Friday, July 29, 2011

Puzzling realignments

In June of 1967 I was living in England when the Six Day War broke out between Israel and Egypt. The Israeli forces quickly prevailed.

At that time the BBC took its cameras into an old-fashioned Tory club, one that had a "restricted" membership, meaning that no Jews need apply. As the Israeli victory had become unmistakable, the reporter expected gloom to prevail among the members, but instead they were whooping it up. When asked why, they exclaimed: "We're winning, we're winning!" (What do you mean by "we" I asked myself?) At all events, the reason for the jubilation seemed to be that dislike of the Arabs was intense and, with many old British Forces types present, there was admiration for the military spirit and discipline of the IDF.

As it happened, this shift turned out to be the harbinger of a far-reaching realignment on the international right. In France Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front, professes admiration for the state of Israel, while in Alaska Governor Palin displayed the Israeli flag. This historic shift has gone hand in hand with a growing conservatism in the Israeli citizenship as well.

What I do not understand is the contrasting realignment in the international left, where Muslims have become poster children. This despite such horrors as the subjugation of women and the persecution of homosexuals. Any criticism of Islam on this and other well-founded grounds is immediately denounced as "Islamophobia."


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Vagaries of "Christianism"

At one time, the term “Christianism” was synonymous with “Christianity” and “Christendom.” In recent times it has fallen out of use. After 9/11, however, Christianism was redefined in parallel to “Islamism,” standing over against Islam in the proper sense. The latter term, we are told, serves to differentiate “good,” mainstream Muslims from “bad” fanatical extremists.

Along similar lines, Christianism is supposed to be the dangerous side of Christianity--a distortion really--that ostensibly contrasts with the more authentic version found in the Gospels. It is significant that the journalist Andrew Sullivan, a practicing Catholic, has been one of the main proponents of the distinction between C1 and C2. On June 1, 2003 he wrote: “I have a new term for those on the fringes of the religious right who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression: Christianists. They are as anathema to true Christians as the Islamists are to true Islam." Subsequently, the term was picked up by several liberal bloggers. Sullivan expanded on his concept in a Time Magazine piece “My Problem with Christianism” (May 7, 2006).

For me, by the way, the adjective “true” always sends up a red flag. Somehow, it is always one’s own party (in Sullivan’s case, liberal Christianity) that is true, that of its opponents false.

At all events, Sullivan’s original definition emphasizes striving for power over others. In practice, however, the label also seems to connote doctrinal rigidity--religious fundamentalism in short.

Be this as it may, the original Sullivanian concept would be better described as “Dominionism.” This is the tendency is the tendency among some politically active conservative Christians to seek influence or control over the civil government through political action, especially in the United States. The trend is also known as subjectionism. The aim is either a nation governed by Christians, or a nation governed by a conservative Christian understanding of biblical law.

In his recent Dish postings, Sullivan has sought to apply the Christianism label to Anders Breivik. This does not seem helpful, as Breivik shows no particular devotion to conservative Christian theology or the behavioral restrictivism associated with it. Instead, the Norwegian killer seems to see Christianity as a bulwark of white nationalism. The overall context is his perception of the clash of civilizations. There is also a certain romantic neo-medievalism in his idealization of the Templar Order.


Monday, July 25, 2011

Speculations about Breivik

We still know too little about the motivations and associations of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer. Yet this limitation does not prevent speculations from appearing.

Today's NY Times has (on the front page) an article by Scott Shane seeking to implicate US antijihadist websites in the atrocities in Norway. This claim amounts to guilt by association, and is especially dubious when it stems from quarters that keep telling us that the violence of "Muslim extremists" has nothing to do with mainstream Islam.

We must be alert to another form of guilt by association. In all frankness, Breivik's persona has a gay aura. He has resisted dating, and is closely attached to his mother. To be sure he has criticized gay activism, and he may be nonpracticing. Reputedly, however, he was photographed seven years ago dancing at a gay pride parade.

A uniform fetishist, Breivik has a particular attachment to the Knights Templar, which he calls an “international Christian military order,” fighting against “Islamic suppression.” As the Norwegian killer must have known, Philip IV of France accused the Templars of sodomitical practices. Beginning in 1307 he hunted them down, tortured them, and executed them at the stake.

None of these assertions offers any conclusive proof. Yet if there is any truth in the gay angle we may expect it to be exploited in an unpleasant way.

In fact, a somewhat mysterious site has already declared "Most Nazis would appear to be macho gay."

This slur has been circulating for some time. Traceable to the Roehm affair in early 1930s Germany (and even earlier in the stereotype of "le vice allemand"), it was given a certain theoretical formulation in a little book by Samuel Igra "Germany's National Vice" (1945). This screed has pretty much vanished from sight; and good riddance.

Yet fifty years later this particular homophobic meme ("the Nazis were gay") resurfaced in the book "The Pink Swastika" by Scott Lively and Kevin Abrams. An enlarged version of this tendentious compilation is available on the Internet. It is rubbish, but some have been taken in by it.

It is to be hoped that efforts to overgeneralize from the Breivik case can be turned back. Time will tell.

PS, See the observations by the gay conservative writer Bruce Bawer (who resides in Norway) in today's Wall Street Journal. He was quoted 22 times in Breivik's vast manuscript. Bawer seems to think that the association will harm the antijihadist cause, which he supports.


Saturday, July 23, 2011


I am definitely on the wrong side of the digital divide, as you can easily surmise from the no-frills aspect of these postings. I do not tweet, and for a long time I resisted joining Facebook. But a few months ago I yielded to temptation on that front.

I chose my F-b friends carefully. I like to think that they are among the nicest, most astute, most articulate individuals around. Certainly their collective IQ must be astonishing. Yet what happens when they post on that Book>

Some regale others with such facts as having just had a refreshing shower or being on vacation in Upper Sheboygan Falls or some such exciting place. Others mention some delicious food item they have recently cooked up. They generally do not give the recipe, and in any event one inevitably feels left out. I suppose that one could ask for a dinner invitation, but I can't just drop everything and dash off to Toronto or San Francisco, much as I would like to.

