To Be Clear

In the past, I have attempted to present my arguments, my sentiments, in respectful, intellectual, philosophically relevant language—not always successfully, I admit; sometimes my dismay and anger get the better of me, and sometimes there are things too unbelievably stupid to warrant much, if any, respect—and to leave some opening for debate. 

No more.

With the recent Supreme Court rulings, it should be clear to everyone that what is happening is nothing less than an attempt by extralegal and institutional force to change the nature of our country. This is nothing new. What is new (new-ish) is the outright lies and misrepresentation in which these attempts are couched and the complete shameless embrace of those lies. 

The “sanctity of life” is one such misrepresentation. While I have no doubt there are many individuals who sincerely believe in this and are acting out of that conviction, as a movement it has been little more than a duplicitous shell game, the only consistency of which has been the clear aim of reducing large segments of the population to second-class status if not outright bondage. Even where some sincerity is on exhibit, at base it relies on a subversion of individual liberties.

For the last five decades we have come to expect certain things to remain, if not unchallenged, at least established until a better way forward can be found. Because there are elements in our country who will resist and try to eliminate these expectations no matter what, we have struggled along with a variety of less-than-perfect institutional safety nets. Many of these laws were not ideal, but we have defended them because the reality tells us that with what we have to work with at hand, any substitute will be worse, and more recently that there will be no substitute.

Example: the Republican Party has been bitching about the Affordable Healthcare Act since it was enacted. Repeatedly, they have stated their intention to repeal it and “put something better” in its place. Twelve years later, we still have not seen a draft of the “better” only more declarations of intent to repeal. After 12 years you would think they would come up with something, but that has never been their intention. 

Another example: immigration reform. Attempts have been offered, mostly by Democrats, since Clinton. The GOP has blocked all of them, even when one of their favored sons, Bush, was pushing for it. All they have managed to do is use it as a political rallying point to make people angry and drum up votes on the pretense that “they’ll do something.”

Now this past week.

Four justices on the Supreme Court should not be there. One took a spot that ought to have been filled by Obama’s last pick. I do not care how you feel about Obama, the blockage by Mitch McConnell of his nominee was unconscionable, petty, and partisan to the point of doing active harm. The other three were appointed by a man who had made promises to place the worst reactionaries he could get by with on the bench, and clearly they all lied during their hearings.

And what have we seen this week? A weakening of firearm safety laws, a weakening of Miranda, and the overturn of Roe v. Wade, which the liars on the bench swore under oath they viewed as “settled law.” We now no longer know what that means in terms of legal protections.

We can dance around these things all we want, but the trajectory is clear. The direction of rightwing politics was set decades ago by the Karl Rove Doctrine of destroying the federal government’s ability to act on social justice at any level. “I want to shrink it to where I can drown it in a bathtub,” he said, more or less. But even he has stepped that back in recent years, realizing that in many instances the only thing securing a civil society was federal oversight. If we had left it entirely up the states, we would likely still have slavery in parts of the United States, segregation certainly, and the freedom of association that comes with advancing civil rights would exist only in pockets.

We now know that this is exactly the goal. There is no excusing it as some sort of abstruse political theory of jurisdictional priority. The intended goal was to return certain people to positions of authority from which they can dictate the social landscape. They are bigots, either primarily as by way of securing power, or as constitutionally incapable of any kind of reliable empathy for people they view as “not my tribe.” The result is the same either way. There is no couching any of this in any terms other than the naked desire to remove themselves from other people they see as inferior and to guarantee those people remain incapable of sharing rights, liberties, or any meaningful means of securing a dignified life.

I will have no truck with this. 

All I can see coming from the current construction of the GOP is little more than petulant white spleen and open fear. The recent statement at a rally by Illinois Representative Mary Miller that the Roe decision is a “victory for white life” will serve as testament of the current “conservative” mindset.

Victory for white life?

Her people tried to explain that she misread the statement, but personally I neither believe that or care. It is perfectly consistent with the brand of reactionary white angst we’ve been seeing the past four or five years. This is in line with the resurgence of what is called Replacement Theory, which is the idea that unless white people start making more babies we will be overwhelmed by “foreigners.” This is nothing but racist fear. 

This is fascism.

The sad fact is, these people are unfazed by this accusation. They are proud of it. They think they’re winning, and in a certain narrow construction of what it is to be an American, this is the thing that matters. Winning. They are embracing this nonsense and feel empowered by these recent rulings. 

They think they are True Americans.

Now Roe. This is the first of a series of attempts to roll back civil liberties. We don’t have to guess, Clarence Thomas has put it in writing. 

Roe, in my opinion, was less than great law. It had weaknesses, the primary one being that it fell short of establishing bodily autonomy. The other problem, which is not the fault of Roe but a facet of how we conduct politics, is that once it was handed down, many of us just thought it was a settled issue. Instead of enacting legislation at the state level to bolster it, we relied on Roe to cover it.

But over the decades it has become clear that Roe represents an aspect of Civil Rights which we also failed to codify when the Equal Rights Amendment fell short of ratification. Too many people simply cannot accept universal equality.

There has always been a part of the American Psyché that nursed aspirations of specialness, which has most often manifested as an attitude that only certain people mattered—which meant many more people did not matter. Efforts to close this misapprehension over what our founding documents meant have resulted in too many periods of strife. When you break it down, all these instances were little more than privilege trying to retain its perquisites and shut others out.

Too often too many of us simply didn’t question this, either because we were doing fine or because we were too dependent on things as they were or because we were afraid.

I have friends who are now frightened. They are vulnerable, they know there are people in this country who fear and hate them, not for who they are but for what they seem to represent, and they see all that is happening as the opening stages of the collapse of an American version of the Weimar period. The next stage is naziism and they will be targeted.

This is now personal. True, it has always been, but there is no longer any excuse to pretend otherwise.

My reaction to this, to those who are cheering the recent rulings, those who would vote for that feckless opportunist again, those who think being an American is only being willing to step on or even kill those who aren’t like them, is—how dare you? How dare you shit on my country. How dare you pretend to be a patriot when the very principles you claim to revere are the very opposite of what you believe?  How dare you presume to threaten my friends because you don’t like the way they talk, dress, eat, feel, love? How dare you hold yourselves to be an example of True American when all that seems to flow from your mouths is disrespect, violence, and hatred? How dare you base all your judgments of others on either the color of their skin, their choice of partners, their gender, or their bank account? 

How dare you force your narrow conception of “appropriate” on everyone around you so you can feel comfortable?

In my opinion, what we are seeing and hearing from them is the death wail of a soon-to-disappear culture that has no valid place in our future. Regressives, not conservatives. I have rarely seen such a wrongheaded embrace of everything odious in our history or culture and such a rejection of a better world.

But before they’re gone, they can do a world of damage. 

They are passing laws to make it illegal to talk about certain things. Take a minute. In the guise of “protecting the children” they are forcing restrictions on talking. 

And if you don’t see what the big deal is, then you are a major part of the problem.

I beg you all, you who see this and wonder and are dismayed, do not let them prevail. You have the future to gain and a world to lose.

3000 Words About Bad Faith

We compartmentalize. All the time. We divide things up so they don’t inhibit our ability to act, to judge, to feel. We don’t even seem to have to learn how, it just develops as life unfolds. The walls, though, are porous, and occasionally they collapse altogether. But they re-establish given opportunity. 

But sometimes the divide between one part of ourselves and another can become toxically entangled. It can cause a lot of pain, confusion. When challenged, there’s a kind of panic that attends to our desperate attempt to put those walls back up, to find a way back to the comforting areas where one thing did not conflict—violently at times—with another. 

The old jokes about never discussing religion or politics at dinner or with strangers indicates an awareness of this phenomena that goes way back. Because established beliefs can run afoul of new evidence or personal feelings or even with other established beliefs. They exist in balance, precariously at times, and we have rules of engagement to prevent the explosion that may occur when one is shoved against the other. Why we don’t do something about the contradictions is one of the great conundrums of life, but most of us discard old ideas with difficulty. As I say, they are comfortable. We’ve been living with them a long time.

But sometimes resolving the conflict is vital. Life or death. 

“My body, my choice.”

On the surface, not a difficult concept, and likely for most people in most circumstances, an automatic “of course.”

Until it comes to sex. (I will stipulate here some muddle when it comes to drugs and such, but we do not so much dictate what can be done with someone’s body but only what may be legally possessed. Drugs are not, generally speaking, Of The Body; they are foreign substances. Even so, regulations regulate possession—we tend not to criminalize using drugs, but having them. Sex, by comparison, is Of The Body.) Then we encounter all the rooms into which people have shoved conflicts, embarrassments, unresolved questions, religion, desire, fantasy, ambition, guilt…a stew of unexamined reactions and complications that remain so because so many of us just don’t want to think about them. Because the vagaries of the act and the desire conflict with social issues and other beliefs which we may not have examined, at least not deeply enough to find the fulcrum of our dis-ease. 

