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4 July 2006

Eric Rofes

I’ve been holding back a bit on this, because it was a week of various deaths out there. The mother of a friend of BF died last week. And an acquaintance of mine from San Francisco, Eric Rofes, died in Provincetown last week.

I knew Eric through a fairly unusual group, especially for me. He was the organizer and primus inter pares of SexPols, a discussion group on sexual politics in San Francisco. We were a disparate lot, comprised of authors, academics, activists, journalists, teachers, and administrators of various sorts and political persuasions. No topics were verboten, no puzzles too knotty, all thoughts were welcomed, but no holds were barred.

I spent lots of time disagreeing in the group: I was one of the younger members, I was the only professed Christian (and religious person, I think), I am not necessarily a fan of Judith Butler (although, not everyone was), and I’m just contrary, liking a good argument. SexPols was great because it was a place in which my natural tendency to learn through contention was one of the natural ways of going about our business. And no one seemed to go away angry. Eric’s natural joviality and easy-going manner showed us the simultaneously silly and serious natures of all that we talked about.

The topics didn’t matter as much as the creation of kinship, and the finding of people who shared the love of ideas for their own sake, who loved discussion and contention as a means of learning and growing.

And the potluck each month at our meeting was delicious, too….

I’ve missed that here in Boston. I haven’t seemed to plug into that part of the queer community here — where smart people interested in serious and even “forbidden” ideas sit around and tried to teach and learn from each other, without it feeling like a classroom.

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Posted in Politicks on 4 July 2006 at 9:02 am by Nate
22 June 2006

World cup advantages

David Brooks argues that our losing record at soccer/football actually shows how our social system beats out that of other countries. (Unfortunately, TimesSelect membership is required to read the whole article, but I’ll e-mail it to you if you ask nicely.)

Going into today’s World Cup match against Ghana, no American player has managed to put a ball into the back of the net, but the U.S. team does lead the world in one vital category: college degrees.

Most of the American players attended college. Eddie Pope went to the University of North Carolina, Kasey Keller attended the University of Portland and Marcus Hahnemann went to Seattle Pacific.

Many of the elite players from the rest of the world, on the other hand, were pulled from regular schools at early ages and sent to professional training academies. Among those sharp-elbowed, hypercompetitive Europeans, for example, Zinedine Zidane was playing for A.S. Cannes by age 16, Luis Figo was playing for Sporting Lisbon at 17, and David Beckham attended Tottenham Hotspur’s academy and signed with Manchester United as a trainee at 16.

David then goes on to argue that this demonstrates a broader understanding and use of the American higher education system in advancing our economy, culture, arts, and sports.

The upshot is that the competitive American universities not only became the best in the world — 8 out of the top 10 universities are American — they also remained ambitious and dynamic. They are much more responsive to community needs.

Not only have they created ambitious sports programs to build character among students and a sense of solidarity across the community, they also offer a range of extracurricular activities and student counseling services unmatched anywhere else. While the arts and letters faculties are sometimes politically cloistered, the rest of the university programs are integrated into society, performing an array of social functions.

They serve as business incubation centers (go to Palo Alto). With their cultural and arts programs, they serve as retiree magnets (go to Charlottesville). With their football teams, they bind communities and break down social distinctions (people in Alabama are fiercely loyal to the Crimson Tide, even though most have not actually attended the university).

State-dominated European universities, by contrast, cast much smaller shadows. A Centre for European Reform report noted “a drab uniformity” across the systems. Talented professors leave. Funding lags. Antibusiness snobbery limits entrepreneurial activity. Research suffers. In the first half of the 20th century, 73 percent of Nobel laureates were based in Europe. Between 1995 and 2004, 19 percent were.

Oh, good Lord. There’s two major problems here. Let’s deal with each in turn.

First, sports in universities do almost entirely the opposite of breaking down social distinctions.

