Monday, January 29, 2018

The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

I first came into contact with Ron Rosenbaum’s writing in the mid 2000s, when he was a book critic for Slate. During those years, perhaps his biggest contribution to literature was to convince Nabokov’s son to publish, rather than destroy, Nabokov’s last novel. Rosenbaum himself later had second thoughts, or at least ambivalent ones, about his role in the affair. My reading list bears witness to Rosenbaum’s influence, as a number of books I have read over the last five or so years have been his recommendations. (Most notable here is his excellent article discussing Jim Holt’s book, Why Does The World Exist, which remains one of my favorite philosophical reads.) Oh, and I probably would never have discovered Tristram Shandy without his help.

I also should credit his article from 2012 which was way ahead of the curve in drawing attention to the dependence of the Republican Party on racism for its very existence. I wasn’t there yet - I wouldn’t leave the GOP until 2013 - but it started me thinking. From there, I researched Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and the increasingly open racism of Republican rhetoric. Of course, by the time The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named won the presidency running openly on the KKK platform, most educated, historically informed people could no longer deny what Rosenbaum saw. If you look through the archives, it is surprising how many prescient columns he wrote back then.

But I think I probably loved his literary articles the most. Musings on Philip Larkin and love, riffs on Ulysses and Salinger, and more. And Shakespeare. I loved the Shakespeare stuff. And that is why I have had this book on my list.

The Shakespeare Wars is about Shakespeare, obviously, but it is also very much about what we think about Shakespeare’s works. It is partly an account of Rosenbaum’s own journey from a grad student not particularly enthralled with Shakespeare to a fiercely appreciative fan. Along the way, Rosenbaum discusses a number of different controversies regarding the works themselves, approaches to performance, and interpretation of the themes. These the “wars” of the title, and Rosenbaum is a partisan in most of them. The book is 550 pages long, and not the fastest read, so I am not going to attempt any sort of systematic summary. I’ll hit some highlights and some of the things that particularly stood out to me as interesting. However, let me say that this is an excellent book, and any serious lover of Shakespeare should definitely read it. Rosenbaum is pretty convincing about most of his assertions. Certainly, he has done his research, and speaks from a place of knowledge of all the competing positions. I don’t agree with him on everything (this is Shakespeare - agreement is besides the point), but I cannot think of a single one of his propositions that isn’t thoroughly defensible. In each case, Rosenbaum made me think a lot deeper about the issue.

Let me start with what, in the book, is basically an aside in the introductory chapter. There is a whole school of thought that “Shakespeare” wasn’t a real person, but that his works were written by some other person (and a number of suggested candidates have been proposed.) In other places, Rosenbaum has laid out the shocking lack of evidence for this idea, and the rather significant evidence that there was a William Shakespeare, who was in fact an actor and a playwright, and everyone at the time agreed he wrote the plays. What Rosenbaum notes here is that the “anti-Stratfordians” have a deep need for Shakespeare to be an aristocrat, not a self taught lower-class actor. They have, as Rosenbaum points out, aristocratic pretensions themselves, and want Shakespeare to be someone more like them.

The first section of the book addresses textual issues. For example the fact that what we think of as Hamlet and King Lear did not exist as we know them until fairly recently. There are two fairly different versions of Hamlet, and what we usually experience is actually a conflation - a blending of the “best” of both versions. Likewise, for Lear, there are two versions with significant differences. These differences in each play have some potentially revolutionary implications to the meaning of the play - these aren’t really just minor omissions. So the question arises, was the later version Shakespeare’s revision? Or a “cut” version put together by a later director or publisher. And then there is the decision of which of the versions to publish, and why. This is all quite fascinating.

One line I do have to quote is from an interview Rosenbaum had with Ann Thompson, who edited the Arden edition of Lear recently (and made the decision to publish all the versions.) Rosenbaum was asking her about her willingness to embrace uncertainty and present the options, rather than dogmatically insist one version was “correct.” He prefaced a question with:

“American feminists have a phrase - ‘Male Answer Syndrome’ - for the tendency of men to insist they’ve always got things figured out…”

Um, no joke. In fact, I myself have concluded that this is the one of the things that most irritates me about openly Patriarchal systems (particularly the religious ones, because I have had too much experience there.) One nasty side effect of excluding women from leadership is that it feeds this whole “we have it ALL figured out, so shut up and stop challenging our dogma” attitude which in turn feeds the worship of the past, before women butted in.

The textual issues led into another really fun historical episode. Shakespeare roomed in London for a while with a wigmaker. An apprentice was convinced to marry the wigmaker’s daughter, purportedly in exchange for a generous financial settlement. Shakespeare was apparently the negotiator, and there are hints of a deeper scandal. So anyway, the payment isn’t made to satisfaction, the apprentice sues the wigmaker, and Shakespeare is deposed as a witness. We don’t get Shakespeare’s actual words, alas, just the summary from the clerk, which is in rather dry language like typical of proceedings of the time. (Read court opinions from this era to get the flavor.) However, even in the dry legalese, it appears Shakespeare was a master of ambiguity even in testimony, refusing to be nailed down to any specifics on the discussion. It seems possible he may have over promised both sides. It is a fun tale, and Rosenbaum writes well about it.

Throughout the book, a theme that emerges is Rosenbaum’s personal war against the Historicist approach to Shakespeare. Not having sat through advanced literature courses in my younger years, I wasn’t that familiar with literary theory and the historicist/deconstructionist school of thought until later. The best thing I ever read on it, actually, was David Foster Wallace’s essay on that topic. At that time, Wallace expanded my view of literary interpretation (and his fairly neutral discussion really resonated with how we go wrong in biblical interpretation.) Rosenbaum isn’t a fan of deconstructionist approaches, even as he acknowledges the role that theory has in understanding the greater sweep of literature. Rosenbaum’s point is more that even if some of Shakespeare’s themes and concerns arose from the time in which he lived, Shakespeare himself, and the transcendence of his art were not inevitable results of impersonal forces. Perhaps one could see in this as well the greater argument about whether free will exists.

The section in which this occurs most strikingly is in a digression on Stephen Greenblatt’s defense of a pre-historicist approach - one that acknowledges the role of free will. I particularly liked this line:

Greenblatt’s calm defense, back then, of the validity of personal reflection, of the possibility of an autonomous, intellectual free will seeking truth (rather than the notion that one’s thoughts, one’s will, one’s truth were historically, culturally, racially “determined” - “authored” by the culture), had an impact on me back then as it does now in assessing the claims of much of lit crit theory...

This rings true for me, as I wrestle with the cultural conditioning that I endured (suffered in many cases) that I have had to do the hard work of evaluating and in many cases rejecting in favor of truth as I discover it.

One of these truths, that Rosenbaum asserts Shakespeare’s art rests on, is ambiguity. Of uncertainty. Of problems that defy resolution. Even the two endings of Lear (and that is a fascinating  topic) cannot be truly resolved. Even once you decide which words are the “right” ones, the meaning remains elusive. Or perhaps better put, the mean(ings) are in tension. Rosenbaum ends this discussion with a great line from Simon Blackburn, the British philosopher:

“The process of understanding the problem is itself a good thing.”