And then there’s the fact that so much of what we feel about it changes over time. It is intrinsically part of our body—all the unmitigated hormonal things we seem mostly unable to control, that once we survive puberty we wish to be done with—and it is often in conflict with the dogmas of our upbringing. No wonder people want to put it in a cage and ignore it.

Until we can’t. 

Now, many people figure all this out well enough to avoid lifelong neuroses, therapy, or self-loathing and live lives wherein sex is an organic part of who they are. Most of them do this well enough that quite often the struggles and conflicts may be forgotten. So much so that when they pop up in others and lead to erratic or irrational behavior, we’re surprised and unsure how to deal with the results. And if these conflicts erupt into the public forum, we find ourselves in the awkward position of defending positions with which we are only tenuously familiar.

But suddenly we find our lives being intruded upon and our own sense of what we presume to be our rights challenged in ways that catch us off-balance. Because—compartmentalization being what it is—the challenges do not always come at us straightforward. They are often couched in terms designed to mask deeper issues.

“My body, my choice.” We have, at least in this country, and more generally in the religious traditions to which we are heir, treated sex like a thing apart, a separate something that is not to be admitted as part of who we are. In popular culture it is often portrayed as a sort of prize, to be won, a reward in certain circumstances, but in too many instances as property, a commodity, a thing that can be owned. It is a thing that happens to us, a thing that takes control of the aspect of ourselves we do consider as who we are. We make excuses for it, treat it like a lapse, a mistake, we hide it, we use it to extort, intimidate, smear, manipulate, like it’s a drug or a demon or anything other than an intrinsic part of our own identity. 

You can trace this all in the hypocrisies on exhibit. People who believe contraception is “wrong” and yet, after fifteen years of marriage have only one or two children; those who publicly decry infidelity, yet carry on affairs which they pretend don’t happen; women who picket clinics and then avail themselves of those very services when they are “caught.”

“Caught.” An archaic but telling euphemism describing an unwanted pregnancy. It encapsulates the issue nicely. Unpacking it reveals all the incommensurable elements, the contradictions, false assumptions, and judgements that permeate this matter. She did something she should not have and got “caught.” Meaning becoming pregnant. Which of course makes pregnancy a punishment. Combined with the attitude expressed by many who condemn abortion—or birth control of any kind—that such things are “letting them get away with it.” Get away with what? Having sex? Being sexual? Why should that be something about which anyone other than the consenting participants have any say?

A man I worked with when I was 20 took pains once to describe to me how at one time he suspected his wife of cheating on him. It was a fraught period in his marriage but he found out his suspicions were groundless. “I didn’t have to kill her,” he concluded. A few months later he had to go on a business trip with the company owner and he gleefully looked forward to it, that he would have the opportunity to “grab a piece of ass” while he was away. I looked at him in some dismay. I reminded him of what he had said about his wife’s fidelity. He dismissed it by claiming this was different. When I asked how, all I got was a puzzled stare, like I should just know.

“Grab a piece of ass” is another one those euphemisms that explains so much when you unpack it. Firstly, it reduces an essential element of another person to an object. It abstracts out the “thing” from the person who has it. It turns that thing into an object that the woman only seems to carry around. He wasn’t going to find a person to make love with, he was going to make use of her genitals, which are somehow Not Her, or perhaps simply not hers. There are many of these turns of phrase, which do the work of rendering the components of sex isolated from the person who has them. Some of this attaches to the male sexual apparatus (“my dick has a will of its own”), but not nearly as much and not to the degree that women’s sex organs are so rendered.

By so doing, though, possession is established as the essential element in what amounts to a kind of third party transaction. To underscore what I’m suggesting, the history of prostitution, especially in the modern era, reinforces the assertion that women have only provisional ownership of their genitalia. 

Which does make the whole thing a kind of property rights issue, based on an inability to see ourselves as whole beings that are, as part of that wholeness, sexual.

Why is this important in the current climate?

Because it also, by extension, sets pregnancy apart from the woman, defines it as a thing separate from her Self, that once that condition is established she no longer is meaningfully in possession of either her body or her pregnancy. 

There is a pathology to this which seems pernicious. It is bound up with a resistance in our culture to not “own” our sexuality. Since the Sixties and the so-called Sexual Revolution, there has been a reaction to perceived obscenity, lewdness, promiscuity, and permissiveness that saturates the Culture Wars. This is where it manifests. It reduces sex to the social equivalent of taking drugs, making it a separate practice from what is “normal.” When the practical distribution of contraception for women became common, the discussion came closer to what was really at issue. The insistence by social conservatives that contraception be banned, returning sex to something fraught with the risk of “getting caught” tells us what is really going on. Sex must not be normalized as something innate to what it means to be human. 

(But marriage! Well, yes, but that’s an arrangement. Sex is implicitly offered as both reward and excuse for getting married.)

The fact that the anti-choice movements feel they have a moral right to impose their objections on everyone undercuts any legitimate moral rationale. This is not about morality but about ownership.

The fact that many anti-choice advocates are willing to make exceptions in the case of rape or incest underscores this even further. Sex, in this formulation, is something that “happens to” a woman. Therefore the unwanted product of it can be seen as a separate, utterly alien manifestation ruled by “special conditions.” The idea that sex is an organic expression of a woman’s sense of self is, in this formulation, incommensurable with the “happens to” concept. (In rape trials, the fact that a woman’s manner, history, apparel, so forth are used as defense of the rape underlines this attitude. In order to be found “innocent” she must be seen as without her own sexual identity.)

Bringing this to the whole abortion issue, wherein a fetus is argued to be fully human, we can see how it plays out. In this, the woman does not—cannot—be entirely self-possessed. If she is, then the pregnancy is inseparable from her. It is something of herself. It is her body, producing a condition. It is, in a way, Her. Which gives her agency over it. 

It is not a separate thing which can be granted agency by social decree. Which is what the anti-choice crowd would assert, going directly back to the initial assumption that her sexuality is not intrinsic to her identity—it is this Other Thing which by custom, tradition, and even legal precedent is given special acknowledgement defining it as an object that can be owned.

And traditionally, owned by someone other than herself, either her father, her husband, or in the current assertion Society. Anyone but herself. This can only be asserted by denying that it is an inextricable part of her.

If pregnancy is an emergent condition, with a potential if carried through, but primarily an expression of a woman’s Self, then there is no moral or ethical basis for denying her the choice to either proceed or terminate. It is as much Her as her lungs, stomach, heart, bones, and we grant her agency over those by implication in the instances of organ donation or elective surgery or DNR mandates.

If pregnancy is a separate object, something other than and outside her, then she does not “own” it and can claim no agency over it.*

But we can only assert that if we strip away her right to Self entirely, effectively reducing her to slavery, indeed all way to machine-hood.

If we agree a Woman is an individual with rights to self-determination and agency, then it is impossible to morally assert the kind of authority over her that would deny her the right to her sexuality and all that attaches to it.

Which means that this issue is not wholly, possibly not even initially, about the so-called unborn.

Which of course is now being demonstrated in the raft of anti-choice laws being touted to constrain us on several fronts directly to do with personhood and matters of self-determination emergent from an acknowledgment that sexuality is an irreducible aspect of identity. Of Selfhood.

What this comes down to is a recognition that the separation of primary aspects of ourselves is a form of distancing that allows for the intrusion of third-party control, which cannot remain isolated to only that aspect but eventually expands to become control over the whole Self. That in this instance, the feelings, desires, thoughts, and apparatus of a woman’s sexuality must be seen to belong entirely and only to her, as essential elements of her sense of agency; that all of this cannot be possessed and therefore controlled by third-party forces. And if that is the case, the use and condition of those components cannot be selectively determined by anyone else because to do so necessarily leads to such intrusive determination of her entire Self. That such autonomy being necessary as both precondition and purpose of free will within any legal context seeking to hold as a necessary part of democracy, with personal liberty as its intent and justification, then it cannot be tolerated that such autonomy and agency be selectively restricted by common law, regardless of the condition or use to which the individual defines as personal prerogative.

We may not therefore seek to dictate personal choice in matters of sexuality or its concomitant aspects by selective legislation beyond the commonly understood social limits regarding assault if we wish to maintain the image of a free society with guarantees of individual liberty.

The current threat to outlaw abortion and the associated attempts at controlling and/or outlawing contraception and all other movements to bar a host of sexual/gender freedoms (trans rights, same sex marriage, etc) are fundamentally anti-democratic, authoritarian, and unsupportable by any legitimate theory of liberty.

