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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The seventh sex, and other sexes.

by john MacBeath Watkins

The reactions to Bradley Manning announcing that henceforth she is Chelsea Manning has brought home to me how quickly our culture is changing it attitudes toward gender identity.
A 16th cent. pamphlet unrelated to Manning.

Like most people my age, I was raised to think there were two sexes. Sometime in the late 1980s, I concluded that there were at least seven: Men who love men, men who love women, men who are women, women who are men, women who love men, women who love women, and those who make love to no one  at all.

Ah, if only it were that simple.

One problem is that desire is at least as mysterious as  emotional gender. People may mix any of the seven genders with another. They can be men who love women and men, they can be women who are men who love men, and we may never have enough pronouns for it all.

The son of a woman I dated had a friend who was a transgender man. His mother had a hard time accepting this, and we had an interesting time when she came in to buy a gift certificate for "my daughter," who I knew as a transgender man.

The situation was further complicated by the issue of desire. I could be wrong, but I think he had a crush on the son of the woman I dated. He started out physically female but emotionally male, became physically and emotionally male, but had the desires of a heterosexual female, a desire for heterosexual men.

Which set me to thinking, how necessary was sexual reassignment surgery for the happiness of this man? Wouldn't he be better off if the world accepted him as a man, while he retained the plumbing compatible with his desires? Perhaps, as our society becomes more accepting, we will see a time when he could have been husband to a heterosexual man, even starting a family.

I'm sure there are many transsexuals for whom, regardless of who they are attracted to, the physical change in gender is needed for them to feel right. But the whole idea of changing someone's gender by surgery strikes of a 1960s scientific triumphalism, and the old liberal claim that the human mind is infinitely adaptable.

Doctors therefore assumed that you could assign sex to intersex infants and they would adapt to being whichever sex the doctor chose for them. The mind is a tabula rasa, they figured, and the child would engage in the learned behaviors appropriate to the assigned gender.

This, of course, is silly, as should have been obvious at the time. Even people who have no desire for children, for example, feel deprived if they do not get to take part in reproductive behavior, because we are creatures of instinct as much as of intellect. These instincts help give us the motivation to do something rather than nothing, so it's as well we have them.

But sexual reassignment, as opposed to sexual assignment, is an intervention when something has gone wrong, when the soul of one gender occupies the body of another. We have come to expect a technological solution to everything, so rather than accept the transgender person's word for it that they are the gender they feel they are, we fixed their bodies -- not just so that they could be comfortable in their bodies, but so that others could be comfortable with the gender choice they've made.

The thing is, often technology changes more rapidly than culture. When sexual reassignment surgery was invented, our culture set a bright line between men and women, and demanded that you choose. The alternative, to live your life as the gender you choose without any physical change, is a choice many people made. Billy Tipton comes to mind.

Tipton might have lived longer had he been willing to go to a doctor, but was too desperate to protect the secret of his female anatomy. It was a secret his adopted sons learned only when paramedics were trying to save Tipton's life.

When Tipton chose his gender identity, it at first appeared he was just trying to break the glass ceiling. He was a jazz pianist, and while the other musicians accepted him as a player knowing him to be Dorothy off stage, he apparently thought audiences would accept him better as a man.

But there was more to it. While at first, Tipton only donned male drag for performances, he was soon living his life as a man, even convincing a lover that the binding on his breasts was needed to protect damaged ribs, and that he lost his penis in the accident that had injured his ribs.

Maybe he dated women who wanted to believe him. The choices people make in their personal lives are more interesting and complicated than those who observe their public lives may ever know.

And why shouldn't his lovers have believed him? If biology is not destiny, why must we change it?

Sexual reassignment surgery was not an option when Tipton adopted his way of life, and by the time it was an option, he was poor, and already had made a life as a man, so perhaps the surgery was both inaccessible financially and unneeded for him to live his life. Yet his anatomy was such a dark secret that he refused medical treatment when he was deathly ill, apparently in fear of his secret being revealed, until it was too late to save his life.

It seems to me such a tragedy could best be averted by accepting who he was. He was born only four years before Marian McPartland, who had a wonderful career as a jazz pianist, so I'm not convinced that the male drag was needed for his career, though who knows, maybe for a woman to succeed as a jazz pianist back then, you had to be as talented as McPartland, a musical prodigy from the time she was three.

But to live his life, he needed to be a man, and in the absence of surgery, concealment was his method. Times have changed, and we no longer live in a time of secrets and shame. We live in a time when all can be known, and much can be accepted.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Only a half moon is granted sundered lovers

La maja desnuda
Francisco Goya

Only a half moon is granted sundered lovers
  by John MacBeath Watkins
     from The Book of Forbidden Words  copyright 2005

  A calm lake
  a half moon
  clean white sheets
  in a deep black gloom.

