Saturday, February 3, 2018

Hell is talking about cultural appropriation, intersectionality, and white privilege

If I wanted to get dreadlocks, I could do that, and I am certain I wouldn't get rich or famous as a result. But apparently, if I did that, a certain number of people would accuse me of "cultural appropriation". Apparently, to such folks, it's my "white privilege" (which I am, per them, too stupid or maybe mean to understand that I have) which prevents me from understanding why they are offended because I wanted to get dreadlocks.  Oh yes, and I can't be a feminist any longer, because black women or Chinese women or whichever other group you want to identify, who are also women, must have it worse. There is a name for that, "intersectionality", which I very much wish I had never encountered, along with "cultural appropriation" and "white privilege".

Do people really think life is a competition, where I've had it worse than you is going to make anything better?  How dare people like anything in black culture (unless they are black)?  How dare any white person claim sympathy to the black experience, without first groveling and whining about how they can't possibly begin to imagine it?  How dare a woman complain about not being paid equally for work, or being denied a job because of her gender, when she should just suck it in because a Chinese or black woman has suffered not only that but other injustices too?  Just shut up, all you well intentioned people.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as we all know, and to me, one good version of hell is where we are all forced to talk endlessly about weak and unhelpful phrases such as "cultural appropriation", "white privilege", "male privilege", or "lack of intersectionality".

Reducing cruelty in human life is not a competition of meaningless phrases.  Attempting to be a kind and compassionate human being should not result in a barrage of criticism . I understand we could all be more sensitive and all that, but the accusatory nature of these terms just does not feel helpful. 

There is not a single human being alive today who is not suffering in some way, has not suffered, or will not suffer.  In my opinion, the only way to help each other is compassion, not accusation.  Hence, I really think those phrases above are doing more harm than good. 

These phrases were invented by people who, in my opinion, are suffering.  While I feel for their suffering, I really cannot convince myself that it is a good idea to continue to encourage language that is, in the end, counterproductive to what those people need to have happen in the world.  Which is, that people may sympathize with their plight.

I urge people to stop cooperating with this fuzzy and bad use of language.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Book Review: A Mind of her Own: The Life of Karen Horney

Karen Horney was an M.D. who became one of the earliest practitioners of psychoanalysis in Berlin.  She immigrated to the U.S. in 1932 and joined the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.  In 1942, she made a dramatic walkout from the Institute, followed by many of its members, in protest of its rigid Freudian theory of female development.

Karen Horney published numerous books, and one of the most famous was The Neurotic Personality of Our TIme (1937).  Her books developed a significant lay following, but until the late1980's, her work was largely ignored or denigrated by her peers.  Posthumously, she began getting the recognition from psychologists which, in her lifetime, was withheld or given wrongly to others.  She is now regarded as having been a pioneer in social psychology and female psychological development.

This biography (see it on Amazon) is an ambitious work of history, setting the stage for each new development in Karen's life with great care.  It mercilessly exposes the in-fighting which has haunted Freudian psychoanalysis from its professional beginnings in the 1920's, and it attempts to understand a woman whose life was quite daring in comparison with the norms of her day.  Can you imagine, for example, what it was like to be one of the first women to become a medical doctor, let alone a psychologist, as well as something of a pioneer in, say, owning property or publishing books?

I would have had the author try a little less to get inside her subject's head, but the story is so exhaustively researched and documented that I was willing to put up with that.  I liked that the author did not try to soften the sharp edges of the personality of Karen Horney, who apparently was difficult in some ways as well as brilliant.  And as with all cases of misogyny, the question always arises of how much criticism from others was deserved, vs. how much was a result of professional jealousy intensified and amplified by disrespect of females in professional settings.  These agonizing questions of balance are still highly relevant to women today.

---- FOOTNOTE: I wrote the above review in 1988 for WoNet News, an internet newsgroup, and I'm republishing it here, with a few edits.

Book Review: Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr

This book (see it on Amazon) speaks strongly to me of events rememberred from my childhood in the South.  It is a biography compiled from interviews taped in the mid-1970's by scholars of oral history.  Its language is rich and free like a spoken conversation, full of anecdotes and amusing descriptions.  It is both social history and the personal story of Virginia Foster Durr's life.  I enjoyed it and recommend it hightly.

