Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bills, Boards, and Banners--The Written City.

My personal motto is "learn something new every day."  Its not much, and I didn't realize it for a long time, but there it is.  I've been keeping up this practice even while I have not been posting, but I miss putting things out there for discussion so here is a little clip from a book that I'm reading "City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York" by David M. Henkin.

"A lithographic advertisement from 1862 depicts a wall plastered completely with overlapping bills promoting everything from esteemed ministers to Tammany politicians to popular actresses (see fig. 4.1).  Read "downwards," as the original caption to "the Bill-Poster's Dream" instructs, the notices form such amusing messages as $100 BOUNTY WANTED A JEWESS FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY, THE AMERICAN BIBLE SOCIETY WIL MEET AT THE GAIETIES CONCERT SALOON, GREAT SPARRING EXHIBITION BY THE SIAMESE TWINS AT BARNUM'S MUSEUM, and RESTORATIVE FOR THE HAIR USE SPAULDING'S PREPARED GLUE.  The humor in this drawing lies, of course, in the characteristically urban juxtaposition of unlikely combinations of people and events, in which physical proximity forces the promiscuous intermingling of a community's disparate elements.  More specifically, the cartoon calls attention to several central features of New York's commercial sign discourse as it emerged inthe antebellum period.  First, "the Bill Poster's Dream" seems to make the pont that as signs became too numerous, their individual purposes were to a certain extent undermined as the notices bured one another in an avalanche of competing messages.  At the same time the signs blended smoothly into a shared language of publicity in which everything from politics to entertainent to religion became homogenized--it is because of their superficial graphic and discursive resemblances as well as their spatial contiguity that these overlapping words lend themselves to humerous misreadings. In addition,the effectiveness of the collage depends on what was the crucially public element in the emerging urban sign system: once a sign was placed inthe public domain it was radically severed form its oauthor's control and intentions and acquired a life of its own.  Finally, the framing of the plastered wall by a small sign reading POST NO BILLS! in the upper left corner and the sleeping bill poster (whose fantasy of an exhaustively papered wall seems like more than just a dream of a day's work completed) in the lower left dramatizes the clash between a barely conspicuous and patently ineffective public authority and a burgeoning commercial culture intent on leaving no vertical space unmarked.

Still, these bills diverged in significant ways from the fixed signs that came to dominate much of the Manhattan cityscape during the second third of the nineteenth century.  Light and flimsy, handbills and posters were mobile and had a radically different relation to urban space.   Whereas fixed signs mapped and labeled the surfaces on which they appeared and claimed the authority associated with those surfaces (speaking, in some sense, for buildings, streets, and parks), the signs featured in "The Bill Poster's Dream" have no such connection with teh wall they cover.  Rather, the bills are subsversive of the orderly relationship between private property and public writing asserted int he city's monumental commercial signage; these posted notices draw parasitically upon the visibility of the building in direct defiance of the only sign authorized to speak for it. Moreover, the posted notices are by nature temporary and refer in most cases to current events, so that they reverse the spatially specific and temporally more abstact pattern of the fixed signs...

...A vast array of ephemeral texts could be seen in the public spaces of the city, including cards passed from hand to hand, advertisements suspended over the shoulders of human beings, and banners draped across buildings during moments of civic celebration...The posters, broadsides, sandwich boards, and banners that contributed to both the hubbub and the pageantry of daily life were in many ways less like monuments and more like speech acts.  Calling them speech acts, however, obscures several crucial developments in the expanding world of mobile texts: their potentially subversive anonymity, their reliance on the impersonal authority of public space, their dramatic detachment from the control of their authors, and the ir role in the process by which writing was replacing speech as the dominant mode of public interaction."


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Big Earthquake in Nepal

I haven't heard from my Didi in Nepal and have no way to contact her. I have checked her FB page and tried emailing but from Guardian reports a lot of people are sleeping outside their houses tonight for fear of the aftershocks and a possible second wave of earthquakes.  My Didi has a well built house but it is on the edge of a sharp declivity in the valley leading down to a few open fields. Its quite posible that her house, or the house she built next to it for her brother, could just have slid down into the fields.  This is a worse earthquake than the one that happened while I was there in 1986-89 and Kathmandu itself is more densly populated and has even taller and more shoddy buildings. My Didi is also the governor of a school and residential house for orphans.  Those buildings, too, were simple and sturdy and not too tall but the children are extremely vulnerable and have no where else to go. I can't imagine what is happening right now.

