"It seems to me that to organize on the basis of feeding people or righting social injustice and all that is very valuable. But to rally people around the idea of modernism, modernity, or something is simply silly. I mean, I don't know what kind of a cause that is, to be up to date. I think it ultimately leads to fashion and snobbery and I'm against it."
Jack Levine: January 3, 1915 – November 8, 2010
I never heard this before now except in the recording that Bethany Beardslee made of it and never have heard a live performance of it. This performance is very fine, it must be one of the more difficult pieces in the soprano repertoire, any singer who could pull it off would have to have the highest degree of musicianship as well as a extraordinary voice very well trained and intelligently used.
I wrote an essay about it and how it taught me that you can't even listen to the same recording more than once and have the same experience.
Hearing A Million Philomels by Anthony McCarthy
One of the early motivations for creating electronic music was that the composer could directly control the sound of their composition, not relying on the variable interpretations of performers. The problem of performers distorting the composers intentions is a big one in music, and in the other performing arts. Some of the most beloved and famous performers are flagrant distortionists, most generally of familiar music of the past. For music, especially when it has no programmatic content, this can destroy the integrity of the piece. A composers intentions is in the sounds that are produced, their pitch, timing, intensity and coloration. Distortions of those aspects of the music can make the composers’ conception disappear.
Another motive for many of the early electronic composers was that they would at least get to hear their music. Public performance opportunities for the more conventional modern composers are rare. For a composer whose music is, in fact, box-office poison*, they are about non-existent. Performers who specialize in new music, though generally strict observers of the composers instructions, are rare and seldom presented. So, some of the more technically adept composers in the 1950s and onward produced finished pieces which existed in their definitive and final form, on tape. As with all music that is produced, most of it is somewhat less than a roaring success. Though some of it is a complete success.
Early on the possibility of combining a tape and live performance was used and, in the opinion of some people, the two produced some of the more interesting pieces in the genera. Some people found that pure tape music tended to be sterile. There are great pieces of pure electronic music produced. Adding one or more performers, though, did add more than you could get on tape.
This is about one of those pieces, Milton Babbitt’s setting of John Hollander’s poem Philomel c. 1963 for tape and soprano. More specifically, it is about the recording of the piece that was first issued in the late 60s with the great soprano Bethany Beardslee, for whom the piece was written. You can hear the first part of that here.
In the classical story, Philomela was raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus, king of Thrace, who cut out her tongue out so she couldn’t tell her sister, Procne. Deprived of her ability to speak, Philomela wove her testimony into a tapestry and showed it to Procne. They took revenge by cooking Tereus’ son Itys and feeding him to his father. When he found out, Tereus pursued the fleeing sisters through the woods. When he was about to catch up with them Procne was transformed into a nightingale but the tongueless Philomela was turned into the relatively inarticulate swallow. Hollander didn't follow the original Greek version but that of Ovid who had Philomela turn into a nightingale. The poem attempts to create what her mental state might have been like after her transformation**. [ You can read the text in the liner notes found here]
The first time I heard the recording was as assigned listening in an elective university course on music in the post-war period. I’m not sure exactly what year it was but it couldn't have been long after the recording was first issued. One of the students in the class gave the rote complaint about Babbitt’s music being “musical mathematics”. This was the first lesson in variations of experience. “Musical mathematics” was already a hackneyed charge more than thirty-five years ago. Variations on it have been said about composers going back into the 18th century, whenever someone resented what they took to be the “inaccessibility” of a composers music. In Babbitt’s case, it was sometimes justified by the fact that he was familiar with some pretty sophisticated math, though I don’t think the music supports it. And saying it after hearing this particular piece is kind of flabbergasting. Philomel is a disturbing mono-drama about the pain of violation and the agony of being torn out of your life and forced to live on remembering your unrecoverable past experience but being entirely torn out of that life and having to live on in confused pain. The Philomel sung by the soprano is reflected, enhanced, in parts of her, recorded on the tape which also deliver parts of the text. It’s pretty gripping stuff.
Even given the resentment of an unsympathetic student being assigned to listen to it, how anyone could fail to see the super-heated emotional content of it is interesting only in that it shows a difference in how people hear the exact same things.
I liked the piece, and the others on the album and bought the recording, both on vinyl and, later, on CD. I've listened to it many times over a period of many years. The recording on vinyl took on all the modifications of pops and scratches, which became a part of the accustomed experience of listening to it. Then on CD with those predictable accidentals removed and, I’m reluctant to point out, greater recording clarity. But it was, for all intents, the same performance, unvaried by more than those minor differences.
But over the years, my experience has changed radically. First, and most of all, in the ensuing years, the issue of two men producing a monodrama about a woman’s mental state has come to the fore front. The implications of that didn't register on me the first times I heard it, I’m pretty sure. Then I was interested in the music and Beardslee’s phenomenal vocal abilities. The fascination of what Babbitt was able to do with the most primitive of synthesizers, already antique just a few years later, was also of paramount concern to me back then.
Two men writing a piece dealing with that story which their gender would necessitate they see in a fundamentally different way in which two women would have likely seen it. Writing it on behalf of and at the request of Bethany Beardslee. The questions and conclusions that you draw from that, alone, change, fundamentally what you perceive when you listen to it. Given the history of the myth, probably told if not invented by men, definitely in Ovid’s rendition, Hollander’s modern version might be the least patriarchal which exists. If there is are versions by women which aren't attempts to follow the patriarchally informed tradition, they would be interesting to read. It would be interesting to hear someone like Pauline Oliveros’ version of the story. I’d definitely buy the CD.
More generally, even if the poet and composer had been women, you could not be the same person you were thirty-five years ago. Like Philomel, you would have endured change, painful transformations in the world and who you are. Though you can remember it, you can’t recover the past. The loss of the easier views of life have to give way to a different way of seeing the world. A lot of that is due to our own mistakes and crimes. And, it shouldn't be forgotten, Philomel did kill a child as part of her revenge. That is also something that I’m sure didn't register in my early hearings.
The goal of creating an unalterable musical experience was understandable for all of the reasons given. But there is no way to control how a listener or an audience is going to experience that music. Not on the first hearing, there is no way to force someone to hear what is there. Not in subsequent hearings, when the same person will hear different things and have different responses. That is a given with live performance, it won’t be the same even twice. But even for one listener hearing a recorded performance, there is no way to go back to the point before it was heard. The information gained by listening informs subsequent hearings. We change, even as the sound stays the same.
Note: You might want to read what Milton Babbitt had to say about Philomel many years after he wrote it. Note the obvious difference in how the piece was presented in a theater with four speakers and how it would be different from hearing it in a stereo recording. The notes for the album also say that Beardslee dramatized the piece in ways that an audio recording couldn't reproduce.
* In music as in none of the other arts, people seem to resent that there is music that is produced for a specific audience that most other people don’t like. Why people get so angry about temporary musical experience that they can almost always avoid is interesting. Sometimes. But as Babbitt pointed out in the 1950s, their angry rejectiondoesn't have to matter to those who do want to hear it. Composers can choose to compose for the interest of a smaller, more specific audience. It’s strange that their writing what they want to should upset people not involved with that interaction by their own choice.