Perhaps this is what is so often missing in our religious and philosophical discussions (and is all but absent in Evangelical thought): the recognition that there are problems in the first place, that not all questions have clear yes/no answers. The problems we have interpreting Shakespeare - who lived a mere 400ish years ago, and spoke largely the same language as we do - are pretty minor by comparison to the problems in interpretation of a certain far more ancient work.

Rosenbaum asserts - and I tend to agree - that it is Shakespeare’s command of the language in the service of nuance and ambiguity that makes him such an enduring artist. That sense of both/and rather than a clear either/or means that the depth of thought and interpretation is - or at least feels - “bottomless,” to use a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Rosenbaum makes much of this line, which is both a cute pun spoken inadvertently by Bottom, and likely a reference to the way the Bishop’s Bible translated a passage in I Corinthians. (The version Shakespeare would have read referred to “the bottom of God’s secrets.”)

In addition to the summarized testimony, there is one more potential glimpse of the “original” Shakespeare. In the collaborative play, Sir Thomas More, there are handwritten passages which seem rather “Shakespearean.” In particular, there is an absolutely fantastic scene in which More confronts those seeking to evict immigrants. I quoted it extensively in my post responding to Le Toupee’s “Shithole countries” comment. The scene wasn’t fiction entirely, however. It was based on the race riots of 1517. In what sounds all too familiar in our own times. A bunch of nativist tradesmen and workers rioted against foreign (largely Italian…) immigrants allegedly undercutting the natives. Rosenbaum points out that this was probably one of the first recorded anti-globalist riots too. While other parts of the play (which is as uneven as you might expect with several authors) are sympathetic to the nativists, Shakespeare writes a thoroughly convincing plea for both the immigrants and the rule of law and social justice. It’s really amazing. And it is several elements in the text that lead to the likelihood that Shakespeare wrote it.

Regarding this passage, Rosenbaum also nails an interesting point about Shakespeare’s relationship to authority. Shakespeare deeply distrusted mobs, but he was no authoritarian, and to the extent he tended to support existing authority, he didn’t do so out of a belief in the divine right of kings. Rather, well, let me quote Rosenbaum here:

Not one that derives from Divine Right, but a different attitude toward authority found in canonical Shakespeare. One that doesn’t favor order for order’s sake, for tradition’s sake, for the sake of preserving the privileges of the privileged class. That’s all ruff. It’s rather an attitude that favors authority because it is often the only thing that protects the weak from the strong, restrains the unleashed tyranny of appetite, of self-devouring human nature - restrains the rough beast within human nature.

That’s just fantastic. In fact, it is why I tend towards a conservative approach to politics most of the time. The problem for me is that the “conservative” side of American politics right now is on the side of the powerful and privileged class, while leveraging the hatred of the mob toward brown people, “foreigners,” while the powerful plunder our country. That’s not “conservative” in any real sense. It’s radical hatred and utopian Social Darwinism leveraged by those who do indeed “shark” on all, to use Shakespeare’s (likely) memorable phrase. The whole discussion of this play and the controversy over how much Shakespeare himself wrote is fascinating.

All these questions of authorship lead to a deeper one: what exactly does make something “Shakespearean” anyway? That isn’t an easy question to answer. Maybe like Justice Potter Stewart in his famous quote on obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” What is clear is that even when Shakespeare is paraphrasing pretty directly an earlier source, he makes it transcend. Rosenbaum cites a particularly illuminating example from Antony and Cleopatra, which crips extensively from Plutarch.

But what a difference, where Plutarch gives a fairly leaden (if detail laden) description, Shakespeare’s language soars, and puts us in the glorious moment, rather than in the orchestra pit counting the instruments.

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
...At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ th’ marketplace, did sit alone,
Whistling to th’ air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.

I have yet to see this play in person (yeah, bucket list moment: see every Shakespeare play live…) but goodness, the language and the picture. It’s simply amazing - and “Shakespearean,” even if it is tough to explain exactly why.

 Just a couple more observations.

First is about Shakespeare’s sexuality. Much hay has been made about it, despite a rather paucity of evidence. Much of this comes from the Sonnets, which were cryptically dedicated to “Mr. W.H.,” and are, like, well, most love songs or poems, not exactly gendered. That’s kind of the point. Love is love, and isn’t all that different of an experience for men and women. Case in point: I absolutely adore Sonnets From the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I feel like they express love in an amazing way - she could be speaking my own thoughts, but so much better than I could. She. A woman. And yet, I find the experience is universal. Likewise with Shakespeare’s Sonnets. They are timeless, and universal, and often profound. The speaker doesn’t really matter, nor does the intended recipient (if any.) For some artists, sexuality is relevant, and sometimes that is part of the art. But not necessarily in the Sonnets. Anyway, Stephen Booth has one of the best quotes of all time about Shakespeare’s sexuality:

“William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The Sonnets provide no evidence on that matter.”

Exactly. On a related note, I need to go back and read all the Sonnets in order one of these days.

One final thought: Rosenbaum discusses Booth at length, in a very interesting chapter. One of his conclusions from what Booth has said over the years is that there is a whole deeper level of understanding to be gained from performing Shakespeare. He analogizes it to a violinist playing Mozart. Even the most skilled listener cannot quite match that experience. There is the experience a skilled music reader can have simply looking at the notes on the score (many musicians can hear in their heads what they see), there is the experience of hearing music in real time. But nothing is quite like playing it. I can concur from my experience as a musician. It is particularly great when you get to play multiple parts. I feel like I have a particularly rich experience of Handel’s Messiah because I have, over the years, played first violin, second violin, and viola. Three of the four string parts (basses mostly double the celli) - at that point, you can see the guts of the harmonies, so to speak.

I suspect Rosenbaum is correct about this. Just as the experience of reading a poem aloud - particularly for an audience - makes it come alive in a way that silently reading doesn’t. Although I am not an actor, I can see that being in the center of a Shakespeare play must be an immersive experience, and internalizing those glorious lines must be transcendent.

In general, this book was a great read. I have always felt that Rosenbaum’s writing was compelling, and that his analysis of many things made sense, even when I disagreed with the conclusion. As I said at the outset, they are always “defensible,” and based on evidence and logic. As with the origins of the universe, I have appreciated that he declines to make claims beyond what he can support, and thus avoids a lot of the excesses of the most partisan writers. On the origins of the universe, I find his admission of uncertainty to be more convincing than, for example, Richard Dawkins’ refusal to allow for doubt or ambiguity. Likewise, Rosenbaum isn’t as bombastic or dogmatic as Harold Bloom - whose book on Shakespeare I enjoy as a reference, even as I agree with Rosenbaum that he overreaches quite a bit in places. The Shakespeare Wars is, in my opinion, a book that any true fan of Shakespeare should read. It is fascinating in its exploration of history, of theories, and of the glory that makes Shakespeare’s art part of the pantheon of literature.


