Monday, November 26, 2012

Timothy Kurek: "The Cross in the Closet": "Gay like me?"

Author: Timothy Kurek

Title: “The Cross in the Closet: One man’s abominable quest to find Jesus in the margins

Publication: Blue Head Publishing, ISBN 978-0-9835677-4-5, 331 pages, paper, 4 parts, 35 chapters

Amazon link is here

Readers may know the 1961 book (and  1964 film) “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin, in which the protagonist used certain medications and an ultraviolet lamp to look black for a social experiment. Former Naval Academy midshipman had mentioned this book in his own “Honor Bound” in 1992 (Oct. 10, 2007 on this blog).  I’ve just added the film to my Netflix queue. Will Kurek’s book become a film, too?

Kurek, raised in a fundamentalist church in Tennessee, decided to conduct his experiment after a lesbian friend was thrown out of her family.  For a whole calendar year, he went undercover and lived as an “open” gay young man.  Of course, he didn’t have to change his body (although he did try a little light drag once).
He got to know the bar scene around a place in Nashville called “The Tribe” (an ironic name). He traveled to New York to join a protest against the Vatican for refusing to support a UN measure to stop anti-gay legislation in the “third world” (that is, in countries like Uganda).  He worked for a gay coffee house, which closed late in his year and he really feared its change to “family” ownership.  He even traveled to Topeka, Kansas, to try to “interview” staff at the Westboro Baptist Church, which he depicts as having bragged about its hatred. Kurek also notes how churches and conservative groups raise money and lobby to take away gay people's rights.  He admits that one time as a teen working in a fast-food restaurant he pressured a gay manager who accidentally brushed against him at work. Those kinds of accusations are all too easy. 
He also discovered a layer to love that he didn’t know existed, as he built friendships with some of the men in the community. I found particularly interesting his account of the gay softball league.  In 1984, I played in one such league in Dallas, where a team could forfeit a game if it had “too many straights”.  I remember the Smith brothers, the quiet younger gay one being an accomplished tennis player, and the older extroverted straight one showing up at the Dallas TMC bar and saying one time “Hairy chests are for sissies”.    I wasn’t good enough to play on the team regularly (I couldn’t compete with “Thunderbuns”), although I remember an opposite field single (hard to do in slow pitch) in a 13-9 win for JR’s, and a real opposite field home run (over the wall) in a practice game.  And I remember an 18-inning women’s game that ended 4-3.  Good slow pitch can be very difficult to hit.  I also remember a bar softball league in NYC in 1978 where I played for Boots ‘n’ Saddle (on Pride Day)  and got a bases-loaded single to keep a rally alive in a 13-4 win in a field on Leroy Street.  The fence was so close that clearing it was only a double.  (For those who remember, 1978 in NYC was the Year of Bucky Dent.)

Since the 1990s, the thrust in the “gay rights movement” has focused on equality: in opportunity, benefits, responsibility, and sharing risk.  But back in the 1950s, when the Mattachine formed, it was all about simply being left alone.  Visitors to my blogs know my own story (from my “Do Ask Do Tell” first book in 1997) about my “expulsion” from William and Mary for telling the Dean of Men (under pressure) that I was gay.
Why did these things happen?  It has seemed like a brutal twist that it was more offensive or traumatic to the community to say that you were gay (or be “found out”) and presumably disinterested in having children at all, than to get a girl pregnant by “mistake”.  Moral standards seemed to have contradictions, or what I call “wind shifts” like those that accompany  cold fronts.  Sometimes the spun in circular reasoning like tornadoes.

Of course, the book attributes most of this to “fundamentalist religion”.  It is certainly true that people turn to “authorized” interpretations of “scripture” when they can’ resolve seeming moral contradictions by science and intellect alone. This leads to authoritarian social structures (often abused) and intellectual childishness.  But it’s important to look even beyond “teachings of the Church” to see what could drive them.