* *My personal interpretation of Hollander’s poem is that it is a depiction of the pain of violation and fundamental, inexorable change in the post-war, nuclear period. Especially in the third section in which Philomel talks about her constant pain which she can’t articulate. People who remembered the world before WWII and the bomb must have felt like they’d been transformed into a different kind of being lost in a strange place. It can seem like that even to those of us who don’t remember that world but whose world changes constantly and, often, in ways that are fundamentally painful.
Originally posted on Echidne of the Snakes, April 18, 2009
A paper based reference work was judged to be good or bad on the basis of the control of its contents for accuracy and reasonable objectivity. That was especially true of general encyclopedias whose stock and trade was accuracy and lack of bias. They depended on named authors and editors, either named or known to the publishers and general editor. They stood by the work of their authors and editors, the reputation of their encyclopedia rose or fell on the quality of their work and its objectivity, their own reputations depended on that. You don't get that with Wikipedia and, after a dozen years, it is not only of wildly variable reliability, it is openly the focus of groups intent to have it biased in favor of their ideologies and open to the biased "editing" of pressure groups, political, religious, anti-religious and all other possible types of efforts. If one ideological faction can boast of their success in turning Wikipedia to their own ends, they announce that possibility to all others. If the group is large enough, focused enough and dedicated enough to their ideology, then they can definitely swamp anyone who attempts to correct or re-balance articles they have slanted to their liking.
I have not seen any real and effective effort by those with control of Wikipedia to prevent this kind of thing. I don't believe with something as massive as Wikipedia that would be possible, it is certainly not possible given the way it is set up and was generated. No one seems to be ultimately responsible for the reliability of Wikipedia and the unsurprising result is that its quality is not reliable. That is due to the denial of responsibility built into the thing. I'd call it an effort but that complete disavowal of responsibility makes that word inappropriate.
If you criticize Wikipedia online, one thing you are likely get is a citation of the 2005 article in Nature which compared the accuracy of Wikipedia articles about science with the Encyclopedia Britannica. While I will note that was well before the ideological group of "editors" I will focus on arose, the article itself was hardly a ringing endorsement of Wikipedia. Here is how it is described in Wikipedia, itself. As of today, at least:
Articles for traditional encyclopedias such as Encyclopædia Britannica are carefully and deliberately written by named experts, lending such encyclopedias a reputation for accuracy. Conversely, Wikipedia is often cited for factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations. However, a non-scientific report in the journal Nature in 2005 suggested that for some scientific articles Wikipedia came close to the level of accuracy of Encyclopædia Britannica and had a similar rate of "serious errors." These claims have been disputed by, among others, Encyclopædia Britannica. Although Nature gave a point by point rebuttal of Britannica's argument, the Nature report did agree that the structure of Wikipedia's articles was often poor. As a consequence of the open structure, Wikipedia "makes no guarantee of validity" of its content, since no one is ultimately responsible for any claims appearing in it. Concerns have been raised regarding the lack of accountability that results from users' anonymity, the insertion of false information, vandalism, and similar problems.
[Note: Since this is about Wikipedia, I am going to treat what it says about itself as being reliable even though I would never normally rely on such badly produced referenced materials without backing them up with independent sources with named authors.]
The Nature article is called "non-scientific" which in one of the world's premier science journals is bizarre. A valid comparison of the rate of inaccuracy in the two "encyclopedias" would depend on some kind of mathematical calculation of identified "serious errors" from a randomly selected representative sample of articles of similar length,. Any results which were "non-scientific" would mean that the results would be more accurately called "meaningless." Britannica gave a very reasoned objection to the article and on the basis of that, I'm less than confident that Nature would be the best institution to be asserting the reliability of their article, especially reading the rather bad quality of methodology that even they admit to. I'd call their declaration that they will not retract "brazening it out." And it is now eight years out of date.
But most revealing of all in the Wikipedia article is the declaration that it "makes no guarantee of validity" of its content, part of its "General Disclaimer." Since no one is ultimately responsible for any claims appearing in it," the "General Disclaimer" is about the most universal and absolute disavowal of responsibility of an alleged intellectual effort as I've ever seen. It contains the best argument of why no one should rely on Wikipedia, no one is responsible for what it contains.
As a result of the planned method and character of Wikipedia, the obvious result of those is openly on display, groups that train people in how to "edit" Wikipedia in favor of their point of view. I will concentrate on one of the most blatant of those, Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia. Guerrilla Skepticism is explicit about their purpose and intention. Here, from the masthead of its website:
The mission of the Guerrilla Skepticism editing team is to improve skeptical content of Wikipedia. We do this by improving pages of our skeptic spokespeople, providing noteworthy citations, and removing the unsourced claims from paranormal and pseudoscientific pages. Why? Because evidence is cool. We train – We mentor – Join us.
Of course, it's the Guerrilla Skeptics, of who knows what kind of expertise or in-expertise, who decide what those "improvements" "noteworthy citations" "unsourced claims" "paranormal" and "pseudoscientific" elements are and, given their explicit ideological stand, those will not be from any objective view point. They will also decide what constitutes "evidence" and what is not "evidence." Anyone who expects objectivity from such a group is certainly not exercising even the slightest bit of skepticism.
As you can hear in the second-anniversary YouTube, Guerrilla Skepticism isn't a small effort, it claims to have over 120 editors in 17 languages, this is a major effort at slanting the content of one of the most widely trusted "reference works" in the world. It's founder claims "we reach millions of people every year." And it isn't the only such openly organized effort with an ideological agenda. There are other "skeptical" groups dedicated to slanting the content of Wikipedia and other internet entities that are provided with their substance by "open-sourced" generally unnamed people, often open to their repeated "liking" or "evaluation" or "editing" to allow one person an outsized presence in the result. When they organize to do this, as they seem to increasingly be doing, they will have an increasing influence on the "resource", which will then become their product.
It is massively irresponsible for those who could exercise control of Wikipedia to prevent this that they have taken less of a hand in guaranteeing the nature of its content than organized ideologues dedicated to exercising that kind of control. They and their "encyclopedia" should suffer a loss of confidence due to that. If they aren't held to be discredited, then it is a sign that the intellectual culture of the country and the world has entered a more decadent period, largely due to the "information superhighway" being open to that information being mis-information.
If those who ultimately control Wikipedia don't take the strongest steps to protect Wikipedia from efforts such as those of Susan Gerbic and the rest of her Guerrilla Skeptics then it goes from being a reliable encyclopedia to being their propaganda tool. And what the Guerrilla Skeptics are doing openly, anyone else can be doing without trumpeting their efforts. I, somehow, doubt that if a dedicated group of Southern Baptists of the same or greater size were doing this, openly, that the result would be less than complete panic. And, of course, the way it's set up, such a group could be "editing" the thing now or could start doing so tomorrow. And that is just one of the many horror scenarios you could dream up.
An unnamed "editor" is not an editor, an anonymously written encyclopedia in which named people do not take ultimate responsibility for its content is no encyclopedia, it is a total mess and a sign of intellectual decadence.
Note: Family responsibilities will prevent me from writing anything on Saturday or Sunday, at least as of now.
As I said, Steven Pinker's article is quite a rats nest and thinking about those being exposed to it who haven't read any background, being sold one bad assertion after another through it, can keep you from falling back to sleep. People with power and influence read him and The New Republic, the distortion of reality he peddles might just get people killed.
