Sunday, February 28, 2010

Is pedophilia ever acceptable?

A new book by Susan Clancy, The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children--and Its Aftermath (Basic Books), addresses the explosive issue of sexual relations between adults and children--that is to say pedophilia in the strict sense of the word. An experimental psychologist, Clancy has indicated that the book’s title was imposed on her by the publisher. In fact, she does not regard the behavior as never traumatic per se, but only that sometimes it is not. So it is not actually a myth.

An earlier study (Clancy & McNally, 2005-2006) yielded some of the data on which the volume is based. [SA Clancy and RJ McNally (2005-2006), “Who needs repression? Normal memory processes can explain ‘forgetting’ of childhood sexual abuse,” Sci Rev Ment Health Pract. 4(2):66-73.] This study's finding that 92% (25 of 27) of the subjects were confused recurs on page 38 of the book. The question remains, were they o n l y confused, or was the confusion acccompanied by more specific harms? This is not an either-or matter. Instead, the feelings of the child are probably, in most instances, overdetermined, creating a mingling of effects.

This title, The Trauma Myth, which Clancy should not have approved, has elicited some possibly unwarranted criticism. Even so, though, a number of serious difficulties persist.
In the earlier study, "subjects were asked to rate their CSA [child sexual abuse] on a 10-point scale (1=not traumatic at all, 10 = extremely traumatic." Clancy and McNally report that the average rating was 7.5 (2005/2006, p. 69). This finding indicates that many subjects thought that the abuse itself, not what they learned about it years later, was traumatic. Perhaps not extremely traumatic, or life-threatening, but traumatic all the same.

Other researchers have pointed to the large volume of psychological research documenting many short-term effects, some quite damaging, of sexual attention imposed on children.

Ellen P. Lacter of San Diego has been working in the field as a practicing psychologist for 24 years. During that period she has seen many abused children, together with adults who say they were abused as children. Lacter holds that cases of children registering only "confusion" (in Clancy’s sense) during the time frame of their abuse are quite rare. She finds that, in addition to confusion of various types, they experienced some combination of the following factors:

1. Physical pain, in some cases extreme.
2. Actual disgust with regard to the sexual acts, the presence of abuser genitalia. and emissions.
3. Fright in cases of extreme force, restraint, or restriction of the child's breathing, gagging, etc.
4. Dread based in threats to self, loved-ones, pets, and other cherished persons and things, to ensure compliance and/or to prevent disclosure.
5. Fear based in the abuser overriding their attempts to escape, ignoring their pleas for the abuser to stop, and so forth.
6. Fear, shame, and guilt, based in an awareness that private parts should be covered, and an awareness that the abuser was making great efforts to hide the abuse, to keep it secret, and to ensure that they kept it secret, causing the child to understand that these acts were harmful and morally wrong, feelings sometimes reinforced with physical violence.
7. Betrayal and hurt in cases of abuse by loved ones, based in a sense that the abuser was requiring them to engage in harmful and immoral acts, and in many cases, reinforced that family members were knowingly allowing the abuse to continue.
8. Guilt and shame for not escaping or physically fighting off the abuser.
9. The feeling that one is an "accomplice," based in receiving gifts and special privileges from the abuser. It seems that Clancy portrays these "gifts" as "benefits" that the child derives from sexual abuse. This equates child victims with prostitutes who trade money for sex. Yet children cannot make valid "contracts" to be sexually exploited. In many cases, sexual abuse is imposed on children against their will and with no understanding of the meaning of sexuality. Abusers then use gifts and favors to further manipulate and entrap children.
10. Anxiety-producing sexual arousal during the abuse, even in cases in which the abuser took precautions to prevent or minimize the perception of pain.
11. Residual sexual feelings and responses that caused great anxiety, crying, tantrums, accompanied by unanswered pleas to caregivers to, "make it [the sexual response] stop", and the like.
12. Rage at the abuser for inflicting the above.
13. Social, behavioral, and cognitive (including academic) problems driven by the above.
14. Actual physical damage, including damage to internal organs, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, and in some rare cases, death.

This weighty catalogue brooks no light dismissal. Still, one may grant that there have been instances in which confusion is the dominant, or perhaps even the sole emotion experienced by the child who is the recipient of such attentions. There are even cases where the young person has clearly initiated the activity. In these instances, the subsequent embarrassment and mental anguish that result seem to be largely the product of the later intervention, or fear of such, by other individuals. Still, this simple sequence--confusion, followed by subsequent disclosure and unpleasantness--does not hold true of many, perhaps most cases. In these instances, the problems are experienced ab origine, as it were, at the time that the adult intrudes upon the child’s world.

Taking a larger view, Clancy is simply repeating a line advanced by Dutch propedophile researchers fifty years ago, who emphasized the negative effects of disclosure and social framing, when the occurrence becomes transposed into the larger universe of social disapproval.  I grant, though, that Clancy's views may have some plausibility because, unlike the Dutch boy lovers and their latter-day followers, she is not an interested party.

The overarching problem with this line of argument, whether advanced by the Dutch pedophiles or by contemporary researchers like Susan Clancy, is that it is pars pro toto--a fallacy.   For the sake of argument, let us grant that some, perhaps many cases of adult-child sex may be harmless, even beneficial.  The trauma that results in such instances is in large measure the result of the shaming ensuing upon the disclosure of the behavior.  

Yet for this view to gain traction, it would have to be shown that the trauma  a l w a y s   results  s o l e l y   from such exposure.  In fact, I don't think Clancy maintains this.  

