Eldritch Gifts: More Notes from NecronomiCon 2017

Iä, everyone! I continue my report from NecronomiCon Providence, the recently concluded convention devoted to all things H.P. Lovecraft. Here are some highlights from the panel discussions and author readings. (I did not attend the off-site movie screenings because I am (A) chicken and (B) have no sense of direction even with a map.) Generalized trigger warnings apply for all links below: death, creepiness, blasphemy, sexual situations, etc.

Author discoveries:

Guest of honor Kij Johnson‘s fiction blends poetic surrealism, horror, and feminist critique. She read “Mantis Wives”, a strangely poignant–even romantic–story about the female insects’ well-known habit of decapitating their mates, and an excerpt from her novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which was vivid and tense but went somewhat over my head because I haven’t read Lovecraft’s “Dreamlands” stories. Johnson also referenced her Nebula Award winning story “Ponies”, available on the Tor.com website. It is a masterpiece about the cruelty dealt to, and inflicted by, little girls. I know it’s a great story because I keep trying and failing to think of alternate choices that would avert the protagonists’ bleak fate.

James A. Moore read a suspenseful excerpt from his novel Deeper, a horror/adventure novel about what happens when Lovecraft’s sinister New England town of “Innsmouth” is rebranded as a tourist destination named Golden Cove, and a marine research team discovers that the monstrous Deep Ones still live in its waters.

Matt Bechtel read from his debut collection Monochromes. His punchy reading style went perfectly with the rapid-fire humor of these flash fiction pieces, with their unexpected turns toward melancholy or terror. Some followed the logic of high-concept poetry: for instance, what happens when “Someday” finally comes?

Nnedi Okorafor prefaced her reading by pointing out that humans, usually white and Western, are the default characters in alien first-contact stories, and it’s really time to shake things up. She read the fantastic beginning of her novel Lagoon, where first contact is made instead with marine animals in the ocean outside Lagos, Nigeria. Okorafor’s multiple-award-winning novels include the Binti and Akata Witch series.

Craig Laurance Gidney read the beginning of a very scary ballet story from his limited-run novella The Nectar of Nightmares, and I may never find out how it ends because it’s out of print. Damn it, Craig. I’ll check out his Lambda Literary finalist collection Skin Deep Magic instead.

Gwendolyn Kiste read the title story from And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, a fine example of movie-buff noir about a murdered actress haunting an obsessed fan.

Panel discussions:

“Writing Non-Stale Mythos Tales” (Vincent O’Neil, Alex Houston, Kij Johnson, Tom Lynch, Peter Rawlik):

Cthulhu has been so normalized by pop culture, how can we create a frightening Mythos tale today? Think about what makes any story a fresh example of an established tradition, e.g. fairy tale retellings. You could write about what is left out: center the perspectives of supporting characters, as in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead”, or the original author’s blind spots–obviously race and sex were big ones for HPL. New books looking critically at Lovecraftian racism in a Mythos contest include Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (which I loved!) and the anthology Heroes of Red Hook (Golden Goblin Press), all stories from the POV of minority-group characters in the Jazz Age setting of HPL’s singularly racist story “The Horror at Red Hook”. Unusual genre mashups bring out distinctive features of both: P.H. Cannon’s Scream for Jeeves parodies Lovecraft by bringing his cosmic horrors into the world of his contemporary P.G. Wodehouse’s frothy upper-class comedies. (I must read this!)

A key element of a Lovecraftian story is the movement from faith to gnosis. Characters discover that the universe is not at all what they thought it was. In a sense, this is always a fresh theme, because we can all be terrified by the loss of what we believed in, or getting what we want and regretting it. Our own personal mortality comes as a surprise emotionally, whatever we might know intellectually.

The panelists were in agreement that tentacles do not a Mythos story make. Neither does pedantic flowery language. Most writers don’t have the vocabulary and grammatical discipline to imitate HPL’s style. We’re in a post-Mythos world where we can’t be surprised by the same discoveries that HPL’s characters made. No modern person would meet Cthulhu in real life and not already know about the books. Perhaps all fiction is meta-fiction now! Everyone is aware of living in a particular genre and literary tradition. (My favorite example of this is the scene from the movie “Stranger Than Fiction” where Dustin Hoffman asks Will Ferrell 23 questions to determine what genre of novel he’s living in, so he can stop the author from killing his character. “Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large luxurious homes? Has anyone left a large wooden horse outside your door?”)

“Guests of Honor Panel” (s.j. bagley, Ellen Datlow, Kij Johnson, Stephen Graham Jones, Steven Mariconda, Nnedi Okorafor, John Jude Palencar, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Richard Stanley, Peter Straub)

Squee! I shared an elevator with editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow! I played it cool, though, and did not exclaim how her horror anthologies have pleasurably scared the crap out of me since high school. I also felt like a high-level fangirl for remembering Omni, the science fiction and fantasy art magazine that I read in the 1980s. Datlow was their fiction editor back in the day.

The panelists spanned the genres of fiction, criticism, poetry, visual art, and film. They considered: What is “weird fiction” (or poetry, etc.) and why do we create it? It is creative work that presents us with the unnameable, makes us grapple with our insignificance, or dissociate from normal modes of cognition to see another aspect of reality. Straub said, “I like the sense of luxuriance… amplitude… narrative overflow” in probing the limitations of human comprehension. Sidney-Fryer observed that “the weird serves to purify the ordinary emotions by heightening them.”

In what sense is weird fiction political? Panelists disagreed as to whether all art was already political, versus the mid-20th-century New Criticism dictate to stick with the words on the page. Some suggested that it’s political–perhaps by virtue of being anti-political, unconstrained by ideology or “decency”–to write about taboo subjects. Straub called it liberating to face the experience of abjection, to stay present with the emotional discomfort of the events on the page, instead of spinning intellectual theories about them. Consciously layering political agendas onto our reading can be an avoidance mechanism.

“Anyone who writes fiction where cruelty is a common thread is surely responding to the presence of cruelty in his own life,” added Straub. He said he came from a “classic traumatic childhood” and was supremely blissful when writing a novel about sociopathic serial killers, because it was cathartic! “Dark” fiction is integrated fiction. In American life, we are taught that it’s a moral duty to reject the shadow side, but that is where our life takes root. The biggest religious moralizers are often the ones who are caught in perverse scandals.

“A Very Terrible Difference: Race, Gender, and the Other” (Byron Nakamura, Faye Ringel, Jenna Randall, Troy Rondinone, Fiona Maeve Geist, Eli Shurberg, Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt)

Humanities professor Faye Ringel gave a paper on Lovecraft and racism, surveying some of the recent literature that’s used the Mythos to criticize HPL’s politics: Black Tom, Matt Ruff’s wonderful Lovecraft Country, and Paul Lafarge’s The Night Ocean, which she said examines HPL’s possible homosexuality. (The old boy seemed more asexual to me, but am I going to object to slash fiction about anybody? Never.) Both LaValle’s and Ruff’s black characters decide the Old Ones are not as scary as white humans. Interesting fact: the first KKK represented themselves as the living dead, the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, so ghost stories are an apt genre for a novel about American racism.

Troy Rondinone discussed Orientalism in 19th and early 20th century pulp fiction. Orientalism is Palestinian cultural critic Edward Saïd’s theory that the East is configured in the Western mind as the Other, a surrogate or underground self that defines the West in contrast to its alleged backwardness–decadent, exotic, mysterious, deceptive, effeminate. Hence the many references to primitive death cults and menacing gods of Egyptian origin in the work of HPL and contemporaries. Watch out for the same unfortunate tropes today in films like “The Mummy” and “The 300”.

Geist and Shurberg (Hampshire College, represent!) gave a paper about mapping intersections of queerness and negativity. Geist quipped that though we don’t know much about Lovecraft’s sex life, his stories are “kind of thirsty” about miscegenation. Scholars and fans have made this fake hermetic separation between HPL the great writer and HPL the gross racist. (Indeed, primo Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi dis-invited himself from this year’s convention to protest what he felt was excessive focus on the author’s political sins. Too bad so sad.) Our reading of him will be deepened by putting these halves back together.

HPL’s incorporation of eugenicist views in his writings fits with his stated personal opinion of sex as mechanistic and degraded, an undisciplined force that potentially leads to the degeneration of the social body and the species. More than just a product of his time, his racism harks back to the academic literature of the 1800s, about the virile empire that goes forth to conquer lesser peoples but is vulnerable to impurity from interbreeding. These scholars developed complex racial taxonomies that remind us of Lovecraft’s fixation on the genealogy of once-great families in decline.

For a cosmic pessimist who believed in the universe’s indifference to human values, HPL was heavily invested in the moralistic hierarchy of the races. “He was an atheistic Puritan.” Perhaps that was the repository for his anxiety about his own metaphysics–faith in fragile white civilization replaces traditional religious faith. “The Call of Cthulhu” encapsulates this paradox: the opening describes the dark seas of infinity and the tiny happy island of ignorance, and isn’t it a coincidence that all the Cthulhu cultists are people of color?

This observation was a good segue into Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt’s paper about the historical antecedents of “Call of Cthulhu”, which has a memorable scene of a human sacrifice cult in the New Orleans bayou. In the early 1910s there was a notorious spree of axe murders in Louisiana against the families of poor black agricultural workers. The media sensationalized them with rumors that the killings were related to voodoo. A 17-year-old black girl named Clementine Barnabet was coerced into confessing, then subjected to brutal medical and psychological treatment in prison. Schnopp-Wyatt is dubious about her connection to the murders, let alone voodoo. This paper left me agreeing with “Black Tom” that I’d take tentacled aliens over a run-in with the American mental health and criminal justice systems, any day.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the Rapture–

It’s a gift to be squamous,
it’s a gift to have fins,
it’s a gift to have gills
when Cthulhu wins.
When all the stars are right,
on the world’s last night,
we will swim in the glory of R’lyeh’s light.

(Darrell Schweitzer’s Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal)

September Links Roundup: A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest

At her blog the prowling Bee, Susan Kornfeld has been analyzing each of Emily Dickinson’s 1,700+ poems since 2011. This 2012 post looks at a poem where the moment of greatest anguish paradoxically clothes itself in the appearance of vitality. In Emily’s words:

A wounded Deer –leaps highest –
I’ve heard the Hunter tell –
‘Tis but the ecstasy of death
And then the Brake is still!