Sociologist and historian Jerome Karabel recently published a massive book detailing how Harvard, Yale, and Princeton devised their admissions processes to weed out undesireable types of students. In the early twentieth century, noting that too many Jews were getting into the big three schools, they started to administer admissions tests (of which the SAT was one); to create offices of admission; to nurture and favor applicants

from the private schools like Andover, Exeter, St. Paul’s and so forth; and to emphasize demonstrators of “character,” such as participation in intervarsity sports. All these were areas of endeavor that initially kept the number of Jews (and later blacks, Asians, and so forth) low. (The exception was the standardized tests, which actually gave some of these groups a leg-up over the old boys in admissions.)

Sports were especially important, because they provided a particularly good arena in which to demonstrate and observe “character.” A man (because we’re initially only dealing with men here) who wasn’t the brightest star intellectually could still show himself to be the right sort of person by acting with good sportsmanship and such. By this, the universities were kept WASPier than they otherwise would have been. And, by the institution of the legacy system where the children of alumni get priority in admissions, the children of athletes can still get priority.

Karabel notes that the Big Three are important because the system they created largely became the system that all of American higher education came to use.

David Brooks argues that the sports programs build character. Karabel demonstrates that sports were used to “assess character.” So which is it? (My aim here is not to argue the positive or negative of sports programs in higher ed, just to question what their purpose is.) Karabel has evidence, Brooks does not. And if we could look at contemporaneous evidence, it seems that those college sports programs that unite anyone besides the alumni are also most proficient in teaching us about scandal than about character.

In such as system as David Brooks advocates, he would have been kept out. Brooks is, after all, Jewish, the very sort of person that college athletics and American higher ed endeavored to keep ghettoized for many years. (Brooks, however, attended the University of Chicago, an institution that has always prized intellectualism over pretty much everything. It’s not known as the MIT of the humanities for nothing.)

All right, second problem with Brooks’s argument. He only addresses the “best” universities. (And he only used one ranking — it’d be interesting to see him actually compile the various rankings out there for world universities. The US would still come out on top, I think, but not so definitively, and there’d be some surprises in the American rankings.) What are the best universities?

Traditional rankings, like the ones Brooks uses, measure money and reputation. An alternative ranking measures American universities as engines of social mobility, production of research, and inculcation of a service ethic. Ask not what your university can do for you but what your university can do for your country. Then, the vaunted competitive university system seems to do less well.

Only three schools in the 2006 U.S. News top 10 are among our highest-ranked: MIT, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, while the private colleges of the Ivy League dominate most rankings of the nation’s best colleges, they didn’t dominate oursonly Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania made our top 10, and Princeton (tied with Harvard for the top slot on U.S. News’s list) was all the way down at #44, a few slots behind South Carolina State University.

Did you know, for example, that UC Davis comes in about the same as Harvard in terms of what each gives to society? Here’s the list:


Strikingly, that moribund and state-dominated sector does much better than Brooks would have you believe.

I’m all for having more educated soccer players than other countries. Let’s just not draw fallacious and undeserved conclusions about our social system from that fact.

Posted in Politicks on 22 June 2006 at 11:38 am by Nate
14 June 2006

GK rails the GOP

Or, at least, some parts of it:

Running against Nancy Pelosi, a woman who comes from a district where there are known gay persons, is a nice trick, but it does draw attention to the large shambling galoot who is speaker now, Tom DeLay’s enabler for years, a man who, judging by his public mutterances, is about as smart as most high school wrestling coaches. For the past year, Dennis Hastert has been two heartbeats from the presidency. He is a man who seems content just to have a car and driver and three square meals a day. He has no apparent vision beyond the urge to hang onto power. He has succeeded in turning Congress into a branch of the executive branch. If Mr. Hastert becomes the poster boy for the Republican Party, this does not speak well for them as the Party of Ideas.

People who want to take a swing at San Francisco should think twice. Yes, the Irish coffee at Fisherman’s Wharf is overpriced, and the bus tour of Haight-Ashbury is disappointing (where are the hippies?), but the Bay Area is the cradle of the computer and software industry, which continues to create jobs for our children. The iPod was not developed by Baptists in Waco, Texas. There may be a reason for this. Creative people thrive in a climate of openness and tolerance, since some great ideas start out sounding ridiculous. Creativity is a key to economic progress. Authoritarianism is stifling. I don’t believe that Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard were gay, but what’s important is: In San Francisco, it doesn’t matter so much. When the cultural Sturmbannfuhrers try to marshal everyone into straight lines, it has consequences for the economic future of this country.