Finally, to put this in an even larger context, we must look at the broad goal of the entirety of the Civil Rights movements of the last…well, for the sake of definitional efficiency, since the end of WWII. What all such movements share in common is an assumption of the freedom of association. The self-evident freedom to associate with whom and how we choose. That segregation, either by race, class, or sex, are anti-democratic and a denial of any concept of individual liberty. The upheavals of the last 70 years all come down to this fundamental freedom, and the current struggle over individual autonomy and the self-definition of the individual and the agency accorded to each of us, here exemplified by the anti-choice movement, is axiomatically autocratic and authoritarian and cannot be isolated in its effect to a narrow aspect of our individual Self.+

Lastly, it is evident from the wider context that all of these limiting attempts are being done in bad faith. Laws are being advocated on the basis of a single thing that have as their ultimate goal several other consequences having little to do with the primary justification. The “innocent” are not being protected by any of this. “Innocence” in this case refers only to a condition wherein all other aspects of individual autonomy and agency are absent. It is, rather, an idealized concept that is being imposed exclusively for the purposes of control. Clearly, based on the general lack of advocacy and support for most childcare proposals, “innocence” here refers to that which does not have a presence in the world. In other words, that which is not an individual. Bad faith. **

_____________________________________________________________

*Of course, if that is the case, that we are defining the pregnancy as a separate thing, like an infection or a disease or a surgical implant, then bodily autonomy enters into the discussion from a different direction, namely that no one has the right to “implant” a foreign object into anyone without permission. And then we are right back to realizing that this is in no way about protecting the unborn but about denying women autonomy and agency—because we would have to make a special case for this particular “foreign object” to override her ability to say what can be done with and in her body.

+ In the attempt to define a fetus as a separate individual for the purpose of legislating restrictions on the autonomy of a woman, the argument fails on its face, firstly because it is not a separate individual but until born it is an expression of her body and her self, but secondly because in order to assert such restrictions you must first strip her of autonomy—her freedom—by limiting the definitional parameters of liberty for her and removing agency from her as an individual. It is functionally illogical to base presumed liberties on the constraint of liberty of someone else. And by liberty I refer to matters of self identity and freedom of association. There may well be attempts to example other forms of action which can be construed as expressions of autonomy—for instance, theft, assault, murder—and therefore be protected as such, but this fails by the simple metric that these actions and expressions also require the stripping of someone else’s liberties in order to occur and by definition cannot be confused with legitimate and moral expressions of individual agency within a free society.

**A clearer statement on this could not have been made than that by the Alabama state senator Clyde Chambliss who said at a hearing “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.” His concern is not for “life”—in this case fertilized eggs in vitro—but for pregnant women. He expressed no concern here for the loss of “innocent life” but for the idea that a woman might do something about her pregnancy. Which is pretty much tacit admission that the fetus and the woman are not independent entities, but a holistic organic system. Which means that the only rights at issue are the woman’s and in this formulation they are being specifically targeted. Senator Chambliss exhibits no deep philosophical position in this statement but a naked rejection of individual—female—agency.

Backlash

I’m seeing a lot of comments that This Is The Beginning. Referring of course to the leaked SCOTUS opinion to overturn Roe.

No, this is not the beginning. The beginning was the first time we allowed the so-called Pro-Life movement to derail state services to protest something that ought to be considered a basic right. It has grown from that seed. This is not the beginning, this is somewhere along just past the middle.

The mistakes—only in hindsight in some instances, but not all—began when we allowed the notion that one person’s idea of proper behavior merited their intrusion into another person’s life choices. We can air all that time and again and gain no traction because for the committed anti-choice advocate there seems to be no compromise. They come from a deep background that does not allow for a conception of sex as a matter of individual choice. Which is why we see so many of them not only on the front lines of the anti-abortion movement, but also advocates for limiting access to contraception, anti-LGBTQ rights, and among the loudest in opposition to Trans rights. We can try to psychoanalyze motives all we want, but clearly they have some belief that sex should only ever be conducted within the strict limits of a presumably biblical model, because evidently sex is not a right shared by humans but a reward for Good Behavior (gifted primarily if not exclusively to heterosexual men) and grounds for punishment if indulged by anyone outside those limits.

The emphasis on those limits tells us what is at stake politically. All the posturing and rhetorical sleight-of-hand aside, what this says to women as a group is:  how dare you have aspirations.

All personal aspirations—goals, dreams, ambitions, preferences—begin in a recognition of choice. And all choice—the “reward” of growing from child to adult—is grounded in the ability to say No.

When you say to a woman that she may not control her life based on her own aspirations, you are telling her she may not say No.

You are telling her that she has no choice.

And before you object that men are likewise bound, very simply we are not. In this particular part of life, we have one freedom women have for millennia been denied: we can walk away.

All the rest follows from that basic distinction.

Now, of course this limitation of choice is useful for any dominant group in relation to those not in that group. But it all comes down to that one thing—a denial of the freedom to have aspirations and act on them.

This has been pointed out and argued for five decades—longer—and yet those who would gleefully overturn Roe are unmoved. They know what they want and the longer we ignore the fact that what they want has nothing to do with the ostensible focus of their cause and try to litigate what is or is not “human” in the context of what happens within a uterus, the more we lose ground. It is an intractable argument in those terms because it is not based on fact, evidence, or logic, but on sentiment and resentment. The kind of sentiment, I might add, that rejects all other sentiment if it does not align with theirs.

A woman’s ability to determine her own reproductive destiny, regardless of circumstance, is fundamental to any concept of equality.

And as we have seen since the Phyllis Schlafly campaign to derail the ERA, that is the thing at the heart of the matter. One group saying to the other, you may not have aspirations. We want you to fill a subordinate role.

Equality begins with the freedom to say no. No, I will not surrender my autonomy to meet your expectations of who I should be.

And boys, if you don’t think this applies to you, too, I think you have a surprise coming.

Life Of Words

My last post dealt with my principled opinions and feelings about book banning/burning. This one will be personal.

I realize it sounds clichéd when someone says reading saved their lives, but it shouldn’t. Our lives are saved by the people around us, those who are with us, relatives and friends and teachers, in an ever-widening circle of familiarity. That network is the reason we are alive and the people we are. I know it’s fashionable to try to claim island status, that we are ourselves by our own hand, but it’s nonsense, and even those most stridently dedicated to that bit of myth know better, unless they are so utterly isolated as to be clinically dysfunctional. That claim is made for a simple reason—certain people don’t wish to be beholden to those of whom they disapprove. 

As a result, at some boundary away from the center, as that circle of support expands, many reach a point where they stop knowing or caring about or accepting the next ring. The connection is too vague, from a place too unfamiliar, about people too unlike us.

Well, that’s where reading comes in. And it is absurd not to understand that books are part of that inner circle for many of us. They are our friends, with us, teaching. They are a refuge and a source of understanding. The moment we begin to read a book, it comes alive and is there. 

As I have written before, I did not have a particularly great time as a child. Not horrible. But I had trouble fitting in. Many of the daily fascinations of my “friends” baffled me. Once I got into school, these bafflements led to embarrassments which led to further disconnects which opened the door to bullying. 

Movies, tv, and books became my safe place. 

I had a small assortment of Golden Books, a couple of Dr. Seuss books, and a bizarre variety of comics. There were no bookstores near me at that time, so I don’t even know where they came from. We occasionally went to a big Drug Store called Katz (we called almost any store that had a pharmacy department a Drug Store, whether that was its primary business or not) and they had a magazine section where some of my comics came from. I got my first library card when I was six and there was the school library.

Unknowingly, my world was expanding.

I discovered “real” books around the age of 10. Real Books were books with no pictures. I admit the transition was difficult—I am primarily a visual person. What developed was a reading method that reached its peak around age 15 or so and has to some extent stayed with me. I loved movies. Upon starting a new novel, I would cast the characters and in my mind I ran a film of what I read, translating the words into scenes. By the end of high school, I was reading close to a 100 books a year (my senior year I read about 200, cutting class regularly to go to the public library for the day and sit reading). This fell off sharply when I got a job, but I have maintained a reading rate of between 50 and 100 books a year since. Although, as I got older I found myself reading more deeply, therefore slower, and so my average is somewhere between 60 and 80.

There may have been a year or two where my reading fell off close to nothing, but for 60 years I have never not read.

I had no idea reading could cause controversy until I was in seventh grade. The year before I had started bringing books to school, mass market paperbacks, most of which fit easily into a back pocket. I tried to find someplace to read during recess. I had little interest in going out to the playground. Eventually I found an unused room behind the stage in the gym where I could read for half an hour. I was smart enough not to disappear completely during recess, lest they try to come find me. I don’t know if that actually worked or if someone figured out what I was doing and decided to leave me alone. 

I did find my popularity with the girls rising. Many if not most of them were also readers. And they would borrow my books when I finished. In retrospect, I did bring some rather “inappropriate” books to school. Emmaus was a parochial school. Last Summer, The Master of Falconhurst, Flowers In The Attic…probably not what the parents of those girls would have considered suitable. And in hindsight, this was the reason they were borrowing my books and not getting their own. They couldn’t.

