An Interesting Time

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We live in a fractured nation, and some of us hardly even know it because we’ve imposed a de facto segregation  on ourselves, and often hear few opinions we disagree with, except on TV.

But there is disagreement, and it’s virulent. Conservatives think conservatism is the natural way to be, and think liberals are hypocritical and malicious. Liberals feel the same way about conservatives. Neither lives up to their best ideals; both feel the other wants to impose their views on a whole range of issues. Not just abortion, but in religion, schools, etc. Part of the problem is economic: an expanding economy and good pay makes up for a multitude of sins, but a lot has to do with cherished beliefs too. A Dominionist Christian is quoted as saying other denominations should have their religious liberties taken away. This is extreme, but isn’t different from past Christian attitudes. It’s contrary to the vision our Founding Fathers had, though.

The Founding Fathers weren’t, in many cases, conventionally religious. They amended the Constitution to include religious liberty because of the still remembered (by some) religious wars of the 17th century. One way to avoid these was to allow every religion to practice, but none to impose its views on any other. The monotheistic religions tend to produce fanatics, and fanatics like to impose their own beliefs. Perhaps we periodically need to be reminded how well that works.

Daryl Davis attended Howard University intending to become a spy or a diplomat. He became a musician instead. He also acquired an unusual hobby: he began talking to members of the Ku Klux Klan.

This may have begun accidentally. He talked to someone after a performance who appreciated how he played piano. That person was a Klan member, and maybe other contacts followed from that one. Davis’s attitude towards him and other Klan members wasn’t accidental, though. He said his question was, How can you hate me when you don’t even know me? It turned out not many could. All many of them wanted was to be listened to. After he listened to them, many began feeling different, and got out of the Klan. Those leaving no longer had any use for their robes, and gave them to him. In the PBS program about him he estimates he has twenty-five or six such robes.

That part is inspiring. He has justified his faith that people can change. What is sad is when he talks to three activists in Baltimore who don’t believe white supremacists CAN change. I couldn’t really blame them: nothing in their experience leads them to believe that, and they feel Davis is a traitor.

They’re not the only people who feel others are traitors, or are angry for other reasons. According to Sidney Blumenthal, our 45th president has always pined for the love of New York City, which has resolutely withheld it from him. This may account for the resentment he displays, and also for his ability to engage the resentment of others, which enabled him to win his campaign. It’s possible we will suffer because New York City didn’t love Donald Trump enough, but many people feel unloved. Christianity told us to love one another, but didn’t teach us how to do that. Consequently, we have done a miserable job of it.

In Mary Renault’s novel about ancient Greece, The Last of the Wine, one character quotes Socrates as saying, “Be what you wish to seem.” This expresses much of the exasperation various groups in America feel about each other: not necessarily their views, but that they don’t behave according to those views. Shaming opponents for believing differently doesn’t change their minds, it causes resentment.

It’s not hard to understand why many people oppose abortion. At least until they know someone who wants to get one because of, for example, rape or incest.

Homosexuality is a similarly hot-button issue. Sexuality is a difficult issue for almost everyone, and the idea of not only having sex outside of marriage but with one’s own gender seems alien to most. Some can be persuaded that it’s not so evil when they know someone who is gay, but not all can. Some parents reject their children when they discover they have AIDS. They seem to believe their children have chosen a life of evil, but aren’t objective enough to ask why they would choose an orientation that so many people detest. When asked that question, they take it very personally, as an attack on their faith, as in some ways it is. Faith in the literal truth of the Bible is a kind of anchor for many who find any analysis of its text to be personally threatening. That’s much of the quarrel of a certain kind of conservative with liberals: liberals make them think unwanted thoughts. That some of these thoughts may embody the sort of compassion Jesus Christ taught doesn’t improve matters. We all prefer the religion that confirms our preexisting beliefs.

When such a resentment is present, it’s not hard to play on it and encourage hatred of others. How did Daryl Davis persuade white supremacists that their views were mistaken? He didn’t judge them. He listened to them and, he says, they persuaded themselves.