The smitten Rock that gushes!
The trampled Steel that springs!
A Cheek is always redder
Just where the Hectic stings!

Mirth is the Mail of Anguish –
In which it cautious Arm,
Lest Anybody spy the blood
And “you’re hurt” exclaim!

I confess I’ve only studied a small fraction of Dickinson’s output, the oft-quoted verses most likely to appear in school anthologies. She is something of a cottage industry round here (Amherst is the next town over from us) so I have also toured her house and seen two movies about her, most recently Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion”, which came out this summer.

This film, starring Cynthia Nixon, left me wanting to delve more deeply into the poems, but also feeling troubled and strangely soiled. As it was no doubt intended to do, “A Quiet Passion” inspired righteous anger about how the religious and gender-based constraints of 19th-century society would chafe the soul of an eccentric female genius. At the same time, the film’s portrait of Emily was a compendium of humiliating spinster tropes: lonely, emotionally needy, prickly and barely tolerable even to her loved ones, stunted at an earlier developmental stage while her female peers moved on to the adult roles of wife and mother. I squirmed on her behalf, imagining how this woman who’d made a fetish of privacy would react to the knowledge that her social gaffes and chronic pain were displayed on widescreen for us to gawk at. Is there no merciful oblivion for such things, 150 years after her death?

Fairfield University English Professor Emily Orlando wrote in the July 13, 2017 Daily Hampshire Gazette (our Northampton newspaper):

Perhaps most troubling is Davies’ focus on Dickinson’s decline and decease. Here’s the thing: Emily Dickinson — unlike, say, Sylvia Plath or Edgar Allan Poe — is not known for her death. She is known for her vibrant body of work. And yet, the director chooses to put his viewer — and the exceedingly excellent Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson — through an excruciating, poorly directed death scene. The same is true for the seizures that precede her passing: too long, too agonizing…These overwrought and disturbing scenes, while perhaps intended to illustrate the inadequacies of medical treatment in 19th-century New England, effectively privilege the dying and dead female body — the passive trope of the female corpse that is replicated across Victorian visual culture (think: The Lady of Shalott, Beatrice, Ophelia)…

…One wonders why the film ends with Dickinson’s death, with no mention of, say, the goldmine of nearly 1,800 poems Dickinson left for future generations to discover.

On the multi-authored social justice blog The Establishment, Isabel C. Legarda, M.D. has just published an incisive essay, “Emily Dickinson’s Legacy Is Incomplete Without Discussing Trauma”.

There has already been some scholarship exploring the idea of Emily as a trauma survivor. A research study published in Military Medicine noted evidence that she, along with other notable historical figures, “developed symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of repeated potentially traumatizing events.” A paper from the journal PsyArt finds in her poetry “a psychologically acute description of trauma as a distinctive emotional and cognitive state.”

In 1862, Emily herself wrote to mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”…

…Who was the “the spoiler of our Home” whose footfall Emily dreaded, who committed a “Larceny of time and mind,” and of whom she writes, “He put the Belt around my life?”

Of all the poems that support the possibility that she might have suffered sexual assault, and possibly at home, “Rearrange a ‘Wife’s’ affection” is perhaps the most telling and disturbing, filled with notions of violence and self-harm in the first stanza; devastating shame in the second; “Trust entrenched in narrow pain,” “Anguish — bare of anodyne” in the third; and two recurring tropes in her poetry, the “crown” of wifely duty and an image from Calvary, in the fourth…

She opens the last verse with, “Big my Secret but it’s bandaged — ”; it is both a wound and something to hide. In “A great Hope fell” she confesses of this wound that “The Ruin was within” and that there was “A not admitting of the wound / Until it grew so wide / That all my Life had entered it.”

Many poems — “She rose to His Requirement,” “Title divine is Mine,” “I live with Him — I see His face,” and “It would never be Common” — suggest ongoing trauma, specifically the trauma of being expected to be someone’s sexual partner against her will; they express despair at having to fulfill the obligations of a bride without the legitimacy and joy of real marriage. “But where my moment of Brocade?” she asks…

This piece validated my unease with both the Dickinson of “A Quiet Passion” and the general public image of Emily as a stereotypical recluse or “damaged” woman. She was a triggering figure for me because she evokes pity or distaste instead of outrage. We don’t identify with that Emily, we’re not on her side, we don’t want to be her. (Even I, the fame whore, would think twice about the cosmic bargain: “People will buy your books two centuries from now and put your face on a tote bag, but everyone will also think you’re an unsexy weirdo.”)

Legarda finds persuasive hints of sexual assault, probably incest, in Dickinson’s poems, and links to articles by other doctors and critics who see evidence of childhood abuse or PTSD. Although I have mixed feelings about psychoanalyzing authors based on their art, in this case the endeavor seems like it could restore some dignity to a poet who continues to suffer from the assumptions of a sexist culture.

 

Give Me That Old One Religion: Notes from NecronomiCon 2017

How times have changed at Reiter’s Block. Only a few years ago I would have been reporting on the Wheaton Theology Conference. Now my idea of a spiritual retreat is NecronomiCon Providence, the biennial convention for writers, artists, scholars, and fans who shamble in the footsteps of that 20th-century master of weird fiction, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). This will be the first of several posts on the convention and revisiting Lovecraft’s work.

HPL penned classics of cosmic horror such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, as well as being an influential editor, collaborator, and mentor to many other writers in the genre. His literary heirs include prominent horror writers such as Robert Bloch (Psycho), Thomas Ligotti, and Ramsey Campbell.

It’s strangely fitting that his beloved Rhode Island hometown (his tombstone reads “I Am Providence”) bears the name of a religious belief whose loss tormented him. Divine Providence, the idea that world events are meaningfully directed by a God who placed humanity at the pinnacle of creation, is precisely what has been swept away in Lovecraft’s cosmos. His characters are driven mad by discovering that powerful uncanny forces, superior and indifferent to humans, are lurking below the fragile surface of this illusion we call civilization. Ignorance truly is bliss, but unachievable, as there is nothing so tragically human as the quest for hidden knowledge.

HPL was also, perhaps not coincidentally, a flagrant and neurotic racist. Genealogical and antiquarian research, an obsession of many of his interchangeable narrators, is likely to reveal corrupt ancestry (fish-frog people, humanoid apes, or body-switching wizards) that inexorably pulls the hapless descendant into degeneracy. His work is fascinating not least because it holds up a mirror to 20th-century anxieties about Darwinism, the brutality of the First World War, and the mixing of cultures in an immigrant society.

On a psychological level, forbidden family knowledge is a topic that resonates with many readers. When HPL was very young, his father died from syphilis in an insane asylum, and his mother was also institutionalized there at the end of her life, which must have contributed to his love-hate relationship with intergenerational history and breeding (in all senses of the word).

I personally read incest themes into his work as well. Sexuality is only depicted as corrupting and unnatural, involving the breaking of unspeakable taboos; the ocean, from which his most memorable horrors arise, is an archetype of the engulfing maternal feminine; and in tales like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and “The Thing on the Doorstep”, evil ancestors forcibly occupy the minds and bodies of their descendants. Incest leaves you with the very Lovecraftian terror that you will become the thing you most abhor. Whether or not HPL was literally a survivor, the symbols are there for us to see ourselves in his characters.

I think HPL was the first horror writer I read, when I was about 12; before that, I’d been such a nervous child that I closed my eyes in the Mystery section of bookstores so as not to see the word “Death”. Turning suddenly and eagerly towards what I feared, I went on to consume every horror anthology I could find in my high school and college libraries. This interest continued until about 10 years ago, when I fell into the deepest part of my PTSD brain and could get nightmares from an episode of “The Simpsons”. Yay, recovery! Three years ago, coinciding with my survivor-conscious farewell to Christianity as I’d understood it, I heard Cthulhu calling…and found something deeply healing in the Mythos.

Cthulhu resembles the evangelicals’ God in many ways, except without the bullshit that he loves you. Cthulhu doesn’t gaslight anyone. Echoing Calvinism’s absolute divine sovereignty, Cthulhu is honestly indifferent, inscrutable, able to destroy the world, and beyond all human ideas of Good and Evil. According to the footnotes for this story in Leslie Klinger’s indispensable The New Annotated Lovecraft (Annotated Books, 2014), HPL was thinking of Nietzsche, another great critic of Christian hypocrisy. Whether you get eaten or not is just random, like double predestination. Cthulhu demands or at least seems to appreciate human sacrifice, but doesn’t say it’s for our own good, unlike the Christian Father God’s sacrifice of his Son. Despite the frequent assertions that the events of these stories have shaken the narrator’s sanity, the Antarctic winds from the Mountains of Madness have the bracing quality of truth dispelling the fog of denial.

Even so, I felt a whisper of anxiety at our blasphemy as I entered Providence’s First Baptist Church in America for the opening ceremonies of NecronomiCon that Thursday afternoon. Founded by Roger Williams in 1638, it’s the oldest Baptist church in the country. Apparently HPL’s leadership in architectural preservation efforts put him back in their good graces despite his apostasy–we were told he was kicked out of Sunday School after three weeks for asking too many questions!

Just days after the racist rally in Charlottesville, I was also worried what sort of person the conference would attract, and whether it was insensitive even to be celebrating such a problematic author right now. Never fear, the clientele was solidly queer/Goth/nerd, with not a tiki torch or Confederate flag decal in sight (though some white dude, hopefully not an attendee, shouted slurs at my family from a car window outside the mall the next evening).

Barnaby Evans, executive director of the Providence arts organization WaterFire, emceed the opening ceremonies, setting a politically progressive and inclusive tone that continued throughout the weekend. It was clear that we were here to carry on and critically develop the Lovecraftian legacy of awe in the face of cosmic mysteries, rather than being apologists for his blind spots. Opera arias and organ music by the dazzling Gigi Mitchell Velasco filled me with a sense of the sublime, giving me hope that I could let go of doctrines but keep what I loved about church: a community gathered in a beautiful historic place to meditate on the wonder (and sometimes terror) of mortal existence.

Until our next installment–

In Cthulhu we are trusting,
Though his rites are quite disgusting;
From his crypt he’ll soon be busting,
And that’s good enough for me!