It didn’t become an issue until the principal, a dour older man named Adolph Oberman, caught me with a copy of Harold Robbins’  The Carpetbaggers. He took it, glowered, said nothing, and called my parents.

The Carpetbaggers is filled with quite explicit sex. For its day, quite explicit. 

The conference Mr. Oberman had with my mother and me was educational. (Yes, I was present. I think he expected a united front in making me ashamed of myself.) He handed the book to my mother and asked if she was aware that I was reading it.

“No,” she said. “Why?”

He was a bit dismayed. “Do you think this is appropriate for him?”

She shrugged. “If he can’t handle it, he’ll stop reading it. Or he’ll ask me about it. Either way, I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t censor what my son reads.”

Mr. Oberman was shaken. I was surprised, too, not because I had any sense of the book being a problem, but because I had come to expect that anything I did that resulted in this kind of a conference was automatically A Bad Thing. That my mother was putting the ball back in his court was unexpected. 

“I would prefer he not bring such things to school,” was about all he could manage.

On the way home she asked me where I had gotten it, but that was all. No lectures, not demands to see what else I owned, no impression of disapproval.

My mom is a hero to me.

It was around this time that I got my first bike and found the neighborhood bookstore. When my parents realized that I was spending my allowance on books, my allowance increased. They never questioned what I brought home.

Entering high school in the fall of 1968 was to walk into a maw of a cultural beast in full transformation. Till then I was marginally aware of “hippies” and the War and the Counterculture. Over the next few years I found out what it was all about and had a front row seat at the battle to control information. My favorite history teacher was reprimanded for allowing a debate over Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation to take place. I challenged the syllabus for its insipid choices and was finally told flat out that the books selected (for our school, which was traditional blue collar school) were chosen because they were short enough not to challenge our presumed attention spans. I read Fahrenheit 451 and learned about the history of censorship and suppression—

—which baffled me and angered me. These were my friends—the books—how dare anyone burn them?

And this is what nonreaders do not seem to get. Books are alive the moment a reader finds them. They are conversations. They are what remain of lives long gone yet through them still present. They are the Past, they are people, they are the future-maybes, they are the record of civilization, and they are the repository of the whole of human experience. When I could not talk to my peers, when they had nothing they wanted to say to me or know from me, I could open a book and be with people. 

For a long time I didn’t appreciate that aspect, but as I grew older I realized that the relationships on the pages I had attended to were, in their own way, as worthy and rich and supportive as those with flesh and blood on two legs and a whisper in my ear. Sometimes more so, because here these people, many long-dead, were explaining themselves to me, which most of the people around me never did. And because of these silent conversations via the word, eventually I understood the people around me, too.

It did save a lot of time and grief.

Granted, it can put one at odds with the people around you. For a time, as many devoted readers know, you are the odd one, the weirdo, the bookworm, the nerd, the dork. For a people who seem to value Experience, I always found it curious—and unfortunate—that they never realized that reading, close reading, is experience.

But some seem to sense, even understand in a clever and sly way, that it is, and that experience brings change.

I grew up able to read anything I came across. Did I read inappropriate material? First, define that for me. Secondly, I would hope so. You don’t expand your self by playing it safe and staying within arbitrarily defined “appropriate boundaries.” And, really, reading a book is about the most risk-free exposure to inappropriate there is.

Back at Emmaus, another incident occurred which I did not know about at the time, at least not the full story. That stolid, conservative principal, Mr. Oberman, decided, some time between my sixth and seventh grade, to try to bring into the school a sex education program. He found one that had been designed by christians, constructed with a concern about religious sensibilities while still dealing factually and fully with the world of chaos about to fall upon students of our age. There was a presentation at a PTA meeting, which my mother attended. (At the time my dad worked nights, which left mom to deal with this sort of thing.) According to my mother, it was a beautiful course, tasteful, knowledgeable, pitched to just the right level. She thought it would have been terrific. Only one other parent and she voted to approve it. Every other parent there said no. One, according to mom, even said “I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”

I get the idea—if you don’t tell them, they won’t know to indulge it. It’s a stupid idea, but it’s as common as hydrogen. Because we were being told about it. Only not properly and not factually and not within any kind of framework that would allow us to understand it as it should be understood. We were getting it from older kids, from magazines that “showed up” and were passed around, from the age-old osmotic passage of “forbidden” knowledge that is the font of superstition, trash history, racism, and conspiracy-driven nonsense that somehow Everyone seems to know and no one bothers to verify. We were learning how french kissing could get a girl pregnant, how masturbation will cause cognitive degradation, how sex would cause hair growth, how a thousand other false “everybody knows” bits were true and a science-based course on human sexuality was a sin. All because parents—most of them in that place and time—could not handle the idea of sex education. 

For myself, by then I had acquired the priceless habit of Looking Things Up. I was made to feel stupid a couple of times about sex by my peers. What did I do? I rode my bike to that bookstore and bought a book about it. Love and Sex in Plain Language by Eric Johnson. A slim book, barely 110 pages, with illustrations. That was another book that got passed around to some of the girls. But it was the first time I ever had proof that what my classmates were telling me was empty nonsense.

But the nonsense was being passed around. That sex education course would have been as much damage control as anything else. 

“I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”

Given that, what might they have felt about other topics? Like slavery or religious bigotry or Manifest Destiny or evolution or—? And we want people like that to determine what everyone else’s children can have access to why? Because believe me, they aren’t trying to keep those books out of their children’s hands for the benefit of the kids.

I imagine it’s possible, even likely, that some people consider me untrustworthy. Unreliable. Corrupt. A Bad Influence. Unpatriotic. I read all those books (somewhere close to 4000 by now) and filled my head with all those things nobody needed to know. 

But having read all those books—and living the kind of life such reading helped give me access to—I also know exactly what such opinions are worth.

Dear Pope

A consistently baffling phenomenon in life is how people with zero actual experience in something and with a stated ideological reason for not and never having that experience find it in themselves to advise, recommend, insist, dictate, and judge people who likewise choose not to have that experience—but for completely different reasons.

Life is full of this kind of thing. “Experts” with all kinds of advice for other people about things they’ve never done and have no intention of doing. One of the most egregious is all the “friendly” encouragement to have kids. (And yes, many of these people do have kids, but it’s surprising how many who don’t will join in.) For a certain period of time in one’s life, this becomes a thing when you’re in a relationship. People coaxing, prodding, dropping hints, suggesting. Propagandizing, essentially. “It’s different when they’re your own.” I’m sure that’s true.

And utterly beside the point.

The part they haven’t done? They haven’t lived your life or dreamed your dreams. They’re telling you where you should go with all that based on an unbridgeable ignorance of who you are.

It’s bad enough when this is the behavior of acquaintances, but when the leader of one of the major religions of the world does it, it strikes me as downright unethical, especially when the vow that leader has taken excuses him from ever having to participate in it himself.

There is a moral principle at work here. The edgy one, which is the distinction between telling people to do the right thing and telling them to remake themselves in order to accommodate your formula of the right thing. The pope has made a sweeping generalization about what human beings should be without bothering with the thorny question of what may be morally right for individuals. That, of course, is complicated and difficult to manage.

How many unhappy families must follow the traditional line before there is an acknowledgment that we are not all suited to one definition of correct behavior?

Before the cherrypickers pipe up with examples of killers and molesters and sociopaths of every stripe as being those who are doing what may be suited to them, let me say that there is a moral principle that negates those arguments, which is that one is obliged not to harm others in the exercise of one’s proclivities. You can name any of the varied acts of transgression as being unsupported by moral fiat and they all entail doing harm to others.

At what point do we add the thoughtlessness of making children without regard to our ability to properly parent?

I know, this is supposed to be one of those areas uncovered by reason or forethought, that is simply supposed to just happen as a consequence of love. That we should, according to the model handed down by the propagandists of human idealism, simply feel “blessed” and look forward to the joy of raising a child. When that is the case—and it is for many, many people—it is a wonderful thing. But it is not true for many others.

To define this as a simple-minded instance of selfishness is itself a species of prejudice.

(Especially when we do not acknowledge the selfishness of people who have children the way they collect knick-knacks and pay them no more mind than how they add to the family reputation.)

And insisting that people conform to your idea of what should make them more human is the sort of arrogance which has been costing churches membership for decades, and rightly so.

Pope John XXIII instigated the Vatican II reforms. Unfinished at his death was his attempt to revamp the Church’s attitude toward sex, especially concerning birth control. It was—would have been—a tacit acknowledgment that people have a right to decide for themselves whether or not to procreate. Further, it was an implicit recognition that sex and procreation are two different things, and that human beings have a right to express themselves in an act of physical love without further justification, which is what procreation has become in this instance. John XXIII died before seeing that through and his successor balked.

But over time, people have, more and more, assumed that right for themselves.

