I. I want in this post to clarify some muddy thoughts I have about infection, hedonism, and public health. I’ll start with HIV, why not. You may have seen the by now iconic front page of the NY Times listing just some of the names and bio data of the nearly 100,000 people killed by SARS-CoV-2:
Compare that cover to the same paper’s coverage of the milestone hit, in 1991, of 100,000 deaths from AIDS in the U.S.:
If you can’t see, that’s page 18 of the front section. Also, the Times didn’t bother to write or report its own story, deciding instead to run an AP wire report—the journalistic equivalent of a retweet.
If you’re a Times editor, or the sort of person who likes to win arguments so’s to stop feeling uncomfortable, you might point out that 100,000 deaths in three months is much more alarming, frontpage-style news than 100,000 deaths over the course of eleven years. You might even make the more dangerous argument that CoV-2 affects everyone, whereas HIV, at least in 1991, affected mostly gay men, a small minority of the (newspaper-buying) population.
I’m going to return to that second argument. All I have to say for the first is that what broke this weekend (and in 1991) was not news, but hearts. That 100,000 (almost) have died is data anyone can access at any time. The point of the litany of names on the cover was to mark an occasion, to send a message, to highlight some severities regarding this virus that seem to have been overshadowed in the recent weeks. It’s a memorial, and the Times was so proud of the good job they did they even published a piece about how they came up with it.
Which means that 100,000 AIDS deaths weren’t worth memorializing in the paper.
But last week I watched the first half of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin broadcast by the Met, and noted in the subtitles this line, sung by the mezzo to the baritone about the soprano: “She is beautiful without the arrogance of beauty, noble without the arrogance of nobility, pious without the arrogance of piety.”
I liked it because the virtues (whether the 4 cardinal or 7 holy ones) have always seemed like obnoxious impossibilities. It’s like when I first started talking again to Jesus and reading about his deeds and ideas. I’m supposed to live as he did? Who can possibly compete?
The living as turns out to be key. Here, the mezzo (a) points to how the virtues become more virtuous and useful when we see them as ways for acting, guidelines for one’s behavior and comportment, while (b) simultaneously warning us against exemplifying or being characterized in full as any one of them.
In other words, make the virtues adverbs, not nouns.[*]
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
You might want to point out that the mezzo extols the soprano’s virtues with adjectives. She “is beautiful” and “is pious”, but I’m reading those as effects of verbal actions. Or better: how is her generally being-a-person? Oh she does-be’s beautifully. She is-acts nobly.↵
While searching last week for the origins of the archaic term bedswerver (it’s from The Winter’s Tale), I found this pic:
You might recognize the composition from the image behind the “distracted boyfriend” meme from 2017:
Being who I am, I thought it was interesting that the latter photo became the viral hit and not the former photo, and I wanted to know why. After all, few if any of the memes relied on gender, the distracted boyfriend standing in for “people”. So why not let a girlfriend stand in for “people”? I had my suspicions, but I took it to the court of public opinion that is Twitter:
You can click on the comments to read along if you’d like (unless it’s past 30 days and the tweet’s been autodeleted), but the general consensus was that the girlfriend in this pic isn’t distracted/horny, she’s offended/angry. Only in the context of the original, boyfriend-centered pic, goes the argument, would we ever think this girlfriend was aroused.
I’m curious about this because physiognomically these two are doing the same things: furrowing their brows and pursing their lips. Also: we can see what this woman looks like when she’s offended/angry, because you’ve probably noticed by now that the model also plays The Girlfriend in the viral pic. Her angry expression looks like dropped-jaw, widened eyes.
This is a change in my position. Used to be I understood that fantasies are separate from reality and do not indicate anything about a person’s behavior or ethical beliefs. So I’ve refused to judge people into Nazi porn, or, say, Daddy-Dom / Little-Boy fetishists who dress the latter up in diapers and give them the former’s dick to suck. I don’t judge incest fantasies or rape fantasies. I don’t judge race play, even though it can make my stomach curdle.
This isn’t a radical position. This is sexology 101.
Yesterday I found a fantasy that I’m judging the hell out of, and I want to figure out why.
This is from Jack Morin’s The Erotic Mind, which is a self-help-adjacent book about the roles that fantasies play in developing one’s individual eroticism. Morin surveyed around 350 people about their peak erotic experiences and longtime sexual fantasies to gather the data from which he’s formed his ideas. “Judy” is one such survey respondent (note very 1995 language):
Ever since I was about fifteen I’ve fantasized about being a prostitute. I was always supposed to be “good,” but prostitutes claim the right to be blatantly sexual. As a hooker, I relish my seductive walk, whorish clothes, and dirty talk. I imagine a man slowing down for a look at me. If I like what I see, I ask if he’s in the mood for action. Sometimes I’m a streetwalker and we do it in his car or a fleabag hotel. Other times I’m a sophisticated call girl catering to rich businessmen. But I’m always in control, totally sexual, and I don’t give a damn about what anyone thinks.
