April Links Roundup: Making and Unmaking

Happy Spring! Six weeks into my program as a first-year student of the Temple of Witchcraft, I have communed with several trees, learned a lot about my inner struggle over manifesting my power, but so far failed to establish a meditation practice before the end of April. The Temple’s founder and head minister is Christopher Penczak, author of such books as Gay Witchcraft. It’s early yet, but I may have found my ideal path (for the time being): a tradition that combines the sensory paraphernalia and rich imaginative world of Christianity with the empiricism, practical skills focus, and interfaith coexistence that I admire about my husband’s Buddhist practice. Penczak discusses the Temple’s rigorous but non-dogmatic approach to occultism in his essay “The Path of Making and Unmaking”:

Part of the world of the occultist is the continual evaluation, revaluation, and refinement of our ideas based upon our experience. We see Witchcraft as an art, with creative expression, as well as a religion that builds relationships with the gods, land, and people, but to the occultist, it is a science. Having too strong of an attachment to a belief system or identity, including that of the Witch, can hinder evolution. We obviously need words, ideas, and images to communicate, but as one enters the mystical realm more deeply and encounters direct experiences of consciousness and the spirit, one often opens up to greater possibilities and broader definitions of self and others, including the identity of the world “Witch” itself…

…Occult teachings will often break you down, unravelling the pattern for you to see the parts. We seek not only what is behind the masks of the gods, but behind the many layers of our own masks, to find the god within. Our heads are cracked open to new possibilities of the universe and the self. Our own image of ourselves and how the world works often changes. Our hearts are cracked open, and our wounds from childhood and adulthood are exposed to be examined and healed. And for some, even our bodies are cracked open as we become teachers through illness and injury, through pain and pleasure, and we explore the link between thought, feeling, and health. Mystery schools offer a path of purification, of unmaking, returning you to a place of potential.

Ever wondered why the Torah talks so much about curtain rings? In the left-wing magazine Jewish Currents, English professor Raphael Magarik muses on the detailed re-description of the Ark of the Covenant in “Exodus: Vayakhel”. He suggests that the repetition is meant to de-mystify the sacred object so it doesn’t become another idol like the Golden Calf. “…The traveling sanctuary itself is built on a shaky foundation; it is constructed only to be deconstructed, its repeated relocation a cycle of sanctifying and secularizing space, bewitching and disenchanting.” Magarik urges us to embrace a similar paradox in our return to post-Trump, post-COVID “normalcy”, to celebrate without letting the rituals of our civic religion lull us into ignoring injustice once again.

Dr. Eleanor Janega’s hilarious and informative blog, Going Medieval, is aptly subtitled “Medieval history, pop culture, swearing”. In her recent post “There are no white knights”, she deconstructs the ideal of “chivalry” that modern-day conservatives tout as preferable to feminism. Like cops today, medieval knights were more likely to beat up the poor than rescue women from rapists.

In general, licit violence is made licit in order to protect the power of an entrenched class, and whether that is rich white dudes in the medieval period or rich white dudes now doesn’t make much of a difference. In other words, you are only given the power to beat people up if you beat up who the rich guys want, then as now.

Much as gallant knights were much more likely to inhabit fictitious worlds, the good cops we are meant to understand are out there are the preserve of shows like Law and Order: SVU. That isn’t something real. No one is coming to help you if you are not from the ruling class. Don’t let that scare you. Let it spur you to make the world differently.

In Massachusetts, legislators are considering a reform bill that would end re-imprisonment for merely technical violations of parole, including addiction relapses. Get on the Real Cost of Prisons Project email list for updates. The wisdom of this approach is laid out in the USA Today story “Community supervision, once intended to help offenders, contributes more to mass incarceration”. (The cynic in me balks at “intended to help” but so be it.)

One of the first people to die of COVID-19 in New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail system was Raymond Rivera — a 55-year-old father and husband who lost his life in April. The “offense” that ultimately resulted in a death sentence for Rivera? Leaving a drug program without permission — a minor technical violation of the parole he was on for stealing a motorcycle cover and some bicycles.

There’s a common misconception that probation and parole — sometimes called community supervision — are more lenient alternatives to incarceration. But justice officials are recognizing that community supervision can be a tripwire that perpetuates incarceration based on crimeless technical violations like the one that resulted in Rivera’s incarceration and, ultimately, death…

Rivera was hardly alone. Almost 25% of people entering prison in 2017 were incarcerated for a technical supervision violation, rather than a new offense…

In 2017 alone, U.S. taxpayers spent $2.8 billion on the people who entered prison for a technical violation. It would clearly be a much greater boon to wellness and safety if scarce resources were used to address the housing, education, health and employment needs of those under supervision, rather than disrupting people’s lives, families and communities through unnecessary incarceration.

I enjoyed Randy Rainbow’s parody song videos and other satire of the Trump years, in moderation, but I didn’t delude myself that it made a real difference to the advance of fascism. I was raised by a narcissist, so I know that all attention feeds the beast. At the Yale University Press blog, social anthropologist Mark Leopold analyzes the deliberate buffoonery of dictators Idi Amin and Donald Trump. Playing the outrageous windbag entertains supporters, causes opponents to underestimate the leader’s power and intelligence, and distracts the news cycle from his more serious and dangerous actions.

Behind all this is clearly what Freud recognized as the aggressive nature of joking. I suggest that buffoonery is, at root, a quintessentially masculine characteristic. In my experience, very few women are ever called buffoons. The jokes of a buffoon carry the stale reek of an all-male atmosphere—the barrack room in Amin’s case, perhaps the golfers’ locker room  or boys’ boarding school classroom for others… [A]n open, even boastful sexual promiscuity is another part of the package.

Don’t feed the trolls.

February Links Roundup: Exorcising America

As February is Black History Month, let’s start our links roundup with a nod to 20th-century African-American historian Edgar Toppin (1928-2004), who persuaded President Ford to institute this official commemoration in 1976. Never heard of him? Well, that shows why we need to teach more Black history! I discovered his story at the progressive politics blog Lawyers, Guns & Money, in historian Erik Loomis’ series “Erik Visits an American Grave”:

Born in 1928 in Harlem, Toppin grew up in a literate but poor Black family, one that really struggled through the Great Depression, as so many did. His parents were Caribbean immigrants. Named for Edgar Allan Poe, Toppin loved books and would escape to the roof of the building where he lived to read in some peace. The young boy was quite bright and started at City College at the age of 16. Then Howard University came offering a scholarship and he finished his undergraduate career at that august institution of Black learning. He completed his Bachelor’s in 1949 and Master’s in 1950. He then went on for his Ph.D. in History at Northwestern, which he completed in 1955.

Toppin dedicated his career to teaching Black history in a nation that was pretty uninterested in that during these years. He started teaching at Virginia State University, a historically Black institution, in 1964. Soon after, he starting using the power of television to teach Black history, creating a 30 episode program called Americans from Africa. His early publications were on Black politics in Ohio, but he never published a book on what evidently was his dissertation topic. Instead, his publications were centered around big public history books to reach the masses about Black history. They included A Mark Well Made: The Negro Contribution to American Culture, published in 1969, A Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528, published in 1971, and The Black American in United States History, published in 1973.

Toppin’s greatest achievement though was the creation of Black History Month. This was an idea that went back at least to the great Black educator Carter Woodson. A Black History Week had been created, but it was largely ignored except in specific circles and what is a week anyway. In 1976, Toppin was president of Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). This is the premier Black history professional organization, then and now. As president, he lobbied the Ford administration to proclaim a national Black History Month. Ford, seeking Black votes, decided this was a good idea and that year, Ford announced it. It has of course today become central to our national study in history, both publicly and in the school system.

Dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney is best known for writing the play that became the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a Black gay youth coming of age in a community bedeviled by drugs and toxic masculinity. In this interview at The Creative Independent, he shares a vision of success that doesn’t depend on fame and money:

I say that you really have to find the way for that art to make you happy without it or you necessarily being celebrated.

If you need to be celebrated, that’s not the same thing as being an artist. Yes, artists like to be celebrated, but again, that’s a fleeting pleasure. That pleasure is not going to sustain you, because the moment you’re celebrated for one thing, then everybody’s always waiting on the next thing. If you’re expecting that work to be just as celebrated as the thing you did before, then you get into this habit of just trying to make the same thing over and over again. And again, you’re chasing being celebrated, and not the intimacy and impulse of what you created or what you’re trying to create and communicate, which is what you really want to do.

Personally I’ve always known that if I could have a house and do little plays in the backyard for me and around 15 people, I’m pretty sure I could be happy for the rest of my life. You have to find what that is for you. You have to find that patch of “I could be happy for the rest of my life doing X” for you… and then follow it.

The #MeToo scandals of the past few years have really brought home the realization that the gatekeepers of literary “success” are far from infallible. The latest drama that I encountered on Twitter this morning comes from Poetry Magazine’s questionable decision to publish convicted sex offender Kirk Nesset in their special issue dedicated to incarcerated poets. UK newspaper The Guardian summarizes:

The US’s prestigious Poetry magazine has doubled down on its decision to publish a poem by a convicted sex offender as part of a special edition dedicated to incarcerated poets, telling critics that “it is not our role to further judge or punish [people] as a result of their criminal convictions”.

