Sunday, April 25, 2021

A Note on the Futility of Social Democracy

A difference between political parties in (most) European countries and in the United States: In Europe, political parties are power apparatuses formed with the intentionality of exercising authority within the separate power apparatus of the State. In the United States, however, with State-controlled party registration and regulation, political parties function in effect as part of the State apparatus already. Using the Foucauldian diagram of the panopticon: In Europe, party leaders function as prison guards surveilling social movements, as practice for their hoped-for role of administering the broader surveillance of state power. (The example of Tsipras and Syriza in Greece is instructive in this respect.) In the United States, however, there is no practice period. The difference between party leadership, elected officialdom, and the state bureaucracy is rudimentary and functionalist. Different functions are often co-located in the same person. Parties both surveil and are surveilled.

It is this that indicates the futility of U.S. social democracy, in both its right- and left forms. Right social democracy is the “realignment” fantasy shared by the majority of the Democratic Socialists of America, as well as the CPUSA. In this fantasy, the Democratic Party would not cease to function as part of the state apparatus, but it would do so in a way that is better aligned with the desires captured by the social movements that it electorally exploits—the unionized fraction of the working class, and minoritized racial, ethnic, and gender groupings. Thus the movements must conservatize themselves in order to capture and radicalize the Democratic Party. In the process, the movements have in fact conservatized themselves, as in the case of Labor, nearly out of existence. Left social democracy is represented by those groupings who insist it is possible somehow for a “new” party to give genuine representation to the working class, on the model of European social democracy. In the current atmosphere of DSA hegemony on the left, this tendency is not as visible as it once was, but it can be seen in various DSA minority groupings, in the “left” Greens who want to make the Green Party into an explicitly socialist party (or who insist, based on tortured readings of various GP position papers, that it already is one!), and in a few small groupings, usually of Trotskyist origin, who proclaim the need for a “workers party”. Such groupings do not recognize the degree to which U.S. political parties differ in their relationship to the State apparatus from European ones, and share a utopian view of the European reality that is out of step with the experience of workers’ movements there.

This note is not a general statement on the “party-form.” Such a statement would require both more empirical research (e.g., on the varying relations of parties and states in Latin America and other portions of the “global South”) and theoretical rigor (describing the fundamentally carceral nature of the diagram of power on which various types of party formations are based). But it provides adequate evidence, for those with eyes to see, on the futility of continued reliance on party formations in two important geographical spaces, the U.S. and Europe. Unfortunately, it is a futility that continues to consume much of what passes for “the left.”

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Notes for a Post-Foucauldian Research Program in Gender and Sexuality

The Foucauldian equation of Power/Knowledge only works when those with power take responsibility. (Foucault would quibble with the idea of any identifiable grouping “having” power, so let us say, pedantically, those constituted by power as authoritative.) Ignorance can be a tool of heedless authority, a means by which it retains stability. Ignorance can be cultivated, preserved, guarded jealously.

From this it follows that the smooth circuit of power, knowledge, and pleasure which he postulates in Volume 1 of The History of Sexuality is invalid, even within the arbitrary (Eurocentric, Christocentric) civilizational constraints he imposes on that study. The pleasure of knowing does not exhaust the scope of pleasures that can be taken. Pleasure can be experienced in the absence not only of power but even of knowledge. By studying and naming a phenomenon, one has called it into discursive existence, but the means by which that phenomenon participates in power may come about through discursive practices other than the scientific (knowing). Ample historical evidence for each of these points exists in the generation and comprehension of minoritized genders and sexualities.

Further: Within that volume there is a self-contradiction, which may or may not be related to this. On the one hand, he claims that “Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations….” (Part Four, Chapter Two, “Method”, p. 94) And yet in his periodization of sexuality he argues that “sexuality is originally, historically bourgeois” and speaks of “the proletariat’s hesitancy to accept this deployment and its tendency to say that this sexuality was the business of the bourgeoisie and did not concern it” (Part Four, Chapter Four, “Periodization”, p. 127). This proletariat he describes speaks in an unusually (for Foucault, though not for vulgar Marxists) univocal manner, and does not seem to include, e.g., proletarian women who agitated for birth control technology. If we take seriously the notion that “power comes from below,” then we must consider the possibility that these women were advocating for pleasures (the least of which would be, the pleasure of not having to worry about having yet another child) regarded as unspeakable by the bourgeois knowledge of the time. They advocated for one knowledge—the recognition and regulation of one’s own menstrual cycle—against another—the demographic certainty with which the bourgeoisie hoped that the reproduction of the labor force could be regarded as a matter that “took care of itself,” part of the faux frais de la production.

