of courage -- let's face it, these are not people who are in serious competition with Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These are snake oil salesmen.

They're doing performance art for their base, who are not the kind of people who even know what the Bill of Rights says and doesn't say, and are certainly not going to question anything their authority figures of the moment might tell them.

You'd have to do some serious work to demonstrate that there is any thinking in this other than pure self-aggrandizement. As for paranoia, I'd bank that they're relying on the paranoia in their audience on this one.

Here's a report from Alvin McEwen at Pam's House Blend, with video.

Caught in the Backwash?

Lest anyone think that only the LSD Church is open to change, read this post from Jim Burroway at Box Turtle Bulletin. It seems the American bishops commissioned a study on the causes of the child-abuse scandal. Burroway summarizes:

It looks like the report’s authors are coming to the same conclusions I did when I tackled the question in our report, “Testing the Premise: Are Gays A Threat To Our Children?” I poured [sic] through the professional literature and found no connection between homosexuality and child molestation. The Catholic Bishops commissioned a $2 million study in response to the clerical sexual abuse scandals which came to the same conclusion.

If you'll remember, one of the authorities Burroway studied pointed out that there appeared to be an inverse correlation between homosexual orientation and likelihood to molest children.

What leads me to the conclusion that the Church is feeling some pain because of public reaction to its anti-gay stance is largely that I have little confidence in its willingness to open itself to fact, in spite of its history. (Of course, taking the full history into account, I'm not really willing to wait four hundred years for the Church to come around to the fact that I'm normal.) Pain seems a much more likely motivator here. The Mormons have the possibility of new revelations, so changing direction is a bit easier for them. The Catholic Church is a little more rigid about doctrine, by necessity. But the hierarchy has been backtracking for a bit now -- I remember hearing about this some while ago:

Last year, Pope Benedict XVI drew a distinction between homosexuality and pedophelia, saying “I would not speak at this moment about homosexuality, but pedophilia which is another thing."

This is the man who was the first to point at gays as the root of the child abuse in the Church. Of course, this shift hasn't changed any of the Church's limitations on gay priests, but the Church moves glacially when it moves at all.

But it appears that the hierarchy is going to lose one more prop for its anti-gay position. Wonder what we can expect after that?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

In the Kingdom of the Blind. . .

. . . the one-eyed man still doesn't see very well.

Found this post by Marc Ambinder via Andrew Sullivan, whose sole comment, in a post titled "Palin: The Dumber Kind of Creationist," is "Ambers explains."

Ouch. "Ambers," as he is known in that collegial collection of the almost-profound who inhabit The Atlantic, manages to screw up from the first sentence. Time to parse.

Much more so than abortion, the issue of life's origins wedges itself between the scientifically literate elite and everyone else.

Frankly, the idea that the scientifically literate form an elite is scary. It also makes me wonder what happened to all that money we spend on education in this country? Oh, and given that this is a post about creationism and evolution, let me just point out that evolution, at least, does not deal with life's origins. Evolution starts with the statement "life exists" and takes it from there.

This is the Big Question, and it has implications for politics: what is humanity? What do we owe each other? From where do we derive our ethics? How do we solve irreconcilable value claims?

Can someone explain to me what any of these questions have to do with evolution? These are large philosophical and theological questions, and don't really have much to do with the ways in which life achieved the rich variety that we see around us. It doesn't seem to have occured to Ambinder that those are questions we answer for ourselves, and we don't really need to rely on evolution to do it for us. We can, if we want to, but we don't have to, and we're probably better off not making that connection.

Its acceptance in the years after Charles Darwin popularized the concept fundamentally established science as the foundational text of modernism. Most biological scientists don't believe in God. Those who do, like the new chair of the NIH, Francis S. Collins, are Christian Deists; they accept that "progress" in evolution seems random, but they believe that, somewhere beneath the quarks, the God spark is slowly directing this complicated process - or that God created the laws of the universe in such a way so as to lay favorable conditions for evolution. But they don't reject the evidence.

There's no basis for saying that most biological scientists don't believe in God. As one of Ambinder's commenters points out, there is a full range of belief among the scientific community, from the devout to the atheistic. You probably won't find a lot of Biblical literalists among biologists, but I doubt that you'll find them in any branch of knowledge that relies on curiosity and understanding the importance of evidence.

Evolution, the change over time of species by various unguided (but not always random) selection pressures, is as close to a fact of science as there is. It is as much of a historical fact as the Holocaust.