This point was interesting to me because it impinges so directly on a post I recently wrote on the very subject of the causes of World War I as observed and analyzed by Vernon Kellogg one of the most eminent American biologists of his generation, one of the more well known exponents of Darwinism. Pinker said:
Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism. But to explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles is not to discard its richness. No sane thinker would try to explain World War I in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology as opposed to the more perspicuous language of the perceptions and goals of leaders in 1914 Europe. At the same time, a curious person can legitimately ask why human minds are apt to have such perceptions and goals, including the tribalism, overconfidence, and sense of honor that fell into a deadly combination at that historical moment.
There just happens to be direct observation that was made of that war in response to Pinker's assertion. We have a very rare account of a fact finding, peace mission by Vernon Kellogg before America entered the war in which he found that one side of that war did understand it in terms of biology. He began as a pacifist opposed to the war but what he found by way of reductionist thinking terrified him to the extent that he came to the conclusion that America had to enter the war to defeat the scientific reductionism he saw as demonic.
Well, I say it dispassionately but with conviction: if I understand theirs, it is a point of view that will never allow any land or people controlled by it to exist peacefully by the side of a people governed by our point of view. For their point of view does not permit of a live-and-let-live kind of carrying on. It is a point of view that justifies itself by a whole-hearted acceptance of the worst of Neo-Darwinism, the Allmacht of natural selection applied rigorously to human life and society and Kultur. Professor von Flussen — that is not his name — is a biologist. So am I. So we talked out the biological argument for war, and especially for this war. The captain-professor has a logically constructed argument why, for the good of the world, there should be this war, and why, for the good of the world, the Germans should win it, win it completely and terribly. Perhaps I can state his argument clearly enough, so that others may see and accept his reasons, too. Unfortunately for the peace of our evenings, I was never convinced. That is, never convinced that for the good of the world the Germans should win this war, completely and terribly. I was convinced, however, that this war, once begun, must be fought to a finish of decision — a finish that will determine whether or not Germany's point of view is to rule the world. And this conviction, thus gained, meant the conversion of a pacifist to an ardent supporter, not of War, but of this war; of fighting this war to a definitive end — that end to be Germany's conversion to be a good Germany, or not much of any Germany at all. My 'Headquarters Nights' are the confessions of a converted pacifist. So, one of the most eminent American biologists of his time, a champion of Darwinism, encountered exactly what Pinker discounts as a cause of World War I as being the understanding and motivation of the war, in so far as Germany was involved with it. The reduction of human reality into something like natural selection doesn't only cause analytical problems in scientifically confronting the vastly wider world of experience, it also, when practiced by those with political and military power, has causal power.
The extent to which the British side and other sides saw the war in terms of "tribalism" that tribalism was, by then, fully informed by the scientific reduction of evolution, the creation AND SURVIVAL OF SPECIES in predominately biological terms, in specifically Darwinian terms. The early enlightenment ideal as stated by Schiller and set by Beethoven, "All men will be brothers" was crushed by the struggle for life and the survival of the fittest - a term that Darwin, himself equated with natural selection in the fifth edition of On The Origin of Species. By the time of the First World War, fifty-five years had passed since the publication of Origin of Species, the generation that sponsored and created that war was thoroughly indoctrinated in that view of life, especially the educated classes in the respective sides of the conflict. Darwin was a national icon in Britain, as testified by his burial in Westminster Abby in as highly honored a place as they could have put him. We certainly know that Darwinism influenced government policy in other areas, it is nonsense to think that something so entwined with nationalism, racial identity as war would not have been intimately influenced by it and its further developments in the decades between the first generation of Darwinists and the WWI generation - some of them were still alive and exercising their maximum influence. To discount the scientific contribution to their understanding of their war is historical distortion.
I gave a far longer excerpt from Kellogg at the link above with a link to his entire book, Headquarters Nights. His very scientifically informed eye-witness put it this way.
Professor von Flussen is Neo-Darwinian, as are most German biologists and natural philosophers. The creed of the Allmacht of a natural selection based on violent and fatal competitive struggle is the gospel of the German intellectuals; all else is illusion and anathema. The mutual-aid principle is recognized only as restricted to its application within limited groups. For instance, it may and does exist, and to positive biological benefit, within single ant communities, but the different ant kinds fight desperately with each other, the stronger destroying or enslaving the weaker. Similarly, it may exist to advantage within the limits of organized human groups — as those which are ethnographically, nationally, or otherwise variously delimited. But as with the different ant species, struggle — bitter, ruthless struggle — is the rule among the different human groups. This struggle not only must go on, for that is the natural law, but it should go on, so that this natural law may work out in its cruel, inevitable way the salvation of the human species. By its salvation is meant its desirable natural evolution. That human group which is in the most advanced evolutionary stage as regards internal organization and form of social relationship is best, and should, for the sake of the species, be preserved at the expense of the less advanced, the less effective. It should win in the struggle for existence, and this struggle should occur precisely that the various types may be tested, and the best not only preserved, but put in position to impose its kind of social organization — its Kultur — on the others, or, alternatively, to destroy and replace them. Well, just in terms of the first requirement of science or any scholarly study, Kellogg was there to make the direct observation of the contribution of science in motivating the war, Pinker wasn't. Kellogg's analysis is actual evidence, Pinker's is a mere assertion of ideology. Pinker is generally on the side of recent scientific warfare that Gould and Lewontin identify as ultra-Darwinist, of seeing things as being primarily driven by adaptations that are biologically inherited. A case could be made that his side of that ideological dispute in science is not that far removed from Kellogg's "von Flussen". What could be made of that could be interesting. In one of his recent books, "The Better Angels of Our Nature," Pinker made a pretty ridiculous and statistically incompetent panglossian assertion that modern life has become so much less violent than in the past, including some remarkably naive and pseudo-scientific assertions. Every time I dip into his writing I find that it is thoroughly and transparently ideological and entirely opportunistic in its choices of authorities cited.* The scary thing is that this is the kind of stuff that gets published in influential and even near-influential journals and is thoroughly believed on its identification as a scientific view point, as presented by someone held to high standards of accuracy and rigorous scholarship when it is certainly not. We haven't progressed at all from the standards current in 1914. If anything, I think it's gotten a lot worse. In light of the above, his next paragraph reads like totally empty and hollow a collection of bromides and slogans as comprise the intellectual pose of his school of scientistic ideology. The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and super- stitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement. Yet that is what people really believe to be the real character of science as it really exists in the real world. * Look at the last link for Craig S. Lerner's discussion of the "measurement" of presidents' IQs who died before IQ was invented. To see how scientific the "study" was, it managed to assign an IQ to President Kennedy that is far different from the one he actually tested at during his lifetime. Just to show you how reliable that reduction of intelligence into a numerical measure can be seen to be. There has been other criticism of the book for its credulous historical citations, its absurd statistical method and other problems with it. Update: I just noticed that when I was typing this out my word processor was set at automatic spell correction, which can produce some rather unintentional Dada style prose. I've corrected as much of that as I can in this quick re-edit. I doubt it will be the last one. As I've said before, one of my first discoveries in the early weeks of my blogging career is that a man who acts as his own editor has a blogger for a client. You'll know I've won the lottery when my posts exhibit signs of competent editing.
