Monthly Archives: May 2015

The making of a Communist

When Mama and Papa came to America they were not seeking the legended golden mecca. As young Jewish revolutionaries, they knew they were coming to a capitalist America, but at least it was not tyrannical, monarchistic Old Russia. …

The 1905 revolution in Russia raised jubilant hopes among the young emigrés, and Mama, pregnant with my sister, made plans to go home. The revolution failed; going-home talk slowly receded, but Mama and Papa and the aunts and uncles did not assimilate into the new country. They rejected the mores of capitalist America. They were critical of those among their emigré circles who adjusted and tried to make it by the exploitative measures needed to succeed. Their goals remained alienated from those of this country. They wore their poverty like a badge of honor, continued to meet in small groups which at least now were no longer illegal as in Old Russia, and talked about the needed revolution. …

Through it all we children grew and played in this self-contained, foreign-born, radical community. We were enrolled in the Socialist Party sunday school at the Labor Temple at the time we started public school kindergarten, and the former was more important than the latter. Among my early memories are those of being lifted each week onto a table in stark meeting halls and lisping my way through recitations of revolutionary poems by Yiddish writers my parents and their comrades loved so passionately. Papa coached me at home, explaining the pathos and courage and hope of the words I was to recite. …

In 1922, at the age of sixteen, my sister Mini, already a Young Communist League member, organized the first Communist children’s group in Southern California. I was her first recruit and rapidly became that organization’s public spokesperson—a fiery, tense thirteen-year-old. In school I was selected to recite James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphan Annie” poems at PTA meetings; out of school I made eloquent speeches at Communist mass meetings, denouncing the Rockefeller and Morgan warmakers and urging support of the new children’s revolutionary movement.

Peggy Dennis, The Autobiography of an American Communist: A Personal View of a Political Life 1925-1975

Dealing with abnormality

The following paragraphs describe a certain country. As you read, try to guess which country it is.

[T]here were people whose gender identity was hard to figure out. There was this one particular person living in the neighborhood next to mine that people were always busy gossiping about. I wasn’t sure whether I should refer to this person as “aunt” or “uncle” (in [redacted], you don’t call older people by their first names; you should call them “aunt,” “uncle,” “grandma” or “grandpa”).

This person was married to a man and had two kids. Still, this person cheated on their husband with a woman and thus was always on people’s lips. When you met this person for the first time you would think she was a man. Although this person was voluptuous, with boobs bigger than any other woman in the neighborhood, everyone thought this person was a man. …

She was friendly and nice to everyone, so I always liked her. My mom’s friend had been a widow for a long time and fell in love with her. That’s why I became a close friend to her.

She took care of all the house chores typically performed by men in the house. She maintained a good relationship with her husband and she was a good mother to her children and, most importantly, she was the breadwinner in the family.

People probably wanted to gossip about her not because of her bisexuality. They probably gossiped about her because of jealousy that she made lots of money while having a good family.

Since leaving [redacted], I have learned more about LGBT issues in the women’s studies class I took. When I was in [redacted], I hadn’t heard the terms “gay” and “lesbian.” All I thought was that they had different sexual preference. As long as they were good people, we didn’t have any problem being friends with them regardless of their sexual preference.

Of course, people would gossip from time to time because they didn’t have anything else to do in their free time. People didn’t treat them with contempt and the LGBTs were never shunned or excluded from the society.

After arriving in [elsewhere], I saw that the LGBTs were a social issue and often found in public discussion. I tried to take an interest in the issue but I never paid much attention to it since it wasn’t directly of interest.

A very progressive country, no?

Here’s the paragraph I cut:

Women are not supposed to ride bicycles in [redacted], but she could ride a bicycle. That’s because even the traffic police couldn’t figure out the gender of this person. They couldn’t stop her from riding the bike. Before they could figure out the gender, she was already gone.

So maybe it isn’t progressive.

Have you made your guess?

The country is North Korea.

How can this happen? Here’s one possible reason:

[A] tolerant attitude … can be had towards any minority – whether it be a lifestyle minority, an ethnic minority, a religious minority, or a political minority – when it is below a certain level of prominence in that society.

… [T]hose of baroque sexuality have often, in sneering and pushy voices, asked “Are you threatened by my sexuality?”. Or at least they used to – now, of course, we know that that question was, in itself, a threat – the fulness of it, including the unspoken portion, would go something like: “Are you threatened by my sexuality? Well if not, just you wait. You’ll be paying astronomical fines for not wanting to bake a cake for my wedding or losing your job for daring to oppose my pet political causes soon enough, chump”.