Give me that Old One Religion!
Give me that Old One Religion!
Give me that Old One Religion!
It’s good enough for me!

(Darrell Schweitzer’s Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal)

August Links Roundup: Authentic Voices, Safe Spaces

I often think about my earlier resistance to the social justice ideas that I now embrace, and how much of that was due to the toxicity of discourse in academic-activist spaces. A revealing test of this theory occurred this past spring when I attended a university-sponsored gender and sexuality conference. I’ve been to this one several times over the years; sometimes it’s amazing and other times underwhelming. This year, I was openly identifying as queer for the first time, and longing for some new friends and welcoming groups, which I didn’t really find because there was too much posturing about being woker-than-thou.

For example: One of the keynote speakers, a trans man of color (Latinx, I think) was exhorting us not to ask random POCs or nonwhite friends to educate us about racism. I hear this a lot, and it makes sense, because it’s exhausting and can feel invalidating to be confronted about one’s identity in a debate format. On the other hand, given that we’re all steeped in misinformation and unconscious stereotypes in a racist society, I’m concerned there’s a risk of an echo chamber when white allies are mainly talking to each other. Books and websites by POC will only take us so far, since there is no monolithic “black point of view” etc. When, if ever, is it okay to ask for a reality check from a friend or educator from a minority community: “Hey, is this a legit source?” or “These authors from your minority group disagree with each other, what do you think?”

When I posed that question to the speaker, he decided to make it an example of him refusing to do emotional labor for white people, and punted the question to the audience, which was mostly college kids. I don’t really need a 19-year-old to tell me to read bell hooks. Was it such a faux pas to assume that someone who’d volunteered to give a speech about anti-racism work would actually answer questions about anti-racism work in that context? It’s not like I collared him at the bus stop.

(To answer my own question, if it’s the non-reciprocal emotional labor that’s the problem, perhaps we shouldn’t ask for insight from POC without offering something of value for their work, similar to paying a sensitivity reader to look at our manuscript.)

I could be gracious about the awkwardness because I’m twice these people’s age and didn’t need to fit into this community beyond a single-day conference, but it reminded me how the interpersonal norms in social justice culture can feel like treacherous shifting sands. I’m not complaining about the challenge of unlearning racist or transphobic beliefs, but the unnecessary humiliation of pouncing on subtle imperfections in manners, word choices, or misreadings of unfamiliar social cues. It’s an exception to the autism-friendly vibe that genderqueer spaces have been great at pioneering.

I don’t want to be a white snowflake who acts like her trauma history exempts her from hearing POC’s anger. On the other hand, I think activist spaces, especially in academia where people sublimate their feelings into intellectual swordplay, need a lot more introspection about reenacting oppressive relationship dynamics. Your feelings are legitimate and maybe you’re not ready to do this work today without projecting them all over the wrong people. That applies to me as well as to the person doing the call-out.

This is a good reason for offering segregated self-care spaces, such as the workshops at this same conference that were designated for queer and trans POC only. It’s also important for members of a majority group to learn how to hold supportive space for minority group members’ anger and sadness, just listening silently and non-defensively. What bothers me is when an event is framed as an all-comers venue for dialogue and education, but the rules change on the fly, and at any moment a participant might silence and shame someone else for “taking up space” as a white, male, straight, etc. person.

At their blog Witch Cabinet, Tarot columnist and healer Andi Grace has a sensitive discussion of how to balance our trauma history with our need to be accountable for racism and other prejudices. In their February post “Call-Out Culture and Being Too Much”, Andi writes:

when i was experiencing intense call outs for cultural appropriation as a yoga teacher, i remember sitting in the acupuncturist’s chair, stifling my deep gulping tears and wanting more than anything else to not exist. to simply cease to take up space – especially space that others could judge as harmful. i was drowning in my shame and my guilt – in so much pain i could barely take care of myself, let alone actually meaningfully respond to the call outs.

this is the part where my truth becomes slippery, tangled, elusive and uncomfortable to talk about. this is where i feel nervous and tender and raw. so please, if you’re willing, hear me out. know that i am coming from a place of love.

maybe if you are also a white woman (former, current or hopeful) you’ll be able to take something away from this terrifyingly vulnerable admission. here goes:

when i have been called out often it feels, in my body, indistinguible from being silenced within the context of rape culture.

now, if you are feeling defensive, i invite you to please take a breathe.. and hear me out for a minute, because this idea is much more complex and humanizing than it seems on the surface.

from what i have observed, call-outs operate with intentional force to silence someone who is saying or doing something oppressive. that is their purpose and function: to check the behavior of people who are holding or reinforcing power in violent ways. and often, call outs are given in public and intentionally humiliating ways in order to hurt people and cut them down. i have received call outs that were so vicious, so cruel, so dehumanizing that they teared my life apart. these kinds of call outs are harsh, violent and often closely mimic the logic of and prison industrial complex:

you did something wrong.
something is wrong with you.
you don’t belong.
you have no one you can trust or rely on.
you are unforgivable.

these kinds of call outs are way more common than i think we want to admit to ourselves. i’ve given call outs like this. it gave me rush of power when i did it. i was passing on the trauma someone else had given to me, that’s how the cycle of abuse works.

and.
but.
however.

that does not mean that i think call-outs shouldn’t happen, or that they are not fundamental to the forwarding of social justice agendas. sometimes people need to be called out. i have needed to be called out – and in. especially on my racism. i needed this to help me check and reel in the entitlement that naturally flows from my whiteness. and i’m not arguing that those call outs need to be call ins or be gentle. not at all.

sometimes calling out is part of survival. sometimes people just don’t have the capacity to be patient and kind and gentle, especially when they are struggling under the enormous weight of oppressive power structures. and, in my experience, the people who do manage the kind of composure for a gentle call in, are working much harder to calm their vibes than most outsiders could ever comprehend.

even though my minds understand the necessity of call outs, my uncomfortable realization remains the same: my body can not tell the difference between being shut-down in the context of a patriarchal rape culture, and how it feels to be aggressively called out (whether the call out is totally legitimate or unnecessarily violent)…

…i know i’m not the only person who has felt some version of this, because i’ve witnessed it over and over again. i see it in the people i do harm reduction work with and i see it with folks i offer mutual support, aid and solidarity to. i see it in women and femmes all the time. understanding this, knowing i am on some level constantly trapped in the box of feeling like i’m “too much” and i take up too much space, i have been pondering: how can i learn to hold my loud, fierce-femme self with the gentleness and love i so need to heal?

Gay Christian activist Kevin Garcia spends a lot of time building bridges to non-affirming and on-the-fence religious people, and is thoughtful about the boundaries we need to put around that work when we feel called to do it. He touches on this issue in his funny and incisive talk at this summer’s Wild Goose Festival, “Owning Your Story”. In a blog post last month, “Brave Spaces and Bigger Tables”, he observes, “We have a bad habit of shitting on our allies” in progressive activist culture.

This past weekend, at the Wild Goose Festival (which, I know, is a SUPER white space), I got to sit through two workshops with Mickey Scottbay Jones of the Faith Matters Network. She talked about this idea of “brave space.”

In Brave Space, we abandon the notion that any space is safe for everyone. Because what is safe for me as a queer guy might not be safe for my trans friends, or for my black friends or for the women in my life. In Brave Space, we acknowledge our imperfections and work hard to be sensitive while also acknowledging that we’re going to mess it up. All of us.

But rather than just totally breaking community with those who don’t have all the right language down, all the right tools in their social justice tool belt, we choose to be gracious. We choose to love bigger. We choose to give space to learning, failing, and reconciliation. We choose to give ourselves to healing. (And yes, that is asking something of those of us who embody marginalized identities.)…

…Don’t get me wrong —I’m annoyed anytime another straight (white, male) pastor gets a book deal or gets invite anywhere to talk about being more inclusive when people could be passing the mic to marginalized folks. And we should be calling out our allies when they aren’t making a concerted effort to do so. We should absolutely call them out when the fuck up, just like I hope people will call me out when I fuck up.

But I know so many people, people who strive to be allies to our community who are too afraid to do more work, to be more visible, to fight more fiercely for justice because they know they’ll likely get their heads bit off and/or get dragged on Twitter if they mess up, or they know that no matter what they do, they’ll still get accosted by us. They’ve seen how we roll, and sometimes it’s beyond brutal.

I know were the salt of the earth, but damn y’all, we can really heavy handed with our saltiness. Maybe we should focus on being light a little bit more. Perhaps we could create spaces that are lined with grace and love, opportunities to grow instead of social excommunication?

For an in-depth look at the concept that Kevin references, see Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens’ academic article “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice”. The piece was prompted by their work as diversity educators in the Department of Residential Education at New York University, training the resident assistants who facilitate student life in the dorms. They contend that “safety” may not be the best word for the ground rules of nonviolent and respectful communication, because every discussion of controversial issues and privilege differentials still involves emotional risk. Assurances of safety are misleading, both for marginalized-group members who already know they’re not safe in this society, and for privileged-group members who feel betrayed by the discomfort that arises from the lesson. The authors go on to discuss common “safety” rules for discussions and how they would tweak them to avoid false unity and silencing.

Scandalous Trademarks and My Little Piece of Supreme Court History

Trademark law and the constitutional free speech guarantee clashed at the Supreme Court last month in Matal v. Tam, where an Asian-American rock band successfully appealed the denial of their trademark registration for the controversial name “The Slants”. I’m inordinately proud that the ACLU’s amicus brief for the winning side cited a scholarly essay I published in 1996, when I was a wee third-year student at Columbia Law. (Note that the publication year is incorrect in this link: I was pretty smart as a 4-year-old but I wasn’t writing for the Federal Circuit Bar Journal.) But first some background…

Federal registration of a trademark provides important economic and legal benefits to the trademark owner, including nationwide protection against infringement and a presumption in court that your trademark is valid. “Infringement” is when someone else uses your mark, or one very similar to it, on a competing or unrelated product, without permission. The Lanham Act is the federal law governing trademark registrations and lawsuits. A little-known provision of that law, Section 2(a), forbids registration of marks that are “immoral…or scandalous” or bring persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols “into contempt or disrepute”. Individuals or institutions can also sue after the fact to cancel a registration that allegedly violates Section 2(a).