Two points here: natural selection, the driving mechanism of evolution, is a double-layered event. First comes meiosis, the process by which gametes divide, and in so doing, mix up the organism's genetic heritage. This is pretty random -- mistakes happen, sequences get duplicated or lost, genes get recombined. Once a new organism is created -- i.e., the egg is fertilized and development begins -- the selection criteria are not random at all. The requirements of the environment are the deciding factor in the survival of the individual. (And I might point out that this is a life-long requirement.) He's sort of right in saying that evolution is as close to a factof science as possible, but calling it a "historical fact" on the order of the Holocaust is pushing it, I think. The existence of the theory, and its acceptance, is certainly historical fact, but the theory itself cannot be, by definition. This is where we get into the phenomenon of sliding definitions. Biologists take evolution as a fact and will until the unlikely event that some piece of evidence disproves it -- and eventuality which becomes more and more remote. But to translate this into the common parlance as a fact is risky: it doesn't mean the same thing. (The parallel is the different meanings of "theory," which the creationists have so much fun manipulating.)

The American people are finicky about their creation/evolution debate. Even though a majority of Americans clearly believe at least a thin form of "intelligent design," about a majority staunchly opposes something called "creationism" -- even though it is, in the real world, indistinguishable from creationism in its animating principles and aims. What this means is that Americans accept the chronology of evolution without accepting the science of evolution. Disproving evolution to scientists would mean finding a rabbit fossil in the Burgess Shale. Disproving "intelligent design" to most Americans would mean disproving the existence of God.

Granted that he's talking about the popular perception here, I still have to object to the idea of "disproving" intelligent design. You can't -- that's why it's not science. (Well, that's only one of many reasons, but it's the one that's germane here.)

One thing that I find very interesting about this post is what Ambinder doesn't say. Granted, he's talking about Sarah Palin, who's an outlier, but nowhere does he point out that most mainstream Christian denominations -- starting with the Roman Catholic Church -- accept the theory of evolution as valid. One of the commenters even quotes Pope Benedict XVI:

"Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called "creationism" and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? I believe this is of the utmost importance."

And yet Ambinder just blindly follows the idea that belief in evolution precludes belief in God, at least to the extent of accepting it as a valid view simply because it's held by a certain percentage of Americans. Sorry, but that doesn't make it true.

Fortunately, Ambinder's readers are on the ball, and several of him ripped him a new one for this piece. I'm reminded of a lesson I learned early on: if you don't know what you're talking about, keep quiet.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Abject Cowardice (Upated)

That's the reaction of the American right wing to the idea of suspected terrorists actually being brought to trial.

From Barbara O'Brien, in a post titled, aptly enough, "The Difference Between Free People and Weenies":

These same pathetic cowards scream perpetually about “freedom” but don’t know what it means. They’ve supported torture, suspension of habeas corpus for American citizens, warrantless surveillance, “black sites,” all because these atrocities are supposed to make us safer.

Let's backtrack a bit, to this post from Glenn Greenwald:

Understanding and Combatting Terrorism, USMC Major S.M. Grass, 1989:
Terrorism is a psychological weapon and is directed to create a general climate of fear. As one definition cogently notes, "terror is a natural phenomenon, terrorism is the conscious exploitation of it." Terrorism utilizes violence to coerce governments and their people by inducing fear.

William Josiger, Fear Factor: The Impact of Terrorism on Public Opinion in the United States and Great Britain, 2006:
At its heart terrorism is about fear. While terrorist attacks destroy, maim and kill, the intended audience for these attacks is almost always the whole body politic and the terrorist's goal is to strike fear into their hearts.

GOP House Leader John Boehner, condemning Obama's decision to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to New York for trial, yesterday:
The Obama Administration’s irresponsible decision to prosecute the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks in New York City puts the interests of liberal special interest groups before the safety and security of the American people.

The reaction of the right is, as Greenwald points out, literally a textbook example of caving in to terrorists.

Greenwald goes on:

People in capitals all over the world have hosted trials of high-level terrorist suspects using their normal justice system. They didn't allow fear to drive them to build island-prisons or create special commissions to depart from their rules of justice. Spain held an open trial in Madrid for the individuals accused of that country's 2004 train bombings. The British put those accused of perpetrating the London subway bombings on trial right in their normal courthouse in London. Indonesia gave public trials using standard court procedures to the individuals who bombed a nightclub in Bali. India used a Mumbai courtroom to try the sole surviving terrorist who participated in the 2008 massacre of hundreds of residents. In Argentina, the Israelis captured Adolf Eichmann, one of the most notorious Nazi war criminals, and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial for his crimes.

It's only America's Right that is too scared of the Terrorists -- or which exploits the fears of their followers -- to insist that no regular trials can be held and that "the safety and security of the American people" mean that we cannot even have them in our country to give them trials.

One has to ask, does the right wing have so little faith in America and its institutions that we can't risk trying terrorism suspects here in our own courts the way other countries have done?

Update: On that note, get a load of this from that proud American, Liz Cheney, via Crooks and Liars:

CHENEY: You know, I think it is absolutely unconscionable that we are a nation at war and that the president of the United States simultaneously is denying our troops on the ground in Afghanistan the resources that they need to prevail to win that war while he ushers terrorists onto the homeland.

He's going to put these terrorists in a courthouse that is six blocks from where over 2,000 Americans were killed on the worst attack in history on the American homeland.

