Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Third Party USA: A Radically Alternative Approach to our Fake Political Gridlock



About

Third Party USA seeks citizens eager to create a third political party capable of breaking the undemocratic alliance between the 1% and our government.

I. Preamble

Third Party USA is a principled attempt to return American government to the citizens. Third Party supporters believe strongly that American government has fallen into the hands of a wealthy superclass that is undermining the livelihoods of the great majority of Americans. The currently massive political power of this superclass threatens the American way of life.

Third Party will work to get corporate money out of politics. Its candidates will accept no corporate campaign contributions and will work to put average citizens back in the driver's seat. Accepting no money from corporations, Third Party will not be beholden to corporations.

Third Party does not subscribe to the debunked trickle-down economic theory that continues to make the super-wealthy wealthier while citizens fall further and further behind with each passing year. Third Party believes in strong public education and infrastructure all citizens benefit from.

Third Party neither supports nor rejects abortion rights, prayer in the classroom, same-sex marriage, concealed handgun permits. Most hot button issues now part of the "culture wars" will be left to individual candidates and their constituents to decide. Third Party will prescribe no position on such issues in its platform.

It is high time in our democracy to separate the "culture wars" from the more substantive systemic problems we face. Third Party's platform will focus on 1) wresting control of policy-making from the super-wealthy, and 2) resetting government priorities to put average citizens back in first place.

Working for middle-class Americans and those below them on the social ladder, Third Party will work unashamedly against the super-wealthy, corporations, and Wall Street, who have together made a shambles of our country.

Third Party does not work for 100% of Americans, but for 99% of Americans. The 1% already have their two parties. Third Party will fight them tooth and nail.

II. How we've been divided

I am not a political scientist, expert in American history, or former congressional aide. Even so, I have a very clear vision of what is wrong in my country. Many citizens with no more political expertise than myself can also see it.

Depressed to see America sinking ever further from what it should be, I am now convinced that the only force that might break this downward momentum is a third political party: a new party that would follow the ways of neither Democrats nor Republicans.

And no, I am not proposing a Libertarian Party here. Quite otherwise.

I am proposing a party that returns to fighting for the common citizen, the American citizen that is not on a corporate board and has concerns beyond merely maximizing corporate profits for shareholders.

Many of these common citizens are Evangelical Christians, many are atheist lesbians, some are white, others are black, Latino, Amerindian or Asian. Some of these citizens believe strongly that the right to life, others are pro-choice. Some want to fight for the right of two men to marry, others to protect the constitutional right to bear arms.

That is a very diverse group indeed, isn't it? Many citizens in this list strongly believe many others are morons or have a screw loose. Yet all these citizens have two things in common: they are Americans and they are quickly losing ground in a system geared to the super-wealthy.

So where are the real morons here? In my mind the answer to this is now unavoidable: To the extent these diverse average citizens continue to let their ideological differences over sex or family or firearms keep them divided--to that extent they are all morons.

I live and work in Asia and have for some time. The country I live in has its own problems to be sure. But in recent years nothing has been more depressing for me than to see my fellow Americans back home squabbling over second-tier issues while Wall Street and the 1% continue to turn their country into a banana republic.

So I am proposing a party that works hard for these people--one that, bridging their many differences, fights for their economic and social well-being in a nation run amok. I'm proposing a party that can harness what they have in common to create a new political force.

III. Sounds impossible, right?

It will likely be very difficult. Third parties face formidable barriers to success in America. Yet I think these barriers are not insurmountable in our current dismal state. Polls show Americans have never been more convinced for the need of third party than they are now.

I have another reason for hope. It is this: My basic strategy is simple as pie. It is based on simplicity and cutting right to the heart of the problem. It is a strategy that will allow Americans to fight for their differences while also fighting for their common good.

How can it work?

It can work because Third Party as an organization will take no sides in the culture wars now being used to divide us. This neutrality is key.

Political observers have for some time noted how the 1% and their corporate allies use differences among citizens over hot button issues related to sex, gender or ethnicity as a divide-and-conquer strategy. Given that Americans debate stridently over issues like abortion or same-sex marriage, and the two parties represent different sides on these issues, citizens are easily fed the illusion that Democrats and Republicans stand for significantly different things. But they do not--especially not during the past two decades. When it comes to voting on meat-and-potatoes issues (free trade, the minimum wage, how Wall Street is regulated, how much money will go to education vs. corporate bailouts, etc.) when it comes to these economic decisions, our two parties don't show any significant disagreement. Check the record. They nearly always side with the super-wealthy against the average citizen. And so our two-party scam continues--election cycle after election cycle. Our Democrats and Republicans actually make up just one party. One party with two flavors on offer: sexual/social liberal vs. sexual/social conservative.

This is not democratic politics. This is an afternoon talk show. The wonder in my mind is that Americans are still watching. And voting for these scammers.

IV. The monkey wrench we will throw

Third Party will focus on breaking the stranglehold the super-wealthy currently have on our legislature. Meanwhile, Third Party will encourage individual candidates to develop their own positions on second-tier hot button issues. Abortion, gay rights, gun legislation--on these candidates will be instructed to follow their own conscience and the wishes of their constituents rather than any party platform. Because Third Party will have nothing in its platform relevant to these issues.

Is the the idea clear now? Is it a foolish idea? Is it really impossible to unite "red state" Americans and "blue state" Americans in a common cause--resetting our government to working for the common good rather than always for the likes of Citicorp and Monsanto?

V. How would it look on the ground?

We might envision a Third Party candidate running in a conservative red state district who wants prayer in schools, wants Wall Street carefully regulated, and fights to force the wealthy to pay their fair share in taxes.

At the same time a Third Party candidate in a blue state race will be fighting to protect a woman's right to choose, fighting for green energy, and fighting to get Wall Street regulations that work while also fighting for bigger tax exemptions for the struggling middle class.

Third Party candidates will thus often vote on opposite sides of issues while also holding to core party goals: to put the citizens back in control of government; to ensure an even playing field for Americans in terms of public services, education and opportunities; to make America once again a nation centered on average working people.

VI. Of course Third Party is not for everyone

If you think the 1% should continue to run our country, then Third Party is not for you.

If you think Wall Street can manage banking laws on its own without government oversight, just keep voting Republican. Third Party is not for you.

If you really think the biggest problem in America right now is either immigrants, gays, rednecks with guns, Hollywood, or homophobia on campus--go ahead and keep voting for your party of choice, Republicrat or Demican. Third Party is not for you.

If, however, you are like me, and you see that gay marriage, gun rights or prayer in schools are all second-tier issues that have served the 1% by pitting average citizens against each other--then Third Party is for you.

If you are like me and think Wall Street executives, having gotten their massive bailouts at our expense, now mainly deserve to be jailed--then Third Party is for you.

If you understand that American democracy depends on a strong middle class and that countries completely ruled by a wealthy superclass are inherently undemocratic--then Third Party is for you.

On these various issues--gun rights, abortion, gay marriage, religious liberty in the public arena--do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting they are unimportant. What I am suggesting is that we must decouple them from the more pressing battle we now face: the battle to save American representative democracy. Look closely at what has happened in our country. We are now approaching Game Over, and the citizens have lost. Call it oligarchy, call it the Deep State, call it corporatocracy--what you will. Washington's systemic problems are no longer just chronic; they are verging on fatal.

Where corporations are said to be people and money is said to be free speech, democracy will not long survive.

VII. But how can Third Party break into the halls of power?

Third Party will depend massively on social media and the efforts of community organizers and bloggers to turn out votes for candidates. Third Party will overrun the system with HOPE. And this time the hope will be justified. Third Party candidates will depend for their campaigns on individual citizens' contributions and the contributions of non-corporate entities (small businesses, etc.). No corporate money will be accepted. Because of this general party standard, citizens will be able to count on Third Party candidates to stay the course--to stick to implementing the policies they touted on the campaign trail.

Third Party candidates' TV ads will be few, but their presence in social media and elsewhere will give them a different kind of clout. It will be the clout of tens of millions of Americans fed up with the corporate-serving political theater that our government has become.

VII. Who am I to make it happen?

The answer is: Making it happen will require input from a huge variety of people. I myself am only offering this basic charter for a new party. It is time. Placing my charter here and elsewhere online, I hope it gathers talented people who might discuss possibilities, hash out ideas and slowly create an organization. Talented people are certainly out there, whether organizers or potential candidates. As for myself, I am only capable of seeding this idea. I certainly don't have the skills to organize a party, having only limited political experience as an activist. Besides which, my career is now overseas.

But I know there are tens of millions of Americans who see America's problems pretty much as I do. There are millions who hope someone will find a route to break this current phony deadlock between our two parties, both of which largely serve the same people: those people who have bought our democracy. And they really have. They have already bought American democracy.

Americans have been fighting over hot-button issues for too long. Distracted, we have let the wealthy superclass soak us for all we're worth. But we needn't give up any of our personal convictions in order to change course. We can continue to stand strong on "culture war" issues that matter to us even as we work to right the wildly careening ship of our state. We can do it by building a Third Party.

Fighting for Third Party principles is also patriotic. Around the globe people see that America is slipping. We will continue to slip if we do not break through the smoke-and-mirrors game corporate lobbyists and Washington continue to play against us.

And so: A Third Party already!

Our current two parties well deserve it!

VIII. How to proceed

Go to Facebook to "like" and join the Third Party USA page. Individually invite your friends to join. Start sending me items to provoke discussion, and I will post them. When a certain critical mass of supportive citizens is reached, we will begin the process of initial organization. We will take things step by step--but note: We'll only be able to take things step by step if we begin with the first step and keep moving through the second and third and so on.

So keep coming back and keep thinking on how to get this initial idea off the ground; how to give it traction and bite.

As I have said, I am not a political theorist. This rough charter is my idea, yes, but I myself do not know how to move it from idea to organization. I'd be very willing to give this over to a group of political theorists or organizers, people who understand electoral politics better than myself, who can formulate strategies for the first steps. I would only request that this opening charter remain as is.

As for the name I've given this project "Third Party USA", I recognize this may not be the best name for a party. It has advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps a better name would be "Citizens Party USA". Those who work to build the party will have to choose the most effective name.

Many essentials, then, are open for discussion. I am certainly not offering myself as the leader of this initiative and will not assume a dominant role. Only the very basics of strategy (no platform positions on culture war issues; no corporate support accepted) must remain the same for this project to be what it is.

I hope soon to be able to vote Third Party USA.

Eric Mader
Taipei
April 7, 2014

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Dialogue with Shin Yu Pai on "Jun in Taipei"



With Shin Yu Pai in Taipei on her last visit. Photo by Mélusine Lin

Well aware that my story "Jun in Taipei" played fast and loose with American stereotypes of Asian students, I wanted some input as to whether or not it at least worked as a story and how the elements of stereotype played out. Did the stereotypes put in play come off as cheap or mean-spirited; or did they rather, as I hoped, get absorbed in the glee and cross-purposed ironies of the tale?

Who better to ask than poet Shin Yu Pai, a sophisticated reader and friend whose writing experience as Taiwanese American had often put her right in the tangle of these same issues. Shin Yu was generous enough to spend some time in online dialogue with me on details of the tale. (Aside from her accomplishments as poet, Shin Yu has recently done more writing on Taiwan, her ancestral home and now for many years my own home and one of my favorite places on the planet. If you're interested in Taiwan, and you should be, here's one of her pieces from a recent visit back.)