Rosenbaum’s other major book, Explaining Hitler, looks like a great read. He mentions it in a few places in this book, in the context of whether Hitler and Shakespeare were outliers. In other words, was Shakespeare merely the best on a regular continuum, or was he something else entirely. And likewise, was Hitler merely another evil despot, or was there something “transcendently” evil about him. An interesting thought, to say the least, and Rosenbaum doesn’t answer it in this book. Probably, he leaves the answer, well, ambiguous. Maybe they were both/and, not one or the other. I think I need to put that book on my list.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Music, Sound, and Sensation by Fritz Winckel

Source of book: I own this.

I am a fan of Dover Publications. Over the years, they have been a source of imaginative coloring books for the kids, an affordable source of more obscure classics, and some interesting titles on a variety of brainy subjects. This book is an example of the last category. I bought it on a whim - probably it was on sale - a few years ago.

Music, Sound, and Sensation was originally published in German in 1960. In 1967, Thomas Binkley translated it into English, and that is the version I read. The book shows some signs both of being translated from a language from which there are not always direct parallels, and also of being translated by someone who knew more than average about the topic. This means the occasional digression (in footnotes) on the original word used, and a lot of big technical words. I found I drew on both my knowledge of acoustical physics (I don’t have the math background, but I know the basics of how stuff works) and my practical experience as a musician over the last 34 years.

The book is primarily about psycho-acoustics. That is, it is about how humans experience and perceive musical sound. Winckel draws from the insights of physical acoustics and new (at the time) research into the way humans process the sounds we hear. As a result, there are some interesting discoveries in this book, some of which were surprising to me.

One of these was just how “impure” musical tones are. I don’t mean in the sense of overtones. I have been quite aware of those, and how far the get from consonance as you go up to the higher numbered partials. Rather, in this case, it is that the fundamental tone of any note isn’t so much a frequency as a bell curve of frequencies with the note we “think” we hear at the top. As the author put it, a musical tone really should be thought of as “colored noise.”

Also interesting in this regard is that the initial sound of a note, whether sung or played on a non-digital instrument, has a broader band of frequencies than it will have once it “settles in,” so to speak. This initial transient (what we would call an “attack”) is more noise than pitch, and yet we humans can determine the pitch before the noise clears.

Transients turn out to exceedingly important to music. Speech itself is a series of rapid transients which convey information. Likewise, the transients in music are full of information and are crucial to our enjoyment. One interesting experiment cited was one where various instrument tones were played, but without the initial transient attack. Even knowledgeable listeners had great difficulty telling instruments apart without the transients. Not just subtle differences either - it was hard to tell a violin from a cornet.

Speaking of transients, the fastest the average professional pianist can play is 12 notes per second. (More or less.) While I think violinists can beat that, for all musicians, that 1/12 second speed is pretty close to the human perception of notes. Faster, and we get a tremolo or glissando effect. In fact, human speech seems limited to 12 transients per second, or it becomes unintelligible.

[Weird side note: a decade or so ago, Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers caught and inbounds pass and shot it to win the game. The clock - which starts when the pass is caught - had 0.4 seconds left. Bitter Spurs fans were sure that it was impossible to catch and shoot in that little time. Musicians, however, knew that we could fit at least 5 notes in that space - string players, perhaps 10 or more.]

These are just a few of the phenomena discussed in the first few chapters. The book is pretty heavy on detail, so be prepared for stuff like how many milliseconds it takes for the ear to detect transients, tones, etc. (Layman’s answer: pretty darn fast. Scientific answer: in some circumstances, 10 ms. Which is slow in the scientific sense, actually…) And yes, there are graphs and stuff - I like that kind of stuff.

One thing that was both comforting and not so much was the fact that our ears cannot distinguish intonation nearly as well as we think. This is comforting in that we string players spend our entire lives trying to improve our intonation. So it is nice to realize we have a bit of a margin for error. Not so comforting in that the fact that we are out of tune more than we would prefer means that acoustically, we are actually really out of tune more than we think. Sigh.

Also interesting regarding the topic of intonation was the role of vibrato. Any string player can tell you that vibrato can make up for a certain amount of imperfection in intonation. What was more interesting is that the significant detuning that vibrato adds seems necessary for long notes in general. The ear (and/or brain) tends to perceive vibrato-less long notes as detuning, even if they are steady, and notes with no change can tend to disappear from the consciousness if held too long. So, the combination of changes in volume and pitch are actually necessary to make music sound “right” to the ear.

The book also spends a chapter on reverberation acoustics. This was quite fascinating. Any musician can give you a thousand stories of both great acoustics and terrible acoustics - and how we feel and sound like a million bucks with the right reverberations. (For what it is worth: here in Bakersfield, the Bakersfield Country Club is the place to have your wedding reception. Both main dining rooms are fantastic. Seven Oaks, on the other hand, is a dead pit acoustically, yet feels like a loud room when full of people. It’s always a challenge to play there.) The discussion includes research on when an echo ceases to sound like a separate sound and becomes a reverberation. (As long as it is softer than the original, the two can be further apart than you would think. Our brains are weird.) Also, the total decay, the slope of the decay, and other factors combine to make a room or hall sound subjectively “good” or “bad.” There is a lot of science to this, which is why there are fewer truly awful halls being built. (Many old buildings sound great - but history is littered with venues that failed to sound as good as predicted.) For what it is worth, I love the sound of Salisbury Cathedral, and hate the sound of St. Paul’s in London. Playing there would wreak havoc with my sense of intonation, and give me a headache in 5 minutes. I don’t know how the choir there does it.

One thing I did find irritating in this section was, well, let me set it up. There are many suboptimal acoustic spaces, and many of us have to play in them. (Don’t get me started on the cavern that is Rabobank Theater.) However, there are adjustments that can be made to mitigate defects. After discussing the optimal range of reverberatory effects, the author stated that “This result, however, does not exclude the capability of a skilled conductor to form a sound that will be very effective in halls not having optimal reverberation time.

While that statement is true, it is also the typical “conductor-centric” view of orchestral music that many of us find irritating. True, a good conductor can do a lot of good for an orchestra. But orchestral musicians do a lot of this sort of thing ourselves. We don’t really have to be told to play shorter staccatos in a hall with long echos. We don’t need to be told to lengthen our decay just a bit in a dead room. We already know how to do that, and do it all the time. A conductor can help with balance (and particularly with the musical interpretation), but trained professional musicians can use their ears and adjust.

There are also some fun facts about the games our ears play. If the ear hears the partials of a particular fundamental note, the brain fills in the fundamental. So certain notes played together can “add” other notes to the perception. One of my favorite examples is the way that some organ stops add essentially non-harmonic notes, which the brain perceives as adding color, not the dissonance one would expect. In orchestral writing, Ravel does the same thing in part of the Bolero. The winds are playing the tune a ninth apart, which seems like it should be gratingly dissonant and unpleasant. Instead, the flute and piccolo just seem to be a colorful organ stop - provided they play perfectly together.

