As many of you may have heard, the halloween celebration in the Castro got ugly this year with the shootings of 9 people as the police were herding the crowd out of the neighborhood. This is just the most recent Halloween fiasco, which has been on a downward slide for the past 5 or 6 years. In 2002 and 2003 there were gay bashings, so the police and city stepped in to try to control it, but the vandalism and violence have continued year after year.
Gay men in San Francisco started holding impromptu street parties on Halloween shortly after World War II. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, they were in North Beach, usually in front of the Black Cat bar across the street from Vesuvius and City Lights Bookstore, the cafe where the Beats were hanging out at the time. There were similar goings on in Polk gulch and eventually by the early 1970s, they had moved to the Castro as the gay men moved into that neighborhood. There had always been a smattering of straight folks at these street parties (think: fag hag hangers-on), but starting in the late 1990s, the Halloween party got co-opted by that “cool” or should I say “hip” crowd of straight people who were sort of tourists in San Francisco while they lived the go-go days of the bubble, hopping from neighborhood to neighborhood, getting the local “culture.” By 2000, young straight kids from around the Bay Area were crashing the party and by 2002, there was violence. This year’s apparent gang shooting was just the last straw.
Obviously, I’m concerned about the violence, which in years past has been anti-gay. But it’s kind of a cultural thing for me to: This is not gay male culture any more. This is the cooption of a gay male tradition in San Francisco, turning into something that reflects neither gay male culture at large (gay men in the U.S. have the lowest criminality rates of all males in America) or of San Francisco (with its self-identity of inclusiveness and respect for all its bizarreness). Realistically I know that you can’t control who participates in public cultural practices; nonetheless, I mourn the loss of a particularly gay celebration, which had in the past always included the joy and subversion of camp and drag and leather dress-up, and men kissing each other (and not in that bizarre way that only privileged straight frat boys do on halloween, but in the way that gay men do).
The loss of the castro to straight white yuppies is increasingly eating away at the cohesiveness of San Francisco’s gay community. It’s been a long and slow process, like a disease that doesn’t kill you right away, but takes years to have its nuisive effect. The lesbians trickled away from Duboce Triangle and from the city altogether through the late 1980s and early 1990s; the working class and young gay men have been forced out by the gentrification; the land lords have canceled leases on gay businessnesses, slowly but surely over the past few years; and the only people who can afford to buy housing are professional couples, nearly all straight.
Some argue that it’s just a sign of our acceptance in the city that the neighborhood is dissolving. Maybe so. But I feel it as an assault on the geographical social space that enables gay men to maintain a culture of their own. Without it, or something like it, we revert back to the 1950s culture of skulking off from our straight neighborhoods to bars for a quick fuck. Gay neighborhoods afford the opportunity for more complex cultural depth, that takes our shared gayness and allows a proliferation of meanings. It is hard to estimate the loss of the social space, or even to feel it, as it has been happening so slowly (it’s not like the police came in and rounded us up and moved us out). But ultimately, I fear that the loss of gay neighborhoods in San Francisco can only have the effect of widdling away at the culture, because empirically, people need regular and normal social interaction to generate the meanings that make up a culture. If gay men are dispersed into the population again, like we were before WWII, then we have lost the dazzling work of our gay ancestors’ who worked tirelessly to create spaces for us to *be* (to use 1960s parlance).
For me still, 10 years out of the closet, I have an enormous sense of relief and calm when I enter a gay space. Still in San Francisco, being around straight people too long takes its toll, even when they are accepting, because there is still the unspoken expectation that I the gay man won’t make them uncomfortable by saying something wrong or ‘too gay.’ Some gay men accept and even desire this burden, and want to pass and integrate. I have no problem with that choice, as long as it doesn’t lead to the foreclosure of my choice to live in a gay space.
Afterword: As if to pour salt in the wounds, there have been a series of gay bashings in the Castro over the past couple months, where three gay men and one lesbian have been attacked, beaten up and raped by a gang of straight men. The community is currently organizing neighborhood patrols, like they had in the 1970s, to ensure our safety in what used to be our neighborhood.
