Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Americans (TV series)

Tuesday night I watched the last episode of what has been, arguably, the best show on US TV for some six years. It is ironically titled The Americans, about a gifted pair of Soviet spies In the Reagan era, who have cunningly assumed an almost impenetrable American identity and operate out of Washington, DC. 
At first it seemed that the couple was going to go back to the Soviet Union, because the stress was too great; then they seemed to decide to stay. 
This series resonated on a number of levels. First, there is the ever-fragile sense of identity. Are we who we appear to be? Can it be that we are actually imposters, uncertain of how long we can sustain the masquerade? 
Then there is the trip back to the Cold War era (the creators of the show have denied that it has anything to do with the current fuss over Russia). 
Finally, I related to the show, based on my personal experience. In the 1930s my stepfather had joined the Communist Party, converting my mother (and me for a time) to his beliefs, Working for the US government as he did, my stepfather judged it prudent to let his CPUSA membership lapse. But we kept the faith by carefully reading the party organ The Daily Peoples World, which was Stalinist through and through. 
As with Paige in the TV series, my parents instructed me to say nothing to my schoolmates about these beliefs - somewhat hard because my best friend was also a red-diaper baby. At length I emancipated myself from my parents' allegiance. 
In retrospect this was a useful lesson in skepticism regarding all such projects for social utopianism.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


My culture-vulture tendencies were already evident as a teenager, when I sought to supplement the somewhat meager offerings of my high school by reading the classics. Among the Greeks it was natural to start with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Then I progressed to Xenophon's Anabasis. 
Coming from a non-military family it did not mean much to me at the time. But recently I have been pondering this text again. In fact Xenophon created a whole new genre of literature' the soldier's tale . 
Although a general, Xenophon served in the front lines and had a comprehensive picture. Eventually this tradition bifurcated into two types. There were the accounts of generals, such as Grant, Sherman, and Eisenhower, who operated of necessity from the safe redoubts of their headquarters vs. the countless memoirs of common grunts, who reported from their front-line experience. The latter tradition achieved early classic status in Stendhal's deliberately confusing account of Waterloo.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Gender Conundrum

Here are some paragraphs of a text I am working on regarding gender theory. --- After I published The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality a quarter of a century ago, some of my colleagues began to speak of my commitment to gender studies. While I suspected that they were experiencing some discomfort at embracing the expression “gay studies,” I welcomed the implication that I was participating in a larger endeavor, one that included all orientations.
The World Health Organization states that "'[s]ex' refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women," and "'gender' refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”
Initially then, the distinction between sex and gender seemed useful. But gradually the term gender expanded so as to reduce biological sex to a subordinate - possibly unimportant - role. In this way the distinction between the two terms has become blurred.
In this usage the term gender is relatively new. It stems from realm of grammar. French and Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic, for example, have two genders, masculine and feminine, while German and Latin observe three, masculine, feminine, and neuter. (I note parenthetically that these two big language families, Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic, are the only linguistic stocks that recognize gender.) 
Unconsciously perhaps, the trichotomous model became dominant in the extended use of the term, as gender theorists tended to focus on intermediate states. There is also an old term “epicene,” referring to a noun or adjective that could function either as masculine or feminine. The epicene designation may rank as the first bridge from grammar to people, as an epicene man was one perceived as effeminate.
Central to the view of many theorists is the idea that gender is not so much assigned as achieved. This approach has been traced to Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that one is not born a woman, but becomes one - a principle that can be applied to all people.
This line of thinking extends to the idea that such specifications are constantly in flux, a postmodern idea. In its turn, this concept fuses with such current distinctions as that between cis and trans people - though it is not entirely clear whether those ensconced in the cis status can readily transition to the other.
At this point I should make it clear that I do not subscribe to this line of thinking, as I maintain that biological sex remains fundamental and cannot be erased by invoking currently fashionable theories. To be specific, I do not believe that, without surgery, a person with a penis can claim the status of a woman. Such individuals remain men.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Just the facts?

Recently, I posted a piece from a Toronto newspaper advancing the idea that the postmodern skepticism regarding truth lies behind the Trumpian advocacy of "alternative truths." There is something to be said for this claim. 
Yet several distinctions must be made. It is one thing to cast doubt on all assertions of truth; another to assert a binary notion of two competing regimes of truth. During the Middle Ages, there was a notion (still tacitly embraced by some Catholic intellectuals today) that there are two truths, with the crude superstitions of the masses standing over against the sophisticated elaborations of theologians. (Sometimes attributed to Averroes, this polarity is better ascribed to such thinkers as Siger of Brabant.) 
Sometimes the two-truths principle affects beliefs cherished by ethnic and other minorities. I confine myself to two examples from the LGBT realm. For a long time specialists in Walt Whitman studies denied that there was any taint of homosexuality in America's greatest poet. In time they retreated, so that we won that one. 
Something of the reverse is the case with Abraham Lincoln. For some years I was a kind of resident skeptic when my close friend C. A. Tripp worked on his book, since published, The Intimate Lincoln. Today it is something of an article of faith among LGBT people that America's sixteenth president was gay. Yet very few qualified Lincoln scholars have endorsed this view - a situation that has been stable for two decades now. 
The upshot is disturbing. Is the truth to be determined by which community one belongs to? In this latter case it is gay vs. straight. But one can easily envisage other such cleavages. For example, many Chicanos are convinced that Aztlan, the legendary homeland of the Aztecs, lay in the US Southwest, and should be reclaimed. In my view there is little evidence for this assertion, for if Aztlan existed at all, it lay further south.

