September Links Roundup: Learning from Demons

Happy (almost) autumn–the witching season!

Self-described “normie Satanist” blogger Stephen Bradford Long followed a similar trajectory as mine, from anguished gay Christian to student of occultism and Tarot. In a provocative post from July, “The Satanic Practice of Learning from Demons”, he explains why he bothers to engage with authors like Jordan Peterson, notwithstanding the latter’s bigoted views. Long doesn’t expect anyone to traumatize themselves by immersing in hostile literature. However, to the extent that we can do it with equanimity, reading problematic authors can be useful for both humility and intellectual exploration. We can come to realize that harmful people are also sometimes right, and conversely, that great influencers and heroes have flaws. Consider how Christianity has been both a route out of despair and a source of new abuse for many of us.

Willingness to learn from demons is a prerequisite for intellectual integrity*, because there is no earnest learning without the practice of good faith. Good faith is the assumption that our interlocuter, no matter how disagreeable we might find them, means what they say and might have some piece of knowledge that we don’t. It is to entertain the terrifying notion that we might be wrong, and they might be right.

However, this does not negate the fact that ideas have consequences, and the ideas of an author might also be utterly destructive and evil when manifested. Engaging with that darkness is valuable, too. Looking into the blackness of an evil ideology is a practice that fortifies you into a wiser human or terrifies and defeats you. I have experienced both and become better for it.

Above all, my Satanism blasphemes the infantile purity that rejects the pursuit of knowledge. There is no safety in reading, and no security in learning. Learning has frequently broken me – it has cost me my faith, my community, and sometimes my sleep and mental health. But it has also liberated me and made me a stronger, better person. The pursuit of safety and avoiding all toxins at all costs means starving the intellect and living with a stultified and brittle mind.

Around the same time, Black feminist author adrienne maree brown wrote this incisive essay, “unthinkable thoughts: call out culture in the age of covid-19”. She observes that marginalized activists too often turn on each other, in the name of “accountability”. American culture right now feels collectively suicidal, and we are acting it out on social media because it’s the only place we feel a sense of agency. “our nation has a tendency towards its own destruction, a doubt of its right to exist, that is rooted in our foundation.” That foundation, of course, is genocide of Black and Native peoples.

we are afraid of being hurt, afraid because we have been hurt, afraid because we have caused hurt, afraid because we live in a world that wants to hurt us whether we have hurt others or not, just based on who we are, on any otherness from some long-ago determined norm. supremacy is our ongoing pandemic. it partners with every other sickness to tear us from life, or from lives worth living.

so we stay put and scream into the void, moving our rage across the internet like a tornado that, without discernment, sucks up all in its path for destruction.

our emotions and need for control are heightened during this pandemic – we are stuck in our houses or endangering ourselves to go out and work, terrified and angry at the loss of our plans and normalcy, terrified and angry at living under the oppressive rule of an administration that does not love us and that is racist and ignorant and violent. grieving our unnecessary dead, many of whom are dying alone, unheld by us. we are full of justified rage. and we want to release that rage.

She asks us to stop fighting over who is “innocent” (another supremacist concept) and start looking for solutions that liberate everyone. “i want us to see individual acts of harm as symptoms of systemic harm, and to do what we can to dismantle the systems and get as many of us free as possible.”

Gates of Light Tarot is a Jewish mystical Tarot site that I just discovered. The post “The Blinding of Isaac and the Eight of Swords” links a card and a Bible story that both arouse big feelings in me. The binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 is the story of Abraham’s test of faith, in which God (supposedly??) commands him to sacrifice his son. But this midrash/Tarot reading, connecting it to the blindfolded woman on the card, suggests that Isaac developed traumatic blindness because of his father’s betrayal of his trust:

The Eight of Swords is the Sefira of Hod, Humility, in Yetzirah. It’s a coded teaching that our personal and family history, our culture and traditions can bind and blind us from seeing truth. And that rather than identify with these ideas, if we are to be free, we must see these ideas for the limitations they are and let go of them.

In Genesis, Isaac blindly repeats the mistakes of his father, from trying to pass off Rebekah as his sister to save his life and by fomenting discord in his family by actively preferring one son over the other. We all repeat the mistakes of our parents in one way or another. And we all inherit their ideas, preconceptions and prejudices. But if we are ever to experience liberating insight, it must begin with liberating ourselves from the short-sightedness of familial and cultural prejudice and by clearly seeing and healing family trauma.

Last month, Image Journal hosted an exciting conversation between two autistic authors, Katherine May (The Electricity of Every Living Thing) and Daniel Bowman Jr. (On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith, and the Gifts of Neurodiversity). The recording is available to watch on Vimeo. Some insights from their talk that I found particularly relatable: Neurodiversity extends to narrative structure, as well. We don’t have to write the disability memoir that mainstream culture expects, with a hero’s journey and a triumph over obstacles. Multi-genre collage may better reflect how our minds work. Moreover, the stereotype of the unemotional autistic person is harmful and inaccurate. Some of us simply don’t express emotion in expected ways, while others are more intensely emotional and have to withdraw periodically for that very reason. For the latter group, the arts can be a great refuge.

Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist, reminds us to “Make Bad Art Too” in this playful blog post from 2020, which I found via Northampton poet Naila Moreira’s e-newsletter.

