December Links Roundup: What’s Not Wrong

Will 2020 end? It’s possible! As we ride out another frightening virus surge, with a vaccine in sight, let’s light the winter darkness by looking at some small good things.

I was going to give my readers a break from “WHRT Radio: all transgender, all the time” but then this happened.

Elliot Page, the Oscar-nominated star of “Juno” and Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy,” has announced he is transgender.

Elliot, formerly known as Ellen Page, addressed his social media followers saying:

“Hi friends, I want to share with you that I am trans, my pronouns are he/they and my name is Elliot. I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life. I feel overwhelming gratitude for the incredible people who have supported me along this journey. I can’t begin to express how remarkable it feels to finally love who I am enough to pursue my authentic self. I’ve been endlessly inspired by so many in the trans community. Thank you for your courage, your generosity and ceaselessly working to make this world a more inclusive and compassionate place. I will offer whatever support I can and continue to strive for a more loving and equal society,” he wrote.

“I love that I am trans. And I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more I dream, the more my heart grows and the more I thrive. To all the trans people who deal with harassment, self-loathing, abuse, and the threat of violence every day: I see you, I love you, and I will do everything I can to change this world for the better,” Page continued.

Page uses both he/him and they/them pronouns, and describes himself as transgender and non-binary, meaning that his gender identity is neither man nor woman.

He’s one of us!!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve experienced a shift in what I want from transition. Maybe I’ve retrained my eyes to rejoice in the beauty of gender-nonconforming people instead of comparing myself to cis gay musclemen. Maybe masks and the Zoom mustache filter have given me sufficient control over my self-presentation. In any event, I’m less concerned about “passing” now. Small sensual pleasures get me through the monotony and anxiety of COVID life, and those include perfume and jewelry. Should I ever earn millions and/or leave the house again, I want to dress like the louche male models for Palomo Spain, as seen on the fashion blog Tom & Lorenzo.

This attitude of greater self-acceptance extends to my art practice, too. Instead of trying to be famous and talented so that I can feel happy, what if I just dialed direct, and wrote what made me happy, whether or not anyone wants it? I used to think this kind of inner peace was merely touted as a consolation prize for folks who didn’t succeed in worldly terms. Don’t get me wrong, I still want a Lambda Literary Award. But right now I’m down to essentials. I’m alive today and I want to enjoy it. I can plan for the future, but I don’t have to live for it.

At the Poetry Society of America website, they’re doing an interview series called “Stopping By” where they ask creatives to reflect on language and community during the pandemic. These words from poet, novelist, and visual artist Rachel Eliza Griffiths stuck with me:

Have you created something during the lockdown, or are you working on anything now?

I create things every day but it’s not about everything having to be a product or for somebody else’s experience. I would like to believe that my inner life is a spectrum of progressive transformations and experiments, rather than overly transactional. For me, creating and sustaining a private space where I allow myself to rest, to read, to cook, to play music, and to risk new turns of language and imagery where I have no idea how to be wrong or right, is part of the calling.

In high school, I was that edgelord kid who carried around a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness to piss off my liberal teachers. Though I have moved on to other ways of annoying people, Pierce Delahunt’s Medium article “What Does Sex Have to Do With Socialism?” showed me that I still didn’t actually understand socialism versus capitalism. Rand and contemporary conservatives had me conflating socialism with state control, and capitalism with free choice–although the Trump years have shown that we can have a free-market dictatorship.

Delahunt summarizes: “let’s make sure we do not fall into the Capitalist trap of thinking of Capitalism as private enterprise and Socialism as government control. Put simply, Capitalism and Socialism are defined by who controls the means of production: owners (Capitalism) or workers (Socialism).” The crucial difference is not the structure of the economy, but whose interests it serves: the rich few, or the people. In another Medium piece, “Antisocialism: The Personality Disorder of the Economy”, Delahunt explains:

Capitalism is not Commerce. Under Socialism, trade still exists. Transactions still happen. Phones still get made. The difference is that there is more input in every part of this process from the people doing the labor: workers…

Just as Capitalism is not Commerce, Socialism is not “anything the government does.” Government, in fact, can support Capitalism or Socialism. When the government takes power over the means of production from the private owners, but does not grant it to the workers, this is State Capitalism. The power still rests with owners; the owners just happen to be in government. This is what most people in the US think of when they think of Socialism. (The US expends a lot of energy to make us think that.)