He's going to give them a public platform where they can spew venom, where they can preach jihad, where they can reach out and recruit other terrorists. And it is totally unnecessary.

When the attorney general says that he's bringing them to justice, he's ignoring the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed asked 11 months ago to be executed for Allah. He asked to plead guilty and be executed. We should have said, "All right, you've got it."

Instead, we're bringing him and his cohorts to America. We're giving them the constitutional rights of American citizens. And the attorney general throughout the day on Friday talked about this as a crime.

He said in that same interview Mara is talking about that this will be treated like any other crime.

So this is "real" America -- summary execution on request, no fair trials for people we don't like, exclusive rights to spewing venom retained by us and people we do like, and whatever happens, the (Democratic) president is wrong.

And this is, I think, what passes for reasoned discourse on the right -- attempting to completely undercut American institutions because they don't suit our immediate political purposes. (The poster at C&L also surmises that there is the little matter of Cheney's Daddy's war crimes possibly coming to light in a public forum. I suppose that's something they should be afraid of.)

O'Brien sums it up:

As an eyewitness to the collapse of the towers, I sincerely believe I speak for the enormous majority of people who were present at the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when I say to the sniveling righties — please stop being so pathetic. You’re embarrassing yourselves. Thanks much.

I might add that, with your insistence that you are the "real" Americans, you're embarrassing the rest of us as well.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Send A Coathanger

Credo has a new campaign to enlighten the twenty "pro-choice" Democrats who voted for the Stupak Amendment. It's called Send A Coathanger. I like that, but then, I'm an in-your-face kind of guy.

The message to those twenty is:

"We know what happens when women are denied access to reproductive health care including abortion. And we can't go back to an era of coat hangers and back alley abortions. Reconsider your vote on the Stupak Amendment. Tell House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that the final health care bill that emerges from the conference committee can't turn the clock back on women's rights."

I think that message should be expanded. I think maybe Speaker Pelosi should be included, for allowing that amendment ever to reach the floor. And President Obama, that fierce advocate for something, I forget what just now, but I'm sure he is a fierce advocate, for refusing to use his muscle in any way, shape or form to move a progressive agenda -- the agenda he was elected on.

Here's the list:

Rep. Joe Baca (CA-41)
Planned Parenthood score: 100
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. Zachary Space (OH-18)
Planned Parenthood score: 100
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (TX-23)
Planned Parenthood score: 100
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. Christopher Carney (PA-10)
Planned Parenthood score: 100
Nat'l Right to Life score: 14

Rep. Victor Snyder (AR-2)
Planned Parenthood score: 83
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. Silvestre Reyes (TX-16)
Planned Parenthood score: 83
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. Jim Costa (CA-20)
Planned Parenthood score: 80
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. Richard Neal (MA-2)
Planned Parenthood score: 77
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. Bob Etheridge (NC-2)
Planned Parenthood score: 75
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. Artur Davis (AL-7)
Planned Parenthood score: 71
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. Michael Michaud (ME-2)
Planned Parenthood score: 71
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. Jim Cooper (TN-5)
Planned Parenthood score: 71
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. David Ross Obey (WI-7)
Planned Parenthood score: 69
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (CA-18)
Planned Parenthood score: 67
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. Albert Chandler (KY-6)
Planned Parenthood score: 67
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. John Spratt (SC-5)
Planned Parenthood score: 67
Nat'l Right to Life score: 0

Rep. Baron Hill (IN-9)
Planned Parenthood score: 71
Nat'l Right to Life score: 14

Rep. Earl Pomeroy (ND-ALL)
Planned Parenthood score: 69
Nat'l Right to Life score: 16

Rep. Sanford Bishop (GA-2)
Planned Parenthood score: 69
Nat'l Right to Life score: 20

Rep. Jason Altmire (PA-4)
Planned Parenthood score: 67
Nat'l Right to Life score: 28

By the way, the Stupak Amendment brought Taylor Marsh on board the "Don't Ask, Don't Give" campaign. The list is growing.

Reviews in Brief: Nase Yamato's Cigarette Kisses

Cigarette Kisses is somewhat of a departure for Nase Yamato -- previous works by her that I've read, Pet on Duty and Take Me To Heaven, were lighter fare, comedies that have enough psychological realism to earn their places on the bookshelf. This one is something more.

Yusuke is continually being dragged by his boss to the company's new smoking room for a cigarette break; he'd rather not go, not because he doesn't smoke, but because his school friend, Soji, also tends to be there, and Yusuke has a lot of unresolved issues in that area: Soji got married without ever mentioning it to Yusuke, his best friend,and Yusuke finds it hard to be happy for him. Things are complicated by the arrival of a third friend from their school years, Masahito. Soji soon drafts both friends for a special project under his supervision, and then things start to happen.