“Good” can be a stifling word, a word that makes you hesitate and stare at a blank page and second-guess yourself and throw stuff in the trash. What’s important is to get your hands moving and let the images come. Whether it’s good or bad is beside the point. Just make something.

It’s my abusive mother’s birthday this month. Am I going to send her a card? No! Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar column explains why not:

There is no instruction manual for this kind of sorrow, Estranged Daughter. There is no map. There is only the story you lived through, the story you survived, the story you wrote for yourself, the story you will keep writing. It’s the story of the elegant, heartbreaking, brave way you’ve done the limbo for nearly forty years and the story of the way you will continue to do it, even though it hurts. You didn’t get what most people get and what all of us deserve—a mother who regards you as her richest treasure—and yet here you are at forty. Free. Happy. Comfortable in your skin. Strong. Neither sending a birthday card to your mom or not sending a birthday card to your mom will obliterate that, Daughter.

So, trust your gut. Don’t think about how your mother will react. Think about what you want to do. You can write to her and say what you want to say without opening the envelope of her reply, if you’d like. You can write to her and not send the card. You can silently narrate birthday greetings to her in your mind and breathe them into the air. You can decide to not think of her at all.

Whatever you do, remember that the most powerful thing you learned in the enormous effort it took to shut that door between you and your mother is that there is no door. The door is a metaphor we use so we can pretend there’s something solid to crouch behind. But there isn’t. We are the solid. The door, dear Daughter, is you and me and all the people reading this who relate to these words. It’s built by our strength and our courage; our wisdom and resolve; our suffering and our triumph. The people who harmed us can only come inside if and when we allow them to.

In Witchcraft class this month, we are working on cutting energetic ties to situations and people who are harmful to us. I’ve done a lot of trauma processing in the last decade since I went no-contact with her. But it’s humbling to realize that on a somatic level, some part of me still believes that one or both of us will die without the psychic umbilical cord connecting us.

Favourite Moro Quote? - Princess Mononoke - Fanpop

Even though the cord looks like this. [Image credit: Studio Ghibli, “Princess Mononoke”]

On that note, I highly recommend Tara Westover’s memoir Educated (Random House, 2018), which I just finished reading. Among other things, it’s a stunning depiction of the push-pull between fighting for your own survival and longing to stay connected to your family. The story of her rural Mormon family’s anti-government paranoia and rejection of modern medicine gives insight into the Covid anti-vaxx movement today. Her website links to other useful resources for survivors.

August Links Roundup: Ship It

Better get this post up before the month is over! Here’s an eclectic list of good reads around the web.

At the Iowa Review, Amanda Peery-Wolf’s “What Can I Ship” is a witty found-poem based on the Union Pacific Online Customer Handbook from 2007. The reader may be alternately numbed and delighted by the sheer volume and random diversity of items that human beings have invented and sold. Strategically placed linebreaks lead one to imagine additional strange mash-ups of existing products:

toasters walking sticks with rubber tips video games mattresses hd

screens jeans green bicycles for boys rubber hands for halloween minidresses

for when she’s starting to come into her own pocket pill containers

horse blankets rabbit biscuits jingly balls for cats eyebrow brushes

keyboard covers car accessories menorahs plastic bags pen caps worry

dolls folding fans molding clay ac units fuel charges apply to all shipments

balled-up tissues tootsie rolls rolling papers live rabbits beach umbrellas…

At the Ploughshares blog, Pepper Stetler‘s essay “The World Will Be Tlön” compares the DSM-5 to the aliens’ rewriting of human history in Jorge Luis Borges’ surreal fable “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”. The human psyche craves order and categorization to such an extent that we confer authority on “expert” psychological diagnoses and overlook their contested political history. As the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, Stetler can’t ignore the labels that will help her family navigate the medical and educational systems to get the resources they need. However, she remains skeptical enough to value aspects of her daughter’s mental life that the DSM would pathologize. “Intellectual disability is still described in terms of deficits and a failure to meet certain standards, rather than language that might suggest that the environment, the conditions of our modern world, might be what is deficient, which would open up the possibility for social change.”

At MEL, a men’s magazine, Chingy Nea opines that “‘The Sopranos’ Belongs to the Gays Now”. Gay popular culture loves references and memes from the Mafia drama because it’s a show about masculinity as high camp. “Even if they don’t realize it themselves, every man and woman on The Sopranos is performing gender at such a high level that the show smacks of the stuff. And because many queer people live outside the confines of traditional gender roles, we’re more used to recognizing that all of us are performing gender, whether we know it or not.”

I got halfway through Season 4 when “The Sopranos” originally aired, quitting because I didn’t want to see Adriana get whacked. If we go on lockdown from COVID again this winter, or even if we don’t, I suspect I’ll be bingeing the show from the beginning. I have HBO Max now–I am fancy. No more bootleg videotapes from my parents’ friend who had premium cable.

My new passion as of last year is making collage art. My handmade greeting cards are everything that my writing isn’t–upbeat, popular, and easy to understand! Via Poetry Daily, I discovered the online journal Ctrl+V, which is dedicated to creative writing that incorporates visual collage elements. I particularly liked this flower clock poem from Nora Claire Miller, “To Understand a Tendency Consider Its Conditions”.

This cheerful non-manifesto by poet Maggie Smith, part of an interview in the “Stopping By With…” series from the Poetry Society of America, lightened my anxiety:

What do you see as the role of art in public life at this moment in time?