The Guardian is reporting that half the buildings in Bhaktapur have fallen down. It makes all the other things I was planning to do, or to write, seem vaporous and meaningless.  Years ago one of my friends in my village said to me "when you leave here it will be like a dream that you had."  I didn't believe her but of course she was right. When I think about Nepal and my friends there its like a dream--I can revisit it but only in fragments. I have only been back once in the last few decades and that was about four years ago? with my oldest daughter. A powerful and moving event that was like being tossed, drunk, in a blanket for a few days.   Now I wish I had been going back regularly. If I weren't an atheist I'd be praying for my Didi, her family, and everyone else in Nepal.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Wrong, so very wrong.

I read Booman Tribune quite a lot. I never comment over there because the comment system is difficult to navigate and, in the end, the commenting community just pisses me off and so though I often get angry enough to comment the rewards of doing so aren't worth the work involved.  Booman can be very, very, good on some political things but he's terrible on women's issues and often just bizarre on some others. Here is one.


We’re all familiar with signs in stores and restaurants that read, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” Maybe they won’t serve minors or drunks or people without shoes. We gladly give businesses this discretion, but we call a foul when they refuse service to people based on their gender, religion, or race.
If there is a Church of Progressive Liberalism, what it is pushing is the idea that gays fit into this class of individuals who cannot be denied service based on who they are.
Now, if you ask most conservatives if it’s okay to deny a piece of pizza to someone because they’re a woman they will say ‘no.’ If it’s because they’re not wearing a shirt, then ‘yes.’ In this dichotomy, your perception or even knowledge that someone is gay is more like the first example than the latter. Therefore, most conservatives will acknowledge that it’s wrong to deny someone pizza simply because they are gay. But if they want to use your catering services for a gay marriage, then it less about who they are than what they are doing. They’re getting married. This is a choice more akin to going shirtless.
So, then, the argument shifts a bit and it becomes, for progressives, an argument about what is fundamental to who or what someone is. Not everyone gets married, but heterosexuals all have the unquestioned right to get married. It’s in these grooves where the real contention arises, because we don’t want to burden someone’s religious beliefs unless it is absolutely necessary to preserve something even more important. If we insist that the right to get married trumps the right to be unburdened in your religious beliefs, we have to explain why this is the case.
Someone else can provide that explanation better than I can, but the basic outlines are that who we choose to marry or even our decision to get married or not are fundamental to who we are. To deny us this right is to deny us part of our humanity. You can agree with that or not, and it still has to overcome the same argument applied to the right to practice your religion according to your own conscience.
But, here, at least, is where the debate belongs.

 I can not begin to express how wrong this is and how much the debate doesn't need to "belong" here.

Its true that we are " all familiar with signs in stores and restaurants that read, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” But its not true that those signs are aimed at " minors or drunks or people without shoes. "  Those signs have always been aimed at preventing some kinds of people--poor, lower class (no shirt, no shoes means exactly that) or African American, or Irish, or Native American from accessing what in some places is a very limited chance for commerce.  Signs like these prevented AA or other minority people from travelling safely or staying in hotels or eating in restaurants along their journeys through this country.  Of course there are polite ways of preventing people you don't want to be in your store from shopping there--I'm old enough to remember Point o' Woods on Fire Island when the Island wasn't noted for its gay partys but for being split between Jews and Wasps.  Point o' Woods had one store, and it ran on a scrip system like a private club.  They didn't issue memberships and scrip to Jews and therefore no Jews could live there.  My grandparents sometimes took a summer house in the part of the Island where Jews could live and buy food and years later I met a lovely woman whose family had summered in Point o' Woods. She was so delighted to find out that we both loved Fire Island, so surprised that we had never played together as children or bumped into each other.  I wasn't. She had no idea that her beautiful childhood memories were segregated because the segregation was invisible to her.

So to me this whole line of argument is a distraction--and one we settled with the CRA--there are very good reasons, even overriding reasons, not to permit private businesses to create "no go" areas for our citizens or visitors to our country. Its bad for the community, its bad for business (as a whole), its bad for travellers, and its bad because it creates a segregated world in which bigots don't have to acknowledge the basic humanity of their fellow citizens.

Not only does it make African Americans, or Jews, or Gays out of sight, it makes them out of mind.  What can't be seen can and will be imagined as a horror, as something terrifying. And if you read any right wing comment threads about how the gays are coming to their stores and demanding pizza, or cookies, or whatever you see that people are being whipped into a frenzy of fear and rage that has literally nothing to do with reality.  Adam and Steve are not planning to gyrate naked into your place of business to make their pizza order. Calling you up for ten pies, or having their heterosexual parents do so, is not going to affect your religious situation at all.  But people are being whipped into a frothing, mindless, rage over this like the pathetic people interviewed in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 who are convinced that the Muslim Terrorists are going to target their Monthly Pasta Supper in Nowhere Tiny Town.