The magazine, which has been running since 1912 and is published by the Poetry Foundation, has just released its new issue focusing on work by “currently and formerly incarcerated people”, their families and prison workers. It includes a poem by Kirk Nesset, a former professor of English literature who was released from prison last year after serving time for possessing, receiving and distributing child sexual abuse images in 2014. The investigation found Nesset in possession of more than half a million images and films of child sexual abuse.

When a reader asked why the issue included Nesset, Poetry magazine said that its guest editors “didn’t have knowledge of contributors’ backgrounds”, because “the editorial principle for this issue was to widen access to publication for writers inside prison and to expand access to poetry, bearing in mind biases against and barriers for incarcerated people”.

In response, hundreds of writers have signed a petition asking the prestigious journal to remove Nesset’s work:

For their February 2021 issue of Poetry Magazine, “The Practice of Freedom,” editors have chosen to publish the work of convicted pedophile Kirk Nesset, a man who watched infant rape and the rape of 6,7,8-year-old girls for pleasure. When arrested, Nesset was in possession of over half a million images of child pornography and had circulated these images.

“This case is unbelievable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold said during Nesset’s Feb. 2016 sentencing. “It is the most child pornography that I have seen in 15 years as a federal prosecutor.” (allegehenycampus.com)

This petition calls for Poetry Magazine to remove Nesset’s work from their pages and their website. That such an established publication would use their widely-read and highly selective platform to further the work and career of a predator cannot be labeled an oversight, nor defended. It is an offensive and a destructive misuse of power… The reward and high-standing that comes with publishing in such an esteemed magazine should be withheld from someone who has relished the torture and degradation of innocent children, some only months old.

I’m still sorting out what I think about this issue. No one has a “right” to be published, and pulling a problematic work is not censorship or “cancel culture”. On the other hand, supporting prisoners means supporting all prisoners, not only those who are innocent, nonviolent, or serving unjustly long sentences. Some people are there because they did very bad things. This doesn’t change the fact that the American prison system is abusive, and that abuse thrives on cutting off prisoners’ ability to communicate with the outside world. On the other, other hand… poet Shaindel Beers’ comment on her petition signature is pretty persuasive:

Poetry Magazine needs to apologize for including Kirk Nesset in this issue. “Prison writing” issues of literary journals are meant to publish marginalized voices. Nesset is not a marginalized voice. Until he was arrested for child pornography, he was a professor with books published. He had something like A HALF MILLION files of child pornography on his computer. He specifically took his Pomeranian dog everywhere with him because it was a way to strike up conversations with children. This is not a “prison writing program” issue. He was a professor already. He’s not a marginalized voice. He’s a privileged person who suffered consequences for horrible crimes.

Philosopher Sara Ahmed’s post “Killjoy Commitments” on her Feminist Killjoys blog touches on this question of who deserves to be heard. Her New Year’s resolution: “I recommit myself to the task of explaining what I oppose without elevating what I oppose as a position worthy of being debated.” Challenging inequality often means defending one’s existence (again). Yet the constant need to debate dehumanizing views is itself part of the inequality. This especially comes up in the rebranding of transphobia as “free speech”. Privileged people love to come up with intellectual-sounding theories about why sexual harassment, misgendering, and other verbal aggression are simply “ideas” that they should be allowed to discuss ad infinitum.

While I would like to restrict the amount of mental energy I give to our home-grown fascists, I also don’t want to be one of those white people who declares victory and goes home because Biden got elected. We have to analyze the appeal of this dangerous movement so we’re not blindsided again in the next election. Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime voice for LGBTQ equality in the Episcopal Church, blogged recently about “The Role of Toxic Religion in Dismantling Democracy”:

Make no mistake about it: it is a very short journey from “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” to “my country, love it or leave it” – with a direct connection to the rise of nationalism, sexism, white supremacism and the rest of the litany of isms that plague our nation and our world: the rise of the forces we struggle against daily as we live out our baptismal promise to persevere in resisting evil and the forces that have assembled to create the climate of violent extremism that fueled the assault on our Capitol, our Congress and our Democracy.

What we saw in sharp relief on our televisions and twitter feeds on January 6 — and continue to fight against in our body politic — is the effect of an anti-fact virus epidemic super-spreading in a population pre-programmed to believe fact-based science is an enemy of faith.

On a related note, this article by Reed Berkowitz at Medium is a longread that’s worth your time: “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon”. He breaks down how conspiracy-mongering sites build immersive worlds and exploit the human brain’s craving to project patterns onto random data. Solving fake mysteries produces an addictive high:

There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality. Away from actual solutions and towards a dangerous psychological rush. It works very well because when you “figure it out yourself” you own it. You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to “connect the dots yourself” you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at. More about this later.

Finally, I appreciated this sensitive article in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin by psychiatric chaplain Jeremy D. Sher: “Chaplain, Can You Do an Exorcism?” Sher has the humility to work within the patients’ own worldviews, rather than forcing them to translate their demons into secular therapeutic constructs or debating their theology. Taking at face value the patient’s framework for her auditory hallucinations, the chaplain allows those voices to be heard, often leading to resolution of the patient’s fear and self-harm impulses. As a Jewish practitioner working with mostly Christian patients, Sher notes with some self-deprecating humor that one person’s faith is another’s delusion.

The question of the existence of the characters in the patient’s hallucinatory experience is not the topic of what the patient is saying. The patient is trying to tell us about their problems through an illustrative story within whose midst they have found themselves living. Spiritual assessment—assessment of the emotional and spiritual distress dynamics the patient is experiencing—is concerned with the plot of that story, not the question of whether the characters in that story exist…

The characters to which patients attribute their voices personify the patients’ inner struggles. The reality or unreality of those characters is as much beside the point for spiritual assessment as it would be to ask whether literary characters like Rodion Raskolnikov or Charles Darnay are real. But anyone who has read Crime and Punishment or A Tale of Two Cities knows those characters and could probably glean information about a patient’s mental state if a patient were to speak about those characters. There is a difference between fiction and fib.

Sher arrives at a personal demonology similar to the way that we Tarot practitioners conceive of The Devil card:

Based on a Jewish belief in the uncompromising monotheism of Job, of a God who “makes peace and creates harm” (Isaiah 45:7), I reject the notion of a devil power independently opposing God. God’s omnipotence, in my view, does not admit of competition. In Judaism, Satan works for God: Satan is a heavenly prosecutor who argues that humans should be punished for sin. There is no dualism or power opposing God.

Out of this belief, I came to the idea that a demon is an unpleasant angel, and an angel is a messenger of God. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’akh, literally means “messenger.” A demon, then, is an angel with a message that we don’t want to hear. Twice, I’ve used this idea clinically with psychiatric inpatients. Each time, I assessed that my idea might help the patient, and I asked the patient if they’d like to hear something from my own faith tradition. With their assent, I told them that the demon conceals a holy message that God wants us to hear, but it appears demonic because there is hurt somewhere in God’s creation. So, if we listen very carefully to the demon’s expression of hurt, we might be able to identify the hurt and, in soothing it, dispel the demon. Patients were helped by this intervention.

 

“The Baptism” and “Touching” by The Poet Spiel

Today being the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, I thought I’d share a poem on the topic by The Poet Spiel, inspired by the Renaissance artwork below. The second poem returns to a topic that Spiel and I both ruminate upon frequently, the complex feelings we have toward our abusive mothers.

Suspended Motion Luca Giordano, The Baptism of Christ, 1684, oil on canvas, 91 ½ x 76 in. New Orleans Museum of Art Renowned painter of the late Baroque period Luca Giordano created mythological paintings, frescoes and religious imagery in a...

The Baptism

re: “The Baptism of Christ” ca. 1684, by Luca Giordano

One wonders what so predictably clings the abundant yardage to the Christ—
like his alabaster flesh was sensitized to draw it loosely
to what his benefactors might find objectionable—
except to expose the mansome strength of his right forearm,
the somewhat effeminate grace of his left hand,
the navel from which he was miraculously sprung and
a useless pinky toe which appears to have been cramped too long
in crummy shoes not meant for such a broad-torsoed man.
Hosted by fat-faced imps posturing as angels,
with a trickle poured from a scooped shell,
at this wetting of his flesh by the red-draped John;
his cloth also likely to have been commissioned
to please the elite prejudice of its day.
Supporting his weight on a conveniently-assigned tree stump—
as if he were resisting exhaustion
from such a foolishly daunting pour—
and he expects to pose statically for weeks on end,
though one suspects each man would high-tail it
if the brightly backlit dove hovering above them
suddenly let loose to become the baptizer.

****

Touching

A merciful dream
I could not before
have imagined—
touching her—
when she was dead,
when I was certain
she could not speak,
such pleasure of her skin,
her pure white hair
within my hands.

I cannot recall
who took me away
to sign documents
acknowledging
she was gone—
the exact time
and might there be
something
I wished to claim?

