Wednesday, October 29, 2014
It is narrated by someone who identifies himself in the first sentence as "the seventeenth eunuch of the Lady Badroulboudour". Hearkening to a verse in the Gospel according to Matthew, he says of his fellow "bed guardians": "Some of us were born so, some were created so by other men, and a few are self-made – or self-unmade."
Lady Badroulboudour, now fifty years old, recalls her late husband, The Aladdin, as a magnificent lover. Her many daughters are married off to princes, and her many sons have become rulers themselves. Her eldest son requires her to stay in her palace rooms so that she will not become meddlesome. He gives her many eunuchs, who "tried to pleasure her – for do not think that eunuchs are devoid of sexual passion," the narrator says. "It is just that we cannot father a child."
Lady Badroulboudour is described entirely in terms of her jewels, cosmetics, perfumes, devotion to her cats and inclination to romance. When she finds The Aladdin's magic lamp, the one he had used to acquire his riches and power, the only thing she can think to wish for is a lover. There are three genies in the lamp, all "rounded and hairless" and described in terms of their size relative to eunuchs. When Lady Badroulboudour sees the first genie, she cries, "I have had enough of you half-men!" and the genie replies, "I am no man, lady."
Lady Badroulboudour would prefer that her dead husband be returned to her, but genies warn her to be careful what she wishes for, since they cannot restore the dead to life. She is then willing to accept any fine man that they might be able to bring her, except that she cannot imagine any man who could match the memory of her Aladdin. She is finally willing to accept that one of her pets could be transformed into a man.
The eunuchs in the story are described – as their lady is equivalently described – in popular stereotypes. There is "the fifth eunuch, a pudgy, hairless, whey-faced man much given to candies and flatulence," "the sixth eunuch, who has given to honeycakes and moist eyes," "the ninth eunuch, who was given to candied dates and belching," "the sixteenth eunuch, who was given to buttered toast and tears,""the eighth eunuch, who was given to tippling and weeping late at night," and "the second eunuch, who had no faults at all, save he stared with popped eyes and so always managed to look startled."
It is Lady Badroulboudour's fondness for her cats, and the third genie's willingness to transform a neutered cat into a human being, that results in the genesis of the titular "seventeenth eunuch," lending this its place in a comic fantasy collection.
Monday, October 27, 2014
Changers is refreshing new speculative fiction for young adults by T Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper. The premise is that – in a benign version of The Metamorphosis – a happy, skateboarding eighth-grade boy wakes up just before high school begins and discovers that he has transformed overnight into a different, hotter person.
The teen's prescient parents at least had the decency to move the family preemptively to a new town. Their new home happens to be in Tennessee, which the unsuspecting child says "may as well be the moon. The moon with about a thousand fried chicken restaurants on it." It isn't long before the child has more important things to worry about.
Book One: Drew, the first of the four books in the series, was released in early 2014. It follows the character's first year in high school as a blonde girl who tries out for a cheerleading squad that dredges up visions of the "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders" reality show.
Although Drew was not aware that she was going to shapeshift into a new "Version" of herself, her parents were. In the novel's world, being a "Changer" is a hereditary condition. Drew is immediately plugged into a community of Changers like herself so she can receive guidance and support. She's told that she'll live each of her four years of high school as a different person, with a different set of abilities that accompany the new mind and body, after which she will be compelled to decide which of the four identities she wishes to assume permanently.
The usual challenges of puberty are magnified for a young teen who is unexpectedly and suddenly a different sex. "I feel fat," Drew thinks; "What the hell is that about?"
Why this book is awesome
In what other novel has anyone ever been branded with a doubled-up Vitruvian Man on their butt to indicate that they belong to a secret society of gender-changers? Is this not like a "Da Vinci Code" for young, modern transgender people? It is about time that there was some bra-sy, ballsy fiction on this theme.
The secret society is thought out and described just enough, having been organized by the parents in the same way that high school overall is something that is planned out and largely taken for granted by teenagers. The mechanisms that would be inexplicable or nonsensical – Why morph into a new body on the first day of each academic year? – are wisely left well enough alone by the authors.
Drew is not a superhero. She has her doubts and vulnerabilities. She knows she's not good at keeping a journal, nor even simply at sitting quietly and thinking, and is somewhat relieved that her requirement for daily introspection can be documented with the help of the injection of a special chip into her arm that records her thoughts. She frets that
"if this whole Changer mission is about improving the human race by making everyone kinder or more understanding or some crap, then they shouldn't have involved teenage girls."And yet this book does carry potential to increase understanding. It has been blurbed as having "changed the way I think" by no less a luminary than Clay Aiken – who, for those who sleep under a roof known as "rock," placed second on American Idol in 2003.
Finally, for readers of legal age, this is a great "beach read" that can be enjoyed with a stiff drink, after which the premise may seem mostly totally credible.
Fan fiction potential
The premise is like an implicit prompt from author to reader: "Who would you want for your four teenage incarnations?" Remember that a "Version" is not just a physical body and social identity, but also a set of physical and mental traits and talents.
The roster's combinatorics are endless. One might ring up the lovepuppy Georgia Nicolson (of Louise Rennison's On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God); the sociopathic Jacob Barber (of William Landay's Defending Jacob); the survival expert Katniss Everdeen (of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy); and the doomed, four-eyed Piggy (of William Golding's Lord of the Flies).
Fan fiction, here we come.
Will the 'Changers' survive?
Book One: Drew is a clever, fun story that would make a lighthearted gift for adults and could be a good conversation piece for young teenagers, too. It can be ordered from Calamus Books, an independent bookstore in Boston. Readers will have to wait for the release of the promised next titles in the series. These are expected to bring not only more gender changes, but also the developing saga of the nasty "Abiders" who are out to destroy the "Changers."
Friday, October 24, 2014
In this society, human infants are reared in "batches" apart from any concept of family, and they are given hormone blockers to prevent sexual development. In their late teens, without any counseling, they are asked to give decisive answers to questions that will determine the rest of their lives. Chiefly, they must pick a profession, a name, and a gender. The last decision comes in two options: either they will have their hormone blockers removed so that their bodies will develop sexually on their own, or they may request additional hormonal and surgical intervention so that they may become a member of the "other" gender. (It is never explained what characterizes the genders of "man" and "woman" in this particular society, especially since there is no reproductive family structure; how or why someone's physical sex is supposed to correlate with that social role; nor why the government is so anxious to ensure that people conform physically to the gender role they choose for themselves.)
In the book, if a person chooses continued intervention to change their sex, their blockers are made permanent via an implant. This is not a medically accurate scenario. Someone receiving the sex hormones of the "opposite" sex would not need or want hormone blockers anymore, and it would be especially unnecessary if the surgeries – left unspecified in this book – included the removal of the glands that produce hormones.
The novel's premise raises a number of questions that go unanswered. Why must all the decisions be made at the same time? Why at a particular age? (What does a pre-pubescent 17-year-old deliberately raised in ignorance about many sexual matters know about their gender identity that, say, a pre-pubescent 11-year-old does not?) Is the decision day just a matter of convenience for the state, so that batches of humans vote on the same day and get it over with and don't drag out the decision process for years? And is the seemingly late hour of choice deliberate because the state wishes to keep the teenagers behaving in a childlike manner for as long as possible because they are more compliant that way? What happens to intersex people, those who do not – or will not, when allowed their natural hormones – neatly fit either the male or female category? (They are not mentioned in the book.) Why does the state want anyone to have sex hormones at all, given that only specially designated people are allowed to reproduce anyway? If they just want to assign gender roles, why can't they assign those in the same way they assign professions? Why does it require hormones to undergird the gender roles?
Finally, one might point out (although the author certainly does not) that this particular dystopian control system not only screws with the cisgender/heterosexual framework (which I think she is implying ought to be normative) but also redefines what it would mean to be transgender or otherwise queer. In other words, if the state messes with children's hormones and then suddenly forces them to make a permanent choice about their hormonal and anatomical future which probably does not include the right to reproduce, then nobody is given the opportunity to get in touch with what the reader is probably predisposed to think of as a true self: Nobody meaning not straight people and not queer people. Everyone's sense of authentic self is frustrated, if "authenticity" is understood as something mostly private and mostly uncorruptible by outside coercion.
In this scenario:
- The question of gender does not arise organically within the self and isn't a lifelong exploration, but is posed by the state as a bureaucratic matter and is decided once and for all.
- The question of sexuality does not come with the assumption that gender is a given, but is tied to the looming possibility that one's gender will need to change for reasons that are not entirely one's own.
- There is no such thing as being straight or queer. Ultimately there are only those who rebel against state power and those who don't. It is a different kind of binary. I think readers would get more out of the book if this were made explicit, but I don't think that is where the author intended to go.
A quarter of the way through the novel, the heroine is exposed to an alternate society, seemingly very much like Hawaii, where people live freely in family units. This Margaret Mead observes their behavior and asks the "What are sexual norms?" questions. One of the individuals she encounters in the free society complains about the "awful surgeries" perpetrated by the heroine's native dystopia against its inhabitants.
