Friday, March 21, 2008

Jackson & Perkins: Personal Faith, Public Policy (review)

Authors: Harry R. Jackson, Jr. & Tony Perkins.
Title: Personal Faith, Public Policy.
Subtitle: 7 Urgent Issues that We, as People of Faith, Must Come Together and Solve
Publication: Front Line. 2008 ISBN 978-1-59979-261-3.

The authors appeared in the media recently, purporting to offer a kinder, gentler version of the message of the “religious right.” To cut to the chase, they do claim that the RR is alive and well, is misunderstood, and simply wants its proper place in setting public policy. Right off the bat there is some semantics: they have as much right as anyone to have their views, even when religious aired, known and aired in politics; what seems at issue is whether religious doctrine alone should define right and wrong, or whether such ideas need a secular “mathematical proof.” And those with a math background like me know that any system of thought has to start with some postulates (assumptions) and definitions. So why can’t some of the assumptions be based on faith? I guess they can.

The book has twelve chapters and takes up seven core issues: The Value of Life (2 chapter), Immigration, Poverty and Justice (2 chapters), Racial injustice, Religious liberties, Rebuilding the families (2 chapters with the second focused more on fatherhood and education) and The Environment and Global Warming. There is an introduction and then two more “introductory” chapters on the place of the religious right and faith in determining what is right public policy, and a conclusion. Each chapter ends with “prayer points.”

The authors keep their tone careful and polite and tend to equivocate. But they are getting at something, of particular pertinence to GLBT people, and it gradually unfolds, however unevenly, in the book.

The “Value of Life” section has the carefully detailed discussions on abortion and then stem cell research. It also talks about the ethics or war and capital punishment. It believes that these are expected of Christians within the scope of a Christ-influenced civil government. It’s interesting to me that the “right to life” position does not fix the “unfairness” of the sacrifice made by those in war (as with the draft in the past or the “stop-loss” policies today), even thought society does take care not to involved the disabled in these activities. The discussion on eldercare is brief, but mentions a critical point: modern society has developed “utilitarian” values, and many people will have emotional issues when faced with the unselected “burdens” of those who consume time and resources and are no longer economically “productive.” Utilitarianism (Wiki reference, including discussion of Jeremy Bentham) could be connected to "radical individualism" which can lead to logical consequences that seem anti-faith and "anti-family."

On poverty, they take a complementary position. That is, the Bible (especially the New Testament) accepts the reality of poverty, and does not claim that man can eliminate it. Some poverty, but not all of it, comes from activities within the control of the poor; other comes from external sources. A lot of it comes from single-parent families, and (we hear this a lot) government policies that reward single parenthood make it worse. That’s probably correct. Their most important point is that addressing poverty needs to be taken up as responsibilities by every individual to help poor people with personal contact. Again, that runs counter to the values of a “utilitarian” attitude toward people, that places so much emphasis on the integrity of personal choice. Their poverty “part 2” deals with health care reform, and the suggestions are rather non-specific, other than to reiterate conservative calls for using pre-tax dollars for insurance, tax credits for children, and better personal health practices. The authors claim that countries with single payer health insurance have tremendous problems with wait lists and have increased mortality, especially over certain age ranges, for cancer and heart disease as a result. Presumably, an elderly person may be more likely to get coronary bypass surgery under the US Medicare system than in the systems in Britain, France and Canada (does a visitor really know?) My own physicians tend to confirm what they say.

On race, they admit that the Christian community has dropped the ball in the past, but believe that an individual-effort centered approach is necessary, rather than massive government action (like affirmative action and perhaps reparations) alone.

On religious liberties, they play some word games with the “original intent” of the founding fathers. But they wind up saying something relatively innocent: that Christians have as much right to expect government to reflect their values as anyone else.

On global warming, they claim that Christians should be stewards of the planet, but they do not accept as “truth” all of the claims that global warming is necessarily man-made (despite overwhelming evidence otherwise).

Let’s leave the best to the last: marriage and family. We all know the usual for-family and pro-marriage conservative arguments (including limiting no-fault divorce). But they imply excursion into some psychological territory. They make the interesting point that marriage gives each adult partner sexual security, which is medically and biologically better for each person. Now it’s not too controversial to claim that marriage tames fathers, and encourages them to protect their children and most of all their wives during and after childbearing. Furthermore, marriage has a essential specific relationship to childbearing as well as childrearing in our culture (even though some heterosexual couples don’t have children). We all know how that point has come up in the gay marriage debate.