Then there are those who seem to assume that one never opens a newspaper or watches the TV news. In the last few days several have noted the courageous action of Wendi Deng in intervening to help her scoundrel husband Rupert Murdoch. Maybe I should offer to send my own partner to take lessons in the martial arts. But honestly, y'all, I saw Wendi's action IN REAL TIME on MSNBC.

The last sentence brings up something that is not too common with my lot, thank goodness, and that is writing everything either in capitals or lower case.

Well, I needn't go on: most of you are familiar with these shenanigans. Facebook just does not, for the most part, bring out the best in people. For that reason, I only check my account about once a week, and that is too much.

I have to wonder how long this enterprise can last.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Monotheism, its changing fortunes

For a long time it has been the conventional wisdom that the evolution of world religions clearly shows that monotheism was an advance over earlier polytheistic systems, Naturally, this view has appealed to adherents of the major Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yet even those without a stake in such particularist approaches could point to the “Dawn of Conscience” in ancient Egypt, culminating in the monotheism of the pharaoh Akhnaten in the fourteenth century BCE.

Often overlooked was the fact that polytheism has not simply disappeared, but remains a defining feature of Hinduism, professed by 950 million people today, or some 13 percent of the world’s population. Such is the pull of the conventional wisdom, however, that some Indologists detect a primordial monotheism in the foundational Vedic documents, a “purity” from which, ostensibly, later Hinduism diverged.

In this larger perspective, then, polytheism was either a primitive, superseded concept. or an atavistic reversion--which amounts to the same thing. The evolutionary superiority of monotheism was thus affirmed, somewhat grudgingly it must be conceded by secularists.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, recent scholarship has detected a disturbing nexus between monotheism, on the one hand, and violence and intolerance, on the other. This is part of what Jan Assmann calls the “Mosaic exception.” Significantly, the conjunction of the three factors did not start with the ancient Israelites, but is already present in the very first model of monotheism, the Aten worship promulgated by Akhnaten.

Now a new charge has been brought against monotheism: that it has led to the widely lamented modern loss of meaning and helped to foster nihilism. Such, it would appear, is the message of a new book by two prestigious philosophers written for a popular audience. The book is “"All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age" by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. To be sure, the formidable Gary Wills trashed the book in his notorious review in the New York Review of Books. Still, continuing discussion suggests that perhaps it cannot be dismissed so easily.

Here is the book's thesis in a nutshell: "The world used to be in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away. This book is intended to bring them close once more. [. . .] Anyone who wants to lure back the shining things, to uncover the wonder we were once capable of experiencing, and to reveal a world that sometimes calls forth such a mood; anyone who is done with indecision and waiting, with expressionlessness and lostness and sadness and angst, and who is ready for whatever it is that comes next; anyone with hope instead of despair, or anyone with despair that they would like to leave behind, can find something worthwhile in the pages ahead. Or at least that is what we intend.”

While the authors particularly admire ancient Greece, they do not delude themselves with the vain hope of bringing back to life such deities as Ares and Aphrodite. They are concerned with something more general, perhaps ineffable--a mood, or attunement that opens one to a sacred dimension that once may have been understood as, and represented by a god or goddess. As some of the more skeptical Greeks themselves suggested, Ares may be understood as shorthand for military or aggressive propensity, and Aphrodite as erotic sensibility.

The authors believe that we have lost the exciting possibilities they detect in Homer's polytheism (and elsewhere in the "shining" realm). As a result people now have a "gut-level sadness," and they are capable only of leading flattened-down and meaningless lives. Our age is one that is threatened by a pervasive nihilism.

The implication is that monotheism is culpable because it has closed off our access to the shining world that our ancestors once experienced. We must find our way back to ecstasy. Still, there is ecstasy and ecstasy. The crowds manipulated by Hitler experienced ecstasy of a sort, but that is clearly not wanted.

Several questions intrude. Is it really clear that the modern world is pervaded by nihilism? Such figures as Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama do not seem to have been hobbled by this failing. Secondly, can ancient Greece (even supplemented by Dante and, curiously, Melville) really provide redemptive models? As we have noted above, the pagan gods can only be resuscitated in the enervated form of emotional registers and concepts--and not as the deities that were so palpably real to Homer and his successors.

There have been earlier efforts at recovery of the sensibility of paganism. One such was the hermetic syncretism of the Renaissance, best represented by the Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Then, three hundred years later, there was the “aesthetic paganism” of such German romantics as Friedrich Schiller and Friedrich Hoelderlin.

Such attempts are indeed worthy. But can they be emulated in today’s world of texting, the Internet, and all the other electronic modalities that surround us?


Monday, July 18, 2011

Grayling's folly

As a teenager I conceived the idea that I was an atheist. This was not much of an accomplishment, as my parents were atheists too. Their atheism was grounded in a far-left political movement, which I came to reject. And so, feeling the need for some independent rationale for my antireligious views, I sent away for a packet of atheist literature (long since lost, I fear). Among the trouvailles that came in the mail was a stirring hymn: “Onward, Atheist Soldiers.” This ditty follows closely the text written by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1865, and the music composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1871.

I laughed out loud.

Like an old-fashioned photographic negative, all too often atheism seemed just a blanket reversal of theism. It was parasitic, without it seemed to me any ability to generate distinctive thought patterns of its own. Then what about, some will say, thinkers of the calibre of Friedrich Nietzsche? Well, Nietzsche was the son of a pastor, and much of what he says about God has this secondary, parasitic character I noted. Besides, Nietzsche clung to remnants of classical paganism, which was scarcely characterized by any uniform rejection of the gods. Atheism should forbid the belief in gods (plural) as well as in God. And Nietzsche strongly identified with Dionysus.