A question I’ve heard asked a lot over the past year (but also in most hard years—which is most years, period) is “What is the role of the poet in these times?” I suspect the expected answer is something about expressing collective grief or outrage, or speaking truth to power, or providing comfort. But my answer is usually, “To do your work.” Any world worth living in and fighting for is a world full of art.

So we do our work, whatever it looks or sounds like, without expecting it to fix or solve anything, without expecting it to heal someone. We just do our work, and perhaps it will mean something to someone else, the way we find art that means something to us.

LitHub published the winners of this year’s Insider Prize, a writing contest sponsored by the journal American Short Fiction for incarcerated writers in Texas. Eva Shelton’s story “Bottles of Grief”, about solidarity and loneliness in a bereavement support group, and Keith Sanders’ essay “The Myth of Me”, about being a rebellious teenage atheist, are both worth a read.

Classicist and poet A.E. Stallings shares a bit of forgotten queer history in “Warrior Eros” at The American Scholar. Reviewing James Romm’s The Sacred Band: Three Hundred Theban Lovers Fighting to Save Greek Freedom, she describes the real-life inspiration for the thought experiment in Plato’s Symposium about “an army of lovers and their loves” who would be bonded by affection to fight to the death.

In Athens and Sparta, romantic, erotic, and sexual relationships between men were largely countenanced and conventional: a couple was composed of an erastes (the lover), the older partner, and the eromenos (the beloved), a youth on the cusp of manhood; “lovers and their loves.” The pro-Spartan Athenian historian Xenophon seems to have been atypical in his disapproval of male-male sexual relationships; in ancient Greece it was arguably unwavering heterosexuality that was “queer.”

But if, as Romm points out, in Athens and Sparta “male erôs was ‘complicated,’” in Thebes and Boeotia it was sanctioned by the state. Male couples could take an oath at the grave of Iolaus, Hercules’s own beloved, to live together as syzygentes—yoke mates—a term that elsewhere indicates a lifelong marital bond. It is etymologically related to “conjugal.” (The modern Greek word for “spouse” is still syzygos.) After running a junta of Spartans out of Thebes in 379 BCE, the Thebans turned their attention to defense. What Thebes needed to keep Sparta’s hoplites (heavily armed infantry) at bay was an elite squad of its own; thus was born the Sacred Band of 300, its couples having sworn the “sacred” oath at Iolaus’s tomb.

When will we get a movie about this??

June Links Roundup: Floored

When my parents sold the Lower East Side apartment we’d had since 1974, I was sad that I’d never again see our familiar kitchen linoleum. We had painted the whole room bright orange and egg-yolk yellow to match it. (Like I said, it was 1974.)

Thanks to Twitter last month, I discovered that this classic brickwork pattern was called Armstrong Flooring #5352, and that it was the best-selling design of the 20th century!

armstrong flooring 5252 yellow orange

The website Retro Renovation will give you the scoop on its creator, Hazel Dell Brown (1892-1982), whose influential interior design ads for Armstrong showed homemakers how to enliven spaces with bold color schemes. I imagine she would have been proud of our sunny-hued kitchen.

Something else from the 70s, which hasn’t aged as well: The men of folk-singing group Peter, Paul & Mary seemed the epitome of sensitive non-toxic masculinity, so I was shocked to read that Peter Yarrow had been convicted of molesting a 14-year-old girl. #PuffToo? Apparently Yarrow was pardoned by then-President Jimmy Carter on his last day in office. Newsweek reported this past February that a lawsuit pursuant to the Child Victims Act was recently filed against Yarrow based on a 1969 incident:

Documents claim that Yarrow, now 82, met the victim a number of times before the incident took place in a Manhattan hotel room. He then “took an interest in her,” acting what in what the minor thought was “paternal way,” per to the filing. The lawsuit claims that the then-teenager ran away from her St. Paul, Minnesota home and met Yarrow at a Lower East Side hotel, where he allegedly raped her.

I suppose that leaves Billy Porter as one of my last remaining cis-male role models. The “Pose” star and gender-bending fashion icon came out as HIV+ last month, in an effort to end the stigma around the disease. According to the Hollywood Reporter:

In the 14 years since [his 2007 diagnosis], the Emmy-winning star of “Pose” has told next to no one, fearing marginalization and retaliation in an industry that hasn’t always been kind to him. Instead, the 51-year-old, who has cultivated a fervent fan base in recent years on the basis of his talent and authenticity, says he’s been using Pray Tell, his HIV-positive character on the FX series, as his proxy. “I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate,” he reveals, acknowledging that nobody involved with the show had any idea he was drawing from his own life.

In this interview on the Tamron Hall Show, Porter said something I found very relatable about the levels of trauma healing. Talking about his background as a child sexual abuse survivor, he observed that he had created a great life for himself but couldn’t inhabit it in an emotionally present way. The catharsis and honesty of playing Pray Tell, plus the meditative pause of COVID lockdown, made him take his recovery to another level.

Looking for more masculine inspiration? Read “The Forgotten Trans History of the Wild West” at Atlas Obscura.

