Monday, August 21, 2017

On Preferring Beautiful People

This article in the New York Times talks about the persistence of anti-fat bias. As someone who was once overweight and who suffered a handful of demeaning comments while overweight, I had sympathy. But then I come to the last line: "'We all need to move away from the current appearance-focused culture and recognize that other things matter more than what a person looks like."

I'm not going to say anything that hasn't been said over and over again since the Greeks. I prefer the aesthetically pleasing to that which isn't aesthetically pleasing. I prefer a beautiful church to a strip mall. I prefer a lovely gospel song to Christian rock. I prefer a beautiful face and a finely-tuned swimmer's body to an ugly face and an asymmetrical body. My work doesn't live up to my own expectations of what I find aesthetically pleasing and it probably never will. My face and body has not lived up to my own desires.

I also like what we call "character." I enjoy dilapidated factories and the ruins of houses in the Balkans. I like an otherwise symmetrical face with a slightly crooked nose or a scar on the lower lip, or a fine haircut with a stray hair. I like beautiful paintings that discover the pleasures to be found in a grotesque body, the drawings that accentuate every line in a face, and I like looking at interesting, ugly faces in real life. There is a difference. I have lived in dilapidated buildings. Steve Buscemi's face, while interesting, does not excite my libido.

Is the preference for beautiful people and beautiful bodies a moral failing? Are people who have sex with ugly people morally superior?

I'm all for not making fun of others' physical appearance. I'm all for creating a society that is less cruel to the people we find less sexually attractive. I'm all for celebrating people's other attributes. I'm all for fighting the assumptions we make about fat people, that they may be less intelligent or less aware of their health. I'm all for not giving beautiful people more than we give less beautiful people. I can't be for the denial of any interest in physical beauty. Just as I can't be for the denial of any interest in intelligence in horrible brilliant human beings.

And there's the problem. There shall always be the problem.

A solution: We genetically engineer ourselves to become a new species, a new breed of organisms that all look exactly the same. Ask yourself: Do you want such a world? I don't know if I do.

On the Solar Eclipse

I watched it alone from my balcony at my apartment overlooking Portage Bay. Through my glasses, the sun was Pac Man against a black screen, his mouth slowly widening. At 10:20 am, at its peak, I took off my glasses. The sky was a darker blue. The birds were still speaking. The University Bridge was still working. A bee had landed on my lap and flew away. There was a pleasant chill in the air. A few yachts were moored in the middle of the bay. Two people on kayaks in the distance, everyone completely still. I put my glasses back on and watched for another 40 minutes. I'm glad I watched it alone, with the knowledge that there were other people elsewhere watching alone or together. I didn't need to hear anyone's chatter or commentary. I felt their presence from a distance.

There's the OJ verdict in 1995, September 11, 2001, and the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. There are snowpocalypses and deadly heat waves. This was a collective experience, completely apolitical, and joyful, something man did not create nor control.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

On Schwarzenegger

In politics and in culture, we all have the memory of fish.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor in 2003, his candidacy was (barely) troubled by numerous allegations of sexual harassment. The stories were about as bad as those that (barely) troubled Donald Trump in 2016. Schwarzenegger (sorta) apologized, saying that he had behaved badly.

He had a disastrous governorship, during which he bullied decent public servants and revealed that a professional politician probably should be the one running a state that would make the top ten for largest economies in the world if it was its own country. At the end of his tenure we found out that he had fathered a child with his housekeeper, revealing himself to be exactly the man we knew he was in 2003, more or less the kind of narcissistic bully he revealed himself to be all the way back in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron (George Butler and Robert Fiore). When I heard the story, all I could think was, "Was there really any way a housekeeper could have said no to Schwarzenegger and have hoped to keep her job?" To paraphrase one writer at the time, there were star athletes, politicians, and movie stars who don't cheat on their wives. Schwarzenegger, unfortunately, was all three. He didn't stand a chance.