I think, based on Shin Yu's reaction, that too many ambiguities remain in the tale. In short, just as I'd hoped! But she wasn't all that happy with the execution, so I have to work harder next time.

Since I'm not prolific in terms of literary work, I'm grateful for Shin Yu's comments on this one piece. I try to address some of the issues she raises in my reply.

The tale "Jun in Taipei" is posted on my blog.

Eric Mader
* * *

March 3rd, 1:21am, SHIN YU writes: The way the story starts makes me uneasy as a reader. It is an opening/introduction that relies on trust, patience, and a reliable narrator (I’m not saying that the narrator is unreliable, but that combined with some other issues, he becomes suspect and that destabilizes the reading experience--it’s actually Parrish who’s the unreliable narrator). The story starts with a story within a story, a kind of hearsay until we arrive much later at meeting Jun the legend. So a lot relies on how the characters are introduced and represented.

Jun seems like a caricature. A kind of Long Duk Dong character from “16 Candles” that is “totally hopeless” and “kinda funny.” He is stereotypical in that he is a highroller/gambler, smokes incessantly, does not talk much, remains fairly undeveloped and is without a significant voice. White dude takes pity on Jun and adopts him as a kind of project/pet and doesn’t really know the guy--Jun’s behaviors are surprising to Parrish. I mean--he’s a gambler--is that like an addiction thing? He’s losing all this $--does he come from wealth and privilege, or does he have guys coming after him trying to break his knees? And then the scene with the older woman kind of being a servant/mother figure--that also felt unsatisfactory to me. There are questions that are unanswered--but I get that that’s also the point.

Parrish “has a good heart” and doesn’t know what questions to ask, because he’s not able to see himself or others clearly. Back to the depiction of the stereotypical in Jun’s character: the dialogue around the cigar was reminiscent to me of that moment in Lost in Translation when Bill Murray’s character is confronted with an escort who tells him to “lip my stocking.” (Rip my stocking.) It’s not exactly that the depiction of language and cultural misunderstanding is mean-spirited--but it might be useful to you to read some of the critiques of that film from Asian American viewers/critics.

The point of the piece seems to be about something of the anticlimactic. That and semantics/words--what is a legend. Is a legend supposed to be like a badass? And what is a badass. And what is privilege. And what is excess. And what is pathetic. But the characters are not very sympathetic. The guy from London seems like a stand in for the opposite of Jun and Parrish--but we never see what makes him charming.

It's actually a very complex story--albeit one that made me feel uncomfortable and cringy at times--not a bad thing per say--but it did lead me to question the position of the speaker

This kind of story could be very funny to a certain kind of audience/reader, but at the same time this is exactly the kind of reader who would identify with a Parrish vs. the speaker.

Issues of representation are very complex, and I could picture a dumbass reader just being like "Yeah, that Jun, how pathetic!" when actually there are many other layers of patheticness running through the whole thing.

I think you know this is not an issue of yeah I liked it, no I didn't like it. That's besides the point. I found the piece to have a lot of complexity. Was it fully unpacked, I'm not sure. It's very intelligent writing that invites a more critical mind, but I'm not sure all readers are going to bring it.

March 3rd, 3:48pm, ERIC writes: I knew I was doing the right thing throwing this little tale at you, Shin Yu. You raise a whole series of issues, some I was already aware of, others not.

I was initially happy with the story because I felt there was a lot there and that I'd done it through very simple language. I didn't however know whether the enclosed-tale structure worked on such a small scale, or if the shifting temporality and perspective would even be picked up by most readers. Or rather: I suspected most readers would pick it up, but would a sophisticated reader, like yourself, be satisfied with how it was done? Which is a different issue. So I was very curious how you'd react.

The narrative voice for the first half is, as you note, channeling Parrish. It's in free indirect discourse (at least that's what we used to call it) and I believe most readers have become so used to this kind of thing that they know this is not simply a personal narrator speaking from a kind of stable "I".

Nonetheless, I know there are many readers out there who will immediately react: "Hey, WTF! You stage this Korean guy as 'smallish' and 'quiet'--you even say he's 'hopeless'! That's just racist stereotyping."

Indeed I am staging Jun this way. Or rather: Parrish is. Through free indirect discourse. But the fact that the word "smallish" is not in quotes, followed by "Parrish said"--certainly it confuses some readers. Or perhaps we might say it invites them to feel consonance with that voice. Which I can see is an aspect of free indirect discourse which makes it less that trustworthy if one intends to provoke distance from this or that voice.

As for your comment about the "dumbass" reader who'd simply enjoy the story because in fact he's totally in harmony with the racist stereotypes and sees no irony there, I hear ya. I know there are many people who would read the story this way. But what I was hoping was to trip them up--in part through the shift to "legend" territory. But that, I know, is itself ambiguous at best--because yes, what IS the status of legend here? Isn't it ultimately a pretty pathetic concept of legend that's put in play?

I guess I'd have to answer that for many men out with friends in a bar what I narrate here is in fact the most commonly evoked notion of "legend". A legend is not quite the same as a "badass". Rather, the legend is a fuck up who nonetheless has character and is not even really miffed by being, or being seen as, a fuck up. The real legend may not KNOW how ridiculous it is for a man to name his dog Lancôme, but the main point is--once he's shown how ridiculous it is, he doesn't give a damn. He laughs himself. At himself. And is on to the next "adventure". That's my best explanation of "legend", of the redeeming element in the concept, and I think you largely got it.

But again: Does this sudden jump in Jun's stature in the eyes of a bunch of white guys who took him "under their wing"--does the jump to legend status really show that their initial attitude toward him, as a sort of "pet", as you put it, was wrong? I think the answer to that is complex. I think it shows them as largely wrong.

But again: Is this a story that shows up racist stereotypes or isn't it? Hard to answer, I believe. What makes things even less clear: When I called Parrish and his friends "good-hearted", I meant it, or meant it, say, 80%. The word "good-hearted" is still channelling Parrish, who ascribes to himself good-heartedness, but it's also, to a great degree, meant to be literally true. Yes, they were having fun with Jun, they were laughing at him, but ALSO: they were likely most of the time to have such mocking fun at each other's expense too. And were likely besides to know how to laugh at themselves. So for them this embrace of Jun was actually an act of true friendship. Arguably, at the very least.

There's much else in the tale that's ambiguous, I know. I found it interesting that you thought the character Laurence was meant to counteract both Jun and Parrish. I intended that only to a very slight degree. I couldn't give Laurence an actual voice in the tale without destabilizing the general narrative tone, which was set by Parrish and by the narrator, who only comes into selfhood toward the end, and who really does laugh heartily at the Jun "legend" as it's narrated.

As for the first appearance of Jun's real character in his demand for a "singer", I think it's hard to really characterize this as mean-spirited. Everyone who lives as an expat or who lives between two languages knows that much of the joy in life is in other's and one's own linguistic mistakes. The best we can do is celebrate it. The only instance where I find laughing at such mistakes to be problematic is when those laughing assume English to be a kind of default language--assume it to be, indeed, language as such. This typically only happens with people who've never seriously studied another language. Which is to say: Most Americans. But not in Taipei, which is where the tale is set.

I will see if I can find some of the writing on Lost in Translation you refer to. You end by asking if the story was fully "unpacked". If I understand what you mean here, my answer is: By no means. The whole thing remains in tension, with much left unanswered. For instance: How did Jun have that much money to lose in Tulsa? The reader isn't supposed to know, but perhaps will guess: Family money. Is this, then, a rich family? The smart reader will likely guess: A family rich enough that their son losing thousands of dollars does not mean the end of the world. But is a catastrophe nonetheless. Jun's idea of showing up his American friends by showing off having seduced the Korean wife of another white guy, and his pathetic staging of Korean chauvinism, in which the wife nonetheless seems a fully willing accomplice--even, perhaps, the source of the lunch idea--this is meant to be troubling and ultimately unexplained. One of the tiny touches in the tale I'm proud of is the obvious fact that the Parrish character and his friend don't even realize what's going on: they just go for the food. It's only later they get it. And when they do get it it of course is just added onto Jun's status: Legend.

Yes, I'm a partisan of fiction, especially short fiction, as troubling, ambiguous, annoying, unexplained. I'll say one more thing: reading your comments I was led to realize this kind of story is likely to get (or perhaps to reveal) three kinds of readers: 1) the dumbass reader, who never quite notices that much of the tale is framed via shoddy American stereotypes of Asians; 2) the smartass reader (with a class or two of cultural studies behind her/him) who ONLY notices these stereotypes and doesn't notice how they're being put into question; 3) the good reader, who may end up satisfied or not by the tale, but sees the tension in it.

Many many thanks for your excellent comments, Shin Yu. You think this tale worthy of trying to publish somewhere? Just a thought. I don't much care one way or the other. I'm likely going to come out with a collection of short prose pieces (prose poems; tales) later this year and may place it in there in any case. Any time you want to throw something at me, I'll do my best to comment. But: I'm likely to be less useful commenting on your poetry than you are commenting on my prose. It's been a great little dialogue. Thanks.

[Shin Yu sent me a link that collected a sampling of Japanese and Japanese-American press reaction to Sophia Coppola's film Lost in Translation. There was a pretty wide spectrum: accusations of racism, defenses of the film as focussing on the characters' confusion rather than stereotyping, etc. Unfortunately the link is now dead.]

March 3rd, 10:20pm, ERIC writes: Thanks. A good range of pieces, and in fact I think pretty well balanced. The fact that Asia Media Watch went against the film isn't surprising. Asians in America, who probably are especially sick of being stereotype, would be more likely to focus precisely on the otherness (and zaniness) of the Japanese depicted. I think we have something similar when we project how Stateside readers (whether Asian or not) vs. expat or more international readers will interpret the staged miscommunication of Jun's "singer" request. A Korean in America, faced every day with Americans who seem to think English is the only language that exists, would think it's mean-spirited. One of these monolingual Stateside folks (what you might call the "dumbass" reader) would think it's funny because it shows Jun's aberrant English. Those whose mother-tongue is English but who have done serious time in another culture would likely see it as the kind of day-to-day mishap that gives life flavor. How would Jun himself see it? As a "legend", as I defined it, I think he's likely laugh too, once the mistake was explained to him. And then might joke about Americans in Korea and their absurd pronunciation of Korean words.

Anyhow I ought to go back and watch that film again. Been a long time and have only seen it once.

March 4th, 11:49pm, ERIC writes: As for short fiction, I often think of you as the one who introduced Ben Fountain to me. A brilliant short collection. I haven't read his more recent novel however.

Did you ever get to the writer I suggested in exchange--George Saunders. He's gotten famouser and famouser since then. And I still think he's often great. But the collections have gotten a bit weaker. At least in my estimation. The best is still CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. One of the things I object to in the recent work is his move toward more structured closure in the tales--tales you can see setting up their closure from the first pages.

March 6th, 3:38am, SHIN YU writes: I also really enjoyed the dialogue. I have always been impressed by the quality of your mind and your thinking and reading your story helped me to think and to ask questions of my own biases. As for whether or not you should send it out to journals, etc.--I want to say again that it's a very complex and multi-layered piece. And it deals with race/culture, a sensitive topic. That might make is more difficult to publish. But I think you could send it out--it has a quality of completeness, but also ambiguity.