The Pizza owner of the store in question was quoted as saying that he believed Homosexuality was a choice and therefore didn't have to be respected, just like his being a Christian or a Heterosexual was a choice. Interestingly enough he didn't complete the thought but left it hanging there. He appears to be saying that when people make choices they should suffer for that choice, their exercise of free will may lead them into conflict with different people and they just need to shut up and take it. He'd take his lumps, presumably, if someone refused to do business with him as a Christian or as a Heterosexual--he's not asking for any accommodation. Oh but wait--he is. And they all are. They are specifically asking for an accommodation and for protection of Heterosexuality and Christianity as important choices, protected choices. So what is the problem for Indiana and the Business owner if people boycott them--refuse to do business with them? Apparently what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander here.  Straights and Gays don't have the right to refuse to do business with people whose free choice to be bigots disgusts them, but supposedly religious florists or bakers <i>and by extension all other businesses including hotels, restaurants, conventions, hospitals, doctors, pharmacists</i> do have the right to refuse ordinary commerce to us?


Here is another place where I absolutely despise Booman's argument:

Now, if you ask most conservatives if it’s okay to deny a piece of pizza to someone because they’re a woman they will say ‘no.’ If it’s because they’re not wearing a shirt, then ‘yes.’ In this dichotomy, your perception or even knowledge that someone is gay is more like the first example than the latter. Therefore, most conservatives will acknowledge that it’s wrong to deny someone pizza simply because they are gay. But if they want to use your catering services for a gay marriage, then it less about who they are than what they are doing. They’re getting married. This is a choice more akin to going shirtless.
So, then, the argument shifts a bit and it becomes, for progressives, an argument about what is fundamental to who or what someone is. Not everyone gets married, but heterosexuals all have the unquestioned right to get married. It’s in these grooves where the real contention arises, because we don’t want to burden someone’s religious beliefs unless it is absolutely necessary to preserve something even more important. If we insist that the right to get married trumps the right to be unburdened in your religious beliefs, we have to explain why this is the case.

This looks superficially reasonable but its just completely and totally illogical.  "If they want to use your catering service for a gay marriage, then it is less about who they are than what they are doing" is a totally false dichotomy. I would argue that selling pizza to a gay wedding doesn't implicate the seller at all in the event but lets just start with the basics.  All services to people, such as buying pizza and eating it, fosters "what they are doing."  If you sell pizza to an adulterous couple out on a date you are helping them in their adultery. If you sell pizza to a murderer you are literally fueling his future murder spree.  If you engage in commerce with any person you are facilitating and fostering their life, their "lifestyle" and their choices, good and bad. Only by refusing any interaction at all can you escape being complicit in their lives.

The Supreme Court and lots of these kooks may prefer to elide the question of sincerity in religious belief but I see no reason to fall into this error. You can only know people by what they do, not by what they say they believe or by what they say they will do in the future.  Up until now none of these refusenik businesses have actually refused custom from all kinds of sinners--divorcees, adulterers, bigamists, murderers, felons, frauds, psychics, drunkards, liars, gluttons or even (gasp) non-Christians.  They have not administered a quiz to people before people buy their goods and services and they have preserved a polite silence on the question of what goes on in hotel rooms, what thoughts people have while they eat dinner, or whether the party is going to have wild and sinful monkey sex after eating pizza.  When catering they have had no knowledge of the practices of the family being formed, and while baking cakes they have had no idea whether the "welcome new baby" cake is a follow on to an abortion.

Providing a service to another person is a commercial transaction, not an endorsement. So why do evangelicals and their supporters keep insisting that it is? Because of a specific culture of busybody engagement.  When the Pizza restaurant or the Baker sells a product to a gay person they are not, contra this guy, "lending" them anything.  But the word is instructive--Evangelicals see engaging with, talking to, and selling things to gay people as "lending" support or "lending" one's good name to that person.  I get it, it comes from an ethnotheory of small town religiosity in which everyone is implicated in everyone else's business. We are all damned or saved together--your bad behavior may drag me down, my upright virtue could elevate you. If we are seen together, or known to be associates, your evil rubs off on me and you are probably trying to take advantage of my good name.  We are both providing "examples" to the community--yours bad, mine good.  In this model failure to excoriate bad behavior, and failure of the evil ones to submit to instruction and punishment, is highly destructive, truly scary.  No wonder these people are so hysterical--one gay marriage with catering, one floral arrangement--indicts the entire system of goodness, pollutes the entire community. Parenthetically, I lived with Brahmins who have a similarly extensive sense of personal purity and pollution--a sense that extends far beyond the individual's body and includes the entire space of the kitchen, or of the house, or the exterior of a water bottle, or a temple compound.  For an outsider its like living with a crazy person who has no bounded sense of self.  Things that are happening far away, physically, or not even happening at all in a physical sense are terribly threatening and can cause the crazy person to become hysterical with fear that their body and its defenses are being breached or destroyed.