As of the time of this posting, PZ Myers hasn't complied with the cease and desist order from Michael Shermer's lawyers. The outrageous post is up with its incredibly irresponsible and definitely libelous comment thread. Will he be sued for libel? I don't know. That's up to Shermer and his lawfirm. If it were me, I'd sue. PZ in a non-update, seems to be mostly in a maudlin, preemptively self-pitying mood. Which is unattractive if nothing else. I believe I once told him that I found character assassins were remarkably thin skinned. Myers anticipates significant damage to his own reputation, without seeming to consider that there might be a good reason for that. People tend to not want to be associated with someone who might at any time decide to publish that kind of a hit job on them. He anticipates his responsibilities at the University of Minnesota at Morris increasing. If that's the case I'd be keeping an eye on his conduct. He is, by his own admission, a bomb thrower. They don't tend to inspire confidence or collegiality. This is an update to the update: Apparently PZ is only posting comments praising him and agreeing with him now. The comments on the previous post were outrageously libelous, the ones on his non-update are a danger to your blood sugar levels.
In Steven Pinker's article I mentioned yesterday, he talks about a far more coherent and far more informed article about scientism in the form of a review of Sam Harris's writings by Jackson Lears which appeared in The Nation. He quotes a section of that
assumptions provided the epistemological foundations for Social
Darwinism and pop-evolutionary notions of progress, as well as for
scientific racism and imperialism. These tendencies
coalesced in eugenics, the doctrine that human well-being could be
improved and eventually perfected through the selective breeding of
the "fit" and the sterilization or elimination of the
"unfit." ... Every schoolkid knows about what happened
next: the catastrophic twentieth century. Two world wars, the
systematic slaughter of innocents on an unprecedented scale, the
proliferation of unimaginable destructive weapons, brushfire wars on
the periphery of empire—all these events involved, in various
degrees, the application of sceintific research to advanced
after that, he quotes a part of a speech given by Leon Kass, noting
that he was a bioethics advisor to George W. Bush,
ideas and discoveries about living nature and man, perfectly welcome
and harmless in themselves, are being enlisted to do battle against
our traditional religious and moral teachings, and even our
self-understanding as creatures with freedom and dignity. A
quasi-religious faith has sprung up among us—let me call it
"soul-less scientism"—which believes that our new
biology, eliminating all mystery, can give a complete account of
human life, giving purely scientific explanations of human thought,
love, creativity, moral judgment, and even why we believe in God. ...
Make no mistake. The stakes in this contest are high: at issue are
the moral and spiritual health of our nation, the continued vitality
of science, and our own self-understanding as human beings and as
children of the West.
course, one of his motives is to denegrate the opinions of one or both by
associating them with the enemy of his readers choice. Based on what I know of Pinker and the magazine he was published in, The New Republic, I think Lears was the target of denigration by association. Considering his subject, it's rather odd that Pinker didn't note that
Kass, unlike Jackson Lears, is a member of Pinkers club, a molecular
biologist and physicist. I haven't read the speech so I don't
know what else he said in it or if the elision is his or Pinker's.
after setting up that frame, Pinker takes the standard claim of moral impunity for science.
are zealous prosecutors indeed. But their cases are weak. The mindset
of science cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not
threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation. It is, rather,
indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the
arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.
someone who has studied the history of eugenics in quite a bit of
depth, from the original primary documents, written by the scientists
who invented and supported eugenics, there couldn't be a stronger
case possible that they not only came up with the theories of that
proposed application of natural selection in the human species, but
also, from the beginning included all of its most horrible features,
including the killing of people as its logical requirements. Really, killing people in the name of biological hygiene of the human species.
in encouraging conditions that would more passively lead to the
deaths of those denominated as "unfit" "weaker
members" of the human species, the disabled, the ill and,
most often of all, the poor and members of ethnic and racial
groups explicitly declared inferior to Europeans, death figures in it from the start. And that was
the case for the beneficial benefits of merely letting such people
die without any help to prevent that. There were, from as
early as the 1860s, calls by scientists to actively kill those deemed unfit, made by
scientists as eminent at the time as Ernst Haeckel with widespread approval
of some of the most renowned scientists of that time whose reputation
couldn't be higher today. Darwin, himself endorsed the books in which Haeckel said that, with no reservations stated on those points. If Pinker has not read the primary literature, he really should because those scientists presented their
eugenics as constituting reliable science in the most unmistakable
and explicit of terms. There is absolutely no rational case to be made that they didn't say what they did.
or not Pinker likes the fact, what they were doing was fully accepted
by the most influential faction of scientists at that time, it
is science that has been asserted by recent scientists as respected and renowned as Francis
Crick and W. D. Hamiliton. Those lauded and influential
scientists of the supposed post-eugenics period left documents of
their rather outrageous support of Eugenics, both as theory
and as prescriptions for political policy. Eugenics was not
merely a scientific anomaly, it is a resurgent trend in science, an
outgrowth of the belief in the universal efficacy of natural
selection. It has been a feature of that ideological view
within biology, it has been since the beginning, it is one of the
most persistent over-reaches of scientists which has been responsible
for the murders of millions of people and an unknowable number of
those who died as a result of the passive neglect through the
discouragement of money being appropriated for aid.
And that is
only the most extreme result of the tendency to try to apply natural
selection to the human species. The reinforcement of class and
racial caste has blighted the lives of those who survive.
Crick, in particular, was a great supporter of both Jensen and
Shockley, of the point of view that any attempt to improve the lives
of the poor and racially suppressed by education and other proven
means of them rising was useless and a folly. And all of them
were scientists, in many cases Nobel laureates, whose identity as
scientists is unquestionable and whose one and only minds presented
their scientific racism and eugenics in terms of science, based in
scientific methods and arguments.
cases can be made, in the strongest of terms, for those scientists
who created the most potent weapons in human history and the less potent ones that kill many millions, the extraction
industries, the chemicals that pollute the environment and are put in
our foods. If you want to include the behavioral and related
sciences as science, as Pinker does, the role of psychology in
creating more effective lying on behalf of corporations, the
military, political parties, etc. would have to also figure in this.
Its role in figuring out how to sell lies and deception through
advertising is both one of the most malignant and most successful
branches of applied psychology. It's certainly more successful
than its clinical alleviation of miseries, not a few of which due to
the temptations that psychology has helped to sell.
are not deistic gods who create and then leave their creations to
work themselves out without any further involvement, they are generally paid to do what they do, kept on retainer and frequently the owner of patents on the applications of their work, sometimes becoming filthy rich from them.
What they do, in many cases, wouldn't exist without being paid work.
They also gain professional standing, repute and influence by
what they do. They are honored by their fellow scientists.
of that, all of what scientists consciously think and do must be what
constitutes "the mindset of science." When Fritz Haber
pioneered the modern use of poisonous gas in warfare, he was doing so
as a scientist, he was a professor at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, which had one of the most illustrious collection of scientists which has ever been assembled, including, of course Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg. The association between the German military industrial establishment and science couldn't have been more obvious if uniforms, gun drill and military rankings had been required of all of them. In 1918, when he should
have been on trial for war crimes, his fellow scientists honored him
with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Three other scientists working with him on gas warfare were to also be awarded Nobel Prizes later.