I haven't yet gotten around to reading George Saunders. I have him on my library list/queue, but I think I have user #250 or so in a long line of readers waiting for like five copies in the Seattle Public Library system. Since you first told me about him, I've noticed his career skyrocket. He's always doing big gigs and readings these days.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

My Shifting Racial "Default": How Race Perceptions are Changed by Circumstance


Some of my peeps: Taipei teens I teach in a Monday night English class.

I'm on the sidewalk in front of a Taipei book store. A woman is walking past, around thirty-five. I watch her approach, glance at her face, and my mind says: "Is that a Westerner? Is that an Asian?"

For some reason my mind can't distinguish. I look at her face carefully, but can't decide. Then, when a few seconds has passed, my mind says: "It's happened again. She's Asian. Of course."

What's it all about? Somehow I know intellectually that the woman is Asian, but can't tell, at the level of immediate perception, that she is.

In fact this happens to me a few times a month in Taiwan. I will look at a man or woman and not be able to tell if the person is local Taiwanese or a Westerner. Then, within seconds, the fugue dissolves and I realize: "Of course. Taiwanese."

The process from confusion to clarity never lasts more than ten seconds. But why does it happen in the first place? And why does it feel so odd to me when it happens, as if there's some kind of deep and nagging confusion going on.

I have a theory. My guess is that people who spend half their life among their own race, then move to another continent and live many years among another race undergo a shift of sorts in racial perception. What happens, I suspect, is that the mind starts to take the facial features of the new race as the "default" human features--with the result that the new race comes to be perceived as one's own; i.e., it loses its aura as "foreign"; one's sense of difference becomes confused.

In my case, my own race, that race I grew up with, is white-bread American. For nearly twenty years I've lived among East Asians.

Please note that I am not here looking at people of mixed ancestry. It's not a matter of people who have evidently Asian and Western blood. The issue here is different.

It's a commonplace that we typically perceive people of another race as all looking similar to each other. So that the white, black or Latino American first arriving in East Asia will walk the streets and half-consciously think: "Wow. These people really look alike." In an extreme version the thought might be: "How do they even tell each other apart?"

Growing up in a uniformly white midwestern American suburb in the 1970s and early '80s, this is a question I occasionally heard about big city blacks: "How do they tell each other apart?" The question, usually stated with a kind of smirk, was of course tied up in complex ways with the racism of that white suburb. Having created a social order that more or less kept blacks in their own city neighborhoods, it became easy for the white privileged class in the suburbs to perceive black Americans as somehow foreign. And that's just what they did. As often the case with racially-marked foreignness, the feeling that "they all look alike" appeared there as well, but this time applied to citizens of one's own country. (Of course this desire to separate, to project a racially different community as also deeply other, is far from overcome in America. Anyone who doubts it need only consider the shameful nonsense our current president has been subjected to. But issues of how race gets ideologically charged, in America and elsewhere, are different from my topic here, so I won't pursue them further.)

I've learned firsthand that in any case the perception of "similarity" in the features of a different race is by no means hardwired. It wears off quickly with contact, and may even reverse. Yes, eventually people of one's own race may come to look more and more similar to each other. Doubt it? It's happened to me in striking, almost unsettling ways.

Living in Taipei, I try to get back to the States once a year. Once when I flew back to Wisconsin, and was waiting in the Milwaukee airport for my father and sister to pick me up, I got a bizarre lesson in the depth of the racial-perceptual shift I'd undergone. In sat in the arrivals hall, people approaching from down a hallway. With the second or third 30-something blond woman I saw approach, my mind said: "There she is: my sister." When she got closer, I saw it wasn't. In fact the woman wasn't even very similar to my sister. Odd. And she had to get quite close for me to realize.

Next: "That's him: my father."

No. It was just a white American man in his sixties, who, as he approached, really did look quite a bit like my father; but no, as I analyzed the features, I realized they were actually quite different.

So what gives? I false ID'd two more sisters and three more fathers before I started to laugh at myself. In terms of perceptions of white Americans, I realized, I'd actually become Asian myself. Aside from the different hair colors and different sizes (fat or very fat) all these white Wisconsinites looked pretty much the same to me.

This is just one of the anecdotes I could bring up. Many times my perceptual grasp of Western faces has proved suddenly not as sharp as it should have been.

And now here I am in Taiwan, in a country where nearly everyone has black hair and dark eyes and olive or ivory skin, yet I almost never mistake people at a distance. To me they all look quite distinct from each other. And in fact my mind occasionally gets confused as to whether they are not actually part of my own tribe--as with the woman by the book store.

Ideologies of race have proven to be one of the most poisonous of cultural phenomena, and we are unfortunately far from done with the challenge they pose. Yet there are other levels of racial perception, where racial difference is first noticed and marked--"Those people are different from me and my people"--and these levels too seem to be in some degree a construct of sorts, though in this case I'd say they're a kind of cognitive construct rather than an ideological one. I'm sure this question has been studied, though I haven't tried to research it. It's this cognitive shift that I've experienced firsthand. (The ideological shifts I've experienced are another matter: a long learning process that continued through university and beyond, and probably still continues.)

Interestingly, it seems to me that the ability to distinguish racial difference (or at least the perception that such difference is meaningful) only begins in the late toddler stage. It's only approaching age three that children begin to see people of other races as "different", sometimes different in a troubling way, as I know very well from the curious but frightened looks 3- or 4-year-olds often give me here. Infants never. To Taiwanese infants I am obviously just a person: they don't notice my odd facial structure or skin tone as marks of (problematic) difference.

I've raised a various points here, which may have been a mistake. My main questions remain: How is it that our minds construct the basic paradigms of sameness and otherness between different races? How does my sometimes confusing experience relate to these perceptions of sameness and otherness? Where is the fluidity and where the solidity? Do we all carry a somewhat unstable sense of a "default" human race in relation to which others stand apart in difference? Is (as is likely) evolution somewhere in this mix?

Heady questions, and no, I haven't done the work even to look into answers that may have been proposed by anthropologists, etc. I'm just a guy on a street in a foreign city noticing his mind in occasional fugue.

In conclusion I should point out that I understand very well that many people who read this piece will have good reason to say: "Hm, it must be nice being able to consider racial difference from such an easygoing vantage point. It wasn't like that for me." I'm aware of this distance--that it is a heavily charged one--one that makes it somewhat inappropriate for me even to write about what I've noticed. Yet I write anyway. Readers are welcome to tell me if or where I've been insensitive. Aside from in that initial step of writing. Which may in itself be insensitive enough.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Lion from Piraeus

Visiting Venice recently I set out early one morning walk to the gates of the Arsenal to see the Piraeus lion. Though I'd long wanted to see inside the Arsenal also--the medieval mother of all shipyards--I knew it was off limits. But the lion was worth the walk.

Sculpted in white marble, the Piraeus lion is one of two placed on either side of the Arsenal's entry. Around nine feet tall, the sculpture is a striking example of the vagaries of history. It's rare to come upon Greek marbles inscribed with Scandinavian runes. 


Originally stationed at the Piraeus harbor near Athens, the two lions were transported to Venice in 1687 by Francesco Morosini after a successful campaign against the Turks. From the beginning it was noticed that one of them had strange markings carved into its shoulders, apparently some kind of writing. Nobody knew the meaning of the writing, however, or even what language it was. Only much later did scholars recognize the markings as runes--a puzzling discovery.  What were Scandinavian runes doing on a marble lion taken from a Greek port? The inscribed words themselves would answer the question. A guidebook gives one translation of the inscription on the lion's left shoulder:
Hakon, combined with Ulf, with Asmund, and with Orn, conquered this port. These men and Harold the Tall imposed large fines, on account of the revolt of the Greek people. Dalk has been detained in distant lands. Egil was waging war, together with Ragnar, in Romania and Armenia.
According to the runes on the lion's other shoulder, it was Harold the Tall who ordered the inscription, against the wishes of the defeated Greeks. At the time he and his cohorts were working as mercenaries for the Byzantine emperor.

Proof once more of what my grandmother used to say: Those Vikings didn't dress very well, but they sure got around. In an essay about the Scandinavians and their ambiguous conquests, Borges makes a similar point, underlining their odd individualism, how they covered vast territories and raised settlements, only to, culturally speaking, disappear:
Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro conquered lands for their kings: the Vikings' prolonged expeditions were individual. . . . After a century, the Normans (men of the North) who, under Rolf, settled in the province of Normandy and gave it their name, had forgotten their language and were speaking French.

Runic graffiti can still be seen on the marble balustrades of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, carved ten centuries ago by Vikings who made up part of the Byzantine emperor's imperial guard. One imagines the Northern warriors standing through the Byzantine liturgy, understanding none of it. Restless and bored, one of them begins to scratch in the marble with a knife or the edge of a buckle: Halvdan was here. That, at least, is what the longest bit of graffiti says. Borges writes of runic inscriptions "scattered across the face of the earth," of Leif Eriksson's expedition to North America and the failed Viking settlement, of the Vikings' books--particularly the Icelanders' great literary tradition of the sagas, how in the twelfth century they developed an advanced art of narrative fiction, a hardboiled realist form whose like wouldn't be seen again in the West until the 19th century. This literature remained a phenomenon entirely of Iceland, utterly without influence on the other people's of Europe:
These facts suffice, in my understanding, to define the strange and futile destiny of the Scandinavian people. In universal history, the wars and books of Scandinavia are as if they had never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in the crystal balls where clairvoyants gaze. In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel--the art of Flaubert, the Norman--and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.
But think of the poor lion. Sculpted to guard a Greek port, it ends up getting inscribed upon by northern henchmen: crooked barbaric characters are chiseled into its once proud shoulders. Later it's dragged to Venice by yet another conqueror, this one Italian. Finally the lion has to suffer being photographed in the morning light by another barbarian of sorts, this one an American in sandals wielding a digital camera made in Japan. The greatest indignity yet?

The Greeks who carved the lion might be glad to know that my camera later malfunctioned and the photos of its shoulders, as well as all my other photos of Venice, were erased. One-hundred-fifty carefully shot images gone in an instant. It's called technological progress.


Though the runes on the lion's shoulders are much weathered, they are still recognizable, after all these centuries, as runes. The memory chip in my camera however is empty, utterly void. And as for this page you're reading, as for anything you've read online today--if you don't print it out it and store it safely, if you don't scratch it into copper or carve it into stone, it will likewise disappear as soon as the Internet crashes along with our own overproud civilization. It's called technological progress.

Eric Mader

[An earlier version of this piece was posted at necessaryprose.com. Photos taken from various Internet sites; Borges' essay, "The Scandinavian Destiny," is in Borges: Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger.]

Sunday, April 13, 2014

馬的問題 -- The Problem With Horses


從前,馬是非常好的交通工具。如今多數卻成為上流社會女性用來炫耀的裝飾品。

如果人人都能有一匹馬,牠應該會獲得尊重。可惜,目前來看,有錢有閑的人才有能力養馬。

在目前無解的難題中,暫且拋開階級層面的考慮。單單探究馬的智力就是無比沈重的負擔:馬究竟有沒有自覺?