I’m not sure you can really prove that “sex is better” under any particular regime, because people define “sex” and “better” in diverse and incompatible ways, but hey, I’d settle for universal healthcare!

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.

September Links Roundup: The Rules Never Applied

Hey, it’s time for another round of “Jendi discovers the obvious!” I have a hard time recognizing hypocrisy. Until, and even after, reality slaps me in the face, I assume that everyone is trying to live up to their publicly stated ideals. To be fair, that’s the premise behind most liberal political satire, too. We like to think we’re doing something important when we laugh at the gap between Trump’s evangelical values-talk and his violent and adulterous behavior. But as Noah Berlatsky wrote in a recent Foreign Policy article, “Fascists Know How to Turn Mockery Into Power”. Their absurdity or incompetence isn’t a lapse in effectiveness, it’s a deliberate middle-finger to the very idea that truth matters in politics.

Similarly, it’s finally dawned on me that the MAGA crowd’s support for unchecked police power isn’t actually inconsistent with their hyper-individualism about gun ownership, mask-wearing, and paying taxes. It only seems contradictory if you believe the surface claim that all Americans live under the same rule of law. But the rules were never meant to apply to them. Beneath the surface, there are two Americas. Authoritarian policing is for black people; freedom of choice is for white people.

This dual consciousness drives the new HBO series “Lovecraft Country”, based on Matt Ruff’s excellent novel of the same name. “In the works of H.P. Lovecraft, or the Lovecraftian genre he inspired, the fear arises from the realization that ‘normal” never existed,’ feminist critic Sady Doyle writes in her Medium article “Racism Is America’s Lovecraftian Horror”. In cosmic horror, we are de-centered in the universe. Our comforting, orderly beliefs in human institutions and culture are shown to be irrelevant to the strange and heartless way that the world really works. For white people, this can be how it feels to wake up to structural racism. For black Americans, well, what else is new?

The genius of “Lovecraft Country” is that its black protagonists have no naiveté to lose. The traditional horror-show monsters are less scary than the small-town white sheriff, and can sometimes be redirected to save our heroes from their human persecutors. Referencing Lovecraft’s flagrant racism, Doyle concludes, “The idea that life comes down to either ignorance or despair did, after all, originate with a fairly malicious guy, one who probably could not come to consciousness without realizing that he’d hurt people, and who had reasons to prefer denial. Crumbling beneath the horrible revelation denies us the other possibility, the one Lovecraft himself seemed to fear most: Being transformed.”

Along those lines, in this 2016 piece from Nightmare Magazine, an online journal of horror fiction and criticism, Chesya Burke contends that “Horror Is…Not What You Think or Probably Wish It Is”. She questions how the boundaries of her genre have been drawn to exclude the black perspective: why is The Handmaid’s Tale considered horror, but not Toni Morrison’s Beloved?

What does it say to upcoming writers of color who don’t write about the middle class white family fighting against malevolent forces? What of the black writer that writes of welcoming those forces into their lives, as it is less horrific than living under white oppression?

…It is too often in the genre that horror is seen as an invasion of some outside force that must be exorcised in order to restore balance. When you see this, and only this as horror, you leave out those whose worlds are already defined by outside forces (e.g. the white gaze), and often use an invasion of another force as a welcomed reprieve from systemic oppression. When you have historically seen the black, the dark, the other as scary, you create an entire genre around fearing them and their cultures. Does Voodoo, loas or perhaps entire countries (Haiti) and continents (Africa) come to mind? When you define horror by white men, you not only exclude others, but you vilify them.