Per contra, there is a large residue of cases, a class that is scarcely statistically insignificant, in which the child or adolescent experiences revulsion in the course of the behavior itself.  One can feel disgust at any age.

What the propedophile advocates stubbornly refuse to acknowledge is that adult-child affection takes many forms--from simple hugging, which is probably OK, to forcible anal entry, never OK.

Most of the studies reflect events that have occurred in the everyday world. The penal setting of reformatories presents another set of problems, as noted in two recent article by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow in the New York Review of Books for March 11 and March 25 ("The Rape of American Prisoners" and "The Way to Stop Prison Rape").  It stands to reason that some who seek sexual contact with minors will gravitate to jobs in reformatories in which young people, usually boys, are confined.  In the Texas institution cited, one supervisor was viciously predatory, the other, who gave cake and fine treatment, arguably was not. We have recently learned of horrific cases in Australia where young British children, taken to that country against their will and placed in the "care" of pedophile predators, were relentlessly and repeatedly raped. The British Parliament has recently apologized for this hideous program.

Still, as I say, pedophilia takes various forms.  The refusal, on both sides, to acknowledge this behavioral pluralism continues to be an obstacle to advancement of understanding.

However, even if one were finally able to secure agreement that sometimes pedophilia is harmless or neutral, and sometimes deleterious, this more nuanced view would not help the pedophiles and their defenders.  To assist their cause one would have to show that it is  n e v e r   harmful.  As we have seen, that is impossible

Of course some advocates of pedophilia will advance the bad-apples excuse. The proverb on which this kind of assertion is based is "One bad apple spoils the barrel.” So if one removes the bad apples from the bunch, the remaining apples will be just fine. Yet, as with teachers’ unions today, the pedophile advocates do not want a n y apples removed. It is all just fine and dandy. There the parallel breaks down, though: teachers’ unions are powerful, pedophile advocates are few and vulnerable.

Setting that comparison aside, the bad-apples excuse is now employed in a different sense, implying that, statistically, a problem is rare, amounting to an anomaly. A recent example is the conservative defense of torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, where it was claimed that the misconduct was limited to a few low-level rogue actors who got out of hand. This is the bad-apples excuse that is now so commonly encountered. We now know that Abu Ghraib this was not so, for under the Bush administration torture was applied broadly and systematically.

The question to ask about pedophilia, then, is how frequent is abusive behavior? Setting aside the question of whether children can give informed consent--and most observers believe that they cannot--how frequent are cases in which the adult pedophile forces his attentions on his underage partner?

Because of the secrecy that enshrouds the practice, there are no reliable statistics. As with the Catholic-clergy situations, most instances escape detection, at least at the time they occurred. To judge from the cases that have come to light, the abuse involves more than just a few bad apples. It may well encompass the majority of cases of sexual activity involving a adult and a child. This is surely true where the horror of forced anal penetration occurs.

At all events, even if only 10% of the boys and girls involved in this behavior were harmed, most observers (except for the special pleaders, the pedophiles themselves) would say that that is far too many.

The No Harm Principle has been eloquently stated by John Stuart Mill in his essay "On Liberty." "The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

As we have seen. pedophilia does not meet this test, as the activity, unlike, say, adult-adult homosexual conduct, fails to withstand Mill's test. By and large, pedophilia does cause harm to the child. The “anything goes” umbrella proffered by its advocates must needs wither when confronted with this principle.

Accordingly, the following question is mandatory. Why should we tolerate the practice at all? Some young people have sexual urges, to be sure, but they can surely postpone enactment of them until they are older. For their part, pedophiles must either redirect their desires to other adults or practice celibacy. If they fail to do either, legal remedies become unavoidable.


Friday, February 26, 2010

The Israeli assassination in Dubai

In recent days Israeli agent have brazenly murdered a Hamas official in a hotel in Dubai. Is there anything that Netanyahu's criminal regime will not resort to?

Very oddly, our mainstream media has portrayed the Dubai assassination as a poorly handled goof that left the Mossad with egg on its face. Some commentators even assert that the circumstances of the killing were beneath the Mossad--as if the Mossad had somehow forgotten its expertise and bungled the job.

One independent writer (courtesy of the understands the matter better. "The [Israelis] have waltzed into Dubai, allowed themselves to be videotaped every which way -- including while putting on costumes and wigs -- killed a man, and waltzed right back out. They did it in plain sight. And they did it using British passports."

The writer goes on to remark as follows. "What does this say to Hamas, and Arab nation onlookers? It says that wherever you are, whatever you are doing, however many video cameras you may have watching you, we will find you, and we will kill you. And you will know who we are, and yet you will never find us. And MOST importantly: we are going to do it in as brazen a manner as possible.

"We are even going to swipe the passports of some innocent British citizens, daring the West to criticize us. But we don't care. We are going to kill you in such a manner that you will immediately be able to track us down - but we'll already be gone.

"The Israelis didn't use fake passports not because they didn't have the technical expertise or the brains, but because they wanted to pull off their assassination in the most brazen, flagrant manner possible, while still allowing themselves to get away with it."

This analysis is correct. It is not aimed just at the Palestines, Arabs, and Muslims in general, but at the West. Netanyahu is signaling that he will do whatever he pleases--including bombing Iran. He will launch a new war that will engulf the West over the wishes of the US president.

Our caponized media are too docile to acknowledge this elementary point. I think they get the message, though, and that is that we are powerless to stop Israeli aggression.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lautréamont, yesterday and today

During my undergrad reading I came across a marvelous simile: “beautiful as the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table.” Later I learned that the mantra exemplified the concept of “making strange” or alienation, as expounded by the Russian Formalist critics. Such conjunctions provide the “shock of the new” so characteristic of modern literature, art, and music.