He went on with his work as a
scientist, creating the pesticide Zyklon, which, after his death, was
altered to create Zyklon B, the gas used in the scientifically
engineered death chambers of the Nazis. If he had still been alive
and living in Germany, I would imagine the only way that Haber could
have avoided being killed in one would be to trade on his expertise
as a scientist. Many of his fellow scientists escaped to places like
the United States that well could have rejected their immigration
were they merely everyday Jewish people with no status gained as
scientists or, to be fair, eminent scholars in other fields.
Anyone today who asserts the moral impunity of science and the scientists, whose minds in which science is constructed, when they have the history they have racked up in the past two centuries is telling one of the most pervasively believed of massive lies. Scientists are, first and foremost, people, human beings as heir to depravity and greed, selfishness and hypocritical claims to the better half of a double standard as the sleaziest conman or TV hallelujah peddler. And they are even more potentially dangerous when they enter into the realm of political and military influence and power. Science is efficacious it can produce nuclear weapons, oil drilling under the ocean, a massive carbon overloading in the atmosphere, racial profiling, gender inequality, and a myriad of other real manifestations of science as proposed by scientists as blight our history and put our future at risk. No scientist can honestly make the claims Pinker has for science and then be allowed to lie about its history.
The declaration of scientism is that only science can produce knowledge, whatever is not known through science is not known. But that's a lie. History can produce knowledge more absolutely known than most of science, it can produce absolute knowledge of many aspects of the phenomenon of humanities collective experience, our world and our past. It can cast a light on the complexity of the present that science is entirely unable to illuminate in such detail. The history of science and the scientists whose mindset produces and are responsible for it is knowable in considerable detail GAINED FROM READING WHAT THOSE SCIENTISTS HAVE SAID IN THEIR OWN WORDS IN THEIR OWN PAPERS, ARTICLES AND BOOKS. They said it so that their thoughts, their minds could be known and understood, that their words would have potency and the identity of science and the privilege of being relied on as true. Calling it science magnifies its power many times. That they said what they did, that they produced the things they produced that kill people and blight lives and endanger the entire biosphere are as real and as absolutely known as the most favorable case that can be constructed by applying the double standard that is the standard operating procedure from that activity of scientists and their fans.
I highly recommend reading Jackson Lears' article. It is far better than Pinkers and far more honest.
The Dead Moth Tango Oscar Macchioni - Piano
Named for a moth Bolcolm killed accidentally while composing it. He taped the poor thing to the manuscript as a memorial. This is the first of Bolcom's Three Dance Portraits. Wish I could post the other two. Maybe someday.
Note: Just noticed I neglected to include a link to Pinker's article when I posted this. Sorry. Steven Pinker's recent column in The New Republic supposedly defending science against the charge of scientism is a good example of a piece growing wronger as it grows longer, there is so much he is just plain wrong about it would require a far longer piece to point all of it out.
In what is clearly an opportunistic muddling of the issue Pinker claims that the definition of "scientism" is unclear.
The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.” Sometimes it is clarified with adjectives like “simplistic,” “naïve,” and “vulgar.” The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of “queer” and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.
There isn't anything incoherent about what scientism is in so far as denotation, it is the holding that science is the only means of really knowing something. Most famously, it is the ideology of Bertrand Russell's famous and incoherent statement.
While it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.
Which is a statement that, obviously, couldn't be known because science is unable to tell you if it is true that science is the only method of knowing something. And there was no one who should have more painfully learned that truth by the year he said that, 1935, than Bertrand Russell. That is the definition of scientism, however there is nothing preventing authors from misusing the term (imagine someone in his profession mistaking connotation for denotation). Something that Pinker immediately did after he wrote that.
Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.
The first temptation is to go through some of Pinker's writing to see how much of what he asserts is backed up by rigorous use of the armamentarium of methods he mentions, but that would require another post. The rigor with which scientists do not apply those and strictly hold to their pledged procedures is another enormous topic. Science is very much a sometimes thing, even leaving aside occasional mistakes and accidental lapses. Again, taking into account Pinker's professional field, it's amazing that he could make such a facile statement about this.
Scientism is an ideology, it is a statement of an ideological position. And one of the worst things about ideologies is that they become an a priori substitute for the substance of thinking, rejecting information and filling where that belongs with previously held ideological holdings, rejecting new information that contradicts or fails to confirm that holding. It is a school of thought, in which the thinking either conforms to the requirements of the school or it is expelled or drops out.
If you believe, with Russell, that only those aspects of human experience which are susceptible to treatment by science, on one hand, you will reject everything that can't be adequately observed, quantified and analyzed to treat with science. That inevitably rejects the possibility that those human experiences can possibly be valid and that the truth of them can be had. In its most popular form today, that leads the ideologue of scientism to declare that large amounts of human experience is delusional, is false, is a lie when there is no evidence to support that rejection other than their ideological disqualification of it.
On the other hand, there is a far more subtle and far more dangerous tendency to try to fit human experience, that is undeniably there, into a simulation of science, of scientific treatment, when it isn't possible to make the adequate observations, measurements and analysis. The method typical of such science is to leave things inconvenient to their purposes out of it, no matter how obviously relevant they are. Pinker's piece, reflecting his professional interest, goes into defending behavioral and related sciences that could stand as the quintessential example of that practice. He began:
The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.” And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of shortsightedness that frustrate our best-laid plans. His list of who he's talking about is rather interesting to consider for how accurately they fit into his retrospective categorization of their work into those currently fashionable within his ideological school of cognitive science.
These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith—are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data. The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it? That's quite a shopping list. Especially considering how much of what they concluded is unfashionable today. I mean, Descartes? Rousseau? As cited by a c. 2013 cognitive scientist? Has Pinker even read them? I wish some medium could consult them to ask what they think of the contemporary literature that Pinker contributes to as compared with their own work. I somehow doubt that it would stand up well to the destructive acid of Descartes method. I'd like to know what he thought about fMRI as superior to all too fallible human perception, especially if he reads the literature critical of its use -especially the famous example of brain activity being imaged in a dead salmon at Dartmouth. If there's one thing I am certain of, the scientists who fooled the fMRI machine knew the fish was dead.
I wonder why he didn't include the most famous examples of Galileo and Newton. I, somehow, think neither of them would be too impressed by the rigor of the methods by which the neruo and cognitive scientists of today glue their assertions to rigorously made observations and measurements, not to mention the far more resistant surface of the reality of what happens outside of their labs. I'm far from confident that some of them would be all that impressed with the rigor of observation and some may point out that a great deal of it is far from rigorous at any step. If Pinker wanted to give his guests from the distant past an honest view of it, they should be made familiar with the self-deception of more recent scientists in these areas, the ephemeral value of their firmly held scientific holdings.
Notice that I didn't put science in quotations in that last sentence. The practice of separating once firmly held but now discontinued science from what is science today is to falsify reality. I say that just as religion has to own up to its unattractive history and features, if it's going to be held up to be so far very superior in honesty and integrity, science must be required to own its own past.
Science is only what is considered to be science by those making the assertion of it. It is whatever purported truth is held to constitute science at any time, all of those ideas held to be science without sufficient opposition to be rejected as science. This is far from the ideal held to constitute science, even the formal ideal of only those ideas which meet the most rigorous requirements alleged to constitute the methods of science and scientific review.