Since 1992, Native American activists have been trying to use Section 2(a) to force cancellation of the “Washington Redskins” football team name, on the grounds that it is a racial slur and therefore immoral and disparaging. Their effort seemed to have paid off in 2015 when a federal District Court judge affirmed the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s decision to cancel the “Redskins” registration. Rather than take up that appeal, in 2016 the Supreme Court agreed to consider the constitutionality of Section 2(a) in the Tam case. Perhaps the High Court calculated that members of a minority group reclaiming an offensive word were better representatives of free speech than white franchise owners using a slur against somebody else.

As a poet, I’ve always been sensitive to the slippery, multivalent nature of words, and protective of their freedom to exceed and evade their official definitions. Fundamentalism, whether religious or political, is characterized by the claim that certain words and symbols have a single universal meaning. But words are not fixed objects to be fought over, so much as they are the territory where our battles for power and truth play out.

In my 1996 article, “Redskins and Scarlet Letters: Why “Immoral” and “Scandalous” Trademarks Should Be Federally Registrable” (6 Fed. Cir. Bar J. 191 [1996]), I made two main points. First, Section 2(a) is unconstitutional “viewpoint discrimination”. This is the most serious kind of free speech infringement because it affects political debate. The government should not take sides in the controversy over ideas and symbols in public life. The case law on Section 2(a) shows that it’s been applied in a vague and capricious manner. (This was the most fun part of the article to research. Condoms with American flags on them? Big Pecker Brand T-shirts? Madonna Wine? Are you scandalized yet?)

Second, as a policy matter, political change often happens by parodying or reinterpreting offensive terms, not only by banning them outright. The N-word is undeniably offensive when used by a non-black person, but can be a term of affection or self-assertion in black social life and popular music. “Queer” is firmly established now as a descriptive term for LGBT…not otherwise specified, even though some older gay men hate the term because it was used to insult them.

With commercial symbols and corporate-owned media comprising an ever greater part of our popular culture, the expressive aspect of well-known trademarks is not easily separable from their original commercial function to identify the source of goods. The more famous a mark is, the more its political and cultural significance overshadows its literal one. So it makes sense to bring First Amendment scrutiny to trademark law, especially in politically motivated lawsuits.

I’m happy to say that the courts agreed. In re Tam, 808 F.3d 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2015), was the federal appeals court decision that went to the Supreme Court. (“In re” means “In the matter of” and the Federal Circuit is the court that hears trademark appeals.) Yours truly appears in footnote 2, pg.6. The court said:

Section 2(a) does not treat identical marks the same. A mark that is viewed by a substantial composite of the referenced group as disparaging is rejected. It is thus the viewpoint of the message conveyed which causes the government to burden the speech. This form of regulation cannot reasonably be argued to be content neutral or viewpoint neutral. The government’s argument also fails because denial of registration under ß 2(a) turns on the referenced group’s perception of a mark. Speech that is offensive or hostile to a particular group conveys a distinct viewpoint from speech that carries a positive message about the group…Section 2(a) is a viewpoint-discriminatory regulation of speech, created and applied in order to stifle the use of certain disfavored messages.

…This case exemplifies how marks often have an expressive aspect over and above their commercial-speech aspect. Mr. Tam explicitly selected his mark to create a dialogue on controversial political and social issues. With his band name, Mr. Tam makes a statement about racial and ethnic identity. He seeks to shift the meaning of, and thereby reclaim, an emotionally charged word. He advocates for social change and challenges perceptions of people of Asian descent. His band name pushes people. It offends. Despite this–indeed, because of it–Mr. Tam’s band name is expressive speech… Strict scrutiny must apply to a government regulation that is directed at the expressive component of speech. That the speech is used in commerce or has a commercial component should not change the inquiry when the government regulation is entirely directed to the expressive component of the speech.

The ACLU’s amicus brief to the Supreme Court cites my essay on pg. 34 of the PDF, and also includes some more shining examples of Section 2(a) weirdness: Wanker Beer (OK), Cum Perfume (not OK), BigCock energy drinks (not OK), OneFootCock alcoholic beverages (OK). I imagine that being a Patent and Trademark Office employee is a lot of fun some days.

The plain language of Section 2(a) requires viewpoint discrimination. The PTO’s determination that a proposed mark is “immoral,” “scandalous,” or “disparag[ing]” explicitly turns on whether some members of the public consider it offensive—even if others do not. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that avoiding offensiveness is an impermissible government motivation that elevates certain viewpoints over others…

…That a single word can express multiple viewpoints is exemplified by this case. While some view the word “slants” as degrading, others—namely Mr. Tam and his band—see the term as a means of empowerment. The First Amendment does not permit the PTO to express preference for one view over the other. Indeed, by its very terms, Section 2(a) significantly hinders the practice of reappropriation, whereby marginalized groups reclaim use of a word that has been used to disparage them, often as part of a larger movement for social justice…

Reappropriation by its very nature involves strategic use of a word that is disparaging in the hopes that, over time, it will no longer be disparaging (at least in certain contexts). But Section 2(a) arrests that process, because it prevents use of a mark that is disparaging at the time the applicant wishes to register it—i.e., before the process of reappropriation has likely run its course. It is simply not the government’s role to disadvantage individuals who seek—whether successfully or not—to change the meaning of slurs or disparaging terms. This is viewpoint discrimination prohibited by the First Amendment.

Now that their trademark is about to be reinstated, I definitely hope the Redskins team owners bow to public opinion and respect Native peoples’ demand for a name change.

Just remember what they say at the fried chicken stand: “Only a Breast in the Mouth is Better Than a Leg in the Hand” (Bromberg v. Carmel Self Service, Inc., 198 U.S.P.Q. 176 [T.T.A.B. 1978]) (trademark cancelled under Section 2[a]).

 

High Court to Decide on Religious Freedom to Discriminate

The U.S. Supreme Court has a convenient habit of issuing their most controversial decisions at the end of June, after which they flee the jurisdiction for summer break until October (nice gig!). Today they announced that they’d hear the appeal in Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the case of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, as reported by The Huffington Post. The high court has twice previously delayed action on the case. More background can be found in this March 2017 article from The New Yorker:

After the incident at Masterpiece Cakeshop became public, another bakery provided Craig and Mullins with a cake, adorned with a rainbow, at no charge. But the affront gnawed at the couple, and they filed a discrimination charge with Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission that September. The commission brought a case against Phillips and his shop in May, 2013.

The situation differs in some important ways from, say, those in which African-Americans were refused service at Woolworth’s lunch counters in the nineteen-fifties. One factor that is not different, however, is the way that religion has often been cited as a basis for discrimination. “Most Protestant churches in the South believed slavery and, later, [American] apartheid and anti-miscegenation laws were ordained by God,” [Yale Law Professor William] Eskridge told me. “Presbyterians, Methodists, Southern Baptists—respectable religions. Maybe several million people still believe that.”

Yet, from the standpoint of individual liberty, a mammoth corporation, such as Woolworth’s, is different from a mom-and-pop business. The regulatory machinery has been hesitant to tell individuals how to behave on their own premises, no matter how repugnant their behavior may seem. To this day, as Eskridge observes, the federal employment-discrimination laws do not apply to businesses with fewer than fifteen employees, and housing-discrimination laws do not affect owner-occupied buildings with four units or fewer.

Also, a Woolworth’s luncheonette could not plausibly have claimed that serving a plate of hash browns was a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, and disputes like it, the sole proprietors often argue that their work contains a strong expressive element, subject to First Amendment protections. In Phillips’s briefs, for instance, his lawyers never describe him as a “baker” but always as a “cake artist,” arguing that a wedding cake “forms the centerpiece of a ritual in which the couple celebrates their marriage,” and that it “communicates this special celebratory message. Slicing a pizza or pot roast would not have the same effect.”

Judges have rejected these arguments so far, in part because Phillips’s refusal to serve Craig and Mullins was so categorical, and their conversation so brief. They never reached potentially relevant details such as what, if anything, would be inscribed on the cake.

“For all Phillips knew at the time,” an administrative-law judge ruled, in 2013—in a decision later adopted by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and upheld by the state appeals court—Craig and Mullins “may have wanted a nondescript cake suitable for consumption at any wedding.” The commission has conceded that Phillips could have lawfully declined to write messages that he disagreed with on the cake, and it has previously allowed bakers to refuse to adorn cakes with white-supremacist and anti-Muslim messages.

Phillips’s attorneys argue that the couple was asking him to “design and create” a unique cake, and that, even if they weren’t, any cake would convey the “unconscionable” message “that a wedding has occurred, a marriage has begun, and the couple should be celebrated.”

Commentators predict that Trump’s first appointee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, will tip the Court further in the direction of conservative Christian carve-outs from neutrally applicable laws. This trend picked up momentum with the 2014 case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. That case held that closely held corporations were “persons” with rights to the free exercise of religion under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)–specifically, the right to refuse to cover contraception in employee health insurance plans.

While the wedding cake example may seem trivial in isolation, it’s a microaggression which, if multiplied, intentionally creates a climate of fear and exclusion for LGBTQ citizens. Consider the hundreds of small transactions and interactions you engage in each week, then imagine the anxiety of wondering whether you’ll be refused service, each and every time. Think about having to calculate whether it’s too risky, for your emotional and perhaps physical safety, to leave your house and go to the store today. Craig and Mullins were able to find a competing vendor, but in a small town where the baker’s homophobia is widely shared, you could easily get into a situation of community-wide shunning.

Meanwhile state legislatures are feeling emboldened to apply anti-gay “religious freedom” precedents to more serious matters than pastry, such as medical care, housing, and social services for at-risk children. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, lifted the injunction on Mississippi’s RFRA, meaning that the law now goes into effect. From the story by Mark Joseph Stern at Slate:

A federal judge had blocked the law before it took effect, ruling it violated the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses. The 5th Circuit, however, held that the plaintiffs in the case did not have standing to challenge the law in court, rendering the injunction improper.

HB 1523, the Mississippi bill, constitutes an all-out assault on LGBTQ people and a sweeping effort to legalize discrimination. Under the law:

  • Businesses can refuse service to LGBTQ people.
  • Employers can fire (or refuse to hire) workers because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Adoption agencies, private and taxpayer-funded, can turn away same-sex couples and trans people.
  • Landlords can evict renters for being LGBTQ.
  • Medical professionals can refuse to treat LGBTQ patients.
  • Clerks and judges can refuse to marry same-sex couples.
  • Schools can exclude trans students from bathrooms that align with their gender identity and discriminate against all LGBTQ students.