The composer Frederick Delius honored Nietzsche with his “Mass of Life,” a work of some merit. Yet today’s atheist summer camps seem much less elevated in tone. Some of them feature rites of debaptism, as recorded by one visitor to such an event in Westerville, Ohio in 2008. The ceremony began with some words from the Acting President of American Atheists, Frank Zindler: “Do you agree that the magical potency of today’s ceremony is exactly equal to the magical efficacy of ceremonial baptism with dihydrogen monoxide, and do you agree that the power of all magical ceremonies is nonexistent?” Everyone responded with a booming “Amen!” No baptismal pool was need. All that was required was a blow dryer — in this case, the Blow Dryer of Reason. Then the newly dechristened individuals adjourned to a table to partake of atheist communion wafers, some made of peanut butter. Not clear was what one might do to desecrate this host.

Apparently, a good time was had by all. By comparison I fear that I am not a fun person. Elsewhere I have subjected the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to a searching and detailed analysis ( Suffice it to say that I have found them wanting. But this experience has not made me an atheist once more. If anything, atheism is sustained, all too often, by a self-righteous sense of certainty that parallels the dogmatism of the Abrahamic religions themselves. For this reason perhaps it should be regarded as the Fourth Abrahamic Faith.

Far better to adopt agnosticism, as indeed I have. Since we do not know for sure whether god(s) exist or not, why not leave it at that? One can then pass on to other subjects, where there is a better chance of achieving some certainty.

I was reminded of these reflections when I chanced in a book store on a weighty tome by the British philosopher and atheist A. C. Grayling: “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.” In some respects, atheism is a big tent, and some who so describe themselves have lamented the lack of a definitive statement of belief. Grayling seeks to address that concern. More particularly, the question is this: is atheism simply a negation of theism; or is it, rather, a broader philosophy addressing key matters of ethics, the pursuit of happiness, and world view?

Grayling has adopted the latter course. But he has sought to pursue it in a peculiar manner, producing a kind of scissors-and-paste job juxtaposing “gems” from various traditions, rewritten in a ponderous pseudo-Scriptural style. As one reviewer harshly remarks, the result is “a cheesy imitation of the Bible. . . . The passages feel hollow and trite and are every bit as tedious to read as the Bible.” The items are even numbered in the manner of the King James version. There is no footnoting to indicate the sources of Grayling's purloinings.

As regards content, Grayling assimilates to atheism political views that are personal and in no way required by rejection of belief in God. There is nothing incompatible with atheism in being an anarchist or libertarian. But Grayling will have none of this; he is an outright statist. Note these passages from “The Lawgiver,” Chapter 2:

"3. For people cannot act against the authorities without danger to the state, though their feelings and judgement may be at variance therewith.
6. For instance, supposing a person shows that a law is repugnant to reason, and should be repealed;
7. If he submits his opinion to the judgement of those who, alone, have the right of making and repealing laws,
8. And meanwhile acts in nowise contrary to that law, he has deserved well of the state, and has behaved as a good citizen should;
9. But if he accuses the authorities of injustice, and stirs up the people against them,
10. Or seditiously strives to abrogate the law without their consent, he is merely an agitator and rebel."

A. C. Grayling is the author of a score of books, many of them, apparently, exhibiting the same self-regarding certainty as his “humanist” writings, of which “The Good Book” is one.

Grayling’s cornerstone principle is something he calls “human flourishing.” On several occasions I had the opportunity of discussing h.f. with my lately deceased friend “Gay Species” (Stephen Heersinck) of San Francisco, who was an advocate. In vain did I point out that “human flourishing” simply repackages Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia. While he was not a conventional devotee of the Twelve Olympians, there is no doubt that Aristotle was a theist (of the unitarian variety). The very term “eudaimonia” contains within it the noun “daimon,” a supernatural being. Thus the origins of this virtue are not merely the outcome of human reflection, however sustained, but represent a gift bestowed by some external power, one greater than ourselves. It is not a product of unaided reason tout court.

I miss Stephen almost every day. What a pity he is not here to argue with me. Fortunately his website,, is still up and running. There you will find further discussion of the criterion of human flourishing.

PS. Why do I put the term “humanist” in quotation marks? Properly, this designation should be reserved for the learned Italian movement of the Renaissance, where such figures as Ficino and Pompanazzi were not atheists, but clung to a kind of religious syncretism, much influenced by the legendary Hermes Trismegistus.

Genuine atheism did not come along until ca. 1700 with the precursors of Baron d’Holbach in France.

UPDATE (July 24): Courtesy of Andrew Sullivan's Dish site, I reproduce the following astute comments from Joseph T. Lapp:

" Even most religious people will agree that the Bible is not literally true in all its detail. The general atheist position appears to be an assertion about the fundamentalist God. So what? Everyone thinks fundamentalists are off their rocker. It's my experience that most Americans these days believe in more amorphous, less tangible forms [of] God - forms that I find hard to argue with because little is claimed with certainty, or because the fuzzy beliefs are compatible with the world I perceive, even if they wouldn't survive Occam's Razor (which only selects pragmatic theories, not truth).

" In my opinion, many of these modern amorphous, if contradictory, visions of God are potentially compatible with the universe I see. I don't find them useful, but I have no basis for concluding their falsehood, and who knows, one of these visions might possibly have some element of truth in it. It's for this reason that I prefer to call myself an agnostic. I find that most atheist can't allow themselves to acknowledge that any notion that anyone calls "God" could have any chance of harboring truth."


Despite its awkwardness, the following term has gained some (limited) currency. Ignosticism or igtheism [ugh-theism?] posits that every other theological position (including agnosticism) assumes too much about the concept of God and many other theological assertions. The word "ignosticism" was coined by Sherwin Wine, a rabbi and a founding figure of Humanistic Judaism.

Ostensibly, it encompassing two related views about the existence of God:

1. Ideally, a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of god can be meaningfully discussed. Yet if that definition is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence of God (per that definition) is meaningless. (This view was anticipated many years ago by the British logical positivist A. J. Ayer.) It may be, according to igtheists, that the concept of God itself is not meaningless, yet the term "God" is considered meaningless.

2. The second view is synonymous with theological noncognitivism, and skips the step of first, asking "What is meant by 'God'?" before proclaiming the original question "Does God exist?" as meaningless.

The fact that these distinctions are somewhat hard to grasp accounts for the relative obscurity of the ignostic trend.

At all events, an ignostic maintains that one cannot even say whether he or she is a theist or an atheist until a sufficient definition of theism is put forth.