由於馬頭乃是木刻而成,馬會有智能,使人感到意外。在木作的腦內,到底可以有多少個神經元同時運作?科學家仍然十分困惑。

從外觀可我們明顯可以看出:馬頭從馬的身體長出,宛然樹幹,又從樹幹長成馬頭的樣子。眼睛有真實動物的模樣,其實不過是木刻。看來也不過就是樹木。牠在看人的樣子就像呆呆的木頭。你怎麼可能對牠有所寄望?連流浪狗都可以在牠腳下繞,也,佔上風。

勞勃‧瑞福的電影<<輕聲細語>>可能會誤導人們對馬的理解。事實與電影情景相反:對馬輕聲細語的那位,並不希望別人聽到他說什麼。

馴馬師可以教馬跳舞。通常馬能跳舞,也可以跑得好。

散文名家蒙田寫過一篇文章,提到馬可以用蹄數拍來回答算術。我可一點也不信。

以上這些討論都只是初步探討階段。我還未進行到問題的核心。問題關鍵在於:馬總是讓執韁者決定行動方向。對於任何一匹馬而言,我們該問的是:誰在騎馬?

換一個角度來問:權貴階級究竟想往哪裡去?

* * *

THE PROBLEM WITH HORSES (original)

Once a useful helper and means of getting where one needed to go, horses have become largely a decorative toy on which upper class ladies show off their poise.

Horses might still be respectable if everybody could have one, but at present only the idle rich can afford to keep a horse.

Class issues aside, the problem of horse intelligence is no small matter in our current impasse. Are we even dealing with a creature with a mind of its own?

Given that horse heads are carved from wood, it is amazing the animal shows any intelligence at all. How many synapses can fire simultaneously in a wooden brain? Researchers still puzzle over this problem.

Having grown out of the horse's body like a tree stump, the head slowly carves itself into standard horse shape. This much we know. The eyes make it look like an animal rather than a tree, though in a way it really is a kind of tree. It stares dumb at you, all wooden. What can you expect from such a creature? The lowest street dog could run circles round it, and does.

Don't be fooled by the Redford film. In reality a horse whisperer is someone who doesn't want you to hear what he's telling his horse.

Horses can be taught to dance and seem to enjoy both dancing and running.

Montaigne writes of a horse that could tap out the answers to simple sums with its right front hoof. I don't believe it for a minute.

But all this is just preliminary. I haven't gotten to the real problem with horses. It is as follows: Horses always go wherever the person holding the reins wants them to go. In other words, for any given horse we must ask: Who holds the reins?

Or to put the question another way: Where do the rich want to go?

Eric Mader
Taipei

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Father Joe

Kim Getgood, a friend of mine from my Madison days back in the 1980s, also the woman who introduced me to Thomas Pynchon, recently put up this brief post on Facebook. It's so good I've decided to go ahead and steal it for my blog:

My hero as a child was a man named Father Joe. He taught my brothers and me catechism at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin. He wore a black dress and a beaded crucifix necklace and was very very old. He armed himself with holy water and a special brand of compassionate wit. When I confessed to him as a child of eight that I could not morally believe in heaven if there was indeed a hell, he whispered that I was "absolutely right." He never posted pictures of himself or his wife on Facebook armed with AR-15 rifles or pistols aimed at the camera because he died three decades before he had to witness the Internet, let alone the violent sacrilege of "right-winging, gun-slinging" evangelicals.

The father of my faith was a man of love, compassion and the Holy Spirit. He used to tell me: "Arm yourself with the Truth. It is all any of us will ever have or need. It is the only weapon of the Righteous."

My greatest spiritual examples (Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and so many others) have been willing to die unarmed for their faith. I can't trust people who say they are here to minister to our faith but then proselytize gun violence. Where is their faith that God is their protector? Or ours?

Going for the Jugular!--Americans Could Learn from Taiwan's Sunflower Movement


No pushovers here!
Student leaders Lin Fei-Fan and Chen Wei-Ting.

Extraordinary things are happening in Taiwan. The Sunflower Student Movement (some call it "Occupy Taiwan") has effected a major shift in the political landscape. As an American here in Taipei watching half from the sidelines, I'm deeply moved to see young people launch such an aggressive and well-targeted movement.

Having taught young people here for nearly two decades now, I know first hand what smart kids this country raises up. The Sunflower students' bold challenge to Taiwan's Kuomintang-led government has shown impressive strategic know-how; their bravery and brief, well-turned speeches have awoken millions here to the seriousness of the threat Taiwan's democracy now faces.

First a little background for those who haven't followed events or don't know much about Taiwan. I'll try to be concise, though doing so will mean simplifying what are quite complex issues.

Taiwan is a large island located in the South China Sea not far from Mainland China. It's a country of 23 million people with a multiparty democratic government. China has long claimed Taiwan as part of its territory, and for decades Taiwanese have been nervously studying China's every move, looking for signs Beijing may be preparing the long-threatened military takeover.

But in recent years the threat is not just a matter of missiles and battalions. As Taiwan's economy is increasingly integrated with China's, many here see Beijing carefully leveraging these links to gain influence over the country's elites and media. Indeed, why would China resort to military force if they could slowly annex Taiwan through economic means? One of the world's major economies, just across the Taiwan Strait, China wields enormous persuasive power over Taiwan's capitalist class.

Enter current president Ma Ying-Jeou. Rising up through the Kuomintang (KMT) party that long ruled the country (a party with strong ideological ties to China and the idea of a "one China" including Taiwan) Ma was for many Taiwanese suspicious from the start by virtue of his very party background. That they nonetheless elected him president was proof that initially most Taiwanese thought they could count on him to keep Beijing at bay, as other KMT leaders had done. Many of his party's elite, after all, had come from the generals who fought Mao's communist armies before retreating to Taiwan. Pro-China in a cultural sense, the Kuomintang was certainly not pro-communist China.

But then China isn't exactly communist any more, is it? It is only communist in name. And so when Ma began showing ever greater openness to Beijing, many in Taiwan were uneasy, feeling their president was playing into the hands of a government intent on taking away their democracy. Ma, in short, was a KMT leader with a difference: he didn't have the necessary wariness of China's "communist" leaders.

The Sunflower Student Movement arose in opposition to Ma's attempts to push through a new trade agreement with China (the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement). In March, KMT representatives in the legislature had, on Ma's orders, tried to ram through the trade agreement without the line-by-line review that had been planned. One KMT representative's attempt on March 17 to declare the treaty ratified after only 30 seconds of debate sparked public outrage. On the following night, student activists stormed and took over the legislative building in protest. Despite police attempts to expel them, they have remained there until the time of this writing, delivering speeches, speaking to the world press, calling out one the largest anti-government rallies in the country's history, and, finally, forcing wide fissures to appear in Ma's own ruling party.

In short, as far as student protest movements go, I'd say it's been a stunning success.

So what do we have here in this movement? Is this another fight against a free-trade agreement that will benefit the wealthy but harm the middle and working class? Yes, it is, for many here do not buy the Ma government's assertions that the Service Trade Agreement will be good for average Taiwanese.

But the fight is much more than that. It is also a citizens' movement in reaction to a clear national security threat. Many citizens are particularly horrified by this threat because it is being brought to them (signed, sealed, delivered, though undebated) by their very own smiling and bizarrely indifferent president. Indeed, there are many reasons to see the Service Trade Agreement as offering too wide an opening for Chinese meddling in Taiwan. With half a century of claims on the island under its belt, China poses a very tangible threat to Taiwan's sovereignty, and this agreement gives the nascent superpower yet more room to act. And there are, besides, many reasons to suspect this particular president cares little about Taiwan's democracy or the country's national integrity. If at least one defines this country as Taiwan.

One of the popular slogans seen on posters and tee-shirts in recent weeks has been "Fuck the government, we'll save the country ourselves." It's a response to the widespread feeling, based on Ma's actions, that the government here is more interested in serving its cross-straight business elites than the Taiwanese population.

Two days ago, the leader of the legislature, Wang Jyn-Ping, also of Ma's party but of a very different faction, visited the legislative building and greeted the students, announcing that he basically agreed with them and that he would not, once legislation resumed, do anything toward ratifying the treaty until the legislature had fulfilled one of the students' key demands: creation of a more democratic oversight mechanism for all future treaties signed with China.

The promise from Speaker Wang, a crucial figure in Taiwanese politics, has resulted in the students announcing yesterday that they would end their occupation of the building this Thursday. Some of student activists disagree with this move, but I personally think it's the most strategic one available at present.

Most people in Taiwan know very well that trade with China will continue, they just also strongly believe that this trade must be based on treaties properly vetted by the Taiwanese people--not treaties handed to them by paternalistic authoritarian executives with less than 10% public approval rating (as Ma had even before this standoff began!).

As for Wang's promise to legislate new oversight and apply it to the Service Trade Agreement, should the students trust him? It does sound like a ruse, doesn't it, especially given that Wang is of Ma's party. Once the students break their occupation, what's to stop the legislature from just going back to business and finding a way to ratify the treaty despite the clear wishes of the majority of Taiwanese and despite Wang's crystal clear vow?

In fact there are good reasons to assume the concession from Wang is an honest one. There's a lot of complex back-story here which I won't go into. In any case, it looks like the three-week occupation of Taiwan's Legislation Yuan will end this week.

The students have said that their movement is far from over, that after ending their occupation they will shift from "defense to offense". They proudly assert that with their action, and some blood spilled as well, they have created a nationwide movement. Having attended the huge rally last Sunday, I would have to agree. Taiwanese are suddenly much less wiling to be pushed around than they were only a few months ago. They've been re-democratized by a small group of very savvy and dedicated students. It is, as I've said, inspiring to watch. I'm thinking my own country's activists could learn some things from studying the Sunflower Movement's success.

Here are some of the words spoken yesterday by Chen Wei-Ting, one of the main student leaders (quoted from the Taipei Times):
“The students and civil groups have halted the forced passage of the agreement and demonstrated that [President] Ma [Ying-jeou’s (馬英九)] administration’s has lost legitimacy, because since 2008, it has been abusing power, making arbitrary decisions, breaching the rule of law, violating human rights and causing democracy to retreat," he said.

“The movement has revealed how the current cross-strait interaction has been dominated by the clandestine, under-the-table trading between the Chinese Nationalist Party [KMT] and the Chinese Communist Party, a model that only helps the cross-strait political elite and capitalist corporations amass their fortunes and sacrifices the rights and benefits of most of the public.

“From this moment on, no behind closed doors negotiation is allowed; no regime can be permitted to make brazen moves to sell out Taiwan,” Chen said. “We Taiwanese, not anybody else, are the masters of this island.”
My previous posts on the Sunflower Movement discussed the soft news blackout on Taiwan in American TV and cable media and presented photographs from the protest in Taipei.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Progress--Our hope or our doom?


Here we come!

Some quick essays on progress by Taipei teens. I talked about different sorts of progress in class--technological, medical, social--then wrote on the board: “Many people believe progress is good. What about you? Explain using examples.” Students had twenty minutes to write an answer.

I’ve corrected grammar mistakes, but otherwise left the essays as are. Sitting in front of the class for twenty minutes or so, I also penned an answer, which I place last here.

No, this post is not related to Taiwan's Sunflower Student Movement. These are mostly teens writing here.

Eric Mader

Kelly on Progress

As the world progresses, many things progress too: technology, media, society, etc. I think progress is good, but too much is bad. Some social progress is good. For example, ensuring women’s rights, children’s rights, etc. But technology is just a little too fast so that this world can’t keep up with it.

For example, now many companies need people whose technology skills are good, so some elementary schools or junior high schools start to use the method of technology to teach children. Every child has an iPad or iPhone for class. I think it’s bad for them because children’s eyes aren’t completely developed. Putting them into the phone world for a long time will cause their eyes to be worse.