The interplay here is fascinating, as is the psychology of the characters. Yusuke, although he's loved Soji forever, can't bring himself to admit it to him, and has a hard time facing it himself. Soji got married in part because of his feelings for Yusuke -- he couldn't tell him how he really felt because he didn't want to ruin their friendship. Masahito has also loved Yusuke for a long time, but knew that Yusuke was in love with Soji and therefore kept his peace. Now things break wide open.

Yamato gives us what is probably a more realistic take on contemporary attitudes in Japan toward same-sex relationships than is usual in BL manga: a large part of the men's reticence about their feelings is the expected disapproval. There is also an undercurrent that offers a new twist in the genre as well: the three are all good friends, and all, at least in theory, open to the idea of a relationship with another man. However, it seems that we're going to wind up with our expected pairing -- Yusuke and Soji -- with Masahito being odd man out. Until the bonus chapter. (I'm devoutly hoping that Yamato gives us a sequel exploring that possibility.)

Yamato's drawing, as always, is delicious. Characters fit into her standard portrayals, absent the seemingly underage uke we saw in the other two I've read, and they're all beautiful. There are some very nice things going on with page layouts and visual flow -- a lot of activity in some sequences that is due purely to layout and her use of close-ups and fragmentary images, but it's always crystal clear. Sex scenes are yaoi standard.

This one has a fair amount of depth, attributable to Yamato's good sense of psychological realism and well-drawn characters. It's from Deux.

You've Just Now Figured This Out?

I've maintained for a long, long time that any communication is a transaction. My own frame of reference, which should come as no surprise, is art and literature: an essential component of any artistic endeavor is the audience. That's one reason I refuse to do "artist's statements." It's cheating the audience, in a way, and cheating the artist: part of being an audience is bringing your own outlook and experience to the interaction, and an attempt on the part of the artist to direct that is not fair. (For an illuminating take on the relationship between artist and audience, see this post by Jan Suzukawa, entitled "In Defense of Fan Fiction." She writes about this toward the end of the post, and she hits it right on the head.

So, lo and behold! It's a take that's finally showing up at The Daily Dish.

By way of that post, this, from Steven Pressfield:

It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy.

Nobody wants to read your shit.

There’s a phenomenon in advertising called Client’s Disease. Every client is in love with his own product. The mistake he makes is believing that, because he loves it, everyone else will too.

They won’t. The market doesn’t know what you’re selling and doesn’t care. Your potential customers are so busy dealing with the rest of their lives, they haven’t got a spare second to give to your product/work of art/business, no matter how worthy or how much you love it.

What’s your answer to that?

1) Reduce your message to its simplest, clearest, easiest-to-understand form.

2) Make it fun. Or sexy or interesting or informative.

3) Apply that to all forms of writing or art or commerce.

When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer, must give him something worthy of his gift to you.

Granted, artists have an advantage there: people are looking at, listening to, or reading their shit because they want to. We still have to fight for attention, so it has to be arresting, intriguing, interesting, and worth their while. Ben Casnocha points out a fundamental truth, cast in terms of blogging:

One way blogging makes you a better writer is it forces you to work hard for your readers' attention. On the web, it takes less than a second to close the page or click a new link. Your readers are busy and distracted.

This means you must engage the reader out of the gate and take nothing for granted. If you start sucking in the second paragraph, you'll likely lose the reader's attention. They click to a new page.

It's brutal. It makes you better.

He's right, but it applies across the board. As far as my own writing skills go, let me tell you a story: I once had an intern who said he wanted to be a writer, and what should he do? I said, "Go out and live for about ten years. And then try to get work writing anything and everything for anyone who will pay you for it. And do it -- meet your deadlines, don't play prima donna, no existential angst, just churn out the best stuff you can, or better. Read everything you can -- there are lessons there, too. And after a few years of that, you're ready to write your own stuff."

There's a truism that I'm sure came from someone famous whose name I've forogtten, but it's basic and very, very true: you can achieve anything, but the essential element is "practice, practice, practice."

That's what I did. I'm told I'm not a bad writer.

But back to audiences.

I don't know where the idea got started that an artist doesn't need an audience, but it's out there. It's probably another one of those weird takes we got from the Romantics -- you know, the misunderstood genius, like Beethoven (who, as it happens, was highly regarded in his day). There is, in this day and age, a countervailing idea, especially prevalent among those who work in genre fiction: the contract with the reader. I think that's another one that carries over to other modes and mediums, as well. In essence, it's simply that the audience has certain expectations, and the artist has, in some degree at least, to meet those expectations if he hopes to grab his audience. If he's going to flout them, he has to do it in a way that makes sense. He cannot, however, ignore them.

This has its downside, of course -- the temptation to produce something strictly according to formula is overwhelming, or nearly so. It's something we see in books in particular, as the competition gets stiffer and the economics get more and more touchy: everyone needs a best-seller in their catalogue, and the more the merrier. By the same token, getting the attention of a publisher (dealer, performer, what have you) is also harder and harder, because they all want something they know will sell.