And yet in Japan, and certainly in the world of anime, things are different. Anime homosexuals are carefully portrayed as not representing a threat to the prevailing cisheteronormist order. … Sailor Uranus does not wish to upend the society around her in order to gain the validation involved in having her lifestyle redefined as normal; she only desires to be left in peace to discreetly live as she wishes. She doesn’t want to change marriage laws, get you fired for saying that you don’t like her, or tear down the faith of the polis.

And it is because of this that she can safely be left alone by the larger society around her.

Setting the frame

The first work is Clifford Geertz’s article ‘“Internal conversion” in contemporary Bali’ (1973). Here he describes and analyses social transitions relating to changes in attitudes of different social groups of Indonesian Balinese society towards a local Hinduism. Those changes took place in the 1950s and early 1960s. Geertz talks about three main aspects of that process – ‘the intensified religious questioning, the spread of religious literacy, and the attempt to reorganize religious institutions’ (Geertz 1973: 189). I think it is worth adding some specific traits of this process – attempts ‘to segregate religion from social life in general’ (ibid.: 184), the systematization and interpretation of sacred texts (i.e. the creation of dogma and creed), the unification of ritual activity, and the organization of institutional control over local religious life (the local ‘Ministry of Religion’, qualifying examinations for priests, and a religious school). To include those processes into a more general conceptual scheme, Geertz uses Max Weber’s dichotomy of ‘traditional religion vs. rational religion’ and names the transformation he writes about ‘the rationalization of Balinese religion’ (ibid.: 181).

Why did the rationalizers of Balinese religion choose those particular ways for their activity? Geertz did not give us a clear answer to this question. He seems to think about this issue in terms of general laws of religious rationalization, as when he writes about some ‘social and intellectual processes which gave rise to the fundamental religious transformations of world history’ (ibid.: 189) and compares indirectly the case of Bali with ancient China and Greece. However, I think that we have no need to look for some general laws and remote parallels for understanding modern and post-modern religious transformations. Probably, the Balinese know what they have to do to reform their religion because they have a bright and obliging model of a ‘proper religion’ not so far from them. I mean Islam.

Geertz notes that the Balinese are ‘a people, intensely conscious and painfully proud of being a Hindu island in a Muslim sea, and their attitude toward Islam is that of the duchess to the bug’ (ibid.: 181). But Muslims are a powerful majority in Indonesia, and they control all state institutions including the state Ministry of religion. The Balinese do not want to convert to Islam and they do not want their religion to be considered by the majority as a local and ‘wild’ one. They try to make their religion respectable in the eyes of their neighbours (and in their own eyes). In this context the outer model determines their activity and the Balinese have to accept the majority’s rules of the game and communicate with that majority to achieve their aims. Geertz provides an example of such communication:

The Muslims say, you have no book, how can you be a world religion? The Balinese reply, we have manuscripts and inscriptions dating before Mohammed. The Muslims say, you believe in many gods and worship stones; The Balinese say, god is One but has many names and the ‘stone’ is the vehicle of God, not God himself. (Geertz 1973: 188)

I would like to note that in these circumstances the Balinese have no opportunity to reply: ‘So what? There are many religions without any holy scripture and there are many polytheistic religions.’ It would break the rules of the dialogue and destroy it. But the dialogue is very significant for them. Through it arise Balinese Holy Writ, dogmatics, theology, unified rituals, and religious institutions. Such conversation does not necessarily take place in the form of direct contacts: religious reformers can imagine this discussion, but they have to imagine it quite correctly.


American Ghazali

So, like, there’s this place called Russia, right? And they’ve got this guy, Vladimir something, and this guy Vladimir, like… Russia doesn’t like us very much. See, the Soviet Union… when the Soviet Union was around, like, it was, like, people like to say they were bad, but maybe they weren’t, you know? A lot of bad people said they were bad, so they might have been good, you know? Like, you can tell if you’re doing something right if you make the right enemies, right? But then again, they had this thing, like, they banned rock music, and I once went to a museum in Berlin, about East Germany, and, like, there was this… egg thing, egg container, I forget what it’s called, but there was only one type of egg thing, you could only get one. It had a chicken head on it. The only style of egg thing you could get. So, like, maybe the Soviet Union was bad. I don’t know. That’s bad. Only one kind of egg thing. That’s bad.

Anyway, Reagan made the Soviet Union stop existing, or something. Reagan was bad, man, fuck Reagan. So then, like, some other stuff happened, I guess, I mean, it was there for like ten years, so something must have happened, but I don’t know what. And, like, then this fascist Putin came along, and he hates gay people, and Russia is really bad now, really bad, man. They’ve got this fucking fascist Putin, and the fucking Russians are too stupid or something to see that Putin is bad. There was this article in the Times, like, this novelist, he holed up in a hotel in New York and watched a bunch of Russian TV, and he thought it was stupid, and there were a bunch of other novelists and they all agreed with him. He’s a novelist and he was in the Times and New York is cool, but anyway. Where was I?