It is this same way the brain processes overtones that allows string players to tune. If you have ever heard an orchestra tune, you know that we get an “A” and that is it. How do we get our other strings right? Well, we are tuned in 5ths (or in the case of the bass, in 4ths, which is the reciprocal of a 5th) and our brains - with a little practice, of course - can detect very slight problems with the overtones. They don’t overlap where they should, and our ears can tell. Not only that, we can tune out (so to speak) the other instruments around us to focus on our particular set of overtones. (Those transients at work again.)

This book was not the easiest to read - I had to bite off no more than 10 pages in an evening before I started to glaze over. However, it is fascinating to anyone who makes or loves music and science.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Source of book: I own this.

This book was selected by the local book club I am part of. Previous selections for the club (at least the ones I read) were:

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Annihilation is part of a science fiction trilogy, and is a quite short book - more of a novella. I am not quite sure why it was broken down into three books, although I suspect that each has its theme. It is irritating that one has to buy three books (and they aren’t cheaper than longer books) to get essentially one book length. Of course, I am fond of very long books, so I may be biased.

One of the things that frustrated all of us in the club was that very, very few questions were answered. There are so many hanging ends and unexplained things that it feels like the book ended rather than finished. I looked into it a bit more later, and found that most reviewers recommended reading all the books as a set rather than individually, and then the vision of the author became more clear.

The basic idea of this book is that there is this mysterious “Area X,” where some vague environmental catastrophe occurred in the past. Nature has re-taken where civilization has been, and the area is sealed off by a boundary. One after another, research teams have been sent to Area X, to...well...what exactly they are supposed to do isn’t really clear. Keep notes in journals. Explore. Something. And they have all ended in disaster. One in suicides, one in the team members killing each other. In others, the members return, but are somehow shells of who they were.

The narrator, known simply as the biologist, is the widow of a man who was on the previous expedition, and who died mysteriously of cancer soon after returning. She is a highly unreliable narrator, even telling us she is leaving stuff out, and yet all we know is what she tells us. It is a weird experience, contributing to the claustrophobic reading experience.

One of the things never explained are why The Biologist refers to a spiral tunnel as “The Tower.” She never does explain. Another is exactly what she sees at various points, where she makes an allusion before refusing to disclose the truth.

Also left unknown is the purpose of the expeditions. Each team is given nearly zero information, and nothing about the prior teams. So it is like inventing the wheel each time. The members of the teams don’t even know anything about the others other than their profession - and are not supposed to share their information or journals with each other. Supposedly, this is to eliminate bias, but, as The Biologist says, “But I knew from experience how hopeless this pursuit, this attempt to weed out bias, was. Nothing that lived and breathed was truly objective - even in a vacuum, even if all that possessed the brain was a self-immolating desire for the truth.”

I think this is one of the big clues about the theme of the trilogy - and one explanation of the book’s name. There is a desire for truth here, at least on the part of the Biologist - and that is presumably the point of the expeditions. But truth is never without bias as long as it is perceived by an individual. As the book goes on, a form of annihilation happens to various characters, and I am left to wonder if this is some of the point. The search for truth leads to self-immolation. That is, annihilation.

We also felt that the book was almost anti-personality. There is no real characterization. We know a bit about The Biologist from a few of the flashbacks we get from her. But really very little. The reduction to function that the teams undergo pervades the book as well, and the narrator feels like a means of exploring the world and the truth, but not a real person herself. It is only her unreliability that humanizes her, I suppose.  

I am interested in reading the rest of the books now, to figure out how this ends and what the heck is going on. This wasn’t my favorite book of the year, but it was an unusual read with an intriguing premise and style. I guess that was some of the point. Not the same old genre fiction, but something different. I was also reminded a bit of some Asimov short stories, with the depersonalization. Since the books are all pretty short, if I get to the end and want to throw the book, it won’t cost me much in reading time.

As usual, the book club discussion was a lot of the fun. So many different perspectives, and a wealth of possible links between moments in the book and influences from other books, movies, and video games. (Yes, this IS the 21st Century!) 


One note: This book (or Trilogy?) is being made into a movie. Some of our club members saw the trailer. The universal comment was “is this even the same book?” Or, as I paraphrased the usual movie attribution, “Based on a book - just not necessarily this book.”

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Immigration Part 3: The Chinese Exclusion Act and the Racist History of Immigration Restrictions

This post is part of my Immigration Series. Please read the introduction, particularly the disclaimer.


In the first part, I introduced the topic.
In the second part, I looked at the (lack of) regulation of Immigration from the founding of our country and the easy path to citizenship for white immigrants.


The year 1882 was a watershed year in US immigration policy. It was birthed in vicious racism, and would set the stage for an expressly racist immigration policy from that point forward. The assumptions and arguments contained in that law are still used today whenever we discuss immigration policy. Nothing really has changed other than exactly whichshithole countries” we are determined to prevent immigration from.

However, 1882 was by no means the beginning of racial animus or racist rhetoric regarding immigration. Rather, every generation of immigrants has tried to exclude the next, and recycled the same tired tropes and slanders about the next wave.

Just for a taste, read my post from last St. Patrick’s Day about the anti-Irish rhetoric of the 1800s, which mirrors the anti-Latino and anti-Muslim rhetoric of our present day.

Still, 1882 is the year that the first restrictions on Immigration rather than just Naturalization were enacted. The title of the act is perfectly descriptive:

The Chinese Exclusion Act

Students of history (particularly here in California) are undoubtedly aware of the role that Chinese immigrants played in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. They, more than any other group, did the grueling labor of building a route over the rugged and dangerous Sierra Nevada Mountains here in California. However, despite their amazing accomplishments (among which are the various Chinatowns in cities across California, and the concept of “Chinese Take Out,” which we Californians take for granted), they were hated, slandered, and discriminated against viciously here and elsewhere. (One interesting book that I highly recommend is Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain, which recounts the story of her family from their immigration to the present day. It is inspiring, heartbreaking, and wonderfully human. On a related note, I had the privilege of playing chamber music with a descendent of the Transcontinental builders a number of years back. Her ancestors came to the US before mine did, and yet it took nearly a century before they were granted equal civil rights to those my ancestors enjoyed from the get-go.)

So, the Chinese Exclusion Act was just that. A ban on immigration from China. It was the first of its kind, but it would certainly not be the last.

In fact, every immigration law since that time has had as its express goal to limit or exclude immigrants deemed to come from “inferior races.” The exact countries which are deemed “shithole countries” has changed a good bit over time, obviously. The Irish, Greeks, and Italians are now considered “white,” which they definitely were not in the 1920s, for example. We don’t panic about Catholics like we used to: now Muslims are the bogeymen. And, for reasons which are probably reasonably obvious, certain countries have always been welcome: Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Scandinavians. Except during the world wars, Germans too. Hmm, the so-called “Aryan” nations. Blond hair, blue eyes...must be a coincidence, right?

I’ll just run quickly through the next period of history here.