Not all will be persuaded, though. The 45th president may or may not emulate Hitler in every way, but there’s a family resemblance in their resentment. Hitler’s father abused him. The president’s father may not have, but the president does seem to feel unloved. Whether it’s New York City he feels rejected by, or whether the rejection comes from elsewhere, it seems likely many of us are going to be punished for it because many others share the feeling. Liberals are an enemy many can agree on, so liberals will be punished. Ordinary people may find that as liberals get punished, so do they, and regret their vote, but by then it will be too late.

Perhaps less justly, Muslims and Hispanics will be punished too. They too seem alien to a lot of people, so are easy to stereotype. It’s not hard for people who don’t know any Muslims to believe they all are terrorists. That few of the Muslims in this country are, that few are likely to get here, and that we have terrorists of our own seems harder to process, especially if one sympathizes in some respects with the white terrorists. Fear of immigrants is easy to take advantage of. The mechanism seems to be that many fear new immigrants will do to us what our ancestors did to Native Americans and imported black slaves. We all know we haven’t treated minorities well, which gives us good reason to fear them. Because of our fears, we mistreat them again, which won’t resolve our difficulties.

Anger can be a potent fuel, but it doesn’t help us harmonize with our neighbors. Unfortunately, the time seems ripe for a holy war. War certainly releases tensions, though it would be nice if we could release them in a more productive fashion. But that’s a matter of individual decision. Perhaps enough individuals will find a better way to behave than they are being encouraged to. This is an interesting time, in the Chinese sense.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

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I remember Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, though I never read the book. Her thesis that pollution was damaging the natural world always seemed plausible to me, not something that I could disagree with.

That book turned out to be a watershed event: it was only after its publication that laws to protect the environment began to be passed, an issue which continues to be important today in many more ways than Carson enumerated then.

The book had been inspired by the scientists at chemical companies like Monsanto who declared war on insects like mosquitoes and fire ants. They didn’t want to just control, but to eradicate them, and massive amounts of DDT were their weapon of choice. Carson saw the problems with this kind of strategy.

One was that, while the poison killed vast numbers of insects, some that had some resistance survived, and their offspring replaced those killed, and were no longer controllable by DDT, exactly like the misuse of antibiotics creates strains of resistant bacteria. To eradicate resistant insects or bacteria means an ever escalating arms race to find new insecticides or antibiotics.

In the case of insecticides, there were immediate problems. DDT didn’t kill just insects, but other organisms too. Worms were loaded with the poison, and gave it to the robins fed by their parents. They might be poisoned outright or acquire defective immune systems, making their survival more precarious. Earth and water were poisoned too, and the poison became more concentrated as it made its way up the food chain

The problem was also parallel to atomic energy. It became clear, at least by the time the hydrogen bomb was first tested in 1952 that the real danger of atomic weapons wasn’t the explosions, extreme as these were, but the radioactive fallout they generated, which has the potential to destroy much or all life on earth. Unfortunately, it’s not just the bombs that are dangerous, as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have demonstrated. Radioactive waste is toxic, and for a very long time. The last I heard, the Japanese had been unable to stop leakage of it from Fukushima. Who knows how far the pollution will travel, and how serious the damage will be?

What Carson was trying to combat was the optimism of scientists employed by chemical companies who believed that chemicals were the solution to all problems. DDT was the main insecticide of the 1950s, and thanks to Carson it was eventually banned. But DDT was only a small example of the problem of technology.

Technology can do amazing and wonderful things. It can also generate new problems for every solution it achieves. Technology can be, and often is, poisonous. But it’s also extremely convenient in many ways. How many of us want to live a more natural lifestyle? A life without central heating, inside toilets and electricity could be most inconvenient.

Native Americans always had great respect for nature. They also tolerated heat, cold, and other rigors of mostly outdoor living. Few of us are used to that kind of life or wish to adopt it.

And Carson’s book enraged chemical companies, who did everything they could to discredit her. They didn’t succeed. She was able to demonstrate that they had been reckless in their use of DDT and other chemicals, her book became a best-seller, and generated a movement that passed laws to protect the environment.

DDT has been far from the only environmental problem, though. We now know, for instance, that human activity (like driving cars, for example, or burning coal) has saturated the atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide (among other chemicals), causing global temperatures to rise. Consequences of that are unlikely to be good.

We also know that hydraulic fracturing pollutes huge amounts of water, and that injecting the waste back into the ground causes earthquakes. And that insecticides are making bees an endangered species.