Born into a well-off white family in Alabama in 1903, Virginia eventually endured ostracism and defamation for her support of civil rights.  Her interviews provided a vivid account of the paranoia of the McCarthy era and tthe racism and severe economic problems in the South up through the 1960's.

Her influence derived from at least three factors.  One was her husband clifton Durr, who became head of the Federal Communications Commission and later was a leading civil rights lawyer.  Another factor was her sister's marriage to supreme court Justice Hugo Black.  And finally there was her own well-formed mind.  About the importance of her marriage, she said, "It was only after I was safely married that I could really be interested in anything...   Old maids were pitied not just because they had no husband but because a life without a husband meant a life of poverty."

The in-her-time-prevailing racism of thhe South is vividly captured in this book, as in the following description of one Southern senator: "[He] talked race all the time...he would always go on about the sex thing.  If anything happened to change the Southern system, the white women would just rush to get a black man.  We'd have a race of mulattoes.  He and others like him seemed maniacal on the subject of sex...These men...would get up and make vile speeches about white women of the South and how they were protecting them.  Every black man wanted to rape a white woman and every white woman apparently wanted to be raped...they showed a kind of sickness...I really think those fears came from the fact that the white men of the South had had so many sexual affairs with black women...It's the only thing I can figure out that made them so crazy on the subject."

---- FOOTNOTE: I wrote the above review in 1988 for WoNet News, an internet newsgroup, and I'm republishing it here and now because all its topics are still relevant for women.

Book Review: Mary Baker Eddy by Gillian Gill, 1998

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910,  founder of the Church of Christ, Scientists; and founder of the Christian Science Monitor newspaper) is possibly the most important person that many people nowadays have never heard of.   This extensive biography was released after a 6-year, mostly successful effort to obtain original materials from the mother church library, with an amount of access to that library unavailable to previous biographers.  The book cannot be described as easy reading.  That is not surprising when one considers the difficulties and unlikely accomplishments of Mrs. Eddy's own life, the controversial press received over the decades by the stable and successful church she founded, and the undeniable biases and polemic of the ten or so earlier biographical works published before Ms. Gill's 712-page tome appeared in 1998.  But I find both the existence of this biography, by a respected feminist scholar, and the apparent facts of Mrs. Eddy's life pretty darned fascinating--and well worth the effort.

With several intervening years, I now have twice read this monster biography (which does not exist on Kindle, but is an economical purchase used).  For the second reading, I was as much intrigued by the careful and helpful notes and appendices as by the text itself.  This additional information was provided, not just to document sources, but to explain to the reader how the author navigated the forest of conflicting and uncertain claims in preceding works and attempted to reconcile them with the extensive new source material.  Ms. Gill's scholarly credentials, her unprecedented access to archives of mother church library (obtained at great effort), and her experienced, confident and relatively neutral voice make this biography worth the substantial effort required to read it.   It is a clear-eyed treatment of Mrs. Eddy's life and works, and I find it interesting in every respect as a work of, not just women's history, but of the nineteenth century as a whole.

Mary Baker Eddy herself broke every rule and expectation ever provided to keep women within bounds.  Married three times, divorced, owning property, earning money, setting herself up as a healer, writing and self-publishing a work of compelling spirituality (which was to be fully underestimated and misunderstood both by the reading public and her later biographers), she was demonized, essentially homeless and very poor for decades, and yet ended her life wealthy and having founded a lasting church and a world-acclaimed, highly professional and successful newspaper (the Christian Science Monitor).

If you think you are a feminist, or know anything about the history of women, this is in my opinion a must-read book.

The first time, I came to this book via a favorable review of it in the New York Times.  Some years later, on a quest of spiritual discovery of my own, I picked up a free edition of Mrs. Eddy's most famous work, Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures.  After working with that for a while, I found things in it that are compellingly compatible with other respected mystics, including Jesus and the teachings of the Buddha as detailed in recent translations of the Pali Canon.  Thus, I came back to this remembered biography, and read it again in much deeper detail.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Book review: "The Bird and The Fish: Memoir of a Temporary Marriage" by Miriam Valmont

The title of this book is a striking image appropriate to its two protagonists.  Imagine a swimming fish looking up to see a bird, and a bird flying low over water looking down to see a fish.  Unable to join each other for more than a brief interval, they must live most of their lives in mutually incompatible mediums.  And yet, they make a concerted effort to see each other quite clearly.