Despite a seeming absence from the historical record, people who did not conform to traditional gender norms were a part of daily life in the Old West, according to Peter Boag, a historian at Washington State University and the author of Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past. While researching a book about the gay history of Portland, Boag stumbled upon hundreds and hundreds of stories concerning people who dressed against their assigned gender…

It wasn’t that this time and place was more open or accepting of trans people, but that it was more diffuse and unruly, which may have enabled more people to live according to their true identities, Boag says. “My theory is that people who were transgender in the East could read these stories that gave a kind of validation to their lives,” he says. “They saw the West as a place where they could live and get jobs and carry on a life that they couldn’t have in the more congested East.” Consider Joseph Lobdell, born and assigned female in Albany, New York. When he surfaced in Meeker County, Minnesota, he became known as “The Slayer of Hundreds of Bears and Wild-Cats.”

Is modern life just too hard to understand? A “Sopranos” satire account called @MoltisantiThots tweets malaprop-filled takes on current events from the perspective of dimwitted Mafioso Christopher. In his writing newsletter Counter Craft, Lincoln Michel explains how bungled dialogue can be great for revealing character. Don’t miss Michel’s cosmic horror story “Dark Air” at Granta, cited as an example in the article.

Finally, the socialist magazine Current Affairs departed from its usual intelligent doom-forecasting to wax poetic on the divine qualities of felines, in Nick Slater’s “Let Us Praise and Honor Cats”. In a passage reminiscent of Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno”, Slater writes:

While observing the daily life of a cat can give clues as to the unique ways she may be revered, it also has a more important function of clarifying why the cat should be revered. In other words, observation reveals the sacred vibes embodied by the cat. These are five in number, and they are:

  1. Cultivating a deep connection to one’s place—a cat is constantly strengthening his bonds to his home
  2. Balancing one’s needs with the needs of others—a cat will compromise, but only to a point
  3. Making wise discernments—a cat recalls the situations when she can safely relax, and when she must be vigilant
  4. Drinking in the world—a cat seeks to imbibe every aspect of his surroundings
  5. Giving and accepting love without craving—a cat shows love to others when she is moved to do so (and only then), and receives the love of others when it feels good to do so (and only then)

Slater’s advice on mindful cat-observation has deepened my connection to my time-share cat, Polly (our downstairs tenants’ mouser, whom I spoil rotten when they’re away). She will sit on my lap for exactly as long as I’m holding a bag of treats. I adore her.

But does she approve of the linoleum, I wonder?

May Links Roundup: Rock Polishing

I promise, I was not Googling “sexy stalactites”. I was innocently browsing Twitter the other day when @sbearbergman decided we all needed to be cheered up by “Do Not Fuck This Rock” discourse. Tumblr user Astolat’s picture of what seems to be a naturally occurring malachite dildo prompted a scientific thread about why the pH and temperature of the human vagina can dissolve rocks. Then it swerves into a useful and timely political example:

The good news? Biochemically speaking, you’re probably ok to put it in your butt. It’s not as acidic or salty in there, plus there’s a huuuuuge stockpile of gut microbes right upstream that can quickly repopulate the colon after spelunking is complete. However this stalactite is not flared at the base so it is the wrong shape for putting in your butt. Do not put this stalactite in your butt.

This all looks like fun and games, but I think it’s really interesting that the internet’s mistake in concluding that this stalactite is fuckable is very similar to the mistake made by the Flint water management system. Hear me out.

Central to the Flint lead poisoning crisis is that authorities only looked at & tested Flint’s water in its central treatment plant before it went out through the pipes. Not after it went through the pipes. They did not consider what would happen biochemically as it went through the pipes and metals started dissolving.

Similarly, in concluding that the stalactite is fuckable, the internet only considered the stalactite itself. Not the biochemical processes that would happen to it as it, welp, went through the pipes.

Media frequently reports that the Flint River’s water is “corrosive,” leading many to believe the river is full of industrial waste. This ain’t the case. You’d need industry to fill a river with industrial waste, and industry left decades ago. That’s why Flint’s so poor. So what IS in the water? Road salt. Plain old stupid road salt. The old Detroit-based source didn’t have salt because it came from Lake Huron which has a large, mostly rural watershed. Meanwhile the Flint River runs through a lot of towns, making it slightly salty as everything melts down in spring. And as we recall from the stalactite experience, a little salt is all it takes to get metals to dissolve…

Morals of the story: when dealing with a biological system pls consider asking a biologist, your vagina and/or city could depend on this.

If you’re not already in awe of pussy power, check out Vice’s list of “Vagina Dentata Myths from Around the World”. For example, a Russian folktale tells of:

…a beautiful young woman who is married off to a gross, old man. In order to avoid having sex with the guy, the young bride puts a fish head in her vagina so its teeth will cut him every time he tries. The husband is traumatized, she “calls him a fool for not knowing that young girls’ vaginas usually have teeth,” and she lives the rest of her life without having sex with him.

The blog When You Work at A Museum… recounted an incident in 2016 where a “Christian school” teacher asked for her high school students’ tour to avoid any artwork with sex, violence, or “pieces that glory in immorality”. As the blogger noted, that leaves out the vast majority of museum holdings:

Obviously anything with nudity is out. That shuts down much of the sculpture wing and the NeoClassical, Rococo, and Mannerist collection, which ironically includes many of the Christian paintings.

Could we show them the armor or weaponry collection? Probably not, since links directly to graphic violence.

What about a mural depicting slavery? That’s unquestionably immoral.

A follow-up post featured the satirical “Universal Never-Nude Art Museum Tour Map”.