All of the above makes US an endangered species. Without bees, it becomes more difficult to pollinate our crops. Global warming seems to produce more extreme weather and higher sea-levels–at least. It may produce droughts and eventually deserts too. Polluted air, earth, and water, endanger us, and all the other plant and animal species that live with us.

Many of us, especially in the technologically developed countries, live intellectually and emotionally in a kind of parallel universe where nature is found in parks and makes a pretty spectacle. We rarely realize that we are part of nature, and depend on the interaction of all its species to make our own lives possible.

Wars are going to be a strong possibility in the next decades, partly because climate change will make some areas unlivable, and partly because natural resources are being used up at an unsustainable rate. The USA, with 5-7% of the world’s population uses a disproportionate percentage of its resources. That can’t continue without readjustment, maybe drastic and chaotic.

But the real danger may be much more subtle. Pollution increasingly poisons the entire environment, and corporations who consider they have no responsibility except to shareholders continue to behave in environmentally reckless ways. Fracking is by no means the only bad idea (though convenient in the short-run). Oil spills have been increasing, since our demand for energy doesn’t decrease. Hard rock mines may be even more environmentally dangerous than oil. And many people prefer to believe that all these problems are merely lies by a conspiracy to tell them what to do.

Unfortunately, some people HAVE to be told what to do. Large corporations have proven they’re not interested in self-government, which means they need to be regulated by public servants, which they resent, and often successfully subvert. Liberty for them is the license to profit without regard for anyone else. If capitalism (to say nothing of the human race) is to survive, its attitude must change. Of course it is unwilling to go gently into that good night.

Carson realized she wouldn’t live long as she was finishing the book. She had had several lumps removed from her breast at various times, and then a radical mastectomy. Her doctor told her he had gotten all the cancer, but lied. The cancer had metastasized. She underwent radiation treatments which made her able to finish the book, but the cancer metastasized further, and she died little more than a year after the book was published. Not before she was able to defend it from critics in the chemical industry who wanted to keep selling insecticides at the same rate they had been. The NPR documentary made it clear that Carson had no problem with the responsible use of insecticides, but did have with using them in huge volumes.

It’s also clear that in the last fifty-plus years industries have been using similar tactics to be able to continue unwise practices. Cigarette manufacturers maintained that smoking wasn’t dangerous, but eventually had to stop denying. There are still climate change deniers who object that scientists predictions aren’t always accurate–true enough, because the world climate system is very large, but not because human activity isn’t affecting climate. A lot of lobbying has gone into preventing effective action to slow the changes down.

The documentary points out that Carson was one of the first to tell people (after the modern age had forgotten) how nature includes the human race and everything else, and that damaging other organisms (plants or animals) eventually damages us too. A lot of people have been inspired by her to try to make positive change in our collective behavior, with some success, but not yet enough. I’m afraid catastrophe(s) will have to be our teacher.

 

Collisions

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We’re told that Congress is preparing to repeal the Affordable Care Act as soon as possible, and that substantial changes to Social Security and Medicare are to follow. According to one narrative, the action with regard to the ACA is because it’s a terrible failure. According to another, it’s because it was enacted by President Obama, which is reason enough in itself. The latter rationale fails to recognize that the Act was based on a Republican plan enacted in Massachusetts by then governor Mitt Romney, and that it insured 20-30 MILLION citizens who hadn’t previously been able to afford health insurance. Figures on the possible consequences of the repeal suggest that 43 million or more people will lose their health insurance, and that something like three million jobs in conjunction with the Act are likely to be lost.

Does this make sense?

There is one advantage to the repeal: wealthy tax-payers, who are specifically targeted to fund the ACA would gain substantial amounts of money (seven million per person?) when those taxes are repealed, and this demographic is, of course, one of the main Republican constituencies. They have others, less wealthy, but seem not to be overly concerned about them.

Disadvantages, besides the loss of health insurance for many people, include damage to the economy through loss of jobs. Do Republicans (at one time considered the fiscally responsible party) care about this? Or does the advantage to the wealthy through tax repeal make up for any disadvantage?