For myself, I realized that I would not have been a willing parent. Oh, I probably would have done a fairly good job, no doubt I would have loved my children, but that is not where I wanted my energies to go, and I believe the resentment would have shown through. Every child deserves a family that accepts it and loves it without reservation. I doubted I could have done that. You tell me if that would have been fair to any child. I was unwilling to gamble on sentiments I did not already possess. Does that make me selfish? You might construe it that way. Or you might step back and realize that I had made a moral choice not to risk another human being’s welfare on the chance that “it would be different with my own.”

And of course there is the absurdity of a committed celibate dictating such things to people who he does not—cannot—know. This is of a kind with all those males who see fit to dictate to women what they should do procreatively. Telling them how to live when they themselves will never have to face the decision with their own bodies.

You might also consider that you have mischaracterized uncounted pet owners. Most probably did not adopt a pet in place of having a child. Most adopted a pet in order to have a pet.

In summation, this is just more of the same old patriarchal arrogance that has rendered chaotic situations that perhaps might not have been with a simple freedom to choose. The guilt innate to this position is an ongoing nightmare for too many people. You might have been a bit more sympathetic for people whose situations you do not, cannot, and, frankly, by virtue of the vows you took to get where you are, will not know.

Retrenchment

The new abortion laws being enacted across the country should come as no surprise. This was going to happen. This has been in the cards since Reagan. Reliance on the courts to defend the right to choose was as much an indication of how much we underestimated the threat as it was any kind of faith in our institutions.

Right after Roe was passed, amendments to state constitutions should have been passed to nail it down. Other laws should have been written and passed to nail it down. One of the inherent problems with a federal solution is that it’s a one-time solution that can be reversed the next time across the board. Roe should have been the start of a long series of embedding legislation which should have been taken up on the assumption that Roe could be overturned.

It didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. One, I believe, is that too much support for the right to choose is tepid. It is too often circumstantial, waffling, and uncomfortable.

Now we’ll find out. Penalties are being attached. Some have already been enacted. This means one thing that has traditionally scared the anti-choice movement off—it will now be in the courts all the time.

Let me say here that in my opinion, as a male, I should have no say in this. At all. I was never at risk in this issue. I could never get pregnant. I was never going to suffer consequences from being denied the right to an abortion. This should not be something I have any stake in.

That said, it has become politicized to the point that having an opinion is unavoidable because now it is a civil rights issue, and civil rights affect all of us.

And no, as far as I’m concerned, a fetus has no civil rights. A fetus is not a person. At best, a fetus is a manifestation of an idea, and it only becomes a person if all the parties involve follow through. All the moralistic posturing about when life begins and what constitutes a human are just that—posturing. By taking the position that a fetus—now, in some cases, a zygote—is a human being with a full suite of rights, you automatically strip rights of personhood from the one carrying it. Personhood is an aspect of autonomy. Autonomy at the very least is a matter of self-determination. By declaring that a collection of cells has greater claim to state protection than the one carrying them is by definition declaring that woman less than everyone else. You can’t have it any other way.

Until we stop waffling about that, this issue will not be resolved.

Resolution, however, entails several other issues that are hanging upon the thread of ongoing discomfort. Like equality, for instance, and not just for women.

Education for another. The rationalization of sex. Not to mention the ongoing squirming about gender, orientation, and identity. All of this is tangled up and therefore it is difficult to know just what some people are objecting to when they go on a jeremiad about abortion. We may believe our response is exclusively aimed at the words coming out of their mouths, but then when their next response comes, laden with contradiction and vehement rejection, we sense that we did not know just what we were arguing about.

This is simple:  if the goal is to reduce and/or eliminate abortions, then a sensible solution is to substantially invest in meaningful sex education and the wide availability of contraception. Attack the causes of unwanted pregnancy and empower individuals to protect themselves. How hard is that?

Apparently, very. Almost no anti-choice group does not also include a ban on contraception as a stated goal. One of the justifications touted for this stance is the notion that contraception is simply abortion by other means. Pre-emptive abortion, if you will. That contraception inculcates a lax attitude toward the value of life. That contraception leads to an acceptance of abortion.

This facile excuse-making masks a very simple reality:  that the real issue is not abortion but sex. Sex practiced outside the bounds of what is hoped to be strict social parameters that will control behaviors said advocates find unacceptable. (A recent declaration by Alabama Republican state Senator and sponsor of the bill Clyde Chambliss, responded that, “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.” That’s about as clear as it can be made—he and probably his supporters are not interested in the “facts of life” regarding fertilized egg—they are concerned with pregnant women and making sure they stay pregnant.)  This is a direct assault on a woman’s right to be her own agent.  It is punitive and it is a curtailment of her civil rights. This has nothing to do with fetuses except as a means of control.

Until we largely get past the traditional views that linger like mold that sex is somehow bad and that women who try to live their lives according to the same privileged sensibilities men do are “unnatural”; until we get to a place where we can accept that sex as an act of communication is separate and distinct in intent and outcome from sex as procreation and that all of us have a right to manage our own aspirations free of outside interference, we will continue to have this problem.

It is the start of a chain, though.  If you can dictate pregnancy this way, you can dictate all the rest of the privacy concerns adhering to questions of free association and identity. This can be enlarged for purposes of a resurgent legal challenge to homosexual rights, transgender rights, adoption rights, marriage rights, and so on.  Not that it necessarily would go there but by accepting the legitimacy of such limitations on one group for purposes having nothing to do with their innate and autonomous desires, you can construe a challenge to any group failing to fit an arbitrary social “norm.”

That is not a society I care to live in.

Until we quite clearly and loudly start dealing with the underlying (and not so well hidden) issues involved, we are destined to keep fighting these back-and-forth legal wars.  Despite the distance traveled since the 1950s and all its suffocating social restrictions, people still seem reluctant to defend their right to have healthy sex.  Indeed, we still have too many people who do not believe sex is healthy. Too many people who excuse their desires and passions by making babies and therefore proving a legitimate reason for having such a good time was there all along.

It sounds silly, doesn’t it?

When you disassemble the challenges and look at the arguments and then look at the policies advocated, it doesn’t sound so silly.  The anti-choice movement has depended on the tepidness, the discomfort, of too many people in order to build the momentum they have. They have relied on our collective ill-ease with the whole subject.

Well. Be that as it may. Sad to say, the pro-choice movement is likely going to lose this one. Having lost it, we will regroup, and maybe next time do the necessary trench-warfare in the state legislatures, and school boards, and town halls to instantiate this right in too many places, too deeply to be effectively challenged.

We need to. I am not willing to live in a Calvinist dystopia. I don’t think the Fifties were all that wonderful. I don’t want my friends to suffer a retreat from the dream of equity.

This has been a fight with ignorance. The depth of that ignorance is on display now across the country. People who don’t know—and who don’t want to know, because knowing confuses them, makes them doubt. They want a pure, righteous cause by which to feel virtuous.

For the life of me, I’ve never understood why genuine equality doesn’t fill that bill.

Equality? For the ignorant—that a woman can be shackled by a condition and have her entire life twisted and reshaped through no choice of her own and that men can never be so trapped automatically makes this an equity issue. That is reality. And I have no doubt that many if not all the architects of the so-called pro-life cause know that perfectly well and they are glad of it, because they think that’s as it should be.

 

 

Pathological Ownership

Beth Moore has left the Southern Baptist Conference. If you are unaware of her and what this means, you should look into it. Beth Moore has for many years occupied a special place within that community—a preacher without portfolio, one might say, as the SBC does not permit women to hold the title “pastor.” The straight-up “pure quill” fundamentalism they espouse holds the inferred Biblical injunctions inviolable in this instance, but she has been such a forceful speaker and operates such a large organization that they are loathe to relegate her to silence. So she held that special position.

Till now.

She has split with them over Trump. The schism is instructive. Ms. Moore cannot find common ground with the majority of her colleagues over Trump.

“He became the banner, the poster child for the great white hope of evangelicalism, the salvation of the church in America,” she said. “Nothing could have prepared me for that.”

Since 2016 she has been on the outside of the SBC over this issue. She identified Trump as an exemplar of everything they should stand against, and yet she was met with silence, then disapproval, then warnings, and finally with the loss of her publisher. She could not understand the attitude of her (male) colleagues in their support for this man she saw as a walking “poster child” for evil.

To be sure, this has puzzled those outside the evangelical camp all along. The slogans and protestations over perceived moral lapses in Democrats would seem to support a no-holds-barred moralism that should have found Trump utterly unacceptable. And yet we have been witness to very public campaigns of image rehabilitation all along. It has been with mixed incomprehension and horror that we have seen people who flew into paroxysms of condemnation over Clinton’s behavior make showings of almost servile support (bordering on worship) for a man who bragged about pussy-grabbing and attempted to pay off a porn star to keep her from talking about her paid services to him. The very public ridicule he heaped on anyone who did not fit a shallow model of Americanism that combined a host of clichés and segregated anyone who didn’t meet the standard—essentially the acts of a bully picking on the weak—seemed to gain favor with the very people who claim Jesus as their exemplar. Beth Moore saw this for what it was and tried to convince the SBC to abandon its support for him, and instead found herself more and more at odds with them, more and more isolated.