Thus: A disjunction between power and pleasure, that took the temporary historical form of a quarrel between types of knowledge. One need not adhere to the repressive hypothesis which Foucault so thoroughly and effectively discredits, for the same historical evidence can show how the demands of pleasure were soon enough recuperated into the circuits of power, through the expansion and segmentation of the productive labor force and the commoditization of care work. But one can see here--and in many other places--how inadequate a framework for critical analysis Power/Knowledge is.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Structural Antisemitism of Cuomo's New COVID Maps

I want to emphasize structural here, because I am discussing how the methodology apparently used in formulation of these maps would have resulted in disparate outcomes that are detrimental to Haredi Jewish communities in ways that do not benefit public health independently of whether or not there was any intention, on the part of Governor Cuomo or others, to do so. (I have reasons to believe that there was a combination of spite, arrogance, and political pandering to antisemites at play, adding up to intentionality, which time permitting I will discuss in a separate post.) For now, though, let's look at the maps.

Based on Cuomo's own tweets, showing how lines of the various zones relate to the residential addresses of individual recent COVID cases, the approach seems to have been to draw the lines based on the density of of residential cases. Some of the absurdities of this have already been noted on Twitter. GIS geeks have pointed out that the lines do not follow streets, meaning that residents and business owners at the boundaries of different zones have to guess where they land and what restrictions they are subject to. As a result of that oversight, I noticed that the campus of Queens College, where I used to work, falls into three zones: A slice of yellow, a chunk of orange, and a sliver of red. A spokesman for St. John's University pointed out that they were 2/3 in Yellow, and 1/3 in the clear. No doubt the administrations of these institutions will be seeking clarity from the State government. The absurdity of Queens College is especially pointed, since it is not a residential institution--nobody lives there! So whoever drew the lines was clearly trying to create some sort of compact-looking boundary without taking account of the fact that they were cutting through a major institution of higher education.

The absurdities of the line-drawing exercise impact all New Yorkers, but the way they went about selecting where to draw the lines, by focusing on density and residential addresses, was bound to have a disparate impact on Haredi communities, who are more likely than most contemporary Americans to live in large, intergenerational households. They are also more likely to live in apartment-like structures than other groups. This helps account for why Cuomo's methodology resulted in more stark divisions in suburban areas, such as Orange and Rockland Counties, than in Brooklyn and Queens. In New York City, the family structures and residential buildings of non-Jewish (or non-Orthodox) neighbors are more likely to be similar to those of their Haredi neighbors than out here in the suburbs. (This has accounted for some of the negative response to Kiryas Joel here in Orange County, the fear that the Satmarim bring an urban lifestyle--and urban problems--to a setting that is mostly suburban, even partly rural.) But it is when we look at the reasons why Haredim have these lifestyle differences that we start to uncover how the methodology is also premised on fundamental misunderstandings of how contagious diseases spread.

Haredim are drawn to high density housing not because they like being on top of each other more than other people do, but because religious observance makes it convenient and desirable. On Shabbos and other major holidays, one must not drive, at all. Therefore it is necessary to live within walking distance of one's synagogue and mikveh (ritual bath). This also helps account for the relatively cramped family living quarters: While part of the appeal of this area was that relatively prosperous families are able to buy rather large houses at prices that are lower than most of the NY metropolitan area, most families in KJ are not so prosperous. Women with children, as a rule, don't work outside the home after their second child. If the husband works in a religious calling, those jobs do not tend to have much in the way of monetary compensation. The relatively prosperous families tend to be those with some sort of business. Businesses that cater specifically to the community, such as selling Judaica, preparing kosher foods, or clothing that matches the idiosyncrasies of custom, can only support so many. But even those who work in outward-facing businesses try to stay relatively close to home. It stands to reason: If you and your car must be home well before sunset on Friday evening, it would not be good to get stuck in traffic on the New York State Thruway. So as a rule, Haredim tend to stay relatively close to home: School-age children, as young as 3 years old, going to religious schools, women staying home with the younger ones, men working as close to home as possible, most business needs being tended to locally, without venturing very far afield for things such as diapers, prescriptions, or banking. There are exceptions to this, of course, but the exceptions prove the rule.