Republicans assure us that there will be a replacement for the ACA, but I have yet to hear what that might be. One of my friends told me she had faith there would be no repeal without an adequate replacement. I told her I wasn’t as optimistic. After all, Republicans have been talking about repeal ever since the ACA was enacted. Why haven’t they been able to agree on what ought to replace it?

One hypothesis is that they don’t WANT to replace it. That’s the extreme view, the one which believes that resistance to the ACA wasn’t just partisan, but also racist, and part of the class war which few people want to acknowledge, especially Republicans, who are currently winning it.

Class war suggests that the vast majority of those opposing Republican initiatives (not including elites of the Democratic party, whose views are not so very different from Republican elites) are not wealthy, and therefore deserve to be scorned and mistreated. Is that too radical a view? I suggest that repealing the ACA, to say nothing of defunding Social Security and Medicare, are actions radical in the extreme, and will not be approved by very many of America’s citizens. If Republicans actually intend these actions, I think they either believe their point of view is more popular than it is (dubious, considering their enthusiasm for suppressing votes by those they consider unlikely to vote for them), or they don’t care if it’s popular or not. That suggests they’re willing to use violence to enforce their desires.

If that’s the case, they no longer believe in democracy, nor do they wish to any longer protect the democratic republic that elected them to high office.

If the above is true, Republicans are unlikely to admit it, even if that’s what they consciously believe. And of course there are rationales for not continuing to maintain a truly democratic (small d) system.

One party is largely composed of the poor and middle class, who aren’t as responsible as the wealthy. If they were responsible, they’d be wealthy themselves. It’s the wealthy who really have “skin in the game”, which is what really encourages responsibility. If you don’t have substantial amounts of property, you can’t be considered a serious citizen. The Founding Fathers believed that, and the expansion of the franchise since is a perversion of their vision. The wealthy show their responsibility by demanding bailouts when their ventures fail, which is certainly an interesting manifestation.

The Founding Fathers also made provision for the institution of slavery, which means that slavery, or its equivalent, is quite acceptable. In turn, this means that if you’re unable to avoid the equivalent of slavery, you’re irresponsible and ought not to have a vote on any issue that affects the whole nation.

Another reason is that democracy, and particularly the version practiced in the USA may be considered inefficient. That is, it’s extremely difficult to get anything done. That the Founding Fathers designed the system to function in this way is beside the point, and need not interfere with the sanctification of the American way of legislation. It should be noted, though, that the Founders did this because they didn’t want it to be possible to pass legislation too easily. From that could come tyranny. Unfortunately, we’ve discovered that tyranny of sorts can come from blocking the legislation process too.

A third reason is that the capitalist economic system is often seen as equivalent to democracy, though it differs in some important respects. One such is that it doesn’t prohibit taxation without representation, one of the main reasons for the American revolution. Capitalism is largely manifested through large corporations (now legally defined as persons) which are responsible only to their shareholders, and no one else. Anyone objecting to that particular definition of democracy runs the risk of being considered a socialist, which is possibly the most dangerous form of treason, although socialism in the form of the aforementioned bailouts seems to be quite acceptable.

As things are presently constituted, the logical end of the proposed changes is the death of many unnecessary people. One may be defined as unnecessary if one doesn’t fill some important function which also pays extremely well. Such functions are now less common than they used to be, since many industrial jobs have now been automated, and only require programmers in order to produce.

Such workers are most desirable, since they don’t require wages, and never get tired. A certain amount of maintenance is sufficient. This makes it possible for wealthy Americans to castigate the poorer ones for laziness without providing them jobs with which they can actually support their families. The days of self-sufficiency pretty much ended with the steep decline in family farms, partly assisted by legislation that made illegal some of the ways they survived, as well as the advent of factory farms, with which smaller organizations couldn’t compete.

Now nearly everyone is dependent on what the large economic players do, and they are very willing to take advantage of that dependence.

Wendell Berry, the writer who is also a farmer, compares the migration of farmers to the cities in America, which began in the 19th century and continued into the 20th, to the migrations in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The difference, he says, is that in the USA the compulsion was economic, while in Russia it was naked violence.

Considering the alienation of the political class from ordinary Americans, violence of one sort or another is by no means impossible in the near future. Republicans are very comfortable with fulfilling the wishes of wealthy elites at the expense of their other constituents. Democrats may be less comfortable, but don’t object to that role.