Yes—
a snip of her hair,
nothing so white,
and a few moments
alone with her…
still warm,
not resistant,
her mouth
not suggesting
how I might change
my life
to suit hers.

January Links Roundup: Greetings from the Failed State

Shortly after my post yesterday celebrating the Democrats’ Senate wins, white supremacist terrorists invaded the US Capitol to try to block certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. I’m with those who believe there’s more than simple incompetence behind the security failure. Fascism has made significant inroads in American police departments.

Baptist minister Candace Simpson, who tweets as @CandyCornball, posted this insight today: “‘Apocalypse’ does not mean ‘the end of the world.’ It means ‘revealing.’ You can choose to notice or you can choose to ignore.” Black Americans like herself have long known the fearsome truth that we are now seeing acknowledged in mainstream news: the Confederacy never died. We will need clarity and courage, and not premature “unity”, to fight it again.

Rebecca Solnit pulls no punches in her LitHub piece from November, “On Not Meeting Nazis Halfway”. Democrats want marriage counseling while Republicans want war. It’s as simple as that. Mainstream media’s numerous sympathetic profiles of Trump supporters–what critics have taken to calling “Cletus safaris”–rest on the naive belief that:

…urban multiethnic liberal-to-radical only-partly-Christian America…need[s] to spend more time understanding MAGA America. The demands do not go the other way. Fox and Ted Cruz and the Federalist have not chastised their audiences, I feel pretty confident, with urgings to enter into discourse with, say, Black Lives Matter activists, rabbis, imams, abortion providers, undocumented valedictorians, or tenured lesbians. When only half the divide is being tasked with making the peace, there is no peace to be made, but there is a unilateral surrender on offer. We are told to consider this bipartisanship, but the very word means both sides abandon their partisanship, and Mitch McConnell and company have absolutely no interest in doing that…

There’s also often a devil’s bargain buried in all this, that you flatter and, yeah, respect these white people who think this country is theirs by throwing other people under the bus—by disrespecting immigrants and queer people and feminists and their rights and views. And you reinforce that constituency’s sense that they matter more than other people when you pander like this, and pretty much all the problems we’ve faced over the past four years, to say nothing of the last five hundred, come from this sense of white people being more important than nonwhites, Christians than non-Christians, native-born than immigrant, male than female, straight than queer, cis-gender than trans…

I grew up in an era where wives who were beaten were expected to do more to soothe their husbands and not challenge them, and this carries on as the degrading politics of our abusive national marriage.

Yesterday’s coup attempt reminds me of the behavior burst when you set boundaries with abusers. They are most dangerous when their victims are trying to leave. In today’s column for Medium, nonbinary feminist author Jude Ellison Sady Doyle cautions that “Trump Is Leaving, But the Revenge of Men Continues”. The alt-right movement appeals to, and strengthens, many men’s identification with a toxic brand of masculinity, characterized by bullying and anti-intellectualism. Regarding feminization as worse than death, they are actually dying (and killing) rather than admit their vulnerability to Mother Nature: hence climate-change denial and the refusal to wear masks in a pandemic. “The contemporary push for men to give up their ‘masculinity ideology’ — to be softer, humbler, more cooperative, to think of others first, to support the leadership of others rather than assuming they are entitled to lead, to listen rather than doing all the talking — is simply asking men to cultivate qualities that can help them survive in an increasingly complex world. It’s adapt or die.”

Four years of the narcissist-in-chief screaming “Fake news!” has made “gaslighting” a household word. Ozy at Thing of Things objects to how the word has become Internet shorthand for any argument that causes cognitive dissonance or uncomfortable paradigm shifts in the hearer:

Gaslighting is a form of abuse in which a person you trust manipulates you into distrusting your own perceptions, memories, and judgments… It is not gaslighting when someone contradicts you, or intentionally causes you to doubt your beliefs, or leaves you uncertain of what you believe, or even makes you think that they think you are crazy. Gaslighting is about someone lying to you in a way that causes you to lose trust in your own capabilities as a rational person.

Following philosopher Miranda Fricker, Ozy recommends the term “hermeneutical injustice” for something that can feel like gaslighting but is distinct from it: when you have an experience, but your community has denied you a framework to understand and believe in that experience.

If you don’t have the concept of gender dysphoria, it’s hard to put together your body image issues, your depersonalization, your deep-seated jealousy of women, your desire to wear skirts, and the fact that you never play a male RPG character. Those will all seem like discrete unrelated facts that don’t point to anything.

But the harms of hermeneutical injustice go deeper. There are harms to the individual as a knower: you feel stupid or crazy because you can’t articulate your experiences, and that makes you feel stupid and crazy in general; it is hard to cultivate certain epistemic virtues if you can’t understand yourself and your own mind. And quite often– especially in more serious cases of hermeneutical injustice– there is a harm to your identity. The harm of growing up conceptualizing yourself as a sodomite rather than a gay person; the harm of thinking of yourself as a person who freaks out about normal flirtation instead of a victim of sexual harassment; the harm of having your very sense of self shaped by narratives and concepts that were developed by people who don’t understand people like you at all.

Hermeneutical injustice isn’t only perpetrated by conservatives. Feminism’s transphobia problem is documented in this Atlantic article by Kaitlyn Tiffany, “The Secret Internet of TERFs” (trans-exclusive radical feminists). Like QAnon cult followers, TERFs have created an echo chamber in Internet communities where they spread paranoid conspiracy theories about the “trans agenda”. TERF discourse, though ostensibly from the Left, shares with right-wing homophobia the dangerous assertion that other people’s mere existence threatens the meaning of your life. Not a stretch to compare these folks to the tiki-torch-wielding racists in Charlottesville whose battle cry was “You will not replace us!”

I wrote my college religion thesis on original sin in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. Hawthorne didn’t have the word “narcissism” at his disposal, but his moral tales were targeting TERF logic. The fatal flaw of a character such as Aylmer in “The Birthmark”, the scientist who killed his wife in an attempt to perfect her beauty, was that he treated his fellow humans as pieces on the chessboard of his own symbolic scheme. Purity of concept mattered more than real people’s pain. That’s what Christian conservatives do when they argue that marriage equality devalues their straight marriage, or when cis women claim that including trans women in their spaces would erase the significance of childbirth and menstruation. It’s an assertion that some people don’t have the right to narrate their own lives. There’s nothing feminist about that.

November Links Roundup: Testify to Love

Thanks for your patience, readers. The link farm harvest is a bit late this month because I’ve been front-loading my Winning Writers work in anticipation of another school shutdown. The Young Master and I expect to spend the winter making art and lighting fires.

Over a decade ago, when I was deep into Gay-or-Christian angst, the Christian pop band Avalon’s song “Testify to Love” always renewed my desperate hope that God accepted me as I was. Even now, when a lot of Christian media is triggering to me, this song gives me joy. I wondered whether I was just reading my own preoccupations into the opening line, “All the colors of the rainbow…” But this People Magazine article from September shows that my gaydar was correct–as is my instinct to mistrust evangelicals: “Former Avalon Singer Michael Passons Says He Was Kicked Out of Christian Band for Being Gay”.

Michael Passons, a founding member of Avalon who left the Christian band 17 years ago, is opening up about his departure from the group.

The singer-songwriter, 54…said that he was confronted by his former bandmates on June 30, 2003, to leave Avalon.

“Avalon showed up at my house and told me I was no longer in the group,” he said. “And it was all because of who I am.”

The artist also said that he was “required to attend some reparative therapy sessions” prior to his exit, which like conversion therapy, is an attempt is made to try to make someone identify as heterosexual.

Acclaimed gay novelist Garth Greenwell, though not a religious man, has a devotional cast of mind that makes his literary criticism especially insightful. An admirer of St. Augustine, Greenwell often writes about how our desires and needs are a mystery to ourselves. The liberal, rational self envisioned by the literary marketplace has too narrow a time horizon and too judgmental an imagination, he proposes in his Harper’s essay “Making Meaning: Against ‘Relevance’ in Art”. Although the current push for “relevance” provided a necessary corrective to the presumption that only stories in a certain demographic are “universal”, taken to extremes this demand denies the possibility of grace, understood in the humanistic sense as the opportunity to be confronted with the divinity in any person (even middle-class white men!).

[I[t is always ethically suspect to speak of any human experience as irrelevant to our common human experience; it is always, let me go further, an act of something like violence. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes what he calls the law of the conservation of violence: that groups subjected to violence will seek to inflict that violence on others, to pass it along. This is what we’re doing when we dismiss the relevance of other stories—the relevance, therefore, of other lives—and suggest that the aesthetic value of a human experience, such as straight-male desire, is exhaustible.

Growing up in Kentucky, and later, studying in the academy of the 1990s, I experienced the violence of being told that my life as a queer person, my work as a queer artist, could stand only as an eccentric counterpoint to a central, universal human story. But I don’t want to conserve that violence; I want to disperse or transform it. It seems to me that either we believe that all human experience is valuable, that any life has the potential to reveal something true for every life—a universality achieved not through the effacement of difference but through devotion to it—or we don’t. I want to encourage the proliferation of voices and stories, not their repression.