  When I lie down without you…
  O why lie down without you?
  I might as well tramp
  some widow's walk
  and wear out the soles of my shoes.

  A calm lake
  a half moon
  empty arms
  and an empty womb…

  O why lie down without you?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Impossibility Theorem

File:Moebius strip.svg

by John MacBeath Watkins

I’m sitting on the edge of my world
waiting for Columbus to come
waiting for the seeker of some secret shore 
to cast me a line and draw me close once more. 

We were parallel lines 
born never to meet
 until we ran into each other on this Mobeus street. 

Now I with all my mind 
cannot divine the final Pi 
but the laws the numbers live by
have long divided you and I. 
That world of liquid crystals
has seen unreason in our sins 
and with a clashing of its symbols
sought to bring its logic in. 

‘I divorced old barren reason’
 wise old Khayyam said 
and she showed up on our doorstep
where her lonely logic led. 
At    Pythagoras’ insistence 
she restored our perfect distance 

so I’m sitting on the edge of my world 
waiting for Columbus to come 
listening to the death of my words
 toppling off the tip of my tongue.

(by the way, I'm trying to label all the poetry and posts about poetry with the word "poetry" so that you can click on the label below and see all poetry and poetry-related posts on this blog.)

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Gettysburg Address, and why it matters

by Jamie Lutton
This August is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War,  in particular the Battle of Gettysburg where over three days tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers died in a bitterly won, horrible battle.
There does not seem to be much interest in this anniversary in Seattle, or anywhere on the West Coast. Most of the Civil War battles were on the East Coast. If we lived, say, 50 miless from the  Gettysburg (or the Battle of Bull Run, etc'), it might be a bit different.  
But our Civil  War seems so long ago and far away; there is not much public interest. I sell more books about the English Civil War than our Civil War. This is a pity; as American history is the great struggle for full rights for all human beings, played out in our political documents, like the Gettysburg Address.. 
This speech by Lincoln, made over those fresh graves , restated and re-framed the idea of what America stood for, and what the war was about. 

Gary Willis in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg  focuses on the incredible importance  of the text of the Lincoln short speech at Gettysburg, known as The Gettysburg Address., which many argue is the most important speech in the English Language. Lincoln was  Influenced by the 2,500-year-old  Perclies  funeral oration, praising Athens and its moral ideals,  and Jefferson's writings (and in my opinion Thomas Paine's The American Crisis)  

The grave moral  hazard facing our country from the 1790's to the 1850's was the persistence of the institution of slavery in half the country. Though slave holding had been banned in all the northern states, (and the slave trade from Africa had been made illegal some two decades before) slave owning was part of the economic engine of the South. .
In his book, Garry Willis gives a brilliant summation of the political struggles in the 1850's, where the South nearly won an important political battle - the fight to spead the instittution of slavery to the western territories like Kansas. This struggle was to  politically protect legal slavery in the South. .
If they had succeeded, the Northern states would have been outnumbered in the Senate and House, and the South very likely would have ended up controlling the nation.   We might never have been rid of slavery. 
Think of it as if the ""red states"" nowadays (note that they are the  former Slave Holding states and territories) dictating what California and Washington and Massicustests and New York does, in matters like gay rights and  abortion rights.
Anyone academic who claims that the Civil War was not about slavery is a revisionist, at the very least, or an outright apologist for slave holding.  The declarations of succession put forth by the Southern states say out right that slavery was their reason for succeeding.
This is why Lincoln At Gettysburg is the best one book on the Civil War to read. It fully deserves the Pulitzer Prize as the book is a masterpiece.   
The Civil War is isn't really 'about' the many furious and bloody battles that raged for 5 years - though books about them can make interesting reading These battles are only the second half of this great struggle.  
The great question is, why would our country rip itself apart, brother literally fighting brother, if it wasn't about deeply held ideas?  If in the end, it was not about  grotesque money and power struggling with the determined force of moral  conscience? 