The stage seems to be set for a variety of collisions. Let’s hope they don’t damage the country and its citizens too much.

The Next President

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After reviewing Donald Trump’s history, it seems obvious that public service isn’t a major motivator for him. He’s always been ambitious, and has evidently been thinking of running for president as long ago as the late eighties. Not seriously at that time, it seems, since he confined his efforts to commenting on the UN and other issues. At least until Barack Obama became president.

The birther controversy was probably initiated by someone else, but Mr. Trump put his face on it. No doubt Mr. Obama was somewhat annoyed about that, because he struck back. When Trump had scheduled a press conference to talk about it, Obama scheduled one at the same time to show documentation for his place of birth. Footage in the documentary on his life shows the TV crew disappearing and Mr. Trump walking away alone.

Obama didn’t stop there. At a function attended by Trump he joked about the birther controversy at length, and Trump had no choice but to laugh along with the rest of the audience. As the narrator of the documentary commented, what Trump hates most is humiliation. Obama had found a chink in Trump’s armor. But Trump had, the narrator suggested, at that moment decided to run for president himself.

His plan went nowhere in 2012, but we know what happened in 2016.

The documentary showed Trump speaking at what was supposedly his first campaign speech. He practically sniffed the air, tuned into what his audience was feeling, and put that into words. When he got a response he knew where to go from there. One of his advantages was in not appearing scripted–because he wasn’t, most of the time. Another was his ability to move an audience. President Obama has that ability too, but his style is much different: cool and rational vs hot and emotional. But hot and emotional was the winning combination this past year.

A lot of people were angry, and willing to vote for someone who promised change, even if it was questionable change. They weren’t interested in voting for experts telling them things they didn’t want to hear. Telling them she wasn’t Trump wasn’t a good strategy for Hillary Clinton. Especially since a lot of people were skeptical of her, whether they should have been or not.

Narrowly he won. President Obama has been walking a line with him since. On the one hand, vowing to make the transition of power as efficient as possible; on the other, stating that had he been at liberty to run, he believes he could have won the presidency again. That’s not an opinion Mr. Trump can be happy hearing, though I’m not aware of his having responded. But it seems clear (after seeing the documentary about him) that Trump saw his candidacy for president as a direct competition with Barack Obama even more than with Hillary Clinton. He won that competition; now he has to win the competition with the view of Obama as a great president. That will probably bedevil him for years to come. He may or may not win applause from Republicans. Winning it from Democrats will be more difficult, and he may settle for making Democrats and liberals (there may be no difference in his mind) as angry as possible. That would play into the desires of his most fervent supporters.

He will say he wants the country to heal, but that’s probably just what he thinks he SHOULD say. He wants applause, but how will he go about getting it? From his nominations for cabinet positions, it appears it’s hard-core Republicans he wants to please. His nominations are people who will likely destroy the departments he wants them to run: a man who favors selling public lands to run the Department of the Interior, a woman with no experience in public education and a record of hostility toward it to run the Department of Education.

If the Republican Congress manages to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and radically cuts both Social Security and Medicare, he will be able to please Republican elites by signing those bills. If he does, though, he will be very publicly breaking a campaign promise, which I doubt will make even his supporters happy.

He wants attention always, and would prefer positive attention, but has also shown a taste for negative attention too, if it upsets people he doesn’t like. On the other hand, he’s thin-skinned, and easily upset by criticism, which he’s going to be getting a lot of. That’s another reason the presidency doesn’t seem to be a good fit for him.

It will be very tempting for a lot of people to try to upset him, since it’s so easy to do. Given his desire for revenge, this may not be the best tactic, though. What may work better is praising him if and when he does anything praiseworthy, on the theory that he may then do more of it. But that doesn’t mean we should let him get away with breaking his promises either, or allowing him to make the presidency into a money-making machine for himself and his family (to say nothing of his cabinet members).

It’s pretty clear we’ve never had a president quite like him. The next four years will be interesting. Let’s hope they’re not also disastrous.

Jackson Heights

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Jackson Heights is a community within Queens, one of the boroughs of New York City. In the documentary of the same name an official (probably the mayor) early in the film says that Jackson Heights is the most diverse community in the world. It certainly IS diverse.

