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Dispatches from the Culture Wars: Anti-Gay Bigots Endorsing Terrorism 27 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification.
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Dispatches from the Culture Wars: Anti-Gay Bigots Endorsing Terrorism

An interesting conversation about homophobia in Israel and among fundamentalist Jews. Although because of the incursion into Lebanon, the World Pride Day in Jerusalem had to be cancelled, this little bit of hysteria from last year’s pride celebration makes you wonder what might have happened had this year’s celebration gone forward. I suppose it should be comforting that the people of Israel are subjected to religious wingnuts in the same way as we are here in America, but it’s just frustrating.


Are Queers Really Just Like Everyone Else? 26 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, News.
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I have written before about my unease with the battle for marriage rights for gays and lesbians. On one hand, I definitely believe that any civil privileges garnered through legally recognized marriage must be equally distributed to all citizens; and as a human being, I support those of my gay brothers and sisters who want to get married.  And from what I understand from friends who have registered their domestic partnerships, it does make life easier when the government simply sanctions your relationship instead of having to draw up a seriers of legal documents just for the basic protections on property, wills, power of attorney, etc.

On the other hand, again as I’ve said before (and as Michael Warner has forcefully argued in The Trouble with Normal), I fear that this push to integrate into society or to assimilate in some regards is actually detrimental to queer culture and life. Although I don’t want to maintain blatant inequality in our democracy, I do worry that integration as a goal, as an end-in-itself, is counter-productive to queer life. One of the most amazing parts of gay and lesbian culture is the ways that we have created our relationships. Because we were excluded from normal relationship structures, we created our own; queer relationships are flexible and provisional as a rule, they are negotiated and change with the needs of partners. This pattern risks disappearing if our relationships become subject to the normative patterns of heterosexual marriages. And it is really the creation of a normative for queer relationships that worries me.

As I mentioned yesterday in my review of “A Very Natural Thing,” the problem with the gay libbers wasn’t that they were against marriage or commitment, but that they created a kind of normative: those who wanted commitment were “bad gays.” The strength of an ongoing gay community is going to be anchored in its flexible relationships. Because “marriage” is a dominant and heteronormative institution, I don’t see how becoming part of the system can occur without giving into it as a normative.

As evidence of my fear, the Los Angeles Times reported today on the shifted strategies of gay and lesbian organizations spearheaded (of course) by the HRC. Apparently the new strategy is to convince Americans that we are just like them.

On a human level, yes, we love and hurt, feel joy and pain, have relationships, fuck, go to work, watch tv, etc. Fine.

But on an experiential level, loving and desiring someone of the same sex is NOT the same as loving someone or desiring someone of a different sex. Even in a world without homophobia, the experiences would be different. And that experience has produced throughout history very different meanings for the men and women who experience them. The greatest tragedy of gaining equality in the democracy would be to lose the power to define the meanings of our lives and loves for ourselves, instead of having them defined by the majority culture.

On the civic level, again, I completely support full equality under the law. What I fear and, frankly, loathe is the abdication of our power to have meaning-making interactions with each other as gay men and women, giving it back to the dominant culture. We fought four nearly 50 years after WWII to wrest back from religion, psychiatry, medicine, and the law the right to define our own lives. Arguing that we are “Normal” and “just like everyone else” is a betrayal of what we have fought for.

A Problematic Multiculturalism (yeah, yeah, a Star Trek Post) 22 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Race & Ethnicity.
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voyagr11.jpgAt the risk of revealing my total nerddom (for those who don’t know already that I’m addicted to the Sci-Fi channel and regularly play Dungeons & Dragons), I’ve been watching Star Trek Voyager on DVD (thanks be to netflix.com!) with my best friend. [In my defense, I’m not as nerdy as these people or these…seriously, I’m not!]

Anyway, in an episode I watched last night, one of the subplots was about B’Elanna (the fetching half-Klingong/half-Human to your left) grappling with her Klingon heritage and trying to decide whether or not she was going to honor a particular Klingon ritual of getting poked with pain sticks after eating a scrumptuous blood pie. There are a series of scenes where crewmates try to convince her to go through with the ritual.