Many kinds of progress are good, but we don’t need more now. We need to think about whether we can digest them.

Tina on Progress

To be honest, I agree that progress is always good. Thanks to perfect constructions, the economic development in our country can be faster and faster. Without progress, we can’t live so peacefully and conveniently as now.

For example, if there weren’t an airport in the north of Taiwan, it would be very difficult to interact with foreign countries. No one could see our country’s features and culture. And business people couldn’t even earn more money. Without new construction, our commercial development might be worse.

But if the progress goes too quickly, it may cause some problems and serious damage. In that case, the air may be polluted. Besides, people would flock into the cities. It would be too crowded. We should find some approaches to solve these problems in the future.

Jenny on Progress

The modern world has considerable progress in many areas, such as technological progress, medical progress, social progress, etc. For most people, it seems that “progress” is seen as something that always brings them happiness. However, as far as I’m concerned, this idea of progress is too narrow.

For example, social progress enables people to have more freedom. They can say whatever they want to say and try to get the rights which benefit them. Indeed, in many ways people’s lives become better than before. Nonetheless, there are more and more battles, whether protests or civil wars, at the same time. Then I start to question whether progress is always good. My answer is negative. Progress brings people happiness, but it brings people misfortunes too. Because of social progress, there are many innocent people suffering from others’ irrational attacks.

Therefore, as we push for progress in our lives, we should also learn to be understanding and respect the difference between ourselves and others so that everyone can enjoy the benefits from progress. We should not try to impose our own ideas of progress on everyone.

David on Progress

Most people think that progress is always good, but they don’t think about the bad things that will come with it.

Thousands of years ago, Chinese people invented paper. After they could control the skill of making paper easily, they started to cut trees. When recycled paper and iPads were finally invented, it was too late. The pollution and damage they made on the Earth was nearly impossible to fix. This is one of the reasons That I can’t agree that progress is always good.

Although progressing is an important part of human civilization, people often regret things they did. They always have to worry about how to fix problems caused by themselves. That’s what we do.

Schani on Progress

Progress is a power for the improvement of human life. However, is progress always good? My opinion is that it depends on the circumstances: sometimes it’s good but sometimes it isn’t.

For example, I think social progress from emperors to democracy is good. In past Chinese history, when kings ruled the country, you could easily be killed because someone near the king didn’t like your style. Or you could easily get banished to a very far place if you said one wrong word. Living in that environment made people unsettled and afraid of expressing their own feelings, which I think is nothing good.

Another example is the technological progress of cloning things which I am worried about and think is bad. When the first cloned sheep “Dolly” was created, people knew that our genetic engineering technology wasn’t far from cloning human beings. But as many Hollywood science fiction movies have shown, people might have problems agreeing on self-identities. You don’t know whether your parents cloned you from someone or if you are a real person and they are cloned. The confusing situations may lead the world into chaos.

In conclusion, to say if progress is good or bad, we have to consider its effects on humans. After weighing all the advantages and disadvantages, we can announce whether the progress in question is positive or negative.

Bryan on Progress

I do not agree that progress is always good. Let me show you some reasons.

For example, the technological progress is good, but on the other hand it is bad. Why? Although it brings more convenience for us, it often pollutes our environment. It may have benefits for progress, but also may be bad for our lives. Many people think that progress is always good, but I don’t think so.

Perhaps not all progress is bad: there is still good social progress. Women’s rights are raising. It’s good progress. Everyone, no matter men or women, have equal rights.

Eric on Progress

Some people say that progress is always good. In fact in modern societies it’s hard to find anyone who thinks it is bad. Our scientific and capitalist cultures are busy 24/7 trying to persuade us to pursue new and “better” things. I’m different from most people here. I think a lot about the bad side of progress.

Consider the current world population. Though humans have been around for around 200,000 years, the total world population for most of that time was only a few million. In 1800 the population reached one billion for the first time, thanks to agriculture, trade and other kinds of progress. But now the population is around 7 billion. A thousand years ago the world didn’t even have half a billion people on it. Suddenly, in a few centuries, we went from half a billion to 7 billion--a 1,400% increase! And in the next thirty years, if we survive, we may reach 9 billion. Our environment cannot support so many people, and the result will be not only the possible permanent destruction of our planet but also terrible wars and famines.

This population explosion only happened because of scientific developments in agriculture and other areas. Wouldn’t we have been better living more in harmony with nature, with a much smaller population? The way we are now, we may not even survive another two centuries: we may become extinct.

But also I am very sceptical about technological progress in terms of everyday life. Our machines (cars, etc.) get us around but also make us fat and lazy--all while polluting the environment. And look at our TVs and portable devices. They allow us to think we’re experiencing the world when we just sit and absorb sounds and images from a screen. Our devices make us think we are communicating with people, but in fact they mainly help us to ignore the people around us.

There is a legend I heard many years ago that conveys something of how I feel about progress. Long ago an inventor came to the Emperor with his new invention. He’d made a perfectly clear kind of glass that could not be broken. The Emperor’s guards tried to break it with their weapons, but could not. Nonetheless the glass was perfectly clear! The Emperor thought about it. “You are the only one who knows how to make this glass?” he asked. “Yes,” the inventor said proudly. The Emperor then turned to his guards: “Kill this man,” he said. “And go to his house to burn his papers.” The Emperor took the glass and flung it into a lake.

Although the Emperor could see the glass was amazing and could be used for many things, he also was wise enough to realize that it would change the world in ways he couldn’t foresee. It was better not to start making such glass at all.

[Alright, I cheated. I planned to add the legend about the Emperor while in the classroom, but didn’t have time. I’m adding it now at the computer. --E.]

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Long Decline of the American Left: Thoughts on Daily Kos, American "Progressives" and the PCA


Founded in 2002, hosting an enormous amount of blogging and chatter since, the Daily Kos community has become symptomatic of the decline of the American left in general. Willfully blind to their favored team's continual shift rightward, the community maintains its dogmatic allegiance to the Democratic Party and the Obama Administration. Since the start of the president's second term, the site has in fact only grown more blindly pro-establishment, its regular contributors doing their best to pretend their political goals are being realized.

As a progressive community in constant discursive action, DailyKos can be especially depressing to watch. I've followed the site for years, and since I'm in solidarity with many of the community's goals, it's been frustrating to see how easily folks there let themselves get sidetracked. How? The pattern is cyclical: 1) Republican talking points are quoted in a rage and then disproved by facts. 2) The mere fact of this typing out of the truth on the Daily Kos blog is then presented as a victory for the bloggers and the left they represent.

As if facts were what is at issue. As if the main goal of a movement of the left is refuting the idiotic and misleading cant that comes out of the GOP and Fox News. Because, hey, within days there arrives a new spate of Republican talking points, and the DailyKos bloggers all set to work mocking and refuting those.

Meanwhile the corporate coup continues, whether it's Dubya or Obama abetting it. The facts be damned.

It seems clear enough to me that for two decades now America has had just one political party. There are the Republicans (called Republicans) who are anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage, and there are the other Republicans (called Democrats) who are pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage. As Americans we get to choose between these two corporate-controlled right-wing parties: parties that pursue virtually identical policy goals--except in relation to sex and gender.

Strange, isn't it? Why is it our two parties are only allowed to offer choices in the specific areas of sex and reproduction? Have you ever stopped to think about that?

The answer is obvious. Wall Street and the big corporations don't give a damn if you're straight or gay, a mother of five or a woman who's had three abortions. All Wall Street and the corporations care about is being able to own your ass. And what d'ya know? They already do.

And why is that? Why do they? Why has the 1% gained so much control during these past decades? Why is it that in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 70s, why is it that America had strong protections for working people, truly effective public services, an actually sensible tax system? Why did our country have these things but does no longer?

In my own analysis much of the blame rests squarely with those people who now call themselves the "progressive" left. When fashionista leftists (media, Hollywood, gender studies academia) began stressing sex and gender issues, the Democratic Party proved more than willing to accommodate, because, simply put, it was no skin off their backs. It wasn't going to undermine their corporate support. After a couple decades of this, America's once left-wing party (the party of workers, farmers, teachers, civil servants; the party, in short, of the public good) had morphed into the party of abortion and gay marriage. The party of political correctness on all hot-button fashionista issues.

I refer to it in my title as the PCA, or "Progressive Corporate Agenda". The word progressive here carries a deceptive double meaning, one that, sadly, most American progressives refuse to recognize.

First meaning of progressive: American social liberals, tired of the bigotry of the Christian right, vote Democrat because they support the party's progressive social policies on abortion and sexual orientation. Holding progressive positions in these areas and actually voting for such policies, Democratic leaders then claim to be progressive as such. Which is an utter sham, isn't it? Because these particular sex and reproduction issues occupy only a small spectrum of any legitimate leftist agenda. Meanwhile, on most meat and potatoes issues, the Democrats vote with the corporate elite. And somehow they largely get away with it, election after election? Why?

In our current hyper-mediated culture, our society of the spectacle, where Lady Gaga carries more weight than any mere labor organizer or leftist scholar, Democratic candidates still get enough buzz to give them the progressive credentials they need. Offering pro-choice and pro-gay policies--namely, those things that so enrapture recent Hollywood and academic types--is enough to set them off as the "progressive party". They've won over those whose professions are in the "spectacular" industries (as Guy Debord would have it)--fashion, media, film, music. And who sets the pace in our society of the spectacle if not precisely these groups? And these groups, in their turn, continue the marketing of their "countercultural" gestures, (thus determining the progressive aura) as ever new commodities in a market which itself remains unchanged. All of which is fine for the Democratic party, who, it is painfully clear, fears any change that isn't linked to sex or reproduction.

Amazingly, the American "progressive left" pats itself on the back with each new turning of this cycle. And none of it has the least effect on the corporate coup which continues unabated.

Which brings us to the second meaning of progressive, to glimpse which we must look more closely at the actual accomplishments of this supposedly progressive party. What has been the result of these years of "change we can believe in"?

The policies pursued by the Obama Administration have only served to maintain the status quo. In terms of corporate hegemony, financial regulation, tax policy, foreign policy, the Obama Administration has been indistinguishable from any right-leaning Republican administration of past decades. It is here we can see the second, or what I would call true, meaning of "progressive" in my title. It's called the Progressive Corporate Agenda because it allows for the ongoing progress of the corporate takeover of our democracy. Shamefully, this progress of corporate power is being expedited by a party that itself holds onto power only by flattering the sex-and-gender thinking of liberal voters. On all other issues, in terms of the traditional goals of any truly left-wing platform--well, see for yourself. After six years of Obama in the White House, it's business as usual for Wall Street and the corporations and the 1%. And for the military and the NSA. In fact on some of these fronts it's business unusual--the drift is even further rightward than we've seen during any previous administration.

I too was largely taken in by Obama. I thought he would likely bring significant change--not a thorough remaking of society, but concrete change. I thought the idiocy and excesses of the Bush years, having triggered the 2008 meltdown, had shown Americans once and for all that trickle-down economics and deregulation don't work. But Obama has proven to be essentially a continuation of Bush. A few turns on health care, yes, a few turns in the culture wars, blah blah, but these things, really, do not a left party make.