And he also deftly subtweets Marilynne Robinson. Go read the whole essay.

Along with “relevance”, the idea of a “writing career” is an idol that periodically needs to be dethroned. Poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, themselves no stranger to literary accolades, diagrammed the mutual back-scratching among winners of the most prestigious awards, in their article “On Poets and Prizes” at ASAP Journal. The ostensible goal of awards is to make poetry visible and relevant (that word again) to the general public. In addition, prizes are the only way that most poets ever get paid for their writing. Spahr and Young’s data-crunching showed that although winners’ racial and gender demographics have finally diversified in the past 5-10 years, their background is still quite elite and insular:

The prizes we examined have (or had) a $10,000 or higher award. Our dataset includes 429 winners of close to eight hundred prizes for poetry, beginning with Carl Sandberg’s 1919 Pulitzer win and ending with last year’s winners… Of those 429 winners, over half have a degree of some sort from a cluster of eight schools: Harvard, University of Iowa, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, New York University, University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton. Forty percent also have an MFA and 20 percent of these MFAs were awarded by the U of Iowa alone. Around 60 percent of the poets who get tapped to judge attended that same small cluster of schools.

Hey, I went to Harvard! Where’s my money?

Philosopher Adam Kotsko decries the pressure to prove the humanities’ worth in terms of market forces, in his article “Not Persuasion, But Power: Against ‘Making the Case'”, part of a forum in Boston Review on “Higher Education in the Age of Coronavirus”.

For a generation or more, institutions of higher education have been actively dismantled—in many ways, transformed beyond recognition—by powerful constituencies who are actively hostile to academic values. These constituencies include conservative politicians who view widespread access to liberal arts education as a recipe for social upheaval, and business leaders who want to shunt the expense of training workers for highly technical jobs onto the university system (and ultimately the students themselves). They do not need to be told of the benefits of a liberal arts education. They have often benefited from such an education themselves and are happy to provide it for their own children—including at elite Ivy League schools that do not even have the kind of vocational programs that they recommend so fervently for everyone else. They are well aware of the potential of liberal arts degrees to produce engaged and informed citizens who can navigate an ever-changing job market with confidence and creativity. That is precisely why they want to keep a true liberal arts education as a preserve of the elite, consigning everyone else to narrowly vocational paths that teach them how best to serve those above them in the social hierarchy.

I’ve spent the past five years working on a novel, which means I haven’t written anything I can make money from. I miss that sweet short story prize cash. But Origin Story is hard to excerpt. You need context for those blow jobs. At Craft Literary, novelist Maria Cichosz (Cam and Beau) explains why in “For Better or Worse: On the Failure of the Stand-Alone Excerpt”.

The novel is an act of devotion. To write a novel, you must love a story enough to want to spend a significant chunk of your life with it. The novel is not just a finished piece of work—like any extended relationship, it is a process of living that unfolds through time.

Another way of putting this: Writing a novel is like falling in love. It begins with an encounter. A character comes into your head fully formed and demands space, demands your time, demands a story. A scene compels you and won’t take no for an answer. It’s like that first glimpse across the bar, the touch of a hand sparking more than you could have expected, opening something inside you that you didn’t know was there. In this space, the short story writer thrives. They will run with that glance, crystallize it, transform it, reflect upon it, then sagely put it away. After all, the world is wide, and there are many encounters to be had. The novelist, on the other hand, is hooked. The glance is not enough—they start a conversation, stay up late into the night, arrange another meeting. The more time they spend in this world, the more compelling it becomes. They keep sleeping over until it becomes obvious that the only reasonable course of action is to pack their bags and move in, committing to a long and unpredictable process of mutual growth.

Finally, I have to share this fierce and funny Missouri Review poem-of-the-week by Katie Erbs, “Artemisia Gentileschi Gives Head to Every Man at Once”. It’s not what you think. Check it out.

October Bonus Links: Small Gods

Extra good stuff from the Internet this month.

Fantasy/horror novelist Seanan McGuire (Middlegame) and illustrator Lee Moyer teamed up this spring to create the Small Gods Series. By turns whimsical, comforting, and pleasantly sinister, these short posts are encyclopedia entries about the minor spirits that might be watching out for us. Worried about offending an unknown deity? Ask for intercession from Fishier Spooner, the cephalopod Small God of Pentacle Torn. Are you cute but full of revolutionary fury? Pumpkin Spice is by your side to decolonize that shit. Deconstructed Victorian gentlemen The Assless Chaps support shaking up gender roles. Or maybe you just need a hug from Elder Bunny, the Small God of Fluffiness.

Cats know they are divine, and sooner or later, their human companions know it too. This amusing piece from Open Culture shows that some things haven’t changed: “In 1183, a Chinese Poet Describes Being Domesticated by His Own Cats”. Journalist Colin Marshall remarks: “Here in Korea, where I live, cat owners aren’t called cat owners: they’re called goyangi jibsa, literally ‘cat butlers.'”

On Medium, activist and filmmaker Chris Landry critiques one liberal idol. In “Trump, COVID, and the Politics of Civility” he writes:

One of the most damaging things in politics over the past fifty years is the liberal fetish for civility, for the self-satisfied knowing that they have taken the “high road” and refused to stoop to the level of the opponent.

“When they go low, we go high.” I despise that saying and the smugness that accompanies it. At root, it is entirely selfish. It’s about politics as an aesthetic experience in which the goal is to feel good, noble, better than the other side — no matter the harm being perpetrated on much more vulnerable people.

In family, work, and friendships, yes, go high. But politics is, unfortunately, not like those things. It is always about power. It is, as they say, war by other means. It determines who lives and who dies. The goal is not to go high. the goal is to fight for justice and for the greatest good for the people…

…Is it corrosive to our society when the divisions are so strong? Absolutely. As FDR said, “I hate war.” We the people didn’t seek it, or choose it, but here we are: at war for the future of the country against very powerful and ruthless forces…

…We’ve been in an ideological war for fifty years. Republicans have been scheming and planning — extremely effectively — to take power even as the demographics increasing disadvantage them. They’ve built power at the state level, used that to gerrymander themselves into power at the federal level, and focused on radically altering the judiciary, blocking Democratic nominees to federal courts while ramming through their own.

The Democratic response? Senator Pat Leahy long continued a tradition — not a law — of allowing senators to put a hold on judicial nominees from their states. This foolishness allowed one lone Republican, for example, to block an Obama nominee for eight years, so that Trump could fill the post. You think McConnell cares about that tradition? It would be funny if it weren’t so harmful to actual human beings.

Image, a respected journal of spirituality and the arts, published this intriguing conversation, “A Devotional Temperament”, between acclaimed gay novelist Garth Greenwell (What Belongs to You and Cleanness) and theologian James K.A. Smith. Here’s Greenwell on his interest in St. Augustine:

Very early on, I was indoctrinated into the idea that my desire was inherently disordered for reasons that I now entirely reject. But it still seems to me that my desire is disordered, and it still seems to me that desire is the great disorderer. Desire is the most extraordinary plot device, because it gives us something to seek, an aim for our will, and yet it itself is always unwilled. We don’t choose what we desire. That balance of activity and absolute proneness and abjection is endlessly fascinating to me. Even separate from the context of homophobia, I find desire humiliating. I find it humiliating to be overpowered by something I have not chosen and do not will. Augustine feels that, too.

And later in the interview, on the stylistic lessons of Augustine’s Confessions:

To me the great promise and faith that lies behind not just literary art, but all art, is that by devotion to the particular, by attending with all of our faculties as precisely and carefully as we can to the particulars of a life, a place, a time, we can arrive at something that is true of humanness itself.

The word “universality” is often used as a weapon against writers who are said to be marginal, who are told—as I was as a graduate student—that their experience is not pertinent to “the universal.” That is always a lie; it’s a false use of the word “universal.” But I do believe in universality, of a kind that doesn’t deface particularity but is arrived at through particularity. That’s how Augustine, though he is separated from me by centuries and language and continents and, more than any of those things, by a system of belief that I absolutely reject—that’s how he shows me to myself.

This faith, that the interior and particular can lead to the interpersonal and universal, is what I think animates much of our literary practice, especially first-person literary practice. I think Augustine invented it.

…I do think concepts can be useful without being true. That’s a belief of art, too. But when you write a poem or a novel, when you paint something, when you create music, all of those things are done in a faith that one can make something finite that has access to the infinite. That to me is the promise of art, and it’s fundamentally an incarnational idea.

Finally, this personal essay on the Ploughshares blog by Anaïs Duplan (Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture), “I Will Always Be That”, has given me some peace of mind about being misgendered by strangers.

Knowing I was injecting myself with testosterone every week made it really hard to hear people use “she” to refer to me, even harder than before I started HRT. I was making an effort to change and no one was acknowledging it.