It is altogether gentlemanly of the Republican mainstream to remind the country that our greatest threat right now is the dissolution of the family. That’s certainly more worrisome than Islamofascist jihadists, a dwindling energy supply, a burgeoning trade deficit, the nuclearization of the Middle East, or the growing and evident inequality of wealth in our economy. Gays trying to have less sex is what will bring the downfall of the Republic, so it’s good that our national priorities are on keeping them in line.

Posted in Politicks on 14 June 2006 at 9:07 am by Nate
30 May 2006

Save the Internet

You may or may not know about the push by telecommunications companies to require payment for better service (faster transmission and such) on the Web. To put it simply, AT&T and its ilk want more money for “more” service. “More” means that they’ll give preferential treatment to those who give them more money, while those who don’t pay up will be demoted.

Here’s some of what’s at stake:

That open architecture is what has allowed for the extraordinary growth of Internet commerce and communication. Pierre Omidyar, a small-time programmer working out of his home office, was able to set up an online auction site that anyone in the world could reach — which became eBay. The blogging phenomenon is possible because individuals can create Web sites with the World Wide Web prefix, www, that can be seen by anyone with Internet access.

Last year, the chief executive of what is now AT&T sent shock waves through cyberspace when he asked why Web sites should be able to “use my pipes free.” Internet service providers would like to be able to charge Web sites for access to their customers. Web sites that could not pay the new fees would be accessible at a slower speed, or perhaps not be accessible at all.

A tiered Internet poses a threat at many levels. Service providers could, for example, shut out Web sites whose politics they dislike. Even if they did not discriminate on the basis of content, access fees would automatically marginalize smaller, poorer Web sites.

Cruise on over to Save the Internet, to sign the petition and send an e-mail to your representatives. Here’s mine:

As a researcher and political scientist,I rely upon the resources of the Internet and the World Wide Web to complete my work on the international politics of HIV. Should the Internet become less democratic, reliant upon payment for preferential information provision, my work and that of every researcher dedicated to improving the public good will be severely impacted. The Web works like science does–all information is assessed only on the basis of its quality and reliability, not on its ability to pay.

Along with Google, Microsoft, the Christian Coalition, and, I urge you to vote for the Sensenbrenner-Conyers internet neutrality bill.

The bill, BTW, is HR 5417.

Posted in Politicks on 30 May 2006 at 9:27 am by Nate

I don’t enjoy being right sometimes

As I noted, in our society, some of us are more equal than others of us.

Today’s news:

In advance of his speech and a wreath-laying at America’s most hallowed burial ground for military heroes, Bush signed the “Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act.” This was largely in response to the activities of a Kansas church group that has staged protests at military funerals around the country, claiming the deaths symbolized God’s anger at U.S. tolerance of homosexuals.

The new law bars protests within 300 feet of the entrance of a national cemetery and within 150 feet of a road into the cemetery. This restriction applies an hour before until an hour after a funeral. Those violating the act would face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

Now, let’s leave aside the obvious abridgment of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. (Loathsome and hateful as I find Fred Phelps and his group, I can’t quite be convinced to limit their right of “expression.” Once Fred can’t speak against us fags, we won’t be allowed to speak up for ourselves when the time comes.) This administration has proven all too willing to leave the Constitution aside when it suits the admin’s needs.

But where was your outrage and need to involve the state when it was just us fags getting slammed? Or when it was religious conventions getting tarred with “Fag priests” and “dyke nuns”? But now that it is our fallen heroes getting tarred, we act.

Forget that this is unfair, unjust, and passively hateful. Question why it occurred when the Phelps controversy touched our military people. We’re obsessed with keeping our military “fag-free.” We discharge vital personnel (such as Arabic translators) in the war on terror because of whom they love. (We have spent more than $364 million dollars getting rid of just under 10,000 military personnel in the last ten years. That’s the cost of more 11 F-16 fighters.) And the thought that Americans might claim that military servicemembers died because America is a “fag nation” proves just too much. Somehow, it is so much that we must repress the hatemongers.