The Chinese Exclusion Act wasn’t repealed until 1943 - as a result of the fact that China was considered an ally in our war against Japan.

In 1907, the US negotiated a “gentleman’s agreement” with the isolationist Japan that no immigrant visas would be issued from that country. (In an interesting development, Hawaii, which was then a territory, was exempt, so hundreds of thousands of Japanese immigrated to Hawaii. As a result, Japanese food and culture is endemic to Hawaii - along with Chinese and Polynesian food and culture. It’s a beautiful thing!)

Beginning in 1882, Congress also barred the entry of known criminals and “lunatics,” a restriction that continues today. Not controversial, exactly, but a major change from the previous lack of regulation.

The 1917 Immigration Act

This was the next step in restriction. It is often known as the “Literacy Act,” because of its ban on illiterate (meaning in practice “poor”) immigrants, but is also known as the “Asiatic Barred Zone Act” because of its ban on Asian immigrants.

But there is more to the story. This act set the stage for much of what we debate about immigration today. And it also sheds light on the racism which undergirds the exclusionary position, even as its proponents try to claim otherwise.

Let’s examine a few things about it.

Rooted in racism.

The 1917 Immigration Act was the brainchild of the Immigration Restriction League, an organization founded by a couple lawyers and a climatologist (!) who had some specific beliefs about immigration.

First, they believed that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were genetically inferior to “Anglo-Saxons,” the term used before Hitler and others coined “Aryans.” Again, people from England, France, Germany, and Scandinavia - the blond haired, blue eyed “ubermensches” that were destined to rule the world.

But wait, there’s more!

The IRL also justified keeping non-Aryans out because of their “inferior culture” which threatened “the American way of life.” They claimed that immigrants (from Southern and Eastern Europe - and Asia) brought with them poverty, crime, and low wages. Does that sound at all familiar? (Tucker Carlson, anyone? Steve Bannon? Stephen Miller? Steve King? Donald Trump?)

The 1917 Immigration act took a couple decades to become a reality. Presidents Taft and Wilson vetoed it until 1917, when the combination of World War I and general “yellow menace” rhetoric combined to push public opinion in favor of restrictions.

It wasn’t just the racist rhetoric surrounding its passage that lingers today, however. Many of the provisions of our current laws reflect those in the 1917 act are now enshrined in some form or another in our current laws.


The most notable of these are the quotas. The 1917 act, for the first time, set a limit on immigration by country (or region.) In this specific case, the limit for immigration from “Aryan” countries was set quite high, with those from Southern and Eastern European countries set far lower. (And for Asian countries, pretty much not at all.)

The intent was expressly to encourage immigration from the “desirable” countries, and drastically lower it from the “undesirable” countries. Hmm, sounds so very much like Le Toupee’s recent question about why we even allow people to come here from “shithole countries” like those in Africa, Haiti, and El Salvador rather than from (Aryan) countries like Norway. It’s really the same thing, isn’t it?

Unsurprisingly, just as Norwegians today aren’t exactly flocking to the US, despite the restrictions and encouragements, immigration from the Aryan nations remained relatively low, while immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe blew past the restrictions by an order of magnitude.

Apparently, immigration is a force that cannot be stopped easily…

The big difference was that now much of that immigration was, for the first time, “ILLEGAL.

Still, however, at the time, enforcement was pretty spotty. A number of industries (tellingly, the agricultural industries in the Western US who depended on Mexican immigrants for labor) objected, leading to a bunch of exceptions carved out of the law. Mexicans in particular were officially excluded from the rules for many jobs, from mining to ag to railroads. And many more simply braved the prohibition and came here anyway, started families, and became part of the fabric of our nation despite the work of racist groups like the Immigration Restriction League, and later, the 2nd Ku Klux Klan, which made opposition to non-Aryan immigration a key component of their political platform.

Literacy/Poverty Tests

The 1917 act was also notable for having the first “literacy” test, designed and intended to keep impoverished, uneducated immigrants out of the country. This too haunts our discussion today, with the current administration openly calling for exclusion of all except for the most educated and wealthy of immigrants. It is the whole basis of a “merit” based policy. The intent now, as then, is to keep those who have the most to gain from immigration out. Completely. No more “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Now, just “winners” are welcome. Those who have already succeeded elsewhere. The oppressed masses, the poor and destitute...well… if they are going to die anyway, they had better do it quickly and reduce the surplus population.

I’ll for now gloss over a few horrific court cases which stripped certain non-whites of citizenship (including Native Americans and Asian Indians), plundering even more land from Native Americans, and generally appeasing White Nationalist groups driven by hatred and fear of non whites. It’s a sordid history, and if you have time, look it up…

I’ll also mention Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, where up to 2 million Mexican Americans - most of whom were American citizens - were forcibly deported to Mexico. You can read your children Esperanza Rising for a quick version, but it is worth reading in greater detail. Again, just like now, there was a strong push to ethnically cleanse the United States of non-whites. Another sordid episode in our history of racism.

There were a few good developments, however. In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion act was finally repealed - although quotas for Chinese immigrants remained shockingly low. In 1946, Asian Indians and Filipinos were finally allowed to immigrate again....well, at the low rate of 100 per year...

The next major act, the Immigration act of 1952 officially did away with racial prohibitions, but kept the national quotas in place. Again, most of the slots went to Aryan countries: England, Germany, and now (surprise!) Ireland. I guess the Irish finally got to be “white.” This act also added another modern feature: family-based immigration. (This idea, now ludicrously denigrated as “chain migration” simply gives preference to people who already have relatives here. There is nothing nefarious about it. People who have family here have support systems, and are thus less likely to need public assistance.)

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

This act serves as the basis of the laws we have now. While certain numbers have been tweaked, most of the backbone of the law remains in effect today. I’ll discuss current laws separately in another post, but I do want to mention some things that I believe are relevant.

Senator Ted Kennedy, who was at the time the chairman of the Immigration Subcommittee, said about the law, “[T[he bill will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs." You can see the same concerns here as both in the past (the 1917 Act) and current rhetoric. The fear of a change to the ethnic balance of the US. (Hey there, Steve King!) The euphemism rejecting the idea of letting the poor in. The “immigrants lower our wages” rhetoric. Nothing has changed. In particular, the racially charged nature of the debate remains exactly the same. The anti-immigration crowd now, as it has always been throughout the history of our nation, is concerned about keeping the “inferior races” out of the United States, and keeping us a White Nation™. Every time we have a debate about immigration, the same issues come up over and over, and they can be distilled down to the same old beliefs about the inherent inferiority of some races. And the same belief by each group of immigrants that the next group is somehow different, inferior, and should be kept out.

You can see some other interesting threads here as well. The 1965 act gave priority to “family reunification,” aka “chain migration.” That emphasis has remained in the law - and indeed in the rhetoric on both sides - up until recently, when the GOP swung from a moderately pro-immigration position to full-on white nationalism with the rise of Le Toupee.