Halfway through the novel, she discovers a copy of the Bible – although no character's religion is ever identified – and she reads about the creation of Adam and Eve. This leads to a brief dialogue about marriage and babies. (Note that the novel's publisher, Shadow Mountain, produces non-religious books that "reflect the values espoused by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.")
The heroine is initially unsure about whether she wants to develop naturally as a female or change to male since she doesn't see any particular meaning or advantage to either. Her indifference is central to the novel. She only begins to form an opinion when she gets kissed by a boy, at which juncture she says to herself: "Today, it feels really good to be a girl." (No, she does not pick the name Cinderella.) When one of her suitors flirts with her by drawing a picture of her that imagines her hugely pregnant (hey, whatever works), she reflects that childbirth would be "worth it" because of "how absolutely wonderful and perfect in every way" her suitor's baby brother is. Later, she alludes to "a smoothing, sharpening, cutting away and building – not of my body, but of my spirit" and praises a transition of "my character, my strengths, my fears and devotion."
Adding to the biology-is-destiny reading, the Goodreads ad for the book bears the question: "Who was she born to be?"
The problem in this dystopia, as the author appears to want us to understand, is that the state is sterilizing almost everyone and furthermore is allowing people to choose a physical sex that is different from the one they were born with, a medical intervention which somehow (of course it is not explained how) undercuts the character of the person they were born to be. But is this really the problem? One might reasonably ask: If the smoothing and sharpening of the spirit occurs independently of physical changes, then why does it matter if someone wants to change their physical sex? Especially if they are going to be sterilized anyway? And might there be people who would be content to choose sterilization, if allowed the choice, because their destiny is not to be parents? There is certainly something wrong with state coercion and secrecy about matters concerning the bodies of children and adults, but the author hasn't convincingly pinned the problem. She seems to be arguing that a large part of the social problem is that people are allowed to choose transsexuality. The real problem in this fictional society looks like totalitarianism, not transsexuality.
It would have been interesting – though a very different book – to explore a range of reactions of different characters to the question of what gender they will select and the underlying reasons for those feelings. A deeper way of pushing this would be to ask at what point on the spectrum of conviction or discomfort with one's gender would one take the "harder" route of hormonal and surgical intervention? Furthermore, is that route indeed significantly harder in a society where the state has already given everyone hormonal intervention since childhood and will continue to provide related services for free, both of which make a "sex change" seem like a default choice or a benefit; where the state prompts everyone with the question, in case they don't raise the question themselves; and where roughly half the people are doing it?
The questions that the author or publisher wants readers to ask are listed as possible discussion points at the end of the book. These include: "Do you think there’s more to being male or female than the obvious physical differences? If so, what? Are these traits learned or inherent? Can artificial hormones change this, or is gender a part of who you are no matter what you alter?" Also, as the oppressive state allows its teenagers "the freedom to choose whatever they want," readers are supposed to ask, "What are the dangers of having no consequences for our actions?" The "no consequences" part was not obviously illustrated in the story. To the contrary, the teenagers were being forced to make life-changing decisions that had significant consequences that they were not allowed to go back and revise. Maybe this is an allusion to the assumption that they will all be infertile and can have no-strings sex. But there were consequences to this social arrangement – they didn't have families, for one thing. If anyone was truly consequence-free, it was the dystopian schemers-in-power, not the hapless inhabitants. An alternative dissenting argument could be made that the people in the free society were less bound to consequences because they had the possibility of democratically establishing their norms and deciding what the consequences would be, as contrasted with the people in the dystopia who had no choice at all. Overall, it's not obvious who it is who enjoys "no consequences," and it seems that this fear trope appears in its usual political context to dredge up concern that somewhere a queer person is going around making free choices and no one is stopping them. This is not explicitly part of the book, but it can be suggested by the book's context in what we know about our real world.
This fictional world is limited in its possibilities because it points to large gaps of social and psychological understanding that the author does not seem willing to make explicit and explore. It's unclear who would be the ideal reader, aside from a cisgender child who wants a literary reference to help them articulate why they feel uncomfortable around a transgender child and then to feel smug about their judgement, or maybe a transgender child who has difficulty deciding whether to transition and who finds strength in the mythological implication that they'll be more likely to be kissed by a soulmate if they don't transition and if they instead channel their bravery into a sexually normative endeavor. Such people exist, but accommodating these desires is sad.
It would be good to see this fictional world resurrected in fan-fic from a transgender perspective. We are more likely instead to see a sequel of Remake, as many plot elements were left untied.
Thursday, October 23, 2014
Fisher's explanation of her action shocked the nation. She claimed that she had been lovers with her victim's husband, Joey Buttafuoco, 36, since the previous summer when she was still only 16. While those who knew Buttafuoco believed him to be a pillar of the community, Fisher said he perpetrated auto theft scams. She claimed he introduced her to a life of prostitution, such that she wore a beeper to her high school classes and met her clients in the evenings through an escort business, earning $600 per week. At nights, she returned to sleep at her unsuspecting parents' house. Fisher further claimed that it had been Joey Buttafuoco's idea that his wife should meet with an "accident" and that he had helped plan the shooting.
For his part, Buttafuoco admitted knowing Fisher only insofar as he had serviced her family's cars at his auto body shop. He publicly denied having sex with the girl or conspiring to shoot his wife. His wife and her family rallied around him and endorsed his story as he nursed her back to health; she was left with permanent nerve damage and chronic pain.
Why the story fascinated Americans
The story appealed to Americans' sense of intrigue and outrage for multiple reasons. First, the story was about illicit sex: sex outside of marriage, sex for money, sex with a minor. Fisher was 16 when she began her affair with Buttafuoco, but she looked younger, at one point having forced her weight down to only 80 pounds. Who were all of these men on Long Island, everyone wanted to know, who paid to have sex with a girl who looked barely pubescent?
Second, there was the attempted murder motivated by jealousy. The public wondered: Was it a crime of passion? Or had it been carefully planned? How many people planned it, and for how long? The idea of an unsuspecting, innocent woman being gunned down on her front porch by a stranger in broad daylight aroused feelings of insecurity. The Amy Fisher story did for the doorbell what the movie "Jaws" did for the beach.
Third, there was the question of how a smart, pretty girl with so many things seemingly in her favor – she was a girl-next-door type on Long Island, raised by an Italian mother and Jewish father in a comfortably middle-class community – could have been sucked into such a destructive lifestyle. In 2000, Lorraine Delia Kenny explored Fisher as a case study in her book Daughters of Suburbia: Growing Up White, Middle-Class, and Female. Americans were interested to hear about what was behind the demographic veneer in Fisher's case.
Fourth, there were the lies. Fisher claimed that Buttafuoco seduced her and goaded her to shoot his wife; Buttafuoco denied it. One of them was lying.
Fifth, there was the technological mystique of the "beeper." Cell phones, then called "car phones," were still large and expensive and had not widely caught on. The novel idea of teenage girls wearing beepers to communicate with their friends (or clients) during the school day made parents wonder how to protect their children in what was very shortly to become known as the Information Age.
Ongoing media attention
In the months following the shooting, on Dec. 1, 1992, Amy Fisher was sentenced to prison, where she served seven years. This did not halt the media attention. There were to be multiple movies and books, as well as the trial of Joey Buttafuoco.
Several movies aired on network television shortly after Fisher's sentencing. NBC aired "Amy Fisher: My Story" on Dec. 28. CBS aired "Casualties of Love: The 'Long Island Lolita' Story" on Jan. 3 during the same hours that ABC aired "The Amy Fisher Story", which, according to Sheila Weller, was a competitive approach "unprecedented in TV history." All of the movies received high Nielsen ratings.
Additionally, Fisher's memoir Amy Fisher: My Story, written with Sheila Weller, was released in 1993 while she was in prison. The book reported huge amounts of detail about her affairs, her prostitution, and her premeditation of the murder attempt, but it did not have much to say about feelings of remorse, other than a grunting acknowledgment (filtered through Weller) that she knew she deserved to be in prison.
On Oct. 5, 1993, Joey Buttafuoco reversed his claim of complete innocence, pleading guilty to one count of statutory rape for having sex with Fisher while she was still 16. He served several months in prison for it. Even after this revelation, the Buttafuocos remained married. They moved to California and stayed together until Mary Jo filed for divorce in 2003.
When Amy Fisher was released from prison in 1999, she married Lou Bellera, a former cop, and they had three children. She took a job as a columnist for the Long Island Press and released her memoir If I Knew Then in 2004.
Following the Buttafuocos' divorce, Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco came back into contact. In 2006, they participated in the coin toss at a football game, and in 2007, they appeared on television together. At this late date, however, a decade and a half after the original events, it seemed there was little of great national interest to add to their story.
On Feb. 11, 2008, Fox News published an interview in which Fisher called her shooting victim a "nonentity" and complained that she was making money off her ordeal:
"I feel no sympathy for Mary Jo the multimillionaire! The fact that Mary Jo has a bullet in her head means nothing! I still have silicone in my boobs, and you don't hear me complaining. She can't feel her bullet, and I can't feel my silicone."
(Fisher also bragged that she'd recently had sex with Joey Buttafuoco during a week-long affair and that she didn't enjoy it because he'd aged.)