Lets be honest here--because we can be since we are not professional liars to ourselves, bearing false witness against our own beliefs as well as our neighbors---the idea of refusing gay people service for florists and bakers stems from the politicization of gay marriage and the fact that some Evangelicals feel they are losing that battle. They are fighting on this terrain not because it is necessary to their free exercise of religion but because its where the action is. They are like people who hunt for a missing contact lens under the lamppost because there is light there.  Its opportunistic and, ultimately, pointless. But that doesn't stop it from being vicious and meanspirited.



Friday, April 3, 2015

Watch This Space

I'm putting this here to remind myself that I want to put up an essay on three books I've just read, that are influencing me very greatly.  These are The Body Keeps the Score, a book on memory, trauma and the body;  Stumbling on Happiness a surprisingly interesting book on what we know about how we feel, and to a much lesser extent The Sociopath Next Door, a very quick book about people without a conscience and the traumatic effect that has on the people around them.  I tend to read things in threes so The Sociopath Next Door just happened to be up next after I read the first two, although there are ways in which the three books dovetail.  For example if you follow the implications of all three books you end up thinking about the ways in which traumatic memory of for abuse victims can be the product of a kind of social trauma brought on by dealing with a person (a sociopath) whose mind/motives/goals and forms of happiness are utterly foreign to a normal person, being based on a lack of conscience and a lack of regard for the humanity of others.   On second thought--or maybe I mean Terry Pratchett's Third Thought* the third book ought to be Fluent Forever a book about memory and language from an aquisitioner's perspective.  This will push the essay in the direction of memory and desire.


*"As a witch, Tiffany possesses First Sight, the ability to see 'what is really there' (as opposed to Second sight, which shows people what they think ought to be there). She also possesses Second Thoughts, which are defined as 'the thoughts you think about the way you think'. Whilst other witches are said to have this trait as well, Tiffany also recognizes some of her thoughts as Third Thoughts, (the thoughts you think about the way you think about the way you think,) and Fourth Thoughts, (the thoughts you think about the way you think about the way you think about the way you think.) All these thoughts sometimes cause Tiffany to walk into door frames." From the Wiki on Tiffany Aching.

Every Man a Priest, And Every Pizzeria His Church

Aimai says:
This is my own comment at a threat at Lawyer's Guns and Money on the topic of the "Weaponization of Religious Exemptions." The whole thread is very much worth reading, as is the original post, but I just wanted to pull out my own comment here because its pretty much a standalone.

I’ll come back and read the whole thread, and perhaps someone has said this already, but the modern incarnation of the RFRA (weaponized, as you’ve pointed out) is the logical extension of the percolation down of a kind of neo confederate “nullification” policy vis a vis what is seen as a hostile state. Added to the Protestant vision “every man a priest” you get “every man a legislator, Judge, Jury, and Executioner in his own home and his own business.” The power to determine who will be accorded full rights of citizenship–even of humanity–devolves, in this model–to the lowest level of society: the angry white male evangelical citizen (and there can be various permutations of the atomic basis).*
Its no accident that we see the rise of these laws precisely at the moment that an angry, white, shrinking, soon to be former majority starts to see the chance for its own values prevailing slipping away. Previously individuals members of the right wing could assume that their values would become ascendant again eventually, or that the government was in their control, but since the election of Obama the writing is on the wall. Now that they know for a fact that the government composed of blacks, queers, and aborting lesbian women is going to demand equal treatment everywhere the revolt is on and the demand to extend the sphere of privacy and autonomy beyond the right wing body, to the right wing houeshold, and now to the right wing place of business and/or township is exploding outward. The only way to prevent Holder and Obama and whatever demonic females come after from infiltrating and controlling life-as-we-knew-it in the heartland is to authorize the right thinking individual to deterine for himself what laws will apply. Same as it ever was. No shirt, no shoes, no homo.
*That is the monad or atom at the base of this, the free standing individual, can sometimes be a white male evaneglical, or an angry black republican, or an angry gun toting home schooling mother. But the impetus is the same: the notion of equality, comity, fraternity, and democracy stops at the individual’s doorstep whether that is physical, domestic, or corporate.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Call Me Crazy But The Boycott of Indiana is Really a Boy-cott