But, the concerns over gay issues reach far beyond the current marriage debate, as people like me who came of age in earlier generations know. The authors mention the gay issues “en passant” a few times, and try to make the comments sound innocuous, but they are surely building up to something. The mention a revival trying to bring Christian morality back to the Castro in San Francisco. They suggest that publicity of Vice President Cheney’s lesbianism somehow helped derail the attempt to pass a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In the chapter on religious freedom, they make a couple of assertions that on the surface I agree with. For example, they oppose protecting gays with hate crimes law, but on principle I agree that criminal sentences should be based on the crime, not the victim. They also complain that education of the “ex-gay” viewpoint is considered “hate speech”, and I agree that proponents of that viewpoint are entitled to present their views and have them acknowledged, even in schools. But the bigger question, one that they sidestep, is, what’s the big deal? Are gays really responsible for the “decline of the family” and the short half-lives of heterosexual marriage? Come on! After all (by definition), gay men usually don't father babies that can be abandoned to women.

That’s where the comment about utilitarianism comes in. After all, utilitarianism would have some tension with the a civilization's value of the preciousness of every human being "as a living soul" (as my father would say) for his or her own safe--because that takes emotional commitment from others, not always on personally chosen terms. Now, the mystique of heterosexual marriage, with all of its ceremonial and moral supports for some people, has a lot to do with a transformation of character – the willingness to relinquish some of the adolescent concerns (especially for men) with competition and self-promotion for an unfamiliar set of "protective" and "connecting" emotions (for the woman who will bear children) that seem to contract rationality. I guess the lyrics of the song “Some Enchanted Evening” from the musical “South Pacific” address that, as well as the fungibility of men when that is demanded. The obvious immediate need for this kind of emotional change is to prepare to raise children, but it also fits into all kinds of other almost mandatory altruism and sacrifice that can well fall upon the heads of those who do not have their own children – including eldercare. The negotiation of thus psychic passage (where "women tame men") seems essential to the subsequent ability to maintain a lifelong "active" intimate interest in the marital partner, itself an essential component of stable marriages for raising the next generation. The emotion can justify the enormous sacrifices parents sometimes have to make for the next generation (the authors prescribe "no hobbies" at one point, just family with no dessert), something that me-generation mentality is unwilling to experience. This religious view accepts a sense of "right" beyond what individuals can craft for themselves with personalized ideas of personal responsibility and "justice" and focuses on the emotional stability of the family (especially parents) as a whole. In the view of the religious right, the “narcissistic” values of the gay male community, with its upward affiliation, gut this emotional process-change and can undermine many smaller families, leaving people to flounder fending for themselves. True, married people, and people in families with strong emotional ties based on blood, not totally voluntary, may live longer.

The "religious" view of much of what the authors would call (with perfect comfort) "public morality", in the area of marriage, would lead to something like this: Married couples need a sense of reverence for their commitment from the outside world, and the freedom that some people claim to succeed in life outside of the marital model for adulthood creates a serious, perhaps fatal distraction. Furthermore, everyone owes something of the emotional commitment that made their lives possible back to others (unless they were abandoned themselves). This view of things refuses to look a family morality in terms of usual calculations about "individual rights" and concomitant personal responsibilities, as a libertarian or rationalist would see them.

Here, I'm struck with the past attitudes of the religious right toward people with introverted personalities, which religious people view as "self-serving"; yet we know that personality is itself strongly influenced by biology and genetics. The extreme endpoint of introversion is perhaps something like autism (medically that idea could be challenged). In the 80s, religious author Tim La Haye gratuitously characterized the male homosexual as afflicted with a "melancholy personality" (the "Tchaikovsky syndrome") which clinically has a lot to do with "feminine polarity" and introversion. In her "opposing viewpoint" counterpoint to my essay (on teaching about homosexuality in public schools) in the book "Teenage Sexuality" (review link), religious writer Linda Harvey wrote about "homosexual feelings" as essentially malignant, as if to suggest existential arguments that loyalty to one's own biology (a desire to procreate) is an essential part of "reverence for life" and an important counter to the hardships that the external world ("God") would impose on those who try to follow their own choices.