It is fair to ask what is going on with this enormous contradiction. How could the self-professed moral arbiters of the country, the Christian Right, support this?

Beth Moore’s ambiguous status holds much of the answer.

It is by now a convention that in many religions women are relegated to secondary (or lesser) status. One may puzzle about how this can still pertain in a time when the evidence for any rational justification for it has been shown to be nonexistent. Certainly it is an aspect of male privilege, but that does not satisfactorily explain the complicit acquiescence of so many women. Moore is a good example of the conundrum. (Just as with people like Michele Bachman, who espouses a paradoxical belief that women should be subservient yet she herself sees no problem with holding leadership positions.) In Moore’s case, she has been in accord with the evangelical attitudes toward women and accepted a lesser status even while she has risen to a commanding position in her community. She felt the larger message important and, no doubt, felt protected within the larger community.

But when Trump’s very public attitudes toward women became a very public issue, and she protested, that community seemed to withdraw its protection.

In my opinion, this apparent betrayal is due to a basic misunderstanding which is not only endemic to communities like the SBC, but to our society as a whole, and it has to do with Ownership.

The only reason to deny equality to women and then justify it, you have to understand who thinks who owns what.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, The Dispossessed, there is a scene early on which strikes the issue squarely. It is a flashback of the protagonist, Shevek, as a child in, basically, preschool:

…the fat infant was at this moment coming towards the knobby one rapidly…he approached out of boredom or sociability, but once in the square of sunlight he discovered it was warm there. He sat down heavily beside the knobby one, crowding him into the shade.

The knobby one’s blank rapture gave place at once to a scowl of rage. He pushed the fat one, shouting “Go ‘way!”

…The knobby one stood up. His face was a glare of sunlight and anger. His diapers were about to fall off. “Mine!” he said in a high, ringing voice. “Mine sun!”

“It is not yours,” the one-eyed woman said with the mildness of utter certainty. “Nothing is yours. It is to use.  It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it.” And she picked the knobby baby up with gentle inexorable hands and set him aside, out of the square of sunlight.

The knobby one shook all over, screamed, “Mine sun!” and burst into tears of rage.

Baby Shevek has determined that things belong to him. Personally. Perfectly natural, to a degree. The world is centered on him, he feels he has a right to the patch of sunlight, that he can, in fact, own it. We read the passage with a mix of amusement and enlightenment. We recognize this to be an infant’s response to the reality of the world.

But.

Our culture is based, largely if not wholly, on an idea of ownership that was in the beginning a redress of imbalance. The idea that anyone, regardless of “station”, could own property was radical, especially in its unremarked egalitarianism. Communal ownership was more common, but this was not the aspect of ownership that captured the imagination—rather, it was the sole ownership, the possibility the individual, any individual, could own outright the equivalent of a kingdom that became the unquestioned ethos of the American experiment. This idea—so powerful, so very American in its expression if not its origins—fueled the growth of the United States and rocketed us to heights unparalleled in history.

And it underlies everything that is currently wrong with the republic. It has always had its dark side, it has never been free of abuse, but it has gone through cycles during which it was tempered—by circumstance, by public morality, by the very excesses of those most adept at acquisition. Boom and Bust cycles are the product of poorly controlled acquisition. Theodore Roosevelt knew it and attacked it. His relative, FDR, went further.

But it’s very difficult to regulate that which is an outgrowth of a cultural feature, part of our own mythology, our identity—our psychology. Any attempt to regulate it feels like theft.

This is not new, by any means, but it has become so dominant in our culture as to be like the very air we breathe, at least for some. Ownership has come to possess us as the only worthwhile aspect of anything and everything. If looked at from this perspective, all our present ethical and social conundrums clarify, from taxes to fashion, gun ownership to healthcare, voting rights to marriage, property to opinions, abortion to minimum wage.

What Trump has done for the membership of the SBC that puts them at odds with Beth Moore and seems so perverse to many of us is to reaffirm for them what they feel proprietary about, what they believe they rightfully own, that their claims of possession are legitimate. Beth Moore does not, for them, have a right to be shocked and repulsed by Trump because she is not an owner. They are. To put it as bluntly as possible, while perhaps most of them are dismayed and censorious about Trump’s pussy-grabbing, it remains a fact for them that the pussy is there for him to grab. His grabbing it makes it his, because the woman does not own it. Women’s sexuality is not theirs.

Beth Moore does not even have a right to her own voice—they have tried to take that away from her—but only has use of it because it serves the self-presumed owners.

Absurd? When you look back at the history of personal rights over the centuries, one thing becomes clear—it always revolves around some formulation of ownership. As the franchise expanded, those opposed railed against it out of a sense of privilege, that they are losing something which they act as if they owned. What we are seeing right now across the country is exactly that—people trying to limit voting rights, reduce them, take them away from those they see as a threat. (Because the consequences of such expanded voting might impinge on other things that self-styled elites feel are theirs.) Many reasons are given, but the presumption that such restrictions are even considered is based on a notion of proprietary civic ownership that goes back centuries.

Plato discussed communal space, where everyone in a polis “owned” things in common. Aristotle thought this was a bad idea since in his view (to simplify) common ownership like that would dis-incentivize care, that without the added encouragement of private ownership, no one would feel obligated to preserve, maintain, or build. Aristotle was the one “good pagan” that the Catholic Church used to build its own social ethics and so this idea came into the mainstream of thought through the dominant religions of the modern era. Plato and Aristotle approved of limited forms of democracy, but felt that not everyone was suited to participate equally and Aristotle made no bones about believing only elite males had a natural right to ownership, which meant the ability to participate in the politics of the polis. Hence the franchise came down to us from ideas of suitability and because so much history, property, conquest, and nation-building has accrued around these ideas since, it is difficult to tease them apart. They are the air we breathe, as I said.

There has always been a cycle of balances set against this. Simple ability to enforce, the reach of government and church, the situation on the ground at any given place and time—all have made a pure form of this hard to achieve and there has always been some push-back. But we cannot seem to be rid of it. One would have thought that by the Enlightenment, the categorical denials of agency necessary would have fallen by the wayside, and yet…

Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696 – 1792) was a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, a patron of David Hume and Adam Smith, among others. He, with others, established the Philosophical Society of Scotland. A precursor to the much more influential work of Adam Smith, he was concerned about the importance of property to society. The economics aside, when it came to the franchise, he wrote:

“Those who depend for food on bodily labor, are totally void of taste, of such taste at least as can be of use in the fine arts. This consideration bars the greater part of mankind; and for the remaining part, many by a corrupted taste are unqualified for voting.”

With some allowance for the passage of much history, this would have fit rather well with Aristotle (and even Plato). Specific justifications aside, the idea that it is not only permissible but desirable to exclude certain people from participation is clear.

The rest of the 18th Century, in terms of Enlightenment thinkers, wrestled with questions of nature, merit, innate value. Property emerged as a key concern and with the creation of the United States, the momentum of such concerns barreled on with increasing force until, today, property has become everything.

The United States, however, has an in-built conflict. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are neither one based on such blatant exclusions and form the basis of a tension that has grown along with the self-conception of the country. Property, as it turns out, is only valuable when made exclusive. Politics, however, always intrudes on the uses of property, which brings in the concerns of those excluded. Rights occupy a special space that seem beholden to the ephemeral even as the exercise of Rights inevitably impacts the temporal. Because we have a love-hate relationship with ideas of property that transcend mere material objects, the inextricable dependence of one on the other creates a conception of property that seems to encompass Rights and treats them as a species of Things Which Can Be Owned. My Rights, My Land, My Freedom, My Things, My Self.

The most accessible way to conceive of all this is as property. Which means that when Rights are expanded, some people will see this as an encroachment because it depletes the value of their property. And so, the question at the center of modern conservatism, whether stated explicitly or not (or even acknowledged), is: What can I own? The next question, then, would have to be: how can I maintain the value of what I own?  This becomes the justification to deny ownership to others.

For most people, historically, the goal was autonomy. The freedom to be who you are, unapologetically, without having to justify yourself to authorities. But autonomy—agency—is not the same as ownership. Unlike property, agency should not be—cannot be—a contract or title to the claims of self possession. It must be a given, unbarterable, nonfungible, and universal. The American myth is that here, we have that. In practice, most of us do not. It is traded away every day by the fact that without money—the means of ownership—we have nothing anyone feels obligated to respect.