Last night I attended an enjoyable online reading by Callum Angus from his new story collection A Natural History of Transition. He read a magical-realist piece titled “Rock Jenny” about a young woman who transitions from boy, to girl, to mountain, and beyond. It made me feel momentarily liberated from the pressure to choose a binary gender expression that would be legible to the mainstream. London-based DJ and performance artist Dahc Dermur VIII expresses a similar attitude in his “Extreme Beauty Routine” video for Vogue Magazine, demonstrating how he creates his over-the-top Goth couture looks. In his vestment-inspired, operatic gowns, Dahc has reclaimed the flamboyant majesty of the Christianity that once oppressed him.

At Jewish Currents, Jules Gill-Peterson, author of Histories of the Transgender Child, contends that “The Anti-Trans Lobby’s Real Agenda” is to redefine citizenship in cis-het white Christian terms.

Since at least the antebellum period, as historians have detailed, the racial innocence invested in the figure of the white child has served as an anchor of proper American political feeling. Statecraft and governance often invoke the hypothetical child’s welfare and protection as a justification for dismissing real people’s political demands. The politics of “protecting” the innocent white child have rationalized the disposability of entire populations, like immigrants, the descendants of enslaved people, criminals, people with disabilities, and so-called deviants. Today we are witnessing trans children’s addition to this list.

Meanwhile, in Current Affairs, journalist Noah Berlatsky (whose teenage daughter recently came out as trans) wonders “Why the Panic Over Trans Kids?” He debunks pseudo-scientific studies about “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” and “trans trenders” as the skewed perspectives of parents who can’t accept that their children have independent private lives. Moreover, even if peer influence and the greater visibility of trans discourse online helped some kids latch onto this identity, why is that a problem? “If we had a study showing that kids are more likely to want to be poets if they’re friends with other kids who consider themselves poets, that wouldn’t make love of poetry a dangerous plague. Even if our gender identities are affected by those around us, or the media we take in, unless you are transphobic—i.e. you think it’s bad to be trans—then [so what]?”

They might even become trans poets!

April Bonus Links: A Rainbow of Eyes

More and gayer links that didn’t fit in the last post!

Janelle Shane’s adventures in AI learning are always good for a laugh. She trains neural networks to generate plausible new members of a data set, such as paint colors or rock band names. If you thought real pick-up lines were pretty terrible, computers are even more clueless. “Your eyes are like two rainbows and a rainbow of eyes” shows a shaky grasp of human anatomy, and I’m not even sure what this kink is about: “Will you sit on my breadbox while I cook or is there some kind of speed limit on that thing?” Although I would definitely swipe right on “You’re looking good today. Want snacks?”

When I was a romantic young girl, I dreamed of the day when I would wear a Jessica McClintock wedding dress. Though the word “calico” now gives me flashbacks, I had a sweet pang of nostalgia when I read the designer’s obit in the New York Times daily briefing email. “Jessica McClintock dressed generations of women in calico, lace and beribboned pastiches known as granny dresses. Her clients included Vanna White and a 27-year-old Hillary Rodham for her 1975 wedding to Bill Clinton. McClintock died at 90.”

Last month I attended an online book launch for the new edition of lesbian photographer Joan E. Biren’s (JEB) Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, a groundbreaking work of photojournalism from 1979. Local archivist Debbie Richards posted many historical background links in the chat, including this 2015 profile of JEB in the photography magazine Aperture, “Sophie Hackett on Queer Looking”. At the book launch, I was struck by JEB’s reworking of the language around the photographer-subject relationship. Rather than the dominant phrasing of “shoot” or “capture”, she envisioned an equilateral triangle of relations among the photographer, her muse, and the viewer. The Aperture article discusses this paradigm shift, as well as JEB’s way of reading archival photos for queer subtext.

A lot of us picked up interesting hobbies during the pandemic. Music journalist Moritz Weber decided to re-translate Romantic composer Frédéric Chopin’s letters, and concluded that the Polish hero had been straightwashed, according to this article in the Irish Times:

Frédéric Chopin’s archivists and biographers have for centuries turned a deliberate blind eye to the composer’s homoerotic letters in order to make the Polish national icon conform to conservative norms, it has been alleged.

Chopin’s Men, a two-hour radio programme that aired on Swiss public broadcaster SRF’s arts channel, argues that the composer’s letters have been at times deliberately mistranslated, rumours of affairs with women exaggerated, and hints at an apparent interest in “cottaging”, or looking for sexual partners in public toilets, simply ignored…

…In an 1829 letter to Tytus Woyciechowski cited on the programme, Chopin refers to “my ideal, whom I faithfully serve, […] about whom I dream”, and who inspired an adagio in his recent concerto. Weber argues that the context of the letter makes it clear that this “ideal” is the letter’s addressee himself.

Yet a translation of Chopin’s letters published in 2016 by Warsaw’s Fryderyk Chopin Institute assigns the “ideal” in the letter a feminine pronoun (“not having spoken to her for half a year now”) even though the Polish noun is masculine.

Them Magazine’s photo feature by Amanda Chemeche on “8 Drag Kings You Need to Know” made me want to whip out my eyeliner pencil and draw a mustache on myself.