The following month, she appeared as a commentator on truTV's "The Smoking Gun Presents: World's Dumbest..." show. Former figure skater Tonya Harding has also appeared as a commentator there. Similar to Fisher, Harding became a notorious media figure in the 1990s after rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked with a tire iron. Harding denied knowing of the attack before it happened, but she admitted to helping her ex-husband and bodyguard cover up their involvement. The implied bad-girl comparison between Fisher and Harding – neither of whom managed to regain successful careers, and who have been reduced to performing in degrading verbal and physical fights on television – was not promising for either of them.
In 2009, Mary Jo Buttafuoco, by then engaged to marry a new man, released her book Getting it Through My Thick Skull: Why I Stayed, What I Learned, and What Millions of People Involved With Sociopaths Need to Know, written with Julie McCarron.
In 2011, Fisher appeared on "Celebrity Rehab" discussing her pornographic performances and use of alcohol. The televised charity fundraiser "Celebrity Fight Night" pitted Buttafuoco against Fisher's husband Bellera in the boxing ring, while Fisher was matched against Nadya Suleman (famous only for deliberately having fourteen children as a single mother).
In 2012, Joey Buttafuoco claimed he was writing his own memoir. “It's going to have every single detail that hasn't been out there yet," he said. "It's called 'Closure' because I think without full disclosure you have no closure." Whether the memoir will ever be completed and published, and whether there will be a market for it over twenty years after his various crimes – both the alleged and the admitted – remains to be seen. With the moral satisfaction of Amy Fisher's prison sentence and Mary Jo Buttafuoco's long-awaited awakening and emancipation, most Americans have finally moved on.
Image: You never know who might be standing on your doorstep. Photograph of a doorbell by Jim Kuhn, Wheaton, Md. Uploaded by Yarl. © [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 27, 2013.
Monday, October 20, 2014
Originally published May 5, 2014 to Helium Network.
Dominique Lapierre's book The City of Joy, published in 1985, was based on his experiences in India several years previously. The epithet "City of Joy" refers to a neighborhood of the city of Calcutta characterized by extreme poverty, where people died every day from hunger, disease (notably leprosy) or unsafe living conditions such as open storm drains.
Among the main characters are the Polish Catholic priest Stephan Kovalski and, later, the Jewish doctor Max Loeb, both of whom are in India to do humanitarian work. Hasari Pal is an Indian man who features in the book from beginning to end. A group of eunuchs (hijras) appears in the last quarter of the long story; among them is Kalima.
After identifying Kalima as a eunuch, Lapierre switches to masculine pronouns when he refers to her, and he puts all references to her gender as a "woman" in quotation marks. Lapierre says directly: "He had been castrated."
Readers learn a little bit of Kalima's history. He was an effeminate child with male genitalia that "were only slightly developed." When he was 14, his wealthy Muslim parents married him to a girl who ran back to her parents the next morning. Soon after, he was approached by a eunuch named Sultana. Sultana adopted him in a ceremony in which he pretended to breastfeed from her. Other ceremonies were held to dress him as a woman, to give him the new name Kalima and to castrate him.
Castration was essential, since the hijras
"must be neither men nor women. Mothers, who called them to take upon their shoulders the sins committed by their newborn babies in previous lives, had the right to verify this fact. And be damned those guilty of deception!"Kalima was given the alcoholic drink todi made of palm tree juice, together with the narcotic bhang, until he fell asleep. A bowlful of butter (ghee) caused a fire to burn more brightly, which was a good omen. His genitals were severed with one stroke of a razor blade; the narcotic was not strong enough to keep him asleep through this. Sultana applied
"a kind of plaster made of ashes, herbs, and oil mixed together. The recipe dated back to the days of the Mogul conquest, a time when the eunuch caste had undergone a veritable Golden Age. That was the era when, all over India, poor parents sold their children to traders who emasculated them. One nobleman at the court of one of the Mogul emperors possessed twelve hundred eunuchs. In those days some Hijras raised themselves to elevated positions, not merely as guardians of the harem, court dancers, or musicians, but sen as confidant of kings, provincial governors, and army generals."When Sultana died of a heart attack, Kalima was taken under the wing of another eunuch named Boulboul (meaning "Nightingale").
Kalima and Kovalski became friends. During a major flood, Kalima lit candles in front of Kovalski's photograph of the Shroud of Turin with the intent that the candles should ask the "deity of Big Brother Stephan" (that is, Kovalski) to stop the rain. Kovalski was often perceived by the inhabitants in the City of Joy as a holy man who could be interceded with, as, although he lived in poverty alongside everyone else, he was able to make food and medicine appear in emergency situations.
When a child was born nearby, Kalima was one of five eunuchs who appeared to sing, dance and bless the baby. Kalima said:
Long live the newborn child!Kalima performs a dance that appears as if she is giving birth, and then she cradles the baby.
We bless you,
That you may live for a long time,
That you may always have good health,
That you may earn lots of money.
The dancers say: "Our newborn baby is as strong as Shiva, and we beg the all-powerful god to transfer the sins of all his past lives to us." Lapierre says that this expresses "the eunuchs' credo, the justification of their role in society"; they have "the role of scapegoat."
The group leader, Boulboul, performed a special blessing for the baby.
"With the tip of his index finger he dabbed up the red powder from one of the drums and marked the baby's forehead with it. This symbolic gesture transferred onto his person, onto his companions and onto all the Hijra caste the past sins of the newborn child. For eunuchs, the red powder, which is the emblem of marriage among Hindu wives, represents their ritual union with their drums."Boulboul also collected money for the performance, as such blessings earned the eunuchs their livelihood.
One of the five eunuchs in the dance troupe, Bela, was reported to have placed a cobra in Kovalski's room with the intent of causing his death. Bela's motivation was unclear. When confronted by a self-appointed detective, Bela fought back and was quickly impaled upon her own knife.
Lapierre explains that "tradition would not allow eunuchs to bury or burn their dead other than at night, out of sight of 'normal' people." This, however, apparently did not apply to the people who were intimately involved in the funeral, since Kovalski — Bela's intended victim — and several other men were asked to bear the body to the funeral pyre. As Lapierre says was typical, Bela's hair was cut and she was dressed in men's clothes for her funeral, and the attending eunuchs prayed that she would not be reincarnated as a eunuch.
A rare character
Kalima's character is not developed in The City of Joy beyond what is reflected in this article. Nonetheless, she is notable because Indian hijra characters are rarely found in works by Western authors. (For another example of such a character who plays a larger role within a novel, see Cool Cut by Sharad P. Paul.) Kalima reveals how the priest Kovalski continues to encounter "the other" in India, even after he has lived there a while.
The image above is of a hijra participant at the Chhath puja ceremony, 2013, in Kolkata, India. Image by: Biswarup Ganguly. © GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or later. Wikimedia Commons.
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Dr. Sharad P. Paul's novel Cool Cut (2007) follows three friends growing up in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, in a small Tamil-speaking village on the banks of the Kaveri River. It is the mid-twentieth century and the teenagers look toward Madras as the big city. Told in clipped, Hemingwayesque sentences, the novel captures a certain childlike simplicity while tackling large themes of love, death, violence and cultural continuity.
Kumar and Lakshmi are just old enough to begin to dream of falling in love with each other, but they must contend with a culture that expects arranged marriages. Their friend Raman flies kites with them in games that are won by maneuvering one's own string to slice through the competitors' strings. The "cut" remains an important metaphor for Kumar, who becomes a barber, and for Raman, who becomes a eunuch.
After he is all but expelled from school, Raman takes the train to Madras to live with his uncle, but at the train station he is jumped by several eunuchs who throttle and club him unconscious. The next thing he knows, he has been made one of them. After his recovery, other eunuchs don white saris and put turmeric paste on their skin to perform his naming ritual. They put lit candles at his feet, burn camphor and chant a prayer. He is renamed Ramani, "the adopted daughter of Lord Ganesha." From this point on, the narrator consistently uses feminine pronouns for Ramani's character, just as is done for the other eunuchs.
The leader of the group that has kidnapped Ramani considers herself a kind of adoptive mother of her girls. Discovering that Ramani has a talent for dancing, she charges a fee for her to dance at parties.
Ramani herself does not express regret for her situation. Although she is angry about having been kidnapped and violently assaulted and she resents the leader of the group for her severe ways, she does not seem to mind her own forced gender transition or her physical loss. Only in an abstract way does she reflect that
"Eunuchs have no identity; zombies with no identity and no options....eunuchs are like weeds - catching debris from the river of life; a combination of stagnation and decay. The river of life will flow through the weeds, until life is renewed again in the sea."It is home that she longs for.
The group's leader privately rationalizes her behavior of kidnapping and mutilating teenagers: "Everyone knows eunuchs are necessary, and have magic powers." Besides, "all birth is traumatic." (Another character suggests that eunuchs must kidnap because they cannot reproduce, and if they do not have younger dependents like themselves, they will have no security in old age.) When annoyed by a group of boys, the leader threatens to reveal what is (or rather, is not) under her skirt, which would be considered as a form of curse against the boys.