Since that time, you can see some minor tweaks. Some provisions for refugees. Some increases in quotas. More detailed exceptions for skilled workers with an employer sponsor. Different vetting for potential terrorists. And so on. But the major provisions of the law remain.

Again, this is a quick tour, not a detailed look at the exact details. Since 1965, however, most of the changes have been relatively minor, and many have been kludges - patches to cover over defects without actually starting fresh and fixing the problems. That has kind of been the American way the last few decades, as consensus on policy has been near-impossible to find. 

I’ll talk more about the current state of the law in a future post.


Let me summarize a bit here, before we move on.

If you were not Chinese, you could immigrate AND become a citizen virtually without restriction prior to 1917. So if your ancestors were white and came here before 1917, there is no way they could have immigrated “illegally” if they tried.

So saying that “my ancestors came here legally” is totally meaningless. Of course they did! There was no other way to come here!

Likewise, if your ancestors were from an “Aryan” nation, chances are that they came here legally without much in the way of restrictions anyway. Except for Germans during WWII, you could get in if you were Western European - and can today. Even today, as a white person, it isn’t that hard to get here legally. However, if you are from Latin America or Asia, and don’t have serious money, well, you don’t really have a line to get in. Might as well forget it…or take your chances coming here “illegally” and hope for the best.

Let’s also be sure we don’t forget this:

From the beginning, immigration restrictions were openly and explicitly based on a belief in racial superiority and inferiority. The laws were enacted as the result of the efforts of openly racist, nativist lobby groups, and were intended to exclude people deemed to be “inferior” due to their race and/or nation of origin. To deny this fact is to fail to understand our problems today.


Just an interesting bit on the history:

Kevin Jennings is the president of the Tenement Museum in New York City. The museum currently has an exhibit entitled “Under One Roof,” the story of the refugees and immigrants that came to New York in the aftermath of World War Two. In addition to the LA Times article I linked in the last installment, he recently did an interview on NPR about immigration. One of the things that really stuck with me from that interview is that he has had people walk out of his presentations at the museum and accused him of political propaganda simply for telling the truth that immigration restrictions of the past were motivated by racism. Really. In this age of “alternative facts,” the truth is now “political propaganda.” Good god, we are screwed.

Even in the last few days, discussing immigration with people I know, I have been disappointed by the amount of resistance people have to acknowledging that the current adminstration gives every evidence of being motivated by racism. Or that currently issues like DACA or TPS have become real problems because the current administration seems hell bent on finding ways to evict brown people from the US. Denial runs deep. Really deep.

Immigration Part 2: Immigration and Naturalization Before 1882

This post is part of my Immigration Series. Please read the introduction, particularly the disclaimer.


One of the greatest challenges in discussing immigration with many people, particularly those on the Right determined to restrict immigration as much as possible (at least from certain countries) is that they are often grossly ignorant of history. The most common - and laughable - claim is this:

My ancestors immigrated legally, and so should everyone else.

For the vast majority of people saying this, the statement is utterly meaningless. It’s kind of like saying “I was born.” Of course you were. And of course the ancestors of most white people in the United States came here “legally.” Because for most of them, there was no such thing as “illegal” immigration

Let’s look at this chronologically. I am only looking at the period of time beginning with the ratification of the United States Constitution, which is the founding document of our nation. Before that, immigration was a haphazard, largely unregulated affair. There was no United States to be a citizen of, so that part was kind of irrelevant.

I also am going to address two separate but related issues: Immigration and Naturalization. Immigration is coming here - and “legal” immigration means the ability to come here and work and live without fear of deportation. Naturalization is the process of becoming a citizen, and includes the right to vote (if you were male) and otherwise participate in the political process.

To the extent possible, I have cited to primary sources as recorded by reputable government or academic sources. All of these are publicly available.

A. The US Constitution

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4 of the Constitution grants Congress the power “To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization.” This has been subsequently interpreted to give Congress the power to regulate immigration on a uniform, national basis.

B. Immigration laws before 1882 [crickets…]

Not many people are aware (in my experience), that until 1882, there were NO restrictions on immigration itself. No federal laws governing immigration, for that matter.

All you had to do to legally immigrate the the United States prior to 1882 is step off the boat, or walk here from Canada or Mexico. That’s it. Get your butt here somehow, and you could work, live, and raise a family without fear of deportation. If you were here, you were here. You had immigrated. Congratulations.

Now, in practice, there were some, um, differences, depending on who you were. If you were, say, African American, if you got off a boat to here prior to 1865, you likely did so in chains as a slave. So, not so good. Yeah, that is an embarrassing part of our history, and one that the Roy Moores of the world would like you to remember differently.

But there were NO restrictions on immigration. None. So keep that in mind when you claim your family immigrated legally. Of course you did. You couldn’t have “illegally” immigrated if you tried!

C. Naturalization statutes

Ah, here is where the laws were. From nearly the beginning, Congress regulated the process of Naturalization - that is, becoming a citizen. How many of you can tell me how you did that?

Yep, this was enacted right after Congress met for the first time ever. The link above has the text, if you are interested. Guess what the requirements for becoming a US Citizen were?

One, live here for 2 years. (And remember, you could come here without restriction…)
Two, prove you were of good moral character. (Basically, no serious criminal issues - the same thing we lawyers have to prove to get our license. So you could become a citizen if you were no slimier than a lawyer…)
Three, promise to be loyal to the United States.

That’s it. Apply to a court, and get your citizenship papers - and your minor (under 21) children, born here or not, would become citizens too.

Well, five years later, Congress realized it had made a big mistake with the previous law. It wasn’t racist enough!

So, the new law had some changes:

First, you had to live here for five years first.
Second, you had file an oath that you intended to stay here three years before you applied.
Third, you had to renounce loyalty to other countries.
Fourth, you had to prove moral character.
Fifth, if you were a nobleman in another country, you had to renounce your hereditary title.
Sixth: You had to be white.

There were a few minor changes regarding children. If a citizen had a child while overseas, that child would be a citizen. (Both of my parents are citizens under the new version of this rule - they were both born overseas to US Citizens - missionary kids.)

Ah, this one is interesting. It was part of the highly controversial “Alien and Sedition Acts,” enacted during the John Adams administration to enable some pretty scary persecution against suspected foreign agents - and the French (this time - previously the Brits were the bogeymen...) in general. Although the acts never went to court (this was prior to Marbury v. Madison, which established the right of the US Supreme Court to rule laws unconstitutional), numerous court opinions since have (in dicta - language not pertinent to the case at hand) pretty clearly stated that they would be ruled unconstitutional had they been challenged. In fact, for lawyers, these acts are kind of the “ground zero” for clearly unconstitutional legislation - we studied them in law school.

Okay, so more changes. The residency time was extended to 14 years, and the notice time to 5 years. The “whites only” restriction continued. Immigrants were required to register when they got there, and, if from a disfavored “foreign power,” post a bond that they wouldn’t get into trouble.

And then, Thomas Jefferson was elected, and the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts were repealed. And replaced, in the case of Naturalization, with this one.