This book is a page-turner--I felt gripped by the story and wanted to know what would happen next--but I could not read it quickly.  I regularly felt a need to step back and mull.  In the end, the narrative held together under constant scrutiny, despite its startling premise which I sometimes wanted to reject, in part because of its unusual delving into the murky waters of the human need for connection and affiliation.

The story is not all about grand themes; it works for me on many levels, exploring differences of nationality, religion, culture, political system, gender, parenting, and aging.  In particular, it challenges the concept of marriage and singleness in American society.  And it deals openly with an aspect of life that we mostly try to ignore--the fleeting temporariness of everything, including life itself.   The surprising thing is that there could be any useful communication at all between our two protagonists, yet their imperfect but determined relationship rang true repeatedly despite all my almost-objections.  I was left understanding that  labels for relationships, intimate or otherwise, may be too simplistic and limiting, and that there can be value in pushing  beyond the simplicities of labels to experience the full richness of life.  It is also a hopeful message, because both protagonists were able to overcome the stereotypical expectations placed upon them while remaining within the plausible and believable.  It is a delicate balancing act that I can only admire.

Read this book.  You may think you don't want to, but you do.  And you won't be sorry.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Film review: 'Trumbo' - two thumbs up, way up

Since seeing the film Trumbo last night, I've read several reviews of this film which are somewhat negative, and I must say that I don't understand those reviews at all. I wonder if perhaps they are reacting to seeing some film idols of yore, such as John Wayne, portrayed in a not-so-flattering light. Something hidden is causing those bad reviews; I didn't see any justification for them. In fact, I think this is one of the best films I've seen this year--and it's been a better-than-usual year for films in recent months, so that's saying a lot.  And I don't want to tell you much about it for fear of ruining it for you.

Suffice it to say that, by the end of the film, the audience was dead silent, entranced, and it was clear that the meaning of the film encompassed more than just the dilemma over communism that had occurred in American society--it reached the dilemma of all those caught up in the horrors of World War II, who so often had to balance survival against human decency.  Few of us know how we would react if placed in similar circumstances--and there is the true power of this film.

Hey, don't just take my word for it.  Kirk Douglas gives it 2 thumbs up, in all its offbeat aspects, including the parrot he once gifted to Dalton Trumbo.  "It's a very good film," 98-year-old Douglas is quoted as saying, "and its spirit is true to the man I admired." 

The film Trumbo is showing at both the Princeton Garden Theater and in Montgomery. Go if you can! Bryan Cranston, with his gnarly face in the lead role, manages to portray both the heartbreaking and hilarious aspects of the situation. Bonus: you get to see Helen Mirren playing a Very Nasty Person (for a change).

Friday, October 10, 2014

A thoughtful response to the book review (on my blog) of "The General's Son"

This response was sent to me privately, which I very much appreciate.  It contains a lot of food for thought, for me, and might be of use to others as well.  I do not know if he has read the book or not, but I do know he has been able to travel to the region, has relatives there, and is a fair-minded and kind person.  So I take everything that he says very seriously.

---- private message follows, name withheld ----

Hi Pat,

I found your blog review of the book about the West Bank and Gaza to be well intended, but full of bias - it's not clear whether you intend the bias or not.

You encourage readers to gloss over the author's own background. You gloss over the fact that his sister died in a suicide bombing. Your comment about personal experience with Israelis was that your Israeli classmate scared you because his personality was intense. Would you say "I had a black classmate who scared me because he was intense?"

I don't deny that intensity is a stereotypical Israeli character trait, but I also think it's simplistic to characterize Israelis as intense. I suppose the intensity comes from being surrounded by hostile and desperate people in proportions of more than 100 to 1, who can't solve their own problems and so they choose to direct their wrath and frustrations at you. I think don't think I'd characterize Israelis as scary in general.

If you think the American press has a strong pro-Israel bias, you don't listen to or read the same press that I do. If you are anti-Israel and pro-Palestine, then it is possible that even a press that isn't sufficiently pro-Palestine would show too much pro-Israel bias.