Some readers might find this characterization stereotypical and off-putting. That eunuchs ever kidnap or raise their skirts at all is a controversial claim; Dr. Piyush Saxena's recent nonfiction book Life of a Eunuch argues vehemently against both of these allegations.
The leader also proves capable of brutal castration as an act of vengeance, not just as a way of creating more adopted daughters.
"Ali" is the word for eunuch most commonly used in the story. It is identified as a southern Indian term, whereas the more widely known term "hijra" is said to come from northern India. A character with the trust-inspiring epithet of Professor explains that "hijra" derives from the Arabic word for a spiritual pilgrimage. One might be perplexed by a competing claim on the first page of John Speed's novel Tiger Claws (also published in 2007, but set in the year 1658) which says rather that "hijra" was perceived as a derogatory term from common Hindi and that Muslim eunuchs of that era preferred the term "mukhunni" meaning "short-tusked."
Aside from the questionable depiction of the eunuch community in this novel - a depiction that is simultaneously sympathetic and damning - this is a memorable, ambitious story that packs many broad themes into a short text.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
available online as a free download.
This article was originally posted to Helium Network on March 4, 2012.
The many words for "eunuch" in various Indian languages all run the risk of being understood pejoratively, so Saxena reluctantly uses the word "eunuch" as the next best option, although he calls it a "total misnomer" that contributes to the marginalization of these people. He defines a eunuch as someone who is born with an intersex condition (or, as he puts it, "a dysfunctional male or female reproductive system") and also has some gender identity issues. Those issues are never presented consistently: sometimes he says eunuchs are more male-bodied yet more feminine-identified, other times that their gender identity doesn't conform to conventional standards for men and women, and still other times he acknowledges that their identities may fall along a spectrum of masculine, feminine and "neutral." In one spot he claims that they have no sexual libido and have sex only for money, but in another spot his data indicates that less than half declare themselves asexual.
After joining a eunuch community, they will have their atypical genitalia removed in a ceremony called "nirvana". He comments that "the only true eunuchs in India are those who are genderless and suffer from the lack of any distinct sex organs" (in which case it is unclear exactly what would be removed, unless he meant that they do have sex organs that are merely mismatched with existing scientific categories). He dismisses, and thereby fails to explore, the possibility that any significant number of eunuchs in India were born with normal male bodies and are essentially what the West would call transsexual or transgender women.
According to Saxena, such people generally come to a fuller understanding of their situation when they reach adolescence, at which point they will leave home, travel to a city where eunuchs are generally successful as beggars or prostitutes, join a band of eunuchs organized under a eunuch leader (guru or nayak), and undergo the nirvana ceremony. "Leading a life without undergoing nirvana is incomplete for a eunuch and there is intense craving for this procedure in all eunuchs," he writes. He attributes to eunuchs a magical "inherent capability to recognise the status of nirvana of other eunuchs," even though they will still ask each other if they have had the ceremony performed.
Saxena perceives this as more of a ritual act than a real castration because, he says, the person's genitalia never behaved in a typical male fashion in the first place; therefore, the person was already a eunuch from birth. The act is indeed ritualized. Because castration is illegal in India and because most eunuchs can neither document themselves as transsexual women nor afford a surgeon, the cutting is generally performed underground.
The chapters in this 540-page book are a bit disorganized and the information is quite repetitive, sometimes contradicting itself along the way. The chapters take medical, social, and mytho-religious approaches. Large sections are not about the Indian eunuch gender at all, but instead about transsexuals in the Western sense of that term (using language that dates back to the 1990s when the subject first entered the popular and academic consciousness), or about various biological categories into which intersex bodies can be fit. It is unclear what connection the author intends to draw between eunuchs and transsexuals. In the first chapter he says that eunuchs have a "transsexual nature" but this is never demonstrated. Some of his basic medical definitions are problematic, such as his definition of a female as someone "capable of being penetrated" and a male as "able to penetrate". An abundance of anatomical diagrams and photographs of surgeries in progress may be useful for some readers but are unnecessary for the reader who seeks social analysis. The latter type may be more interested in the chapter consisting of brief first-person statements from eunuchs.
An example of one of Saxena's strange generalizations is that eunuchs eat an average of 4,000 calories a day and that they levy a fine on any member who refuses to eat at a party. He says they are healthier than most people because they walk from house to house begging for alms and their expected lifespan is 14 years above average, yet he also cites data claiming that 18 percent have diabetes. It would seem rather difficult to get a good sense of the average caloric intake of a million or so undocumented, uneducated people who share large group residences and only use cash, and anyway this number is not cited to any source, as is the case with many of his facts and generalizations.
To complicate matters, Saxena's own spiritual beliefs intrude in his presentation of medical information. He believes that a human fetus receives its soul at four months of gestation. "In the case of eunuchs," he says, "the soul chooses to become devoid of gender and bear the extreme physical and mental hardship associated with this deprivation." He devotes chapters to his theories of astrology and past-life regression. Among his spiritual beliefs about eunuchs includes his uncritical report that they are rumored "to recognize the purity of gold" by intuition.
The author's intention is benign. He wants the government to find ways to allow eunuchs - though they may be homeless and fatherless - to have identity documents so that they can be better integrated into society. He wants more attention given to a population at risk for HIV. He wants to dispel groundless fears that they kidnap children and insulting rumors that they expose their naked bodies to hapless passersby.
His mission is somewhat hampered by his own patronizing language. In the preface he refers to eunuchs as "disabled"; in the cover story he says they are "hiding deep desires and confusion within" and are plagued by "a lost sense of context and direction" while they make a "humble effort at carving out some semblance of dignity and purpose in their lives"; and throughout the book he insists that they suffer from having "no clear gender." This last idea keeps surfacing despite a large body of evidence that the eunuch gender is indeed recognized as a separate gender in Indian society; indeed, the author acknowledges that they "dress and behave differently, in addition to living apart in bands and groups." They perform a peculiar popping clap with cupped palms that announces that "they are not normal gendered people." They speak a secret variant of Hindi they call gupti or ulti bhasha. He identifies seven gharanas (clans) of eunuchs in present-day Mumbai and provides pictures of their clan symbols in the tenth chapter. These positive details suggest that, at least collectively, they have a gender identity and social role and are able to create meaning and context for their lives.
The national bureaucracy does not always recognize anything beyond male and female on official forms, which is another matter. Saxena observes that there is gender discrimination in India even though it is illegal, including, for example, female infanticide in certain areas.
He acknowledges a major contradiction in attitudes toward eunuchs: "It is really strange that on one hand we call them by derogatory names and on the other, we invite them to confer blessings on newlyweds, newborns, new establishments and enterprises!" Their odd social status, according to which they are treated with a sort of respect born from fear, allows them to feed themselves by openly taking food at the marketplace without paying and to travel by train without showing tickets. He says that southern India is more generally more tolerant of eunuchs than the north.
Most eunuchs are Muslim, he says, which he attributes to their perception of a vague connection with the Muslim requirement that men be circumcised. However, they do tend to align themselves with their guru's religion, and regardless of their personal faith, the eunuch culture celebrates Hindu, Christian, and Muslim holidays together as one sisterhood.
His organization SOOE estimates that there are about 1.9 million eunuchs in India who generally lack a basic level of education and live in poverty. (The government will release the official population estimate at the end of March 2012, which he expects will only register a quarter of that number.) "O" for "other" has been a gender option on the voter rolls as of 2009 and on the census as of 2011. Update: In February 2013, the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh reported that over 2,000 voters had registered as 'O' within the previous two years, out of a population of about 75 million. Passports may also be issued as "O" but only 1 percent of eunuchs have a passport. On ration cards and driver's licenses (although few eunuchs drive), the eunuch may declare herself as either male or female.
Saxena suggests renaming the international Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20 as "Eunuch Solidarity Day" on which non-eunuchs would bring candy and gifts to eunuchs and tie string bracelets of solidarity on them. This may be an appropriate observance in India, but he does not elaborate on his implication that the transgender meaning should be erased, especially in other countries where "transgender" is a more popular concept for understanding people who are outside the male-female binary.
The author has clearly spent a lot of time meeting with eunuchs, trying to help them gain social empowerment, and he does present some useful information in this book. His practical intentions are clear and they are welcome. Unfortunately, the academic and factual underpinnings of his beliefs are not clear at all.
Friday, October 17, 2014
There is competition for her name. Today, a terrorist group so extreme that even al-Qaeda disavows it is self-styling itself as a new state. Initially, it announced itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, which in English has the acronym "ISIS". The exact region of the imagined caliphate is still in dispute, but even when "al-Sham" is replaced with "Syria," the acronym remains intact. Major American media outlets including CNN, NBC, and NPR still use the name "ISIS". The Obama administration, however, now prefers the acronym "ISIL," standing for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Meanwhile, the group itself has decided not to geographically limit its aspirations, and now simply refers to itself as Islamic State (IS).
Despite its relatively sudden appearance, the extremely violent, repressive group is believed to have tens of thousands of fighters, and now that it has captured some oil facilities in northern Iraq and northern Syria, it is believed to have an income of $1 million per day.