One scene is Muslims in mosque listening to a speech at the beginning of Ramadan. Another is Muslim children in a madrasseh learning Arabic script. Then an LGBT support group, a synagogue in which Jewish people are performing a ritual memorializing the Holocaust, a group of Spanish speaking small business owners complaining about a group called the Business Improvement Department(?) the people think is trying to displace them in favor of national franchises, a gay pride group (complete with a very skillful gay marching band) sponsored by BID.

There’s a scene of a woman in the Housing Authority fielding a call from someone making a complaint, two groups of elderly women chatting (one group in a nursing home, another in a restaurant), a transgender support group, a committee (schoolboard?) consulting with an authority about a problem with local public schools, Muslims butchering fowls according to Islamic law, a woman telling how her sister managed to illegally cross the border and survive, a large Spanish-speaking church (maybe cathedral) filled with people, a group of Hindus performing a ritual, a farmer’s market, a gay bar….and always in the background car or train noises.

How can it be that so many different kinds of people can live so close together without serious problems all the time? Of course there are ordinary problems all the time, but if there were intractable problems between different races, religions, and orientations, one might expect perpetual war between them all, and that’s not what happens. People manage to live together.

Not because they’re all wealthy. Queens isn’t one of the really wealthy boroughs, and Jackson Heights isn’t a particularly wealthy community. It wouldn’t be inconceivable that community life in such a diverse area could turn into a zero-sum game, a war of all against all. That it hasn’t suggests that government in the area has been doing something right. Of course it’s fashionable to say that government is the problem rather than the solution, but without government how do people manage to live together? Historically, when government has been weak, anarchy is the result, which isn’t good for many people (especially ordinary people), and anarchy is often followed by totalitarianism. But the film suggests that ordinary people don’t don’t pick fights with each other much, whatever the reason.

The environment is just about all urban. Nature is present, but contained, if not overwhelmed. We see people in a bar watching a soccer match, but don’t see any athletic activity outdoors, though there must be some.

It’s not like the film tries to paint a complete picture of the community, either. That would be impossible. A Catholic service is shown, but no Protestant or Orthodox churches. We see few east Asians or Eastern Europeans, though I’d guess they were present too.

We don’t know the future of the community, but given the situation, the picture is pretty positive.

 

Vampires

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A program shown on PBS tells of corpses found in Anglo-Saxon villages in England of about a thousand years ago which had been mutilated. Not many of them, but a few, had had their heads removed after death, and placed between their legs. Why? Apparently because they were suspected of vampirism.

The idea of vampires is a pretty old one, and seems to have been common to much of Europe. It died out in England, but not in other places, especially in eastern Europe. The documentary speaks to a peasant in Rumania who had helped unearth a recent corpse which had red around its mouth and a swollen belly, which he and the others had taken as evidence that the person was a vampire. They had opened the grave because a young woman said her uncle, who had recently died, had visited her and sucked her blood. The peasant said he had removed the corpse’s heart and burned it at the village crossroads, after which the young woman got better.

The idea of vampires is identified with Rumania, partly because of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, which is partly set in Transylvania; and partly because a fifteenth century monarch of Rumania, Vlad Tepes, was called Dracula, and is thought to have been a (or the) model for the literary character. Vlad Tepes was certainly not a pleasant man, having been notable for impaling people he didn’t like. That is, seating them on a wooden stake, pushing it up through their rectums into their bodies, then letting gravity slowly kill them. Probably rulers in that time, and maybe particularly in that place, had to be severe in order to survive, but Tepes seems to have been extreme even there and then.

The documentary says that Stoker based his novel on actual folk beliefs about vampires (it was unclear to me whether he added some powers to his character that weren’t part of common beliefs or not), but changed the image of the vampire from a problem found in rural Europe to a well-dressed cosmopolitan aristocrat. That’s the image that got popularized in plays and movies over the last hundred years. The question is, was there ever anything to the vampire myth, or was it simply misunderstanding?

Scientists and historians interviewed in the documentary argue that the idea of the vampire came from ignorance. Red around a corpse’s mouth and a swollen belly are the work of bacteria after death. The interviewees believe that the concept of vampires was used to explain illnesses the peasants were vulnerable to.