Right. Vladimir something. So this guy Vladimir something, he’s something high up in Russia, some kind of advisor, something like that, and he keeps talking about America, and the Russians, they’re, like, stupid or brainwashed or something, I don’t know, they apparently think this guy Vladimir is right. Here’s what he says:

America has a simple ideology – that there is only one truth in the world, that truth is held by God, and God created the United States to be an embodiment of that truth. So the Americans strive to bring this truth to the rest of the world and to make it happy. Only after that will everything be well. This ideology has a strong influence on their policy.

So Vox ran this article, you know, here’s what they said.

Lukin is hardly seen as an anti-American hard-liner in Russia — rather, he’s considered to be an objective expert on the United States and a highly professional diplomat. He is a founding member of the liberal opposition party Yabloko. That he would get the United States so obviously wrong — what Americans would call defending democracy and human rights, he sees as a far more radical and explicitly religious agenda of “advocating a world revolution” — is troubling. But his view is a common one, and that tells you a great deal.

The interviewer’s response is similarly telling: “So Russia took off its ideological blinders in 1991, but America still seems to have them on. The Soviet Union is gone, but the policy against it is not.”

This narrative of an inherently aggressive America is one we heard over and over in Moscow, not just from people who support Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aggressive, anti-American policies but even from those who oppose them. In this view, American politics and policies are bent on, and in many ways driven by, a hatred of Russia and desire to destroy or at least control it.

Lukin, that’s it. Alright. So, like, yeah, do you see the problem here? Like… this guy doesn’t like democracy and human rights and all that, you know? “World revolution”, how do you get there from here?

Like, democracy, human rights, all that, these things are good, right? And we know that. Everyone knows that. It’s just how it is. It’s not religious at all. Religion, you know, that’s things like myths and going to church, like, weird shit that people do over there. Democracy and human rights, that’s just how things are, you know? Lukin is probably a fascist too. You have to be either stupid or evil not to believe in democracy and human rights. It’s 2015!

And, you know, man, democracy and all that, it’s going to happen, it’s going to come, it’ll just happen. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice, except sometimes it doesn’t and we have to go bend it ourselves. But, like, it’s progress, you know? It’s just, like, an inevitable historical process. Sometimes we have to go inevit it, but it’s not us doing it. We order that some stuff happen, and some people follow the orders, I guess, and then it happens, but we didn’t make it happen. History did.

It’s like those riots in… where are the riots now? It was… what was it, somewhere, I don’t know where, a while ago it was that, and now it’s Baltimore, those riots in Baltimore, there are rioters, and they burn some buildings down, and then the buildings are burned down and they aren’t there anymore, but the rioters didn’t make that happen, you know? We don’t have enough justice yet. The buildings got burned down because it’s only 2015, and, you know, we’ve come a long way, but we aren’t there yet, like, someday history will end, but today we have all these racists and sexists and homophobes and Putin and all that, and, like, we’ve got to inevit that inevitable process, man, we’ve got to do that, but it won’t be us doing that, you know? It’ll be history, it’ll be inevitable, it’s going to happen, and once it happens, once we’ve gotten rid of all the racists and sexists and homophobes, I mean, once history has done that, once they realize what year it is, once they wake up and realize what year it is, like, this medieval shit, it’s not the Dark Ages anymore, man, once they wake up and realize what year it is, this stuff won’t happen anymore, the buildings won’t get burned down, and the foreigners, the Russians, the… there was that guy who got fucked up the ass with a knife until he died, what was his name, in, like, one of those countries over there, dictator, totally insane, like, once all those fascist dictators are gone, once they have democracy, once they start respecting human rights, those buildings, they won’t be getting burned down.

It’ll just happen, you know? All those dictators, man, it’s 2015, like, you know, it’s… it’s the will of the people, man, humanitarian interventions, we should go over and help them, but, like, sometimes they get brainwashed, you know, and we have to do something about that, we have to tell them, like, it’s not the Dark Ages anymore, man, these dictators have got to go, get with the times, right?

Like, alright, Iraq and Vietnam and all that, that was wrong, man, that was Bush, fuck Bush, something about oil, but these, like, that guy over there, knife guy, he had to go. Humanitarian intervention, right? Democracy. Human rights. It’s the will of the people.

This Vladimir guy, man, how could anyone get America so wrong?