I knew that the words stemmed from the “Comte de Lautréamont” (Isidore Ducasse), a nineteenth-century French writer, and that they had been picked up and disseminated by the Surrealists in the 1920s.

However, I never got round to reading the work that is the motto’s source, “Les chants de Maldoror” (Maldoror’s Cantos) of 1870. Now, with the aid of an excellent new French version edited by Jean-Luc Steinmetz for the prestigious Pléiade collection, I have done so. To my surprise, I found that the original context was praise of the attractions of a sixteen-year old boy! The consciousness of Lautréamont, like that of many students at fancy French boarding schools, was decisively imprinted by the charms of a blond boy. Roger Peyrefitte’s “Les amitiés particulières” is the best-known example of this infatuation. It often persists into later life, and in fact the “Chants” are full of adored blond boys.

Like his predecessor the Marquis de Sade, Lautréamont was fascinated by violence and death. At the end of the book he executes one of the beautiful boys, the Scot Mervyn, in a particularly spectacular way. This connection with violence perhaps explains why his book has not been taken up as a classic of gay literature.

However, the gay element has also been played down by straight admirers, beginning with André Breton, leader of the Surrealists and a noted homophobe.

In the English-speaking world today, the cult writer Dennis Cooper qualifies as Lautréamont’s most loyal disciple. Cooper was born in 1953 to an upscale family in Pasadena, California. An unruly student, he was expelled from public school and placed in a private one. He began writing poetry at fourteen after reading Rimbaud and Lautréamont. In 1973 he published first chapbook of poems “The Terror of Earrings.” After rumbling about in the LA avant-garde scene, he moved to Europe for good. He now lives in Paris, Lautréamont’s choice as well.

Cooper's breakthrough work of fiction was the 1991 novel "Frisk." The gist of the narrative is as follows. As a boy, the book's protagonist, “Dennis” formed the habit of rifling through hardcore pornographic magazines at Gypsy Pete's, a storefront run by an aged, unshaven alcoholic. The reprobate introduces Dennis to even more taboo publications, some of them containing what appear to be images of necrophilic sex. As a result of this unusual education, Dennis comes to link desire with destruction, and love with assassination. Sexuality appears intimately bound to murder.

As he grows older, Dennis finds himself fixated on the same type of boy that he saw in the magazine. Seeking, or so he claims, to master his original experience, he careens from one impersonal tryst to another. Then the hero teams up with two Germans. They move from one scene of human destruction to the next, murdering young boys and having sex with their dead bodies. Call it the literary (and one hopes purely imaginative) counterpart of Jeffrey Dahmer.

Disturbingly, Cooper seems to view these necrophilic encounters as paradigmatic of sexual relation itself. Desire for the beloved is indistinguishable from the wish to kill that person.

Is Cooper’s model/muse Lautréamont, or is it Sade? Whichever it is, his work seems to exhibit the declining value of literary currency. In my view, he is not up to the standard of his predecessors. It is better to go back to the archetypes, to Lautréamont and Sade.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

The emperor and the rabbi

The following piece of rubbish has been making the rounds of the ‘net.

"Thirteen months before 9/11, on the day New York City passed homosexual domestic partnership regulations, I joined a group of Rabbis at a City Hall prayer service, pleading with G-d not to visit disaster on the city of N.Y. We have seen the underground earthquake, tsunami, Katrina, and now Haiti. All this is in sync with a two thousand year old teaching in the Talmud that the practice of homosexuality is a spiritual cause of earthquakes. Once a disaster is unleashed, innocents are also victims just like in Chernobyl. We plead with saner heads in Congress and the Pentagon to stop sodomization of our military and our society. Enough is enough." -- Rabbi Yehuda Levin, spokesman for the Rabbinical Alliance of America.

Does the Talmud in fact offer any support for the notion that homosexual conduct is “a spiritual cause” of earthquakes? Apparently it does, according to the expert opinion of

As a friend remarked, "The primal event featured the first homosexual who exclaimed, 'I felt the earth move, did you feel it?'" Later on, it became common for one partner to say to another: "Forget about camping up a storm. Let's cause a 'quake!"

I digress.

Back to reality. As Tzvee indicates, the relevant passage stems from Yerushalmi Berakot (9:2). In fact, the text asserts that earthquakes are brought on by any one of a number of acts, including disputes; not taking heave offering and tithes from your produce; and also because God is unhappy that the Temple lies in ruins and Jews are flocking to theaters and circuses.

Gay sex may also occasion the tremors. In Tzvee’s translation, “ [E] Said R. Aha, ‘[The earth quakes] on account of the sin of homosexual acts. God said, ‘You made your genitals throb in an unnatural act. By your life, I shall shake the earth on account of [the act of] this person.’"

For those of us who have been studying the sad, tenacious history of prejudice against gay people this notion has a familiar ring. It stems from the Christian emperor Justinian I, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from 527 to 565. In 538 this homophobic ruler issued a law (Novella 77), which condemned sodomites to death "lest, as a result of these impious acts, whole cities should perish together with their inhabitants," a reference to the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, as recounted in the book of Genesis. The edict spoke of "diabolical and unlawful lusts," maintaining that because of such crimes there are famines, e a r t h q u a k e s, and pestilences. In Justinian’s view same-sex acts are not simply immoral--they constitute a grave danger to the body politic.