Whereas when I watched Part 1, I found myself wishing Dawkins could be more social-scientific in his analysis of religion, watching the second installment I just found myself wishing he would slap some of these people, which is evidence of my own growing impatience with the power of religion in American society and of Dawkins’ equanimity (at least on film). Overall, I would say that Part 2 is far superior to Part 1, and would highly recommend it, even for showing to religious believers. My online acquaintance Bob McCue (who has posted thoughtful and detailed responses on this blog on the evolution of religion, here and here), has argued recently that the problem with the documentary as a whole is that it is basically preaching to the choir, that believers would not be swayed or moved to consider critically their beliefs by watching the film, and in fact might probably be turned away from the film by Dawkins’ apparent strident atheism. I find that to be especially true of Part 1, but perhaps less so of Part 2 for a couple of reasons.
First, Dawkins addresses directly the thinking and arguments of religion, especially of conservative brands of Judaism and Christianity. The Christians he engaged were difficult to listen to as they defended both their moral positions and their immoral actions. But what is worthwhile about Dawkins’ response is that he remains relatively calm and with more patience than I could muster, responds and engages their arguments with basic reasoned responses. Although I do still think that such engagement is, at the end of the day, probably a waste of time, simply because religious adherents don’t share the basic assumptions of scientific method or rational inquiry, I think that some people might be given pause by Dawkins’ simple insistence that they give reasons for their beliefs and actions. [Incidentally,I found it a stark lack that there were no imams interviewed for the program; and I also wondered how he would have addressed Buddhism and Hinduism (both of which, incidentally, have fundamentalist forms).]
Secondly, I found the actual science, albeit watered down, to be strong. Two main points from evolutionary and cognitive sciences are given: a) that children are genetically set up to absorb information from their surroundings and will accept information given to them by authority figures; and b) that we are genetically selected for altruism, the biological source of our basic morality. On both points, Dawkins raises the scientific evidence as reasons for his positions, namely that children should not be subjected to harmful ideas that create faulty and dangerous morality and that moral behavior is not based on a divine lawgiver.
I also found Dawkins to be magnanimous in his dealings with the likes of Michael Bray, who was arguing for why murdering OB-Gyns who perform abortions is morally justified. Dawkins notes that he could tell Bray was sincere and at base a good man, but that because of his religious views, he couldn’t see the moral complexity of the issues and the immorality of his own position, which he simply passed off to God. Equally frustrating to me was Dawkins’ conversation with the pastor running a Hell House in Colorado. For those not in the know, about 15 years ago, an Assemblies of God congregation staged an “alternative” haunted house for Halloween, wherein people would see, in stead of monsters, the fate of torture and damnation awaiting sinners in the next life. Rather than engaging Dawkins’ arguments, Keenan Roberts simply resorted to “witnessing,” that it is God’s law and he must scare children so that they’ll not burn in hell. [I highly recommend the documentary film Hell House as a bird’s eye view into the social construction of hell and sin and the inner workings of a conservative evangelical school, congregation, and family.]
Dawkins quoting Steven Weinberg (1979 Nobel Laureat in Physics):
Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you’d have good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.
As a normative, I would argue that moral positions must be supported and held provisionally as we would any proposition about the world. That means that moral positions must be accompanied by reasoned arguments and evidence, just as we would expect of any other kind of position, political, economic, etc. The primary disconnect between people of faith and people of reason is precisely there: for a person of faith, the morality is a given, an end-in-itself, beyond critique and examination. This faithful position is held without realizing that their own moralities are historical and culturally specific, even though they experience them as transcendental and divine. Either that gap must be bridged or we must find a way within democracies to rein in the power of this kind of thinking.
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas 4 July 2006Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, History, Political Commentary, Politics.
Reading through the blogosphere last night I stumbled upon what looks like a possibly great new quarterly journal about the trials and travails of democracy today. Taglined “a progressive” journal, the inaugural issue (Summer 2006) had some really fascinating content, including two excellent review essays, one about the House of Representatives and another about Islam in Europe. Features on public funding of medical care and the failure of neoconservatism round out some interesting reading. Check it out. I’ll be probably be posting some responses to some of the articles over the next couple months as I digest them.