Perfectly good sexual fantasy. Common as hell, I imagine. But in Morin’s drive to understand the emotions behind our fantasies, he asks people to think about them, and where they came from or what makes them so charged, and Judy has a revealing answer:
Two quick thoughts on the push to reopen stores and beaches and things while states are still seeing an increase in covid-19 cases. The obvious thought is that undereducated people are being convinced that fighting The Rich Man’s War to Resume Making Money is a virtue, a form of patriotism, in much the same way the U.S. military works to convince young people of limited means that dying for oil barons in endless wars might make them a hero.
The less obvious thought is that undereducated people are being convinced that Deciding For Yourself When To Get A Haircut is a form of civil disobedience, which has a grand history in the U.S., and which feels very good to take part in, with the long-term added benefit for our current administration of becoming the obvious scapegoat if a second-wave of virus deaths happens this summer.
In other words: it won’t be Trump’s fault that so many Americans have died. It’ll be all these disobedient people, who in turn will be happy to take the blame away from their deadbeat dad.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. In California, there’s a (semi-) detailed plan for reopening what’s been closed since March. Right now, retail stores have reopened with curbside pickup only. The next phase is to open “personal care” businesses like salons and gyms. The final phase is to reopen concert and sports venues.
It’s odd that California’s plan doesn’t mention bars and restaurants (my guess is they’re somewhere in the late-2 / early-3 stage, at least smaller-capacity ones). But it’s all I and my friends here talk about. Nobody’s yearning to drive to a curb to pick up a pair of shoes they bought online. Everybody wants to be able to hang out together.
That reopening shops and businesses is our focus has something to do with public health but a lot to do with money-making always taking a priority over people’s well-being.
I’ve been trying to think about strength lately, and in looking for ways to access the concept that don’t have anything to do with, like, how much you can bench, I was led to Geoffrey Scarre’s On Courage, a kind of moral-philosophical primer on the idea.
Scarre at one point tells the story of the Archbishop Cranmer, burned at the stake by Queen Mary for heresy against the church and state. His final last-words speech was a repudiation of the penance he had earlier written and signed his name to, as a way to plead for his life. He ultimately realized that this penance betrayed his true beliefs, and in this speech recanted it all. They took him to the pyre, and right as the flames grew, Cranmer held out his right hand so that it would burn first, to punish that synecdochic part of himself that wrote the true heresy.
I read this and imagined the scene, the crowd around the burning stake, and I saw a person, probably a gay man, or maybe a woman (I see them for whatever reason as a Mark McKinney character in a wig), and turning, in the moment the hand begins to burn, to a friend or companion saying, “Oh my god can you believe that?” with a very arch and campy tone. Almost like what was happening was a joke or some silliness, something outrageous they could disbelievingly laugh at together, like when you hear a person call another person fat to their face.
Ooohhh my goooooood…. Kristin Wiig does the voice in her character who spoils surprise parties. And indeed, I think of this scene as a comedy sketch, perhaps the only place where such a thing can happen. But it’s worth pointing out this this reaction—from the POV of someone outside the scene, watching at home, say—would most likely be funny and cause laughter.
But no laughter, it’s key, from the crowd. Indeed, its opposite.
Anyway, as soon as I imagined this person, I wanted to know what their virtue was, or where their moral value lay.
Now that Joe Biden is the presumptive candidate running against the President, our battle to secure a more equitable and democratic future just got more uphill. In that spirit, I’m focusing on helping candidates committed to progressive policies—universal health care, social justice for all, and fighting income inequality, among others—get elected to Congress. This is the third in a series.
Zainab Mohsini is a first-generation Afghan American who came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2003. She’s a progressive Democrat running for the House of Representatives in Virginia’s 11th district, which happens to be where I grew up.
She’s got a tough battle ahead of her.
Mohsini is up against incumbent Gerry Connolly in the primary election happening (possibly) in June. Connolly is much loved in the district. He took 71% of the vote in 2018. Also: my best and longest friend worked for him when he was the chairman of the Board of Supervisors for our home county. It seems impossible that he’ll lose. So why put money behind Mohsini?