In another story about coming out of denial, novelist and journalist Kurt Andersen shares an excerpt from his new book Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America in his Atlantic article “College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots”. This longform piece describes how the professional class (lawyers, professors, journalists, bankers, etc.) helped wealth inequality grow out of control, starting in the 1980s. A cultural divide between upper- and lower-class white Americans was exploited by the super-rich to gut labor rights.

Most liberals, like most Americans, preferred not to regard capitalists as categorically rapacious and amoral, or to imagine the U.S. political economy as a never-ending struggle in which everyone must ultimately choose between two sides. That seemed crude. They didn’t vote for Reagan, but most didn’t hate him, certainly not at first, because in their way they shared his dreamy faith in the 1940s Frank Capra movie vision of America. And to some degree, most liberals succumbed, like most Americans, to a new form of economic nostalgia that was being revived and popularized—the notion that market forces are practically natural forces with which we dare not tinker or tamper too much. Finally, affluent liberals didn’t want to think badly of all their nice friends and neighbors and classmates who happened to work at banks or in real-estate development or in the vicinity of C-suites.

Starting in the 1970s, the Milton Friedman Doctrine, the righteous pursuit of maximum profit to the exclusion of absolutely everything else, freed and encouraged businesspeople and the rich to be rapacious and amoral without shame. Indeed, the new economic right even encouraged them to wage a class war—explicitly against (traitorous white) liberal professionals and the (black) “underclass,” more discreetly against the (white) working class they were enlisting as political allies.

At Catapult, Jess Zimmerman writes about adjusting a little too well to the Great Shutdown: “It Doesn’t Hurt, It Hurts All the Time”. She discusses how she came to understand her equanimity as traumatized numbness to the emotional load of our collective crisis. When she was finally cleared to go outside, she developed agoraphobia.

Like episodic analgesia, where the brain holds pain at bay, it was a protective nothingness, a shutdown. We are all so afraid. We are all so angry. We are all so lonely for our former lives, and mourning the collapse of the future. We are genuinely in danger, from the virus. We are genuinely being endangered, actively, by a government that sees us as disposable or worse. It’s too much: a black hole, all gravity and no light. At the same time, we are relentlessly, inescapably aware of how much worse it could be, how much worse it is, for someone, for many people. How do you let yourself feel that bolus of emotions at all? How, especially, do you feel it knowing that this is what “lucky” looks like?

…What if we thought of emotional trauma the way we do physical: not as worthy injuries and unworthy ones, but as a wide class of wounds made in different ways, whose healing is unpredictable, whose scars take different forms? It is worse to die, to be grievously ill, to lose someone you love, to lose your job and fear for your survival, to not lose your job and be forced to risk your survival every day. But it is also terrible to fear the future, to be betrayed by your leaders, to see ignorance weaponized, to have your life treated as a bargaining chip by the powerful. It is terrible to hang suspended over the pit and try not to look down. The teeth of this year grind all of us. Maybe, in seeing each other’s wounds, we can let ourselves feel our own.

In the new issue of Poets & Writers, Filipinx poet and college writing professor Rachelle Cruz proposes alternatives to the traditional writing critique workshop, which can be emotionally damaging and hostile to minority perspectives.

I’ve experienced trauma during my undergrad and graduate writing workshops, when I was asked to translate myself and cultural backgrounds as a Filipinx woman and first-generation college student, and to clarify my experiences with sexual abuse and more. I was asked to perform whiteness through “imitating” white poets. I was also asked to perform my brownness and “foreign exoticness” to a white audience. I’ve been in “dead author” workshops (also known as the traditional workshop) for my entire education. Through this model, the writer is silent while the professor, or a classmate, clumsy or emboldened by the professor’s lack of guidance, begins to eviscerate the work. Everyone else then joins in.