From the editors’ message to readers:
Yet we launch this endeavor at a time when American politics has grown profoundly unserious. As they have amassed more power for themselves than at any point in nearly a century, conservatives have grown tired in their thinking as it’s become clear that their ideas have failed. But instead of stepping into the breach with a coherent response, many progressives have adopted a compulsive fixation on electoral posturing and crafting the message of the day. Progressives too often have come to eschew bold ambition, preferring to take shelter in the safe harbor of “realism” and “competence.”
The times demand more. We are undergoing a profound transformation in our economy, in the nature of global realities and national security threats, and the character of American democracy and society. This transformation has rendered obsolete the comfortable assumptions of the 1930s, the 1960s, the 1980s–and even the 1990s. As progressives have during previous times of similar flux, we must craft a response that moves beyond the mere criticism of the right wing or a rigid adherence to the past. We need a twenty-first-century progressivism that builds on our proud history, is true to our central values, and is relevant to our times.
[My review of Part 2—The Virus of Faith can be found here.]
There has been much ado about Richard Dawkins’ Channel 4 two-part documentary, The Root of All Evil?, mainly because of Dawkins’ almost strident atheism and because of the relatively inflamatory title. [The video is not yet available in North America, but both parts are currently downloadable from Google Video, Part 1 here and Part 2 here.] Having been raised in a pretty orthodox Mormon household and having family on both sides who are quite religious now, I tend to be less afraid of religiosity in general than Dawkins seems to be. And I do sympathize with the religious impulse, the desire to beleive in something greater, for an explanation of both the uncertainty and fickleness of life as well as the disappointment with the realities of our existence.
When I realized I no longer believed in God, I found myself with twin wounds, one left by the loss of community, the other by the loss of submission to something greater. Dawkins seems to miss these dynamics completely, the importance of communal bonds and identity formation in people’s desire for and attachment to their religious beliefs. On Bill Moyers’ new series, On Faith & Reason, Collin McGinn said that when he left faith behind he found the world without God to be so much more vibrant and rich than it ever was with God. Although I did also eventually arrive at that conclusion, the years it took me to separate myself from religion were painful and transformed my most basic world view. The difficulty in replacing one’s world view and/or accepting the full implications of rationality and science can be quite overwhelming, but the documentary presents Reason as an easy englightenment, to which folks should easily convert.
So the main problem I had with the documentary emerges from my personal experience combined with my training as a sociologist: Dawkins doesn’t seem to fully understand how and why religion has the power it does on people, the role that it actually plays in people’s lives to give them meaning. All he seems to be able to see is its irrationality and anti-scientific mindset, along with the horrifying moral consequences of such belief. I had no qualms or disagreement with Dawkins on these points, but the documentary seemed to set up two categories of religion and science without addressing the complexities of why people believe in the first place and why it can be so hard for an individual, emotionally, socially and psychologically, to leave a faith-community. An exploration of these dynamics can help us understand more deeply why people refuse the evidences of science and rational argument; and more importantly it could help us understand to have more productive dialogues with the faithful, something of utmost importance if we are going to save our democracies around the world from collapsing into theocracies.
Another quibble I had was that the documentary painted religion with such a big brush that suicide bombers and rabid fundamentalists are lumped in with the millions of religious who fight injustice, hunger, and violence world wide. Human religions are vastly diverse and have multiple and contradictory consequences in the real world. It is problematic to ignore these deeply moral aspects to many of the world’s religious. I don’t point this out as an apology for religion, but rather to insist on seeing religion as a form of culture in all its complexity. Dawkins’ points about rationality and science stand even in the face of the morally positive aspects of religion.
[Dawkins has responded to many aspects of these and other criticisms in The New Statesman and in a great interview with the Infidel Guy.]
In all other aspects, I found the documentary to be a solid explanation of why scientific thinking and rational thought should prevail over religious belief, especially in the public sphere. Dawkins’ discussions with the likes of Ted Haggard illustrate clearly the problems of having rational discourse with some kinds of faithful. Haggard refuses the most basic premises of rational thinking and evidentiation of argument and insists, in an odd religious postmodern twist, that all ideas are of equal value and should be given equal time. He even goes so far as to accuse Dawkins of arrogance for making scientific assertions. In another interview on Point of Inquiry, Dawkins points out the arrogance is actually making assertions for which you have no evidence whatsoever and expecting that no one will criticize your position.