He returned to the movies. In 1989, every 10-year-old would have reached puberty two years early over a movie starring Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. In 2013, no one cared about Escape Plan (Mikael Hafstrom). I don't know how many people on earth could name any of his non-Expendables post-governorship movies. He was a short-lived replacement for Trump on The Apprentice (2004-), which seems to be the best thing that's happened for his reputation in years. Trump tweeted mean things about Schwarzenegger, reminding everyone that the current president has himself a bottomless capacity of narcissism. Schwarzenegger got to be the hero, by making a lame-o one-liner offering Trump the opportunity to switch jobs. The Internet cheered, because the Internet is stupid; it's hard to imagine a Schwarzenegger Administration as any kind of paragon of genius leadership. Now Schwarzenegger, who happens to literally be the son of a Nazi, and who, way way way back when in the 1980s came to the defense of Kurt Waldheim, after it was discovered that Waldheim was a Nazi, has rebranded himself in 2017 as a fierce, fearless opponent of Nazism. The Internet cheers. In the end of the day, Americans consider fame and success a virtue in and of itself. If he manages to live long enough and doesn't end up in prison, we'll learn to love Former President Trump.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

On Benjamin Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu backed a Nazi sympathizer for president of the United States.

On Why You Should Leave Facebook

Every post about the tragedy in Charlottesville included the pronoun "I."

Feel free to share this post on Facebook.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

On Writers Who Don't Try to Get It Right

“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. ... The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that -- well, lucky you.” -- Philip Roth, American Pastoral
What do you get from The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), Deadwood (2004-2006), or Breaking Bad (2008-2013)? What makes critics say that these shows are equal or superior to the best dramas in the movies? Why does Salman Rushdie say that the best storytelling of our time can be found on television, not in novels? There is much to love in these shows, but mostly I just like being around characters who keep changing, keep rounding themselves out from one episode to the next. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) are unstable. There is more hell than heaven in them, but there is always plenty of heaven. These characters aren't sentences. They aren't paragraphs. They are books that could go on forever if not for the fact of death that inevitable. I've spent more time with Tony Soprano than with many people whom I would call good friends.

Have you heard of Klara Bowman? She's not a character in a show. She was a real life person, but she got famous for a short while. She was the kindergarten teacher from Tacoma, Washington who showed up drunk for work. A horrible person, really. A hateful bitch! A disgusting piece of trash.  Child abuser. Pathetic. Loser! Scum! That was more or less the gist of the comments sections in the articles about her. Everyone knew that Klara Bowman was a kindergarten teacher who showed up drunk to work. They didn't know much else.

Of course, she was more than that. After Bowman committed suicide, Matt Driscoll, a writer at the News Tribune in Tacoma learned more about her. He learned that her alcoholism began in her teenage years after she watched her little sister die of cancer. He learned that many of her colleagues admired her as someone who truly loved and cared for her students. No one thought she should keep her job, but they didn't think the reaction to her story on the internet was proportionate to her misdeeds. They wished her the best. Driscoll talked to experts on alcoholism who discussed America's hypocrisy, its condemnation of alcoholism and its casual acceptance of binge-drinking culture. As someone who despises -- DESPISES -- our drinking culture, I have a lot of sympathy. This is all a way of saying that Klara Bowman was a full, interesting, complex, sad, noble, loving, not always upright woman. She deserved the consideration we give Tony Soprano.

I have a lot of friends who are journalists and I am amazed by their willingness to assume a clear 1:1, cause-and-effect, linear narrative once they hear about a crime. Bowman's crime is apolitical. Liberals and conservatives can come together and hate on any kindergarten teacher who shows up drunk at work. But then there's the misogynist who goes on a rampage in Santa Barbara and releases an appalling video. Everyone follows up by ripping into Judd Apatow movies because clearly this is the story of nerd-bro-ness gone to extremes. No one bothered to do any research. They didn't study his history. They didn't talk to psychologists. They didn't do the hard work of learning about the particular schools he attended, the movies he liked, why he may have thought he was unattractive. Nope! We got a video. We got a murder! And everyone KNEW the story, because, as some sanctimoniously put it, they took the killer at his word. And all these years later, we don't know anything more about the shooter other than his crime.

Or how about Michael Derrick Hudson? You may remember him as the white poet who pretended to be Asian so he could get published by editors who were looking for a more diverse group. I don't know much about Hudson other than his one big-time jerk move. I don't know what made him want to pursue a career in literature, what he thinks about poets of color, what he thinks about authorship, what he thinks about literary fame, what led him to commit this most foul of deeds. I do know everyone's hot take about cultural appropriation because people love to write about what they already know.

Have you ever done something wrong or stupid and then watched as a large group of people create a narrative about you and your crime that you knew did not comport with the facts? Shorter question: Did you attend middle school?

Many years ago, during my early years in graduate school, a colleague got drunk one night, fell down on the street. A policeman found him. In order to avoid a public drunkenness charge, my colleague told him that he was the victim of a gay bashing. He described a black suspect. That's at least the barebones narrative as I understand it. In the meanwhile, I heard rumors of all kinds, none of which were fully corroborated. That a security camera caught him falling down drunk. That he was a child predator who tried to sleep with his students. Some of these claims showed up in comments sections on news articles about him.