Pokémon’s hapless but endearing villains, Jessie and James of Team Rocket, are queer icons for their flamboyant hair and dramatic voices. But did you know that their Bronx-accented feline sidekick, Meowth, was voiced by trans actress Maddie Blaustein? David Levesley tells “The Inspiring Story of the Trans Actress Behind Your Favorite Pokémon” in Them Magazine.

In a eulogy written after Blaustein’s death in 2008, Aaron McQuade, a friend of Maddie’s, claimed that her decision to transition and come out to her co-workers was inspired by an episode of Pokémon. In “Go West, Young Meowth,” we learn the story of how Meowth learned to speak like a human: He fell in love with another Meowth, and decided to learn English and to stand upright to impress her. It failed horribly, and the female Meowth called him a freak. “Meowth,” explained McQuade, “was a human trapped in a Pokémon’s body.”

Image

James, is that a Jessica McClintock gown?

 

 

April Links Roundup: Making and Unmaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t feed the trolls.

March Bonus Links: Food and Freedom

More links that didn’t fit in the last post!

My prison pen pal, “Conway”, sometimes sends me pictures of the gross food that they serve California’s inmates. It’s mostly starchy, unidentifiable mush slopped together in styrofoam trays. I’ve been spending a few hundred dollars every year sending him and his cellies some more appetizing, though probably not very nutritious, packaged food from the few official vendors that are authorized by the Department of Corrections: jerky sticks, shredded beef in a bag, candy bars. They’re not allowed fresh fruits and vegetables for fear they would ferment them to make alcoholic beverages. I’ve heard horror stories of prisoners being fed spoiled milk and bait fish labeled “not for human consumption”. Diabetics and others with special dietary needs often don’t receive the types of meals that are medically necessary.

Patricia Leigh Brown’s New York Times Op-Ed this week describes “The ‘Hidden Punishment’ of Prison Food” and reports on an innovative prisoner-run farm and kitchen in Maine. The inmates at Mountain View Correctional Facility, a medium- and minimum-security prison, are not only eating healthier, but also learning self-care and food-prep skills that will help them re-enter society. Seems like common sense, right?

Though the average American rarely spends time worrying over how incarcerated people are being treated, their physical, psychological and emotional health has a ripple effect on all of us, especially after they serve their time. If the goal of prison involves not only punishment but also rehabilitation and lowering recidivism, then sending a healthier person back into society is in everyone’s interest.

I accidentally subscribed to the e-newsletter from Jewish Currents when I bought their “Zayde mug” for a fellow Bernie Sanders fan, and I’m actually finding it’s a must-read. Jewish Currents is a left-wing politics and culture magazine that combines a strong Jewish identity with fact-based criticism of Zionism and the Israeli government–a third rail among many liberal American Jews, for whom Zionism fills the gap left by traditional belief and Orthodox observance. “How the ADL’s Israel Advocacy Undermines Its Civil Rights Work”, an investigative piece by Jacob Hutt and Alex Kane, explores how the Anti-Defamation League has remained silent on threats to free speech from state and federal measures that silence Palestinian human rights advocacy. This stance also hampers American Jewish leaders from making common cause with groups like Black Lives Matter.

In my continuing quest to learn how to BE A MAN, at the thrift shop I picked up a copy of The Bastard on the Couch, a 2001 essay collection in which two dozen male writers (mostly straight, usually with prestigious publishing histories) shared their feelings of confusion, resentment, and self-deprecating humor about modern changes in gender roles. Essentially they don’t know what to do with themselves now that their wives earn more money and open their own jars. One particularly whiny chap felt emasculated by the fact that his wife makes him a to-do list. I recently came across this graphic narrative, “You should’ve asked,” by feminist cartoonist Emma, which encapsulated why the men’s essays frustrated me so much. The invisible work of being household “project manager” often falls to the female member of a heterosexual couple. Without a conscious effort to resist societal conditioning, they can get into a mutually resentful pattern that is more like overworked mother and immature son than a pairing of equal adults. Luckily, my partnership has not been like this, even when I was female.

Finally, enjoy this cute story that I found on Twitter today, published in Queerty in 2018: “Are Bert and Ernie a couple? We finally have an answer…” In this interview, “Sesame Street” scriptwriter Mark Saltzman says he based the Muppet pair’s relationship on himself and his life partner, the late Arnold Glassman:

Yeah, I was Ernie. I look more Bert-ish. And Arnie as a film editor—if you thought of Bert with a job in the world, wouldn’t that be perfect? Bert with his paper clips and organization? And I was the jokester. So it was the Bert & Ernie relationship, and I was already with Arnie when I came to Sesame Street. So I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple. I wrote sketches…Arnie’s OCD would create friction with how chaotic I was. And that’s the Bert & Ernie dynamic.

So you’re saying that Bert & Ernie became analogs for your relationship in a lot of ways?

Yeah. Because how else? That’s what I had in my life, a Bert & Ernie relationship. How could it not permeate? The things that would tick off Arnie would be the things that would tick off Bert. How could it not? I will say that I would never have said to the head writer, “oh, I’m writing this, this is my partner and me.” But those two, Snuffalupagus, because he’s the sort of clinically depressed Muppet…you had characters that appealed to a gay audience. And Snuffy, this depressed person nobody can see, that’s sort of Kafka! It’s sort of gay closeted too.

March Links Roundup: Unseen on Mulberry Street

It’s March! Spring is coming and links are a-blooming.