One historian notes that in the country away from the fireside the world is absolutely dark at night, except for a candle or torch that could be carried. It would be different in larger towns and cities, but villagers had to fear warriors sneaking up on them as well as storms and illnesses.

Some of the illnesses were pretty fearsome too, like leprosy, tuberculosis, and bubonic plague. We have to remember that nobody at that time had much idea where disease came from, and peasants would be more ignorant than most. If people began having horrible symptoms and dying, there was almost nothing anyone could do. How could they defend themselves against something they utterly failed to understand? In that situation, blaming illness on the dead was as reasonable as anything else. As one historian points out, the suspects usually were people most hadn’t liked when they were alive. The idea seems to have been common in much of the world, too. People living in the Himalayas seem occasionally to have been concerned about vampires as well. In Bulgaria and Italy too.

The hypothesis seems pretty plausible, but I wonder if there may anyway have been something to the old view. Vampires seem to resonate with a lot of people. Whether or not they literally drank blood, it doesn’t seem too strange to think of people who might drain in some manner people of vital energies, perhaps by doing something as simple as constantly demanding attention.

While vampirism as explanation for illness is probable enough, the documentarians didn’t look into the illness of the young woman in Rumania. Was it bacterial or viral? Or psychosomatic? Knowing that would go some distance toward deciding if the traditional idea of vampirism is totally invalid. It may seem totally stupid, but some of our ancient ancestors knew things we no longer know, as shown by some of the monuments we have no idea how to build. It’s not impossible that they knew more than we do in cases like this too.

 

Sexuality Good and Bad

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One of my Facebook friends posted an article about a gay couple who have been accused of molesting several of the boys they adopted. The article is written pretty objectively. It didn’t assume the allegations were true. Some would write it as exemplifying how evil homosexuals are, and this particular friend frequently posts messages about that. I suspect that was his intention this time too. I frequently disagree with him. It would be one thing if heterosexuals automatically behaved better than homosexuals. They do not.

My wife tells me of a girl she knew when they were both in their early teens. The girl told her she and her father were having sex, and showed her the building where this was going on. My wife told me about a day when they were taking a walk and encountered my wife’s brother and some of his friends. One of his friends called the girl away to have sex with her. She went and came back. Another called her, and she went and came back. Then another.

I don’t know, but suspect that the girl had a sad life. It sounds very much as if she didn’t feel she could say no to sex, whether she wanted it herself or not. Because of heterosexuals.

Perhaps we should warn people about the heterosexual agenda, which seems to be about molesting children.

The sentence above sounds counter-intuitive. It’s also at least an exaggeration. Many heterosexuals  are perfectly decent people, contrary to negative stereotypes about them. A lot of people have trouble believing the same is true of most minorities. Almost all of us like scapegoats to blame things on.

It’s easy to assume that gay men like to molest children. Actually, a significant number of pedophiles have sexual relationships with adult women too, and don’t confine their molestation to one gender. Heterosexuals are probably less likely to be used to being used as scapegoats than minorities are. They don’t like it any better than minorities do either, often claiming to be victims themselves, of reverse racism or anti-Christian bias, for instance. They seem not to imagine that anyone else might resent being blamed for bad or even criminal behavior.

Sexuality is, for better or worse, one of the main sources of human motivation, which means that power comes into the equation. If a person can, through being larger and physically stronger than a woman, force her to have sex with him, there are always men who will be tempted to do just that. The same is true in same-sex relationships, especially if men are involved. Testosterone can encourage men to be over-aggressive.

What’s the lesson here? If you’re powerful, you can punish someone for not having sex with you. You can also punish people for having sex in ways or with people you disapprove of.

The American South has long been notorious for racism, and disapproval of mixing the races. It took me a long time to realize that this, and the lynching that took place during segregation (we seem to have other forms of that now), were because white slave owners used black women sexually, and were afraid black men would return the favor. I really should have realized that sooner. As a favorite writer commented, no one erects a taboo against something that isn’t tempting.

A modern example of this was Strom Thurmond, a very conservative and racist member of Congress for a long time. It was reported that one of his colleagues said that he really believed the stuff about miscegnation. Imagine popular surprise then when it came out after his death that he had an illegitimate daughter with a black woman. That suggests he hated himself as well as others.