Ignosticism is not to be confused with apatheism, a position of indifference toward the existence of God. Apatheists may regard the statement "God exists" as trivial or insignificant; yet they may also see it as meaningful, and perhaps even true.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Lost Generation--has it been found?

The French cherish a peculiar expression: le Tout-Paris. By common consent (chez eux), this term does not designate the totality of the inhabitants of the City of Light, but is restricted to a privileged segment of them. Essentially, le Tout-Paris is a collective label for prominent celebrities and persons in the public eye.

These are what we sometimes call the bold-face personalities, as distinct from us ordinary folk.

I thought of this expression the other day when I saw Woody Allen’s new filmic bonbon, “Midnight in Paris.” This is strictly a Tout-Paris for an Anglo-Saxon audience, since Ernest Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso would not really have made the grade, since they were foreigners.

In the main part of the movie, Gil Pender, a nerdish Hollywood writer played by Owen Wilson, realizes his fantasies in Paris by being transported each night back to the ‘twenties to meet the company just mentioned. In between there are deadly contemporary cameos of a grumpy American businessman (Gil's prospective father-in-law), who hates the French, and a pretentious college professor, who loves them. The pairing implies, sensibly enough, that charting a middle course between the extremes of francophobia and francomania is best. The main part of the film is lots of fun. However, the movie's beginning and ending are alike somewhat embarrassing--a series of picture postcards of famous Parisian sites at the outset, and a further name-dropping trip back to the Belle Epoque of the 1890s at the end.

At any rate, all this brought back memories. Already in high school (1949-52) I had become disillusioned with American hucksterism and shallowness, and longed to move to Paris. That city, and France as a whole, I somehow felt, had preserved their cultural heritage and commitments undefiled. I taught myself to read French, and even today I commonly sequester myself with the classics of that language, absorbing them with pleasure without a dictionary. In addition, my interest meshed with my attachment to the literary avant-garde (I aspired to be a poet). The two fascinations came together, of course, in the cynosure of the Lost Generation of the 1920s.

Somewhere in this period of my life I chanced upon a marvelous book “Paris Was Our Mistress” (1947). The author was Samuel Putnam (1892-1950), best known as a translator of Don Quixote. Putnam went to France about 1927, remaining there with his wife and child, until 1934. He relates his encounters with Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, James Joyce, Luigi Pirandello, and many others. He also wrote about artists, especially Picasso, one of my idols. My sense is that Putnam’s book ranks as the unacknowledged template for Allen’s film.

Later, of course, Hemingway was to write his own first-person account, “A Moveable Feast.” Yet I always felt that Putnam had created the definitive Baedeker for us Paris-worshippers. His book is still in print.

PS. The most amusing line in the movie is uttered by Pender, riffing on T. S. Eliot's complaint about the indignity of measuring out one's life in "coffee spoons." Gil changes it to "coke spoons" (not of course the beverage). Too true. In addition, I commend Woody Allen for his forbearance in not mentioning the cliche of Alice B. Toklas' recipe for marijuana brownies (actually hashish fudge).


Friday, July 15, 2011

Biblical Wisdom?

Recently a number of perceptive reviews by Adam Kirsch have been appearing in the Jewish journal, Tablet (, not to be confused with a Catholic journal with a similar title. One of the latest (July 5), “By the Book,” concerns the (Hebrew) Bible.

Even the irreligious have a sense, however difficult it is to specify, that these venerable writings provide a deposit of ancient wisdom. In my college classes I attempted to give substance to this intuition through works of art. It is not often realized that down to 1800 a majority of significant works of European art were religious in inspiration--even (especially) those produced by the supposedly secular Renaissance. After retiring from regular teaching five years ago, I sought to specify this sense by sorting the wheat from the chaff. Alas, I found that the torrent of chaff engulfs and overwhelms the few sheaves of wheat. The valuable bits include a few Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and some portions of the Gospels.

To be sure, others, even those who are not religious in the fundamentalist sense, find considerably larger tracts of value in Scripture. Moreover, they believe that overall the Bible contains a message that still offers valuable guidance for modern-day ethics and conduct.

A continuing stream of books seeks to ground this intuition in a more particular examination of the ancient texts. The latest of these, as reported by Mr. Kirsch, is “The Bible Now” by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky (Oxford University Press).

A respected senior scholar, Friedman serves as the Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia. He is perhaps best known for his “Who Wrote the Bible?,” concerning the Documentary Hypothesis, where he seeks to chart a middle course between traditionalism and modernism. It is fair to say that, as many would-be peacemakers find, his efforts have failed to settle the conflict, pleasing neither side. Still, he deserves credit for the effort. A newcomer, Shawna Dolansky has lately been addressing the issue of feminine elements in the Hebrew Bible.

In their jointly written volume, Friedman and Dolansky seek to explain “what the Bible has to say about the major issues of our time.” Sensibly enough, they place themselves among the ranks of those “who do not believe that the Bible is divinely revealed, [but] turn to the Bible because they believe it contains wisdom—-wisdom that might help anyone, whatever his or her beliefs, make wise decisions about difficult matters.”

Friedman and Dolansky address five current controversial matters: homosexuality, abortion, women’s status, capital punishment, and the earth.

Of particular interest to me is their approach to the antihomosexual passages in Leviticus 18 and 20. The second (Lev. 20:13) is hideously explicit: “And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death: their blood shall be upon them.” To be sure, the prohibition applies only to male homosexuals and not to lesbians, but to those of us who are its target the words are chilling--as they ought to be for every reasonable person.

Regrettably, the treatment offered by Friedman and Dolansky is tortuous in the extreme. Adam Kirsch has done his best to try to follow their argument. Here is the gist of his summary:

"Turning from Israel to Assyria, Egypt, and Greece, Friedman and Dolansky observe that these other Near Eastern societies generally had nothing against homosexual acts per se. They reserved their odium for the passive partner in anal sex, the man who was penetrated. A “Middle Babylonian divination text” instructs that “If a man copulates with his equal from the rear, he becomes the leader among his peers and brothers”; on the other hand, Plutarch writes, “We class those who enjoy the passive part as belonging to the lowest depths of vice.”