France recently announced that they would call this group "Daesh." Zeba Khan (who writes on Twitter @zebakhan) argued in The Boston Globe that this was a sensible choice, since
"it spells out the acronym of the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. Yet, at the same time, 'Daesh' can also be understood as a play on words – and an insult. Depending on how it is conjugated in Arabic, it can mean anything from 'to trample down and crush' to 'a bigot who imposes his view on others.' Already, the group has reportedly threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone who uses the term."That ought to settle the matter. "Daesh" is the name that protests the group's influence, denies them the dignity of naming themselves and the power to declare themselves a state, and reveals their powerlessness to carry out their threats against the speaker.
As Khan points out, violent movements on this scale must be defeated both militarily and intellectually. Identifying the right name may help win the war of ideas. Allowing people to choose their own name is a sign of respect, and, in this case, no respect is due to this organization.
On a related note: in the case of lone militants, who tend to be disorganized and ineffective, some have suggested that a simple insult, such as "nitwits," is sufficient.
Consider Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – the Nigerian "Jockstrap Jihadist" who boarded a Detroit-bound jet in Amsterdam with a suicidal plan in his head and some explosives in his underwear. Although the media colored the incident as a sophisticated al-Qaeda plot, Abdulmutallab showed no great skill or cunning, and simple safeguards should have kept him off the plane in the first place. He was, after all, traveling without luggage, on a one-way ticket that he purchased with cash. All of this while being on a U.S. government watch list.Isis image above: public domain, Wikimedia Commons.
Fortunately, Abdulmutallab, a college-educated engineer, failed to detonate his underpants. ("The Case for Calling Them Nitwits." Daniel Byman and Christine Fair. The Atlantic. July/August 2010. p. 107.)
Thursday, October 16, 2014
The Pagan leader Starhawk wrote that "we do not believe in the Goddess — we connect with her; through the moon, the stars, the ocean, the earth, through trees, animals, through other human beings, through ourselves."
More recently, Pascal Boyer explained: "It takes us Westerners some effort to realize that this notion of 'believing in something' is peculiar. Imagine a Martian telling you how interesting it is that you 'believe' in mountains and rivers and cars and telephones. You would think the alien has got it wrong. We don't 'believe in' these things, we just notice and accept that they are around. Many people in the world would say the same about witches and ghosts."
So, too, Michael Harner: "Shamans don't believe in spirits. Shamans talk with them, interact with them. They no more 'believe' there are spirits than they 'believe' they have a house to live in, or have a family. This is a very important issue because shamanism is not a system of faith....Shamans talk with plants and animals, with all of nature. This is not just a metaphor. They do it in an altered state of consciousness."
This may become what is called "religious experience" as distinct from "religious belief." Carl Jung said: "I could not say I believe. I know! I have had the experience of being gripped by something that is stronger than myself, something that people call God."
And then, the joke, as retold by John Herman Randall, Jr.:
"Do you really believe in [baptism by] total immersion?"
"Believe in it? Why, I've actually seen it!"
Starhawk, The Spiral Dance (1979)
Pascal Boyer. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001. p 9.
The anthropologist Michael Harner on Shamanism.org. Quoted in Barbara J. King's Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion. New York: Doubleday, 2007. p. 138.
Carl Jung, quoted in Norman Vincent Peale's Treasury of Courage and Confidence, Indiana: Warner Press, 1970, 1974. p 76.
John Herman Randall, Jr. The Meaning of Religion for Man. Harper Torchbook, 1968 (originally Macmillan 1946). p 24.
(Warning: the following analysis of gender in Eon: Dragoneye Reborn contains "spoilers" about the book.)
Originally posted to Helium Network on Oct. 31, 2010.
In the Empire of the Celestial Dragons there are 12 male dragons in the zodiac, and each year, the current dragon selects one 12-year-old boy to be the human representative of its power. Girls are forbidden to work with dragon magic; in fact, a female Dragoneye would be seen as "a travesty of everything natural in the world" (244). The magically talented 16-year-old slave girl Eona, therefore, is carefully disguised as the eunuch Eon by her master who trains her as a Dragoneye candidate. For some reason, although a girl may not engage in dragon magic, a eunuch's participation seems to face no opposition. Eon faces the additional challenge of having a severely damaged hip joint while applying for membership in a magical group that is heavily based on swordsmanship. To everyone's surprise, Eon is selected, but not by the current dragon of the zodiac. He is selected by the mysterious Mirror Dragon that had not been seen for 500 years previously. With no current Dragoneye to take Eon under his wing as an apprentice, Eon is immediately liberated from his slave status and named a Lord and full Dragoneye. He must hide the secret of his true gender from everyone else in the palace or risk immediate execution. The power-hungry Lord Ido already has his reasons for wanting to remove Eon as a threat.
Eunuchs – that is, castrated men – are sometimes referred to in this novel as "Moon Shadow" or by the variants "Moon eunuch" or "Shadow Man". The moon simply represents female energy and passivity, opposite the sun which represents male energy and aggression. (229) It is unclear whether the designation of Moon Shadow suggests a social status that is higher than simply "eunuch". At the beginning of the book, the author defines "Moon eunuch" as "a boy castrated before puberty for family advancement and opportunity" (42), a moniker that might have been intended to distinguish them from those eunuchs castrated in war or by accident, such as the "Trang cattle-men" who were "gelded" as punishment for an uprising (19). However, in this fictional world, it would be difficult to know, upon meeting a eunuch, the family circumstances surrounding the original reason for his castration, nor is it especially easy for the reader of the book to ascertain the exact social status of any given palace eunuch. It seems that Moon Shadow is simply a more poetic way of indicating castration and does not convey any additional information about status or identity.
While "castration melted the bones and muscles of manhood into soft curves" (95-96), some eunuch bodyguards manage to build masculine muscle by taking a steroid that is described in the pre-scientific culture as the "Sun energy" drug. (188, 275) The power-hungry Lord Ido, an intact man, also takes the drug to enhance his strength. In addition to a medicinal tea to stop his menses, Eon takes the steroid, not primarily to masculinize his body (after all, he's successfully passing as a eunuch), but because he thinks it will aid his faltering dragon magic. What he does not realize is that his dragon, the rarely seen Mirror Dragon who is apart from the 12-dragon zodiac, is a female dragon and is drawn to Eona as a female. Eon's use of the Moon-suppressing and Sun-enhancing drugs are actually driving the dragon further away. (404)
After Eon's former master and mentor is assassinated, the emperor appoints two protectors for him: Lady Dela, a male-bodied person who lives as a woman, and Ryko, a eunuch. (305) Neither they nor the emperor know that Eon is really Eona. Ryko distrusts Eona when he learns her secret, wondering aloud whether the "strange union" of a woman with a female dragon will bring good or evil upon the household. (433)
Lady Dela's sex is referred to as "Contraire". While there are tribes where such a person is considered to have two souls and is revered as a good omen, the royal court is not such a culture. A servant explains that Lady Dela "is tolerated by the court because it is the emperor's pleasure." (139) She is not fully accepted. One villager approaches her curiously, "sneaking a wide-eyed look at the court Contraire," a situation she handles "gracefully". (399) She has suffered violence, revealing to Eon that the character for "demon" was once carved in the skin over her heart, and warning that if others were to believe him to be a eunuch who sometimes wore women's clothes, they would hurt him in a similar way. (243)
While valuing eunuchs in their role as palace functionaries, the culture disparages them – and other people with unusual genders – as human beings overall. As a result, these gender minorities tend to support each other and to interact in special ways. In one case, Eon reports: "The Shadow Man was watching me, his expression strangely tender. He must have thought me a brother. I looked away from the undeserved fellowship." (125) In another case, when he is talking to Lady Dela, he wonders to himself how a Moon Shadow (castrated male) would ask a Contraire (transsexual woman) if she has had her "male parts" removed. (246) In a separate conversation, Lady Dela chastises Eon for asking whether the eunuch Ryko is "a Trang cattle-man," which, she tells him, "is none of your business". (247) And although Lady Dela fancies the affection of Ryko, she dares not act on her desire, sighing: "A eunuch and a Contraire. How the gods would laugh". (418)
There seem to be some popular misconceptions in this fantasy world about whether eunuchs can have sex. When a prince suggests to Eon that they could visit the concubines, he immediately blushes and says: "Of course, you would have no interest in such things. Forgive my vulgarity." Eon agrees, believing that "a Moon Shadow would not continue the conversation." (204-205) Later, when the eunuch Ryko takes Lord Eon to the concubines, he more knowingly claims that the guards do not think it unusual because "They know there is more than one way to skin a cat." (260)
Similar to the eunuchs of wealthy households in Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights tales, the eunuchs in Eon are ubiquitous and active but they mostly perform quiet, background actions. There are "etiquette eunuchs" who provide advice on court behavior. (160, 175) Eunuchs bow and nod (176), pull out chairs (178), usher guests (179), motion and are motioned to (180, 190), are followed (190), quietly dismissed (193), whispered to and waved away (180), stand on guard nearly motionless while observing passersby (204), rest their hands on their sheathed swords (119), distribute jade tokens to favorite poets at banquets (178-179), bear royal goblets of hot cocoa and other refreshment (131, 190), and hold parasols over the nobility (296). Sometimes they have larger roles as royal physicians (130) and guardians of magical treasure (205). Aside from the bodyguard Ryko, the eunuch with the largest speaking role is the scholar Prahn, the prince's tutor (197-207), but even Prahn has acquired the quiet mannerisms of a eunuch: "Prahn nudged his foot into the eunuch kneeling beside the bureau...The eunuch scrabbled across the floor on his knees..." (206-207)
The author's website attributes most of her knowledge about Chinese eunuchs to the popular book on the subject by Taisuke Mitamura. Some of her more sensational details are easily recognizable as inspired by the unforgettable details of that book: the high mortality rate from castration due to obstructed urinary tracts (246), the metal implement used to aid urination that the eunuchs tied to their sashes (148), and the eunuch who served as "food taster" to discourage attempts to poison the emperor (168-169).