I noticed this a few days ago and it strikes me with renewed force today when I saw that a Coach has refused to attend the NCAA in Indiana because he "has a gay son."  Its heartwarming, and very important, for all of us, for all  LGBTQ people and their families and friends that these dramatic gestures by Business, Industry, Academia, and Democratic Politicians are pushing Indiana to reconsider this horrible law. Consider my heart warmed and my cockles too.  But at the same time Indiana has been pursuing draconian punishments against women for being women--and specifically in the last few days has sentenced a woman to 20 years in prison for having a miscarriage.  Where is the outrage? Where are the boycotts? Where are the concerned citizens, sports figures (what, they don't have daughters and wives?), business people, academics refusing to attend events or suggesting that the women who work with them are at risk of these crazy laws if they travel to Indiana?  That Indiana's discrimination against women is so profound that pregnancies--one third of which will end naturally in a miscarriage--can be redefined as murder.

Am I wrong in thinking that the fact that there aren't many women in positions of power--not many women Captains of Industry, not many women who are Governors, not many women who independently decide the rules for their companies is an issue here? That we've reached a tipping point, socially, in which straight men and important men recognize that gay rights are here to stay but women's rights still mean basically nothing to them? There is no mobilization around women's rights that has reached this level of power and significance. I wish things were different.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Girls Gone Wild

I can see from the ebbing of public interest in it that the story "young girls are joining ISIS" has ceased to be enough of a boob bait, even for the alte kockers who watch Fox News in between denture cream Ads. But while we were hearing every five seconds about how unbelievable, disgusting, terrifying, inhumane, and just plain unheard of it was for young girls to leave home and family to join up with a terrorist organization I had a strong feeling I'd heard this story before. And I had.  In this weeks New Yorker we are reminded that radical chic transcends religious dogma and, in fact, (rather obviously) can create a space of agency for young women even in the most unexpected of social situations. Becoming a recruit for a violent faction can sometimes be the only way a young person, or a woman, can assert herself in a society that doesn't prize agency or initiative in young people or women. Being cannon fodder is, at least, a kind of being.

Historically, women had enlisted in the I.R.A.’s female wing, known as the Cumann na mBan (Irishwomen’s Council). Dolours Price’s mother and grandmother had both been members of this group. But Dolours did not want to bandage men’s wounds, she said—she wanted to be “a fighting soldier.” The leadership of the Provisional I.R.A. convened a special meeting to consider her case, and, in August, 1971, Price became the first woman admitted to full membership in the I.R.A. She was twenty.


Marian soon joined her in the I.R.A. Dolours later said, “I should be ashamed to admit there was fun in it in those days.” People are often drawn to radicalism by a sense of community and shared purpose. In this case, there was also glory. I.R.A. members referred to themselves not as soldiers or terrorists but as “volunteers”—a signal that they were prepared to sacrifice their lives for the cause.
Educated, attractive young women had not been seen carrying guns on the rubble-strewn streets of Belfast before, and the Price sisters acquired an iconic glamour. “They were sassy girls,” Eamonn McCann, a longtime friend of the sisters, told me. “They weren’t cold-eyed dialecticians or fanatics on the surface. There was a smile about them.” One press account described them as “pretty girls who would finish their school work and then take to the streets armed, one or both hiding an Armalite rifle under their raincoat, to take part in gun battles with the British army.” The sisters became the subject of sexualized lore, with stories circulating about Marian, in a miniskirt, charming her way past a British Army checkpoint while driving a car full of explosives. At the time, there was a shopping center in Belfast called Crazy Prices, and, inevitably, the sisters became known as the Crazy Prices. Another friend of the sisters told me that Dolours was drawn to the I.R.A., in some measure, by “rebel chic.” (From the New Yorker)

In another irony embedded in this story we are reminded that the murdered woman, Jean McConville, was a Protestant girl who married a Catholic boy and was so under the glamor of that relationship that she converted and proceeded to have ten children before she was 37 and widowed.  In other words she, too, had longed for something and gone out and gotten it and a religion to boot. And sacrificed her life doing it.  She might have had a longer life if she'd picked up a gun.