You quote the author as saying that Gaza has turned into an "enormous concentration camp." I see the author said that, and you can say that it's his words not yours, but it is a very biased statement. It's possible that you mean that a bunch of people live in an urban area, and they don't have the freedom to travel everywhere they want. That's a possible definition of concentration camp.

But when you say concentration camp, anyone except a holocaust denier will conjure up thoughts of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, where millions of Jews and others were murdered.

Gaza is not like that at all. It's a 20 mile strip of land on the Mediterranean coast, about 5 miles deep. Between 1967 and 2005, Jews lived in Gaza (and many Arabs too), both long term residents and ones who moved there during that period. In 2005, Israel forced all the Jews (about 10,000) out of Gaza (against their will). Do you think Israel did this so that they could turn Gaza into a concentration camp? Do you think Israel did it with bad intentions?

This may seem pedantic, but let me discuss for a moment the difference between a concentration camp and Gaza.

Concentration camps had millions of people shipped to them in freight trains, and those people were murdered in ovens.

Gaza is a region on the Mediterranean shore, with luxury resorts and shopping malls and beaches, and a community with a very wealthy leadership with several billionaires and many millionaires who steal money from the public coffers, and the people vote for Hamas to govern them, and Hamas steals from them and shoots many thousands of rockets at Israel and does other hostile acts against Israel, and also much aggression toward residents of Gaza.

Gaza is not surrounded by Israel. It is bordered on the east by Israel but Gaza also has a border of 5 miles or so with Egypt in the south, over which Israel has zero control. Implying that Gaza is a concentration camp because Israel has full control over Gaza's borders is just not true. There were times when there was reasonably free flow of people and goods between Jewish and Arab areas in Israel. It was only restricted, to everyone's inconvenience, after many many lethal attacks by Muslims against Jews.

I agree that Gaza has poverty, but like in some American cities, there are poor and rich areas. Camden is a poor area, but I assume you don't have the same disdain for the middle class folks who live near there that you have for the folks who live near Gaza. And Camden doesn't shoot rockets at its neighbors.

Yes, Gaza has big problems. Yes, Israel makes it unpleasant for Gazans. That is true because Gaza is very hostile toward Israel. Consider that Israel is surrounded by Arabs and Muslims, Palestinian and otherwise, and also that many Muslims live in Israel as normal citizens. The standard of living for Muslims and Arabs in Israel is higher than almost anywhere in the Arab world, unless you're a sheik. Israeli Arabs have longer healthier lives, have more freedom to practice religion and live as they please, and so on.

Note lastly that Israelis have plenty of reasons to want peace, because they have a prosperous society. If Gaza and the Palestinians on the west bank made peace with the Israel, they would be stuck having to focus on their own enormous problems. They would be in a situation akin to the other horrible ones in that area from now and from recent history. Because of the corruption and the division, it would be like the Lebanese civil war of the 80s, or the current brutal situations in Syria, Iraq, or Egypt. Anyone who is familiar with that region on any side knows this.

So yes, it makes sense that you would read a book written by a liberal Israeli and it would make you feel hopeful. That's because most Israelis are liberal, and they aspire to peace (that is, to a resolution of their conflicts with all their Arab/Muslim neighbors), probably somewhat like you do. The problem is that most Palestinians don't aspire to peace with Israel, not because they don't love peace, but for the very good reason that peace with Israel it doesn't solve a real problem for them. I get that Palestinians want Israel out of their lives. But even if Israel didn't exist at all and Palestinians controlled the whole land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, what do you think would be happening now in that place?

If you're optimistic, you could say, maybe it would be somewhat peaceful, like Jordan. Not likely though. Jordan's population is majority Palestinian, but its peace is maintained by their (imported benevolent) Hashemite monarchy, which is more or less Saudi. When the Palestinian people become free, they will be out of the frying pan and into the fire. You might think I'm a bigot to say this, but it's pretty clearly true, and I think most people, Jews, Muslims, and otherwise, accept this. (And this is related to what Israeli leaders mean when they say "we have no negotiating partner.)

I understand from your notes that you don't intend to be biased, and that you have good intentions. I would suggest that you travel to Israel and to Palestine, and elsewhere around the Arab world, and see for yourself. If you do that, I have a feeling your perspective would change a fair amount.

Best regards,

(a friend whose name I am protecting)