What prompted this odd and meandering post on my blog was the arguments her crewmates used to push her into the ritual. One crewmate argues, “But it’s who you are!” and another says, “You’ve been running away from who you are your entire life.” The problem here is that this kind of sentiment is at the heart of racism itself. Taking a step back, racism is the belief that a certain (arbitrary) set of physical attributes is connected to a corresponding set of personality and cultural attributes; racism assumes that this connection is biological, inherent, and essential to the individual; and racism finally assumes that an individual’s culture and personality are visible on their bodies for everyone to see. To say this another way, racism believes that cultural and personal characteristics are biological and inborn. Thus, in a racist paradigm, B’Elanna must undergo a Klingon ritual because it is who she is — despite the fact that, in the story, she was raised on earth by her human father.

We live in a nation (indeed in a world) where people are migrating at a rate heretofore unknown and where people in every country in the world now have contact with people who are both physically and culturally different. This has been an increasingly important dimension of human life over the last 500 years following the spread of European influence around the globe and colonization and intermixing of cultures. Today, technology allows migrant groups to maintain connections to their ‘home cultures’ and to resist cultural integration and to even build stronger ethnic boundaries around the world. In a pluralistic democracy, this has necessitated the various theories of multiculturalism, especially in Europe, North America and Australia. The problem comes when trying to figure out how to organize a society that respects cultural diversity without becoming a society that requires cultural diversity.

The common way that we talk about multiculturalism is in terms of “identity” (it’s who you are) and we commonly draw ethnic boundaries based on the relationship between identity and cultural practice through creation of ethnic normatives (e.g., Latinos speak Spanish). These boundaries are drawn both within and without ethnic groups. The problem is that by attaching the cultural practice to the identity, it ends up essentializing the practice, that is, it makes racist claims. Multiculturalism has the weird effect of helping us to see external racism (it’s obvious to when a white person tells a black person that they can’t dance ballet because they’re black) while blinding us to multicultural racism that seeks to maintain cultural difference (it’s less obviously racist when one Latino says to another that they are ‘traitors’ because they can’t speak spanish). In our well-meaning efforts to allow people the right and ability to create and practice whatever culture they want, we inadvertantly end up reifying racist boundaries.

B’Elanna isn’t biologically connected to a ritual or cultural practice. She is who she was raised to be and who she choses to be. Traditions can be important identity markers, but they are by their nature cultural boundary markers. And cultural boundary markers in a free society must be porous and permeable. Culture is a choice, not a biological destiny. The tension in a pluralistic democracy is that white boys listen to hip hop, black folks own mansions, Asian Americans become Shakespeare scholars, and Latinos run for office wearing American flag lapel pins. The ethnic boundares in practice really are fluid and porous. But the social costs of crossing the boundaries in any direction can be high (loss of identity, loss of community, loss of family), becauase we nostalgically cling to our racist assumptions.

Dispatches from the Culture Wars: New Judge Jones Interview 21 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Evolution, News.
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Dispatches from the Culture Wars: New Judge Jones Interview

This is an excellent recap of an interview (not available online) with the judge who presided over the Dover, Pennsylvania, “intelligent design” case last year. At the end is his response to the absurd idea that he is an “activist judge.”

Lebanon’s Obliteration 21 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Democracy, News, War & Terrorism.
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I’ve been struggling for the past week with Israel’s destruction of Lebanon, a country on the verge of forming a multicultural democracy, since the so-called “Cedar Revolution.” While I understand the threat of Hezbolla, which operates in Lebanon as if there were no Lebanese government, to the security of the State of Israel, I cannot wrap my mind around this out-of-proportion and unnecessary onslaught, destroying yet again an entire people caught in the middle. I can think of no possible political or moral justification for the actions of the State of Israel in this case. (I rarely find that I agree with the incredibly imbalanced response on the part of the Israeli government; a full-fledged democracy with, I assume, nuclear capabilities, owes more to the world than a non-stop bloodbath in the region.) In yesterday’s Salon.com, Juan Cole, professor of mideast studies at University of Michigan, examined the renewed war on Lebanon. I often find Dr. Cole’s analyses to be refreshing in their candor and rationality.