It was reported this morning that Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that manages the author’s intellectual property, would cease reprinting six of his picture books because of racist illustrations. The best-known of these titles were On Beyond Zebra, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and If I Ran the Zoo. The AP news article explains:

In “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” an Asian person is portrayed wearing a conical hat, holding chopsticks, and eating from a bowl. “If I Ran the Zoo” includes a drawing of two bare-footed African men wearing what appear to be grass skirts with their hair tied above their heads.

I’m not sure what to think about this decision. A fair number of the classic picture books I’ve read to the Young Master contain incidental images that are offensive. For instance, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur (1958) and Mercer Mayer’s Just Me and My Mom (1977) show natural history museum mannequins in Native American garb, and I’m sure many other books show white kids dressing up in feathered headdresses, because that was considered a normal costume. When I read these books aloud (many, many times), I would revise the text to say “Danny saw artifacts stolen from Native peoples” or some such, but that likely went over my son’s head. So I understand the impulse to withhold these types of images altogether from children who are too young to consider them critically.

On the other hand, I wonder whether editing the past also perpetuates racism, by giving children the false impression that literature has always been morally pure–or ever can be. Surely today’s books have other flaws that we haven’t yet recognized. Are we setting kids up to be defensive about their future problematic faves, instead of teaching them from an early age to tolerate moral ambiguity? Every now and then, a well-meaning school bans Huckleberry Finn because it contains the N-word, but it seems more productive to study how an anti-slavery work by a white author can still contain racist stereotypes.

A more clear-cut example of bad educational decisions comes to us from Utah, where trans author Kyle Lukoff’s picture book Call Me Max led to the banning of an entire curriculum that didn’t even include his book. The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

A Murray [School District] teacher read a book about a transgender child to a class of third graders last month — which set off a backlash from parents. In response, the school district has now suspended a program aimed at introducing kids to more diverse and inclusive literature.

The uproar started when a student at Horizon Elementary brought a copy of “Call Me Max” from home and asked the teacher to read it aloud during story time. The book is an illustrated account of a young transgender boy who educates his own teacher and classmates about his identity…

…Murray School District will also be suspending its Diversity Equity Council, which worked on the equity book bundles, to examine the mission and work of the group. It was formed in 2019 to address issues of employee equity and complaints of mistreatment.

It was expanded this summer — in respond to nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis — to also include reports from students on their experiences.

For the record, Shane and I enjoyed this picture book very much! Lukoff presented Max and the Talent Show and When Aidan Became a Brother at an online story hour at the BGSQD Bookstore last month and I cried all the way through. Contrary to what the guys on my trans masc Facebook group report, I’m just as weepy as I’ve always been. Must be my Cancer Sun.

I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to grow up knowing that trans men existed. But it’s never too late to come out. Hasbro’s Mr. Potato Head, who premiered in 1952, is going gender-neutral. Bloomberg.com has the mashed-potato scoop:

Starting in the fall, Hasbro will sell Potato Head family kits. They’ll come with two non-gendered “adult” potatoes, one “baby” potato and 42 accessories, according to a spokeswoman. That will let kids decide the parents’ gender, rather than being told they are “Mr.” and “Mrs.”

I haven’t been this vain since I was 10 years old. I found a dozen old photo albums in the basement last year and I was like, “Wow, I was actually pretty cute my whole life but I looked very uncomfortable being alive.” Whereas now I will use any excuse to post a picture of myself in suspenders. A.E. Osworth explains why, in this September 2020 article at Catapult: “Taking Thirst Traps to Preserve Myself–and My Transition–in the Middle of the Pandemic”.

In the absence of my meatspace body living in the minds of my people, am I preserving this slice of time to be accessed later? Am I imbuing my early-testosterone body with immortality, marking its existence? Since when did I want my body at all, let alone to make it last for human eternity?

“It feels like a protest against this idea that it’s polite to not find yourself attractive,” my friend A. Andrews says to me over Zoom when I ask them about thirst trapping. A is a writer and a comic artist. They think about the arrival of bodies in digital space quite a lot, usually because they are drawing bodies into existence. A falls into category two—less thirst trapping, more existential crises. But they talk to me about it anyway.

“It’s considered rude or self-involved to think you’re hot,” A says. “This idea that we have to kind of think of ourselves as objectively neutral or below is weird. Thirst traps are a protest against this notion that we should all feel kind of medium about ourselves.”

I consider my adherence to a politeness written upon the hearts of girl-children, the over-emphasis of humble-as-virtue. It is an insurance that anyone with any relationship to girlhood, regardless of gender or outcome, will feel squeamish taking up a reasonable amount of space. Will disparage their own body until they feel less than they are: stunning. Everyone is stunning and I really believe that; everyone, of course, except for me.

Fuck that. I would rather be the Halloween crowd, unshackle myself from the normals. Love myself just a little bit more.

Feast your eyes on this non-gendered “adult” potato.

February Links Roundup: Exorcising America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

January Bonus Links: Butt Trumpets

First things first, “Butt Trumpet” is the name of a delightfully bonkers parody punk rock band that my best friend and I found in the $3 bin at Turn It Up! Records in 2009. Enjoy this video of him as Cyril the Rat Puppet playing air guitar to Butt Trumpet’s “Flannel in Seattle”.