The initial post in Sullivan's little mini-series was a comment by one of his readers about self-publishing, which many see as a way around the "establishment."

For years I'd told myself if I couldn't get someone else to publish my writing I wouldn't go the vanity press route. After coming so close (and promising the thing to friends) I decided to go ahead and self-publish (I used createspace). What with blogs, twitter, and all the self-publishing vehicles available, it's ridiculously easy to publish crap.

Somewhere in all that crap is the best crap no one's ever read.

The biggest upshot of the self-publishing revolution is the greater likelihood of people finding the crap that means something to them rather than having experts tell them what crap should mean something to them. To survive, the publishing industry needs to figure out how to make money in that environment because there are tens of thousands of individuals working on the same problem and nowadays the gap between Random House and chuckleheads like me has never been narrower.

Well, yes, but. . . .

The publishing industry has a couple of big points in its favor -- start with a marketing apparatus that a self-published author can't match -- publicity, book tours, connections to retail outlets, to reviewers, the works. And there is another, very important element that a lot of people don't like to talk about: artistic judgment and expertise. That moves us into that scary area of art known as "quality." Editors at major publishing houses, successful art dealers and theatrical producers, bands and orchestras know what's going to catch on (as well as anyone can, anyway), but they also know what's good. (Not always -- I have a string of mercilessly savage reviews to my credit because of that, and I'm a pretty merciful guy.) Let me just say this: why does anyone think that an audience wants to be bothered with crap? And one of the things they can do is identify crap.

So, rather than meander on for the rest of the day, let me summarize: the artist needs an audience, because art, like any other effort at communication, is a two-way street. Each brings something to the transaction. The artist has to grab the audience and hold them; the audience has to grant the artist the space to make his point. (For a book, I generally figure the first fifty pages are going to do it. If you don't have me by then, forget it.) We have industries that connect artist and audience. We also now have means to make those connections on our own -- but you still have to get their attention. And to do that, you've got to have spent at least a portion of your life honing your skills and filling your toolbox.

End of homily.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Rod Dreher Misses Again (Upated)

As promised, but before I look at Rod Dreher's latest attack on same-sex marriage, I'd like to make one very important point that seems to be misleading both the anti-gay and pro-gay contingents: notwithstanding that the question on the ballot in Maine was whether or not to repeal the same-sex marriage law, the issue that formed the basis of the campaign by NOM and the Catholic Church was "save the children." Schubert-Flint were quite clear that they had no campaign on the actual merits of the law itself, and used the scare tactic that worked for them in California. Consequently, to say that voters rejected same-sex marriage per se is putting quite a bit of spin on it.

With that in mind, let's look at what Dreher has to say.

That's a big part of the gay marriage side's problem: They cannot imagine why, aside from bigotry, anyone would disagree with them. To be sure, anyone on the traditional marriage side who doesn't understand that denying marriage to same-sex couples imposes a serious burden on them is either willfully ignorant or hard-hearted. The thing is, empathy should go both ways.

OK, Dreher, why, aside from bigotry, would anyone disagree that fundamental rights should be extended to all citizens barring a rational reason not to? The basis of the anti-gay campaign in this country is religious bias, pure and simple. Once you prune away all the high-sounding rhetoric about tradition and fundamental institutions, what you're left with is that someone's religion doesn't think it's right. Religious bias is not considered a "rational" reason for anything in this country.

As for empathy going both ways, yes, I can subscribe to that. But a little reality check: we, meaning gay and lesbian Americans, have been attacked as part of a culture war proclaimed by religious extremists. We've tried to talk to them, tried reason, tried understanding, and been met with narrow, mean-spirited reactions based on dogma. So let's try some empathy going both ways, OK?

Leaving aside that there is undoubtedly a significant number of people who vote against gay marriage because they flat-out don't like gay people, there are serious and important reasons to vote against same-sex marriage – and these deserve to be taken seriously.

"Serious and important reasons" -- barring religious prejudice, I've never seen one. I've looked -- boy, have I looked! -- and no one has presented a single serious and important reason that isn't based on their own bias. And Dreher doesn't seem to have any in his arsenal, either.

For starters, gay marriage represents a cultural revolution, a fundamental redefinition of what marriage means. Until the past 10 or 20 years, no society had ever sanctioned marriage between same-sex partners. It was unthinkable outside of a small radical fringe. Now, in the twinkling of an eye, it's coming to pass in a few countries, though the vast majority of humankind still finds it unthinkable.

Flat out not true. It's the old "everywhere and always" argument that has been debunked so many times that, were it anyone but Dreher, I'd be amazed that it was being trotted out again. And as far as "the vast majority of humankind," sorry, but it's well known that we don't accept arguments by assertion here.

That's not an argument against gay marriage, but it is an explanation for why gay marriage remains unpopular in this country. Culture precedes politics. If you cannot change culture, you're reduced to arguing, as same-sex marriage supporter Linda Hirshman did in the wake of the Maine defeat, that people shouldn't have the right to vote on the definition of marriage.