Reaction formation is the term for a type of behavior which reduces anxiety by asserting the opposite of one’s original feeling. Mr. Thurmond may well have felt humiliated by having succumbed to temptation. According to a news story, he gave his daughter money but never, when she and her mother visited him, called her mother by her name or acknowledged her as his daughter. Her mother had been a servant in his family home suggesting that Thurmond had felt entitled to have sex with her.

There’s some plasticity in human sexuality. That’s been noted in a number of circumstances. One was English public (private) schools, where upper class adolescent boys were segregated from women. Homosexuality became prevalent enough in that class that the word for it in Yiddish meant literally “the English disease”.

Another area was among sailors, especially before technology made voyages much shorter. Sailing between continents took months. Whaling expeditions could last two or three years. Pirates in the heyday of piracy in the Caribbean rarely had access to women. Women were not included in more legitimate voyages either.

A third area is prison. An acquaintance went to prison for a year or two for marijuana, and someone who had been in prison himself advised him to find a protector to have a sexual relationship with. The friend had the advantage of being gay, he did find a friend, and his stay in prison wasn’t too unpleasant.

But that’s not necessarily how it is. In a movie based on a Stephen King novel a prisoner is subjected to rape numerous times, though he manages eventually to get revenge on everyone who misuses him. Apparently, that kind of thing happens too.

What are we to make of people condemning homosexuality? Probably some sincerely believe it’s wrong, often because it’s condemned in the Bible, not imagining that people might engage in such acts because that’s their orientation, or that they might actually love each other. Maybe those condemning simply have never experienced that kind of desire. But if they’re vehement about it, we might suspect something else is going on.

The Bible condemns eating pork and shellfish, and wearing clothes made of two different fabrics. I’ve heard pork condemned, by a Muslim friend, but never shellfish or clothes of more than one fabric. That suggests cherry-picking.

Of course sexuality is one of the most intimate and  pleasurable things we can experience, so the experience can also be corrupted, or condemned for corruption even if unfairly. It’s notable that ancient Greco-Roman culture was quite tolerant of sexuality in general, and perhaps homosexuality in particular. Alexander the Great was certainly bisexual, Julius Caesar had that reputation, Plato seems to have had little interest in women, etc. Why exactly did Jewish and Christian culture condemn homosexuality?

It seems that an anti-sexual movement began about the same time as Christianity (whether Christianity was responsible for it or not) which influenced the new religion. Camille Paglia suggested, in Sexual Personae, that it may have been a reaction to Roman emperors like Nero, who behaved pretty outrageously in homosexual ways, but by no means only in those ways. In the case of Judaism, it’s been suggested that the ancient tradition reacted against some of the rites of the Great Mother religions, which featured homosexual behavior.

For many of us, the behavior seems strange, because unfamiliar. That in itself causes us to fear, but the word itself is negatively highly charged too. I noticed this when I found out my favorite high school teacher was gay, at a time when I was pretty unclear about sexuality in general. My assumption at the time was that most people’s sexuality is what it is. I didn’t feel much choice about MY orientation, so I thought it reasonable to assume most others didn’t either. Obviously, that’s not entirely true, but I don’t think it’s entirely untrue either.

When I used to listen to right-wing radio shows I used to hear the hosts say that homosexuality was a choice. I always wanted to ask them if they’d been tempted. G. Gordon Liddy I recall saying (in what sounded like a tone of wonder) that he had never indulged in homosexual acts while in prison. I never got the opportunity to ask him if he ever wanted to, but I wish I had. Would he have admitted to the temptation, or would he have denied it? I wonder.

A recent post on Facebook told of a woman who, some thirty years ago, decided to take care of people (usually gay men) dying of AIDS at a time when little was known about the disease and little research was being done on it. Many if not most of them had been abandoned by their parents, though often not by their lovers. She said she was deeply touched by the love shown by their partners.

That raises the question of just what constitutes marriage. Is marriage something that has been approved by the community, even though the two people involved no longer care about each other (or may never have)? Or does it have to do with the quality of feeling each person has for the other? I think it’s pretty clearly understood by most that relationships are never unchanging unless they have died. As long as they live, they change. Thus, the quality of heterosexual relationships can be inferior to homosexual ones. It would be more convenient for many if heterosexuality was equivalent to virtue. Unfortunately for we heterosexuals, it is not.