If I could impose a twenty-year truce in the culture wars I'd do so immediately. Because it is the culture wars that have greased the wheels for the corporate coup that has ruined our democracy. And on the left, allowing these issues to occupy center stage with all the shit that's going down is dangerous, naive, ultimately self-destructive. That American liberals have chosen not simply to uphold LGBT rights (which was the right thing to do) but to push for same-sex marriage, a fundamental change to our culture's very definition of marriage--really, could one think of anything better for keeping the citizenry polarized? To me this move more than any other shows the subtle workings, the cunning, of the Progressive Corporate Agenda (PCA) in action. The American people are led to squabble about sex and marriage while the 1% continues to impoverish them, undermine their education, pass destructive new trade pacts, etc. When Obama came out for "marriage equality" I'm sure guys in board rooms across the country were slapping their knees in glee. And it wasn't because they'd soon be able to tie the knot with Steve or Abdul or Matt. Rather it was "Good job, Barry! That'll keep the rubes busy!" And by rubes here I don't just mean those red state rubes we all love and know--"Rube Classic"--but also the new and supremely rubish bunch that makes up most of our progressive so-called left.

In the past fifty years the American left has learned three or four neat new things. Good job. At the same time it has forgotten fifty essential old things.

This is part of the political impetus behind much of my recent writing and thinking on same-sex marriage. Though I've always been in solidarity with the struggle for LGBT rights, I'm disappointed no end to see the second-tier issue of "marriage equality" continuing to fire liberal passions. I'm despondent to see a youth culture that thinks this kind of thing is worthy of political center stage. Considering all that is going down! Gays and lesbians I can't blame for getting behind it (though some LGBT people have been against) but the heterosexual majority? Can't you people see how you're being systematically distracted and led by the nose here?

In short: The Progressive Corporate Agenda keeps you all so busy you don't notice it's really the Progressive Corporate Agenda.

The right has their Liberty, Patriotism, Christian Family Values. Which when their politicians take office simply means pushing the agenda of the 1%. And you on the left have your "progressive" issues. Which when your politicians take office simply means pushing the agenda of the 1%.

I began by writing here about one "progressive" online community, Daily Kos, but what I say obviously takes in a much wider slice of America than just that group of folks.

If they've nothing more to offer, Democratic candidates deserve to lose. Simple as that. Republican candidates don't deserve to win, but Democrats who continue to abet the corporate impoverishment of the American citizenry do not deserve our votes. If some third party or outside force is not mounted to shake up our current one-party circus, there is in effect no American left at all.

Eric Mader

Censorship, Name-Calling, More Censorship: The Daily Kos Experience

A Madison, Wisconsin rally celebrating the Supreme Court's overturning of DOMA.

[The following essay concerns the problem of censorship at the political site Daily Kos. I wrote it after being "timed out" at the site (i.e., blocked from posting) for the second time in the space of a couple months. This second "time out" in particular that was entirely unjustified on the grounds of Daily Kos guidelines: simply put, I was censored. I wrote the piece below in complaint and posted a version of it at Daily Kos after my "time out" expired. Based on the community's reaction to my complaint, I'm now convinced the situation isn't as bad as I'd believed when I wrote it. The complaint itself, after all, wasn't successfully censored, though some Kossacks tried. The takeaway? I now feel the the complaint below goes a wee bit overboard--or at least spreads the blame a bit too widely. In fact there's a contingent of people at Daily Kos who see the same problems I do. My deriding the bulk of Kossacks for what happened was being somewhat unfair. In any event, I still consider myself a member of the Kos community and will continue writing there as long as my (very slim) welcome lasts. --E.M.]

INTRODUCTION

Thesis 1: A Kossack who is in agreement with most of the political positions held by the majority of community members (the Kossack consensus) has every right to active participation in the community. Any Kossack can disagree, even strongly, with Kossack consensus on this or that particular issue without being hounded out on the basis of that disagreement alone.

Thesis 2: A Kossack who disagrees with Kossack consensus on one or another issue should not need to hide that disagreement, but should rather come forward to argue it openly. Such open and edgy debate is good for the community in the same way a free press is good for a society. In an atmosphere of free debate, strong ideas will remain vigorous by exposure to challenge and weaker ideas will lose traction. If ideas aren't particularly strong, they need to be adjusted. This is the model on which both science and democracy stay vibrant.

Thesis 3: The fact that my diary of February 23 got me "timed out" for a month, the fact that three of my entirely civil comments were successfully "hidden", is a travesty. It proves that Daily Kos standards for both "hide" and "time out" are slipshod and trigger-happy. What happened to me was not a matter of maintaining community standards of debate, but of blatant censorship.

CENSORSHIP AT DAILY KOS

I'm something of a bad American. Whereas my country is politically conservative and socially liberal, I'm oriented otherwise. Politically on the left, in some respects I'm socially conservative. As a Catholic besides, I've often had trouble getting on with left-leaning acquaintances, who find it hard to believe someone like me can even exist. Obviously such people know nothing about the role Catholics have played in the history of the American left.

As for the religious right, I've of course never gotten along with them.

Starting to post here at Daily Kos in 2005, I knew I'd provoke skirmishes if I ever wrote about some of the cultural or social issues that concern me. One of these has been same-sex marriage.

But here I want to make a brief caveat before going on. Some Kossacks have complained that my diaries are boring and resent having to read them. To this I say: Hey, nobody's forcing you to read anything. You're in control of your own mouse, no? So if you don't want to read my diary today, be my guest. If you don't like diaries longer than five paragraphs, why not save yourself the trouble and click your way the hell out of here? I'm not trying to hold the attention of anyone who doesn't care about the problems I raise. But in order to properly raise these problems, I'll have to present my case step by step. Which will take at least a couple pages of text.

Back to the issues at hand.

Since youth, going back to the 1980s, I've been an avid supporter of gays and lesbians in their brave march out of the closet. I've also, as a Christian, never been convinced by traditional assertions that homosexuality was a sin. But with the turn of the millennium, the LGBT community changed focus. I couldn't quite join them this time.

Same-sex marriage was something I didn't believe viable. In my view it wasn't viable on basic anthropological or cultural grounds. Though homosexuality had of course always and everywhere been part of human culture, it was exceedingly rare for any culture to recognize anything like "same-sex marriages". Though it showed enormous divergence on nearly every other aspect of human communal life, the historical record on marriage was impressively in agreement: Marriage is a relationship between male and female only. This, then, seemed to me a basic human given. As someone sensitive besides to the complex ways a culture's institutions interact, I thought any change of marriage was unwise. The push for "marriage equality" was thus a misguided one. Besides, my Church, the Catholic Church, wouldn't recognize such marriages. Secular states may rule otherwise, but secular states weren't enough to persuade me.

How I was finally convinced to lessen my opposition to same-sex marriage is where Daily Kos comes in. At the beginning of this year I decided to post a few pieces on the subject, at first just an invite to Kossacks to join in a discussion/debate at my blog. I pointed out that I was a member of the community, on the left, but not in agreement with the recent push for same-sex marriage.

I knew much of the reaction would be negative. Still, I didn't anticipate the spit storm that was coming. I won't recap it here. Within an hour or two of interacting with others at Daily Kos, during which I was repeatedly called "bigot", "troll", "asshole", "blog whore", etc., and though I kept myself from lobbing insults in return, I was put in "time out".

If the person being timed out has remained civil in their exchanges, time-out is little more than censorship. A given Kossack is judged, by a few others, to be saying things they don't want to hear, they then claim these things are against guidelines, and viola--the writer is shut off from commenting for five days.

Did I label anyone a moron or fuck-wit in that thread? I did not. Did I claim gays and lesbians were mired in evil or should be shunned from society? Absolutely not. Though some Christians on the right have such notions, I've never shared them. Just to give some idea--I was among Catholics who were positively cheered to first hear Pope Francis' remarks to the effect of "Who is [he] to judge?" gays or lesbians.

And so--what happened to me with that first post was a farce. Though the "time out" function might come in useful with people trying to cause problems at the site, i.e. trolls, I definitely wasn't in the troll category. I was inviting discussion and remained civil about it.

Still, the desire of most Kossacks that day to shut me up ASAP, to make me disappear from their screens, was palpable. The abject fear of discussing viewpoints that might feasibly be linked with homophobia has recently become a heavy taboo in America. In my view far too heavy. But I will have to return to this question later.

Though timed out I decided to try again. Since most in the Kos community were basically claiming I couldn't possibly have any valid arguments for my stance (supportive of gay rights in general but against gay marriage) I decided, when time-out ended, to come back and post a slew of these arguments--anthropological, legal, etc.

The following week, then, I returned and posted a lengthy (and too hastily written) piece explaining myself. For good measure I explained the reasons I had for not considering homosexuality sinful or perverse--for not thinking of gays or lesbians as lacking in any of the dignity human beings must be given. The question of whether gay love was right or wrong--I was way beyond that and had been my whole adult life. Of course gay love is not wrong. Gay marriage, however, was a different issue: it was problematic in the various respects I raised.

Again the reaction was largely "bigot bigot bigot"--anyone who had doubts on same-sex marriage was simply a "bigot". And we'll say it again: Bigot!

But this time there was a handful of people who engaged me directly on specifics (civil rights issues, ethical issues, legal, etc.) and in the course of the discussion that followed I was convinced by them that my stance was wrong in a few key areas. My stance was weak on both ethical and legal grounds.

I'm a humble person. I openly admitted on site, then and there, that I recognized the problems with my thinking: "You folks have convinced me. I was wrong about certain things." I didn't in any way try to shut out what people were saying to me. Had I done so, I wouldn't have benefited from the good points some of them made.

Next day I posted a short follow-up piece at Daily Kos explaining my turnaround, thanking those in the community who'd actually debated me (rather than simply say "bigot bigot bigot") and pointing out to anyone who would listen that the moral of the story was that it does no good to insult and censor people, but that honest, hard-hitting dialogue on disagreements often leads to common ground.

I had not, however, come around to a complete embrace of same-sex marriage. Rather I'd become a same-sex marriage agnostic. I still foresaw problems changes to marriage would likely bring. Even so, I'd no longer flatly refuse to recognize gays and lesbians who claimed to be married. It was a major change, and one I was glad to have come to with the help of a few sharp words from some of the sharp people here.

Three weeks passed and something I'd predicted would happen began happening in a big way. Conservative US state governments, whose constituents were far from being on board with marriage equality, began to push legislation that amounted to a cultural backlash. Kansas and Arizona came close to enacting laws allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians in public. The basis for promoting this legislation was protection of religious freedom.

As a Christian I was against the legislation. Religious beliefs could not justify citizens going to such discriminatory lengths. Still, there was in fact a need for some protection of religious freedom. Many American Christians and those of other faiths have very good and long-established reasons for refusing to admit a same-sex couple can be married. I strongly believe it is wrong to use the strong arm of the state to force these Americans to recognize such marriages if their religious traditions do not. Of course I'm aware many Kossacks disagree with me on this point. But so what? As I've pointed out, not everyone in a community has to agree on everything. One can keep discussion going while agreeing to disagree.

I thus started to think through what might work as a kind of minimal legal protection for religious Americans who, as events foretold, would soon start getting dragged into court or losing their jobs. I came up with a compromise proposal that I posted at Daily Kos expecting, again, that there'd likely be some name-calling, but still that a discussion would ensue, which is what, after all, I found valuable.

This time I was even more scrupulously careful than previously not to in any way insult other Kossacks. I would stick strictly to the issues. But the reaction was the same as before. Again all my motives were immediately suspect and skewed. As I started discussing specifics, trying to make clear that I was putting forth just a rough blueprint for a possible compromise, the steady stream of anti-Christian insults began. And I noticed, by little warning markers, that some of my comments were again being "hidden"--which in this case was clearly just a euphemism for censored.