Contrast this with how my family lives. At this point, because of COVID, my kids rarely get to go anywhere other than their school buildings. In this respect they are, for better or worse, not so different from Satmar kids. However my partner works as a librarian at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie. She works from home 2-3 days a week, but is in her office, in the library, the remaining work days. We both make trips out for household necessities and, since the restrictions were loosened, some personal care. Most of these trips are local--Monroe, Harriman--but for some things we might end up in Cornwall, Beacon, Middletown, or even New Paltz. So if I got COVID, contact tracing would not remain local to the town of Woodbury and environs, but have to reach out to the staff of my butcher in Beacon, my liquor store in Cornwall, my hairdresser in New Paltz. If my wife got it, all of her coworkers at the Marist Library, who live scattered in various locations around the Hudson Valley, would have to be tested, along with possibly some faculty or students. And our family has been relatively cautious, compared to neighbors who are enjoying sporting activities and indoor dining.

Therefore what I submit is that, while the density of dots, individual cases, in Kiryas Joel looks very frightening--and it is very frightening!--the lesser density of cases in the surrounding "yellow" zones of Monroe and Woodbury, or even parts of these towns and surrounding areas that are subject to no new restrictions, is no cause for complacency, given the differences in lifestyle between a Satmar and an average non-Haredi American suburbanite. Cuomo and his supporters are boasting that the zones and restrictions are based on "science" and "data," but a real science-based, data-driven approach would not have focused not on where people with new COVID infections live but on where they likely got it. To estimate that would require a robust contact tracing program. And despite Cuomo's boasts that New York State's contact tracing is the "best in the country" (which I doubt), its data is apparently not robust enough to have allowed his administration to consider that as a possibility.

Thus, by focusing on residential address, Cuomo and his staff ended up taking an approach that ignores the realities of infectious disease transmission, in a way that was bound to come down heavier on Orthodox Jews than on most of their neighbors. Given the latter, it is no wonder that many Haredim feel that they are being discriminated against, which in turns makes it even more likely that people will rebel against the restrictions. This is particularly the case given the strictures on schooling and religious observance, which to such a community can appear as an attempt at cultural genocide. (Time permitting, I will make a future post explaining why this description is not hyperbole.) The maps and their underlying methodology are therefore structurally antisemitic--that is to say, they are antisemitic in effect regardless of the intentions of the people who drafted them--and detrimental to the public health aims they purport to serve.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Gender Trouble: A First Pass at a Few Frequently Asked Questions

If your pronouns are "he" or "they," does that mean you are still in some sense a man?

I never was a man. "Man" was an identity marker that I tried to live with and up to for a quarter century, at the expense of my sense of self and well-being. Including "he" in the options is a preemptive concession: I have been called "he/him" long enough that I am used to it, and if you are used to calling me that, I am signaling that I will not fight you over it. I will fight over other things. To be fair and complete, I would welcome "she/her" as well, if someone feels moved to refer to me thus, but I will not lay claim that up front in a quick introduction. Mostly because it feels potentially trivializing to trans sisters who identify as, are unequivocally, women, and who have had to struggle through more bureaucracy, medical intervention, social opprobrium, hatred and self-hatred, to claim that for themselves. "Genderfluid" means, sometimes I am predominantly masculine, sometimes predominantly feminine, sometimes--most often, in fact--some varied and varying mixture of the two, which can also mean, neither at all. It means you would need partial differential equations to describe my gender, and PDEs are sometimes insoluble. If you must encapsulate it in the symbolic order, then I'll borrow the words of Prince Rogers Nelson:

I'm not a woman, I'm not a man
I am something you will never understand

Or maybe you will. The scope of human understanding is growing, I hope and believe.

So, then, why aren't you changing your name?

The reasons are varied.

First, pragmatic: I already have a professional track record and publication history under this name.

Second, emotional: The great-grandfather after whom I am proximately named is one of the few people I am related to against whom I hold no grudge, perhaps because he died before I was born. And the biblical figure who is my ultimate namesake--the Joseph of Genesis, not the one of the "New Testament"--is a character with whom I have identified since I was a child. The wearer of the coat of many colors, the interpreter of dreams, sold into bondage by his brothers and escaping through wit and foresight. Read between the lines and you'll also see that he was queer as fuck.

Third, my habitual formality: Some have pointed out that "Jo" could be a shortened version of the name that would be readily perceived as ambiguous with respect to gender. But some of my earliest memories are of rejecting nicknames: Someone once called me "Joey," and I wailed that I was not a baby kangaroo. "Jo(e)" with or without the "e" (or, in the case of my spouse, with a macron and a final "h") signifies a level of emotional intimacy I allow only to a few--my partner, the best man at our wedding, my brother and sister, a small number of closest friends. If you feel close enough to me to try it, do so in my presence. If I look daggers through your chest, then kindly revert to Joseph. I certainly will not allow the state or its agents that sort of counterfeit intimacy.

