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).

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The cults of facts

I  am not tempted by the notion of "alternative facts." By the same token, there is something naive about the view, common in anglophone countries, that there are some easily detected nuggets of truth, called facts, that require no nuance or qualification. 

By contrast, in the Kantian tradition facts are always enveloped in a penumbra of expectation and interpretation. This does not mean that one should reject the finding that some assertions have a greater truth value than competing ones, but in many instances this superiority is less easily established than the cult of facts would suggest.

Outright lies should always be exposed as such. What I am questioning is whether, in combatting them, we may rely on on an indisputable body of facts. My early studies with Karl Popper taught me that there is a spectrum ranging from mathematical propositions, which have the highest truth value - on the one hand - and outright lies of the Goebbels type - on the other. My view is that in our society liberals are too quick to congratulate themselves with the claim that they adhere only to facts. 

With experience most politicians (of whatever stripe) learn to cultivate techniques of evasion, such as dancing around an issue, answering a question that was not asked, semantic quibbling ("it depends on what "is" means"), and so forth. Deployment of these techniques does not, in my view, reflect a strict adherence to facts, Yet to survive in politics it seems mandatory to acquire proficiency in the gray area populated by these verbal devices.

In her important monograph A Culture of Fact, England 1550-1720, Barbara J. Shapiro shows how our peculiar devotion to fact arose in England in the early modern period, when it became intertwined with empiricist philosophy. She traces the origins of this emphasis not to natural science but to legal discourse. Shapiro follows the concept's evolution and diffusion across a variety of disciplines in early modern England, examining how the emerging "culture of fact" shaped the epistemological assumptions undergirding each intellectual enterprise. In her view, the crucial first step in this transition occurred in the sixteenth century when the English common law established a definition of fact relying on eyewitnesses and testimony. Shapiro also recounts how England's preoccupation with fact permeated historiography, religion, and literature―which saw the rise of a fact-oriented fictional genre, the novel. I would add that, among academics at least, the prestige of fact only began to erode in the 1960s when the ideal of historical objectivity came under attack.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Anti-Trump Marches

Saturday's marches, in a whole host of cities, were indeed impressive. Perhaps, though, it is not too soon to ask what are the long-term prospects for social change as powered by such events? 

The gold standard is of course the 1963 civil-rights march on Washington, which yielded MLK's "I Have a Dream Speech." This signal event was preceded by a long period of preparation. The first march was proposed in 1941 by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of SleepingCar Porters. African Americans had benefited less than other groups from New Deal programs during the Great Depression, and continuing racial discrimination excluded them from defense jobs in the early 1940s. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt showed little inclination to take action on the problem, Randolph called for a March on Washington by fifty thousand people. After repeated efforts to persuade Randolph and his fellow leaders that the march would be inadvisable, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in June 1941, forbidding discrimination by any defense contractors and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate charges of racial discrimination. 

The March on Washington was then canceled. Yet the idea survived. I am most familiar with the LGBT marches in Washington, and by no means an expert, yet the comparison may yield some general conclusions. The efficacy of such events depends on two factors: 1) a specific focus on goals, centrally the redressing of long-standing grievances; and 2) a fairly lengthy period of gestation during which various strategies can be tried out and assessed. 

I am sorry to play the role of Debbie Downer, but I am not sure if these two conditions can be met in the wake of the current demonstrations, impressive as they are in terms of passion and numbers. The full horror, if you will, of Trump has only been evident for some months - not a long period. Moreover, the causes of the marchers are quite various, for they do not have a single focus, apart from dismay at the result of the election.

There remains the larger issue. Under what circumstances are we prepared to have public policy promulgated in the streets? Sometimes, I would say, yes. But the issue needs to be carefully assessed.