We see that in our own times, when people are  fighting in America to keep gays from marrying. putting forth specious arguments against it.  When the Russian government feels so threatened by the gay rights movement that laws are passed to mortally attack gays and their sympathizers.. And the fighting over this is mild compared to the political infighting that occurred over whether should be legal to own a human being, 150 plus years ago..   
Lincoln at Gettysburg also reveals why Abraham Lincoln was such a good writer. Not only was he very well read,  he had a circle of friends who would review his speeches and political writings. He wrote his own speeches, instead of 'farming' them off to someone else. 
The 1850's in America are a distant mirror to our own time, as humanity struggles still over these vital questions .
If the South had managed to win the war, the United States would have been unrecognizable.  We would have been two countries; one larger than the other, slave holding, monstrous. That is why this war was a great moral struggle.  As Lincoln said in 1858, when he debated Douglas during the campaign, "A nation divided against itself cannot stand."
Another book to read is Grant Moves South, written in 1960 by Bruce Catton, as part of his 100 year anniversary series on the time of Civil War  
This particular  book is about how Grant took over command of the Union army, part way into the war.  It focused on what sort of man he was, as well as how he controlled and commanded the Union army. It  gives a week by week history of the beginning of the war, and the character and ability of particular leaders on both sides. . 
One small but  important account from this book was that one the first things the Union army did for the slaves fleeing the South and joining up with them, before the Emancipation Proclamation was written, was that after feeding the runaway slaves and giving them some shelter, they provided marriage for couples (pg363).
The slaves had not been allowed marriage under slavery, you see; only casual relations as slaves marrying was a  treat to their owners, to the notion that blacks were mere animals. .One Union chaplain married 119 of freed slaves in one hour.
Marriage meant the world  to the freed slaves, as they  had had their families ripped apart to be sold off. It symbolized their true freedom from bondage.
 It also humanized them in the eyes of the Union soldiers, most of whom had rarely seen black people. Because they wanted to be married, because they dealt with them face to face in great numbers, this brought their humanity alive to them, so they could see what they were fighting for.  And soon after this, the first Union army black companies were formed to fight the Confederates, even in the sure knowledge that they faced torture and death at the hand of the Confederate army if they were captured.
 The runaway slaves  had convinced enough of the Union leaders of their full humanity. And they were eager to serve..

These times are a echo of what we face now.  Some Americans, some nations! who we struggle with, would draw a circle around a small group and say 'only these people have full human rights'.  
Be the group in question be blacks, women, immigrants or gays the struggle is not over. It is clear who won the Reconstruction after the Civil War - the South did - as it took another 100 years and more before black citizens had a semblance of full civil rights.

But as we can see in Russia and elsewhere, today, the struggle is still ongoing to attempt to give all humans rights.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Feynman and the play of learning

by John MacBeath Watkins

Psychologists have known for more than a century that mammals learn through play. Karl Groos, after all, wrote The Play of Animals in 1898 and The Play of Man in 1901.

But most professors seem to lose track of this as they become more prominent. How do I know this? My learning style, as it happens, involves challenging my teachers. This has caused me great strife in my life, as it wasn't until I was in graduate school that most teachers would accept this.

One of the few prominent intellectuals who seems to have retained this knowledge is Richard Feynman.

If only we could all have had him as a teacher. O, wait, we can, at least for 1 hour and 5 minutes.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The pleasure of the plague (reading about it, not experiencing it.)

by Jamie Lutton

I was conferring with my business partner John Watkins about whether to change our Twice Sold Tales shop T-shirt design.
We have had a 'bubonic plague' or 'black death' theme for over 25 years now, and we thought about getting a new slogan.
Why bubonic plague t-shirts? I got interested in history back in 1981 when I read Barbara Tuchman's history book of the 1340s -1380's, A Distant Mirror. When you read history in high school, they don't dwell on the dark stuff.
I have concluded that  there have been two major catastrophes in Western Europe  in the last thousand years. One is the  Black Death outbreaks, which appear to have killed 50 to 60% of Europe's population, and kept the population from growing much for 400 years. The second was World War l, which killed more than half the mobilized forces, which included many of the men between 15 and 50.
 It radically changed society. Women moved into the work force during this war in all Western countries, including the United States, and never went 'home' again. Women's clothing weight was reduced by some 80%, as hems rose and corsets were discarded.

World War I encouraged a new cynicism about the intelligence of those in charge among not only  the intelligentsia,  but everybody.
 But the Black Death was inexplicable, something you couldn't blame on human nature, but which no authority could stop.
The Black Death overran all of Eurasia.  A person could go to bed healthy and not live though the night. Society nearly broke down as people fled the sick and dying, taking the disease with them to the next town. And the Black Death, after running over Europe for three years, came back 10 years later and killed another 20% of the population - mostly children.
This happened for the next 400 years, popping up in one country or another, wiping out 5% to 30% of the population each time.  The population of Europe did not return to the numbers of 1348 until the mid 1740's or so.