As a reader of Retraction Watch it's crystal clear that even that most formal meaning of the word, "science," those ideas held in the minds of the most informed of scientists, includes many ideas that are soon shown to be false, at times entirely fraudulent but which have, nonetheless, passed through the contemporary methods of review of science. The Platonic ideal that is generally held to comprise science is clearly not present on the Earth, in the minds of scientists, the only place in which science is known to reside. And, in reality, science doesn't even get to live only in that elite neighborhood but is also in those far from well informed and far from rigorous minds which hold ideas it believes and CAN PASS OFF TO OTHERS as being science. The minds of those with but little learning in science is the residence of the largest part of science. That's not really true of one related discipline, mathematics which practices such formal rigor and is, itself, not about anything vulnerable to a really popular treatments of the kind that Pinker specializes in. And that fact is what makes mathematics so far less vulnerable for its truths becoming an embarrassment to be unmentioned or to be insulted by putting its identity as mathematics in quotations for current purposes.
As I said, Pinker's article would require a far longer refutation than I'm able to give it in one post. But I might go back to it. It is such a rats nest of false ideas, superficial thinking and clearly wrong assertion of fact that it could produce another series.
In my long post Sunday, I quoted several passages of PZ Myer's outrageous and, I would imagine, libelous blog post, "What do you do when someone pulls the pin and hands you a grenade?" One of them is mentioned on page 3 of a letter from Michael Shermer's lawyers to Myers, noting that the version I copied from Myer's blog was a version that differs from the one Myer's originally posted. There is a crucial difference in that the first version says
“The anonymous woman who wrote to you through Carrie is known to me, and in fact I was in her presence immediately after said incident...."
The version I copied from Myer's apparently revised post reads
“The anonymous woman who wrote to you is known to me, and in fact I was in her presence immediately after said incident....”
Apparently Myers may not have even had the accusation directly from the woman he says made it. His claim of how he learned of it is certainly deceptive if that's the case
So I’ve been given this rather…explosive…information. It’s a direct report of unethical behavior by a big name in the skeptical community (yeah, like that hasn’t been happening a lot lately), and it’s straight from the victim’s mouth. And it’s bad. Really bad.
So the charge may well have been third hand by the time Myers' posted what he did. The lawyer's letter indicates that the "Carrie" in the version of the "confirmation" e-mail is Carrie Poppy another person involved in and around the "Free Thought" Blogs, which a number of commentators have said has sort of been sniping at Michael Shermer for a while, now.
In a more recent post Myers' asks "Are We Having Fun Yet?" discussing what apparently are charges being made against CFI, a "skeptic"-atheist organization I've been critical of in the past but which, unless they are actually guilty of anything in regard to sexual harassment, aren't guilty of that. My first temptation was to sit back and watch people and groups I don't especially like fighting among themselves to their mutual and self-inflicted harm - I have been extremely critical of the James Randi "Educational" Foundation that Carrie Poppy makes accusations against a the link above. But this entire thing has gone far beyond where that would be either ethical or especially edifying. CFI was mentioned by some, speculating that it was the "organization" charged with sweeping the accusation under the rug on Myers' comments.
That Myers' apparently classifies these charges as "fun" is pretty disgusting. He does get in what seems to be becoming a habit, issuing preemptive self-pity based on precognitions of future negative consequences for himself and taking the opportunity to get in a final dig.
And now Chris Clarke spurns CFI-LA. The informal offer he mentions was the result of a conversation I had with CFI-LA; they were considering bringing me out for a Darwin Day event, and also snagging Chris to share the stage, which would have been excellent. It may all be moot now, anyway. I suspect I’m on the CFI blacklist along with a few other speakers whose names you can probably guess…but they won’t be the well-known men who have reputations for womanizing. Funny how that works. While I'm certainly opposed to what is generally covered under my rather old-fashioned conception of "womanizing" - a word which one might suspect Myers' chose due to its less actionable ambiguity - it's a new one on me to have "free thinking," "skeptical," religion-bashers standing up for old fashioned sexual propriety. In my understanding of the term, it most definitely and absolutely doesn't cover rape, even cads of my and earlier generations would not do that. Though it definitely covers philandering, and fooling around and even seduction of the willing, something I'd always thought was one of the more popular attractions of the "free thought" set. But these are murky and frequently brackish waters. If you're going to dip into them, you'd better be careful to point out exactly what you mean and have first hand evidence to back it up or you may find yourself opening long letters from law firms if not the police. I'd definitely think that the use of alcohol should be avoided before swimming. Let me put in another plug for acting like an adult instead of a teenager.
But what Myers' did certainly doesn't count as fun and rape isn't anything to center the PZnut gallery fun-time around.
Update: For any of you who read through large numbers of the comments at PZ's blogs before, here's his condemnation of .... well.....
or Please, Let’s Don’t Have To Go Through That All Over Again
Note: Got What's Going Around So A Rerun First posted at Echidne of the Snakes January 04, 2009
You probably know the feeling. Sitting with my sister-in-law one afternoon a mutual friend of ours dropped in. Over coffee our friend told us about her recent dates, she’d reached after breakup stage where she was dating again. Lucy (not her real name) complained that she’d had a bad time.
My sister-in law said, “I thought you were seeing Bill. He’s a nice guy, has a good job. Didn’t you like him?”
- Oh yeah, he’s all right. He asked me to go out again.
- I don’t know.
- Well, why don’t you go out with him again?
- I don’t know. He’s a real good guy. He’s just not very exciting.
My sister-in-law and I had exactly the same thought at that time, Lucy’s last long term relationship had been with a man who cultivated the semi-outlaw image of the motor-head variety. He was all right, never in jail as far as I knew. He stayed with Lucy through a child, a decade of mortgage payments and many turbulent episodes providing considerable excitement. He wasn't physically abusive or verbally abusive. All right, he was fairly good looking but talking with him tended towards noncommital mono-syllables. After he took up with a younger woman, after Lucy tried, unsuccessfully to get him to marry, they split. His phobia to commitment, which could withstand the bonds of parenting* and buying a house together, couldn't withstand fifteen minutes in front of a justice of the peace. I suspected that at the bottom of it, he couldn't square that particular and entirely symbolic act with his outlaw image. Those spurs that "jingle jangle jingle" ? You remember that "they sing, oh, ain't you glad you're single?" and, "that song ain't so very far from wrong."
We both thought Lucy could do with considerably less excitement than their relationship had provided. As I said, both of us thought it, only I was impolitic enough to say it
My generation was brought up with two dominant models of men. There were the outlaws, cowboys, bikers, the so-called rugged individualists. The other predominant model was the reliable man, the pillar of the community, the family man. In pop-culture you could differentiate them easily enough, cowboys vs. Father Knows Best. As an aside, for a gay kid, it was mostly noticeable in that cowboys on TV wore impossibly tight pants.**
When the 60s arrived the secret agents became sort of cowboys in service to the establishment, creating a third alternative, though one less available for emulation. Then there was the brief attempt to break out of all of them by a lot of us. It was all very complicated and so confusing and the escape from the bonds of masculine identity was hardly perfect even as newer roles developed, a lot of them just pasted sideburns and facial hair on one of the other identities and went right on.