But this idea, that people have a moral obligation to outgrow "utilitarian" adolescence and connect to people on an emotional level related to real needs, is a point of view worth noting. The “law of karma,” if one looks to that as some sort of common denominator for social justice, does mean that people will return some of the caregiving and connectivity given to them, whether they had their own kids or not; and this can be very difficult for those who remain emotionally separated. The religious position on this seems to be, that not everyone gets to "self-actualize" before becoming parents and agreeing to the emotional commitments (and sometimes limitations) of family life. Yet, much of the progress of our modern world depends on the freedom of people to act largely on their own and implement their own visions. That’s not possible without recognizing personal autonomy. The religious views surrounding the family sometimes seem blind or oblivious to the involuntary sacrifices of personal freedom (from those not interested in socializing themselves this way) that these views demand. It’s a perfect moral storm.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

J-Mac: The Game of My Life (Review)

Authors: Jason McElwain and Daniel Paisner.
Title: The Game of My Life: A True Story of Challenge, Triumph, and Growing Up Autistic.
Publication: New American Library, 2008, ISBN 978-0-451-22301-2, 244 pages.
Movie: agreement with Columbia Pictures, according to book. Producer: Laura Ziskin; Executive Producers: Mary Martin and Magic Johnson. I could not find this in imdb yet.

Recently Jason appeared on Larry King Live, once again to recount the senior basketball game in which he scored twenty points in the last few minutes, including six three-pointers.

From his appearance, one could not have detected his situation, which is that he grew up with autism, and slowly improved, became able to speak, work, function and learn. The presence of an older brother Josh seems critical.

The outer chapters of the book are written by Paisner, with the inner chapters a simple narrative by J-Mac himself. He repeatedly states that he experienced life “the way he was.” Learning what others expected of him was difficult because it seemed arbitrary and superfluous at first.

There is discussion of the learning disabilities, of special education, or "mainstreaming" and of the fact that some special education students remain "superseniors" when they have not met the requirements for graduation.

He claims that he was “fearless” physically, a factor that enabled him to focus on extraordinary skill in shooting basketballs, even at 5’ 6 ‘’. He had “hoops” at home and would shoot them for hours, rather like Clark and Pete in “Smallville.”

The book includes inserts by other family members, and many pictures.

The book discusses delayed toilet training, and delayed self-feeding.

Now, I am told now that I have a kind of Asperger’s. I remember vaguely being slow in feeding myself. I had the measles after first grade, and in third grade was way behind other kids in physical and motor skills for no obvious cause. I became the butt of teasing and other kids talked about “buying me a new brain.” At the same time, I took up piano, in which I could excel. In other words, my brain became specialized, and gave up some “adaptive” skills to focus on “elective” ones. Yet, this whole situation was viewed by others, especially grade schools, as a “moral” problem of physical laziness or unwillingness to “pay my dues” as a boy to become a man. Gradually I developed some skills, as we adopted the large backyards in my neighborhood and made them into softball fields. In tenth grade, I actually "pitched" a shutout (4-0, "road") and hit a home run in a gym class softball game. I still remember that day well. The gym teacher called me "shutout Boushka". (I remember it so well that I remember that the Nats lost in Boston that night, 4-3.) J-Mac loves to give scores of all of his games, and I can remember the scores of lots of little sandlot or playground or "backyard baseball" games (with all the rules variants) in the 1950s. We actually adjusted the rules to make the scores reasonable.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

M. Christian: Me2; Joe Babcock: "Tragedy of Miss Geneva Flowers"; and one big unpublished novel (and maybe another)

Author: M. Christian:
Title: Me2
Subtitle: You’ll Be Beside Yourself With Fear
Publication: New York: Alyson, 2008. ISBN 978-1-55583-963-5, 243 pages, paper.

Well, this little horror novel is certainly introspective, certainly plays out a stream of consciousness, and seems more like an epic (even satirical) free-verse prose-poem, divided into long stanzas (like you used to study in literature class in college) than a conventional novel. There are eleven chapters, starting with “Me” and run through “Me11,” each starting with a pre-stanza in italics. There are three epilogues (composer Arnold Bax as always satisfied with just one in almost each of his symphonies), the last of which is a letter from his publisher. This arrangement pretty much washes up "the Me Generation," even with Bill Clinton as part of it.

In fact, the gay content (the publisher is well known for that niche market) in some ways seems almost incidental to the literary form. Or perhaps not. The book is a meditation on the meaning of self, and a metaphor on the fear of self. The protagonist is the “young man next door” who works in the coffee business. I had a good friend in Minneapolis who did just that (he was straight and liked to try the local comedy circuit), and could tell you how cutthroat the business is – particularly on the Skyway. Here, the setting could be Anywhere, but it seems LA-ish.