And Texas Governor Greg Abbot this month signed a law that purports to give “protection of the rights of conscience for child welfare services providers”. Hat tip to progressive blogger Mindy Fischer for the news on Twitter. Her piece cites a report on the legislation from ThinkProgress, which I quote below:

The bill, House Bill 3859, will permit discrimination against LGBTQ couples wishing to adopt children, in addition to allowing LGBTQ children to be placed under the agencies’ care in “religious education.” The bill goes into effect in September.

As ThinkProgress noted when the bill passed the Texas House in May, the bill affects not only child placement services (think adoption agencies), but group homes, counseling services, care for abused children, and other resources for children with complicated family situations. The bill will have a broad reach, affecting organizations that provide a wide variety [of] care options for a large number of children.

When the bill goes into effect, those organizations can legally refuse to provide care for children on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity, or on the basis of the sexuality or gender identity of someone in their family, as long as the provider can cite “religious beliefs.” They will be able to do the same for same-gender couples wishing to adopt children, and ultimately for anyone whose situation can somehow be considered in violation of their religious beliefs. Texas state Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D) pointed out that it could be used to justify, for example, a Christian organization refusing to provide services to a Jewish family…

Prioritizing the religious beliefs of organizations who care for children over the religious beliefs, and human rights, of children, the bill will allow child welfare services to place LGBTQ children under their care into “religious education” that demonizes them or undermines their self-worth…

…But religious minorities will also be impacted by the bill, which allows child welfare organizations to place children who are members of religious minorities (Jewish or Muslim children, for example) into Christian schools.

It’s hard to believe that compulsory religious education could pass constitutional muster, since even minors have Free Exercise rights. But a lot of things have happened since November that are hard to believe.

An Establishment Clause challenge is also plausible. These so-called religious freedom bills use the neutral-seeming language of individual rights and tolerance to bring about a very specific sectarian outcome: allowing Christians with a heteronormative, religiously exclusivist interpretation of the Bible to evade civil rights protections for women, gays, and non-Christians. The state RFRAs not only give special treatment to religious people generally, but primarily benefit those who are duty-bound by their faith to avoid moral contamination from nonbelievers. This purity-based approach is specific to right-wing Christians (and Jews and Muslims, but I doubt there are many of those controlling the Mississippi child welfare department). Though I’d love to see liberal Christians refusing to pay state taxes under RFRA because they have a moral objection to the racist Mississippi police force or the Texas capital punishment system–wouldn’t the government just tie itself in knots to avoid applying the law then!

One could argue that the Mississippi and Texas RFRA privilege religious over non-religious motivations to the point that it creates an unconstitutional establishment. Modern Supreme Court case law has tended toward the view that the Establishment Clause not only forbids favoritism toward particular denominations, but also bans a general government preference for religion over secularism. However, conservative jurists like the late Justices Scalia and Rehnquist routinely pushed back against this broad interpretation. We can only pray that the court does the right thing next term. (Want citations? Sure you do. Check out Caroline Mara Corbin’s 2016 article in the First Amendment Law Review, “Justice Scalia, the Establishment Clause, and Christian Privilege”.)

Monsters and Madwomen (Just Another Day at Reiter’s Block)

We’re crazy for links this month at Reiter’s Block!

At the multi-author blog Feminism and Religion, Laura Shannon, an expert on traditional women’s ritual dances, recovers intriguing background information on two fearsome females of Greek mythology in “Medusa and Athena: Ancient Allies in Healing Women’s Trauma”. The story we know best, from the 1st century CE poet Ovid, pits them against each other. Beautiful Medusa is raped in Athena’s temple; the goddess is offended and turns her into a monster, then helps the male hero Perseus behead her.

Shannon contends that this patriarchal reinterpretation covers up an earlier tradition in which Athena, her mother Metis, and Medusa were three faces of the same goddess of wisdom and healing, “aspects of an ancient triple Goddess corresponding respectively to the new, full, and dark phases of the moon…Their many common elements include snakes, wings, a formidable appearance, fierce eyes and powerful gaze.” Male-dominated traditions emphasized Athena’s warlike qualities, but she was also a figure “of healing, of wisdom, of protection and self-defense, of craft and culture, of the olive tree–which can have great significance for all those healing from trauma.” This tantalizingly brief essay is excerpted from Shannon’s piece in the anthology Revisioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom (Gladys Livingstone, Trista Hendren and Pat Daley, eds.), forthcoming from The Girl God, a publisher of feminist spirituality books for children and adults.

Over at the blog of sci-fi publisher Tor Books, author Theodora Goss surveys literature for “Five Monsters That Explore Gender, Sexuality, and Race”, from Victorian lesbian vampire Carmilla to Octavia Butler’s human-alien hybrid Lilith.

What is a monster, anyway? We tend to associate the monstrous with the ugly, evil, or frightening, but there’s a more sophisticated way of thinking about these creatures. In On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, Stephen T. Asma argues that monsters are examples of “categorical mismatch.” We like to organize reality into easily understandable categories: you are either male or female, human or animal, living or dead. When something or someone crosses those boundaries, it makes us uncomfortable: that’s when we label it as monstrous. That kind of labeling can be dangerous, because it can allow us to deny someone’s humanity. But the idea of the monstrous can also be powerful. If you’re a woman, it can be a subversive act to think of yourself as Medusa, with snakes for hair, turning men to stone.

Asma points out that the word “monster” comes from the Latin root “monere,” meaning to warn. In other words, monsters always have some sort of message for us.

Goss’s latest book is The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, a Victorian-era paranormal murder mystery featuring the daughters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other female victims of mad scientists’ experiments, including my personal obsession, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s lovely and poisonous Beatrice Rappaccini. My 1,000-book wishlist just got a little longer.

With the ascension of the Orange Chucklefuck to our nation’s highest office, we can’t expect much relief from the mental illness “diagnosis” rhetoric that progressives deployed during the 2016 campaign. At Eidolon, an online journal of scholarly writing about Classics for a popular audience, Jessica Wright explains in “Crazy Talk” that calling our ideological opponents mad has a long and coercive history. Wright is a historian at the University of Southern California studying theories of the brain and mental illness in antiquity.

What is the effect of the “crazy” talk that permeates our public forums and our political discourse? We have a very long history of using words such as “crazy” and “mad” in casual polemic. The Greek orator Demosthenes used the word mania sixteen times in his extant speeches, and never to offer a “medical” diagnosis. Some two-and-a-half centuries later, Cicero employed the Latin word insania and its related verb insanire on over seventy occasions.

Authors such as these were the models of polite speech and rhetoric throughout the Roman Empire, and were enormously influential in literary culture and education in modern Europe and its imperial reach. As Caroline Winterer has shown, Greek and Latin models were fundamental to political oratory in antebellum America. Frederick Douglass, as David W. Blight has described, studied rhetoric from a book called The Columbian Orator, which included extracts (translated and imagined) from Greco-Roman oratory…

…Our penchant for casual diagnosis does not stem from political oratory alone. The discourse of crazy was fundamental to early Christian texts, especially heresiological catalogues, polemical pamphlets, and sermons, all of which were arguably more influential even than Cicero during late antiquity and the medieval period. Terms for mental disorders were commonly used to undermine one’s opponent and to situate oneself as an authority on others’ moral health…

Phrenitis was an illness popular in early Christian polemic, especially in the writings of the bishop Augustine of Hippo, who diagnosed phrenitis over forty times in his religious opponents, including pagans, Jews, and Manichaeans. In Augustine’s work, as in the writings of contemporary preachers such as John Chrysostom, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Peter Chrysologus — phrenitis served as a metaphor or a model for illness of the soul. That is, in early Christian terms, the failure to be saved. Phrenitis stood in for the delusion, the loss of self-control, and the threat of death that Christian authors associated with alternative religious paradigms. With salvation understood as the only form of health, rejection of salvation could not but be understood as symptomatic of disease…

…Phrenitis provided a model for a spiritual illness that presented among its symptoms the experience of spiritual strength. As such, it was integral to Augustine’s anti-Jewish polemic, since it explained why the Jewish people might believe themselves to enjoy a positive relationship with God.

The no-win logic of spiritual/political madness is an authoritarian trap. The more you protest, the more your strengths will be twisted into symptoms–cool logic as sociopathy, emotional pleas as hysteria, self-preservation as noncompliance. A modern comedy or horror film scene in an asylum would be incomplete without the stock figure of the paranoid patient desperately asserting that he’s not really crazy, his distress contrasted with the calm of the men in white coats. We’re so easily fooled into mistaking privilege for sanity.

Preachers such as Augustine commonly represented themselves as physicians of the soul —a conceit borrowed from ancient philosophy — but phrenitis enabled them to leverage a new kind of authority. To borrow an example from Plutarch, a preacher might compare sin to gout in order to persuade his congregants of the importance of spiritual care. When a preacher diagnosed sin as phrenitis, however, it meant that he thought his patient was beyond persuasion, and needed rather to be coerced. More than once, Augustine explains punitive actions against religious opponents as a form of treatment or restraint commonly applied to those suffering from mental illness.

Augustine justifies intervention in the religious and political lives of his opponents on the grounds that he is a physician of the soul, and that their religious difference is symptomatic of an organic mental disorder, an illness of the brain. This rhetorical move diminished his opponents’ authority to speak for themselves: phrenitis offered a model for therapeutic intervention in a context where the patient refused treatment. Psychiatric invective became a powerful tool for establishing the authority of one religious perspective and practice over another. Even though Augustine’s diagnosis was “merely” metaphorical, he intended it to have real-world effects.