As I’ve been musing lately about the merits of rationality and especially about my own work in social theory and method, I find myself frustrated by the simple fact that many people simply, willfully refuse to accept the basic mode of rational thinking. McGinn pointed out that both the academic left and the religious right have been assailing rational thought in an odd sort of allegiance for the past 30 years, where on one hand postmodern philosophy and on the other fundamentalism make similar claims that require belief without evidence and refuse the most basic of rules of logic and empirical reasoning. It may simply be that it is impossible to have that discussion where those premises are not shared. For the academic left, perhaps more empirically and rationally minded researchers can work harder to actively engage in advocating the methods of rational inquiry; and perhaps for the religious right, the best we can do is continue unceasingly to fight for the fundamental principles of democracy that would allow them their religiosity without infringing on social progress. One debate, on the left, is ongoing and will probably work itself as postmodernism continues to lose its caché outside of the humanities; but with Dawkins, I do fear the power of the fundamentalist mind whose morality is clear and justifies violence and coercion to remake society in his or her image.
Academic Freedom 15 June 2006Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Cultural Critique, Politics.
In the now stunningly long thread about Prof. Nielsen's dismissal from BYU, much of the argument has been revolving around the issue of Academic Freedom. I've been trying to take large, complex issues and squeeze them into little blog comments, to little effect. And so I thought it would be worthwhile to put some great articles up here for those readers interested in thinking through issues of Academic Freedom with more care and detail.
First, an important print debate between David Horowitz (a right-wing culture crusader, and author of the so-called “Academic Bill of Rights” which would seek to exert state control over university education) and Stanley Fish (a long-time professor and university administrator and erstwhile commentator at the Chronicle of Higher Education).
And finally, a couple weeks ago, Michael Bérubé delivered a speech to the AAUP in which he addressed the Horowitz campaign and the meaning of Academic Freedom in our current political climate, and the importance of defending academia from state control. [I would also highly recommend reading the comments section to Berube's piece.]
These will give you a feel for the debates going on both within the academy and in state legislatures around the country right now. Hopefully, it will also illustrate what is at stake in this struggle and illuminate what academic freedom should actually be.
BYU Professor Fired 13 June 2006Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Cultural Critique, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Mormonism/LDS Church.
[This is a continuation of the discussion about the BYU professor who protested the church’s political and partisan backing of the Federal Marriage Amendment earlier this month. See my two previous posts, BYU Professor Speaks Out and BYU Professor, Part 2.]
The Salt Lake Tribune reported today that, as expected, Jeff Nielsen, adjunct professor of philosophy at BYU, was terminated based on his letter to the editor challenging the church’s political stance on same-sex marriage. The termination letter from the department chair, Daniel Graham, read in part,
In accordance with the order of the church, we do not consider it our responsibility to correct, contradict or dismiss official pronouncements of the church. … Since you have chosen to contradict and oppose the church in an area of great concern to church leaders, and to do so in a public forum, we will not rehire you after the current term is over.
I have an unverified letter from Nielsen responding to his termination. I’ll get a citation as soon as I can and post it here. I thought Nielsen’s thinking about the role of the church in the academic freedom of BYU to be worth putting up here for those of you concerned with issues of free speech, academic freedom, and the role of religion in American politics. I think it specifically illustrates the deep intellectual problems inherent in an institution of higher learning that tries to “serve two masters.” [Emphasis in letter mine]
June 13, 2006
Daniel W. Graham, chair
Department of Philosophy
Brigham Young University
I regretfully read your letter of June 8 informing me that because of my opinion piece in the Salt Lake Tribune of June 4, you have decided not to rehire me to teach the philosophy courses I had already been scheduled to teach through next year. I have only the utmost respect and admiration for you and for the students, faculty, and staff in the Philosophy Department at Brigham Young University. In my experience, the students and faculty have always been engaged and lively participants in the academic pursuit of truth. Now let me address some of the issues you expressed in your letter.