In essence, this latest action says that the military is too afraid of sex and too weak to protect itself and its people from extremist fringe groups. At the very least, the action says that the military is weaker than a bunch of sissy gays and religious people, who could apparently protect themselves.

I’m sorry to see that nothing is off-limits in our political atmosphere.

Posted in Politicks on 30 May 2006 at 9:24 am by Nate
26 May 2006

Let’s dissuade divorcees

Harry over at Crooked Timber outlines his thinking on divorce and gay marriage. Not original, but certainly worth revisiting.

The dominant public reason is that gay marriage will harm the institution of marriage. Suppose this is your reason for opposing gay marriage. You could still avoid the charge of hypocrisy by believing that divorce does not harm the institution of marriage, and hence that one’s own divorce has not harmed the institution one is defending. And, indeed, despite very high divorce rates, people continue to get married, so this isn’t a crazy view. But it does seem a strange view for conservatives, who are the main opponents of gay marriage, to hold. I presume that a conservative about marriage holds an ideal that marriage should be for the lifetime of the shorter-lived spouse, and that practices and behaviors that undermine that ideal damage the institution. Surely divorce does that; and, in particular, surely one’s own divorce does that.

Posted in Politicks on 26 May 2006 at 10:58 am by Nate
20 May 2006

The link between a virus and a hate group

You may have seen the news about the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine.

A federal advisory panel Thursday unanimously recommended that the Food and Drug Administration approve a vaccine that has been shown to prevent cervical cancer, the second most prevalent cancer among women worldwide.

The FDA almost always follows the recommendations of its advisory panels and is expected to do so in this case, probably by June 8.

(I will only slightly refrain from noting that the FDA only doesn’t follow that advice when it comes to anything even thought to do with abortion.) I might note that HPV is also a significant cause of cancer among gay men. That, however, is not mentioned. In fact,

HPV is considered the most common STD in the U.S. among both men and women. One study estimated that approximately 95 percent of HIV-positive gay men have been infected with HPV. That same study estimated that 65 percent of HIV-negative gay men have been infected with HPV.

Simiilarly, there has been outrage and response when Fred Phelps expanded his hate-fueled “protests” to include funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq.

As of April 19, 2006, at least seventeen states are either considering bans on protests near funeral sites immediately before and after the ceremonies, or have already banned them. These states are: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa [88], Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana [89], Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, which passed the law, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Texas. Wisconsin has instituted such a ban. These bans are in response to the God Hates Fags rallies of Phelps near the places where funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq are taking place. These bans seem almost certain to pass, and although their constitutional validity has been questioned, their validity has not yet been tested in the courts.

We didn’t see outraged legislative response when Phelps spent years protesting funerals of gay men like Matthew Shepard or church conventions struggling with issues around women and LGBT people. People considered him outside respectable discourse, yes, but no one moved to throw the power of the state into countering him.

LGBT people are still not full people in this society. Our health, our dignity, our lives are still functionally not worth as much as those of “women” or “soldiers.” This betrays the two creeds so vital to many Americans–their patriotism and their (Christian) religion. All men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — and in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female. But there’s always queer, and that’s different.

This isn’t a pathology of the right exclusively. There are plenty of well-meaning progressives who neglect to use their own power of persuasion to expand the frontier of discourse.

But although perhaps less diabolical in intent than the discrimination of suppression, the discrimination of unintentional omission obtains similar results. Some of us become better or more important than others of us, and we betray our sacred principles in so many ways.

Posted in Politicks on 20 May 2006 at 10:11 am by Nate
12 May 2006

Thank you Steven Colbert

I haven’t weighed in on the whole Steven Colbert controversey (whether he was unspeakably rude at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner–decide for yourself). Mostly because I think Colbert was bitingly funny. The emperor had no clothes, but no one in the room wanted to point that out.