Along those lines, gay marriage backers often say that civil rights shouldn't be submitted to a popular vote. If blacks in the Jim Crow South had depended on a majority vote to gain their civil rights, justice would have been a long time coming. That makes sense to people who see no moral or philosophical difference between race and homosexuality. But it is by no means clear that the two categories are interchangeable. For traditionalists, it's a category mistake to say that they are.

First, "gay marriage" is not remaining unpopular in this country. Most people don't care one way or the other. And people did not vote on the definition of marriage. (So far as I can see, "one man, one woman" is not a definition of anything, merely the foundation for a 50% divorce rate.) If you want a nice succinct discourse on the "definition" of marriage, I give you once again Dan Savage:

In light of Savage's comments, can anyone take this next paragraph seriously?

Which brings us to another reason majorities oppose gay marriage: the belief that its supporters are all too willing to force their own particular view of marriage and its meaning on an unwilling society. It's simply not true that their viewpoint is neutral. To believe that same-sex marriage is the equivalent of heterosexual marriage is to accept that the essence of marriage is fundamentally different from what it has always been.

You'll note, by the way, that Dreher never tells us what the "essence of marriage" always has been. He's gone off into Wonderland here -- the remainder of his piece seems to be based on the idea that :"words mean what I say they mean" and never really touches ground again -- not that it had much contact to begin with. It also slides past the issue I opened with: how many of these majorities actually voted on same-sex civil marriage and not on the scare campaigns waged by opponents? Let's get back to that empathy thing: Dreher seems to think that I should try to empathize with people who lie about me, denigrate me at every opportunity, portray me as less than human, as a pervert, as a child-molester, and as essentially un-American. No thank you -- I do not want to get into their heads at all.

Oh, and now the "free speech, religious freedom" argument:

And thoughtful traditionalists understand that legalizing same-sex marriage almost certainly would bring about serious restrictions on freedom of speech and association, particularly for churches and religious organizations. Nobody is going to force pastors to marry same-sex couples, but legal scholars, including prominent gay-rights advocate and law professor Chai Feldblum, have plainly said that there is an irresolvable conflict between religious freedom and gay civil rights – and only one side can prevail.

I'd like to see some citations here. I'm not about to take Dreher as a reliable source, given his record. The opinions I've seen point out that freedom of speech and association, particularly for churches, are very strongly guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and over 200 years of judicial history, and that those guarantees are going to outweigh anything that might happen as a result of legalizing same-sex marriage. (How many Catholic bishops have been sued in Massachusetts, by the way? Anyone have a recent count? I thought so.)

I'd like to know more about that "irresolvable conflict," as well. We have a pathological attitude toward religion in this country, which the Christianist right has made full use of in its campaigns to roll back civil rights for people it doesn't value, which is just about everyone. I have news for Dreher: there are limits on rights. There always have been. If we expect to maintain any sort of workable society, there always will be, on the order of "your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins." And in the realm of civil law, I think it's religious doctrine that's going to have to give way. It has no place in civil law. The overwhelming attitude among gay activists and commentators is that religious figures are free to believe what they want to believe, they can say what they want from their pulpits and no one is going to try to stop them. But if a preacher gets up and says "Go out and kill faggots" and one of his congregation goes out and kills a faggot, guess what -- that's incitement, and it makes him an accessory to murder. That's an old, established limit on free speech.

What Dreher and those who adhere to this nonsense about restrictions want us to believe is that religious doctrine trumps everyone else's rights under civil law. Sorry -- no go.

This is pure garbage:

You can't expect gay folks to privilege religious liberties over their own interests, but likewise, why is it bigoted for religious traditionalists to stand up for what they believe to be bedrock rights – rights that will be curtailed by same-sex marriage?

If they believe that their bedrock rights include the right to dictate everyone else's life, they'd better get used to the real world. Since Dreher and the Christianist right have yet to demonstrate that any real rights are under assault -- except ours -- this is nonsense.

Gay marriage opponents are not crazy to fear what may be done to them should same-sex marriage become the law of the land. In California, supporters of Proposition 8, which repealed same-sex marriage, have suffered vandalism, job and business loss, intimidation and harassment by activists. One would have to be deeply naïve, indeed foolish, to trust that traditionalist dissent will be tolerated once these groups gain the legal upper hand.

OK -- this is, to say the least, grossly overstated, and I think deliberately so. It's time to play the victim card (although now that I think about it, the whole essay is a set up for the victimhood). I'm not going to play the relative-hate game, except to note that when anti-marriage activists are dragged to death behind trucks, beaten to death by gangs of teenagers, or simply knifed thirty or forty times, then I might be willing to listen. Vandalism I'm not going to condone, even the one or two minor incidents that really happened in the wake of Prop 8. If you lose business because people don't like your politics -- well, that's called social disapproval and is the normal result when someone in a community holds views that are out of step with the rest of the group. The "intimidation and harassment" are also grossly overstated, which is a habit of the right -- any criticism is harassment, according to them.