Of course, “you know the story.” Doubles of himself start showing up, taking his job, thieving his identity. He’s not sure if it’s schizophrenia, bad memory, bipolar, or someone really doing him in. He sometimes seems unclear about which home is his. Along the way there is some real fantasy fulfillment. Is he with an imaginary self or someone real? I might have written the intimate scenes with a different kind of sartorial detail, inasmuch as I have a couple scenes in my own novel draft (in third person) a bit like Christian’s p. 140. Clive Barker could really turn these kinds of scenes out in “Imajica,” even when the partners were aliens or beings with ambiguous and bending gender.

Of course, here is where the “gay” part really matters. I have the impression that the protagonist, as much as he claims he likes himself, is self-indulging in “upward affiliation,” a kind of narcissism that George Gilder used to write about in the 80s in his bashings on “the perils of androgyny” (as in his 1986 these “Men and Marriage”). He would like to be affiliated with, or perhaps possess (I’m not sure which) a man who is as perfect as possible, before having his own family. He wants to become his own “god” before taking the dive. Then, it’s perfectly safe – except that you wind up in a world with “children of Men.” The problem comes if he is asked to stick his neck out, and take responsibility for someone else (perhaps a dependent, perhaps by having children), just “as he is.” In the epilogues, the author makes points about the Internet, which he fears has the potential of forcing more social conformity.

There are some other youthful “coming of age” novels in the gay area. One is Joe Babcock’s “The Tragedy of Miss Geneva Flowers” which, at the age of around 22, he self-published on his own “Closet Case Books” imprint in 2002, in Minneapolis (while I lived there. I see that the book was republished by a major New York publisher, Carroll & Graf (check amazon). That book is written in the first person, with character Erick Taylor, who befriends a drag queen with stage-name “Chloe” (I remember this book whenever the character by that name appears on “Days of our Lives” and torments Philip). The book has a curious mixture of Salinger and Stephen King in its style (there are some nightmares), and some cutting comments about the fear of growing old while liking only youth (the old “Oscar Wilde” or “Dorian Gray” problem).

I’ll also provide a link to chapter 1 of “Dan’s novel.” The chapter is called “A Boy’s Best Friend.” I read the entire manuscript in 1997. In fact, I had a copy with me as I moved from northern Virginia to Minneapolis to start my life there after a corporate merger and after publishing my own book. I kept it in the front seat of my car. I got stopped once leaving Chicago but the officer saw both books (mine and this one) and let me go. I had finished about the first two-thirds before starting the Labor Day weekend move, and I remember finishing reading the entire book at lunch in a "family restaurant" in Madison, WI on Labor Day (on the “isthmus”) and being quite moved. I’d love to see the book surface in full, whether self-published or not. (I add, that in 1994 there had been a specific moment of epiphany, in a similar restaurant in Colorado, when I decided to write my own book.) It would make a great indie movie. I don’t think there’s anything negative about Strand Releasing, is there, with its Ayn Rand-looking trademark. (“Loggerheads” is a pretty ambitious film, and so is “The Yacoubian Building”). Maybe one or more of these books will show up in film in its catalogue some day.

My own (unpublished) "novel" has the tentative title "Brothers Simple," is in kind of a sonata structure with three "movements," is about 140000 words (too long; it needs trimming), but it presents two "friends" who rather parade as "brothers" but become more like "lovers"; one works for the CIA and the other is in the "military" (sort of) -- not exactly disciples. Awful goings-on will happen to the country, gradually, "as the world turns"; and they become a sort of tag team in the spirit of "Sam and Dean" (Supernatural). I don't know if I should give too much away on Blogger (or Wordpress, for that matter), but I need to get it cleaned up and submitted to agents. (An agent has seen some of it, when it was to be called "Tribunal and Rapture" and I do have some critique.)

March 13: Check this discussion about novelist James Patterson's "factory" (toward the end of the posting). None of the novelists on this page (nor me) would write novels with anything like a "factory." We have egos.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason (Review)

Author: Susan Jacoby.
Title: The Age of American Unreason.
Publication: New York: Pantheon, 2008. ISBN-978-0-375-42374-1. 356 pages, 11 chapters, indexed, with additional Introduction, 10 roman pages.

This book has a spirit similar to that of Al Gore’s “The Assault on Reason.” (Review.) The author calls herself a conservative, and perhaps so in that she does that a hard-headed approach to the importance of facing facts and realities, in understanding the world around and in making public policy. Things change, and policies may have to change, and special interests are indeed willing to subvert the freedom of others. She gives a thorough history of American philosophical thought, connecting the trends to major historical events.