I did not like my colleague. I thought he was a superior, pompous, arrogant jerk who liked power. I knew he was a heavy drinker and drug addict. I knew that he hung out and developed relationships with undergraduate students that were inappropriate, though I don't know if he was sleeping with students while they were his students. The fact that his scholarship was uncompelling was a misdemeanor.

I also know that he was an excellent teacher. I knew that he cared about his students. Within the space of the classroom, I didn't see him play any favorites based on whom he would have found more or less sexually attractive. I knew that he was capable of being kind and helpful to people who would have had nothing to give him in return. He may have been a horrible person, but he was a complicated horrible person.

I don't know if I can expect much from the general population. But I would say that the many journalists, academics, writers, and anyone in any profession which requires you to bang your head against the wall, trying, hope against hope, to get it right and not get it wrong, have a responsibility to set an example. Think before you shout. Do your research or support others who do great research. You're more than two paragraphs. You're more than the worst thing you've ever done. You don't have to love people who do terrible things. But try to know them, if not for them, then for yourself.

Monday, July 24, 2017

On Modern-Day Lynching

I read about 20-30 pages of non-fiction every morning, something that has nothing to do with what I'm writing about. Here is a page from Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns:

"[N]ewspapers were giving black violence top billing, the most breathless outrage reserved for any rumor of black male indiscretion toward a white woman, all but guaranteeing a lynching. Sheriff's deputies mysteriously found themselves unable to prevent the abduction of a black suspect from a jailhouse cell. Newspapers alerted readers to the time and place of an upcoming lynching. In spectacles that often went on for hours, black men and women were routinely tortured and mutilated, then hanged or burned alive, all before festive crowds of as many as several thousand white citizens, children in tow, hoisted on their fathers' shoulders to get a better view. 
"Fifteen thousand men, women, and children gathered to watch eighteen-year-old Jesse Washington as he was burned alive in Waco, Texas, in May 1916. The crowd chanted, 'Burn, burn, burn!' as Washington was lowered into the flames. One father holding his son on his shoulders wanted to make sure his toddler saw it. 
"'My son can't learn too young,' the father said. 
"Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as 'stealing hogs, horse-stealing, poisoning mules, jumping labor contract, suspected of killing cattle, boastful remarks' or 'trying to act like a white person.' Sixty-six were killed after being accused of 'insult to a white person.' One was killed for stealing seventy-five cents. 
"Like the cotton growing in the field, violence had become so much a part of hte landscape that 'perhaps most of the southern black population had witnessed a lynching in their own communities or knew people who had,' wrote the historian Herbert Shapiro. 'All blacks lived with the reality that no black individual was completely safe from lynching.'"
I don't like the term "Know your history!" The people who scream it aren't asking you to know history as much as "your heritage," a fixed story that offers clear direction for how you should and shouldn't behave in the present. We should listen to Jefferson, the heritage-mongers say, and try to work against naked partisanship and honor our farmers. We should remember the Holocaust, other heritage-mongers say, and treat every human rights violation as a possible genocide. Heritage leaves inconvenient truths out. History acknowledges the complications.

And I write this because I have always been put off by the term "modern-day lynching" as it is used to describe the police and vigilante killings of unarmed black men, women, and children. I know the lineage these sloganeers are referencing. Fox News focused on everything "wrong" about Trayvon Martin after his death. He had smoked marijuana. He wore a hoodie. His "crimes" were even more absurd than "stealing seventy-five cents." And as George Zimmerman, like so many other shooters, was not successfully prosecuted, it does start to look like the murder of Jesse Washington.

But it's just as important to see the differences. The video of Eric Garner's death may not have worked in court. But was there really an equivalent of fathers forcing their sons to watch Garner's murder? Of all the high-profile deaths of the last ten years, have any of them occassioned, via the video filter, anything like the grotesque spectacle of Jesse Washington's lyching? We can see monstrous comments on news stories about these shootings, but the commenters are cowards. They don't leave their names. They don't want to be seen, because they know they will face public condemnation. They are not the same as that father, hoisting his son on his shoulders.

I write this post not to diminish the terror of these police and vigilante killings, but to say that if we are honest with ourselves, we may want a different word, something other than lynching. The lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916 was not the same as a brutal execution of a slave in 1816, which is also not the same as the shooting death of Philandro Castile in 2016. We live in a different world with different media and different murders.