“Never mind that these texts were written more than a thousand years apart, in two very different civilizations, neither of which was Israelite. Friedman and Dolansky use them to establish “the wider cultural context” of Leviticus, from which it follows that “what the authors of Leviticus … may be prohibiting is not homosexuality as we would construe the category today but, rather, an act that they understood to rob another man of his social status by feminizing him.” Why, then, does Leviticus, uniquely among ancient Near Eastern law codes, prescribe death for both partners in homosexual acts? Because, Friedman and Dolansky argue, quoting another biblical scholar, Leviticus “emphasizes the equality of all. It does not have the class distinctions that are in the other cultures’ laws.”

“This is a remarkable performance. Before you know it, a law that unambiguously prescribes death for gay men has been turned into an example of latent egalitarianism. Friedman and Dolansky imply that it was not homosexuality the Bible wanted to condemn, but the humiliation of the passive partner. And since we no longer think of consensual sex acts as humiliating, surely the logic of the Bible itself means that homosexuality is no longer culpable: “The prohibition in the Bible applies only so long as male homosexual acts are perceived to be offensive.”

"But wait: Doesn’t Leviticus also say, in Chapter 18, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination”? Here too, Friedman and Dolansky have a reassuring response. “The technical term to’ebah,” they write, is usually employed in the Bible not for absolute moral laws, but for cultic taboos: “an act or object that is not a to’ebah can become one, depending on time and circumstances.” Maybe homosexuality was once to’ebah, but “Why do people assume that things relating to God must be absolute and unchanging? Even for a person who believes in God wholeheartedly, why should that person assume that God is never free to change?””

To make a long story short, the authors start with an enlightened, secular view of male same-sex conduct, and then try to square the Biblical injunctions with it. To use the technical language of Biblical criticism, this is not exegesis (that is, the elucidation of the meaning of the texts based on what they actually say) but eisegesis (the injection of meanings into the text that are not there). In all frankness, the result is ludicrous.

An even more telling point is this. If we can reach valid conclusions regarding ethics by applying natural reason alone, the use of the Bible for this purpose is unnecessary and superfluous. Or, to use a legal analogy, Scripture appears only as a supportive witness--and one that is all too often made to perjure itself.

We come back to a conclusion that has long been evident to skeptics. There is no overall “message” of the Scriptures, at least not one that we can respect. Instead, we are confronted with a vast collage of fallible documents, variously quaint, bizarre, horrifying, and pathetic, which are mainly of use in reconstructing the superstitions and belief systems prevalent in backward regions of the Near East a long time ago. In this mass there are a few nuggets--some Psalms, the book of Job, and so forth--but there is no warrant for assuming that that taken as a whole this salmagundi offers any sustained guidance for human beings in the twenty-first century.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Murdoch and his ilk

Together with many others, I rejoice at the difficulties that Rupert Murdoch is encountering in Britain. No single individual, whatever his politics, should have so much control over the media. I doubt, though, that the standards of British popular journalism, already abysmal when I lived in London in the 1960s. will improve. The other tabloids will continue on their merry way. And new ones will probably spring up to fill the void.

As I say, I have no love for Rupert Murdoch. Still, I must note what I view as a simplistic approach on the part of our intelligentsia, and that is to personalize the presumed forces of darkness. If only, the refrain goes, we could get rid of Roger Ailes, Glenn Beck, and/or the Koch brothers (the names change over time), all would be well and the country could resume the progressive path that is its natural destiny.

This conviction goes together with the much cherished liberal notion that their view is "reality-based," responding only to facts, while the opponents simply obey the dictates of their ideology, Alas, no single political orientation has a monopoly on reality--elements of it are recognized by almost all political factions,

Why then do so many liberals cling to this dogmatic notion that only their view is indubitably correct? There are two factors: 1) their reluctance to engage in give and take with those holding other views, resulting in a preaching-to-the-converted strategy; and 2) the stubborn belief in the inevitability of progress.

Doubtless I will be accused of being a conservative. I am not. But such accusations are all too typical of the mind-set that I am seeking to describe. Adepts of this view, convinced of the rightness of their own convictions, simply find it difficult to understand the motivations and thought processes of those who do not agree with them.
Were they to do so, they would be in a stronger position.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

A difficult issue

During the 1980s, as I prepared for my two major works, Homosexuality: A Research Guide (1987) and the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (1990), I felt the need to extend my horizons as far as possible. After all, I was attempting to cover the entire range of same-sex love in all times and places. To be sure, mine was inevitably a tentative effort, but (in all modesty) I do not see that it has been surpassed. (See the side bar with my Profile, for electronic versions of these volumes.)

Enough of blowing my own trumpet. Two areas I addressed were ones in which I felt no personal affinity at all: BDSM and pederasty (aka boy love or BL). As long as it involves consenting adults, Bondage and Domination/Sadomasochism present no problem as such. These behaviors are essentially role playing, and seem to offer psychic rewards for participants. That they provide no such rewards for me does not prevent me from acknowledging that they work for others.

The same degree of acceptance is not generally accorded with regard to the other behavior I noted: boy love. Over the years “intergenerational sex,” as it is sometimes euphemistically known. has become more controversial--indeed very controversial.

Occasionally, some Internet piece claims, without any foundation whatever, that I am a pederast. Well, one can say just about anything on the Internet. (It has also been claimed that I have received a MacArthur “genius” award; that I wouldn’t mind--but it is not so either.) Since I have not engaged in any behavior even remotely close to boy love, I do not worry too much about these fantastic sexual allegations.

What I do take seriously, though, are the concerns of several moderate friends, who believe that boy lovers are being unfairly targeted, and even persecuted. The remarks that follow reflect an effort to respond to one of these friends.

With various sites and blogs, the Internet has given a new lease on life to the BL movement--at least up to a point. In this profusion, two themes are prominent: 1) refining BL advocacy arguments (Bruce Rind’s work being the most sophisticated); and 2) injustice collecting regarding punishments that appear to be draconian.