People then felt that Death was at close hand at all times. For us terrorism or even atomic warfare is a shadow over us.  Both eras live with sudden death as a ever present possibility. 
The Black death also helped create the modern world.  Because there were a lot fewer people, labor was suddenly expensive, and poor people began to demand better treatment.  There was nearly a revolution in the 1370's in England, as the poor rose up in a huge mob,  and walked to London to demand better treatment from the king of the time, Richard ll.
Unlike the long- lasting and very successful Roman Empire, which depended on a huge slave labor population to keep it's elite in power, the elites of the West began to encourage inventions that saved on expensive labor. With a constant labor shortage, there was money to be made in labor saving devices. There was a shortage of cheap labor in the monasteries to copy books, for example, so the frantic search for an alternative gave rise to the printing press 100 years later in Germany.

And with the ruination  of the world-view that the Catholic Church was infallible, new heresies were born and grew. People wanted to read the Bible themselves, not have priests interpret it for them. By the time Martin Luther, with the new invention the printing press at his back was able to break with the Church, with his writings  passed from hand to hand in new, printed form. .
Western Europe might have been like China and resisted new inventiuons and ideas, if the Black Death had not occurred.
When ships returned in the 1420's with reports to the Emperor of new lands to the West, the Chinese Emperor, successor to the man who had ordered the voyages, had ships that could voyage burned. He wanted to maintain political stability at home. He did not want new ideas in his land.
A few decades later, in 1491,  when Columbus said he could get to India by sailing west, the twin rulers of Spain, Fernande and Isabella, encouraged him and gave him money to buy ships, instead of burning his ships and locking him up. The tenor of the time was looking outward. Portugal was exploring Africa, seeking new trade routes The old institutions had failed by not stopping the disaster that was The Black Death, so people invented new institutions and new ideas. 
Careful observers in the 1720's or so noticed that if plague victims were walled up in their houses for 40 days, the disease would not spread further. This was a good 175 years before 'germ theory' finally proved that the fleas on rats were the vectors. And so the Black Death was finally halted, and the disease ebbed and nearly vanished in the West. This was helped by the black rat that carried the disease being displaced by the brown rat, and cities generally realizing that they had to clean the streets and have municipal l garbage pickup.
After reading A Distant Mirror I began to collect books on the Black Death. Here is a short list of some of my favorite books on the subject:
The Black Death by the French scholar Rosemary Horrox, in the Manchester Medieval Sources series
The Black Death By Phillip Zeigler published in 1969 - Folio Society.
The Black Death by Robert S. Gottifried published by the Free Press 1983.
Daughters, Wives and Widows after the Black Death by Mavis Mate 1998 The Boydell Press.
The Great Mortality by John Kelly 2005 Harper Collins.
My personal favorite is The Black Death: The Complete History 1346-1351 Ole Benedictow - this one is a contrarian book. It claims that the 'black death' might actu8ally have been an anthrax outbreak.
A novelized account that is VERY good is The Black Death - A Personal Story by John Hatcher. For the lover of fiction, this is the one great book on the subject. It focuses the impact on one small English Town for which we have very good records. Highly recommended. Also novel is  Daniel Defoe's book Journal of a Plague Year which is a novelized account of the Black Death epidmeic of 1666 in London.
a few related titles include:
More Cunning than Man (about rats in civilation) by Robert Hendrickson Kensington Books 1983.
The Great Famine by William Chester Jordan about the famine of 1315-1322 that arose from a period of 'global cooling. This famine, from years of no summers and failed crops, killed 10% of Europe's population before the Black Death.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A writer who spoke seductive justifications to power, and the policy legacy he left us

by John MacBeath Watkins

Jamie and I have been writing posts about great non-fiction books now and then, but one category we have missed: Influential books that have had a malign influence. My nominee for today is The Way the World Works, by Jude Wanninski, although its contents were quite influential before they were gathered together in a book.

I love charts. I'm especially fond of this one, and Paul Waldman's post that goes with it, which I recommend you read.:

Waldman's point is that Paul Ryan, who claims we have a trillion-dollar deficit, is incorrect. He's probably been saying that since we did have a trillion-dollar deficit, at the end of George Bush the Unready's term.

But there's a deeper pattern here. There was an uptick in the deficit in the 1980s, a quite significant and rapid reduction in the deficit during the Clinton Administration, an even more rapid increase in the deficit during the administration of George W. Bush and Dick "deficits don't matter" Cheney, and a quite remarkable reduction in the deficit under Barack Obama.