Cole believes that Israel’s plan is similar to their 1970 success in creating a refugee crisis in Jordan, which resulted in the massacre of thousands of Palestinian-Jordanians and ultimately the squelching of the PLO in Jordan. Laying aside the moral implications of a such an end, Cole argues that Lebanon is far different from Jordan–rather than a stable kingdom with a loyal army, Lebanon is a multi-cultural society and a fragile new democracy only recently freed from Syrian occupation. As reformers within the fledgling democracy were pushing to disarm Hezbollah, the growing conflict with Israel served Hezbollah’s political ends by justitfying their militia. Cole takes Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah to task for his delusions and outright lies and for his acts of violence, which are not in dispute here. Hezbollah has never disarmed after the end of the civil war and they use Israel’s might to their south as justification for their continued violence and, frankly, as a means to continually garner support from the Shi’ite population of southern Lebanon. Although it doesn’t excuse its paramilitary actions, in recent years, Hezbollah has also morphed into a political party, it has been quite successful in bringing much needed social services to the poor shiites of the region.

And so what of Israel and its response to the most recent Hezbollah violence? Cole explains:

What of Israel? There is no question that Israel has the right to defend itself against rocket attacks, and to respond appropriately to Hezbollah’s illegal and immoral abduction of two soldiers and killing of others. A “proportional” response by Israel to Hezbollah’s initial attack, of the sort demanded by international human rights lawyers, would have involved killing three Hezbollah fighters and capturing two down at the border between the two countries — and a heavier response directly specifically at Hezbollah could also have been justified. Instead, Israel has bombed, blockaded, isolated and crippled the entire country. Why? In preparation for what?

Cole describes the Israeli plan, the hope that with an incursion into Southern Lebanon, they can turn the majority of lebanese against Hezbollah, so that the Sunni, Druze and Maronites will unite and use the army to disarm the paramilitary party. With already nearly 500,000 refugees (according to the U.N.) and already hundreds of civilian deaths in the bombing, Israel hopes that the civilians will leave the south of Lebanon so that the 5,000 or so Hezbollah militia can be more easily targeted; and they hope that a refugee crisis in Beirut will force the government to send in the army against Hezbollah.

Cole argues that the plan will not work because of Lebanon’s history, because the Lebanese are so deeply scarred by their civil war, which only ended barely a decade ago. He also argues that the Lebanese army is small and green, as yet untrained; and that thousands of the soldiers are sympathetic shi’ites. [Since Cole wrote his op-ed a few days ago, Israel has continued it’s bombing and issued orders for the total evacuation of southern Lebanon.] Cole also predicts that the shi’ites in Iraq are watching the situation carefully and that the already restive shi’ite population (anti-Israel demonstrations already took place earlier this week) will begin to fight against American occupiers as supporters of Israel.

Of course Israel has the right to defend its citizens against missile attacks and its soldiers against being attacked. But Israel’s disproportionate response and its overreaching plan to cleanse the entire south of Lebanon of Shiites will at best buy a temporary respite. If Israel could not destroy Hezbollah during 20 years of actual Israeli military occupation of the south, it cannot do so with intensive bombing raids and some ground incursions. […] The Israelis have responded the same way to military threats for decades — with overwhelming force. This is perhaps understandable, but each time they overreact they create future catastrophes for themselves. Just as their 1982 invasion of Lebanon and occupation of the south haunted them for a generation, they will be living with the blowback of their ill-considered war on hapless little Lebanon for decades to come. Tragically, the United States, as Israel’s closest ally, will also have to suffer for its actions.

In pop psychology, there’s an idea of “compassion overload,” when a friend just can’t muster the emotional strength to feel sorry for someone anymore, and may even turn critical or mean, to protect themselves emotionally from the person who is hurting. But what’s the term for watching someone you care about make repeatedly bad choices and then finally not caring anymore if they succede, and indeed, because their choices are unethical (or immoral) they are hurting other people, so you actually hope they “get caught” and someone puts a stop to it?

Israel has demonstrated in the past their ability to produce lightening speed, targeted and comensurate responses to terrorist acts. But over the past 15 years, it’s as if they have forgotten how, and now all that they can see is massive, widespread violence, and that’s all that will satisfy their needs. Such bloodlust must not be tolerated by the world community. If Israel was on the outs with the international community before, surely it will loose all credibility now. Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani philosopher, argued that terrorism comes in five forms: State, Religious, Criminal, Pathological, Oppositional. Israel’s actions are clearly state sponsored terrorism perpetrated against an entire ethnicity of a sovereign nation. But, as Ahamad notes, a state will refuse to give an accurate and empirical definition of terrorism, because then in doing so it loses the ability to control its own population with fear of the terrorist, and it further loses the ability to act with violence in the world.