Currently there are many punishments that seem excessive. Moreover, the popular television program, “To Catch a Predator” hosted by the odious Chris Hansen combines entrapment with voyeurism. Such sensationalizing does not foster serious consideration of the issues.

All things considered, though, these injustices do not serve to validate BL, but only to document the excessive zeal of the opponents. Validation would require a massive, overall study of the behavior of BL persons and their partners, a task that is almost impossible for several reasons. These reasons include the understandable secrecy of most BL practitioners, the possibility of legal retribution, and parti pris on both sides.

As regards persecution, comparison may be useful  Compared to BLs, a far greater number of people are languishing in prison for drug offenses.  It seems though, that through the ruse of medical marijuana, we are making progress in that realm, at least with regard to pot.

Thirty years ago, the BL situation seemed similarly flexible.  But now, in 2011, the boy lovers have completely lost the PR war. Notwithstanding that fact, the BL advocates prefer to dwell in an intellectual ghetto, constantly spinning their theories without regard as to how they might be deployed to persuade the public to take a more rational approach.   Preaching to the converted, they only seek to persuade each other--not much of a challenge.  

One useful step would be to separate pederasty (relations with teenage boys) from pedophilia in the strict sense--but most advocates do not want to do that.  All or nothing they say, an intransigence that serves to foster the upshot that nothing it will be. Then there is hope with what may be termed the “Romeo and Julio cases,” where say a 15-year old youth has a relationship with a 17-year old.  But the BLs want nothing of that approach either, because they see no immediate benefit for themselves.

The conclusion is blunt. In terms of public perception, the BLers are simply living on another planet.  The chances of redemption are very remote. Their current views and behavior are making that outcome extremely unlikely.

Some say that as long as the younger partner is consenting, there should be no problem. Focusing on consent as the central issue seems simplistic.  At the time of the Wolfenden Report in 1957 the concept of consent seemed straightforward, at least for adults.  Nowadays the issue seems more complicated, even for adults, as when some employee agrees to sleep with his or her employer to keep the job.  Technically, I suppose, climbing onto the casting couch is consensual, but is it really?

Doubtless many of the priestly pedophiles and pederasts think that what they were doing is consensual, but the pressures they have been able to bring to bear on impressionable Catholic boys are simply not analyzable in terms of consent.

We often hear that teenagers want and need sex; that point may be granted.  But they can have it with each other.  Lots of them do, and there is hope for moving to decriminalizing this activity.

A difficult point for both sides--defenders and opponents alike--to acknowledge is that not all BLs are the same. I would posit three basic types.  The first group, about a third, are arguably ethical persons, helping their protege intellectually and financially, and seeking to curb bad habits.  Then there is an intermediate group of mixed character.  The final third, however, are simply rapists of boys according to the "cock has no conscience" principle.  The reluctance of BL advocates to concede the existence of the last category--plenty of horrendous examples are known--vitiates their case.  They have lots and lots of bad apples, but to hear them talk there are none at all.  They are all, we are assured, benignly enrolled in the first category, performing a useful social service.  That idealistic claim is simply untrue empirically.

The most salient problem confronting them, it would appear, is the desperate need to improve their image.  Yet locked in the cocoon of their own self-serving theories--always "irrefutable" according to their own lights--they cannot seem to grasp this imperative.  Until they can bring themselves to address the image issue, they will be beyond help.

Let me put the issue in a nutshell--with this thought experiment. Supposing some billionaire were to offer unlimited funds to a Madison Avenue firm in order to develop a campaign to improve the image of BLs. What tactics would inform that campaign?

That is truly hard to imagine.


Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Homosexuality and heterosexuality--are they inventions?

During my high school years (1949-52) I first experienced a powerful attraction to members of my own sex, specifically to a fellow student, Larry S. I felt that this boy, who seemed so perfect, stood on a plane far higher than mine. I knew that for this reason, and because of the societal prohibition of what I soon learned to term “homosexuality,” I would never be able to consummate this attraction, lending the whole matter a tragic intensity. I never sought to disclose my attachment to Larry (who was in several of my classes), and I doubt that he had any inkling of the depths of my feelings. I recently saw a photograph of him, with regular features but otherwise unremarkable in appearance, and I wondered what the fuss had been about in those remote, confusing days. But that was part of the experience: the sheer enslavement to the being of another.

At about this time in my teen years I chanced to read an article in a popular magazine that purveyed the theories of romantic love espoused by Denis de Rougemont. This Swiss scholar held that romantic love was specifically invented by the Troubadour poets in twelfth-century Europe. To be sure, generic love had existed before, probably from the dawn of human history, but it was not the sort of tragic love that I had experienced. Or so I gathered from the article.

In this way I was confronted with a puzzle. To me my yearning was primal, probably biological in origin. My conviction of the primordiality of the feeling was enhanced by my sense that male same-sex love, seemingly accompanied by intense longing of the sort I had experienced, was a prominent feature of ancient Greece. On what authority I do not know, my stepfather opined (with no reference to me) that the behavior had been known way back in ancient Egypt.

How then could my experience be both timeless and specifically anchored to the twelfth century, the era when it had supposedly arisen ex novo?

Later I learned that Denis de Rougemont’s idea was not original, but rested ultimately on the concept of courtly love (amour courtois) expounded by Gaston Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century. In English the idea had been popularized by C.S. Lewis in his book The Allegory of Love (1936). It was left to Peter Dronke in the 1960s to show that romantic love flourished in many cultures prior to it purported invention in twelfth-century Europe. Thus it could scarcely have been a novelty introduced in medieval Europe.

There is something distinctively French about this notion of the idea of the “invention” of some particular concept or cluster of emotions. A familiar example is Philippe Ariès’ claim that childhood was invented in the early modern period in Europe, having been previously unknown. Needless to say, many have challenged this proposal,

Later (1976) Michel Foucault was to indicate (or seem to indicate) that homosexuality did not exist before 1869, when the word was introduced by the Austro-Hungarian writer K. M. Benkert. This notion of the invention of the (modern) homosexual has been much discussed, so that I trust that I may be excused from entering further into the matter here.