This clearly indicates that those quickest to decry deficits don't actually mind them. George Bush I failed to get re-elected, in spite of pushing the deficit down, because his supporters sat on their hands at election time in great numbers. Why? Well, instead of lowering taxes, he raised them. And when Bill Clinton was elected, the Gingrich congress created a budget crisis to make him lower the deficit, even voting for higher taxes. Why? Because, having drunk the voodoo economics Cool-aide, they thought raising taxes would hurt the economy and prevent Clinton from being re-elected.

Now they have abandoned that strategy, insisting instead that Obama make unpopular cuts to accommodate their preferred spending level. They have shown they cannot make those cuts themselves, because they know just how unpopular they would be if they did.

The problem is, the policy positions the GOP is pushing are often not core beliefs, but strategic moves to make the Democrats less popular. They had harsh things to say about John Maynard Keynes during the stimulus debate in 2009, but in 2008 they passed the Bush stimulus with nary a whimper. They did not oppose the Obama stimulus because they didn't believe it would work, they opposed it because they feared it would.

In the same framework of partisan maneuvering disguised as policy beliefs, the large deficits they ran up were not in any way accidental. Mitt Romney may have stuck his foot in it when he said the Democrats were buying off half the population with goodies paid for by tax, but he was voicing a core belief of Republican leaders, that buying off the voters with tax dollars works.

That's why George W. Bush added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. He thought it would make him popular with the older voters who are critical to the prospects of Republican candidates.

This goes back at least to 1976, when then Wall Street Journal pundit Jude Wanninski wrote a famous column about the "two Santas" theory of getting Republicans elected.

His theory was that the Democrats were getting elected by promising to spend tax dollars on things people wanted, and Republicans were playing Scrooge by trying to prevent them from doing so. He proposed that Republicans should play Santa as well, promising tax cuts. This dovetailed nicely with the "starve the beast" strategy, which said that if you wanted to make government smaller, you had to cut the taxes that fed it, then spending would have to fall.

The problem with Wanninski's theory was that the national debt was falling as a percent of GDP during the post-war period when Republicans claimed Democrats had been using this strategy. Rather than playing Santa, they were spending money on things people wanted, and paying for them with taxes people paid. Republicans had been part of this pay-as-you-go policy, but Wanninski worked to take them away from it.

Wanninski was also a big believer in supply-side economics, which claimed that if you lowered taxes, economic activity would increase and tax revenues would not go down. He labeled this the Laffer curve, after his friend, Arthur Laffer, who did not invent it. The concept goes back at least as far as David Hume, who made the argument in 1756, and is sometimes attributed to  Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was Calif of the Islamic empire from 656 to 661. Laffer's innovation was to claim that it would work at the levels of taxation present in the 1970s.

It didn't work when tried in the 1980s, and subsequent research shows the maximum revenue point for taxation is around 70%, which had been the top marginal rate since the Kennedy Administration, but we still hear this justification for lowering taxes occasionally.

Some writers make their mark by speaking truth to power. Wanninski made his mark by speaking seductive justifications to power. And the widespread influence in conservative circles of those justifications is still driving the debate today. The see-saw effect of the rising and lowering deficits is a result of this cynical view of the world. Republicans are trying to play Santa, and make Democrats play Scrooge, because Wanninski's arguments were so much more seductive than the hard work of governing well.

We need two parties capable of governing well in order to give voters a real choice, which is essential in a democracy. Wanninski's legacy is a Republican Party addicted to easy answers and a cynical view of government, a party that tried to use government to reward the nation for voting Republican and punish it for voting for Democrats, willing to crash the economy for partisan gain.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Christ Stopped at Eboli: A desperate but magical world

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the more remarkable non-fiction books I've read is Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Carlo Levi, an account of his internal exile into a small town in southern Italy in 1935-1936 because of his anti-Fascist beliefs and political activity. He was later imprisoned, and the book was not published until after World War II.

Levi was a doctor, a painter, and a liberal, which set him apart from the anti-democratic views of both the Communists and the Fascists (in the 1960s, he was elected to the Italian senate as an independent listed on the Communist Party ticket.) Mussolini's idea was to bury him alive in a town which did not have rail service or bus service, so that his views would not have influence.

Despite his status as a political prisoner in the town, the people of 'Gagliano' (he changed the name, actually he was exiled to Grassano and Aliano,) readily accepted him. It helped that they had little respect for the men who represented authority, the mayor, the doctors, and the priest. Levi's willingness to do what he could medically for the people he lived among helped, because the local doctors were inept.

Eboli, referred to in the title, was the nearest town with rail and bus connections. The meaning of the title, a phrase he heard in his new surroundings, was that much of modern civilization -- Christianity, the state, economic and cultural links to the outside world -- stopped at Eboli, never reaching 'Gagliano.'