Ryko distinguishes himself from the "groups of shrieking women and cowering eunuchs being bludgeoned to their knees" (466) in one particular battle scene when he kills a guard with a knife. When Eon then tries to prevent him from rushing into a dangerous house, Ryko says, "You think me too soft to do my duty?" (467) This is against a cultural background where eunuchs "are expected to keep the sweetness of childhood." (147)
The mysterious genders of the characters in this book –"Moon Shadow" eunuch, "Contraire" transsexual woman, and a young woman pretending to be a Moon Shadow – create an extra layer of complexity that magnify their deceptions and intrigues. It is not hard to imagine much of this taking place in the imperial Chinese court on which the fantasy world is loosely based.
The book is Alison Goodman's Eon: Dragoneye Reborn (New York: Viking, 2008). Page numbers above are based on the uncorrected proof copy. The sequel, Eona: Return of the Dragoneye, was released in 2011.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Sam Roberts wrote The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case after interviewing David Greenglass. Greenglass stole nuclear intelligence from Los Alamos, N.M. After being told that his wife had told the FBI that his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, had been involved, Greenglass readily testified against Ethel and her husband Julius. The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953. Greenglass said in the book that “I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don’t remember,” that he had named his sister to protect his wife, and that he did not regret it. “My wife is more important to me than my sister. Or my mother or my father, O.K.? And she was the mother of my children.”
(Greenglass died in 2014.) Greenglass lied, but he was sincere — decades after the fact — about how he felt about his lie.
With intimates, at least, if the relationship is to be preserved, sincerity certainly has an important place. Sam Harris took a hardline stance against lying in his brief book by that name:
Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding – these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.
And while we imagine that we tell certain lies out of compassion for others, it is rarely difficult to spot the damage we do in the process. By lying, we deny our friends access to reality – and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information. Rather often, to lie is to infringe upon the freedom of those we care about.
In the passage above, he claims that honesty is an essential part of sincerity.
R. Jay Magill, Jr. argued that sincerity is not the same as honesty or frankness, but rather is about accurately reporting "one's innermost thoughts or emotions, no matter how relevant, factually wrong, or counterproductive." It is therefore a kind of intimacy best reserved for the private sphere.
He wrote for the Boston Globe:
"In the realm of politics, in fact, the demand for sincerity is relatively new, a legacy of Reformation-era religion that only in recent decades has come to seem as important, or even more important than, qualities like leadership, managerial skill, or knowledge. * * * Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle all justified the 'noble lie,' which placed lofty public goals ahead of personal morality."
We certainly wear emotional masks of different kinds at different times. Whether it is good or bad, it is probably not completely avoidable.
One of those masks is sentimentality, according to James Baldwin: "Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty."
In Magill's book Sincerity (2012), he wrote: "Sincerity “means confronting one’s innermost thoughts or emotions and relaying them to others straightforwardly, no matter how relevant to the topic, injurious to one’s own reputation, or embarrassing – or however correct or incorrect. Sincerity, in other words, is a subjective state that need not have anything to do with reality." (p. 13) He also raised the question of an alternate use of the term: “does sincerity mean revealing one’s intentions openly and avoiding deceit (as in, “I mean this sincerely”), or does it mean pursuing one’s goals in accordance with one’s true beliefs (as in, “I sincerely believe that X is the right thing to do and will stop at nothing to do it”)?” (p. 19) In one analysis, sincerity reveals depth that enables people to grow in conversation with each other. Christopher Phillips wrote:
"[Hazrat Inayat] Khan distinguishes between types of moral mirrors: that of ‘the insincere person,’ whose reflections reveal only surface — of himself and those who would seek to know more of themselves through him — versus the mirror of ‘the sincere person,’ whose reflections permeate surface and depth at once. When two sincere people are ‘focused on one another...with love,’ each helps the other gain greater literal and figurative vision of who they are and still might be."Sherwin T. Wine offered a differing interpretation from a pragmatic perspective. Whatever is inside people's hearts (their self-understanding, their intentions, and so forth), it does not always correspond to their behavior, and often their actual behavior is what really matters (or should matter) to themselves and others. It is one thing to be sincere about our precious, rarefied, idealized understandings of ourselves, and another to be honest about what we do.
Ambitious politicians do not turn me off so long as they help their constituents. Self-absorbed parents do not bother me as long as they nurture children. Cynical teachers do not arouse my disdain as long as they elevate the skills of their students. Motivation is so complex that it is difficult to know which intention is the ‘real’ one. To be ‘pure of heart’ and a behavioral disaster is meaningless to me. When the cult of incompetence is wedded to the cult of good intentions only disaster ensues.
The greatest source of illusion is the inability to distinguish between intentions and behavior. So often we think that what we are is what we say we want to be — or that other people are what they say they want to be. Realism is replaced by a naive sincerity.
Sincerity often victimizes us. People ask us what we feel and believe — and we tell them what we sincerely feel and believe — even though what we sincerely think we feel and believe has nothing to do with our own behavior. We — and others — settle for sincerity when what we should be demanding is truth.
Appropriate expectations do not rely on some necessary correlation between saintly motivation and saintly behavior. They prefer to notice competence and strength of will. Maybe, what people really want is what they end up doing.
"David Greenglass, Spy Who Helped Seal the Rosenbergs’ Doom, Dies at 92." Robert D. McFadden. The New York Times, Oct. 14, 2014.
"The case against sincerity." R. Jay Magill, Jr. The Boston Sunday Globe, April 1, 2012, p. K1.
James Baldwin, quoted in the Montreal Gazette. Quoted in The Week, May 23, 2014. p. 15.
R. Jay Magill, Jr. Sincerity: How a moral ideal born five hundred years ago inspired religious wars, modern art, hipster chic, and the curious notion that we all have something to say (no matter how dull). New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2012.
Christopher Phillips. Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Die-Hard Romantic. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007. p. 64.
Sherwin T. Wine. Staying Sane in a Crazy World: A Guide to Rational Living. Birmingham, Mich.: The Center for New Thinking, 1995. pp. 148.
Monday, October 13, 2014
"Unfortunately, there appears something special about foreign policy in the hands of males. Among humans and chimpanzees, at least, male coalitionary groups often go beyond defense (typical of monkey matriarchies) to include unprovoked aggression, which suggests that our own intercommunity conflicts might be less terrible if they were conducted on behalf of women's rather than men's interests. Primate communities organized around male interests naturally tend to follow male strategies and, thanks to sexual selection, tend to seek power with an almost unbounded enthusiasm. In a nutshell: Patriotism breeds aggression."As the U.S. Secretary of Defense once put it: "The Department of Defense is optimistic about the underlying patriotism of our youth in the face of national crisis." If the patriotism is "underlying," this may be due to cultural influences, but it may also be an evolutionary heritage and a common feature of the adolescent mind. Why, furthermore, would a military official feel "optimistic" about such an attitude? Perhaps because patriotism is the moral fuel of the war machine. "Therefore," Tolstoy said, "to destroy war, destroy patriotism."
Isak Dinesen suggested channeling that energy into caring for people in a way that is more universally applied.
"Now, while the concept of patriotism is still not a century old, humanity surely has courage and imagination enough to take the huge step of encompassing the race itself, the whole of humanity, with the same feeling of responsibility, the same burning desire to serve."
Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996. p 233.
Caspar W. Weinberger, Secretary of Defense, Foreword to Martin Anderson, The Military Draft, p xvi.
Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s Writings on Civil Disobedience and Non-violence. New York: Bergman Publishers, 1967. p 140.
Isak Dinesen [Karen Blixen]. On Modern Marriage and Other Observations (1924). Translated by Anne Born. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986. p. 87.
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Each winter, as Christmas nears, Americans are treated to a media creation known as the "War on Christmas" and the pretended righteous response to it. The theory behind the War on Christmas is that there are legions of anti-Christian or hyper-politically-correct people who are out to remove all references to Christmas from the public square, and that these pseudo-militants need to be stopped before they succeed in eradicating Christmas altogether. The movement's proposed strategy to combat these enemies is simply to beat them at their own game and to make sure that stores, public events, and personal greetings contain as many references to "Christmas" as possible. The word "holiday" won't do it; "holiday" is, in fact, you must know, one of the enemy's tools to kill "Christmas."