I would restate her basic point with an example of my own, that she did not herself specify. Back in the early to mid 1980s, the gay male community was forced to deal with that reality that a pandemic had arisen rather suddenly and that the number of cases was doubling every six months, with cases and deaths accumulating exponentially. Pretty soon there was an announcement of a causative virus (eventually called HIV) and the availability of an antibody test. The gay press was filled with denials, of the idea that a single virus could be the cause, and the calls “don’t take the test.” There was, even in some well known gay publications, some “junk thought”. There may well have been some junk thought of another kind in the religious right, with predictions that a “gay disease” would, when “amplified” spread by various “chains” to “normal” people. All of this was well covered by Randy Shilts in another famous book from St. Martins Press, “And the Band Played On.”

In fact, to some people with a good sound knowledge of biology, geography, culture, specific behaviors, virology -- and trained to apply concepts in mathematics (mostly exponents and logarithms, the way you study them in Algebra II) -- the evidence seemed overwhelming that a novel virus (perhaps one that had jumped from animals to humans) had to be the “cause.”

You can take the facts about Spanish flu and avian influenza and try to analyze them in a comparable way. The facts about the epidemiology are quite different, and so are the cultural connections. The conclusions are not in, but one thing is clear: we are not working as hard as we should on vaccines, and we could be in for a economic cataclysm.

Now you can look at global warming. The facts seem overwhelming that mankind’s activities are having a disproportionate effect on the climate of the planet. It’s also true that, over long periods of time, natural astronomical changes might dwarf what we do on earth. Still, it seems absolutely essential that we stop spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Jacoby talks about anti-intellectualism and anti-rationality as if they were distinct (Justice Scalia she accuses of anti-rationality). The later seems to have to do with making up canards to support pre-conceived social, political, moral, or often “religious” positions. A sound intellectual world depends first on collecting, knowing, accepting and recognizing the correct facts. It also depends on reasoning logically on these facts (with the kind of mathematical precision that proving theorems in plane geometry is supposed to teach you), analyzing, and coming up not with preconceived conclusions but with a reasonable sense of the consequences of any course of action. It’s the bit about “definitions, axiom, and theorems.” It’s homework. No wonder some people resist it. (I can think of an example: Maggie Gallagher, herself a notorious “conservative”, recently wrote that young people pay into retirement and health insurance funds now supporting older people now so they will be supported later. Logical and correct. Then she says, “try running on that.”)

There are a lot of specific historical circumstances that contribute to anti-intellectualism. Slavery and the economy of the south at one time provide one early force. Then the particular way the notion of church and state evolved in this country helped contribute to the idea that people really needed the comfort of religion, and the security in appealing to authoritarian sources for basic ideas about right and wrong. In the 50s, the post war consumerism and hucksterism led to the commercialization of knowledge, with the metaphor of the encyclopedia salesman. With television and popular music, we gradually developed a taste for gratification and confused the visual and aural stimulation of entertainment with the real brain value of organized information or literary art carefully written, edited and published, and studied by the student or consumer with enough time for real contemplation. (Remember how Wordsworth wrote that poetry should give pleasure?) The Internet age, while democratizing the ability of people to participate on their own and to self-publish cheaply, has shortened attention spans to the point that letters, books, and even plain conversation take too much time and effort.

Still, another overriding fact remains. More history has elapsed, and as other media stories indicate, many teens and young adults simply don’t know enough facts to properly judge what is going on. (A typical discussion is here.

There is a fundamental group-think cause of anti-intellectualism. Most parents put a lot of pressure on their kids to learn to experience themselves as part of a family as well as individuals. That kind of collective openness is seen as an important psychological precursor to being able to have a successful marriage and parenting experience as an adult (but the correctness of that view is open to debate), but the side effect is to discourage some individuals from collecting and analyzing knowledge on their own without depending on the authority of familial or religious structures.

I come back to gay issues, because they do test the ability of society to deal with “rationalism.” The arguments about “choice” or “biology” about sexual orientation are confounding, without all the necessary conclusive facts, and force the thinker or writer to question the real psychological motives of the people making the “arguments.” The arguments against letting gays serve in the military, or letting gays marry or adopt children also seem to confound rationality, until one perceives the great extent to which some people see their marital experience as one that must exist in a public sphere where it demands the deference from and reverence of others.