There was a point, about six months in, where I started to pass on and off. I looked like a twelve-year-old boy, so when I did pass, it was as a child. This was the hardest part of my transition (though sometimes I think I say that about every part of my transition). I would have an interaction in a deli where the cashier called me “miss,” then walk out onto the street and hear someone call me “sir,” then meet up with a friend who would use the pronouns I’d asked people to start using (they/them), then talk to an acquaintance who would mess up my pronouns and use she/her. It was a rollercoaster. I was a rollercoaster. Every time someone gendered me as male or just didn’t use she/her pronouns to refer to me, I felt euphoric. As soon as someone misgendered me, my mood crashed and I felt terrible. This went on for a long time, this sometimes-passing liminal space.

After a while, I realized how ridiculous the whole idea of passing is. It had to be ridiculous if I could be referred to with “he,” “she,” and “they” all in the same day. What exactly were people referring to when they used these pronouns? The way my face looked, the clothes I was wearing, the way I talked, carried myself?..

…As soon as I learned not to let how I was being gendered control how I felt, I could reclaim my sense of self from the pronominal chaos being reflected back to me. I learned to “play in the reflections” and “dance with perspective.” It took about a year of hormone therapy before transition started to feel like healing, but not from a lifetime of “being in the wrong body.” I was healing the part of myself that was identified with my body, identified with a gender, with the person I was on any given day, with my interests, preferences, and dislikes. Identity itself as an idea fell apart and my sense of self started to “come from some of everywhere, somewhere so deep that some of / everywhere come with you,” if I may borrow again from [Fred] Moten. It didn’t matter where I was headed, gender-wise, anymore. I stopped wishing for the day when I would pass all the time. I started living as myself, whoever that was.

Transition seems to have brought Duplan to the perspective that Buddhists call anatta, non-self–the realization that we have no permanent unchanging identity. Perhaps a looser attachment to the “self” of the Western philosophical tradition would help all of us, cis and trans alike, to accept gender fluidity. “What if you do something irrevocable to your body and regret it?” is a common objection that often gets in the way of life-changing medical care for trans youth. One of the nice things about transitioning in my 40s is that I already know I can’t rely on my body to stay the same, whether or not I actively try to change it.

I don’t think I’m ready for this, though:

In a move that could revolutionize gender-reassignment surgery, hospital officials in Boston are considering whether to allow a first-ever penis transplant in a transgender man. Surgeons hope to attach a dead man’s penis to the groin of a patient born as a biological female.

According to the MedPage Today article, a few such transplants have successfully been performed on cis men who lost their genitals to cancer or a war wound. I can’t get past the phrase “dead man’s penis” though. Would that be a…Hand of Glory-hole?

Happy Halloween, everyone.

October Links Roundup: Change the Conversation

Welcome to the beautiful, spooky month of October. Remember, masks aren’t just for Halloween anymore.

(Get your own man face at AxeandCo on Etsy)

Sci-fi novelist Isaac R. Fellman wins the Internet for 2020 with his July newsletter post, “Peggy Olson Is a Gay Trans Man”, which explains why she was the only female TV character I’ve ever fully identified with.

Peggy is so utterly dissociated from the flesh of Peggy that she can carry a baby to term while pretending, even to herself, that she is just putting on weight…

This is seeing your body as an imprecise instrument which you must learn to use. It’s seeing your body as a thing out of your control, so that anything else it does, or that you may happen to make it do, has no meaning. It’s just topology.

It’s not just that Peggy is willing to endure all kinds of things — Joan’s cruelty about her body, a pregnancy without medical care, the logistics of a new wardrobe, the bearing and giving up of the child, becoming a temporary ward of the State of New York — in order to avoid more conventional humiliations. It’s also that she endures them, does her usual hard course of work, gets through it stoically, because the alternative is acknowledging the life of the body…

Peggy rather famously spends the whole series trying to figure out how to be a woman. I would argue that her process here — which, like her process of fucking, is all about patterning and identity theft — nonetheless has a very different vibe from her relations to men… [T]he series is littered with the bones of women Peggy has tried to bond with, with all the sincere good will and feminist consciousness in the world. Peggy likes women, is politically aligned with women, makes a career of selling products to women. Peggy’s friends are men.

In this September interview in the New Statesman, gender-theory heavyweight Judith Butler cogently debunks J.K. Rowling’s brand of transphobic “feminism”:

If we look closely at the example that you characterise as “mainstream” we can see that a domain of fantasy is at work, one which reflects more about the feminist who has such a fear than any actually existing situation in trans life. The feminist who holds such a view presumes that the penis does define the person, and that anyone with a penis would identify as a woman for the purposes of entering such changing rooms and posing a threat to the women inside. It assumes that the penis is the threat, or that any person who has a penis who identifies as a woman is engaging in a base, deceitful, and harmful form of disguise. This is a rich fantasy, and one that comes from powerful fears, but it does not describe a social reality. Trans women are often discriminated against in men’s bathrooms, and their modes of self-identification are ways of describing a lived reality, one that cannot be captured or regulated by the fantasies brought to bear upon them. The fact that such fantasies pass as public argument is itself cause for worry…

We depend on gender as a historical category, and that means we do not yet know all the ways it may come to signify, and we are open to new understandings of its social meanings. It would be a disaster for feminism to return either to a strictly biological understanding of gender or to reduce social conduct to a body part or to impose fearful fantasies, their own anxieties, on trans women… Their abiding and very real sense of gender ought to be recognised socially and publicly as a relatively simple matter of according another human dignity. The trans-exclusionary radical feminist position attacks the dignity of trans people.

Did you know that the notable 20th-century writer and critic Dorothy Parker was a civil rights activist? Me neither, till I read this news item from the NAACP:

For over three decades, the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, served as the resting place for Dorothy Parker. Forever etched into the NAACP’s history and legacy, the American poet, writer, critic and satirist was a fierce supporter of civil rights and social justice during a critical era in our nation’s history.

At a time when the country was in the midst of a social movement for civil rights and equal protection, Parker gave to a cause she believed in by bequeathing her estate to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and providing that upon his death, the estate would pass to the NAACP. The NAACP continues to benefit from her gift by licensing the use of her works.

Born in Long Beach, New Jersey, Parker rose to prominence for her literary works published in such magazines as The New Yorker and as a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York City writers and critics. In 1932, Parker found success in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Among her accolades, she received two Academy Award nominations and worked on more than 15 films.

Throughout her life, Parker grew to be a vocal advocate of civil liberties and civil rights. In 1988, under the leadership of then-NAACP President Benjamin Hooks, Parker’s remains were interred at the NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore and remained there for 32 years.

Preserving the legacy of Dorothy Parker has been an essential part of the NAACP’s history. At the request of her family, which coincided with the NAACP’s planned moved to Washington, Mrs. Parker’s remains were re-interred in a family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York on Aug. 22, 2020.

What might Parker have said about Rowling? Perhaps “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Or, “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.”

At the Forward, a venerable Jewish magazine, Abigail Pogrebin asks the provocative question, “Does God’s gender matter?” A journalist and former producer for “60 Minutes” and “Charlie Rose”, Pogrebin is also the daughter of Ms. Magazine co-founder Letty Cotton Pogrebin. Here, she talks with Rabbi David Ingber of the progressive congregation Romemu in Manhattan.

The text he sends before our interview, (I ask each teacher to choose one) is a midrash, or rabbinic commentary, from the 6th century, in which a sage known as Rab Kahana analyzes the First Commandment: “I am the Lord, your God.”

Kahana suggests that when God asserts, “I am the Lord,” it’s to clarify not only that God is one, but God is all. We should not assume the Lord takes one shape or is found in just one place.

Ingber builds on Kahana’s analysis: if the Lord our God has multiple iterations, the Lord is therefore not one gender at all times.

It’s not because of some feminist principle that Ingber seems to suggest this, though he’s known for an egalitarian approach to traditional observance. Instead, Ingber says that asking whether God is male or female is the wrong question. God takes any form you need God to take. And the midrash gives us permission to find — or feel — God in whatever form speaks to us.

Later in the piece, Rabbi Ingber says:

Why would the first thing God tell the people of Israel be, I am the Lord your God? There must be a hidden reason. The rabbis are imagining a God who is really concerned that the people not be confused by the polymorphic nature of God. Will the real God please stand up?

So this text is decidedly trying to say, ‘I appear in multiple places, in different ways, but they’re all me.’ God is saying, ‘You can see me as your aunt or uncle, your father or mother. You can see me as a God who at one time feels like a stern disciplinarian and another time feels as a loving, compassionate comforter. All of these faces are legitimate expressions of who I am.’

Covenant is the weblog of the Living Church Foundation, an independent nonprofit ministry within the Episcopal Church. Hat tip to Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement and one-half of the Lent Madness team, for tweeting this Covenant article by lay theologian Elizabeth Anderson: “The Priesthood of All Believers: The Uses and Abuses of a Doctrine”. Anderson critiques a phenomenon that I’ve noticed as well. Despite the Protestant belief that everyone has a ministry, non-clergy are often kept in social service roles, not allowed to influence the church’s theology or offer spiritual direction. “[A]ll of these false binaries — sacred/secular, spiritual/material, contemplation/action, Church /world, clergy/laity — imply a kind of dualism that is fundamentally incompatible with orthodox Christianity.”