He soon learned that his housekeeper was believed to be a witch. She'd had children by the previous priest, more popular than the current one (this was not uncommon. I actually know a fellow who is descended from a priest in a small town in southern Italy.)

Some of the townspeople had gone to America, and many houses had portraits of Franklin Roosevelt, but not of Mussolini (and often a framed dollar bill sent back by a relative in America, as well.) It's pretty easy to see why Italy got into a civil war after the Allies invaded Sicily, where they were (I kid you not, this is the phrase in Wikipedia) greeted as liberators. Mussolini was ousted and arrested, then rescued by the Germans to run a puppet state in the north, fighting against southern Italians.

Politically, the book is a reminder that Italy was a young country, made up of little states that joined together in 1861. Levi speaks of the towns that were aligned with the "bandits' (anti-unionist Italians, many of their leaders being nobles who would lose power.) Italians in the 1930s often spoke a local dialect as well as Italian.

But to me, the real meat of the book is the persistence of beliefs in spirits not sanctioned by the church, in witchcraft, in mischievous gnomes, said to be the spirits of children who died before baptism, in dreams that revealed the location of treasure, in the power one old man was said to wield over wolves.

It was all of a piece with the way they accepted him.

This passive brotherliness, this sympathy in the original sense of the word, this fatalistic, comradely, age-old patience, is the deepest feeling the peasants have in com- mon, a bond made by nature rather than by religion. They do not and can not have what is called political awareness, because they are literally pagani, "pagans/' or countrymen, as distinguished from city-dwellers. The deities of the State and the city can find no worshipers here on the land, where the wolf and the ancient black boar reign supreme, where there is no wall between the world of men and the world of animals and spirits, between the leaves of the -trees above and the roots below. They can not have even an awareness of themselves as individuals, here where all things are held together by acting upon one another and each one is a power unto itself working imperceptibly? where there is no barrier that can not be broken down by magic. They live submerged in a world that rolls on independent of their will, where man is in no way separate from his sun, his beast, his malaria, where there can be neither happiness, as literary devotees of the land conceive it, nor hope, because these two are adjuncts of personality and here there is only the grim passivity of a sorrowful Nature. But they have a lively human feeling for the common fate of mankind and its common acceptance. This is strictly a feeling rather than an act of will; they do not express it in words but they carry it with them at every moment and in every motion of their lives, through all the unbroken days that pass over these wastes...
They didn't care for the current priest, rumored to be a pederast, and did not attend his services. Magic was more real to them, in a world haunted by spirits, as it had been long before Christianity had arrived. The gentry were all members of the Fascist party, which represented power, but none of the peasants were.

The book is a portrait of a world of poverty and bare subsistence, of resignation to the power of the state, which like the weather or malaria or the spirits cannot be controlled. It is in many ways a portrait of a pre-modern mindset in which the world was enchanted with spirits everywhere, but life was hard and often short, hunger was common, and malaria took an astonishing toll.

Levi seems to have written the book mainly to highlight the desperate poverty of Italy's south, which stood in stark contrast to the prosperity of the north. And the south is still far less prosperous than the north. But the real legacy of the book, and the reason it is still read today, is a portrait of a pre-modern, 20th century European people in a desperate but magical world.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Childhood, abuse, and the rights of children