The original article:

Monday, April 03, 2017

Ancient historians

Scholars of ancient intellectual history (and those of later times as well) sometimes think in terms of antithetical pairs, such as Plato vs. Aristotle (as seen in Raphael's famous fresco in the Vatican), as well as Homer vs. Vergil and Heracltus vs Parmenides. Among historians, the contrast is between Herodotus, ostensibly merely the retailer of fables and old wives' tales, and Thucydides, the relentless detector of the difference between truth and fiction. I have come to wonder about the validity of this contrast in my endeavor to detect and expose the noxious fabrications that have long circulated regarding same-sex behavior.

Nineteenth-century German historians like Creuzer and Droysen beatified Thucydides as the patron of their "scientific" approach.  This claim seems anachronistic since T.  did not have access to the equivalent of the troves of archival documents mined by his Germanic admirers.

Exceptionally, Hegel placed T. in the lowest rank of historians.  Writing about contemporary happenings,ghe Greek writer did not have the opportunity to see things in the perspective that distance affords.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The Stefan George Circle

Recent discussions of the concept of the Deep State have evoked curiosity about forerunners. One such precursor, or so its would seem, was the Stefan George Circle, an elite secret society that formed around the German poet. Their aim was a conservative reshaping of the country based on the concept of Geheimes Deutschland or Secret Germany. It has been regarded as either a forerunner of Nazism or a conservative bulwark against it. (George himself resettled in Switzerland so as to avoid any contact with Hitler's emergent regime.). 
The members of the seemingly homophile fellowship were attracted by the aesthetic experience of discovering George's poetry, together with their veneration of his life and work. The ritual meetings were held by a conclave of the elect: in the first reunion after World War I, at Pentecost 1919, George assembled twelve disciples in Heidelberg, where the future historian Ernst Kantorowicz was solemnly inducted as a member of the community.
Stefan George aimed at creating a mystical, anti-modernist society, distinguished by its aesthetic superiority and within the framework of clear hierarchies. He fostered the cult of an idealistic Secret Germany (Geheimes Deutschland), a vision of an inner entity or mystical core as outlined by the cultural philosophers Paul de Lagarde and Julius Langbehn. Geheimes Deutschland was also the title of a poem published in George's late work Das Neue Reich ("The New Empire") in 1928, in which he proclaimed a new form of an intellectual and spiritual aristocracy, to some extent indebted to Friedrich Schiller's essay "On the Aesthetic Education of Man."
The transfiguration of a "German mind" below the surface of the actually-existing, profane German nation state has later been described as a model for the conservative German resistance to Nazism, culminating in the July 20 plot against Hitler's life. Indeed Alexander and Berthold von Stauffenberg had become acquainted with the Circle in 1923, shortly afterwards also their brother Claus who became a great admirer of George's work. According to some sources, at his execution the leader spoke his last words, "Es lebe das Geheime Deutschland!" ("Long live Secret Germany!").

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Monday, March 06, 2017

LGBT leaders

The current miniseries on ABC, When We Rise, is based on the work of the San Francisco activist Cleve Jones.  The following are some more general ideas that the series stimulated.

To the best of my knowledge, I never met Jones, so that the following composite character sketch is based on other LGBT leaders I have known. First, they were by and large "unemployable," conducting free-floating lives as best they could. A few like Legg and Hay had partners to support them; many did not. This indifference to worldly success was complemented by a fierce (and understandable) wish to have their contributions recognized when the time came. (Rare were individuals like Arthur Warner who eschewed any limelight; the success of the cause being all that mattered.). 

Then there was lifestyle asceticism. Kameny was famous for subsisting on Chef Boyardee, consumed straight from the can without heating. Morris Kight would wear a tattered old suit until it fell off him. 

They were also inclined to factionalism. The first case I encountered was Don Slater's notorious heist of ONE in 1965. Later I learned that this sort of thing was common even in the early days of the German movement. 

Our leaders were quick to take offense, and little given to acknowledging any earlier sources. I narrowly escaped assault when I suggested to Harry Hay that he and his friends had purloined the term "homophile" from European usage (it was first introduced In German in 1925).