Church leaders have consistently opposed same-sex attraction and gay marriage. I have never agreed with this position believing that it was based in misunderstanding and in a purely human bias of cultural place and time and not reflective of divine will. Yet I have never publicly, or in the classroom, opposed their policy. Yet when church leaders take a political stand on a moral issue, then I am not only engaged as a member of the church, but also as an American citizen. As an American citizen, I publicly expressed an honest opinion contradicting a political statement by our church leaders. I fear for the church and the university if the time comes when the members of the church, including faculty at BYU, are not allowed to disagree, either in public or private, with political positions taken by the church. If such conformity is required, then we deserve to be called neither a church nor a university.
I also strongly disagree with the implications of your statement that faithfulness and loyalty to the church and church leaders never permits expressions of disagreement, or questioning of our church leaders – especially in an academic setting. Unquestioning acquiescence and blind loyalty to leaders in positions of power over human beings have no place in any institution of higher learning that values the pursuit of truth and search for justice. And in my mind, what is philosophy but the quest for truth and justice. I believe that there is great potential at BYU that will never be realized if the faculty, in certain areas of study, are limited in their research and work by the necessity of arriving at pre-approved answers given by church leaders.
Finally, when it comes to the sustaining of church leaders, I will always argue for the privilege of church members to examine, question, and dialogue with each other and with their leaders in order to genuinely sustain and support church doctrines and teachings. I do not believe that sustaining leaders requires either silent acquiescence or unquestioning conformity, but it does require active engagement with one another and with our church leaders, regardless of our place or position within church leadership hierarchies. If sustaining our leaders is to be real and genuine – not a sham as are elections in totalitarian governments – then members must be free to examine, question and benevolently criticize. Ultimately, I strongly believe that every person possesses the privilege to speak and the obligation to listen.
Again, I have only respect and admiration for you. I have enjoyed our association, and I also wish you the best.
War and Culture 26 April 2006Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Politics.
Postmodern Irritation 25 April 2006Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Postmodernity and Postmodernism.
When I was an undergrad, I was completely taken with postmodernism, both its theories and its aesthetics. Now I find myself merely furrowing my brow and hrrmphing whenever I encounter it. Because I've been teaching Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 in my American cultural history course, I've been revisiting both what I used to love and what I now despise about postmodernism. Sometime after I completed my master's thesis, I realized that I no longer found postmodern theories to be of much help in conducting research or making sense of the world I lived in (with perhaps the notable exception of Michel Foucault, but I also run out of patience with the old french leather queen, too).
For my doctoral exams, I read David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change and found myself understanding better the relationship between the social and economic transformations of the post-war era and why that would lead philosophers and artists down the postmodern path. Harvey's casting of postmodernism as an aesthetic reaction to real-world contexts resonnated with what I'd been feeling and studying at the time and especially with my own meta-theory of culture.
Harvey sees postmodernism as a "structure of feeling" arising out of the post-Fordist, post-Holocaust, atomic bomb world, a new and transformed way of dealing with the alienation and uncertainty of modernity. Modernity is usually defined by social scientists as the period marked by the rise of industrial capitalism and all the social transformations that took place to accommodate the new mode of production and distribution of goods, including bureacratization of daily life, world-wide migration and imperialism, consumerism and advertising, etc. We know historically that the social and cultural effects of this transformation were massive and swift. Postmodernity, for Harvey, is a continuation and modification of the processes of modernity begun in the mid-19th century, with the loss of the labor movement, exportation of manufacturing, hyper-surveillance in every aspect of life, widening bureaucratization, etc., punctuated by the horrors of the holocaust and the atomic bomb. Postmodernity compared to modernity, then, is a difference of scale and scope, but not a difference of kind.
The difference between modernism (the aesthetics arising out of modernity) and postmodernism (the aesthetics arising out of postmodernity) is that postmodernism embraces the alienation, uncertainty, and fragmentation caused by the upheavals of modernity, often even celebrating it with irony and winking asides; whereas modernism struggled against the alienation, seeking to find meaning and reshape values from within the transformed and destabilized social and cultural environment. The postmodernists rejected the modernist search for 'truth' or 'reality' or more importantly for 'justice' and 'authenticity,' seeing such a search as a useless pursuit without an end.