One good starting point for grasping this is to look at the Biblical idea of not placing too much stock on your own material situation on Earth.  In short, bad things happen to good people. Families and many communities need to maintain a lot of social cohesion or “social capital”, just to survive and have a future.  In such a culture, any challenge to the importance of having children and proving the optimum environment for them (mother and dad, married) is not tolerated.  Given sustainability problems today, these ideas could return.  There was also the myth that homosexuality undermines the ability of men to fight collectively to protect women and children in a community, an idea that some people tried to leverage in the 90s with the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, although sometimes it sounded like “do ask, if necessary”.   One of Kurek’s anecdotes involves a Marine tossed out under DADT.  In the 1980s, when AIDS surfaced, the religious right tried to add hyrdrocarbons to homophobia by raise the idea of an indirect threat to general public health (the “amplification and chain letter” argument, which fizzled out with time. )

There is, also, the “windshift”.  Once people say that scripture says that a person has a particular life issue because of “sin”, other people are confronted with the “love the sinner” paradox.  It’s a lot easier to hate the sinner to get out of this discomfort.  There’s another paradox that older homosexuals remember, at least those who were not physically competitive like me (and that was more of an issue in the 1950s than it is today).  I was told I was unfit, but suddenly people changed windage and wanted to see me married and making babies to carry on the family anyway (I’m an only child).

In the long run, this has been an issue where “reproduction rules” until people get smart about the rules of engagement, which often invoke the idea, "If I have to play by these rules, so do you."  It’s a sort of psychological communism.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of downtown Nashville.  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Alternative book formats for the disabled raise copyright issues; Amazon as a publisher

Carolina Rossini has an article at the Electronic Frontier Foundation regarding the proposal to change an international treaty regarding copyrights to give the blind, visually impaired or with print disabilities more rights in accessing other versions of conventionally published books. 

The debate goes on at at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

Alan Adler speaks for the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which is resistant to the idea of corporate publishers giving up any ownership rights in a manner that sets a precedent for situations for which publishers already have well established practices.

The link for the EFF story is here.

The story is provocative for me for another reason.  In 1997, when I self-published my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book with 350 copies from a book manufacturer in Gaithersburg, MD, I remember the issue of controlling costs.  There was no way I could have presented my book in a variety of other formats, such as large print, braille, or audio tape, had that been expected.   

With print on demand, such possibilities may emerge as practical capabilities of print-on-demand companies, which, so far, have many been interested in e-book alternatives, particularly for the Amazon Kindle.  In fact, some small, mainly self-published, books have been available by Kindle only.

On that issue, I still like to have a hard-copy of a book if possible.  I like to have something I can use even if the power is out or there is no Internet connection (although you don’t need one once you download the book) – even on a camping trip, even in the Third World some day.  Yet Amazon says that sale of Kindle are booming in comparison to hard-copy.  I see Kindles on the Metro (that is, either in Washington DC or the NYC Transit System) all the time, and on the Amtrak train and plane. (Yes, I’ve been to the Big Apple a lot in the past year.)  Amazon has created a flap by becoming a “publisher” itself, as in this Wall Street journal story Oct. 17 by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, link here

Barnes and Noble was unwilling to stock Amazon titles in its stores – not even right next to my favorite Landmark Theater.  

Thursday, November 15, 2012

National Academy of Sciences releases booklet on the risk of "smaller" terrorist attacks on the power grid

The National Academy of Sciences (National Research Council) has released a new report, “Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System”, when can be downloaded for free as a “guest” at tha NAS site.  A purchase of a hardcopy for $49 is requested.  The ISNB is “0-309-11404-7”. The book runs 165 pages.

The report, which includes work back to 2007, stresses that terrorists could cause extreme, long-lasting disruptions in the power grid with conventional attacks on substations possibly from rockets fired from publicly accessible areas near the properties.  All power stations are on secured, heavily guarded private property.  Some have visitor’s centers (for example, Dominion Power’s visitor center for a nuclear station NW of Richmond is quite informative), and some are near highly traveled interstates with nearby parking areas.

Previous reports on vulnerability of power grids have focused on the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack from high altitude, only mentioned here in the appendix.  There has also been attention to the possibility of widespread damage from coronal mass ejections from solar geomagnetic storms, which has generally considered much more likely. Newt Gingrich, in particular, called attention to these vulnerabilities with an op-ed after last summer’s derecho.  However, this report shows that much smaller attacks could cause huge disruptions.  Conventional attacks could not affect home electronics and cars, but localized microwave-based EMP effects (as in the movie “Oceans 11”) are conceivable.
 According to the new report, one of the biggest problems would come from replacing specialized large transformers that step up and down electricity. Most are imported from overseas and are so large that they are difficult to transport quickly. 

There was an exercise in March 2012 transporting a specially designed transformer from St. Louis to Houston after a mock hurricane.

Deregulation of the power industry into components that generate and then distribute power has led to security vulnerabilities, the report says.