And the grand finale:

None of this is a case per se against gay marriage (Damn! Coulda fooled me -- ed.), for which a strong moral argument certainly can be made. It is rather to say that with gay marriage proponents racking up loss after loss in state balloting, they would do well to quit falling back on the self-serving "bigotry" excuse and do what they (quite justifiably) ask of their opponents: imagine what this issue looks like through the eyes of people not like themselves.

Note that he's harping again on the losses from campaigns based on lies and scare tactics rather than issues, and trying to make us believe that this accurately reflects the country's attitudes toward same-sex marriage. (You'll also note that there's no mention of how the margins of "victory" for the bigots -- and I use that term advisedly -- have shrunk dramatically in just four or five years.) That's the big flaw in putting questions like this to popular vote, and is one reason we have a Bill of Rights and federal courts to adjudicate those questions: the people are subject to fits of majoritarian tyranny, particularly when they're fed a pack of lies. As for "bigotry," I have my perennial comment: Fine, so your religion says it's OK to be a bigot. You know what -- you're still a bigot, even if you have permission.

Well, that woke me up this morning. I have to say, though, I'm getting tired of rebutting the same tired nonsense, even when it's wearing a spiffy new suit. And this one's not so spiffy.

Update and Coda: Just ran across this comment at Andrew Sullivan, which offers a good contrast, in its clarity and humanity, to the whining mess that Dreher manufactured to justify his own bigotry:

A few of my early salon colleagues became very close friends to my then-fiancee and me. In time I asked three of my closest friends, those whom I thought best understood what marriage represented, to be my groomsmen, regardless of the fact that two of them were gay. That those fellows immediately and graciously accepted didn't strike me as exceptional at the time. But as I look at my wedding pictures today and see these guys standing next to me (babyfaced, just a month after my 18th birthday), their hands on my shoulders and beaming smiles, it is bittersweet. I will never accept that these men could participate in my wedding, but that I might never have the honor and privilege of participating in theirs. Particularly since these men were the ones who so clearly illustrated for me the value of monogamous, supportive and positive relationships. My own parents divorced before I was one year old.

To me this debate is about how comfortable America can pretend to be while marginalizing a group of its citizens on the basis of bigotry. Arguments made in defense of traditional marriage are a type of sophistry designed to legitimize a repugnant view that we have otherwise worked so hard to shed.

As a man who has cherished his so-called traditional marriage for more than half his life, let me state clearly that shutting out gays from this essential cultural institution is out-and-out wrong. I don't just know it; I live it.

'Nuff said?


Have you noticed that the concept of "the majority rules," which the right is so fond of when it comes to stripping marriage rights from gays, doesn't apply when it's a matter of getting something they want -- or stopping something they don't want -- in the legislative process? I'm thinking of the Stupak amendment, in particular, but also the Catholic hierarchy's threats in D.C. over the marriage bill there. Granted, the shenanigans in Congress are open to other interpretations, but it's the area where horse-trading turns into open threats: if you don't allow our measure, which upsets established public policy, establishes our personal religious beliefs as the law of the land, and essentially abrogates women's right to personal autonomy, then we'll defeat a bill that stands to benefit millions of people. It's more blatant in the Senate, where the goal is simply obstruction, pure and simple. (Yes, I know Stupak is supposedly a Democrat. Prove it.)

The Church is the most blatant of all: if you grant equal rights to gay and lesbian citizens, we'll pull the plug on our social service work -- which, by the way, according to its own PR, is an essential concern of the Church. They wonder why they are losing adherents. Perhaps their flock has discerned the sharp disconnect between what they say and what they do. Most of us call it "hypocrisy."

Funny how that works.

Update: If you think I'm overstating my case, note this comment from one of Sullivan's readers:

I'm truly at a loss for words at this story. I was raised Catholic my whole life, but was between parishes when it came time to make confirmation in middle school. I took charge of my religious life in high school and college and decided to finally be confirmed earlier this year because I cannot live my life any other way except by the tenants (sic) of the Gospel. This "threat" is so contrary to everything I've learned about service through the Church that I'm just completely numb.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Mormon Surprise (Updated)

Well, color me flummoxed. Andrew Sullivan has a sensible reaction, and if I can get over my shock I may subscribe to it:

It is possible to be cynical or begrudging in reacting to the LDS Church's unprecedented public decision to support civic protections against discrimination in employment and housing with respect to homosexuals in Salt Lake City. I think that is a temptation to be resisted.

What the LDS church has done in Utah is an immensely important and positive step and places the SLCGeorgeFrey:Getty Mormon church in a far more positive and pro-gay position than any other religious group broadly allied with the Christianist right. They have made a distinction - and it is an admirable, intellectually honest distinction - between respecting the equal rights of other citizens in core civil respects, while insisting - with total justification - on the integrity of one's own religious doctrines, and on a religious institution's right to discriminate in any way with respect to its own rites and traditions.