by Jamie Lutton

In the story of Abraham and  his son Isaac in the book of Genesis, where to satisfy God, Abraham was prepared to commit human sacrifice. He was going to offer his young son up as a offering to God, cutting his throat - but God substitutes a ram instead..
God, then, owns all the children everywhere, and could demand their murder at any time.  And when God is not handy, the State will do.
This  story, and others like them in the Old Testament, have been a terrible burden and obstruction, in both the West and in the Middle East to children being treated as other than chattel, or property.
Children are still seen as the property of their parents, and of the State. This is why, if a parent is abusive, children are still returned to them if they make vague promises to act better. We have read the tragic results of this policy - tiny children battered to death by insane parents. The State offers few refuges for women with children fleeing from abusive husbands or boyfriends.
This is evident especially with children who are not 'standard issue'.
Gay children, for example. These children have no rights, really, till they are eighteen to have 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'. A good 10% of all children have to run an obstacle race to survive to that age.
Children of drunks, which are legion, drug addicts,  and the insane as well are in as great a risk of emotional battery as gay children - but the State turns a blind eye to them and their suffering. A child has to show up with visible bruises repeatedly at public school before, perhaps, there is an intervention. And this varies from state to state how serous the intervention is.
The reason that this system does not work well, is not only are we burdened by a religious system, here and in the Middle East, that dictates that men own their wives and their children, and the State 'owns' all of us.
Only in the American Constitution, and a few derived from it, do human rights stand alone, and the State is firmly put in it's place, as the servant of humanity not the owner of her.
But still human rights for children lag behind those of women. Children are murdered, battered and abused daily, and the State puts the rights of the parent's ahead of the rights of the child.  This is partly because children, except in agricultural areas, are now a burden to raise and educate.
Before the Industrial Revolution, investing in your children meant that all nations looked to the next generation to support family, As children matured and married, they were assumed to take in their parents and support them, as they had been supported by them. Social security had not been thought of till the twentieth century.  But as humanity turned from living on farms or running small industries, and the State took over the care of the elderly, more or less, children became a financial burden as they no longer supported their parents.
And everyone began to live longer. Instead of say, living to be 50 or so, instead the age of 70, 75 even eighty was achieved, with the growth in general wealth and the conquering of childhood diseases,
And children were valued more, paradoxically.  As childhood deaths plummeted, fewer children were born, and the average age of all populations rose.
But in this complicated, messy change that has happened in the last 250 years, the question of who owns the children comes out. Does the State? Do the parents? Or do children own themselves?
And if children own themselves, what kind of world should we prepare for them?  Envisioning a world where children have full human rights is as odd as suggesting women have full human rights in, say, 1750. 
But with fewer children  and a more complex path to becoming the hope and engines of the future, we need to reshape the old models that do not work very well.
I was the daughter of two drunks, and I can testify that my human rights were violated by a volatile and violent mother.  I can empathize, then, and say that the gays and lesbians who are born to ignorant or violent families need to be protected. And in other nations, girls are mutilated sexually,  girls are killed for being girls and thus not valuable - women's rights again - and all over the world girls are denied education.  And everywhere, children are treated as chattel or property by their parents and their governments,
We have just begun to change the world, but what sort of world will we have, when all humans have rights and are protected? It will be as much a miracle as the gadgets of the early 21st century would be to  a king or pope in the 18th century.
We must not forget our own childhoods, and struggle for what is right. I wrote of Dan Savage's efforts through "It Gets Better' to give hope to gay and lesbian teenagers. I would like to see a similar website for the children of the drunks, the drug addicts and the insane, sot they, too, would know it gets better.
And we must not forget the suffering of gays and lesbians in Russia, who now have become second class citizens, to be attacked at the whim of the State. As I said before, this could be our greatest hour. America and the West need to go to the United Nations and protest mightily the treatment of gays and lesbians in Russia.
We must not go back. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Women and the Abrahamic tradition

by Jamie Lutton
My editor wanted me to write about the women question in the Middle East. She suggested I compare how women are treated, say, in Iran where "they have equal rights" to Saudi Arabia, "where they can't even drive."

I have not made a serious study of the fate of women in Middle Eastern cultures, in Muslim cultures specifically. I read in the newspaper's that, for example, a girl was shot in Afghanistan for trying to go to school.

I do know that the problem goes back to the Old Testament, our shared Holy Book. Christians, Jews and Muslims alike hold the first five books of this document as holy, and tell the story of the origins of all humanity.

I have not read the Koran, but as this books is held sacred by these three faiths, I do not have to look further than Genesis to see the first cause of the woes of womanhood.

All women everywhere then bear the burden of being 'the bad ones' in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, because they are the daughters of Eve. In Gensis, at the very beginning of the Bible - and as far as most people read, if they are not religious - is the story of Adam and Eve. Eve gets herself and Adam thrown out of paradise (Eden) by being seduced by a talking snake, Satan, and eating the fruit of knowledge, and persuading Adam to do likewise.  Adam and Eve are then driven out of Eden by an angel with a flaming sword, and have to eat their bread in the sweat of their brow, etc, etc.

This story then lays the blame on all human woes at the feet of all women everywhere.
Even though we in the West live in a post-Darwin, post-Freud, post-Einstein world, we still know these stories, live by these stories, and most importantly have national laws that are shaped by these stories, just as the laws and customs in the Middle East are shaped by this story and others just as primitive.

Even now, in the 21st century, no president of the United States can be elected who did not loudly profess to be a Christian, and attends a Christian church regularly with his family.

I am enchanted by the Bible, in particular the King James Translation, as the Elizabethan scholars who translated it worked hard to make it beautiful, capturing the essence of the Hebrew and Aramaic words. If you know where to look, it as moving, transformative to read as the best of Shakespeare, a contemporary of those translators.

But I am not blind to the pernicious, poisonous influence of this book insofar as how women are treated by custom and under the law.