Today I teach my classes and workshops with a very different approach…

We read “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile,” a short, accessible, and informative history on writing workshops from a Vietnamese refugee writer’s point of view published in the New York Times in 2017. We unpack the “invisible origins” of the writing workshop—Nguyen cites Eric Bennett’s book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (University of Iowa Press, 2015) in tracing it to a midcentury American fear of Communism—and how it’s marked by whiteness. We talk about how today’s writing workshop format was informed by this fear and a move toward individualism and individual art-making. We talk about how the “gruff” (read: toxic, masculine) style of communicating feedback to students was informed by the militaristic settings familiar to World War II veterans, who were the predominant workshop attendees during this time.

Then I ask my students, “So, what kind of workshop do you want?” I tell them that a workshop is a form like any other—a TV show, a film, a poem. It can have varied yet specific uses, depending on the writer and the piece. For example, do you have a rough draft of a poem or story that you feel uncertain about? Maybe you want to be inspired by other works similar to your draft. In the Gift Method of workshop, students bring in art, poems, films, and other media that speak to the craft and content of the workshop poem or story. Students share why their “gift” reminds them of the piece. Or maybe the student has a poem or story in response to queer feminist theory. The student can assign an article alongside their piece. The workshop then discusses the workshop text alongside this article, foregrounding queer feminist theory.

If you’d like to try out some of the alternate workshop forms that Cruz and her students have developed, email editor@pw.org with the subject line “Workshop Formats”.

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!

June Bonus Links: My Gender Is the Abyss

What even are months anymore? Below, a potpourri of links that didn’t fit under our last themed post:

Today on the almighty internet, I discovered the concept of xenogender: an umbrella term for nonbinary genders that don’t define themselves in reference to the male-female spectrum. I think it’s beautiful that people are branching out into poetry and metaphor to capture the nuances of their embodied experience. It’s no more “precious” or irrelevant than having hundreds of words for paint colors or the taste of wine. Don’t call us snowflakes, we’re frostgender.

New York City public health officials recommend glory holes for safer hookups in the coronavirus era. According to the New York Times: “‘Be creative with sexual positions and physical barriers, like walls, that allow sexual contact while preventing close face-to-face contact,’ the guidelines state.” You heard them, thots.

On the website of sci-fi and fantasy publisher Tor.com, novelist Charlie Jane Anders is posting chapters from her new inspirational book for writers, Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories.

Writing a horrifying story on your own terms means that you can show how someone can survive, or even triumph. And meanwhile, you can cast a light on the injustice of oppressive systems. You can also choose the frame and eliminate some of the ambiguity in some situations, to make things more stark and more clear, or to make juxtapositions that illuminate how the problem started, and how it’ll be in the future.

When you’re telling the story, you get to draw all the lines.

But you don’t have to put your darkest fears on paper to be able to use creative writing to survive. Just putting any kind of story together makes you a god in your own private universe and gives you control over a whole world inside your own mind, even when the outside world feels like it’s just a constant torrent of awfulness…

…And escapism is resistance. People sometimes talk about escapist storytelling as a kind of dereliction of duty, as if we’re just running away from the fight. That’s some bullshit right there… [I]magining a happier, more just world is a direct assault on the forces that are trying to break your heart.

Tor, the queer ex-Christian abuse survivor who blogs at Speaking While the World Sleeps, put up a powerful post last month titled “‘Abusers Were Just Abused Themselves’ Was Something My Abusive Mother Told Me”. Were we siblings??

People treat abusers like they are incapable of: self-reflection, thinking about the past, internalizing new ideas, changing their mind, making decisions that they thought through. And it’s easy to be convinced of that because a lot of abusers want you to believe that so that they don’t have to change

…If anything, what being abused taught them is that the weapons exist, and just how deadly they are. They are the ones who picked them up, pointed them at us, and then, with full knowledge and understanding of the damage they would cause, smiled and swung hard. And we’re allowed to say to them: you did this because you wanted to. You did this because you made the choice to.

Tor’s partner, Clarissa Littler, blogs at An Inconsistent Universe. In the third entry in her five-part series on the book Feelings of Being, she talks about child abuse survivors’ use of metaphor and how clinicians mistake it for factual delusions. For instance, what clinicians call the “Cotard delusion” (the expressed belief that one is dead or unreal) is phenomenologically true for a complex PTSD sufferer who feels that her selfhood was destroyed or never allowed to form.