Tor has a relatable new post at Speaking While the World Sleeps: “Defined by Future Regret: Survivors’ Autonomy”. As child abuse survivors, we question (and are constantly questioned about) how we can know ourselves well enough to transition. I often say that the “always already a boy” narrative doesn’t fit me, because there was never a time when I had access to an uncontested selfhood.

The idea that there is a “before” we could get back to, should get back to, makes no sense when talking about a lot of trauma, especially child sexual abuse. What’s the “before” when that would be when I was a child?

But I think the difficulty here is that it’s not just a “before” people expect us to get back to. They also assume an “underneath.” Underneath the trauma is you, underneath the trauma is what you actually think, want, hope, desire, and dream.

Tor observes that these questioners are far too concerned about us regretting non-heteronormative choices, while the real thing worth mourning is the years of authenticity we lost.

As much as people fixate on survivors who talk about, say, transitioning, and regretting it because it was “just because they were abused” I’m betting it’s far more common that trans survivors are like me, wishing they can been capable, emotionally, and mentally, of going on hormones years ago. But our regret only matters when we make active decisions about our life, when we assert our will over our bodies, not the passive regret that at least makes us fall in line within socially acceptable parameters of existence…

…This means that rather than helping survivors confront, grieve, and move past our regret, we’re instead taught to value it, to see it as something live by, more than any other emotional experience, more than any other aspect of our trauma.

And in doing so, we make it difficult for survivors to grasp at the normalcy of regret.

What I mean is: when you get to the end of your life, you’re always going to have choices you wish you’d taken and choices you wish you hadn’t. That’s what it means to be capable of choices. But survivors are encouraged to see their every regret as an aspersion on their capacity for reason, their decision-making as fully autonomous human beings…

Part of coping with abuse is understanding that there isn’t an “underneath” self who would make perfectly correct choices, who knows with pure clarity exactly who they are, who is so self-assured that they will never guess wrong about their own needs or desires, if only there wasn’t the trauma mucking things up. It’s understanding that messiness is a part of being human. And so is regret.

August Links Roundup: Love and Work

Summer has flown by at Reiter’s Block HQ. The Young Master is in wilderness camp, learning how to start fires (and hopefully put them out). I have finished a draft of the Endless Sequel! Now we are girding our loins for the likelihood of Zoom school, part 2, since the state prioritized reopening restaurants and beaches rather than beating down the virus before winter. Why can’t you all just drink vodka alone in your office, like I do? You don’t need bars to hook up. That’s why God made Grindr.

While I have the time, I’m doing get-out-the-vote activism (check out Swing Left for projects you can do from home) and participating in an anti-racist online book group with my college alumni. Last month we read Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, a masterful, bracing 600-page history of racist ideas in America. In the forthcoming September issue of The Atlantic, Kendi offers an ironically optimistic take on Trump’s presidency as a force for bringing white Americans out of denial.

He has held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back a grotesque image that many people had until now refused to see: an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality. Though it was hardly his intention, no president has caused more Americans to stop denying the existence of racism than Donald Trump.

Similar to the 1850s, when a critical mass of Americans finally recognized the evils of slavery, Kendi thinks we’re at a moment of opportunity to acknowledge and strike down modern manifestations of racism: police violence, mass incarceration, voter suppression, and economic inequality. To keep the momentum alive, however, we have to remember that the rot pre-dates Trump and will not simply be solved by defeating him in November.

At the Disability Visibility Project, Stella Akua Mensah and Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkulu wrote in July that “Abolition Must Include Psychiatry”. While I have my doubts about the either-or framing, I agree it’s important to question the assumption that the mental health system is always a humane alternative to jail.

[B]oth prisons and psychiatric institutions: have an overrepresentation of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), disregard the rights and safety of TGNC (trans and gender non-conforming) folks, use law enforcement transport/response, use solitary confinement and seclusion in cells/“rooms”, forcibly medicate folks (also known as chemical restraints), use physical restraints, offer extremely limited access to sunlight, fresh air, cell phones, news/media, and the outside world. In addition, sexual violence is routine, there is limited power to appeal legal/medical decisions, and the overwhelming majority of inmates are survivors of previous traumatic experiences. This year, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture presented a report asserting that involuntary psychiatric interventions “may well amount to torture.”

Prison culture is not solvable by ‘funding the mental health system’ more robustly. The mental ‘health’ system is fundamentally carceral, meaning that it is one of the many kindred systems that function to contain and surveil people, take away their locus of control, isolate them from their communities, and limit their freedom. As it functions in America and in all places touched by colonialism, psychiatry is rooted in torture, white supremacy, and a culture of shame and punishment.

Some articles about writers’ mental health seemed worth sharing this month. Found via the supreme advice blog Captain Awkward, Paul Graham’s essay “How to Do What You Love” challenges the way that kids are traditionally brought up to think about work versus play. The usual belief is: school is boring because grown-up work will be boring, and you do boring work to earn fun time later. Graham observes:

What a recipe for alienation. By the time they reach an age to think about what they’d like to do, most kids have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one’s work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can’t blame kids for thinking “I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.”

Actually they’ve been told three lies: the stuff they’ve been taught to regard as work in school is not real work; grownup work is not (necessarily) worse than schoolwork; and many of the adults around them are lying when they say they like what they do.

The most dangerous liars can be the kids’ own parents. If you take a boring job to give your family a high standard of living, as so many people do, you risk infecting your kids with the idea that work is boring. Maybe it would be better for kids in this one case if parents were not so unselfish. A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house…

…If you think something’s supposed to hurt, you’re less likely to notice if you’re doing it wrong.

…The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month.

Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.

As a lower bound, you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure. You have to like what you do enough that the concept of “spare time” seems mistaken. Which is not to say you have to spend all your time working. You can only work so much before you get tired and start to screw up. Then you want to do something else—even something mindless. But you don’t regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working as the pain you endure to earn it.

Related to that, Lindsay King-Miller (author of Ask a Queer Chick) writes at Electric Literature that “Writing Doesn’t Need to Hurt”. (Hat tip to Jess Zimmerman on Twitter for the link.) Discussing her writer’s block while working on a bereavement memoir, King-Miller tells us not to force ourselves to dwell on trauma; it isn’t the only way to produce authentic and important work. She eventually wrote herself out of a dark place, not by endlessly dissecting her grief, but by generating tons of happy-endings fanfiction for her own enjoyment.

I’m not unique in writing past the point of comfort or safety. The archetype of the suffering artist is centuries old, a cultural memory that long predates my own idiosyncrasies. Writers are encouraged, tacitly and explicitly—no, fuck that passive voice. Writers encourage each other to steer into the pain. We value “raw” and “searing” prose, venerate brutal honesty. We say “write what scares you” but seldom “write what makes you happy.” There is so much advice about “bleeding on the page” and “cutting deeper” and, if you follow those instructions, you can end up a mess of open veins and damaged tissues.

“Writing this book almost killed me,” a writer I admire tweeted recently about her new memoir, and maybe she didn’t mean it as a point of pride, but I’m certain I wasn’t the only one who read it that way. When I was a slam poet, I watched over and over as people I loved delved into their most painful moments, live and onstage, reliving trauma with their whole bodies for the sake of a compelling performance. In some creative circles, the willingness to push oneself to the edge of a breakdown is considered vital to producing great art.

It’s not a surprise, then, that so many writers seem to hate writing—if “writing” is synonymous with “chewing open old wounds.”

…It is brave to write the thing you need to write, even if it hurts. But that doesn’t mean that the hardest writing is always the bravest. Self-flagellation for its own sake is not noble—and it doesn’t necessarily make for good art.

My guiding spirit, as I plan my next project, is Diane Nguyen from “BoJack Horseman” season 6. Unable to start writing her book of serious essays, which was meant to turn her banal family dysfunction into something productive, Diane overhears a conversation at the mall and spins it into the accidentally successful middle-grade series “Ivy Tran, Food Court Detective”.

At Medium, Kacen Callender, author of the YA transgender novel Felix Ever After, reminds us that writers are people too, even on social media. “The Humanization of Authors” notes the complexities of the power dynamic between authors and readers:

There’s an idea that authors and novelists have power and platforms, but there’s a key narrative being overlooked in the relationship between novelist and reader: authors depend on readers to buy our books for our livelihoods. There’s immediately a power dynamic placed between author and reader where we depend on pleasing the reader, many times to the point of our dehumanization. There’s also the fact that readers, bloggers, and influencers can be white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, or any other identity with privilege, and an author can have identities with no privilege. The idea that an author automatically has more power than a reader needs to be reexamined.

There’s a culture where many readers feel entitled to an author because they pay money in exchange for an author’s work. The culture implies that the reader is entitled not only to the author’s book, but to all of the author’s being. This unhealthy balance leads to situations where authors, for example, are not allowed to set healthy boundaries. Authors are vilified if they respond directly to a reader who has tagged them in a negative review, asking that they do not tag us. Authors are expected to respond to all messages. Authors are considered bad writers for not wanting to take a reader’s feedback or criticism into consideration.

Among the ways that authors are dehumanized by the social media culture of instantaneous, on-demand reactions, says Callender, is being “forced to disclose their gender or sexual identities and/or forced to share their past traumas so that readers will stop demanding to know about their lives as proof that the author is allowed to tell a specific story.”