This may sound laughable, but millions of Americans take this absolutely seriously. Unfortunately, it leads to a strange, indirect form of anti-Semitism, in which the targets of the pro-Christmas warriors are Jewish-run businesses.
Image of elf ornament from Wikimedia Commons. Taken by Jelene Morris. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Boycott
In 2005, the right-wing American Family Association published on its website a list of companies that allegedly "'banned Christmas' from their retail ads, in-store promotions or television commercials." "Banning" Christmas, a term the AFA used imprecisely, only amounted to using the word "Christmas" selectively – some would say judiciously. The full list, as viewed online that December, identified active boycotts against the seven worst corporate offenders. Office Max and Best Buy were tagged with the brief complaints that they produced "no 'Christmas' in their advertising." The online search engine of the office supply company Staples was found to offer merely three results for "Christmas." Kmart dared to refer online customers who "need it by Christmas" to a "Holiday Shipping Dates" section, while Nordstrom, even more egregiously, published a "holiday shipping" schedule that referred to "December 25."
Groups like the AFA do not use the tools of social science or economics to measure which companies neglect Christmas. They do not consider or compare the demographics of the stores' clientele, the percentages of company profits earned during the Christmas season, whether the stores sell items intended to be given as Christmas gifts, or the number of references to "holiday" versus "Christmas." They simply find examples of stores that someone thinks don't look Christmassy enough, and they boycott them.
Other crusaders also put retailers through the wringer. Macy's, after being attacked by Bill O'Reilly of "The O'Reilly Factor" talk show on Fox News, insisted it had not "banned" the phrase "Merry Christmas" but had merely advised employees not to make assumptions about which holidays its customers celebrate. A customer service representative for Land's End made a similar point and was drawn into a weeklong dispute with the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. To cure what the Catholic League presented as Land's End's ignorance of its customers' religious preferences, the Catholic League encouraged Catholics to call and request "Christmas" catalogs.
The Catholic League also boycotted Wal-Mart, cited as an offender by the AFA, for one day in November 2005. League president Bill Donohue complained that when he searched Wal-Mart's website for "Hanukkah" or "Kwanzaa," he was given search results of individual items, but when he searched for "Christmas," he was redirected to an entire "Holiday" shopping section. "Wal-Mart is practicing discrimination," Donohue declared, assuming that this special treatment of Christmas implied inferiority. Wal-Mart apologized the next day, and a subsequent search for "Christmas" on their website produced a disorganized list of 7,921 products. One can only hope Donohue was relieved that Christians were no longer being "discriminated" against by having thousands of Christmas products usefully organized in a separate section. In 2008, Wal-Mart's online Christmas items were presented on a page called "The Christmas Shop," and in 2011, they offered a "Christmas layaway program." The company did not, however, abandon its policy of "encouraging employees to say 'Happy Holidays' instead of Merry Christmas." In 2014, two months before the holiday, when one types "Christmas" into the search box, one sees the disorganized list again, now with 63,971 items. Wal-Mart was still promoting Hallowe'en at that time, and it was also possible to search by Christmas-related categories. One month before the holiday, in 2016 there were over 400,000 results and in 2017 there were over 1.2 million results, each with optional organization by 14 categories.
In 2017, upon the death of Fox News founder Roger Ailes, the Catholic League tweeted: "Roger Ailes did more for America than anyone in television history." To which Amy Sullivan responded: "Yes, clearly without Ailes, Christmas would have lost the war".
Mark Manson wrote in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck about concern over the lack of Christmas trees at malls and similar social crises:
“The writer and media commentator Ryan Holiday refers to this as ‘outrage porn’: rather than report on real stories and real issues, the media find it much easier (and more profitable) to find something mildly offensive, broadcast it to a wide audience, generate outrage, and then broadcast that outrage back across the population in a way that outrages yet another part of the population. This triggers a kind of echo of bullshit pinging back and forth between two imaginary sides, meanwhile distracting everyone from real societal problems.”The Christmas defenders' complaint is nebulous. First of all, the assumptions behind the movement are unclear. Is the movement centered on employee rights or consumer comfort? Is it about the right to greet someone with "Merry Christmas" or is it about the expectation to be so greeted? Does it acknowledge that Christmas can be referred to in a matter-of-fact way – as two Jews can coherently discuss buying Christmas presents for their Christian relatives and friends – without invoking the word Christmas in a sacred context and without any assumption of bolstering its sanctity? Do the movement's coordinators believe the pro-Christmas-language initiative will benefit non-Christians in any way? Do they care if it does? Secondly, although the AFA and Fox News pundits claim that companies are "banning" Christmas, they have not claimed that Christian clerks or shoppers have felt obligated to suppress their religious identities. In legal terms, they have not claimed injury. Thirdly, the proposed remedy is even fuzzier. Are the Christmas activists arguing that employees' speech and company publications should be required to use the word "Christmas"? If so, how frequently? Or do they merely want employees to be permitted to use their own judgment when interacting with customers? Without answering these questions, the movement in response to the non-existent "War on Christmas" (if the "response" can be dignified as a movement and not just as a media creation) lacks direction, and it tends to wander into anti-Semitic territory.
Where's My Christmas, Mr. Kresge?
In 2005, two-thirds of a million Christians, organized by the American Family Association via an online petition, rushed to condemn the absence of Christian celebration on the part of several large companies. It is unclear whether they realized that these companies were founded mainly by Jews.
Sears was shaped by Julius Rosenwald, who became the second president in 1895 and was the original business partner of founder Richard Sears. Kmart was the child of the S. S. Kresge Corporation, founded by Sebastian Kresge in 1899. Kohl's was founded by Max Kohl in 1962; Home Depot, by Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank in 1979; Staples, by Thomas Stemberg and Leo Kahn in 1985. Macy's, the company against which Bill O'Reilly demanded a simultaneous boycott, became one of the most famous Jewish business success stories after the dry goods store was acquired in 1896 by Isidor and Nathan Straus.
The AFA's 2008 list of "naughty" companies that allegedly failed to mention Christmas early and often included Barnes & Noble, whose chairman Leonard Riggio was a recipient of an award from the Jewish-led Anti-Defamation League for his efforts to educate children against prejudice; Costco, whose CEO James Sinegal was mentored by Jewish businessman Sol Price; and Kroger, which at the time was expanding its selection of kosher food.
Save Merry Christmas, an organization that advocated "celebrating Christmas in stores," used its briefly-lived website (accessed Sept. 2006) to list the names and contact information of 14 CEOs to whom they encouraged Christians to apply pressure. The CEOs' names included Bern, Pressler, Rounick, Schaefer, Ulrich, Wexner, and Zimmer. While it is difficult to demonstrate which of them are Jewish if they choose not to make that part of their public identities, to the casual reader it should seem likely that at least some of them are – and therein lies the point.
When the AFA encouraged its eager boycotters to email Richard Schulze, founder of Best Buy, how many hundreds of thousands of people were able to type that Jewish-sounding name and criticize him for his lack of Christmas spirit? Did they do it without pausing to question whether he might be Jewish, or did they intend to use their own religious holiday to harass someone they believed to be a Jew? Either option is demoralizing.
Of course, when the executive leaders of national and international companies develop their business plans, they must consider not only their own identities but also those of their employees and their customer base. To make an example of New York, about 17 percent of residents of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and suburban Nassau County are Jewish. If the employees and customers of department stores are representative of the general population, then, in about 3 percent of clerk/customer interactions in Brooklyn (where Sears and Target have stores) or Nassau County (where Wal-Mart does business), both clerk and customer are Jewish. No reasonable large-business leader could mandate that all clerks use Christian greetings with all customers, which would lead to a circus of New York Jews routinely wishing each other Merry Christmas, and provides no benefit to Christians except to make a mockery of their holiday by imposing its rituals in retail stores on people who would not otherwise choose to practice them.
That folks, in their righteous response to a fictional War on Christmas, organize boycotts of companies mostly founded by Jews — rather than, for example, taking the more positive, friendly step of promoting the business of Christian-owned and -operated companies — is indicative of something ill-mannered and spiteful about the campaign. Intentionally or not, the subtext seems to be that these Christians are not interested in doing business with non-Christians or less outwardly pious Christians.
Jews Against Christmas
Seen through a different lens, it is easy to find examples of public Christmas displays. There are, as Jon Stewart noted on his comedy hour "The Daily Show" in 2011, ostentatious Christmas displays all over the country and even in the White House, many of which "are subsidized by – uh, what's that thing you don't want to spend on anything? – taxpayer money!" If we are sensitive to the plight of "America's tragically persecuted Christian super-majority" (sarcastically so called by J. Daniel Janzen in Flak Magazine), then we must ask: Who is perpetrating this horrible persecution against the Christians?
It's hard to get a straight answer these days. Precisely because the idea of a "War on Christmas" makes so little sense on its face, the angry movement against it is likely disguising a more serious, deep-seated complaint, one whose true name is not spoken.