Ever wonder how “mammals” got their name? Was Linnaeus just a boob man? This fascinating paper from 1993 by Londa Schiebinger in the American Historical Review argues that 18th-century gender politics heavily influenced the system of scientific nomenclature. There are several other traits unique to the Class Mammalia, including hair, but the presence of milk-producing mammae became the defining characteristic partially because of a backlash against upper-class women’s use of wet-nurses to suckle their babies. By making breastfeeding the symbolic essence of our species, male scientists were making a statement that it was natural and divinely ordered for women to stay home with their children instead of being involved in public life. The new nomenclature also alluded to, and reinforced, the association of men with “higher” rational functions (Homo sapiens) and women with “lower” sexual and animal-like functions.

All the more reason to identify as “Eldrigender: A gender (or possible lack thereof) which is dark, nebulous, and ultimately unknowable. Derived from the word “eldritch.'”

June Links Roundup: Cop Out

I spend a lot of time on trans Twitter, where the acronyms “AMAB” and “AFAB” (assigned male/female at birth) are common. So when I started to see “ACAB” show up in people’s feeds, I was like, what gender is that? No, white boi, it means “All Cops Are Bastards”.

Folks are saying that, of course, because of the recent police murders of African-Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, and the courageous protests that continue to fill our cities. For the first time I can recall, mainstream discourse has taken up the idea of defunding, or even abolishing, the police force as we know it. Even LEGO stopped advertising their police minifigure sets for a day or two.

I don’t know what a society without any police would look like, but radical change seems necessary. I’m learning a lot about the systemic problems with how America trains its cops, and the racist roots of the current institution. This long-form exposé at Medium, “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop” (anonymous for safety), describes how police are indoctrinated to cover up their fellow officers’ misconduct.

Let me tell you about an extremely formative experience: in my police academy class, we had a clique of around six trainees who routinely bullied and harassed other students: intentionally scuffing another trainee’s shoes to get them in trouble during inspection, sexually harassing female trainees, cracking racist jokes, and so on. Every quarter, we were to write anonymous evaluations of our squadmates. I wrote scathing accounts of their behavior, thinking I was helping keep bad apples out of law enforcement and believing I would be protected. Instead, the academy staff read my complaints to them out loud and outed me to them and never punished them, causing me to get harassed for the rest of my academy class. That’s how I learned that even police leadership hates rats. That’s why no one is “changing things from the inside.” They can’t, the structure won’t allow it.

And that’s the point of what I’m telling you. Whether you were my sergeant, legally harassing an old woman, me, legally harassing our residents, my fellow trainees bullying the rest of us, or “the bad apples” illegally harassing “shitbags”, we were all in it together. I knew cops that pulled women over to flirt with them. I knew cops who would pepper spray sleeping bags so that homeless people would have to throw them away. I knew cops that intentionally provoked anger in suspects so they could claim they were assaulted. I was particularly good at winding people up verbally until they lashed out so I could fight them. Nobody spoke out. Nobody stood up. Nobody betrayed the code.

None of us protected the people (you) from bad cops.

This is why “All cops are bastards.” Even your uncle, even your cousin, even your mom, even your brother, even your best friend, even your spouse, even me. Because even if they wouldn’t Do The Thing themselves, they will almost never rat out another officer who Does The Thing, much less stop it from happening.

The anonymous author goes on to say that the good things he did as a cop didn’t require him to be armed and dangerous:

The question is this: did I need a gun and sweeping police powers to help the average person on the average night? The answer is no. When I was doing my best work as a cop, I was doing mediocre work as a therapist or a social worker. My good deeds were listening to people failed by the system and trying to unite them with any crumbs of resources the structure was currently denying them.

It’s also important to note that well over 90% of the calls for service I handled were reactive, showing up well after a crime had taken place. We would arrive, take a statement, collect evidence (if any), file the report, and onto the next caper. Most “active” crimes we stopped were someone harmless possessing or selling a small amount of drugs. Very, very rarely would we stop something dangerous in progress or stop something from happening entirely. The closest we could usually get was seeing someone running away from the scene of a crime, but the damage was still done.