To underscore my point that Israel has perpetrated an act of state-sponsored terrorism, the San Francisco Chronicle today reports that (like the U.S. invasion of Iraq) plans for the invasion of Lebanon were put in place over a year ago. The recent kidnapping just provided a convenient excuse to set it in motion, as if anyone could possibly believe that the displacement of more than a million people and the manipulation of a sovereign government at gun point could possibly be justified in the present circumstances.

The End of the Castro 14 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Inequality & Stratification.
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I’ve mentioned before my unease with the dissolution of gay neighborhoods around the nation and the problems this will create for gay and lesbian communities (Chicago, San Francisco, West Hollywood, D.C., etc., are all experiencing gradual end of their gay neighborhoods). Here in San Francisco, the straight move-ins to the Castro have started throwing their weight around, landlords have declined to renew leases on gay businesses, and stay at home straight moms with strollers are now screaming at the bears lazing away their Sunday afternoons in front of the Starbucks. Well, the Daily Show tackled the issue with hilarity, as usual. Watch the first half of their Wednesday night segment, “There Goes the Gayborhood” on salon.com (you’ll have to click through an ad to watch the clip if you’re not registered; it’s worth it).

The Daily Show July 12, 2006, “There Goes the Gayborhood” on Salon.com

Ken Lay, Christian Extraordinaire! 14 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Christianity, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, News.
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Apparently, Ken Lay’s memorial serivce included the incredibly hyperbolic (not to mention offensive) comparison of Lay with Martin Luther King Jr. and (I’m not kidding) Jesus Christjesusthumbs.jpg himself. Family and friends wept on … I can’t believe that no one laughed out loud. This is the man who stole the retirement funds or hundreds of employees, defrauded rate payers around the nation, and used his ill-gotten gains to buy mansions and private jets. I guess American Christianity has always had the loop-hole that if you’re doing it to make money, it’s okay with Jesus!

Funeral attendees were a who’s who of the actual American elite [as opposed to the “liberal elite”], that is, the wealthy ruling class, including of course George H.W. and Barbara-let-them-eat-cake Bush. I’m sure the people who loved Ken Lay (I just threw up in my mouth a little) are grief-stricken. But for the rest of us, one corrupt extravagantly overpaid, thinks-he’s-above-the-law CEO down, several hundred to go.

Lest you think that I’m now being hyperbolic, read what Ben Stein, conservative (i.e., neo-liberal) economist and game show host had to say about CEOs in America recently. If Ben Stein and Todd Ormsbee agree on an economic issue, you know that something is wrong!

[Thanks be to Mike the Mad Biologist for the Lay and Stein links.]

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Ge-enes — Ah ah ah ah! 13 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Biology.
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McSweeney’s has a funny piece by David Ng, where the von Trapp children ask basic genetic quesitons of a geneticist.  Not as funny as Joseph Smith’s First Vision, but worth a giggle. [Thanks be to geneticsandhealth.com for the link.]

Naturalism and Meaning (after John Dewey) 13 July 2006

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Philosophy & Social Theory.
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[Apologies to all who tried to read this the other day. I’m having problems working out how to password things, but still have an initial paragraph opener. It’s not as important for this post, so I’m going to go ahead and put it up. I suppose I’ll need to take off my training wheels and move to the grown-up version of WordPress.]

Among my personal hobby horses is a reconception of social theory — especially the social theory that deals with the production and circulation of culture — by taking account of cognition and evolution. My forthcoming book examines the way a particular community actually begot a culture in a particular time and place — gay men in 1960s San Francisco; the methodology implied by a naturalistic theory of the origins of culture have driven my study and now the writing of my results. Reading John Dewey’s Experience and Nature led me to naturalism in the first place, and I’m now revisiting Dewey’s ideas after spending a couple years reading in evolutionary theory and cognitive sciences to update his theory of culture. To the old man’s credit, Dewey’s theories have held up surprisingly well, given that more than 80 years have passed since the first edition of Experience and Nature came out. Dewey (and George Herbert Mead) were both working to understand the relationship of scientific studies of cognition (what today we would call cognitive psychology) and to blend together the role of the body with the role of the social context of the individual body’s development of mind (that is, consciousness or awareness and the ability to think).