So alliances are made, groups are formed, coalitions emerge. Churches are ready-made for this, because by joining one the agency we seem unable to possess on our own can be “borrowed” from the cadre. But churches aren’t the only method for becoming something by allying with many. Political parties, certainly, but the principle works with businesses, charitable organizations, clubs, special interests, schools…

All these things, however, exist—here—within a framework that has promised agency.

But that’s a slippery idea to pin down. It’s the thing implicit in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in the enumeration of rights to be kept free of outside (government) interference (or any other), like speech, freedom of worship, privacy, assembly, legal redress, and equal access to public determination. Agency. Rather than that, we have come to regard ownership as primary, as established throughout our history by repeated referral to property as a qualification for common regard. As time marched on, the meaning of the franchise expanded, and in each expansion the issue has been centered on ownership. In the beginning, only property owners could vote. While not so explicit today, there is still a property qualification (permanent address).

In the advance toward a universal franchise, those opposed to the expansion have insisted on more and more qualifications—amounting to proof of ownership—to bear on the people they wish to exclude. After 250 years (here) of this, we have come to a point where almost everything has been, in some sense, transformed into a commodity.

Things that can be owned can be controlled.

How does this relate to the Religious Right’s support of Trump and their censure of Beth Moore?

Trump is all about ownership. His “brand” is everything. He is admired (by some) for having things. Having things is the hallmark of success in this country. Not “who you are” but “what you have” matters more to most people, because the former requires a sense of Self that is neither publicly evident or reliably fixed (people change).  (Also, who you are may be terrifying to other people, so it is easier to reduce the Self to a set of traits that you “have”—implying that you can trade them in, get new ones, swap them out, or just put them away.) Success at Having Things is understandable, accessible, universalizable. It also validates for others the presumed right to have things.

Trump is popular among certain groups because he does just that—he validates their view of what it means to be an American, which is entirely wrapped up in Having Things.

One of the things he “has” is the prerogative to deny agency to those he sees as inferiors or, at least, unworthy of consideration.

For evangelicals this includes many of the kinds of people of whom they disapprove. While Trump’s “manner” may offend their sensibilities, they do not find fault with his presumptions. In the case of the “pussygrabbing” it comes down to the fact that the pussies he is grabbing are attached to “fallen” women. After all, their wives would never be in a position to be so treated, because they are not “that kind” of woman. They know better than to put their pussies in such circumstances.

I phrase it that way because below all this, the reality for these men is that their wives’ pussies belong to them. Because this is a factor of our culture that underlies much of our disconnect over women’s rights and equity. For them, women don’t “own” their sexuality. They carry it around until a man claims it. Which is why so much of the anxiety and anger over gender equality remains a muddle for certain people.

And Beth Moore? She had the temerity to express the idea that Trump’s pussygrabbing was in all cases immoral, obscene, and deserving of censure. But she can only make that charge if women are their own persons, whole and worthy of regard as free agents.

And agency is the one thing evangelicals cannot grant outside the confining circle of their faith, which is a club of limited membership, very exclusive, and cannot admit to any kind of baseline equality. Doing so would require they change their message on so many fronts and accord respect to people and persons they a priori consider beyond the pale. Unredeemed. Damned.

Just the fact that Beth Moore has for all these years been disallowed from holding an equal position within her chosen conference demonstrates that the principle of ownership is in force to deny her agency, because she cannot own what her colleagues already claim for themselves. They see it as their prerogative to grant status and people outside their selective regard have no right to claim anything for themselves.

Consider their stance toward transgender persons: this is a threat to their purview because it is individuals taking possession of their Selves and claiming agency. That they would have to know that Self intimately enough to move beyond the reach of simple possession is a denial of the message of “salvation” through superior agency (Christ). And, on a more basic level, it frightens because gender orientation is one of those things that is “owned” and often regarded as a separate thing to be scorned (denial of the flesh). That it is fundamental to identity creates too many confusions and contradictions for the smooth apprehension of a theological proposition which is supposed to be Otherworldly.

But in practice it comes down to an ownership issue.

Consider an example outside of questions of Self. The rejection of government economic support for the poor. This would seem paradoxical. If the point is to alleviate poverty, what does it matter where the aide comes from?  But it matters if you consider the dispensation of that aid proprietary. They see it as charity and according to their own philosophy, charity comes from the heart. Governments render this moot, because it becomes a matter of economic systems. There is no “charity”—hence no Good Works, no affirmation of moral mission, no opportunity to demonstrate one’s christianity. Charity has become a wholly-owned trademark of religious expression and no one should take it away, least of all systems that might render the matter solved.

Beth Moore ran afoul of an unexamined aspect of American culture as expressed through a religious lens. Trump may be an immoral, foul, odious being, but he affirmed for them the basic right of ownership of so many issues, and hence condemning him and withdrawing support was not possible. It might have played out a little differently had a man in Beth Moore’s position done what she did, but it still would have intruded on the majority’s presumptive rights of ownership—in this case, the ownership of male privilege.

On an even more perverse level, Trump was also the proof of government corruption—he fit their idea of what the government already was. If the end game was to destroy the beast, why not support the one who best exemplifies everything they claim to hate? Putting a good man (or woman—unthinkable!) in that office would seem perverse, because what could a good man accomplish? It would only delay the advent of freedom from what they see as secular attempts at creating a baseline equality that denies their “right” to judge.

And here it generates endlessly stranger ideas of what may have been going on.

But Beth Moore turned on the juggernaut and was trampled by the unstated assumptions of the inner circle. That evangelicals can show a history of their own indulging in all the things she condemned Trump for doing ought to have been a signal that she misunderstood just what she was dealing with.

Agency, as I assume it here, is something beyond ownership. But it’s personal, and it’s malleable, and it is uncontained by convention. It actually cannot be owned, so it becomes necessary to prevent its manifestation.

I do not here claim everyone is so ensconced in this morass of what I’ve termed Pathological Ownership—but then it never requires many people to subscribe to an idea to have an impact on how the culture responds. Because we have a rather nebulous set of alternate models, the idea of Having Things being a substitute rather than an expression of Self can distort all out of proportion to the numbers involved. It helps if we know what it is we’re talking about, identify the issue at hand, instead of stumbling on assuming a different set of values at play.

Just about everything in the divisive cultural and politic mess we’ve experienced for the last few decades can be explained by this idea. The GOP won’t cooperate with the Democrats? Why? Because they seek to own the issues. If they cooperate, then they must share, and sharing is the road to ruin, because no one can own what is shared. The moment you share something it is no longer exclusively yours,.

Too many people just want to own everything.

 

 

Clueless

Some people think if they throw enough words of the “what if” or “but then” variety, anything can be twisted out of shape enough to render even the most toxic subject harmless.

Take sexual harassment.

The presumption on the part of some men that a woman is there for their entertainment underlies the casual fecklessness of the entire frat-boy mentality.  They excuse themselves with all manner of absurdity. “She was there to party” “her clothes” “she didn’t say no” “she laughed.”

That last one gets me every time.

I worked with a man for nine years who used that as his justification for a level of “flirtation” that bordered on intimidation. Every attractive woman who came into the store could be a target for his brand of locker room humor and he excused himself from charges of harassment by saying “But they laughed.” Which to him signaled they were having a good time and what he was doing was acceptable.

He seemed tone deaf to nervous laughter. He was oblivious to the rictus of “I can’t believe you just said that.”

Gradually, they stopped coming. We lost business. One good friend complained to me about it and I advised her to call him on it. She did. Immediately afterward, his comment was “I had no idea she was such a bitch.”

“She’s not,” I said. “You’re just such an asshole.”

He looked genuinely hurt. I patiently tried to explain what he was doing that was wrong. Maybe he didn’t want to get it, but I still believe that he was so steeped in the culture of the Fifties and Sixties that he just couldn’t accommodate the idea that what he had been doing all his adult life was fundamentally wrong.  Disrespectful, intimidating, humiliating.  “But they laugh.”

This is who he saw himself as and he thought it was cool.  He thought I was being a whiney liberal. 

But we lost almost all our female customers of a certain age and physical description.

Now he did ask one question that got me thinking. “If I say the same things at a party, I don’t drive anyone away.”

Well, I had to question that a bit, but—

The difference between a social occasion where everyone is perfectly free to walk away and a business environment wherein the parties are trapped by a set of necessities which do not allow easy egress. In order for them to walk away they have to be willing to break a business arrangement. They have to find another source for what they need. They have to start over to build a relationship.

None of this has a damn thing to do with making yuk-yuk over sexual innuendos and flirtation.  There are costs involved.

Of course, there are always costs involved, just that some of them are not so immediate or monetary. Loss of respect, at minimum.  Actual fear. Women who may realize that they’re quite glad never to be alone with you. The easy intimacy of friendship lost.

Not to mention just adding to the general toxicity of a culture that takes as given, usually unstated but always there, that women are there for a man’s pleasure.

And those who reject that?