For the most part, things went back to how they were under the 1795 act. Five years residency, three years notice of intent to become a citizen, moral character, renounce titles, swear allegiance to the US. Clarification as to which court to apply to in territories. A few minor tweaks on children, but largely the same idea.

5. The Fourteenth Amendment

In the aftermath of the Civil War, three Amendments to the Constitution were ratified. The 13th abolished slavery. The 15th granted voting rights to all (male) persons.

The 14th made a major change and clarification to Naturalization law. Essentially, if you were born here, you were a citizen, even if you weren’t white.

Okay, so there was still a problem if you were Native American. They were excluded, despite being the most “American” of all of us…

The key thing here is that the 14th Amendment established “Birthright Citizenship.” If you are born here, you have the right to become a citizen. (Yes, limited diplomatic exceptions, but the courts have generally held that if your parents intend to come here, you are a citizen. Needless to say, this sticks in the craw of Nativists everywhere, who whine about “anchor babies” of the so-called “inferior” races.)

There are other interesting clauses in the amendment, which are beyond the subject of this post, although they are of great interest both to lawyers - and should be to you, as the 14th, more than any other amendment, affects all of us and our rights to due process, equal protection, and justice in this nation.

This act was enacted in the wake of the 14th Amendment, but also, sadly, served as a turning point in the discussion of Immigration and Naturalization. Well, sort of. Because it was “Whites Only” for quite a while on the Naturalization front.

Anyway, this act did indeed follow the spirit of the 14th Amendment in opening Naturalization to blacks not born in the United States (the 14th Amendment itself established birthright citizenship, so all the statute did was to codify that part.)

However, in an ominous development, the Act prevented Asians from becoming naturalized citizens. They could (for the time being) come here legally, but they couldn’t gain citizenship. Keep this in mind as we move to the next section, because it will set the stage for the next 148 years of immigration debate.


So, summary. For the first nearly 100 years of the United States’ existence, you could immigrate largely without restriction. And, at least if you were white, you could become a citizen simply by coming here (by boat, land, or teleportation... ), keeping your nose clean for 5 years, and renouncing loyalty to foreign powers and swearing loyalty to the US (something still part of the Naturalization process, BTW). That’s it. No English speaking requirements. No employer sponsorship. No waiting list.

So, if your white ancestors came to the United States before 1882, there was no way they could have immigrated illegally.

In general, you could immigrate to the United States simply by coming here. If you were WHITE, you could become a citizen after 5 years of good behavior.


In the next installment, I will look at the subsequent history of Immigration and Naturalization laws after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Immigration Part 1: Introduction

After a few arguments on Facebook (and in real life) over the issues of immigration in the United States, I have come to the realization that 1) most people, particularly on the Right, have great ignorance of both history and current immigration law, and 2) the right wing media machine (particularly white nationalists like Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon) are spreading a LOT of outright falsehoods, which have poisoned the debate.

I care about this both as a decent, compassionate human being, and as the descendant of immigrants, none of whom would be allowed to immigrate under current law.

This series of posts is intended to clarify these issues, and give some real information, not “alternative facts” about the issues. I suspect it will also serve to strip away a lot of the pretense and rhetoric which serves as a disguise for Nativism (aka Racism and Xenophobia) that drives this debate on the right.


First, a disclaimer:

I am an attorney, but I do NOT practice in, nor am I an expert on Immigration Law. These posts are NOT intended as legal advice, and should not be viewed as such. While the broad sweep of the law is fairly easily understood from publicly available laws, documents, and history; individual circumstances vary, and the law AS APPLIED to your situation may be very different from your understanding of what a statute means.

Therefore, if YOU have an immigration problem, I urge you to contact an attorney who practices in that specific area.


Throughout these posts, I intend to explain the history of immigration in the United States, and give a broad overview of the law as it currently is. Regarding our current laws, I hope to show how many - indeed most - of our current debates over immigration are directly due to the dysfunction of our immigration policy, which is based, as it has been for the past 130+ years, on the goal of excluding “inferior races” from the United States. Because the desire to seek a better life is innate to human nature, there is great pressure toward geographic movement of people, and the stronger this pressure grows, the stronger - and more violent and vicious and unjust the measures must be to successfully oppose it.

I will update the table of contents below as I add posts:

Part 7: My Family's Story

Potential future posts...

Part 8: How We Can Actually Fix Our Laws
Part 9: Lies and Falsehoods About Immigration
Part 10: Thinking Ethically About Immigration

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Yes, Women Should Be In Charge of their Bodies

Today, across our nation, women (and men too!) will be marching. A number of friends will be among them. Because of a longstanding commitment, my wife and I cannot both march. So, I will be home with the kids cleaning the house and cooking for company. I put my elbow grease where my mouth is.

I wanted to write a little bit, however, about a key issue that I have realized over the last couple of is no longer (if it ever was) a matter of common ground in our society:

Women should be in charge of their bodies.

As regular readers know, I spent my teens in a Patriarchist cult led by a sexual predator (as it turned out...big surprise). That school of thought definitely does NOT believe women are fully human, let alone that they own their own bodies. So I at least knew that the radical fringe didn’t agree. But I thought at least that mainstream Evangelicals and Conservatives could agree with this. [Sure, abortion is a difficult issue - I don’t like abortion personally, and have never tried to force one on anyone - but it is a symptom of deeper problems, and thus a difficult problem to solve. Just ask those countries where it is illegal...and yet occurs at higher rates than in countries where it is legal. See footnote...] It turns out, we do not really share those values. 

 Stuff I thought we agreed about. I guess not.
Thanks to a friend for getting me this bumper sticker for my trailer.

I’m a work in progress on this issue. I have not always behaved well when it comes to women. Probably most of us guys, even the decent ones, can look back and wince at what we have said about women, times we have acted entitled in our marriages, and times we have not lived up to these ideals in various ways. But many of us are working to become better men, become better humans, and make the world a better place for our wives, daughters, mothers, and women everywhere.

So, in light of that, and in honor of the women marching today, let me lay out my viewpoint on this.

1. Women have an absolute right to not be raped, assaulted, touched, groped, or harassed without their consent. Period.

This is body ownership 101. Unfortunately, in our society, this is not respected. The problem of predatory and violent male behavior is widespread, and isn’t limited to any one political viewpoint, race, religion, or social status. The #metoo movement has revealed that to be female is pretty much to experience regular violations of one’s body. This is horribly sad, and needs to change.

This stems from a particular belief, in case it wasn’t obvious. In order to treat women this way, you have to, at some level, believe that women, their bodies, their reproductive capacity, exist to gratify males.

In just about every possible way, The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named exemplifies this attitude better than anyone else I can think of. From his bragging about “grab[bing] them by the pussy,” to his repeated remarks that women are unattractive after childbirth, while menstruating, or after a certain age. Women are there to gratify him, and therefore he can use them and discard them when they no longer suit his preferences.

It isn’t just him, of course. The list is too long to contain on a single post. And, as I noted, it isn’t limited to any one group. It is a global problem.