The canon of the Jerusalem Talmud was closed about 600 CE, two or three generations after the promulgation of Justinian’s aetiological ruminations incorporated into Novella 77. Evidently the notion was still fresh at the start of the seventh century.

Unless an earlier Jewish source can be found--and I know of none that directly makes this case--the Sages were channeling their hated enemy, the anti-Semite Justinian I. As I have shown elsewhere in these pages, this would not be the first time that the rabbis have borrowed from Christianity.

Does Yehuda Levin know that he is echoing a Christian source?

It probably wouldn’t matter to him. For bigots it suffices to spread the slur, whatever its provenance.

UPDATE. A recent news report indicates that Rabbi Levin has at least one counterpart in Israel. According to a report in, Shlomo Benizri (of the right-wing party Shas) caused a stir in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, a few days ago when he linked homosexuality and earthquakes. "I suggest that the Knesset inquire into how it can prevent sodomy and thus save us a lot of earthquakes," Benizri said. He later explained to a reporter that the Gemara (presumably the Talmud) calls earthquakes "zevaot," teaching that they are caused by a number of things, including male homosexuality. "I therefore suggested that in order to limit the damage from earthquakes, it would be better to make fewer laws that encourage sodomy and other perversions, like adoption of children by lesbians," he said. (As I have explained elsewhere, lesbianism is nowhere prohibited in the Torah.)

It will be interesting to see if this homophobic claim is taken up further, so that the defense of Israel is linked to the repression of sodomy. Generally, Israeli official policies have been progressive with regard to homosexuality. However, that is not the view of the ultra-Orthodox.

As stated above, I believe that the motif of homosexual activity as the cause of earthquakes is of Christian and Hellenic origin, only later migrating into Judaism. In addition, though, there may be an Islamic analogue. In a satirical poem of the early twelfth century, the Afghan poet Sanai of Ghazni portrays a pious Muslim who disapproves of pederasty, claiming

"These sinful ways of yours," —that was his shout—
Have ruined all the crops and caused the drought!"

Later, Sanai shows the pious man as a hypocrite who sodomizes a boy, heedless of the danger to the crops. Of course crops are not the same as earthquakes, but Justinian's legislation makes it clear that the seismic disturbances are part of a larger pattern that includes pestilences and famine.


Global weirding, anyone?

A news report has it that grandsons of Senator Imhofe, a vocal skeptic of global warming, are building an iglo in DC to be called "Al Gore's House." Of course, the idea is silly, but still it might help Gore's cause if he lived in a less elaborate, more energy-efficient dwelling than the mansion he currently occupies.

Here in the Northeast of the US we have had record snowfalls. DC's local government proved unable to cope--nothing new there--and the government shut down for a week. In Gotham City we scarcely noticed.

Global-warming skeptics have used the news, coming on the heals of revelations of fudging of evidence, to suggest that we are dealing with a hoax. Of course one cold winter, or one mild summer, in some parts of the world are not evidence of anything. There is a difference between weather and climate.

Paradoxically, though, for their part some global-warming mavens have cited the severe weather as evidence of their theory. Tails I win, heads you lose. Global warming, you see, will make for all sorts of crazy gyrations, including some especially cold winters. The ever-jejune Tom Friedman of the NY Times has been pushing a term he purloined from Hunter Lovins: "global weirding." Whether it gets colder or warmer, it is all due to global warming. As we used to say in the sixties, "crazy, man!"

In my view, the weirding more properly refers to the two extreme types of discussants: those like Imhofe who argue that nothing is happening at all; and those who predict an apocalypse, say, ten minutes from now.

One current mantra among the g-w advocates is their insistence that despite the recent charges of massaging of evidence "nothing has changed; the science is just the same." Well, there are probably going to be further revelations about fudging. G-w adepts will have to stay on the defensive.

The g-w folks need to answer this question. What evidence would cause them to abandon, or at least moderate their claims? My sense is that for these true believers no evidence would count. For its more fervent adherents, global warming amounts to a church, with a quasireligious set of beliefs. By definition, these cannot be falsified.

More moderate advocates of addresssing climate change should be able to see that this intransigeance is hurting their cause. They should recognize that mere iteration of the mantras is not working. They may still, in their view, hold the high ground on the science front, but they are losing the political battle. Most fair-minded observers now grant that in the US--and other major polluting countries--the cause of meaningful legislation on this matter is dead.

UPDATE (Feb. 28). Today the NY Times has published an op-ed by Al Gore, which is pretty much the same old same old. Yesterday, however, the Daily Telegraph of London published a blistering piece by a leading critic of the global warming church, Christopher Booker. This piece says in part:

"The chief defence offered by the warmists to all those revelations centred on the IPCC's last 2007 report is that they were only a few marginal mistakes scattered through a vast, 3,000-page document. OK, they say, it might have been wrong to predict that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035; that global warming was about to destroy 40 per cent of the Amazon rainforest and cut African crop yields by 50 per cent; that sea levels were rising dangerously; that hurricanes, droughts and other "extreme weather events" were getting worse. These were a handful of isolated errors in a massive report; behind them the mighty edifice of global warming orthodoxy remains unscathed. The "science is settled", the "consensus" is intact.

"But this completely misses the point. Put the errors together and it can be seen that one after another they tick off all the central, iconic issues of the entire global warming saga. Apart from those non-vanishing polar bears, no fears of climate change have been played on more insistently than these: the destruction of Himalayan glaciers and Amazonian rainforest; famine in Africa; fast-rising sea levels; the threat of hurricanes, droughts, floods and heatwaves all becoming more frequent.