The key issue here is the recognition of the separation between civil law and religious doctrine, which is almost totally lacking on the religious right. (And then they bristle at the idea that they are trying to establish a theocracy.)

I'm not so sure about this:

The other thing to say about this is that it speaks very highly of the strategy of Equality Utah, the state's main gay group, who decided to call the LDS bluff when the church said it was merely opposed to civil marriage - and not other protections for gay and lesbian citizens. Equality Utah immediately tried to get the church to endorse civil unions. That was a non-starter, but in response, we have this support for an anti-discrimination ordinance.

Of course, establishing dialogue is always the preferred method of reconciling differences, but as Sullivan acknowledges farther along in this paragraph, that strategy has been resoundingly unsuccessful with the religious right at large: you can't talk to people who refuse to hear you.

I also suspect that the LDS leadership was not prepared for the backlash from their support of Prop 8 -- I think they got blindsided and were forced to reconsider their stance, which is probably what created the chance for dialogue to begin with. Sorry, but I am not as sublimely confident in human nature as Sullivan is. The basic human impulse is to leave things alone as long as they're not completely intolerable, and that applies to political positions as much as anything else. My take is that the LDS Church got whacked, and whacked hard, and had to rethink its position on gay rights real fast in order to avoid a complete PR disaster -- and remember, the LDS Church is not one that most people in this country accept without misgivings. And I don't think the Mormon leadership is so naive as to think an alliance with the Pope and the likes of Rick Warren is going to last very long -- talk about a nest of vipers.

(Update: There's some support for my view in this post from a reader at Daily Dish:

Third, the LDS Church is extremely sensitive about its public image and wants to be accepted in the mainstream of American life.

There's a reason why the LDS Church spends millions of dollars each years on sappy commercials. There's a reason why an LDS prophet accepted blacks into full membership of the Church after the tide had turned in the Civil Rights Movement. And now, at a time when the Catholic Church should be afraid that it's becoming all about abortion, the LDS Church had rightly become concerned that it was becoming synonymous with homophobia at a time when the arc of history was moving in the other direction. There's reason (and public relations) behind this week's revelation.

The writer also mentions the Mormons' pragmatism and openness to being persuaded by evidence, something that you won't find among the evangelicals and the Catholic hierarchy. Interesting take -- read it.)

That said, whatever the motivations, this is a very welcome development, and one that I hope other conservative religious institutions will take a good look at. I've about lost hope for the Catholic hierarchy -- I think it was the current pope who remarked at one point that separation of church and state was a myth, and any organization that can calmly threaten to close its social service operations -- for which it has no problem accepting taxpayers' money, no matter their religious affiliation -- if D.C. legalizes same-sex marriage doesn't look like it's really capable of the kind of compartmentalization necessary to accept civil law as a separate realm -- but there are possibilities among other groups. I think.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dan Savage on Marriage

Not only is he beautiful, he's smart. A wonderful capsule analysis of what marriage is, in two and a half minutes.


I'm on deadline again, but I do have a couple of things I've been saving that I hope to get to this weekend -- another take-down of that intellectual bright light of the anti-marriage movement, Rod Dreher (who not only screws up his own arguments, but whines about it) and perhaps, if I can pull it together, another commentary on "The End of 'Gay'."

But first, book reviews.

And something nice to look at, from a series I did a number of years ago titled "Veil".

"Triggered Co-Op?" You've Got To Be Kidding Me!

Via Joe Sudbay at AmericaBlog, this little tidbit on how the Senate plans to screw up health-care reform:

As we all know, the action on health insurance reform has moved to the Senate. And, the initial indicators from Senate Democrats aren't good. They're already negotiating with themselves and the gimmick of the week is a triggered co-op proffered by Senator Tom Carper from Delaware. National Journal refers to it as a "Public Option Alternative." It's pretty much the most useless and counter-productive alternative.

Let me get this right: the Senate Democrats, who can't negotiate with the Republicans because the Republicans won't negotiate, are now talking amongst themselves about ways to make health-care reform palatable to the Republicans, who won't vote for it no matter what they do. (The Republicans love their insurance companies.) Or maybe they're just trying to keep Joe Lieberman (I-Me! Me! Me!) happy. And so, being the rocket-scientists they are, they come up with a combination of the worst two ideas so far offered -- and rejected by everyone with their heads screwed on straight. (And I have to admit I'm surprised to find that many senators who fit that description.)

Sudbay links to a commentary by McJoan at DailyKos that I can't get to because my ancient computer is having kidney failure or something this morning. (There's also the fact that the new design of AmericaBlog contains so much crap that the pages never finish loading.) She's pungent and right on target, from the quote he posted. If I manage to get to it, I may come back with further commentary.

But for the time being, this fish smell many day dead. (And I wonder how much the insurance/pharma industrial complex has donated to Carper.)