How Art Made the World (Review)–A Naturalistic Explanation 12 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Culture, Evolution, Painting & Sculpture, Religion, Reviews.
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PBS’s new series How Art Made the World has really captivated me over the past couple weeks. The first two episodes combine art history with cognitive science and neurobiology, archaelogy, human evolution, and anthropology—interdisciplinary inquiry at its best. Dr. Michael Spivey (Art Historian, Cambridge University) narrates, easily moving back and forth between between various disciplines to explain the human need for and ability to create representation in two-dimensional images and three-dimensional sculpture. The questions asked move beyond art criticism to explore why humans create certain kinds of images and why certain kinds of representations seem to produce heightened pleasure in our consumption of art. My inner Deweyan loves the way Spivey’s explanations seamlessly blend scientific knowledge with interpretive discussions of art’s meaning. My only quibble, especially in the 2nd episode, was that the narrative is a kind of triumphal progression: each episode begins with a mystery and ends with The Answer. Although it makes for great educational television, the social scientist in me would blanched at Dr. Spivey’s certainty about his answers; I would have prefered a more open ended, provisional answer (especially where archaelogical speculation is concerned!).

mujeres-mitologias-venus-of-willendorf-palaeolithic-gravetian-austria-25000-20000-bce-facsimile_book-379.jpgEpisode One, “More Human than Human” begins with the Venus of Willendorf and asks why human artists seem to have an inexplicable tendency, cross culturally, to create images of the human body that are exagerated in proportions. Spivey gives examples from ancient Egypt and Greece and from around the world to illustrate. Interestingly, Greek sculpture went through a brief period where it created realistic images of young men (kore), standing statically upright, and accurately proportionate. But it wasn’t long before the sculptors began to produce what we now think of as “classical” greek bodies were born. What is so fascinating about the statues is that they aren’t proportioned naturally; rather, they are exaggerated proportionally (i.e., real human beings don’t look like that!). Anyway, in comes neurologist V.S. Ramachadran to explain how our brains respond to certain stimuli with pleasure. Spivey illustrates with a species of seagull from the west coast of Spain, whose chicks respond to a red stripe on their mother’s bill during feeding. The chicks respond more vigorously if presented with a dummy-head with three red stripes! In other words, it seems that our brains respond to certain aspects of our bodies, and they REALLY respond to those same aspects when exaggerated. And so around the world, human beings produce art that is “more human than human.” Cool.

cave-bison-2.jpgEpisode Two: “The Day Pictures Were Born”: There are two big questions in the second episode. One is why homo sapiens, who have been around for over 150,000 years, only began creating representational art about 35,000 years ago. The debates among biologists, evolutionary linguists, paleo-anthropologists, etc., wage on about what has been called “The Great Leap Forward,” or in Dr. Spivey’s words, “The Creative Explosion”, which includes the development of language (around 50,000 years ago). That question is left a mystery, and the second big question is, what do these 35,000 year old paintings mean and why did humans start making them? The episode leads us through the discovery of Altamira and Lascaux and then through several theories regarding the origins of cave painting. The most famous of these proposed that they were hunting rituals preceding the hunt; problematically, people around the world seemed to eat different animals than they painted.

Then there’s the problem that cave art is not only of animals, but of humans, human body parts, humans morphed with animals, geometric patterns, spots, webs, and even abstract images (who knew?). Using anthropology from South Africa and the San people, Spivey and a couple experts theorize, rather plausibly given their evidence, that these early cave paintings were part of solitary shamanistic rituals, and very likely were produced after trance states. A neurologist at London’s Institute of Psychiatry demonstrates a really cool machine that produces trance-like responses in the brain through the visual cortex, and show that our brains are hardwired to receive certain kinds of geometric patterns and that trance states actually turn those into hyper drive. Finally, as trance states get deeper and deeper, the entranced begins to see images of things that are emotionally resonant with the individual. Spivey hypothesizes that for this reason, different cultures around the world had trance-visions of different objects and animals. As I mentioned, it is here that I had reservations with the surety with which Spivey declared that the mystery is solved.

Regardless, in both the representation of human bodies and in the cave paintings, I find it fascinating that our brains respond with such intense pleasure to representations of the world wrought by our own hands. And I find it interesting as well that some representations are pleasurable and others aren’t — and that which images produce pleasure is a complex interaction of the biological wiring of our brains and the cultural contexts within which we have developed our aesthetic values and sensibilities.

I have Episode Three, “The Art of Persuasion”, about political art and propaganda recorded on TiVo, but haven’t watched it yet. I’ll return and report after I watch it.