"All these alarms were given special prominence in the IPCC's 2007 report and each of them has now been shown to be based, not on hard evidence, but on scare stories, derived not from proper scientists but from environmental activists. Those glaciers are not vanishing; the damage to the rainforest is not from climate change but logging and agriculture; African crop yields are more likely to increase than diminish; the modest rise in sea levels is slowing not accelerating; hurricane activity is lower than it was 60 years ago; droughts were more frequent in the past; there has been no increase in floods or heatwaves.

"Furthermore, it has also emerged in almost every case that the decision to include these scare stories rather than hard scientific evidence was deliberate. As several IPCC scientists have pointed out about the scare over Himalayan glaciers, for instance, those responsible for including it were well aware that proper science said something quite different. But it was inserted nevertheless – because that was the story wanted by those in charge.

"In addition, we can now read in shocking detail the truth of the outrageous efforts made to ensure that the same 2007 report was able to keep on board IPCC's most shameless stunt of all – the notorious "hockey stick" graph purporting to show that in the late 20th century, temperatures had been hurtling up to unprecedented levels. This was deemed necessary because, after the graph was made the centrepiece of the IPCC's 2001 report, it had been exposed as no more than a statistical illusion. (For a full account see Andrew Montford's The Hockey Stick Illusion, and also my own book [Christopher Booker,] The Real Global Warming Disaster.)"


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Last things

There is an old Bette David tearjerker in which Davis, a prosperous Connecticut lady, goes to a doctor for a routinge check-up. He determines that she has only three months to live. (Well, I forget the exact figure, but it is quite definite.) He conceals the results from her, but by accident she finds out. At first angry and defiant, the Davis character learns to ration out her days in rewarding ways. He life ends as she is casually pruning some flowers in her garden.

Recently a friend, an academic who is a literary scholar, found that she had an incurable hereditary condition that would soon make her totally blind, as it did. With modern technology, however, K is able to function pretty well as before. There is certainly no obstacle to her lecturing, as I recently found in attending an academic gathering where she spoke.

I am an art historian, though, so matters could be prove to be more dire. What would I gaze at if I were to learn that I had only three months more of looking? One thing would be to review images of places that have impressed me: Chartres, Palenque, the Grand Canyon, Angkor Wat, and so fotth. Then for a sheer immersion in nature I would examine gorgeous photos, as those of Elliott Porter, featured in the recent Metropolitan Museum calendar. Then, perhaps, photographs of people who have meant much to me. Only after all that, would I look at reproductions of paintings.

It is an interesting exercise. Try it.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Judaism and polytheism

In a 4250-word screed in The New Republic ( Leon Wieseltier seeks to take Andrew Sullivan to the woodshed for his purported anti-Semitism. Wieseltier and Sullivan used to be colleagues at The New Republc, and then had a falling out, so that each has been tempted from time to time to settle old scores. I will not try to rehearse the verbosity of the current spat (Sullivan’s almost equally lengthy reply is now up at his Daily Dish site), but just to focus on one aspect of their disagreement.

Sullivan writes: “I will note one sentence Wieseltier writes at the beginning of this unedited rant. It refers to the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation, a profound mystery to Christians, and at the heart of our faith. He writes this:

‘The idea of plurality in the deity, like the idea of corporeality in the deity . . . represents nothing less than a retraction of the monotheistic revolution in thinking about God, a reversal of God’s sublimity, a regress to polytheistic crudity.’

“Leon is describing the central tenets of the Christian faith - the divinity of Jesus and the Triune God - as a step backward for religious thinking. He is dismissing as stupid and backward the Incarnation. He goes so far as to insult it by decrying it as a regress to polytheism. And not just polytheism but crude polytheism.

“I am not one to take offense at such things. My own faith can withstand the cheap pot-shots of others. But can you imagine if Wieseltier came across a Muslim or a Christian making similar derogatory and condescending and cheap remarks about Judaism? As crude? A form of religious regression?” End of Sullivan quotation.

Sullivan makes a good point in his concluding paragraph. Increasingly, Jews feel free to express, often in pungent terms, their open contempt for central tenets of Christianity and Islam. But woe betide any Christian or Muslim who dares to criticize any aspect of Jewish theology. For the label of “anti-Semite” is sure to follow. I know, because the epithet has been hurled at me--and I am neither a Christian nor a Muslim,

Elsewhere I have analyzed the historical problem of the (now) mainstream Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I will not repeat this discussion here, though I return briefly to the issue at the end.

Instead, what I am concerned with is Wieseltier’s conventional assumption of the pure monotheism of historic Judaism. (Hat tip to the blog, from which I take several pertinent examples.)

The Hebrew bible contains many names of God or Gods. Orthodox Jews maintain that every name refers to the same God, except those terms which designate the false deities of other religions. Some of the approved names, however, are strikingly similar to the names of gods from the polytheistic religions surrounding ancient Israel.

A major turning point was the uncovering, beginning in 1928, of religious documents in Ugarit (Ras Shamra), an ancient city on the coast of Syria. The excavations uncovered a vast royal palace, several imposing private dwellings, and two private libraries that contained diplomatic, legal, economic, administrative, scholastic, literary and religious texts written on clay tablets. Crowning the hill where the city was built were two major temples: one dedicated to Baal the "king," son of El, and one to Dagon, the chthonic god of fertility and cereals.

For the first time these Ugaritic archives afforded a detailed perspective of Canaanite religious beliefs during the second millennium, that is the period directly preceding the rise of ancient Israel. The texts show striking parallels to Biblical Hebrew literature, particularly in the areas of divine imagery and poetic form.