With that background it was kind of strange for me to see the two-generations removed nostalgia for the family man model that the The Art of Manliness blog represents. What’s wrong with a model that tells men that they should be responsible and mature, that they should take care of their families and be responsible citizens? Oh, it’s hard to say. For a lot of people it might work all right. I’d have loved to have someone attend to the details of house etc, I’d probably have been a much better musician if I’d been relieved of those. But it would have been at a cost.
Doing what’s necessary is a requirement to achieving full adulthood. Being able to fix the plumbing (which I can’t do) or shoveling the driveway, taking responsibility for finances and the other petty details of life might be as necessary to any self-respecting adult as being able to stand up and say you don’t agree with the consensus in a meeting and being able to give a rational reason why.
In the world of the 50s, the Father Knows Best ideal was essentially at odds with women achieving adulthood. Men got to be adults, women were supposed to be as vacuous as June Cleaver or most of the roles that Marilyn Monroe was assigned. Even Eve Arden, sardonic and clever, longed for the day she could hand her adulthood to Mr. Right. I think that in popular culture of the time, there being a prohibition on a woman expressing her own sexual desires, it was replaced by the cult of material and social stability. But to get that, women had to give up their status as autonomous individuals, sublimating their ideas under a blanket of husbandly dominance. The trade-off, largely unavailable to those who chose to go with the outlaw model, was that the man was supposed to “be a man” and provide that security. In practice, that was achieved only in some cases.
I suspect my friend was the victim of that model under which she also grew up. She saw her choice between someone who was exciting and undependable or someone who was stifling but dependable. And that’s what’s wrong with The Art of Manliness. The risk of the daddy-adult stifling women. It’s a role that could easily fall back into the 50s model, that clearly hankers after that kind of reliable, maybe even benevolent, daddy-husband. The icky Reagan marriage as archetype.
None of the past models of manliness was worth keeping, none of them worked as advertised. The lives of those who tried to adopt them were either shallow and selfish or impossibly burdensome to men. And they all required roles of women which were, if anything, more destructive. No one should be pressured into sublimating their adulthood, no one outlaw men or women, should be relived of the requirement to grow up. The knowledge that you are being responsible that you are giving up transient, personal wants because it is necessary, of doing things for other people, of facing the truth, of being fully grown up, is a human need as much as sex is. Adults, in the absence of some actual mental disease, are kept healthy by acting like adults. They make themselves likable by acting like adults, by doing what’s responsible. They gain the respect and affection of other people through that. And that is a human requirement of all genders, gender orientations, of any ethnicity, whatever condition of life we find ourselves in.
* As I recall, she did most of the actual parenting, until the kid was old enough to pal around with.
* * If real cowboys wore pants as tight as TV cowboys they’d never have been able to do their chores.
One of the longest and most challenging sonatas in the repertoire, sometimes called the French Hammerklavier. Composed in the last year of the 19th century and the first of the 20th century, it sums up the one and anticipates a lot of the second. It always comes to my mind this time of the year, when summer is changing to fall even as it reaches its fullest maturity as summer.
György Ligeti ETUDE XIII THE DEVIL'S STAIRCASE
This is something I just look at the music for and say, I'd never be able to play it. But I'm glad someone can. This is played incredibly and brilliantly and beautifully by Claudio Martinez Mehner.
Ten minutes ago I was on Glenn Greenwald's comment thread at The Guardian. The topic was one I agree with him about almost on every point EXCEPT that I think Edward Snowden was incredibly stupid to choose Hong Kong as a sanctuary carrying an apparently disputed number of laptops with him (the figure I've seen mentioned most often is four) and the rest of what followed that brilliant decision.
First, on The Guardian website, I was given a choice of venues for commenting, including Face Book and Google, because, you know everyone knows that those are entirely devoted to the privacy of their customers, especially their Chinese customers, apropos of the Privacy Martyr Snowden taking refuge in the land of privacy.
I chose Google because I figure they've got everything on me since I'm a Blogger blogger and use G-mail and I wouldn't trust Face Book and have no idea how to use it.
Anyway, in response to some snark I made a snarky comment about superheroes. I went to another website. Guess what was all over the ads? Superheroes, something I have never in my life had anything to do with and which have never, in my memory appeared there before. Ten minutes, ONE MENTION IN ONE COMMENT ON THE GUARDIAN WEBSITE IN WHICH GLENN GREENWALD BLOWS HIS TOP ABOUT ONLINE PRIVACY. And I'm supposed to get infinitely more upset that the NSA might take an interest in the e-mail addresses of people I'm foreign-e-mailing in some way that I'm not upset about Google reading a lot more than that AND INSTANTLY AND AUTOMATICALLY SELLING THE INFORMATION.
This piece was written on December 30, 2010 for Echidne of the Snakes, where I used to write. It was an answer to comments on a post I did about the accusations made against Julian Assange in Sweden. At the time there was a lot of talk about whether or not what he was accused to have done during consensual sex constituted rape or something like rape. Something that is still argued about. At the time I wrote this, no one seemed to have asked if two women who didn't know him but had invited him to their place to have sex might have shared in producing what happened. He didn't force himself into their residences, he wasn't a stranger who forced himself into their beds, he was a stranger asked to spend the night. Given what gay men of my generation had learned about what could happen when you have sex with people you don't know, I thought someone should bring up that they could have thought about that before hand. I'm more convinced of the points I made in it today than I was then. After my own experience, had since the early 1980s, it was a relief to finally say what had to be said. And it will have to be said over and over again by lots of people. I've added an update for 2013. One thing had to be changed, the CDC reports that the actual figures for HIV transmission in the United States is about ten thousand more than the figures I found when this was written.
Imagine you have a gay son. Of course some of you won't have to imagine that because you have a gay son, or, perhaps, a son who is gay and hasn't come out. Imagine your gay son is a teenager or young adult. Immediately, you know that it is very likely that your gay son is going to have sex with other gay men, if not when he's a teenager, when he's an adult. You know about AIDS and HIV, you know that it is spread through unprotected anal sex and you might know that anal sex is among the most common* sexual practices among gay men today. If you are aware of what is known about the transmission of HIV you certainly would want to encourage your son to not engage in unprotected anal sex and, if you are brave enough, you might at least make certain that he is aware of what he needs to know to lessen his chances of becoming infected. That's not easy, even for a gay uncle who is all too well aware of what AIDS is. I know this from personal experience. I would imagine it's harder for most straight parents.
One of the most important realizations about the AIDS epidemic in gay men in the 1980s and 90s was that it was largely a product of the legal oppression of gay men. Gay men hadn't been allowed to marry, they were forced to remain hidden to escape discrimination and violence. That situation prevented many gay men from forming intimate sexual relationships that were ongoing, though some did manage to have them. It also led to the phenomenon of known cruising spots where you could find other men who would have sex with you, strangers who would have sex anonymously and who you might never see again. Those places were everywhere, there were guides published of where to find anonymous sex even in the most surprising rural locations.