Playwright and screenwriter Topher Payne has rewritten the cringe-worthy classic The Giving Tree to teach kids about healthy boundaries. Take a look.

When I was a Christian, I worried a lot about what made my creative work “Christian poetry” or “Christian fiction”. (Fun fact, naming your gay butt sex novel after the hypostatic union is a good start.) Does it have to be uplifting? Didactic? Contain a Christ-like character–but if it does, will this promote the misconception that human beings are our own saviors? Is it a Christian book simply because I, a Christian, am writing it? And if the book doesn’t turn out Christian-ish, does that mean I’m not a believer? (Well, in my case, yes.) In retrospect, I think I was concerned about this because I’d just become a full-time writer and I didn’t know if I deserved that privilege.

At the ecumenical online journal Breaking Ground, Tara Isabella Burton’s piece “Toward a Christian Aesthetics: Novel-Writing in an Age of COVID” addresses this very concern. The pandemic has exposed and heightened many inequalities in America. Writers can’t avoid noticing that the leisure to practice our craft depends on the physical labor of less privileged workers.

Now, more than ever, as we make public sense of a world in which the powerless are in bondage to the powerful, and in which we are all in bondage to sin, we are called not merely to account for the ways we exercise our freedom. It is a question for aesthetics as much as for politics—insofar as we can separate them, which as good systematic theologians I motion we cannot and must not do.

The questions of whether we should write and the question of what we should write as Christians are inseparable from one another and from this wider question of the theological character of right and wrong freedom—a question that both the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd protests have rendered ever more urgent.

How, in the forming of words on a page, can we exercise good creative freedom, even as we resist in both practice and product the embedded liberal notion that our individual, autonomous liberty to do, to make, to fashion, is the highest good there is?

Burton calls for a humanizing aesthetic that embraces the contingency and interconnectedness of our lives. She contrasts this with the pipe dream of unlimited personal autonomy that capitalism promises. The Christian novel will

embrace the implicit power in the authorial position by adopting not…a cynical gaze, that of the disengaged ironist, nor even the more morally palatable fury of the rightly raging prophet, but a distinctly loving one. I think that that the Christian novel can—indeed must—express anger at the world’s brokenness, and its injustice, even as it casts its attention on, and loves, the tiny details, the anecdotes, the phrases, the moments, that make each of its characters, in being fully human, fully loved by God. To zero in on a character’s foibles, their mistakes, their wickedness, their self-deception—and show us why we should love them anyway—is the greatest task of Christian art…

…And, most importantly of all, the Christian would preserve in every character depicted, however briefly mentioned, the sense that they are made in the imago Dei: that they are fully human, with their own wants, needs, desires, hopes, that each of they could, if only given space to tell it, be the protagonist of their own story as well.

…It is a commitment, too, to creating work where all characters, however minor, are treated with the respect of their full humanity, and where the narrative structure of the work reflects the imperfection and insufficiency of any one authorial or authoritative gaze. It is a commitment, too, to treating the world I write about with love—to seeing the incarnate Christ everywhere, even in the most broken or sinful characters; to seeing their God-given capacity to receive grace.

This actually has been my ideal from the beginning, as well. The problem is that I didn’t find it in the Bible, nor in the reactions of the most devout Christians to my art. Quite the opposite, usually.

At JStor Daily, Ed Simon writes a provocative article “In Defense of Kitsch”. He suggests that criticism of kitsch’s democratized rococo style can be traced to Protestant suspicion or snobbery about Catholic material culture. I don’t know that I buy this as a complete explanation, since American evangelicals pump out enormous amounts of sentimental tchotchkes, but I do love to read an appreciation of my favorite room at the Met, the 18th-century furniture in the Wrightsman Galleries. Mean Mommy used to make fun of my “tacky” taste for gilded furniture and porcelain shepherdesses. Well, I have a glitter-covered orchid vagina painting on my office ceiling and I’m living my best life.

Reading Treasure: Barbie Travels to the 18th Century

“Madame du Barbie” image via Reading Treasure, a Marie Antoinette fan blog (for real!)

July Bonus Links: Next Year, Not in Jerusalem

Oy, so many links this month, it’s like a Hebrew National warehouse!

QFC - Hebrew National Kosher Beef Bagel Dogs, 7.6 oz

Peter Beinart’s much-discussed article in the leftist magazine Jewish Currents this week made a compelling case for American Jews to rethink their (our?) faith in traditional Zionism. In “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine”, he begins by describing the beliefs I grew up with:

In the broad center of Jewish life—where power and respectability lie—being a Jew means, above all, supporting the existence of a Jewish state. In most Jewish communities on earth, rejecting Israel is a greater heresy than rejecting God.

The reason is rarely spelled out, mostly because it’s considered obvious: Opposing a Jewish state means risking a second Holocaust. It puts the Jewish people in existential danger…Through a historical sleight of hand that turns Palestinians into Nazis, fear of annihilation has come to define what it means to be an authentic Jew.

However, as he lays out comprehensively in the rest of this article, the historical evidence shows that the “Jewish state” has not kept Jews safe nor preserved Jewish ethical values.

With each passing year, it has become clearer that Jewish statehood includes permanent Israeli control of the West Bank. With each new election, irrespective of which parties enter the government, Israel has continued subsidizing Jewish settlement in a territory in which Palestinians lack citizenship, due process, free movement, and the right to vote for the government that dominates their lives…

Now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex parts of the land that Israel has brutally and undemocratically controlled for decades. And watching all this unfold, I have begun to wonder, for the first time in my life, whether the price of a state that favors Jews over Palestinians is too high. After all, it is human beings—all human beings—and not states that are created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God.

The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed. The traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s current path. It risks becoming, instead, a way of camouflaging and enabling that path. It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish–Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality.

This doesn’t require abandoning Zionism. It requires reviving an understanding of it that has largely been forgotten. It requires distinguishing between form and essence. The essence of Zionism is not a Jewish state in the land of Israel; it is a Jewish home in the land of Israel, a thriving Jewish society that both offers Jews refuge and enriches the entire Jewish world. It’s time to explore other ways to achieve that goal—from confederation to a democratic binational state—that don’t require subjugating another people. It’s time to envision a Jewish home that is a Palestinian home, too.

Please read the whole thing, especially if this quote raises your hackles. And then check out the essay anthology Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism, from Interlink Publishing.

The anthem of 2020 should be “Everything Is Cancelled” (sung to the Lego Movie tune “Everything Is Awesome”, of course). What other institutions can we topple? How about higher education? Nathan J. Robinson, editor of the socialist magazine Current Affairs, ponders what would happen if we took conservatives’ parody hashtag “Cancel Yale” seriously:

Some conservatives think they have found a very clever way to troll the activists who push for renaming things named after slaveholders. Yale University was named after a slaveholder, Elihu Yale. If we believe in renaming military bases that were named in honor of Confederate generals, what principled argument is there for not renaming Yale University? The “reductio ad absurdum” is designed to show that activists are extremists and that carrying their principles through to their logical conclusion would result in actions that none of them are presently encouraging people to take. And it’s a silly effort to troll activists, but it raises an actual serious question: What principles do we use to evaluate what should and shouldn’t be renamed? Is renaming a university so costly as to be unthinkable?

Of course, Yale (and my alma mater, its sworn enemy) has brand-name significance to millions of people who have probably never heard of old Elihu. That’s why conservatives think the “cancellation” would be absurd–and why Robinson argues the opposite:

One reason the conservative “Cancel Yale” troll works so well is not because there’s no argument for keeping the name, but because arguing strenuously against the renaming of Yale requires Yale people to admit that they highly value being Yale people and would not want to stop being Yale people. It is demanding that those who have won in the “meritocracy” risk giving up their privileges for the sake of racial justice. (I say “risk” because I think ultimately changing the name on the sign wouldn’t change the institution’s social function much.) I’m sure the alumni of any university would fight hard to keep from having it changed, but going after Yale specifically is a satisfying poke at liberal elites who want justice as long as it comes at no cost to themselves.

One of my husband’s friends, also a Harvard grad, used to joke about how big a donation Harvard would require to change Widener’s name to “Stumpy the Clown Library”.

Now for my favorite part of the show… What does that say? Talk to ...

Meanwhile, in “Blacks in the U.”, a 1996 essay from the archives of the literary journal Ploughshares, acclaimed poet Toi Derricotte did some soul-searching about tokenism, mother-daughter individuation, and the roots of racism:

Sometimes I think that eventually every identity breaks down to some self that has to learn to live between loneliness and connection, stuck in some primal way in a spot one cannot retreat from. I don’t mean that being black can ever be a lost identity in this racist world, or that it should be. I don’t mean anything like those people who say, I don’t see color. But that in some way even our connections to the ones most like us become unsolid, unreal, and, though there is a necessity for trust and commitment, in another way we are nothing more than some kind of spirit-movement walking through the world clothed in a certain story of its life.