The problem is Centrism. Connolly is a Vice Chair of the New Democrat Coalition, which is a centrist caucus of “pro-business”, “fiscally-responsible” congresspeople. It’s the largest Democratic caucus, and it is, you can call it, the base of the party.
Pro-business means anti-worker. It means favoring profit/eers over the well being of the people. It means legislating for more economic growth, such that a proposed pipeline which will destroy the environment and nearby communities becomes a cost-benefit issue to be weighed.
Most people are centrists the way most people are average—it’s how those terms mean what they do. And a democracy is rule by the majority. The problem with centrism as an ideology is that it fails to achieve what the majority wants, given the constant presence of radicals.
Often we think that the “two sides” we see of polarized issues are equally polarized. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Take women’s rights and the ERA. One side says that women are equal to men. The other side says men are superior to women. If you’re a centrist or moderate Democrat on this issue, if you seek to find the middle ground between these positions, where does that leave women?
Politics—the workings of policy-making in government—requires compromise, and when you have a radical rightwing administration in power (fascism is a radical ideology), you do not enact change by taking a middle-of-the-road position. Being in the middle of the road gets you stuck once again in the gutter.
The gutter on the right, I mean, in this shabby metaphor.
If you believe these times are unusual, that having a racist president in the White House who seems fully incapable of caring about the 38,000 deaths (so far) caused by the coronavirus is unusual, we will not make a better future by playing politics as usual. It’s not just a matter of getting “more of us” in Congress, it’s a matter of getting the versions of us with a vision of something different.
So I’m giving my support to Zainab Mohsini. She is committed to the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. She’s in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. I haven’t found her position on Citizens United, that rotten decision, but her Twitter bio indicates she’s taking no corporate PAC money.
And I know I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating—anti-PAC progressives are immediately at a disadvantage in trying to win elections (thanks, in part, to the Citizens United decision). The game is rigged to handicap such candidates from the start. They need our support more than anybody.
UPDATE: In addition to the standard SFTU offer below, I’ll give away MS critiques to anyone who donates to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, the George Floyd Memorial Fund, or any other fund related to #BlackLivesMatter and stopping the ongoing police murder of black people. Same conditions apply as per below.
Some Background As the San Francisco Bay Area has, you probably know, the highest rent in the country, we continually see the swift removal of longtime residents and local communities whose jobs don’t pay them what tech workers’ jobs do. The coronavirus has made all this much worse.
The San Francisco Tenants Union has received a deluge of calls since shelter-in-place closed the city’s dining and entertainment venues. Many people aren’t earning money right now, and they’re worried about how they’ll pay rent. There are steps tenants can take to keep their apartments, but rather than go through it all, many are choosing to leave town, often giving up their rent control, and all but ensuring they won’t be able to afford to return.
For more than 50 years, the SFTU has fought unjust evictions, landlord greed, and the erasure of our communities. It advocates for tenants’ rights among city officials by building a broad coalition of renters, lawyers, and activists across the city.
They need donations to help with this work, and that’s where my work comes in.
The Offer To help raise funds, I’m offering a manuscript critique and consultation to anybody who makes a donation to the SFTU. You can do so here. It’s quick and easy.
Who I Am I’m the author of books in nonfiction and fiction. I’ve published more than a dozen essays and another dozen short stories in national journals and magazines. But what you really should know is that I’ve been reading MFA student manuscripts on a near-daily basis for 10 years now. I do a very careful job of meeting writers where they are with their work, and reading it closely to help them better reach their visions for a piece. My students regularly publish pieces I’ve helped them revise in journals and magazines. I like to think I’m easy to work with, though just as everyone does I have specific tastes and philosophies about writing. This blog should give you a sense of those; for more CV-type specifics, click on my bio.
What I’ll Do – read a finished draft of your essay, short story, or book chapter – mark it up (in pen) to document my reading process and reactions – type up a 1-page overall assessment, with suggestions for revision – email this assessment and a PDF of your marked-up MS back to you – optional: schedule a 20-minute one-on-one video conference with you to talk about your piece and answer any questions you might have (see below)
What It Costs The cost for all this is a donation to the SFTU in the amount of (at least) $2 per number of pages in your manuscript (minimum 10 pages). If you want to schedule the 20-minute consultation, it’s $3/page. So: somebody with a 17-page essay who wants a follow-up conference should plan to donate at least $51.
(Pretty good deal!)