Wright cites contemporary examples of psychiatric diagnoses being mis-applied against marginalized groups. For example, during the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, the psychiatric establishment redefined schizophrenia to discredit and criminalize black men:

Jonathan Metzl in his book The Protest Psychosis…shows how schizophrenia transformed, during the Civil Rights era, from an illness characterized by weakness and depression and associated primarily with white patients (especially isolated housewives) to a diagnosis of aggression and paranoia, disproportionately applied to African-American men. Within the frame of Civil Rights protests, Metzl argues, violent actions (including self-defence) could be interpreted as the unpredictable outburst of the schizophrenic, while the identification of structural inequality was interpreted as paranoia, and the denial of one’s own sickness as delusion. Asylums for the “criminally insane” saw a steep rise in the population of African-American men, who were contained through sedatives in doses now considered extraordinarily high. Fifty years later, African-American men continue to be disproportionately diagnosed with the disease, which continues to be associated with violence and aggression. With the merciless irony characteristic of structures of injustice, the system of mass incarceration that has evolved over the intervening decades in fact minimizes the mental health resources available to incarcerated populations, criminalizing mental illnesses, even as it medicalizes “deviant” behaviours.

Thus, when we use “crazy talk” to oppose our resident fascist demagogue, we’re not just being politically incorrect. We’re actually reinforcing the authoritarianism that we fear.

Autistic Pride Day: Everything Is Alive

June 18 is Autistic Pride Day, a celebration pioneered in 2005 by the advocacy group Aspies for Freedom. Visit their site to join chat rooms on neurodiversity and activism. Autistic Pride Day affirms the unique strengths and talents of people on the spectrum. It aims to persuade neurotypical society that autism is a natural human variation that doesn’t need curing.

If you’re seeing an overlap with LGBTQ Pride, which we also celebrate this month, that’s no coincidence. Some of the coercive behavioral therapies still widely used to force Aspie kids to “act normal” are derived from the discredited practices of Christian ex-gay therapy. These connections are detailed by C.S. Wyatt at The Autistic Me in his 2011 post “ABA and NARTH” and CinderMcDonald’s 2014 Daily Kos column “Autism Acceptance Doesn’t Seem So Radical to Me”, among many other sources.

In my last autism-themed post, I cited a blogger who said it was an Aspie trait to empathize with objects–not, as the stereotype goes, to the exclusion of empathizing with people, but rather as a kind of emotional hyper-awareness. Now I’ve found another autistic blogger, Mel Baggs, who writes about our quasi-mystical personality type eloquently on hir Tumblr site With a Smooth Round Stone. (Mel identifies as genderless and uses sie/hir pronouns; hir other disability-themed blog is Ballastexistenz.) Discussing headcanon autistic representation in the Young Wizards book series, Mel says:

Of course the YW-universe tendency for literally everything to be alive on some level is one reason I love it so much.  That’s how I see the literal, everyday universe we live in.  And I see it that way because I’m autistic, because I’m a specific type of autistic person who tends naturally towards what some people call animism but I’m very hesitant to give a label to, especially given the ways “animism” has been used in the past.

Basically, whenever I have learned about “animism”, it’s been in the context of “this is what primitive religions do before they learn to be more advanced” and it makes me very angry.  Also I’ve never seen “animism” used in a way that really gave meaning to the way a culture saw the world around them, and I’ve seen it used to obscure meaning.  Which is why I don’t call myself an animist, even though in English it’s the closest word to some aspects of how I see the world.

Also people who tell me that thinking everything is alive is anthropomorphism, can shove their anthropomorphism up their collective asses.  Everything is alive in its own unique way that has nothing to do with human thoughts and feelings, and everything to do with each thing having its own unique way of being in the world, totally independent of humans.  This goes both for traditionally animate and traditionally inanimate things.  My recognizing the aliveness of things does not mean I think they’re similar to me.  In fact, to recognize that things are alive, you have to be able to step out of the way and stop using yourself as a mirror to measure the rest of the world by.

Yes I’m still pissed at a blogger I otherwise liked, who when I posted a post about how I saw things as alive, posted a long condescending discussion of anthropomorphism and animism and how both are primitive and childlike at best, and how that’s all I was doing, nothing special, nothing meaningful, nothing unique, nothing important.  Just things that we can pin down with tidy words and tuck them away into boxes and forget about them because we already know our viewpoint is the superior one.

I’d love to find good sociological studies of Aspies’ religious beliefs and affiliations and how they differ from the mainstream. My guess is that a lot of us cluster around the rationalist/atheist end of the distribution, with logic like this: “Nobody here actually believes that crackers turn into the body of a guy who died and came to life and was also God, and I don’t see the point of saying that I do, just to get along socially.” And another lot, in which I am included, wind up in paganism or the most mystical denominations of traditional religions, because: “Well, obviously the Real Presence of Christ is in the host, because it’s in everything!” (Hmm, was Gerard Manley Hopkins one of us? “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…”)

We’re probably under-represented in mainstream churches, where conformity to unspoken social norms of dress, body language, gender roles, and personal interests is more important than whatever doctrines we profess, and everyone pretends that the reverse is true–how maddening! There’s also the issue of churches not being accessible and welcoming to people with sensory processing disorder and neurodivergent communication styles, as this Interactive Autism Network article describes:

Melinda Jones Ault Ph.D., a professor at University of Kentucky, looked around her own place of worship and wondered where the people with disabilities were. A longtime special educator, she said, “I knew they were out there.” So she began studying the experiences of parents who have a child with a disability, including autism.

Her research team found that a third of the 416 parents surveyed had changed their place of worship due to a lack of inclusion or welcome, and 46 percent refrained from participating in an activity because their child was not included or welcomed.

John Elder Robison has written a number of books and articles about living with autism. (He’s also the brother of Augusten Burroughs, of Running With Scissors fame.) In this 2014 Psychology Today column, he ponders why modern Aspies are more likely to reject organized religion, and speculates that some of the greats of Western religious history were actually on the spectrum. On the one hand, many beliefs don’t seem logical to literal thinkers, but on the other, in a pre-scientific world, religious practices provided the order and predictability that most of us crave. That was surely a big factor in my early attraction to orthodoxy. Conservative churches promised clear, explicit, predictable behavioral norms around the confusing subject of sex and romance, as well as a socially acceptable container for the magical thinking that my secular intellectual peers disdained as childish or crazy. Robison says:

As an autistic adult, I have never been what you’d call religious, but I’ve always thought of myself as spiritual.  I never thought of my religious beliefs as being shaped by autism, but a conversation five years ago made me rethink that.  Catherine Caldwell-Harris – a psychology professor at Boston University – approached me after a talk I did at MIT.  She was doing a study of autism and its influence on religious belief, and her findings were shaping up to be very interesting.

According to her study, autistic people today are much more likely to reject organized religion in favor of their own independently constructed belief system, just as we are more likely to be agnostics or atheists.  You can read the study here:

http://csjarchive.cogsci.rpi.edu/proceedings/2011/papers/0782/paper0782.pdf

Note that the study relies heavily on autism tests and categorizations developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, which some Aspie activists and bloggers believe are sexist and underrate our capacity for empathy. See, for instance, this 2016 post on autism pseudo-science by Emma at Lemon Peel. The “high-functioning” label used in the study is also problematic, as Dani Alexis explains at Autistic Academic.

Neurodiversity implies a challenge to Christianity’s claim to universality. If we believe in the traditional all-powerful designer God, we must either see the autistic mindset as a deviation to be fixed, and go down the same abusive road as compulsory heterosexuality; or accept that God designed some people to be unreceptive to the appeal of “a personal relationship with Jesus”! Either way, you can see why churches have trouble being autism-accessible. Conservative churches pitch salvation, liberal ones pitch community, but the shared premise is that everyone is hard-wired to need their product, whether we know it or not. Whereas in fact, some folks may have the kind of brain that doesn’t pick up the signals of a personal divine presence in the world, or doesn’t need to anthropomorphize their sense of the sublime. And other folks may already be so tuned in to the immanent divine that the institutional intermediary is confining and distracting.

Empathy and Gender Rebellion: More Aspie Links

Readers, I’m giving you a bonus links roundup this month because I’ve found some great new blogs about feminism, social justice, and the autism spectrum. Am I empathetic or what?

But seriously, I’ve been thinking a lot about the interplay among gender identity/performance, the emotional labor expected from women, and the stereotype that Aspies lack empathy. Because we neurodiverse folks have to analyze social expectations instead of mimicking them unconsciously, we have a special vantage point to notice when those expectations are unreasonable. Maybe society’s definition of empathy is problematic, and we are “failing” at something that women and femmes shouldn’t have to succeed at.

For some of us, this leads to the syllogism: “If women are supposed to do X, and I can’t/won’t do that, I must not be a woman.” Discovery of queerness, or missed opportunity to challenge patriarchal sex roles? I don’t think there’s a universal answer. Besides, they’re not mutually exclusive: you can be transmasculine or enby and fight misogyny. If it makes you feel relieved to consider that “I’m not a woman” could be true, you’re probably trans. If it makes you feel depressed, then maybe not. We have this idea that trans-ness is bad and should be a last resort when our problems can’t be solved by drafting us into current political battles. Aside from dudebros looking to pick a fight on Twitter, people are not still asking “Are you really a lesbian or do you just hate patriarchy?” Yet the older generation of lesbian-feminists (to whom I am grateful for many things, don’t get me wrong) are prone to second-guess gender identity exactly the way they were once invalidated about sexual orientation by straight feminists. The background refrain is one that Aspies know too well: “But have you really tried to be normal?”

If you’d like to read more on this topic, or share your experiences, Sparrow M.M. Rose has started a new blog, Transtistic, for folks to discuss the intersection of genderqueer and neuroqueer. Rose is a transmasculine author and autism activist whose main blog is Unstrange Mind.

When you’re interacting with or observing a neurodiverse woman/femme, also consider the likelihood that their seeming detachment is actually shutdown because of hyper-empathy. Just like sensory input, emotional input can be hard for us to filter out selectively. Naturally this is also true for non-femme Apsies, but perhaps more common or more acute for us because we were socialized as female, which trained us to absorb this input whether we could handle it or not. Male socialization gives a person more of a free pass to be oblivious to others’ feelings, if that’s how he’s inclined.

Emma at Lemon Peel and Dani Alexis at Autistic Academic co-wrote an incisive series in 2015 deconstructing a list of “25 tips” for female partners of Aspie men, the upshot of which was, don’t confuse autism with being a dick. Emma argues, “Ignoring the direct, unambiguous messages that women give them, and acting entitled to their bodies and affection, are not things that an autistic man would do because he is autistic, they are things he would do because that is how our society socializes men to treat women.” Not only does it give Aspies a bad name to conflate our behavior with general man-baby-ness, it primes Aspie women for abuse, because being partnered with a man–any man–starts to feel like the cure for our insecurity about not hitting “normal” developmental milestones in relationships.