The website OpenCulture delves deeper with their December 2020 article “Why Butt Trumpets & Other Bizarre Images Appeared in Medieval Manuscripts”. Obviously, for the same reason teenage boys draw penises on their desks during Latin class. But there’s more to the organ-playing rabbits and snail-fighting knights than bored doodles. Some scholars think the disrespectful images expressed monks’ disagreement with the texts they were copying. At any rate, they certainly livened things up.

Lesbian-feminist playwright Carolyn Gage finds her own brand of symbolic resonance in the animal kingdom. Recently diagnosed with autism for the first time in her 60s, Gage encourages us to appreciate multiple kinds of intelligence in her post “On Octopuses and Autism”:

Our theories of intelligence have historically been derived from our studies of vertebrates, especially mammals, and especially primates. All these vertebrate forms of “intelligent life”  have been very social creatures that travel in pods, packs, herds, or tribes. Not surprisingly, our theories about intelligence have been shaped by this fact.  These theories have assumed that intelligence evolved in certain species in response to social needs for communication, for bonding, for collective action, for establishing and maintaining social hierarchies, and so on.

But… then there is the octopus, a form of intelligent life that is notoriously anti-social. The octopus does not bond with other octopuses, does not live or travel with them, and  does not observe any kind of social hierarchy. It is a real loner. According to our theories of intelligence, it should actually be quite stupid… dumb as a snail, in fact. But the octopus has 500,000 neurons and the snail has only 20,000.  The octopus is right up there with the pig, the dog, and the dolphin. Clearly there is a problem with our theories about the evolution of intelligence. Being social has no bearing on the development of intelligence.

And here we are.  Autism is “characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication.” We are wired for resistance to social pressure. We are said to lack empathy, to have difficulty reading social cues, are oblivious to social hierarchies. We don’t travel in packs. Are we missing out on evolutionary forces that generate intelligence?  Or are we developing intelligence along a completely different axis, like the octopus?

Scientists believe the octopus evolved complex intelligence for protection because it lacks the shell that other molluscs have. Gage muses:

[L]osing that shell…makes one vulnerable, but it also drives the evolution of a different kind of intelligence, an intelligence that is rooted in highly complex and subtle interactions with one’s physical environment. If the octopus lacks the social intelligence that comes from belonging to a pack, it has evolved an exquisitely fine-tuned relationship to the natural world around it.

If an autistic person is lacking in social intelligence, have we evolved compensatory sensitivity to our surroundings? Without the kind of protective armor that non-autistic people develop in their social interactions, have we developed a different form of perceptual/conceptual mobility, a nimbleness of spirit? Could it be that our “special interests” are part of this protective disguise? Without the rigid shape associated with a social role, are we not able to slip ourselves into the secret nooks and crannies of a rich inner life that appear irrelevant or inconsequential to those who have never had to develop alternative resources?

Feminist writer Jude Ellison Sady Doyle, who came out this year as nonbinary, writes about a similar protective strategy in their Substack newsletter post “The Great Mutation”. Originally they thought they’d refrained from writing about pregnancy and parenthood in order to shield their family life from Internet trolls. In retrospect, it was part of a pattern of dissociating from their female-gendered body.

Before I transitioned, I felt that my writing was my “real” self and my physical body was just its life support system. My real self could not be pregnant, even if my physical body was, because pregnancy was something that happened to other people. To women.

This reminded me of my post here waaaaay back in March 2007, “Am I a Woman?” Perplexed why I felt feminism somehow wasn’t “about” me, despite agreeing with most of its aims, I wrote:

I don’t primarily think of myself as a woman. Sure, my biological gender is female, and I like collecting dolls and wearing pretty dresses. I talk about my feelings all the time, and I take too much responsibility for the feelings of others. But I could do all that equally well as a codependent drag queen.

When I think about what makes me me, I identify much more with my mind than with my body. I resist efforts to draft me into a collective interest group based on unchosen characteristics.

Ahh, little soft-boiled trans egg…

Doyle’s childhood coping strategies for family trauma and unrecognized dysphoria were a lot like mine (minus the eating disorder). I wrote an entire notebook of laws for my dolls, and enforced them with trial by a jury of mice in Victorian dresses, followed by beheadings or imprisonment in the shoe closet. As for Doyle:

I don’t remember my eating disorder, because I wasn’t there. What I remember about seventh grade are X-Men comics, which I got into rapturously and obsessively, and the vast, elaborate fantasy worlds I built in their image. I invented whole teams of superheroes, with headquarters and code names and plot arcs and recurring villains, and if the embarrassment would not kill me, I could still tell you each and every one of their names. Down on earth, I was engaged in a frantic struggle with my body, but in my mind, I had reached safe harbor, creating a place to breathe during my Cronenberg years.

Clearly, the split — the false life of the body, the true life of the mind — was already in place. But it had always been there. I learned to read at age three, and by the time I was in kindergarten, teachers had to beg and coax and sometimes just rip the books out of my hands to get me to interact with any of my classmates. Even then, at the beginning of my social existence, I was building pocket dimensions, finding doors into a better place.

Vintage Real Fur Costumed Mice Russ and West Germany image 0

“Guilty!”

Finally, enjoy this photo essay in Out Magazine about Anthony Patrick Manieri’s queer male body-positivity series Arrested Movement. The joyful black-and-white nude portraits feature a multiracial cast of cis and trans masculine folks, with several plus-size and disabled models.