Anyway, the New Republic sent me this in my inbox this morning:

Obviously enough, this is designed not to amuse, but to wound, to goad, to irritate. It is not comedy; the discourse has moved location, from the funhouse to the church, and it has become preachy and a little earnest. We are in the realm of the blogosphere. Again and again, Colbert chides the MSM in much the way that the alternative press does: “John McCain, John McCain, what a maverick! Somebody find out what fork he used on his salad, because I guarantee you, it wasn’t a salad fork. This guy could have used a spoon! There’s no predicting him.” Actually, this last jibe is pretty funny, and it neatly pops both John McCain’s ballooning self-regard and the tedious reverence of the establishment media….

So we have a heaven-made circularity: Colbert, abjuring comedy for bitter irony, attacks the MSM like the bloggers do; the MSM decide not to mention Colbert, or decide that he wasn’t funny, or was rude; and the bloggers get to cry foul, charging that this shows, at best, exactly what is wrong with the cloth-eared MSM–or, at worst, that a conspiracy to silence Colbert has begun. At which point the MSM, in their stolid, evenhanded way, write up the “controversy.” Who can blame the bloggers? They are right that Colbert was often not trying to be funny, but to be insulting–and there is something breathtakingly, sublimely insulting about the way Colbert, in the midst of his rudeness, continues to use the words “sir” and “Mr. President” not ten feet from the man he is dressing down. And, if they are not right about a conspiracy of silence, they are right about the press’s reflexive respect for authority, for only this can explain the chummy way in which, say, The New York Times first reported the event, with its relaxed and relaxing account of the comic genius of Steve Bridges (he was prepped in the White House!).

(Sidenote: I can tell that I don’t spend time in certain parts of the blogosphere, because when I first saw “MSM” I didn’t think of the MainStream Media but of Men who have Sex with Men.)

Posted in Politicks on 12 May 2006 at 10:37 am by Nate
3 March 2006

Live a Wiccan, Die nothing

Apparently, our government does not “recognize” Wiccan paganism as a religion. And thus, Nevada National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart may not have the symbol of his beliefs placed on his marker.

I thought the literal text of the Constitution read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

Apparently, that doesn’t matter to the executive branch. Small wonder.

Posted in Politicks on 3 March 2006 at 10:59 am by Nate
7 February 2006

Brokeback’s Closet

Excellent point from the NYTimes Blog “Opinionator”:

Citing Roger Ebert and other critics who have proclaimed “Brokeback Mountain” to be a “universal” love story, Daniel Mendelsohn writes in the New York Review of Books that such critics are “well-meaning but seriously misguided” when they ignore the movie’s status as “a specifically gay tragedy.” He writes:

For to see ‘Brokeback Mountain’ as a love story, or even as a film about universal human emotions, is to misconstrue it very seriously—and in so doing inevitably to diminish its real achievement.

Both narratively and visually, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the ‘closet’ — about the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance that first causes and then exacerbates it. … If Jack and Ennis are tainted, it’s not because they’re gay, but because they pretend not to be; it’s the lie that poisons everyone they touch.

Mendelsohn concludes, “If you insist, as so many have, that the story of Jack and Ennis is OK to watch and sympathize with because they’re not really homosexual — that they’re more like the heart of America than like ‘gay people’ — you’re pushing them back into the closet whose narrow and suffocating confines Ang Lee and his collaborators have so beautifully and harrowingly exposed.”

The Baptized Pagan made a similar point a few weeks ago:

I haven’t seen this in print anywhere yet, so here goes my take on Brokeback’s theological anthropology: Brokeback Mountain, besides being a romantic tragedy set in a beautiful landscape, is also a natural law argument for the acceptance of homosexuality. The not-so-subtle entree into this position is the slogan at the bottom of the ads: “Love is a Force of Nature”. One can notice that all of the bad things that happen in the film — the adultery, the alcohol abuse, the materialism, the dishonesty, the hurt that comes not only to these two men but to those in their lives — comes about not because they’re in a same-sex relationship, but because they’re in a same-sex relationship but trying their dardnest not to be. If, as many gay people, particularly gay men, describe their experience, their homosexuality is something discovered as a part of them, rather than a choice or a deviation from heterosexuality, then a good Thomist, if (and this is a big “if”), if she were open to hearing that first premise and accepted it as probable, then it makes sense to follow one’s nature where it leads into human flourishing.

Posted in Politicks on 7 February 2006 at 11:08 am by Nate