What You Need to Do – donate the requisite amount directly to the SFTU (or a relevant #BlackLivesMatter fund) – save or print evidence of your donation – find a finished draft to format in 12-pt double-spaced Times with 1.25″ margins – email your donation evidence and a PDF of your formatted manuscript to firstname.lastname@example.org – maybe write a little note to tell me about yourself and where you are with the piece, or anything you think I need to know in advance of reading it
Some Fine Print Though I welcome your donating more than once, this offer is for one consultation per person. You don’t want me reading your poems, so please don’t send poems, but I’m familiar with and have published lyric essays. Again, there’s a 10-page minimum. Let’s call it a 40-page maximum, just in case. By “finished” I mean the thing should be a standalone piece with an ending (or a complete chapter), but not anything that you’ve already published. Please see above for formatting guidelines. I’ll do my best to get your manuscript returned to you within a week, but I have no idea how many people will sign up for this so I thank you in advance for your flexibility. I also reserve the right to end this offer if I get overwhelmed. I am, after all, on sabbatical. But if this post is still up without any language to the contrary, the offer still stands. If you have any additional questions, email me.
And thank you for your help. If you’d like to continue to help in the fight to keep people housed—especially if you live in another part of the country—visit Just Shelter.
I know I kind of wrote a whole book on this, but I find myself thinking about it again today, this ongoing way of finding insights into human nature by comparing our behavior to animals’. Often it’s wolves or dogs. There’s alphas and betas, these folks say. Putting aside the fact that alpha wolves don’t exist in nature (PDF link), there’s really no reason why we should believe that studying animal behavior can clue us into our own.
Actually, there are two reasons to do this:
Your understanding of (or faith in) evolutionary psychology is such that you believe our current behaviors are dictated, even unconsciously, by Darwinist notions (e.g., survival of the fittest, sexual selection, etc).
In looking at what’s natural in human behavior, you focus on the natural while equating animals with The Natural.
If you’re a #1 person I, an evolutionarily aberrant homosexual, don’t know what to tell you. If you’re a #2 person, I’ve got a guy for you to read: Thomas Nagel (another PDF link).
Okay I haven’t read him either, but I’m going to after having come across his ideas on sexual perversions in my research. Plaguing philosophers (among others) for centuries has been the question, What’s natural human sexuality look like? Most folks follow St. Thomas Aquinas in looking at the “natural” part of that construction. And most folks fall into his “animals = nature” trap.
So: because animals only have sex to procreate, natural human sexuality = procreative sex.
Again, lots is factually wrong about this, but Aquinas died almost 750 years ago so we can forgive his not knowing about dolphins or penguins or bonobos. But you can see how this idea (along with all kinds of religious dogma) has made it easy—indeed, made it “feel natural”—for people to hate / kill queers.
What Nagel does is say, Shouldn’t we focus on the human part of “natural human sexuality”? That is, what separates us from the animals and puts us in the category of Human? In that sense, what’s unnatural is only having procreative sex (again, in Aquinas’s ancient formulation). Or, more up-to-date, because animals seem not to take partners’ mutual pleasures into consideration, human sex that does the same is unnatural.
To Nagel, you’re a pervert if you refuse to recognize your sex partner(s) as mutually aroused and interested in sexual pleasure, and you’re a pervert when you disallow yourself to become your partner(‘)s(‘) sexual object.
More complicated? A little. But look at how Nagel refuses to let specific genital mash-ups or partner-numbers or any of those details get in the way of finding a path to moral evaluations of sexual behavior. I know this isn’t new, this idea (Nagel’s paper dates to ’69), but it’s new to me as a way to shut down animal behaviorist arguments.
“We are not animals, we are given them,” is how I resolved the question. Nagel’s seems more to my speed today.
Found this in an old journal I kept in grad school. Throughout it, I espouse some ideas (mostly about writing and sex, the bulk of the journal’s concerns) I now find myself often working hard to fight against. But looking through it in place, I get glimpses of the self I was becoming the self I am now. Like in this one from June 2009:
We’ve seen heterosexual men take bar napkins and roll them into rose-shapes to hand to women they’re trying right there to woo. Pretty sure movie scenes have happily depicted such. Last week, at a bar in Chelsea called Barracuda, I watched a homosexual man roll a bar towel into a stiff penis with a perfectly formed head. It got great laffs. Other men were charmed.
Here, one could argue, is the difference between straight men and gay men. One could also argue that it’s a shame, that we trend right to sex and hard-ons. We go directly to the literal while they make a stop at the metaphorical. The rose, though, is just another choice, just another shape, one with four or five thousand years of romantic love behind it—a set of values codified by straight men so thoroughly that today we cannot see a rose without thinking of men and women together.
They both wilt, eventually, but man grew erections long before he ever grew roses.