The general attitude that there is nothing to do with alientation but revel in it has emerged as a lasting effect of postmodernity (the social conditions). My students find alienation to be "normal" and the only real question they ask is about their ability to consumer and/or their access to goods. They get really agitated when I ask them to make value judgments and argue moral positions, because they begin with the assumption that all values are merely fragments of meaning arising out of particular and highly individual experiences. Meaning is so localized that there is no meaning. Postmodernism has taken the lessons of modernism (that truths are socially constructed) and jumped into the abyss, misunderstanding the actual embodied social processes that 'construct' the truths they eschew.
Because postmodernisms rejects all rules as being "foundationless foundations", in the arts and humanities, artists produce art where form (the mixing of forms, the process of producing the art itself) takes precedence over the meaning. Indeed, form becomes an end in itself in postmodern art, rather than a means to an end (the consumatory experience of art). The consumatory experience of postmodern art lies in understanding its form, or more precisely, in "getting it." Getting it is so key that if you don't like it or if you want to argue with its premises, you are usually rebuffed with the phrase, "You just don't get it." Much like a religious movement, it is hard to convince a postmodernist that you do in fact get it but just think it's bullshit.
On the other hand, postmodern art has and sometimes still does thrill me. There is something exciting about "getting it", being in the know, catching all the winking in-jokes. The form of postmodern art is mostly about the pastiche of other forms and images, so getting it can sometimes take some work. Re-reading the Pynchon this past weekend has reminded me what I like about postmodern art: it's playfulness and cleverness and its deep irony. Despite myself, I have laughed deep guffawing belly laughs all the way through the short novel. But as I finished it last night, I came up feeling empty, because like most postmodern works, its falls back in on itself. Its only meaning is its own cleverness and its eshewal of all meaning. And so after a few laughs, I find myself wondering why I bothered. Pynchon is a virtuoso of language and cultural signs, but the work ultimately amounts to nothing more than a light confection, a cotton candy that was so much work to eat, it wasn't worth the miniscule and tasteless sweetness left in your mouth once you got it in there. As with Oakland, there is no there there.
Sexual Purity 16 April 2006Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cultural Critique, Gender, Islam, Political Commentary, Politics, Religion, Sexuality.
On PBS's NOW this week they covered the abortion ban in South Dakota. Much of what I saw wasn't news to me and most of the rantings from the Alpha Group (an anti-abortion counseling service in Sioux Falls) were par for the course. I have heard of the "chastity pledges" that are sweeping the nation, as teenagers take vows of celibacy until marriage; but I wasn't prepared for the "Purity Ball" sponsored by the Abstinence Clearinghouse (no, that's not a joke) in Sioux Falls.
We believe and think that it's important for fathers to be the first ones to look into their daughters' eyes and tell them that her purity is special and that it's okay to wait until marriage.
—Leslie Unruh, President of Abstinence Clearinghouse
The Purity Ball perpetuates that good ol' conflation of purity with virginity, an idea which is just baffling to me. Haven't we gotten over this crazy notion that sexual acts per se sully, taint, soil, besmirch or otherwise filthify the body and soul of an individual? But as if that weren't bad enough, young women as young as 12 years old come to a formal affair with their fathers to pledge to him their chastity. At the end of the Ball, the dad puts a ring on his daughter's finger as she says these words:
I make a promise before my dad, myself and my family [voice over interrupts for a few seconds] that I will remain sexually pure until the day that I give myself as a wedding gift to my husband. I know that god requires this of me, that he loves me, and that he will reward me for my faithfulness.
It's like these people want to prove Freud was right, or something, with this whole daddy-daughter "purity" pledge. Besides being sick, this is old school patriarchy, where the body of the daughter belongs to her father until marriage. But instead of it just being social convention, these young women pledge it in public and then get all mushy and weepy about it, being all terribly moved by ceding their autonomy and brains to their fathers. Just in case you didn't get it, she then pledges to "give herself as a wedding gift"? I'm embarassed that I live in a society where we are even having this conversation.
Maybe we should just forego the expense and pretense of a formal ball and just legalize honor killings in South Dakota. No family should have to bear the burden of an impure woman.
If you have the money and/or time, please support Planned Parenthood and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States in their fight against these anti-sex, anti-woman, anti-abortion, anti-sex-ed, anti-contraception wingnuts around the country.