This is complicated by the events in the early 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution ripped apart the traditional family, and sent men, women, and children into the factory to work for money. For tens of thousands of years, the family unit used to be the 'factory'. This changed when the first weaving mills, then steel mills, etc were built, and the runaway Industrial revolution was born.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the nuclear family of a husband, wife and kids living alone was rare. In a patriarchal household in the West 250 years ago, whether you were in Michigan or France or Iran, you would have the father's parents, the husband and wife, unmarried sisters of the husband, and maybe an unmarried younger brother, and the kids. The man's house might be near the wife's house, and her extended family, and you would have neighbors with similar households.

Single people did not usually live on their own. It took a group of people to hew wood, weave and sew cloth, farm and do the other duties of the per-Industrial world.

The unmarried sisters would help take care of the girls, teaching them to be women with their work like weaving and making all the clothing, the unmarried younger brothers would help teach the boys the family trade, be it farming or carpentry or stone masonry. The point being, the husband and wife would not have only themselves to rely on raising the next generation, and potential for abuse would be muted because - well - everyone watched everyone else . There was little or no privacy.

When families were broken up to work in factories in the early 19th century, instead of working out of their homes, weaving or farming or whatever, men and women and children left early and stayed late in factory jobs for money.

Society went from being a subsistence culture to a money culture. And the family was pulled apart to suit the new economy.

Five or six generations later, we have the nuclear family, with all its ills. The grandparents are in their own houses, parents in their own homes, single relatives - perhaps the gay and lesbian relatives, - live alone too, and NO one is watching the kids full time, except perhaps the State in the public school system..

A curious thing happened. When men were called away from their homes, some dying in the frequent wars, women were called from the home to work in the factories, as the Industrial machine demanded more 'brains' to grow and thrive. And as laws were reluctantly passed that got children out of the factories, even more women marched in to take their place.

And so women in the last 200 years invented? rediscovered? feminism, or the rights of being fully human. This evolution has been messy and complicated. Feminism in this country got help in the push from Northern churches in the push to grant African- Americans rights by destroying the great struggle of the 19th century.

The ever-present, unspoken promise of our nation's excellent Constitution helped pave the way.

There was steady pressure from the State demanding that everyone should work, to make money, to survive in the age of the Machine. Kids are in school in the 20th and 21st century to learn how to make money when they are adults. Childhood is extended so that children can learn more to fit into the machine age. Instead of childhood being over at age 14 or so, with teens working as stonemasons or farmers or weavers, etc., 10 years is tacked on to cover more education, out of the home, of course.

This has helped created the messy situation we have today. Women are struggling become under the law full rights, and the State colludes with them - in part -, as they are needed to help run the big machine of the modern world.

But by law and by tradition, women are still 'property' in one form or another as well.

We in the West think we are more advanced than in the Middle East, and that we treat our women better. Yet - that women still have to fight to have legal, safe abortion shows that The State still views women's bodies as their property. This is promoted by taking the Bible literary, and the story of Eve literally, in our assumptions about women.

By taking that decision away from the woman involved and her doctor, on religious grounds, states that a child that might be born has more rights than the woman involved. So, a woman in America can have a drivers license, can vote, can move about without her husband's or father's permission--but the State owns her body, using sin of Eve as the excuse.

Women being treated as property of the state by being denied abortion rights IS like 'being a little pregnant'. The right to safe legal abortion is akin to the great question of slavery in the 19th century. The same organizations  who would deny women legal abortions also wish to restrict contraception, all in the futile attempt to reign in the women's attempts to free themselves from the state of chattel to the State.

So, we should reach out to the women in the Middle East, just as we should, by the way, boycott the 2014 Olympics in Russia for their State recently declaring their Gay citizens as criminals.
Fans of 20th century history take careful note: the decision of Putin to declare Homosexuals criminals is very like the decision Hitler and his henchmen made to declare Jews criminals.

We must all boycott the 2014 winter Olympics and act now to voice our strong displeasure to Russia. This could be America's and the West's finest hour; we must lead a fight in the United Nations to condemn Russia for doing this. And at home, we must continue our path of giving our Gay citizens full rights. To keep abortion safe, legal and rare, by making sure young people are educated about birth control.

Either women own ourselves - - or we don't

This is still a revolutionary idea. We must renounce the shackles the Old Testament puts on us. Women are not 'the daughters' of Eve, women as a class are not to blame for all the world's ills.

That is the great struggle now.

When you speak of women's rights, you speak of human rights - women, children and they men they grow up to be. And we can't point fingers. As we struggle for women's rights in Afghanistan and gay rights in Russia, we must protect human rights at home.

Next, I will speak of children' rights.