As the badmouthing and insults were reaching a certain pitch, my comment function was suddenly blocked and remained so for forty minutes. No explanation. I hadn't been timed out but still, for some mysterious reason, couldn't comment. When it came back on, I tried to explain my thinking on the role of Judeo-Christian culture in the historical development of our concept of inalienable rights (a comment which was soon "hidden"!) and had finished typing another comment in the discussion, and was trying to post it, when I was informed by note that I'd again been timed out--this time not for five days but a month.

Needless to say I was quite pissed off. In the course of that dialogue other Kossacks could call me nearly any name in the book, could "hide" my comments on zero grounds at all--and the administrator was okay with it when I was the one kicked out for a month. Where had I been outside the guidelines? Nowhere.

I immediately wrote the administrator pointing out that this was just blatant censorship, that I'd nowhere broken community guidelines. Which remarks of mine were out of bounds? Would he please show me? He wouldn't. I requested to be reinstated. I was certainly not advocating for hate or discrimination against LGBT people, but was hoping rather to discuss a possible way to mediate the brewing storm that was coming. I got no response. I was in time-out and the administrator apparently didn't want to pursue questions of how I'd gotten there. And why should he/she? I was a Christian, after all, writing on a sensitive topic. And on any sensitive topic, Christians should just shut up, no? Didn't I see the sign: Verboten?

I don't take kindly to people who think that, just because I'm Christian, they can dismiss what I have to say or censor me for any reason at all. I've experienced this now and then over the years (in an almost ludicrously imbalanced "dialogue" with the poet Gabriel Gudding for instance). It's likely many Americans have picked up this illiberal bent because of the shallow and shabby work of the New Atheists. For followers of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, everyone's right to free speech must be respected unless you are a monotheist, in which case the most progressive thing is to erase what you say. Whatever the origin of the new tendency, however, that it exists is obvious. The speed and ease with which people now jump to censor Christians (moderate or even left-leaning Christians) has led me to keep a record of dialogues as they progress. Later, after the deletions happen, the dialogue can be reconstructed as it actually occurred--it can be saved from the oblivion "delete" enthusiasts prefer. People who censor should at the very least be on public record for having done so.

But more on this question of censorship below. First I'd like to address some of the cussedly ridiculous things thrown at me by Kossacks in that last thread. And not because I want to engage in any kind of "calling out" here. No, it's rather because I find the fast and irresponsible pigeonholing that goes on at Daily Kos to be counterproductive. At the end of the day knee-jerk name-calling only makes this community look lame. And it's rife.

One member, Lost and Found, who'd read my previous diaries and should know better, let himself characterize me like this:
This guy is a Hater Christian. The urgent message that he feels compelled to bring to the wider community is not one of love and compassion but one of bigotry, self-righteousness, and ignorance. He's an anti-intellectual zealot of the Sarah Palin variety.

As an atheist all I have to say is thank God not all Christians are like that.
Yes: As an atheist he thanks God. That's about as sensible as everything else he writes.

I'm with Sarah Palin? Anyone who clicks my moniker at Daily Kos (the easiest thing in the world to do) will see that my most recommended piece of writing ever is, yes, a post satirizing Sarah Palin. For me Palin embodies the worst of our culture. I've been wincing at her every word since her idiotic speech at the 2008 GOP Convention. And have written a good dozen pieces here and there lampooning her.

I'm a hater Christian? See my essay "Christian Homophobia for Beginners", which I've referred to several times in these Kos discussions. I think many of the folks who've attacked me here would be very surprised by what they find in that essay. In any case, doesn't basic accountability demand one check a little on a person's background before flinging grand generalizing insults at them?

Anti-intellectual? This is maybe the funniest of them. Anyone who knew me or looked into my story would see how absurd it is. Just for starters, the same week this moronic Kossack comment was thrown at me, I was working on a review of an academic study of minimalism in Samuel Beckett. Kind of thing Sarah Palin does in her spare time, right? When she's not busy memorizing passages of Hegel.

The point: People here are quick to sketch a whole portfolio of someone's life and thought as ENEMY once they notice the person doesn't agree 100% with standard Kossack doctrine. It makes me laugh as much as it makes me sick. It is shallow and pathetic.

I understand that for some of you it's much easier to take anyone who doesn't agree with you and pigeonhole them in the enemy camp. That way you don't have to really think about what the person is saying, which makes life easier. Not bothering to think about what is actually being said, you don't run the risk of yourself thinking or saying something different from the Kossacks around you. And so you can continue to play comfortably in the little politically correct sandbox you prefer without risk of debating actually difficult questions. You can avoid the rough edges of issues that don't fit snugly in the little boxes you'd like to keep them in.

Very intellectual of you, Lost and Found.

What bothered me in that last thread even more than this childish pigeonholing however was the behavior of one Christian Kossack who weighed in. But perhaps weigh in is the wrong word for what commonmass did. To weigh in one must have some weight: one must address the issues being raised.

A Christian Kossack in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, commonmass could have tried to discuss issues with me, to find common ground and explain why he thought my proposed compromise was wrong. That's what a Christian would likely do, especially a Christian on the left. In any case, he wouldn't show the kind of knee-jerk judgmentalism typical of our far right.

In any debate the initial attempts to frame the debate by one side or the other are often quite telling. Gestures and tone show much about why a person feels he's debating in the first place. What do commonmass' gestures and tone show? Is he there to discuss issues with a fellow Christian? Does he seek to show a fellow Christian a different way of seeing things?

Judge for yourself.

In the middle of my discussion with other Kossacks a photograph of two smiling men appeared suddenly in the thread with the title "Discriminate against this." It was commonmass' first post. I could see he was Christian by the tag lines under the photo.

"Discriminate against this"? The choice of words was odd because, in fact, my short essay made clear that I was concerned to prevent discrimination against both LGBT people (I was against the Arizona legislation) and religious people (my proposal was a kind of cover for them to continue respecting their traditional understanding of marriage). So commonmass was basically saying to me, from the get-go: "You are a discriminator." But why the photo? Was I supposed to be impressed that the guys pictured were handsome?

One other Kossack gave commonmass what he was looking for and wrote: "Nice-looking couple." I could see commonmass thought I was against him and his partner, which I wasn't, so I wrote:
Wish you guys well. I'm assuming you entirely disagree with my idea for finding compromise. Would be interested in what you have to say.
Now here you'd have thought, since commonmass had identified himself as a gay Christian, that he'd have found some opening to dialogue in my words. He had before him another Christian expressing good wishes for he and his partner. I wasn't, on any account, suggesting they were up to something sinful by being together. That is not how I think. So how would one expect commonmass to respond here? He replied:
[The man in the photo with me] is DEAD. If you engaged here more regularly, you'd know that.

I don't compromise with bigots.
Which I immediately felt bad about of course. But really, I hadn't known, I'd never seen either of them before. So instead of simply presenting the sad fact of his partner's death, about which I certainly commiserated, commonmass took the palm branch of my good wishes and threw it back in my face with words meaning something like: "YOU are not a regular here. What you think or say is not really of interest to KOS INSIDERS."

If you think my assessment of his tone is wrong, try to explain this snap response otherwise. I replied politely: "Very sorry to hear. I didn't know, and yes, I haven't been regularly posting here in recent years" Then I started thinking about how to address his second statement. I wrote:
As for my being a "bigot", well, it's a widely debated question on this site. I'm not. You say I am.

There we differ.
Commonmass' reply was simply: "I KNOW you are."

Which is knowing pretty much, since he'd never met me before and likely never read anything I'd written aside from that day's post. Was my little essay really inherently bigoted? Did Christians really have zero rights to stick to their two-thousand-year-old understanding of marriage? Commonmass the Christian was telling me it was so. Actually, he knew it was so. He was a Kossack after all--and part of the Kossack Inner Circle besides.

The thread only got worse from there. One Kossack tried to show I was wrong by using the old "same-sex marriage is the same thing as racial equality" argument, which I don't accept. Since my post had pointed out that one of the problems with forcing Christians to acknowledge gay marriages was that marriage in many churches was a sacrament, RamblinDave tried to lecture me as follows: "[R]acism WAS a sacrament in some churches: they believed Noah's son saw him naked and his punishment was to be father to all slaves."

This is simply flat wrong of course. Racial segregation was never given sacramental status in American churches. Dave's comment merely showed he didn't know much about Christianity. I replied: "No. The racism of such churches, regardless of their evocation of Noah, was not a sacrament. Check definition of sacrament." It was simply a matter of knowing the meaning of the term.

But here commonmass jumped in again--with a comment more or less in defense of Dave's error!
OK. I'll play. How many Sacraments do you hold? Two? Seven?

I'm an Anglo-Catholic, and hold to seven Sacraments. Though my church, officially, only to two. Many Lutherans hold three: the third being the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Have you been to confession lately?
What for fuck's sake was this? A decent Christian with commonmass' convictions may have written something like: "EricMaderLin's point about sacraments is correct. Nonetheless Dave's point about the Old Testament being used by right-wing Christians to buttress bigoted social attitudes is also correct. But this use is not a matter of any actual sacrament." Instead of this kind of comment, his gesture was almost surely an attempt to question my own fidelity to the sacraments. Commonmass knows well that some Catholics are lax in making confession; he's here trying to score "good Christian" points, brownie points really, against me in front of other Kossacks. It's pretty sordid behavior for a political discussion. More what you'd expect at an afternoon tea in the whitebread suburbs.

Whether I confess regularly or not is none of commonmass' damn business and he knows it. Such things are between myself, my conscience and my confessor. More to the point, and what really irks me, his attempt to go off on this tangent was totally irrelevant to the topic under discussion. And look how he forwards his comment: "OK. I'll play." I don't post at Daily Kos to play the Sacrament Game, commonmass. I was trying to discuss a serious issue of balancing Christian liberty with gay and lesbian rights in our very divided country. As a gay Christian yourself, I'd have thought you might have something worthwhile to say to me. My first remark to you was an honest request for your thoughts. I'm a humble person and do my best to take in what others say. Not interested in seeking any common ground with me, however, you used every instant of that thread trying to marginalize me, insult me, and characterize anything I might say as wrong in all respects. You yourself recognize how divisive this issue is in the Church and how it continues to stoke animosity between people who are, after all, united in the body of Christ. And I'm someone in the middle here, leaning closer to your side than most--someone, if anyone, you should be able to conduct civil discussion with. I've written at length explaining my strong belief that gays and lesbians have been unjustly oppressed. I've put into question relevant biblical verses, especially those in Romans 1. These verses are in our Scriptures, commonmass, the sacred texts you and I both reverence. Yet I've done my best to offer reasons why these particular verses should no longer be taken as authoritative. Consider: I'm an amateur Bible scholar and literary critic, the biblical canon is the most precious and revelatory collection of texts I know, yet I'm willing to put these verses into question for you and other gays and lesbians. And what do I get from you in return? Not an ounce of common decency.

You say you're a Christian, commonmass, but if I had to characterize your comments to me as a whole that day, I'd have to say: mean-spirited, vain, cliquish, prying, name-dropping, snotty. I mean really--Who could ever imagine a gay man behaving like this?