The oblivion of being recategorized and cast out.  At best. Punished at worst. Punished by assault, but actions based on the assumption “Oh, she really wants it even if she’s saying she doesn’t.”

Underlined by ridicule.

But it was all in fun! After all, the boys were laughing.

The Irish Option

I tend to avoid prognostication. Prediction. Dicey game, right answers stumbled upon seldom enough to imbue them with an aura. But I might put one out there after this week. I’m going to predict that what just happened in Ireland is the start of a movement and might come to be called The Irish Option. Just the fact that it occurred in, of all places, Ireland, that land of formerly austere and resolute Catholic dominance and abuse, will make it emblematic.

In an apparently overwhelming referendum, the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, which banned abortion, has been removed, by more than 2 to 1. People returned to Ireland from all over the world just to cast a ballot. If nothing else, this should give Americans pause to reflect on how much we value the vote.

After arguing over this for most of the last century, the issue has come down to some very simple precepts. But the primary one, the one that will carry forward, is simple—women should be the ones to decide whether or not to bear children. Only the most obdurate and unaffected stubbornness can fail to see the reasons. This single right underlies all other arguments for equality. This single factor determines self-empowerment. This single option dictates how one can conduct one’s life.

And of course it is not only the individual woman who benefits from having the choice. But we should not lose sight of this central, primary fact. Historically, women have had little to say concerning their own lives, and this biological reality has been the chief excuse for varying degrees of disempowerment, chattel bondage, and denial of agency. Redressing that has been one of the chief issues of Western Civilization since the 18th Century at least. Along with general questions of inequality, the period from 1820 (just to select a starting point—others may serve as well) to the present has been defined by a constant discourse on what we mean by civil rights and civil liberties. At every point where significant transitions occurred, individual autonomy has increased. The arguments against have fallen because they are morally unsustainable. White people are not genetically superior to other so-called races, women are not constitutionally unsuited to political engagement or forms of work men traditionally claim as their own, property is not a sufficient condition to segregate the right to vote, money is not a basis for denial of rights to those who lack it. And so on and so forth. We come at last (or perhaps not) to what remains of the justification for keeping more than half the human race in some degree of bondage. Moral arguments about sex, national arguments about the duty of motherhood, economic arguments about the structure of the home, political arguments over resources, and finally turf battles over privilege have combined in a toxic morass to muddy the core issues and make the road to a simple understanding bloody and brutal and divisive.

Certain people chafe at losing control, however imaginary. Others chafe at not having it in a very real and visceral way.

The litany of objections have all come down to a few assumptions based on tradition and an obsolete configuration of moral constraint that are more distraction than legitimate. Now in Ireland, with its history of sectional strife and tragedy, people have decided that it is time to set aside that mountain of gilded offal under which people squirm to meet standards that have nothing to do with hopes, dreams, or even practical abilities. Time to say enough to the history of sadistic denial, perverse chastisement, and unexamined fear of the female and say “We’re all people, human beings, and we want the same things, and those of us who never have to deal with a biological condition that can derail everything have no right to put chains on those who do have to deal with it.”

Choice frightens a lot of people. Because it takes power out of one set of hands and gives it those whose choice might make us uncomfortable. Because it takes away privileges. Because it unsettles. Because it changes arrangements that have given some a sense of worth at the expense of others’ freedom to live a life of their own choosing.

Now we see that some people, still, are simply terrified of the idea of the self-possessed woman.

Just as some are terrified of the idea of the self-possessed individual of a race not our own.

I have nothing to say to them, other than you will not dictate the terms of civilization anymore. Maybe you should talk to someone about what you fear.

In the meantime, I suspect more and more we’ll be seeing The Irish Option. The pushback against fear, ignorance, and hate is happening.

For those who will resort to the war cry “But the babies!” No. A zygote is not a baby. It’s not a baby until the woman carrying it says it is. But, then, it’s never really been about that anyway. Has it?

In What?

I had no idea till yesterday this was a thing. The Toronto van killer apparently was a member of a supposedly oppressed group that wishes to declare open rebellion against—

Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I think I understand. They have adopted a cognomen, which took me by surprise, one because it has the sound of something clandestine, serious, a thing with heft and glamour. But when you discover what it actually stands for there is a moment of dismay and…really?

Incels.

The incel rebellion is upon us.

Involuntarily Celibate.

Take a moment. Or two. This has emerged from something else with a label I had not heard before (because I don’t, apparently, pay attention to the people or places where I would hear such things), the Manosphere.

Involuntarily Celibate.

In other words, people who can’t seem to get laid.

And are convinced it’s not their fault.

They must all be 15 years old.

I am torn here between dismissive ridicule and being deeply serious. In another time, another age, no one would so publicly proclaim this condition, but since a way has been found to make it sound like a civil rights violation, it can now be a group identifier with significant political weight. Evidently so, since people are now dead because this guy doesn’t know how to deal with a personality problem.

There seems to be no middle ground on which to stand. Every adolescent who ever looked in a mirror has doubtless felt the despair of not being attractive. Most of us grow up and out of it and realize that it was just part of the learning curve of being human. Too many of us probably forget how awkward that whole part of our lives was. But some few no doubt never figure it out.

This is now a serious issue because it is being politicized, along with all the other aspects of what it means to live in the world, and in this instance it is based on a serious misapprehension of the entire question of sexual freedom.

After the Sexual Revolution, two notions seemed to become widespread that actually conflicted, although at the time it may have appeared to a lot of people that there was no contradiction. The first was that people now had the right to express themselves sexually and it was no ones damn business but your own. The other was largely, I think, a male reaction “Holy shit, now we’re gonna get laid more!” It didn’t occur to the latter that part of the personal ownership of one’s sex life meant saying No was now easier and a right. In the party that we witnessed that carried on through the Disco Era and started to stumble in the Age of AIDS, not a lot of attention got paid to the idea that women, especially women, could now pick and choose and say No without being castigated for it. (Men, it seemed to be assumed, didn’t know what to do with a right to say No. This is a stereotype, but one backed up by a LOT of circumstantial evidence.)

Fast forward to today when everyone is talking about Rape Culture and power arrangements and other aspects of civil rights and women’s health is threatened by political activists who clearly don’t like women having the ability to decide for themselves, and what do we have now? The same feckless arrested adolescents declaring their inability to get laid is because those people over there have oppressed us!

They apparently think it has to do with looks.

Let us put this out there now, clearly and succinctly. Sex is a gift. It is a wonderful gift people give to each other. You have a perfect right to have it when offered. What you do not have is a right to expect it and demand it. It only  counts if it is freely given and willingly indulged by all parties. You have a right to own your sexuality. You do not have a right to anyone else’s.  If you take it, it is not sex, it is rape. If you do not offer it and it is wrested from you, it is rape.  If you ask for it and are told no, move on. To do otherwise is to prove to all involved that you have no clue what this is all about.

To go out and run down a bunch of innocent people because you get turned down for sex is criminal narcissism. You aren’t being denied sex because you have been oppressed, you’re being denied sex because on some level you don’t know what it is. You’re throwing a tantrum, stamping you feet in petulance, and killing people because of a problem which is pretty much all yours.

Incels. My ghod, are you serious? Like they came to your house and clamped a girdle around you, like a chastity belt, and issued a restraining order to prevent you from having sex?

If women (and, possibly, but given the rhetoric I’ve seen, not likely, men) turn you down (and of course one has to wonder if that is actually happening or if conversation leading to a refusal ever actually occurs), it is not because you are ugly (what does that mean anyway?) or because they’re “castrating bitches” and you have a dick. It’s because you are a dick.

I don’t know what the cure is for that, but it’s not revolution.

But there is also the likelihood that many of these males (I refuse to call them Men, that has other connotations having to do with character which may be problematic in this instance) are not celibate so much as intolerant. They cannot stand the idea of being refused, as if women, in their view, simply have no right to turn them down.  They want slaves. They want to live on Gor. They can’t find women who will put up with their unexamined misogyny. (But of course there are plenty of males who are like this who have plenty of opportunity for what for them passes as sex, just not from wholly willing partners. Abuse has many faces.) There may well be males involved in this who have political litmus tests, or religious criteria, or—

Or have no fashion sense and zero conversation.

Sex, at the end of it all, is conversation. A dialogue (or more). If you don’t know how to talk to people…

Which is an adolescent problem.

Forgive me for going on about this, but I am genuinely annoyed. And stupefied. It is difficult to take it seriously, but it is a serious thing. Next we’ll be hearing from them that they think the world of A Handmaid’s Tale is a good idea, a utopia. They will completely miss that this is satire, dystopic, a warning, an altogether Bad Thing, and long for the instantiation of Gilead.

Boys, if you’re having trouble talking to girls, start with something easier—talk to a person. And then get it through your skull that women are persons. Until then, instead of wasting all this energy trying to get a political movement going in order to get laid, get some counseling.  And stop hurting people.

Grow up.