Even before AIDS, the practice of casual sex with strangers led to very high rates of venereal diseases among gay men including hepatitis, I remember hearing one gay man assert that having hepatitis was something of a right of passage for gay men. That hepatitis is a seriously dangerous illness, that often leads to cancer of the liver, wasn't taken seriously by a lot of gay men and most other STDs were thought of as being a minor inconvenience. Again, there were and are gay men who don't engage in casual sex with strangers, there are many.
With the identification of AIDS , even before the virus was identified, lessening the impact of the practice of anonymous sex among gay men led to the temporary decrease in new HIV infections, but only after a massive effort to change habits. And that effort was met with strong objection, especially on the part of some of the theorists of gay politics of the 70s. Anything that discouraged gay men from having casual sex with whomever, in whatever way was declared by these thinkers to be internalized oppression. They held that the liberation of sex from love was a major achievement of the gay revolution they imagined they were the bulwark of. They rejected the public health campaign that encouraged condom use and taking measure to protect gay men from the virus, in the early days of the crisis, in the most strident terms. Apparently something called “sex” was, they imagined, separable from the people who participated in it. Which goes as great thinking in some quarters.
When Gloria Steinem said “The sexual revolution was not our war,” it was a brilliant insight. The sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s were mostly for the benefit of straight men, Hugh Hefner's adolescent fantasy life becoming generally available. Without equality, without both political and social equality and the rights that equality is made of, just being able to have sex without social and legal repercussions is bound to result in an extension of oppression. That has been the case extending into history when men were almost always free to rape slaves with impunity, with the approval, explicit or implied, of the law and general society**. I assert that it was also not the revolution that gay men needed either.
The dynamics of freeing sex in a culture of inequality is somewhat harder to see in gay men because even gay men aren't oppressed in the same way and to the extent that women are. But there are inequalities within gay relationships, sometimes economic, sometimes based on differences in intelligence and experience, quite often based on relative psychological vulnerabilities and not infrequently on the basis of differences in physical strength. The variations within any identified group are enough to make any general assertions about the members of that group, increasingly inaccurate.
Some people have noted that the AIDS crisis organized gay men as nothing else ever had. After the idiocy of the fashionable political cant of the 70s was overcome, to some extent, gay communities organized to try to change behavior and stop the transmission of the virus. And that was pretty successful until the idiotic assertion that “AIDS is over” was declared with the availability of drugs to suppress the virus in those who already had it. Though that was a lie, there are about 50,000 new infections in the United States every year, the drugs have major and serious side effects and are expensive and there is no guarantee that the virus won't continue to generate resistant forms that could be even more devastating than the original strains were.
And, as you know, women are infected with HIV through vaginal sex as well as through anal sex by men who are infected. Straight men are often infected through anonymous sex with women or men just as gay men are. I suspect that for many women, who have grown up with the idea that AIDS is primary a problem for gay men are at the stage gay men were in the early days before the syndrome even had a name.
Of course this is all by way of explanation for my comments on the accusations made about Julian Assange. Being a witness to the deaths of dozens of gay men I knew, knowing that just about all of them with a few exceptions, likely were infected through casual sex with someone they didn't know, knowing that women can be infected by men, all of that informs my thinking on whether or not people should be having casual sex with people they don't know in 2011. And the fact is they shouldn't. Women deserve better than they're going to get from men under those circumstances, men who have sex with men deserve better than they get from it. There is nothing liberated about being infected with HIV or hepatitis or chlamydia or any number of other infections that can injure and kill you. Having sex with someone who can persuade you to engage in sex you don't want or who can trick or force you into it is the opposite of free choice. No more than getting robbed by a conman. And there is no law you can make that will protect you from any of that which is stronger than protecting yourself. And there is nothing that is more likely to protect you than knowing who it is you're agreeing to have sex with.
Imagine that these women had sex with a man who was infected with HIV and he was enough of a con artist to convince them to engage in sex without a condom. I would find it hard to believe anyone who doesn't realize that is possible for many if not most women or gay men, especially if they are young and inexperienced. There is no law that is going to protect you from a good con man who is already in your house or in your bed.
I have nieces who I love as well as if they were my daughters, I have nephews who I feel the same way about. I don't want them to have sex with people they don't know because it is dangerous and it leads to a general cheapening of relationships and a decreased respect for other people. I don't want them to grow up feeling coerced into having dangerous and casual sex with people who they have no reason to believe will care about them and have any regard for their well being. The sexual revolution wasn't the right war. The one for equality is. Equality is the supreme political value, with it comes all other rights. Equality is valued less that liberty precisely because it comes with personal obligations to treat other people as you would want to be treated, and more so if you don't think you deserve to be treated well. Only within a culture of the personal restraints required by equality would it be safe to assume that you could engage in casual sex with strangers safely. And even within that, other, culture and with those unavailable assumptions, it would still be risky enough to be unwise if not irresponsible.
* There is a lot of evidence that anal sex wasn't the predominant form of sex among gay men in the United States until the 1970s. There is a large percentage of gay men who don't practice anal sex even today, due to personal preference and in response to HIV. Personally, I didn't and don't and am disgusted at the coercion that gay men often experienced to engage in it has, apparently, become acceptable among young straight people.
** Hagar's treatment in Genesis is pretty standard treatment for slaves. In the story Sarah even suggested it to Abraham as a means of having a son. But the idea that she might have sex with a slave, if it was Abraham who was infertile, doesn't seem to have been seen as an option.
Note: You might want to read this more recent discussion between Gloria Steinem and Suheir Hammad which discusses some of these issues.
It is one of my most bitter disappointments that young people today not only didn't learn the lessons from the experience of my community, gay men, about with sexual responsibility and HIV-AIDS. But with the rise of the insanity of the entirely phony "sex-pos" "feminism," hook-up culture, etc. facilitated and encouraged by online social networking teenagers and young adults are turning themselves into the stage set for more epidemics that will kill millions more people.
In 1980 there was no indication that a virus such as AIDS was about to make itself known, kill huge numbers of people around the world and remain as a pandemic decades later. But now we know what is possible.
There is no law of probability that holds that HIV-AIDS is going to be the only such virus or pathogen that takes hold in the petri-dish that people practicing high-risk, highly promiscuous sex, especially in the context of modern transportation, make of themselves and their sexual partners. And, yes, I will commit the thought crime of noting their responsibility for that. Gay men bought a completely false and irresponsible line promoting having casual and anonymous sex with abandon in the 1970s, after the temporary suppression of many of the previous epidemic sexually transmitted diseases, we were told anything goes by way of seeking sexual pleasure. Which proves that even as epidemic levels of other serious sexually transmitted diseases, such as hepatitis were causing serious health problems in people we knew, it's still easy to sell an attractive lie.
After AIDS, there is no excuse for not knowing that but people with things to sell, lines to sell and seeking their own fame and fortune are successfully selling that lie to the general population. I will predict that if the present trends in promiscuous sexual behavior continue, what one virus was able to evolve into, many others of the uncounted myriads of viruses will evolve into. Various strains of highly drug resistant syphilis are first reported in prostitutes who are subjected to dangerous sex on a daily basis. HIV evolved in modern times from some other virus that apparently didn't have what it came to be. The AIDS epidemic only proved that such diseases will still evolve given the right culture and a large sexually promiscuous population turns themselves or are forced into becoming the culture right for that to happen.
There is no law of nature that says the next one might not be a lot worse and prove impossible to treat.