Perhaps this revulsion for the other is really a revulsion for my own self, my own fears of being “other,” separate and alone. Perhaps accepting this distance, even from the ones most like me, the ones I love and would like to be closest to, is really the way I will finally see us as we truly are, all of us “other,” frighteningly distant from each other, and yet needing and loving each other.

Finally, peruse the Kafka-esque saga of Nicholas Carter, a black staff writer for the game Cards Against Humanity who was involuntarily committed to a mental ward by his bosses when he objected to using the N-word in the game. He contextualizes his horrific ordeal with the history of weaponizing medical and psychological “expertise” against people of color:

In 2017 I wrote a novel about a black teenager who pretends to be white online and gets drawn into the world of hate-crimes. It explores what’s attractive about American violence and power and in the research of it I was reading a lot of philosophy, sociology, and post-colonial theory. For the first time I read Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks and learned how psychiatrists in the Antilles had diagnosed the colonized people there with congenital nervous disorders after violently colonizing and repressing them, and Katz’ Seductions of Crime which illustrates the transcendent morality undergirding our life. I learned how we’re forced to pretend to be happy at work in The Managed Heart by Hochschild, and how everyone in our society takes aggression out on each other in Chancer’s Sadomasochism in Everyday Life. Richard Edwards’ Contested Terrain discussed the ways capitalists use management to control workers, and how those had evolved into a hybrid structure that utilized promotions and rewards to incentivize workers to play along. Only the most docile, loyal supporters of the company are promoted into positions of power. All you have to do is be willing to say yes.

When I heard that the majority of the owner-writers wanted to put the n-word into the game, I felt like my presence might have always been a simple permission structure for them. By occupying that space, I was implicitly endorsing them and allowing them to do what they wanted while pointing to me and saying, “but, look, we have a black guy.”

“Drapetomania” strikes again…

July Links Roundup: The Eccentric Pleasures of the Bed

Hey! It’s a month! Which one? Who cares! Time for some links.

Kittredge Cherry’s QSpirit website covers LGBTQ spirituality and art. Last month she profiled 18th-century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, whose writings on same-sex love were published for the first time in 2013. Bentham anticipated several contemporary theological defenses of homosexuality, such as the observation that Jesus said nothing to condemn it. Bentham contrasted Paul’s asceticism to Jesus’ celebration of earthly life. He even speculated that Christ himself had gay sex. As his culture lacked a non-pejorative term, he phrased it thus: “The eccentric pleasures of the bed, whether partaken of by Jesus?” Charming phrasing–as one might expect from a gentleman who had a “sacred teapot” named Dicky.

In one of his public posts at the Shatner Chatner, his subscription newsletter, Daniel Lavery shared an excerpt from his memoir/essay collection Something That May Shock and Discredit You (Atria Books, 2020) that was particularly meaningful to me when I read the book this winter. Titled “Is Flesh a Problem or an Opportunity in the Eyes of God?“, the piece unpacks the assumptions behind an objection that trans people often hear:

Oddly, the same phrase came up over and over, although I don’t think many of these friends had spoken to one another about it: Something irreversible. As in, I’m afraid these kids are going to do something irreversible. But just what that thing was, and what irreversibility looked like outside of the usual irreversibility of time and momentum, I couldn’t have told you, because they were never quite able to explain it to me. “Something irreversible” is to polite people what “self-mutilation” is to impolite people: a quick way to reorient the conversation around their own discomfort with bodies. In both cases it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to have a productive discussion with someone struggling with a reflexive, implicit horror of flesh. Any mention of someone else’s transitioning body sends them into direct and panicked conflict with the prospect of their own transitioning body; since this is a prospect they find unbearable, it becomes immediately necessary for them to unload their own desire and disgust onto the nearest suitable target.

Like me, Daniel didn’t see obvious clues to his transition in his childhood. His story didn’t fit into the “I always knew” narrative that mainstream discourse pressures us to tell, to persuade skeptics that our transition is more than misguided trend-following or acting-out of some other psychological problem. But his evangelical upbringing gave him another framework, the conversion or resurrection story, within which an unexpected transformation can be holy. Citing 1 Corinthians 15:

The answer, then, for Paul, is the body-that-is exists always in anticipation of and conversation with the body-that-will-be, that all flesh is not the same flesh but that bodies please God, that death is always followed by growth, that there are many different types of glory, that dishonor may be followed by redemption, that all things spiritual originate in the goodness of the flesh, that our bodies might come to reflect both where we have been and where we are going.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You was published under his previous name, Daniel Mallory Ortberg. Daniel cut ties with his family and took his wife’s last name earlier this year, when he was unable to persuade his father, megachurch pastor John Ortberg Jr., to remove a youth ministry volunteer who’d confessed to sexual attraction to children. When the church continued to cover up the situation, Daniel and his wife Grace Lavery made the difficult decision to name the volunteer publicly as his brother, John Ortberg III, in hopes that the latter would get professional help. Bob Smietana’s July 6 article at Religion News has a good summary of the saga. Grace’s Twitter timeline has a comprehensive thread documenting the church’s stonewalling and misinformation campaign. Kate Harding’s essay “Why Am I So Furious About This?” connects the scandal to our national climate of gaslighting and shoot-the-messenger. I greatly admire the Laverys’ commitment to protecting children; many people don’t have the guts to face their loved ones’ abusive tendencies and set loving boundaries.

In the socialist magazine Current Affairs, Brianna Rennix examines “The Peculiarity of Gender”, a topic that attracts a fair share of trolls across the political spectrum. Those on the Right may lean on concepts of biological essentialism or natural law, while from the Left, one may hear that gender is a socially constructed illusion. It’s not as simple as either one. The superficially liberal position calls into question why anyone “needs” to transition, at all. Are we just mistaking a social problem (restrictive gender roles) for a medical one? Rennix’s critique:

Now, one counterargument I could make is that some trans people experience deep psychological anguish because they are inhabiting a body and an identity that doesn’t feel like their own, and that this anguish, whatever its source, is the impetus for transition, and it’s the reason why continuing to publicly identify as the gender they were assigned at birth is not an option. This is the whole idea behind “gender dysphoria,” the official DSM classification…

…But I don’t think that emphasizing dysphoria is necessarily (always) the best way to respond to the question of why transitioning still matters even if gender is a construct. Characterizing being trans as a medical condition is politically useful in some respects: even though it makes it easier for people like Ben Shapiro to claim that being trans is a form of mental illness, it gives a comfortably “scientific” reason for why someone’s gender expression should be socially tolerated and why they should have access to whatever surgical and hormonal interventions they might need or want. But not all people who identify as trans experience dysphoria, or at least, don’t experience it in the same way. People relate to their bodies and identities in a multitude of ways that the standard narratives around dysphoria may tend to flatten. Making the distressing experience of “dysphoria” the threshold necessity for transition doesn’t always make things easier for all trans people, as they try to gauge whether their desire to alter their pronouns or their appearance or their bodies is “really” gender dysphoria, or whether they are miserable enough to be “really” dysphoric. Additionally, a number of trans people have written about the experience of transitioning as something that has, whether in the long or short term, increased their sense of mental distress or wrong-bodiedness, rather than lessening it. This is psychologically understandable, as pursuing something very important to you in the face of great obstacles is an emotional experience that everyone is bound to process differently, but it doesn’t fit into the narrative that transition is a “cure” for dysphoria and thus gives grist to the mills of badly-intentioned people who want to say that transitioning is inherently a form of self-harm…

…For me, the only reasonable way to think about gender identity is as a desire: a desire which may feel like an unavoidable imperative to some people, and maybe a conscious choice or settled preference for others; but ultimately, what matters is what gender you want to be. The existence of gender as a concept is important to our physical, sexual, and social lives—we do, after all, live in a society—and because of this, we all have to orient our sense of self around it to some extent, whether we like it or not. If you want to transition, it shouldn’t matter whether you have the right kind of backstory or personal history, or the correct diagnosis, or whether you have a perfectly worked-out theory of gender that neatly aligns with and endorses your wishes. On the left, I think, we should have the general principle that people should be able to do whatever they desire, as long as it doesn’t involve immiserating and disempowering others for personal gain.

It’s a long article but worth reading closely if this is a topic that you ruminate about. I always find it refreshing when a writer acknowledges the complex feelings we may have about our genders before, during, and after (is there ever really an “after”?) transition. At present, I have big boobs, chest hair, a five o’clock shadow, and Lea DeLaria’s hairdo, and I find myself fretting, “How many more shots in the butt can I take before I turn into Hale Appleman?”

For turning body horror into body ha-ha, I recommend The Family Sarnath, Jason Reuter’s satire comics that re-caption Bil Keane’s drawings for the saccharine comic strip “The Family Circus” with H.P. Lovecraft quotes and storylines. Their Facebook page explains: “Our mission at Family Sarnath is two-fold: Make Family Circus funny and raise awareness to the growing threat of the Old Ones.” (Hat tip to poet Michael McKeown Bondhus for the link.)

Finally, for another good laugh, enjoy this three-minute YouTube video skewering gender reveal parties: “Gender according to the Cis, based on their cakes”.

Stay tuned for another post with more unrelated links!

Wear protection!