At the summit of Ugaritic religion stood the chief god, Ilu or El, the "father of mankind," and "the creator of the creation." The Court of El or Ilu was referred to as the 'lhm. The most important of the other great gods were Hadad, the king of Heaven, Athirat or Asherah (familiar to readers of the Bible), Yam (Sea, the god of primordial chaos, tempests, and mass-destruction) and Mot (Death). Other gods honored at Ugarit were Dagon (Grain), Tirosch, Horon, Resheph (Healing), the craftsman Kothar-and-Khasis (Skilled and Clever), Shahar (Dawn), and Shalim (Dusk). As this enumeration suggests, Ugaritic texts offer a wealth of material on the religion of the Canaanites and its connections with that of the ancient Israelites. Professor Mark S. Smith of NYU has provided a cogent analysis of this link in several books, including his The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (NY: Oxford, 2001).

Let us note some obvious parallels. In the Hebrew bible God is often designated as El, recalling the chief God of the Canaanite pantheon. Furthermore, the term Elohim, which is now thought of as merely another name of God, was in Canaanite religion a term for the whole court of El. (The original Hebrew texts not having vowels, Elohim in Hebrew is basically the same as 'lhm.) Some of the other Gods featured in the Ugaritic texts are also mentioned in the Bible, not as synonymous with the Jewish God, but rather as "other gods," which are now (by Orthodox Jews) thought to mean "idols" or false gods. For example, Asherah is mentioned in 2 Kings 18.8:

“He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the grove (Asherah), and broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for in those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.”

Asherah is extremely significant in the Canaanite pantheon. She is the "consort" of El, and the mother of his seventy sons. Scholars believe that Asherah was worshipped by many in ancient Israel and Judah; Jeremiah refers to her as "the Queen of Heaven."

Jeremiah 7.18:
“The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead [their] dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.’

Another major Canaanite deity is Ba'al, who is mentioned in the Hebrew bible. Today, Orthodox Jews understand Ba'al to be a false god -- or several false gods -- yet the figure was evidently quite popular in Jeremiah's time.

In the Hebrew bible Yahweh is assimilated to El. But Yahweh may have started out in Canaanite religion as one of the seventy sons of El. The Dead Sea Scrolls fragment of Deutoronomy 32.8-9, agreeing with the Septuagint, reads as follows:

“When the Most High ('Elyon) allotted peoples for inheritance,
When He divided up the sons of man,
He fixed the boundaries for peoples,
According to the number of the sons of El
But Yahweh’s portion is his people,
Jacob His own inheritance.”

The argument for the original polytheistic context presiding at Judaism's birth is bolstered by the name "Elohim." Grammatically, "Elohim" has the form of a plural noun, and indeed is often used that way in the Hebrew bible when used to refer to "other gods." However, it's often used as a singular noun, as in Genesis 1.1. Many scholars hold that the plural form of "Elohim" reflects early Judaic polytheism. They argue that it originally meant 'the gods,' or the 'sons of El,' the supreme being. They suggest that the word may have been singularized by later monotheist priests who sought to erase evidence of worship of the many gods of the Judean pantheon, replacing them with their own singular patron god Yahweh alone. As we have seen, however, the erasure was incomplete.

The polytheist theory satisfactorily explains why there are three words built on the same stem: El, Elohim, and eloah. El, the father god, has many divine sons, who are known by the plural of his name, Elohim, or Els. Eloah, might then serve to differentiate each of the lesser gods from El himself.

This hypothesis casts light on the Elohim saying "Let US make Man in OUR image, in OUR likeness,” as well as Yahweh’s commandment to Israel, "worship no other gods [Hebrew:Elohim] before me." The fact that one can worship other gods acknowledges that they exist.

In his 1967 book "The Hebrew Goddess" Raphael Patai collected various types of evidence for a feminine divine (or semidivine) principle in Judaism, culminating in the Hokma (personification of Wisdom, or Sophia) of Proverbs and several deuterocanonical books, expanded by the rabbis into the notion of the Shekhina, the feminine side of the High God. These elaborations demonstrate that polytheistic straying was not limited to the period of the formation of Judaism. It has recurred.

To be sure, the religion of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, evolved, like any other human institution. Morton Smith has done a remarkable job of delineating the dialectic that led to the eventual triumph of the Yahweh-alone party.

Matters were not always thus, especially as regards the ideas that formed the Torah in the strict sense (a.k.a. the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch). That set of books is laced with polythetstic remnants, as I have shown. One can say that the true religion of Judaism is the evolved version, the ostensibly pure monotheistic form of the Later Prophets. But that is not what the rabbis (beginning with the Mishnah, ca. 200 CE) have uniformly held. For them the Torah in the strict sense of the Five Books of Moses is supreme. And it is totally monotheistic. (NOT)

Unfortunately, one cannot have it both ways. One must choose either Torah-supremacy or monotheism-supremacy. This dilemma is beyond the grasp of simple souls like Wieseltier.

The passages cited above suffice to show the polytheistic origins of the religion of ancient Israell, origins it never succeeded in renouncing. Inconveniently for the champions of the pure-monotheistic thesis, the taint lingers in the received text of the Tanakh, transpiring in passages recurring so frequently that they cannot be disregarded.

It would seem, then, that Wieseltier’s summary contrast of Judaism = monotheistic, and Christianity = polytheistic is jejune. However, I hold that--contrary to Sullivan--mainstream Christianity is de facto polytheistic, because of the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Trinity, the cult of saints, and the large role assigned to the Devil.