When you teach boys and young men (autistic or otherwise) that anyone who fails to accommodate their needs is a bad person, and then turn around and teach girls and women (autistic or otherwise) that they aren’t allowed to have needs, you are helping make sure that we will continue to live in a world where women are constantly blamed for their own sexual assault, and where men are trained to be so worried about their masculinity that they are unable to admit that they have hurt others, or that others hurt them. And autistic people are supremely vulnerable to this kind of manipulation and socialization, in part because these kinds of stories and lessons about “adulthood” and “independence” fill our lives, and are not in any way limited to the sphere of relationships and dating.

When you have lived, for so many years, according to lists of behaviors, rules, and skills that you’ve been told you must do in order to deserve safety, sustenance, love, and self-determination, it sometimes is easier to feel safe (for a moment, for a day, maybe). But these lists of “rules” are always coupled with the–conscious or subconscious–knowledge that the only reason people had to tell you these rules in the first place is because you suck at following them. This is how your pain and your punishment are justified: there were rules, and you did not follow them, and the only way to teach you to follow the rules is to punish you when you break them.

Dani’s post “Emotional Labor, Gender, and the Erasure of Autistic Women” theorizes that autism is under-diagnosed and under-supported in people who aren’t cis men, because girls are more heavily pressured to make the effort to fake neurotypical social functioning (i.e. functioning according to patriarchal demands of availability, unselfishness, and pleasantness).

…autism in general and Asperger syndrome in particular are portrayed as deficits in emotional labor, specifically.  The DSM-IV criteria for Asperger Syndrome (which differ from the criteria for autism only in their willingness to allow for a broader range of features in speech development) specifically target certain differences, difficulties, or absences in expected displays of emotional labor:

  • marked impairments in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures to regulate social interaction,
  • failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level,
  • a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interest or achievements with other people (e.g. by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
  • lack of social or emotional reciprocity.

The last criteria in this section, “lack of social or emotional reciprocity,” is a demand for emotional labor, full stop.  Emotional reciprocity is the one thing all forms of emotional labor have in common.  The other three are more specific examples of emotional labor: using nonverbals that make the other person feel noticed and attended to, energy invested in “appropriate” relationships, and “sharing” (the ambiguous construction “of interest to other people” in the list of examples, implying “of interest to the patient, pointed out to other people” and “of interest to the other person”, is particularly telling)…

…we “miss” autistic girls and women in diagnosis because girls are taught and socialized, from birth, to perform emotional labor.  When the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder still emphasize deficits in emotional labor, clinicians are looking for lack – not for difference, which is more likely to appear in girls who have been socialized to perform emotional-labor rituals without being given any insight as to their meaning or purpose.

I truly saw myself in this post from April, “Autism’s Love”, at the blog Autism and Expectations (the thoughts of a late-diagnosed autistic woman). She’s reviewing a talk by Susan Kruse, whose research suggests that

…our brains light up in the same way for objects as they do for people. Rather than proving that Autistics see people as unemotionally as they do objects, Susan suggests that it proves the opposite. It proves the great love we have for things as well as people.

The blogger observes that she has extreme empathy for stuff–especially pre-loved, dinged-up, tag sale stuff, or odds and ends that most people might throw away. My storage room hoard of old math papers from 1985 proves our similarity! As a child, I would usually buy the toy that was a little bit irregular or damaged, because what if nobody else loved it? I have trouble discarding worn-out clothes because it feels disrespectful towards their faithful service to my body. The advent of clothing recycling drop boxes makes this easier, finally. So does cellphone photography. I can virtually hoard things that embody memories for me, without having to keep them lying around. The blogger writes:

It turns out that I am twice-cursed. Cursed by an upbringing that taught me to always ask, “But what if one day you need three inches of string/an empty yoghurt pot/this scrap of fabric?”, alongside a deep love for ‘things’ and a problem-solving brain that will find a logical space for them in my life…

…[But] No matter how much I love things, clutter makes me unhappy. It fills me with thoughts and variables and agitations. The choices spiral and fishnet and catch me up in their tangled web. Sticky as sap, they cling to me. Weigh me down. Make the world a little heavier to trudge through.

There is a lightness in letting things go to the right places. There is a lightness in saying goodbye at the right time. Knowing I have the choice. Knowing it is me choosing.

My philosophy in life has always been that when things or people leave it, for whatever reason, that doesn’t mean they are gone. No one can take away their past presence from you…I did not need to people-my-things to make them loveable, I was already connected to the world.

For the best of feminist and queer Aspie Twitter, follow @amysequenzia, @autselfadvocacy, @autism_women, @eremitpurpur, @rsocialskills, @theoriesofminds, @erabrand, @flappyhourcast, @riotheatherrr, @barkingsycamore, and @autpress. This latest post by Dani Alexis also has a list of blogs for newly diagnosed or self-diagnosed adults to start getting the hang of autistic culture and find the right community.

June Links Roundup: Reclaiming Ugliness

I identify most with the Feminine when She is monstrous.

Forget those flirtatious princesses with little-girl bodies. Give me fat octopus drag queen Ursula the Sea Witch, rape survivor Medusa, skull-stomping goddess Kali with her ecstatic thirsty tongue and dozen limbs. I like romantic walks along the beach at sunset while Cthulhu rises from the ocean. (Preferably in the winter.) When people criticize Barbie for having an unrealistic female form, I laugh; you better believe it, she’s a seven-foot-tall babe who could put your eye out with her perfectly pointed foot.

Now, I do have many parts, with different ages and genders, so there is one who loves rosebuds and sparkly necklaces and kittens. But she is six years old, and this is not the kind of world where she can walk around outside alone.

I have a new mantra for living in a society that indoctrinates us with shame and judgment. Adapt as needed to your circumstances. Each day I look in the mirror and say, with as much glee as I can muster:

I’m fat, I’m queer, and I’m crazy!

Embracing queerness–that is, dropping the effort to be “female”–has opened up all sorts of interesting investigations about habitual patterns of movement in my body, as well as the interpretive filters I unconsciously put over the image in the mirror. It’s almost cliché by now to point out that fat-phobia connects with the sexist backlash against women taking up space. Yet so many otherwise liberal women keep fat-shaming themselves and others, because our gender markers have inequality built in. When we see a big person with expansive, relaxed body movements, we struggle to recognize her as feminine, and therefore attractive. But now that I have been trying to walk more “like a man”–longer, confident steps, with feet and knees turning out slightly to the sides–I’ve found that the foot balance problems identified by my Feldenkrais bodywork teacher have eased up. And I haven’t even worn high heels since the early 2000s!

“Crazy” means that I have PTSD, sensory processing disorder and some other Aspie traits, and an imaginative world that is more vivid and important to me than a lot of meatspace relationships. Feminists have reclaimed madness, like fatness, as feminine excess disapproved by society: a “hysterical” intensity of feelings. Mine is not so chaotic. For me, it’s about not fitting in, seeing what others don’t see, openly taking time for emotional self-care, and not hiding the fact that my priorities are unusual. My shame around craziness is the fear that I will be so absorbed in my inner experiences that I’ll lose social self-consciousness and do something conspicuously embarrassing. This takes us back to femininity and its concomitant demand for 24-7 awareness that you are being looked at, so you’d better be easy on the eyes.

Role Monsters, Jess Zimmerman’s new series at the online lit mag Catapult, says to hell with that. “Being a monster is harder than being a hero,” she writes pointedly in the first installment, about harpies as a symbol of men’s fear of female ambition. But it’s the second essay, “What If We Cultivated Our Ugliness? or: The Monstrous Beauty of Medusa”, that made me cry and cheer.

Before I shaved my head…I had never thumbed my nose quite so drastically at beauty. Fat women often rely on other markers of femininity to edge us into the visible spectrum: flowing hair, smooth skin, expansive cleavage. I’d been weird-looking and tough in my early twenties, but at some point I’d drifted into trying to please people with my presentation, to fit in, to hover around staring at the mark even though I’d never hit it. Hacking into my hair felt as transgressive as carelessly sporting a bad complexion, which I also had at the time. I was wrecking my tenuous connection to beauty, crumpling it up and throwing it away.

I looked great with my haircut, but “great” in the sense of “a vast and incalculable thing.” I definitely didn’t look pretty; I looked further than ever from “pretty,” more than ever like a weird hulking creature instead of a girl. But the haircut also made everything else that was wrong about me—my fat, my heavy bones, my combat boots—fall into place and finally make sense. I wasn’t missing the mark after all; the mark was irrelevant for me. I could make a new mark.

When she was younger, Zimmerman says, she went by the Internet username Medusa, a creature so ugly you literally couldn’t look at her. Now she appreciates the power in the symbol that once represented her low self-esteem.

I didn’t know there was a difference between “not beautiful” and “ugly.” I thought that my failure to meet basic standards of femininity and prettiness meant I was repulsive.
But ugliness is something greater and stronger and stranger than mere non-beauty. It’s not an absence, but a new force, unpredictable and unrestrained. Beauty has rules and symmetry; ugliness does not. Helen of Troy’s face might have launched a thousand ships, but one look from Medusa could have sent them all to the bottom, weighted down with a crew of stones.

According to the Greek myth, Medusa was actually once so beautiful that the sea-god Poseidon desired her. He raped her in Athena’s temple, and the goddess punished the mortal victim–not the god, naturally!– for this sacrilege by turning her into a monster. Zimmerman muses:

Medusa lost her beauty—or rather, it was taken from her. Beauty is always something you can lose. Women’s beauty is seen as something separate from us, something we owe but never own: We are its stewards, not its beneficiaries. We tend it like a garden where we do not live.

Oh, but ugliness—ugliness is always yours. Almost everyone has some innate kernel of grotesquerie; even fashion models (I’ve heard) tend to look a bit strange and froggish in person, having been gifted with naturally level faces that pool light luminously instead of breaking it into shards. And everyone has the ability to mine their ugliness, to emphasize and magnify it, to distort even those parts of themselves that fall within acceptable bounds.