More recently we have been treated to the extraordinary claim that heterosexuality was also something time-bound and invented--a development posterior to the purported invention of homosexuality. I refer to the book of Jonathan Ned Katz of 1995, entitled The Invention of Heterosexuality.

Basing himself on research of Manfred Herzer, Katz begins by pointing out, correctly, that the word “heterosexual” was first employed (as far as we know) in a private letter written by K. M. Kertbeny to another scholar, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. In this letter, dated May 6, 1868, Kerbeny set forth four terms to designate particular forms of sexual expression: 1) monosexual; 2) homosexual; 3) heterosexual; and 4) heterogenit. (Monosexual seems to haver referred to masturbation, while heterogenit applied to human sexual acts with animals.) In his publication of the following year, however, Kertbeny chose to replace “heterosexual” with “normalsexual.”

Normalsexualität," normal sexuality, was the activity of the majority of human beings. standing over against the minority preference, that is, Homosexualität,. In this way, Kertbeny introduced a judgmental coloration that was absent, or at least less prominent in the earlier coinage.

Since only a few persons could have known about these private speculations, Kertbeny did not truly introduce the term "heterosexual" to the German-speaking public--at least not in any meaningful sense. That task was undertaken by the popularizer Gustav Jaeger in 1880, author of Die Entdeckung der Seele. It was Jaeger, later famous for a line of clothing, who consolidated the contrast between heterosexual and homosexual, subsequently adopted by Krafft-Ebing and many others. (Katz does not mention Jaeger.)

For a long time these discussions were conducted in the German language, and writers in English, French, and Italian on the subject of sexual orientation were necessarily dependent on primary works stemming from Central Europe. Knowledge of German was then regarded as essential if one was to secure a medical degree. Yet Katz, who seems to be monolingual, will have none of this. His narrative of the purported invention of heterosexuality is almost exclusively American. In the terms of the era he is seeking to reconstruct, this is a very provincial view at best.

Katz makes much of an entry in Dorland's Medical Dictionary (1901), published in Philadelphia, which characterized heterosexuality as "abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex." Few seem to have gone along with this interpretation, and in 1934 the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, second edition, authoritatively defined "heterosexuality" as a "manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.”

Evidently, Katz is seeking to show that the definition of heterosexuality was at first ambivalent and unstable, only gradually settling into its current meaning. Yet this claim could only be substantiated by tracing the parallel developments in other languages, which Katz declines to do.

As the author of an online work on the semantics of homosexuality (, I take a great interest in words. Yet anyone working with this material must recognize the danger of linguistic determinism, that is the notion that words proliferate without reference to social conditions and evolving behavioral patterns.

There are other reasons for dismissing the claim of the “invention” of heterosexuality as a twentieth-century innovation. In order to clarify this point one must acknowledge that names and concept are two different things, and a single concept can appear under several different verbal designations. In the Symposium, Plato clearly contrasts opposite-sex love with two different forms, male-male sexuality and female-female sexuality. In early modern France devotés of Cythère (the island of Cythera) correspond to what we would term heterosexuals, standing over against the same-sexers, votaries of Sodom(e). Thus the recognition of these contrasts preceded the 1860s by many centuries.

In short there are no good reasons for believing that heterosexuality and homosexuality appeared at some particular point in recent history; as far as we cam tell, they have been with us for a long, long time--certainly since ancient Greece.

What looks likely to linger is this seductive meme of "invention." A friend harshly terms this scholarly penchant "special creationism." In my judgment, most of the sweeping claims of cultural invention are simply that--inventions. Or to put it more bluntly, just-so stories,

NOTE. In a book I have not seen, the French scholar Louis-Georges Tin seeks to trace the origins of heterosexuality back to that very twelfth century that is supposed to have seen the birth of courtly love (L'invention de la culture hétérosexuelle / The invention of heterosexual culture. Paris, Éditions Autrement, 2008, 205 pp.). Tin is best known for his editing of the The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience, recently translated into English.

The twelfth century rides again! One curious feature about the special creationists is that they cannot agree on their dates. Some think that the "modern homosexual" arose only in 1869; others argue for ca. 1700. Katz thinks that heterosexuality started in the twentieth century; Tin that it began eight centuries earlier. The simplest solution is to assume that these phenomena have been around since time immemorial. But that conclusion, unremarkable as it is, would not justify the writing of a whole book. Perhaps the moon is not made of green cheese after all.


Monday, July 04, 2011

Notes on SSM

The securing of same-sex marriage in New York State has invited various reflections.

The decision effectively doubles the number of potential beneficiaries. A welcome momentum has been added. In my view, however, it is too optimistic to predict that the other states--now forming a rejectionist bloc in the heartland and the South--will fall quickly into line. The resistance seems irrational, since the states that have SSM are serving as laboratories that have demonstrated that the dire predictions of opponents have not come to pass. But the motives of the resisters are not easily swayed by reason.

A kind of impromptu debate has sprung up between the views of Jonathan Rauch and Dan Savage. As far as I know, the two have not engaged in direct debate, but the contrasts are clear enough. Rauch, who is author of the book "Gay Marriage: Why It is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America," holds that the changes mean that "same-sex relationships will continue to move towards both durability and exclusivity." In other words, gay and lesbian unions will start to observe the undeviating fidelity that is so obviously characteristic of heterosexual unions. Except that it is not. This utopian dream of absolute monogamy clashes with well-established biological realities, especially in the human male. It also contrasts with biblical prototypes, such as Abraham and Solomon, where polygamy was the norm.

Dan Savage is a sex columnist who has emerged recently as a real thinker regarding human relationships. His views are profiled in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Reflecting on his own experience with his partner of some years, Savage has concluded that a certain amount of straying has in fact ensured the stability of the relationship. As a general rule that seems accurate, though the details may be troublesome to work out.

Much of the current discussion focuses on male-male relationships. However, statistical evidence from other countries that have had same-sex marriage for some years indicates that, proportionately, lesbians are more likely to take advantage of the option than are gay men. Since woman-woman relationships, often involving children, tend to be more stable anyway, the change is unlikely to affect them very much. Except, that is to say, for this result: the heightened sense of self-esteem and recognition that tying the knot will bring.