But how we respond to it does differ. The response to those who refuse to respect women’s bodies should be appropriate to their offense. That means prosecution in many cases. In others, firing or workplace discipline. In others, education. It certainly should never include voting them into office. (WTF, Evangelicalism? After all those years condemning Clinton?)

This includes marriage too. A marriage license is not ownership of a woman. A husband is not entitled to touch his wife without permission any more than he was before he married her. (Sadly, this was not the law until recently - my lifetime.)

Anyway, this is the most basic, elementary level. And I want to be on the record supporting the right to be free from bodily violation. Period.

2. Reproductive care is basic healthcare. Period.

I cannot believe we are actually arguing about this in 2018. What the hell is wrong with people? Reproduction is a function of our bodies, and necessary for our existence. What? You weren’t born? If you were, you received reproductive care at some point. Is it that hard to understand?

By reproductive care, here is what I mean:

Contraception. Prenatal care. Maternity care. Scientifically accurate sex education.

I am astounded that we are still debating this in 2018.

It wasn’t that long ago that women died from excessive pregnancy, really. Take John Donne’s beloved wife: the first 13 children were okay. The 14th killed her - in her 30s. There is no good reason for this to happen in the 21st Century.

Let me address each of these in turn. I believe contraception is basic health care, and it needs to be mandated for all health plans. Period. If you have a problem with that, perhaps it is time for single payer, so you can avoid involvement. I believe that whether a woman (or a man for that matter) uses contraception is not an employer’s business EVER. And that means that they don’t get to decide whether it is covered or make an employee jump through hoops to get it. None of their damn business. If you provide health insurance, then you include all basic fundamental medical care. You don’t get to lecture your employees about their sex life. You don’t get to impose your theological beliefs on them - and that includes your beliefs about when ensoulment occurs. You don’t get to impose your “alternative facts” about science on them either. (No, female-controlled birth control doesn’t cause abortions.) It just isn’t your business. If you aren’t willing to admit that, at least vote for single payer so that it is out of your hands.

One of the most shocking things about the recent GOP health proposal was that it expressly intended to remove prenatal and maternity care from the definition of basic, fundamental health care. It isn’t hard to predict what would happen: only those actively planning children would pay for maternity coverage...if they could afford it. And then, those rates would skyrocket, right? So in essence childbearing would be for those who could pay up front. I’m sure that would work out. Particularly in a country where one half of pregnancies are unplanned. So in reality, that would mean most people would probably end up going without maternity care, and our already high infant mortality rates would skyrocket. And why? So that the “wrong” people wouldn’t have babies, I guess.

Ironically, the same people eager to terminate materity benefits tend to be the same people pearl clutching over falling birth rates. It’s as if they never took Economics 101: make something too expensive, and people won’t do it as often as they did when it was affordable...

In reality, ALL of us are born. And in order for us to have a good shot at life, we need a good start. Preferably, good prenatal and maternity care, parents that aren’t dead, and enough food, health care, and education to enable us to be full participants in society as adults. So why IS this so controversial.

One reason (but not the only one) is that too many don’t consider women’s reproductive systems to belong to them. Instead, they belong to wealthy men, and a woman who dares have sex without first being owned married to a man with enough money needs to be punished, along with her children.

My viewpoint is that women own their reproductive organs every bit as much as we men own ours. And since reproduction is a much more involved process for them, they get to control a lot more of it. I have the right to use birth control of whatever sort I wish - and so do they. I have no right to have a child - that’s something I negotiate with my partner.

Let me touch on the last one too: scientifically accurate sex ed. I am grateful to my parents that I received such education from an early age. (I demanded graphic detail at age 5 - my poor mom.) I never felt like I couldn’t talk with them about it, which is why, despite being homeschooled, I had a pretty darn good understanding of contraception, STDs, and the realities of sex by the time I turned 18. Not all kids have that experience, to say the least.

I believe women have two rights here. First is accurate information about their own bodies. And that needs to include information about their pleasure too, not just the man’s. Second is that women have a right to live in a society where men are educated properly. About consent, about mutual pleasure, and about the fundamental equality of women. The world would be a much better place if this actually happened.

3. Women are as fully human as men, and are thus entitled to political, social, and economic equality.

Yes, this goes to women owning their bodies. The work their bodies do should be traded for an equal amount of pay as that men receive. This should not be debatable. Likewise, women should not be pressured to take on uncompensated work, such as housework and child care, in greater amounts than men. And it certainly should not be required of them. If any couple choose to negotiate unequal arrangements, fine, but it shouldn’t be assumed.

BTW, that is the definition of Feminism above. I didn’t realize I was a feminist until my late 20s, when I realized that I did believe in the political, social, and economic equality of women - and that people objected to Feminism precisely because they objected to equality.

4. Men are not entitled to rule over women.

Not in the home. Not in marriage. Not in society. Not in church. Period.

There is nothing about having a penis that makes one better or more suited to make one’s own decisions than someone who doesn’t. One of the greatest problems in our (still) patriarchal society is that men feel entitled to make decisions without sharing equal power with women. Witness, just as one example, the fact that the Congressional committee on health care was composed exclusively of white males. Because, clearly, they know better than women...particularly about what health care women should receive.

I have stated before that I have an egalitarian marriage. My parents have what appears to me to be a functionally egalitarian marriage, whatever they may claim to believe about female submission. Decisions are made mutually, and nobody has a trump card.

Until this understanding of equal, shared power becomes the norm, men will continue to control women’s bodies.


So there you have it.

I believe women should be in charge of their own bodies.

I am not ashamed to say it, even though I understand it puts me at odds with a number of friends and relatives these days. And even though it cost me my connection with my religious tradition last year.

And, I am committed to fighting the forces that are opposed to that idea.


Just a footnote here: If we actually put these ideas into action on a nationwide scale, there is strong evidence that the abortion rate would go down significantly. Actually, it already has in the last few decades. That change has been part of a greater trend of much lower rates of teen pregnancy, and is directly attributable to three factors: 1. Accurate sex education. 2. Availability of contraception, and 3. Education on consent. Hmm, turns out bad male behavior is a significant factor in teen pregnancy. Who knew?

Anyway, the evidence indicates that abortion rates are lowest in countries that actually address the underlying causes of which abortion is a symptom. First, education and contraception so that women (and men too!) are able to avoid unplanned pregnancy, particularly during the crucial teen years, when pregnancy has the most negative consequences for the parents and society. Second, policies that keep pregnancy from being a financial catastrophe. Things like universal health care - pregnancy is expensive, parental leave without fear of losing one’s job, wages that allow for addition of a child without starvation for the ones you already have, and so on. The main reason my wife and I were able to have five kids without hardship is that we had the resources - including maternity leave for my wife - to make it work. In other words, we had the economic privilege to do so.

Of course, taking these actions means giving up the fun of morally lecturing the poor (and particularly the brown-skinned poor) for having the nerve to want kids and sex and intimacy. Which is what I have come to believe is what the Abortion Wars™ are really about.