The suspicion of a conspiracy to steal Christianity back up the chimney historically has been overtly anti-Semitic. Absence of distinct ill will toward Jews is not a full excuse for participation today in this conspiracy theory. If there are enemies of Christmas, then pro-Christmas activists should have the courage to identify them by name, individually and collectively. Drawing a circle around the supposed culprits in negative space is dishonest. Their vagueness appears to be intended only to avoid charges of bigotry. Those who accuse the ephemeral Christmas enemies of bigotry and bah-humbug should lay themselves bare to examination of whether they, themselves, hold any bigotry and bah-humbug about non-Christian beliefs.
The subtitle to John Gibson's War on Christmas (2005) effusively referenced a "Liberal Plot." More recently, Bodie Hodge, who is associated with the creationist organization Answers in Genesis – USA, published a book in 2013 War on Christmas: Battles in Faith, Tradition, and Religious Expression whose description refers to Christmas as "ground zero in an ongoing culture war". Fox News political analyst Jim Pinkerton (2005) dated the alleged "War on Christmas" back to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1962 decision against prayer in public schools.
Automaker Henry Ford was more blunt in "The International Jew" (1921), a complaint about secularized Christmas and Easter cards. His essay "The International Jew" lists Jewish-led legal assaults on Christian prayer and celebrations in public schools dating back to the turn of the twentieth century. "The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and other Christian festivals, and their opposition to certain patriotic songs, shows the venom and directness of that attack," Ford wrote. He also blamed Jews for Christians' own avoidance of preaching in civic contexts: "No President of the United States has yet dared to take his inaugural oath on the open pages of the New Testament – the Jews would denounce him." (Presidents do swear in on Christian Bibles that include the New Testament. Ford's complaint was an attempt to find anti-Christian bias where there was none and to whip up resentment of Jews.)
Such prejudice survives today. For example, while claiming that those most offended by Christmas today are atheists and agnostics, the organization Boycott Watch implicitly admits that the "original complaint" was ascribed to Jews.
Keep Christmas in Kmart
The Knights of Columbus have promoted their "Keep Christ in Christmas" campaign since the 1980s. Part of their message is that, to preserve the meaning of the holiday, Christmas must be understood as a religious holiday, and material gifts must not be given center stage. But the hundreds of thousands of Christians who signed the AFA's boycott had the opposite agenda. A more elegant name for the Christian platform in the War on Christmas could easily be "Keep Christmas in Kmart."
The former homepage of Save Merry Christmas explained the offense as follows:
Each Christmas season, every kind of decoration, advertising gimmick and sales promotion is directing the public to purchase their merchandise for the Christmas celebration...This deliberate and intentional substitution of 'Merry Christmas' with un-celebratory phases are thoughtless, condescending and hurtful."The complaint seems to be that shoppers appreciate having gimmicky sales promotions directed at them near Christmastime, and that they are insulted only by the stores' failure to pretend that their overpriced junk has anything to do with the Messiah, a ruse that enhances these shoppers' enjoyment of the holiday and without which they feel demeaned.
The hours devoted to church attendance by the average American are already considerably outstripped by the hours he or she devotes to television and Internet. (Only one-third of Americans claim to attend church weekly, and people tend to overreport their church attendance, so the real number is likely much lower.) One might question whether the department store boycotters really want the lion's share of audible references to Christmas to come from commercials rather than church. If the AFA has tapped into a real current of dissatisfaction, then the most common answer would likely come in the unsettling affirmative.
Ironically, Bill O'Reilly is one of the fiercest advocates for the secularization of Christmas. On Dec. 3, 2004, O'Reilly explained to a Jewish caller that Christmas "is a federal holiday honoring the philosopher Jesus." Three years later, he answered Rabbi Adam Bernay's question "[W]hat if a company is owned by Jews? Would you still object to no Christmas displays?" as follows: "The objection is based on the federal holiday, Rabbi, not religious connotation. Nobody's asking businesses to promote the divinity of Jesus. We're just asking stores that profit from Christmas to acknowledge Christmas." By calling Jesus a "philosopher," identifying Christmas as a government holiday, and arguing that Jewish merchants should "acknowledge Christmas" in a manner above and beyond selling Christmas products and welcoming Christian shoppers, O'Reilly laid out a strategy for stripping Christmas of its religious content and converting it into a department store holiday.
Adam Cohen's New York Times opinion piece in 2005 brazenly declared, "Religious conservatives have a cause this holiday season: the commercialization of Christmas. They're for it." But he concluded, hopefully, that the "smack-down attitude toward non-observers...does not, however, appear to be catching on with the public. That may be because most Americans do not recognize this commercialized, mean-spirited Christmas as their own."
One could always argue that it seems far more "thoughtless, condescending, and hurtful" toward Christians to outwardly associate the birth of their Messiah with coffeemakers and Barbie dolls, or with crazed shopping behavior such as that which led to the fatal trampling of a Wal-Mart employee on the day after Thanksgiving in 2008. How would it be more respectful to Christianity to acknowledge these shoppers as "Christmas tramplers" rather than "holiday tramplers"?
"It's as though the 'War on Christmas' has become a rote observance, devoid of all its original spiritual meaning," Jon Stewart concluded in 2012.
During the presidential campaign in 2015, Donald Trump threatened to boycott Starbucks because its disposable coffee cups were insufficiently Christmasy. In December 2016, after Trump had been elected but before he was inaugurated, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told Sean Hannity on Fox News: "You can say again, ‘Merry Christmas,’ because Donald Trump is now the president...it’s not a pejorative word anymore." The Republican National Committee prepared a Christmas message: "Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King." Some questioned whether a political parallel to "new King" was intended. In 2017, Trump began insisting as early as July that he would resurrect the word "Christmas." “We are getting near the beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore," he told the Values Voter Summit in October.
White Privilege in the War on Christmas
The War on Christmas has had anti-black as well as anti-Jewish manifestations. Ebony Magazine wrote in 2013 that Megyn Kelly of Fox News was "declaring nonsensically that the fictional character of Santa Claus 'just is White'". Such antics reveal that
"the imagined war on Christmas has become an equally farcical war on Whiteness in the minds of those sad right-wing warriors.For further description of how this kind of white privilege works, see Ta-Nehisi Coates' explanation of why white people should refrain from singing along to songs that contain the 'n-word.' It illuminates one aspect of white privilege. Coates said:
The next week, 'Duck Dynasty’s' Phil Robertson also became a martyr for the White right, after A&E briefly suspended him for holding forth on the nastiness of gay sex while insisting African Americans were happy in the Jim Crow South. The new hysteria and hypocrisy was crystallized by one surreal fact: While paranoid White righties were fighting for their allegedly endangered right to celebrate Christmas (with their White Santa), they could watch a 'Duck Dynasty' Christmas marathon on A&E, underscoring that there’s neither a war on Christmas nor on bigoted pseudo-Christians like Robertson. But there’s a lot of cash to be made, and fear to be stoked, by claiming both.
Kelly and Robertson and kindred spirits like Sarah Palin charted a bold new civil rights frontier in 2013: fighting for the right of White people to say false, stupid and bigoted things without facing criticism, let alone paying any real penalty."
"When you're white in this country, you're taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have a right to everything....I mean, you're conditioned this way...the laws and the culture tell you this. You have a right to go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be however, and people just gotta accommodate themselves to you. So here comes this word that you feel like you invented. And now somebody's going to tell you how to use a word that you invented. You know? 'Why can't I use it? Everyone else gets to use it. That's racism that I don't get to use it. That's racism against me! You know, I have to inconvenience myself and hear this song and I can't sing along! How come I can't sing along?' I think that, for white people, the experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use [the 'n-word'] is actually very insightful. It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can't join in and do. So I think there's actually a lot to be learned from refraining [from saying that word]."
What Do You Have Against Thursday?
President Bush sent a photograph of the White House pets with wishes for a good "holiday" to over a million people in 2005. WorldNetDaily.com editor Joseph Farah broadcast his petulant reaction to Bush's neutral word choice: he destroyed the card. In 2007, the White House sent a more overtly religious card, including wishes for a "blessed season" with a passage from the Biblical prophet Nehemiah, but still, the card avoided the controversial word "Christmas."
It is puzzling why the words "holiday" or "season" should be deemed offensive simply because they are vague and inclusive. The Hebrew and Yiddish expressions "chag sameach" and "good yontif" translate as "happy holiday," and Jews use them to refer to the Jewish holiday du jour, the identity of which should be obvious as a matter of the current date. So, too, when one wishes another "Have a nice day," it would be unexpected to receive an accusation of waging a "War on Thursday" because of a failure to specify the day of the week. This is why it is strange and inconsistent that, when one wishes another a pleasant "holiday" (etymology: "holy day"), one should be cast as a grinch or a militant atheist for failing to specify the holy day in question.
Perhaps the English phrase "Happy Holidays" offends some members of the majority religion precisely because it is designed to be inclusive to people of all religions, races, and nationalities who enjoy the Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year's season. Such people profess to feel that the implicit admission of the existence of other holidays somehow diminishes their enjoyment of their own holiday. This resembles a child boycotting her own birthday cake because it isn't sold with her name already written on it. She can still eat the cake. The cake was sold with a blank space to ice a child's name because that kid isn't the only kid in the world who's having a birthday.
A brief satire by The War on Christmas by Jaime Horio in 2017 pinpoints the myopia and petulance of the complaint.