Saturday, July 02, 2011

Gay pride versus gay shame

June, the month just completed, is Gay and Lesbian Pride Month.

This observance has prompted me to ask a heretical question: why gay pride? As a rule, we speak of pride in terms of some accomplishment, such as finishing law school or restoring an old house. But we generally do not use the expression to refer to something that simply is. For example, I am not proud of being a man or being a septuagenarian: these are just my attributes. To be sure, some say that they are “proud to be an American,” but such a proclamation seems defensive, as if to acknowledge that there are things (such as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) that do not make us proud.

Perhaps “gay pride” is a way station on a journey to the point where it would no longer needed. Some say that the goal is to become something like left-handed. If one is left-handed one defends one's status and challenges discrimination, but one does not generally proclaim “I am proud to be left-handed.” One is, or should be, proud of one's whole being, and not just of some aspect thereof.

A seeming exception was this year’s Heritage of Pride march in New York City, which did in fact celebrate an accomplishment: the passage of the law authorizing same-sex marriage in our state. However, that is not what is usually meant by gay pride, which is supposed to be an all-enveloping state of bliss based on one’s sexual orientation.

When the term gay pride first became popular after Stonewall (1969) many of us welcomed the slogan as a departure from the self-laceration that been so characteristic of homosexual self-consciousness in the middle of the century. Even homosexual-rights organizations were subject to this insidious form of depreciation. In the early sixties, I remember attending meetings of the Mattachine Society of New York in which shrinks spoke, lecturing us that we must abandon our “immaturity.” In Los Angeles, one gay-rights leader, Don Slater, even defended the right of a restaurant, Barney's Beanery, to display a hateful sign that said FAGOTS (sic) STAY OUT.

At the end of the decade, all that began to change. As Allan Ginsberg remarked to a reporter at the time of Stonewall in 1969, we had lost “that wounded look.”

Despite the dubious epistemological status of the expression gay pride, I think that it is positive on balance.. However, I am not at all enthusiastic about the antonym, "gay shame." Gay Shame is a movement arising from within the GLBTQ constellation that claims to offer a radical alternative to gay mainstreaming. The trend challenges the now-traditional gay- pride events and activities, which are stigmatized as having become increasingly commercialized. The gay-shame movement has found some acceptance among radicals, counter-culture types, and avant-garde artists and performers.

Adherents are wont to attack "queer assimilation," that is to say, acquiescence in what they perceive as oppressive societal structures—-preeminently same-sex marriage. Reputedly, Gay Shame began in 1998 as an annual event in Brooklyn, New York. Held for a number of years at DUMBA, an artists' run collective center, bands such as Three Dollar Bill and Kiki and Herb and speakers such as Eileen Myles, Mattilda aka Matt Bernstein Sycamore and Penny Arcade appeared at the first event, and the evening was documented by Scott Berry and released as the film Gay Shame 98. Swallow Your Pride was a 'zine published by the people involved in planning Gay Shame in New York. The movement later spread to San Francisco, Toronto, London, and Sweden.

In March 2003 an academic conference on the theme was held at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The event disclosed friction between the activists and the academics, reflecting different strategies. The activists claimed that the academics didn't do enough to acknowledge their own power and class privilege, and to be generous in sharing these with the activists.

There have also been annual themed events titled "Gay Shame and Lesbian Weakness" in London, associated with the club night Duckie run by Amy Lame. Comprising performance art and queer-bash make-overs, the 2004 event was also referred to as “The Annual Festival of Homosexual Misery.”

In pondering this strange phenomenon, it is hard not to detect disturbing elements of willful abjection and internalized homophobia. As such, it seems an atavistic regression to the era of “that wounded look.” There is some evidence that the gay-shame trend is subsiding. That outcome is certainly to be hoped for,

As background, here are some notes about the origins of the concept of gay pride itself. The immediate predecessor was the black pride movement that sprang up in the sixties. In his book "Gay Power" (2006) David Eisenbach asserts that the term "gay pride" was introduced by Robert A. Martin and his friends at Columbia's Student Homophile League in 1968, one year before Stonewall. Martin (later known as Stephen Donaldson) was also riffing off the expression "pride of Lions," referring to campus pride in athletic prowess (the Columbia teams were known as "the Lions," hence the annexation of the collective term "pride). L. Craig Schoonaker, founder of a gay student organization at NY City College in early 1969 (a group that evolved into a small NYC coterie known as Homosexuals Intransigent!), claims to have originated the slogan "gay pride" at the time of Stonewall.

However that may be, the next stage seems to have been as follows. Lesbian activist Brenda Howard was one of the organizers of the first Christopher Street Day March in Manhattan (June 28, 1970). For a time, the expression "Christopher Street" was purloined, even in cities like Los Angeles (they used the expression "Christopher Street West March," quite a long street, it seems). At any rate, Howard recognized that the expression Christopher Street was too limiting, even though it correctly pinpointed the origin of all the events at the Stonewall Inn in 1969. She invented the idea of Pride Day, which quickly morphed into Gay Pride Week.

As far as we can now determine, Robert A. Martin, L. Craig Schoonmaker, and Brenda Howard, all New York City residents, are responsible for this terminology. Other cities, in the US and abroad, fell into step later.

In terms of the gay and lesbian movement, the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion marked the beginning of a major quantitative and qualitative change. This phase was known at the time as Gay Liberation. It is in this setting that the expression “gay pride” began to be used. As noted, it is modeled on "black pride." (Compare also the contemporary slogan “gay power,” which is an adaptation of “black power.”)

Nowadays major universities and many colleges have a club or society for students who identify as LGBT. These groups often change their names, due to the rapid evolution of political correctness, and a wish to appear inclusive. One backronym that is currently in common usage spells out PRIDE as "People Rejoicing In Diversity Everywhere." Apt perhaps, but this is a false etymology.

Sometimes the American expression is taken over as such into other languages, but it is usually translated, as in the Spanish “orgullo gay.”