In university in the 1980s, I like many heterosexuals supported Gay Pride. It was a necessary step to counteract what was then mainstream society's criminal indifference to gay rights. But since the turn of the millennium the situation in America is markedly different. And myself and many other Americans have come to feel a little clarification may now be in order. As follows: Supporting Gay Pride does not mean we are in favor of Gay Arrogance.

To return to the role Christianity should play in all of this, I'd like to ask you a simple question, commonmass: Which is more important to you, your unity with fellow Christians in the body of Christ, or your unity with other gays and lesbians in the body of Gay Politics? Sexual orientation runs deep, yes indeed, but I believe Christ runs deeper. If you think He does not, then you and I really do have very little in common. Which is anyway pretty much what you used your every keystroke that day trying to show. It's shallow, pathetic, snotty.

In fact your arrogant dismissiveness, commonmass, was the most dispiriting part of my last month at Daily Kos--more depressing than any of the dumb insults or lame censorship. Because I expected a least a bit of civility from a fellow Christian, and had gotten civility from other Christians here. Wee Mama, Kascade Kat, others.

But enough typing wasted on you. More important here is the question of comments in that thread that were groundlessly deleted: i.e., censored. I mean, that's what I'm claiming here, isn't it?--that Kossacks used blatant censorship to erase what I'd written and get me timed out. And so: Repeatedly insulted myself (and not trying to "hide" the insults, which is against my principles) was I insulting people in turn? That is the main grounds for "hiding" after all--directly insulting others in the community.

Judge for yourselves.

After being timed out, I could only be sure of two of the places where my words had been deleted, and I hadn't saved backups fast enough to catch them. But as I remembered my remarks, I typed them out again in my notes as soon as the thread was over. Here's the first:
As for those of you who have been civil so far, I appreciate it. As for those who haven't, you're not doing anyone any good. If you think you can make religious objections to same-sex marriage go away simply by using the power of the state to bulldoze them, I'm sorry, but I think you are mistaken. There will be backlash, and such backlash won't be helpful for anyone.

I've tried to formulate some grounds of compromise on which to work through this cultural/religious impasse, but I see I'm wasting my time trying to discuss such things here. Compromise doesn't go over with people who believe they're 100% right.

And one more thing: As a Christian, I'm starting to tire of the steady stream of insults. A good half of you are historically too shallow to recognize the bases on which your culture stands. I'm not talking about marriage either, but about our basic concepts of individual rights, individual dignity. Your civil liberties, which you claim to be so concerned about, arose in the first place from your culture's Judeo-Christian roots. Even if you're not religious yourself, you should have a bit more respect for this history. Instead you ignore the ground of the culture whose values you think you can defend. You even scoff at it.

It remains to be seen whether I'll get timed out again (i.e., censored) for my oh-so-rude remarks here. If I do, I'll likely just quit the community altogether. Censorship of civil discourse is NEVER progressive.
Apparently this comment was somehow judged "inappropriate" or "insulting"--outside of what guidelines will accept. But where is the insult here? Is it that I dared say people at the site were being "historically shallow"? Does making that kind of remark actually offend community standards? If so, WTF? Or rather: What kind of fucking milquetoast debate standards do you people have here anyway?

As for the second deleted comment I can reconstruct, I made it in response to a Kossack who wrote as follows:
I hope the fact that I engaged with you isn't taken as an acceptance of your viewpoint. I'm just hoping something will sink in, and as a straight man I have an advantage in not being personally injured by your words.
I replied something to the effect of:
Yes, I understand that it's difficult for you to be seen even talking with me. For many Kossacks the aura of evil around me seems to make it hard for them to join in reasonable discussion. I appreciate your relative civility.
Why was this particular comment "hidden"? It's my irony, no? I'm implying that some Kossacks are so worried about keeping their political correctness intact that they refuse to engage discussion with people who disagree with them. Such an irony is apparently "against guidelines" in this touchy crowd. Is it maybe "inappropriate" irony, Kossacks? How would Jon Stewart fare in your community? Personally I suspect he'd fare pretty much like Ted Rall did. But the exile would be faster.

In fact I think a lot of you people are just a couple steps away from book burning. Really. Get the PC wing here together in one location, get them riled up by playing tapes of Rush Limbaugh, put some Bibles and other suspect books in front of them and watch them reach for their lighters.

As I've said above, I think there are definitely good people here, probably many. Probably almost a dozen. And I'm grateful for things I've learned from these folks, and for being able to share some of my satire with them back in the 2000s. My recent attempts to write here, however, have been marred by censorship and ridicule. The latter I can take. It's when people who are ridiculing me also have the right to delete my words that I feel a line is being crossed.

The fact we're engaging this debate online, rather than in print, is no reason not to hold it to liberal standards--prominent among which is the dignity of individual speech. So I'll say it again: Censorship of civil discourse is NEVER progressive.

So I was put in this ridiculous month-long "time out" because of what exactly? Because I said some people at Daily Kos had a "shallow historical perspective"? Because I implied too many people here were substituting political correctness for actual thought? WTF is that? Are most Kossacks actually adults?

The issue we were discussing was one on which the left needs to show more flexibility. I'm not the only progressive who thinks so. Many people who are staunchly pro-gay marriage, including Andrew Sullivan himself, think the LGBT community, for its own good, needs to recognize the religious rights of Americans who disagree. In one of the sharpest editorial pieces I've read on the issue, David Linker explains the problem with all those who are now repeatedly screaming "Bigot!" every time they face disagreement:
As I've made clear repeatedly in my writing, I support gay marriage and am cheered that advocates for it have made such stunning legal and cultural gains so quickly. I consider these gains to be broadly harmonious with recent legal precedents and cultural trends, as well as the deeper political implications of liberal democratic government and theological implications of Christian egalitarianism.

But I'm also troubled by the equally stunning lack of charity, magnanimity, and tolerance displayed by many gay marriage advocates.

[Some gay marriage proponents] don't just want to win the legal right to marry. They don't just want most Americans to recognize and affirm the equal dignity of their relationships. They appear to want and expect all Americans to recognize and affirm that equal dignity, under penalty of ostracism from civilized life. That is an unacceptable, illiberal demand.

As I've argued before, liberal democracy is a political theory designed to allow people who disagree about the highest human goods to live together in peace and civility despite their differences. Like it or not--and a certain militant class of gay marriage proponents clearly do not like it at all--traditionalist religious believers are our fellow citizens and neighbors, and the United States is as much their country as it is ours.

That's why the premier liberal virtue is toleration and not recognition. Toleration is perfectly compatible with--indeed, it presupposes--a lack of unanimity, or even majority consensus, about ultimate goods. It leaves the diversity of views about ultimate goods intact, forcing consensus on as few issues as possible, so that people belonging to specific regions, classes, ethnicities, and sociocultural and religious groups can build rich, meaningful lives together in freedom.
Now you may agree with Linker here or you may disagree. But I believe you would at least treat him with a certain amount of decency in discussion. My position is quite similar to Linker's. I'm not completely supportive of the marriage equality movement, as he is, but nonetheless, as I've said, I no longer feel it is right to oppose it. In my last diary here I tried to offer one possible route for making Linker's kind of liberal mutual toleration possible in a very divided country. But you Kossacks largely just put on your PC glasses, started censoring my remarks, railed against my faith, and finally got me "timed out".

In an excellent follow-up piece titled "Who are the real liberals on gay marriage?" Linker summarizes two of the major trends in the development of liberalism, a summary which might do much to explain the disconnect between yourselves and me here. Most Kossacks are obviously what Linker calls "comprehensive liberals". I am not. I'm a pluralist liberal (aka a "political liberal"). Linker:
For many advocates of gay marriage, liberalism is a holistic, comprehensive ideology with its own distinctive vision of the human good. This vision advocates the autonomy of individuals from received traditions and their liberation from constraints both external (political, social, cultural, religious) and internal (psychological), which it invariably treats as forms of oppression. . . .

In addition to holding out this ideal of individual autonomy, comprehensive liberalism demands that each individual's choice of how to live be recognized and positively affirmed by everyone else, no matter what it involves (as long as it doesn't infringe on anyone else's equally free lifestyle choice). Comprehensive liberals also tend to treat the refusal to grant this recognition and affirmation as an act of illiberalism that ought not be tolerated. Many go so far as to think that liberal governments should force the recalcitrant to comply with the liberal ideal, at least in any area of life that can plausibly be described as public.

. . .

Comprehensive liberals are not content to establish a modus vivendi between different groups of people that disagree. Rather, their goal is to convince or pressure society at large to conform to and affirm their own group's position on things.
Linker describes his own pluralist liberalism, which apparently would get scant breathing space at Daily Kos:
My own understanding of liberalism--which supports gay marriage while also tolerating religious traditionalists who reject it--grows out of a very different intellectual tradition. It derives, at its deepest level, from the classical virtue of liberality, which meant generosity and openness. This notion of liberalism underlies the idea of the "liberal arts" as a curriculum that at its best instills a sense of humility by opening a student to the full range of human experience, thinking, and feeling. It assumes that differences in life experience, psychological makeup, social class, intelligence, the capacity for introspection, and temperament will tend to produce a "natural" condition of pluralism in human social life.

Responding to this pluralistic reality--and reacting most proximately to the violence and war it produced in the theologically divided societies of 16th- and 17th-century Europe--the greatest early modern liberals (John Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, David Hume, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson) devised a form of politics that could enable a society comprising individuals deeply divided about the good to live together in relative peace and freedom despite their differences.

The U.S. Constitution was the first and is still one of the greatest practical achievements of pluralistic liberalism, establishing a series of minimal rules to enable numerous clashing factions divided by a range of interests and ideals to govern themselves freely and fairly. The Constitution itself takes no position on the highest human good; on how to pursue happiness or what it consists of; or on whether there's a God and what he might want from us. . . .

The agnosticism was intentional. Complete metaphysical neutrality might be impossible, but minimalism is both possible and desirable, since it opens up space for toleration of social, cultural, and religious diversity.

Toleration is the premier virtue of pluralistic liberalism--and a modern analogue to ancient liberality. Unlike comprehensive liberalism's zero-sum demand for recognition and affirmation, toleration upholds the ideal of "live and let live," allowing (within certain broad limits) diverse, clashing, morally conflicting ways of life to thrive, provided that they tolerate other ways of life to do the same.
It is in the spirit of this kind of pluralism that I wrote my diary on LGBT rights vs. religious liberty. The fact I got timed-out for it shows just how far from any kind of pluralist thinking this community is.

Worse than the time out itself was that I couldn't even finish that last discussion thread, and the comments I did make were subject to being deleted on the flimsiest grounds--no grounds whatever really. My sentences were erased, and finally I was shut up mid-sentence. In my own guidelines, it is what is out of bounds.

And since I've other disagreements with the community (quite frankly, its unwillingness to criticize today's Democratic party, especially the president) I'm wondering if my decision in January to come back and start writing here again was a wise one.

If I write more at Daily Kos in the future, I won't be writing on the marriage debate, believe me. But unless I hear something significant regarding the obvious censorship I've had to put up with, I may not be posting here again at all. I know many of you will just say: "Yeah, get the troll outa here! Anyone have any cake recipes?" But I'm thinking there may be some others who agree with me on the knee-jerk political correctness. And how the community, basically, is censorship-friendly. If you're out there, you might have something to say.

I won't be engaging much discussion on this diary. No matter how polite I am, people will just invent reasons to get me timed out again. Heck, they don't even need to invent reasons. Just press "censor" and the deed is done.