Moreover, it appears that Muslims are correct in their view of the matter. Of the three Abrahamic faiths, theirs is the only one that is rigorously monotheistic. In this regard neither Judaism nor Christianity can pass muster.

None of this is meant to suggest that in the larger sense monotheism is best. My own preference is for true polytheism or, perhaps better, no-theism.

UPDATE (Oct. 1, 2010)

For those who wish to pursue this topic further, I attach a series of REFERENCES.

Becking, Bob, Marjo C. A. Korpel, Karel J. Meindert Dijkstra, and H. Vriezen, eds. One God?: Monotheism in Ancient Israel and the Veneration of the Goddess Asherah. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.

Dever, William G. Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2005.

Paper, Jordan The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology (S U N Y Series in Religious Studies). Binghamton: State University of New York Press, 2005.

Pardee, Dennis. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.

Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess. New York: KTAV, 1967.

Penchansky, David. Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005.

Schäfer, Peter. Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to the Early Kabbala. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

---. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. New ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The BHL affair

I count myself a Francophile, though I am one who has long harbored grave reservations about those celebrated “maîtres à penser” who are loosely called poststructuralists. Still, for all their posturing and errors, a certain grandeur invests such figures as Michel Foucualt, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida.

Despite his celebrity, the same cannot be said for that atrocious mountebank Bernard-Henri Lévy, who has come a cropper with his latest book, which purports to reveal Immanuel Kant as a criminal and a madman. So far, so shocking. However, Lévy supports the book’s theories by citing the thought of a fake philosopher. As Doreen Carvajal notes in today’s New York Times, “[t]he blunder particularly resonated in Paris, where Mr. Lévy is a ubiquitous presence on talk shows and in magazines, and is known simply as B.H.L.”

The book cites the Paraguayan lectures of the noted thinker Jean-Baptiste Botul. In reality Mr. Botul is the longtime creature of Frédéric Pagès, a journalist with the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné. “We’ve had a big laugh, obviously,” Mr. Pagès said of Mr. Lévy. “This one was an error that was really simple that the media immediately understood.”

“Mr. Pagès.” as Carvajal notes, "has never made a secret of his fictional philosopher, who has a fan club that meets monthly in salons throughout Paris. Mr. Botul’s school of thought is called Botulism, his followers are botuliens and they debate such weighty theories as the metaphysics of flab. As they describe it, Mr. Botul’s astonishing ideas ranged from phenomenology to cheese, sausages, women’s breasts and the transport of valises during the 1930s.”

Apparently BHL, the teflon thinker, is just shrugging it off. After all he has been the target of a whole book exposing his shallowness. “Une imposture française" by Nicolas Beau and Olivier Toscer (apparently not yet translated). He has event attempted to emulate Alexis de Tocqueville in “American Vertigo,” his account of his recent less-than epochal US trip. Garrison Keillor published a scorching critique in The New York Times Book Review in 2006, excoriating “the grandiosity of a college sophomore, a student padding out a term paper.”

Such are the degraded standards of Parisian intellectual life today that the egregious BHL will probably get a pass again. After all, he is so telegenic.


Monday, February 08, 2010

The left and its plight

In a recent piece I sketched some elements of my political evolution, starting from the doctrinaie leftism in which I had been brought up. The disenchantment about the “future that works”--to echo Lincoln Steffens famous words--gradually deepened as I found little solace in the endless compromises of the Democratic Party and actually-existing liberalism.

In the early seventies a number of factors seemed to be fostering a revival of the left--as distinct from mere liberalism, with which it is often confused. Domestically, there were the civil-rights, women’s, and gay movements. Overseas the colonized lands were revolting. Great hopes were invested in the assumption of the political purity of the Third World polities that emerged, hopes that proved radically mistaken.

Investigating the conceptual background a bit, I discovered that there had indeed been changes (advances?--I’m not sure) in Marxist theory, as seen in the work of such figures as Louis Althusser and Perry Anderson. Still, I was mainly engaged as an observer, not a convert. As a gay activist in the seventies, I saw that my contemporaries, some at least, were buying into this stuff, and it was necessary to achieve some proficiency in Leftspeak in order to communicate.

Elected president in 1980, Ronald Reagan was anathema to leftists and liberals alike. At the time, it struck me that this personalization and demonization showed both tactical and theoretical weakness. What if Reagan’s advent signified a sea change that would outlast personalities? In many ways it did, as a few honest liberals, like Sean Willentz of Princeton University, have finally got round to acknowledging.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to set a seal on this evolution: the Marxist left had turned out to be an aberration of that most unlovely of centuries, the twentieth.

Yet the left survived here and there, and actually proved to be of some use, as I found with the runup to the disastrous Iraq War, which I strongly opposed. The liberal hawks, such as Paul Berman and The New Republic crowd, were less prescient, to say the least. Moreover, the war was opposed by paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan. Even today, though, the left--unable to renounce kneejerk demonizing--refuses to give the conservatives any credit or to consider the merits of a tactical alliance on specific issues.

As my attention was increasingly drawn to the Middle East I found myself in synch with some leftists, at least, on the Israel-Palestinian problem. Indeed, in the US the left seems to be the only force, such as it is, that has managed to escape the toils of the otherwise all-powerful Israel lobby.

As a result of this rapprochement I have begun to participate in some left discussion groups on the Internet. The limits of this cooperation, though, were revealed by the circulation of a recent position statement by a spokeswoman for the Castroite government in Cuba. This piece spoke of continuing hopes for building a "utopia" in Cuba.