Where beauty is narrow and constrained, ugliness is an entire galaxy, a myriad of sparkling paths that lurch crazily away from the ideal. There are so few ways to look perfect, but there are thousands of ways to look monstrous, surprising, upsetting, outlandish, or odd. Thousands of stories to tell in dozens of languages: the languages of strong features or weak chins, the languages of garish makeup and weird haircuts and startling clothes, fat and bony and hairy languages, the languages of any kind of beauty that’s not white. Nose languages, eyebrow languages, piercing and tattoo languages, languages of blemish and birthmark and scar. When you give up trying to declare yourself acceptable, there are so many new things to say.

For another variation on the feminist theme of “Don’t play a rigged game”, consider this creative midrash on one of the Hebrew Bible’s disturbing tales of parental abuse and violence against women. Fred Clark is a progressive Christian ex-evangelical who blogs as Slacktivist. In this 2012 post, “Regarding Jephthah’s Daughter”, he considers different ways commentators have tried to make this story more palatable. In Judges 11, the Hebrew commander Jepthah vows that if God grants him victory over the Ammonites, he will sacrifice as a burnt-offering whoever first comes out of his house to meet him. Like the father in “Beauty and the Beast”, Jephthah was probably expecting that it would be an animal, not his own daughter. So he had to kill her.

Or did he? Clark contrasts the way the evangelical church taught the story, which assumed that the vow was binding, and the commentaries in the Jewish Encyclopedia, where the rabbis were pretty clear that Yahweh is not a Beast. According to Jewish tradition, Jephthah’s pride, his embarrassment at having made a rash and invalid vow, or (at best) his ignorance kept him from doing the right thing and asking the temple priest to annul his promise. It should have been obvious that God would not respect, let alone enforce, a vow to commit murder. Clark writes:

I don’t recall ever hearing a Sunday sermon on the story of Jephthah, but I probably heard a half-dozen Sunday school or Bible class lessons, and all of them pointed to this as the moral of this immoral story: Don’t make rash vows, because you will be bound by them just like Jephthah was.

And that’s monstrous — almost as horrifying as the original story. Those well-meaning Sunday school teachers all assumed, as Jephthah did, that he was absolutely bound by his vow, no matter what. And thus they all repeated Jephthah’s error — assuming that such vows and rules might somehow matter more than the life of Jephthah’s daughter.

That seems to me to be precisely the opposite of what this brutal little story actually illustrates. It shows us the lethal ignorance and sinful pride of remaining “inflexible.” The story of Jephthah is the story of everyone who decides that vows and codes and rules must be absolute. That way of thinking always ends in death.

While we’re on the subject of critiquing conservative Christianity, ex-evangelical writer Chris Stroop’s blog Not Your Mission Field features incisive articles and interviews about spiritual abuse, right-wing politics, and how they overlap. In a post from May 3, he warns us progressives about the no-true-Scotsman fallacy: “About Those Trump Voters for God? Stop Calling Them ‘Fake Christians'”. Both liberals and anti-Trump religious conservatives have been arguing that the president’s evangelical supporters are Christian in name only. While it’s understandable that believers don’t want to give Tan Dumplord power to define their faith, Stroop says that the battle to define “true” Christianity according to our political or theological preferences is unwinnable:

A modest proposition: while defining Trumpist Christians as “fake Christians” might feel good to the people who understand Trump support as a violation of their Christian values, this categorization is inaccurate from any empirical perspective. In other words, what represents “true” or “pure” Christianity (or Islam or Judaism, etc.) can only be debated within the discourse of the religion in question, that discourse being inevitably multivalent, tension-ridden, and subject to reinterpretation and internal contestation. Arguing over interpretation is part and parcel of text-based monotheisms. Put more simply, theologians and believers get to debate what the “pure” form of a given religion is; no one else does. However, there are no universally accepted grounds they can appeal to on which their contradictory metaphysical claims can be adjudicated, which means that, empirically, there is no such thing as a singular, timeless “pure” form of any religion.

Untenable, too, is the very American, but not especially Biblical, drive to separate pure religious motivations from self-serving political ones.

…[G]iven that these conservative Christians understand their drive to take dominion as a theological imperative, why should we understand their religious worldview and goals as only “ideology,” at the expense of “real” religion?… [For many commentators] the evident answer is that “ideology” is religion they don’t like, and “religion” is religion they do. This is intellectually sloppy…

The temptation to believe these things is powerful. Many of us want religion to be inherently good, and it can make for feel-good politics to reject fundamentalism as “fake” religion. But it is not. Religion is not anymore inherently good than it is inherently bad.

As a survivor of oppressive Christianity, I feel erased by claims that the Christianity I grew up with was not “real.” Let me tell you, I experienced myself as intensely religious well into my 20s, and I do not appreciate it when the Balmers and Goldbergs of the world tell me I was not “really religious” after all. Also as a result of my religious PTSD, I am naturally inclined to the position that organized religion, on the upshot, does more harm than good. I admit this may be my confirmation bias, and this claim would be very difficult if not impossible to demonstrate for the whole course of human history (although it is worth noting that the Abrahamic faiths have served as powerful vehicles for the propagation of patriarchy). The more salient point to my argument here is that harmful practices carried out in a religious context, as religious imperatives, do not stop being “really religious” just because they are harmful. This belief is nothing but wishful thinking and/or political expediency, even if many intelligent people cling to it, having failed to check their own confirmation bias on this point.

Moreover, whether we agree with it or not, Trump-ism is rooted in a worldview that many devout and religiously well-educated Christians have found support for in the Bible. It’s not the only worldview you can get out of Scripture, but it’s firmly rooted there.

The latest Pew data have revealed that it is precisely the most frequently churchgoing white Evangelicals who are currently most supportive of #SoCalledPresident, so you can give up what was literally a #FakeNews narrative concocted by a mainstream media that simply refuses to face the extent of white Evangelical illiberalism. The Evangelicals who voted for Trump are the kind who in many cases send their children to Christian schools or homeschool them, who memorize Bible verses, and who practice daily “quiet time,” that is, a period they spend praying and reading a devotional gloss on scripture or the Bible itself. We must face facts: this group is a Christian community.

When these Christians read the Bible, what do they get out of it? For starters, they appeal to the narrative of the fall and the doctrine of original sin to support an extremely dark view of human nature, the kind of paranoid view that imagines any number of “inherently lustful” men might put on dresses and claim to be transgender in order to spy on women in bathrooms, even though there is zero evidence that this ever occurs (while the medical community’s consensus on the validity of transgenderism is unequivocal). This extremely dark view of human nature leads to a sense that fallible human beings must be subjected to strict discipline or moral and social chaos will result, which in turn serves as “justification” for these Christians’ willingness to use coercive law in order to enforce on all moral norms that are not shared by all and that have no secular justification…This reading of the Bible leads to a sense that only Christians can be expected to behave morally at all, and comes with a concomitant rejection of pluralism (on which see this Twitter thread)…

…These conservative Christians, with their dark view of human nature, also find in scripture typologies through which to understand the world in terms of Providence and apocalyptic prophecy. This leads to what I call a “politics of Providentialism,” which entails reading the will of God into history and current events. Often it involves “recognizing” divine “blessings” and “punishments,” which believers of this sort insist can be applied not only to individuals, but also collectively to nations. One of the walls in my Christian elementary school was emblazoned with the phrase, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,” the first part of Psalm 33:12.

While the psalmist was referring to the covenant between God and ancient Israel, many contemporary American Christians believe the same type of relationship to exist between God and the United States of America. Thus they argue that if the U.S. “sins” by, say, removing officially sanctioned prayer from public schools, legalizing abortion, and/or legalizing same-sex marriage or passing transgender non-discrimination protections, God may punish the nation with some sort of catastrophe, or at least allow catastrophe to befall the nation by removing the “hedge of protection” with which God supposedly surrounds us when our nation is “obedient” to him (this version of God is always a him).

“But,” you will object, “How can such people claim to follow Christ and at the same time seek to deprive fellow Americans of healthcare and social support?”Many such conservative Christians would argue this is not what they are doing. Believing, as they do, in the inherent and indeed extreme corruption of human nature, and having a deep suspicion that such corruption will be expressed in a high degree in the secular state, which we can make into an idol if we’re not careful, they will argue that individual Christians and churches, and not the government, should provide for the needy. (Yes, this is utopian.)  Some go further, either taking the road of the prosperity Gospel, in which health and material success are signs of God’s favor, or arguing, through an extreme interpretation of the Calvinist concepts of “total depravity” and “limited atonement,” that Christians are only to take care of other Christians. I don’t find any of this to be in the spirit of the Gospel as I read it, but nevertheless it is “real” Christianity.

As I’ve shared in recent months on this blog (e.g. here and here), continuing to call myself “Christian” would drag me back into the rigged game of trying to please or convince others about my identity. Perhaps orthodoxy goes so well with patriarchy because they both fear the internally self-referenced person, as explained in this Psychology Today article by relationship counselors Linda and Charlie Bloom:

They listen and take influence, but they know who they are, what they want, and are guided in their choices by that clarity. While they are respectful of conventional wisdom, and open to personal input provided by their partner, friends and colleagues, ultimately they tend to make their life choices on the basis of their own experience and judgments, rather than defer to the opinions of others. This trust in the validity of one’s instincts or intuitive knowledge is distinct from the notion of “shooting from the hip” or just “going with your gut feeling.” It is the closeness of the partnership that has promoted such self-trust, and that self-trust enhances the partnership.

Self-trust is less not simply “doing what I want to do” but rather is a matter of accumulating the wisdom that is cultivated through the practices of self-awareness, self reflection, and the intention to learn from the results of our life choices. It also doesn’t mean rejecting all outside opinions. Self-trust combines the openness and receptivity of a child’s mind with the understanding of an adult whose wisdom has been deepened through a lifetime of learning and the integration of life’s lessons.

A life that is self-referential is one that is flexible, fluid, and creative. Our sense of security comes from a sense of trust in our capacity to deepen it rather than rely exclusively upon the input of other people and institutions. Self-referentiality allows us to choose from a broader range of options in making our life choices without having to adhere to a particular tradition authority, or belief system. In so doing we are able to meet our needs and address our unique concerns with resourcefulness and creativity.

A system that wants to cut people off from their inner power, and replace it with social control, will start by making them ashamed of their needs for nourishment, pleasure, and authenticity, after which it becomes easier to convince them that God also doesn’t value them unconditionally. I’m much happier being fat, queer, and crazy. And I might be able to turn you to stone.