At Vox, historian Khalil Muhammad explains “How racist policing took over American cities”, based on his book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2019). Because the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery contained an exception for people convicted of a crime, Southern states after the Civil War aggressively criminalized everyday behavior by black Americans. Then white social scientists in the late 19th century looked at the higher conviction rates for black people and concluded that they were inherently criminals. This assumption underlay the creation of the modern police force. Muhammad notes, “The same basic idea that in white spaces, black people are presumptively suspect, is still playing out in America today.”

In The New Yorker, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor asks “How do we change America?” Why are the same police reforms proposed after every death like George Floyd’s, to no effect? Taylor sees the roots of our current unrest in (among other things) 1990s Democrats’ betrayal of black voters:

The nineteen-nineties became a moment of convergence for the political right and the Democratic Party, as the Democrats cemented their turn toward a similar agenda of harsh budget cuts to social programs and an insistence that African-American hardship was the result of non-normative family structures. In May, 1992, Bill Clinton interrupted his normal campaign activities to travel to South Central Los Angeles, where he offered his analysis of what had gone so wrong. People were looting, he said, “because they are not part of the system at all anymore. They do not share our values, and their children are growing up in a culture alien from ours, without family, without neighborhood, without church, without support.”

Democrats responded to the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion by pushing the country further down the road of punishment and retribution in its criminal-justice system. Joe Biden, the current Democratic Presidential front-runner, emerged from the fire last time brandishing a new “crime bill” that pledged to put a hundred thousand more police on the street, called for mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes, increased funding for policing and prisons, and expanded the use of the death penalty. The Democrats’ new emphasis on law and order was coupled with a relentless assault on the right to welfare assistance. By 1996, Clinton had followed through on his pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” Biden supported the legislation…

The 1994 crime bill was a pillar in the phenomenon of mass incarceration and public tolerance for aggressive policing and punishment directed at African-American neighborhoods. It helped to build the world that young black people are rebelling against today. But the unyielding assaults on welfare and food stamps have also marked this latest revolt. These cuts are a large part of the reason that the coronavirus pandemic has landed so hard in the U.S., particularly in black America. These are the reasons that we do not have a viable safety net in this country, including food stamps and cash payments during hard times. The weakness of the U.S. social-welfare state has deep roots, but it was irreversibly torn when Democrats were at the helm…

This points to the importance of expanding our national discussion about what ails the country, beyond the racism and brutality of the police. We must also discuss the conditions of economic inequality that, when they intersect with racial and gender discrimination, disadvantage African-Americans while also making them vulnerable to police violence. Otherwise, we risk reducing racism to the outrageous and intentional acts of depraved individuals, while downplaying the cumulative impact of public policies and private-sector discrimination that, regardless of personal intent, have crippled the vitality of African-American life.

At the Atlantic, Annie Lowrey unpacks the phrase “Defund the police”. Short of abolition, this could mean diverting much of law enforcement’s massive budget to the social safety net that could actually prevent crime.

As a general point, the United States has an extreme budget commitment to prisons, guns, warplanes, armored vehicles, detention facilities, courts, jails, drones, and patrols—to law and order, meted out discriminately. It has an equally extreme budget commitment to food support, aid for teenage parents, help for the homeless, child care for working families, safe housing, and so on. It feeds the former and starves the latter.

…[Defunding the police] would mean ending mass incarceration, cash bail, fines-and-fees policing, the war on drugs, and police militarization, as well as getting cops out of schools. It would also mean funding housing-first programs, creating subsidized jobs for the formerly incarcerated, and expanding initiatives to have mental-health professionals and social workers respond to emergency calls.

IMHO, social workers remain problematic so long as they’re mostly white middle-class women with the power to take children from poor, neurodivergent, disabled, and nonwhite families. But at least they don’t carry tear gas.