What planet is this woman, and those of the US left who are applauding her statement, living on? After sixty years, Cuba is simply a failed state. One can debate what the causes are, and even, for the sake of argument. accept the leftist claim that it is the heartless machinations of US imperialism that are to blame for Cuba's all-too-evident devolution. Whatever the constellation of causes, the Cuban experiment has failed beyond all possibility of retrieval. The Cuban polity has ossified into a quasimonarchical regime dominated by the Castro family and its cronies. If I am not mistaken this is a familiar pattern in Latin America, sometimes termed caciquism. For the time being Cuba is propped up by petrodollars coming from Venezuela--just as it formerly subsisted on Soviet subsidies. But like Burma and North Korea, it is so far from retaining a utopian potential that it may more aptly termed a dystopia.

The continuing preoccupation on the left with Cuba, and now with the opportunist Venezuelan regime, symbolizes a larger problem, and that is the inability of the left to moderninze itself. One would have thought that 1989 would have been a wake-up call. But no, we still must endure the recycling of the old “anti-imperialist” platitudes that proclaim an quasireligious cerstainty that the US, the Great Satan, is responsible for everything bad that happens in the world. This political Manicheanism simplifies world politics in a way that is not helpful. Outside of the dwindling leftist cenacles it has no acceptance. The cash-value of the meme is almost nil. All the same, it envelopes the leftist body like a shirt of Nessus.

Yes, I too wish the we could dismantle the 800-plus US bases throughout the planet and stop being the world’s policeman. In many ways, the arrival of isolationism might be a good thing. But this change will not result in a net reduction of evil in the world. There is too much mischief going on out there now that is independent of US manipulation, and has the potential of getting worse. The leftist view that the US pulls all the strings is--how shall I say it?--simply racist, as it deprives other peoples of agency.

Come on, now lefties: you can do better than this.


Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Benedict Arnolds we admire--at least at the movies

Today’s Sunday New York Times (Arts Section) has an interesting piece ("Judas as Hero") by the film critic A. O. Scott on the current trend in films for the hero to switch sides, going over to the group that he is supposed to be oppressing. Prominent examples (which I recently discussed) are “Avatar” and “District Nine.”

Why do such radical changes in loyalty occur? One theory is the Stockholm Syndrome, which explains, it seems, how the Patty Hearst of yore could turn herself into “Tanya,” a loyal soldier in the pathetic Symbionese Liberation Army.

Yet is this really an explanation? To me it seems more a description, showing how, under prolonged conditions of duress, the victims will seek opportunistically to join those who are holding them prisoner.

Then there is the matter of gradual drift, as seen in the way in which some NYC Trotskyists of the 1930s morphed into neocons. Well, people tend to get more conservative as they grow older. There is something to this platitude, banal though it may be.

The more interesting question, though, is raised by literal turncoat strategies. How is it that at some point people can suddenly switch sides, sometimes even to their own suprise?

An intriguing answer is found in the work of Jack London. In 1909 he published a sketch entitled "South of the Slot," about a University of California professor who assumes a working-class disguise to investigate social conditions South of the Slot--that is, south of Market Street in San Francisco (the area where London was born). The climax of the story occurs when the two personalities come into conflict. The professor, observing a pitched battle between strikers and police South of the Slot, throws himself into the fight on the side of the workers.

In other words, something snapped in the professor’s mind, and he suddenly shifted from his new identity--prosperous, respectable college professor--reverting to the identity he had been raised in.

This story offers a revealing model of at least one type of role switching.

(Hat tip to Steve Murray, who first pointed out the importance of the Jack London story to me.)


Thursday, February 04, 2010

The switcheroo that passeth understanding

I am currently reading a volume of essays entitled "Torah Queeries: Weekiy Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible," written by a group of observant Jews who happen to be gay and lesbian. This book breaks fresh ground, in part because it brings out instances of gender ambiguity in the Hebrew Bible, which is far from supporting gender dimorphism down the line as one might think. Not surprisingly, the book largely ducks the questiion of the homophobic (and homocidal) verses of Leviticus 18 and 20.

Nonetheless, I can understand how an individual--brought up in one the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--might seek to retain the ties created in one's early years, formidable though this task may be for GLBT people.

What I do not understand is migration from one of these faiths to another. Currently, there is a theater event in New York City called "Circumcise Me!" featuring Yisrael Campbell, a Philadelphia-born comedian based in Israel.

Campbell, who is of Irish and Italian descent, grew up Catholic in a Philadelphia suburb. One of his aunts is a Catholic nun. Campbell converted to Judaism with a Reform rabbi, and says that a "spiritual hunger" led him to have a second conversion with a Conservative rabbi. On a four-month visit to Israel in 2000 he decided to have a third conversion and live as an Orthodox Jew.

Today much stand-up comedy involves ethnicity; people seem to find that it is a useful safety valve to air these matters in this way. Some Muslim American comedians have explored this territory.

Still, I do not understand why anyone brought up in any one of these three atavistic faiths would want to switch to another. Being brought up Jewish, Christian, or Muslim is something one can't help. (In similar fashion I was educated to be an atheist Marxist). If one has had such a burden thrust upon oneself, there would only seem to be two choices: make the best of a bad deal; or get out of religion entirely. By contrast, switching seems to rank as a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

I am currently sparring (not in these pages) with an articulate San Francisco man who has made such a jump. Of Jewish and Catholic heritage, J. has recently become a fervent Muslim. Being gay has made his choice harder. I suppose that there is a certain logic in this trifecta--but it stumps me all the same.