The report also suggests decentralizing some critical power infrastructure and loosening technical interdependencies within the grid, and putting more infrastructure underground, which the NAS believes could be done more efficiently than has been the case in the past.

It appears that the online version of the report may be enhanced once there has been a security classification review. 

See a review of an earlier NAS report on solar storms here Aug. 9. 
The New York Times discusses the report in an article by Matthew L. Wald on p. A23 of Wednesday, November 15, 2012 paper. I’ll cover this more soon on the Issues blog. 

Monday, November 05, 2012

O.S. Guinness: book on "sustainable freedom"

Author: O.S. Guinness

Title: “A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future

Publication: 2012, IVP Books, ISBN 978-8308-3465-5, 224 pages, indexed, 7 Chapters

“Sustainability” has not always been a moral buzzword.  The early Christians expected the “end” to come soon.  In most of the twentieth century (and previous centuries) the welfare of a country and all its constituent social groupings had a lot to do with surviving external threats from enemies and with throwing off political tyranny and authoritarianism, migrating toward liberal democracy with increasing recognition of diversity and individual rights.

In recent years, we have indeed started to question how we can sustain our western lifestyles, not just against competitive enemies (like radical Islam) but from climate change and “demographic winter”.
Guinness generally keeps his reasoning high-level and abstract, as if he were proving a sequence of theorems about political or social science.  He starts out by focusing on “the American experiment” (not to confuse this term with the name of a conservative group in Minneapolis), comparing America to other great empires, and the American revolution to other traumatic changes in history. 

He comes up with a nice idea of a “triangle” of sustainability:   Freedom requires virtue, which in turn requires faith, which in turn requires freedom, closing the triangle.  The problem is that virtue cannot be derived purely by intellect alone, because some moral issues – especially those having to do with the relationship of the “special” individual to the group – tend to lead us into contradictions.  For example, it seems good to like or prefer people who seem “virtuous” (or who “look” virtuous), but then we are putting down the less fortunate.  (Perhaps that means, if I was lifted up, I owe it to “society” (or God) to lift someone else up.)  We tend to resolve these moral conundrums by looking for  absolute moral teachings in scripture (for example, the way the Vatican interprets scripture as “the Teachings of the Church”).   The scriptures play umpire, defining the size of the pitcher’s strike zone.  But no  one can really experience faith until he or she is free to do so without external pressure from the external, paternalistic state.  And that brings us into some paradox concerning what “freedom” at the individual level must mean if it is to remain sustainable.

Guinness defines a concept called “negative freedom”, that is, the insistence on being left alone (mentioned in a couple of famous Supreme Court opinions).  We need to let ourselves be bothered with other people’s needs because our own output in life means nothing except in its ability to meet the real needs of other people (although “real life” can become quite broadly construed, despite my own late mother’s ideas about this.) Guinness decries the weakening not only of marriage but of most social structures.  He says that real freedom is the province only of those who “belong” to others and to purposes larger than themselves.

I always have a problem with the idea of belonging to someone else’s purpose, because you could wind up playing on the wrong team.  Who wants to “belong” to a crime family, however pious? Individualism is indeed a good check on corrupt leadership.  People who are “different” but talented find themselves in a precarious position in these kinds of revolutionary debates; the asymmetry of their efforts can topple things over back toward exclusion of others who are even less talented and maybe to certain kinds of authoritarianism (even fascism).  In an individualistic culture, people are supposed to take care of themselves and “mind their own business”;  but it is still necessary to learn how to be attentive to others and take care of others, at least in a family setting, and this responsibility is inherent and occurs long before any decision to have children.  Indeed, the whole meaning of marriage becomes something that ratifies one’s ability to channel his deepest sense of satisfaction and purpose toward real needs around; but marriage doesn’t cause it.  It becomes a chicken and egg problem, or another endless loop, a moral spin or low pressure system.

Guinness never mentions homosexuality or gay political issues, but he does criticize the notion that sexuality is (or has become in western society) a private, self-serving experience rather than part of the process of socialization.  He seems to think that deference to scriptural notions of right and wrong are necessary to get around apparent surface contradictions.  He sees libertarianism as "selfish", but that's also how he sees the self-serving behavior of much of American business.  Freedom, he thinks, more about doing the right things out of "habits of the heart", for the good of everyone (including other generations), in concentric rings around immediate family.

The book implies that the willingness of people who are "different" (me) to become other-centric, and not too invested in their own chosen purposes, can become critical for the sustainability of a whole free society.  

Amazon link is here