Lastly, and perhaps most potently, my stubbornness: My name has been defying expectations since I was born, thanks to my surname. Tomaras "doesn't sound Jewish," and for those in the know--mostly Greeks--it is recognizably Greek, which because of the religious construction of Greek identity around the Orthodox church also implies "not Jewish" (never mind that there have been Greek-speaking Jews in the territory known as Greece since well before Saul set out on the road to Damascus, let alone changed his name and started writing epistles). Through the stubborn fact of my existence it has become a Jewish name. This is why I won't change my surname, even though it marks a patriarchal inheritance that I loathe, or rather, precisely because it does. My pappou, a fascist and a wellspring of hereditary trauma, boasted of having traced the family line back 600 years to an eponymous mountain in northern Greece. For a grandchild bearing that name to be a queer, Jewish communist is like a well-placed gob of spit in his eye. If through my stubbornness (and fecundity) I have made Tomaras into a Jewish name, perhaps through similar stubbornness I can get people accustomed to thinking of "Joseph" as a name that does not necessarily imply male gender.

I said there would be things I would fight about.

So if you're nonbinary, why are you taking hormones?

I am taking hormones because I am nonbinary. I am thankful to a transmasculine friend who, in a conversation about my elder child, mentioned that this could even be a possibility. That got me thinking. It has been difficult for me to look into a mirror for the last decade. I have always strongly resembled my father. About ten years ago, I reached the age that he was when he started regularly abusing me, and the resemblance became uncanny, frightening. If hormone therapy has no other effect than to lessen this, then that would be sufficient. Better fit into a wider range of clothing would, over the long term, be an additional desired effect. I am already seeing psychological effects--which may be due to the hormones, or may be due to the placebo effect, but even if it's the latter, placebo effects are real and medically measurable. I had not fully anticipated these effects, such as more spontaneous demonstrative emotion with my spouse and kids, but they are desirable. The tablets cost me about 12 cents each. Given all that, why wouldn't I?

You're unemployed right now. Couldn't doing this, and being so public about it, complicate your job search?

You know what's really complicating my job search? The fact that we're heading into an overdue global depression, which in the United States has been compounded and accelerated by a completely botched public health response to COVID-19.

In the course of the career that I stumbled into, grant administration, I have enabled the organizations that have employed me to obtain and manage about $60 million. In that time period, my total compensation has been less than 2% of that figure. Any organization that would overlook that because a quick Google search uncovered information about my gender identity and presentation is not only bigoted, but will ultimately suffer for it. And if the economic crisis, the public health crisis, my own openness, and the foolishness of others ultimately do prevent me from securing a new job in that field, then I will not be sad to leave it behind in favor of something else.

I have various possibilities in mind. One would be focusing on writing. In the last week I have started work on a novel, and seem to be making interesting progress with it. To stand out from crowd among writers requires at least one of these three things: attractive youth, genius, or outrageousness. Youth is a thing of the past for me. Up to now I have not applied myself sufficiently to writing to be able to make a plausible claim for genius. So outrageousness it is.

Does the novel you're working on have anything to do with gender?

Of course it does, silly! A smart person once wrote that "race is the modality through which class is lived." Along the lines of that thought, one can say that gender is the attentional frame through which any experience at all can be said to be lived. (Yes, my vulgar-Marxist friends, that does imply that gender precedes class. Please re-read your Engels before you protest.) The novel is a genre of writing which treats lived experience as its medium. Every novel, inasmuch as it succeeds as a novel, is "about" gender, whether its jacket copy says so or not, much as epic poetry is always "about" divinity, tragedy is always "about" fate, and lyric poetry is always "about" beauty.

But beyond this truism, two of the three main characters are trans. It is based loosely on an unpublished short story of mine. Reflecting on why that story failed, I realized that one of its weaknesses was that its main character was too close a mimickry of the sad man I was trying and failing to be in my 30s. I have successfully written stories around characters like that, but usually only by giving them some sick twist. This character, by adhering too closely to its model, ended up being merely pathetic. Another failing was that another character had come to a sad end that was too abrupt. I realized that I could deal neatly with both these failures by making both characters trans, but that the structural changes this would entail to the story would necessitate a much longer arc. Hence, a novel.

Friday, July 3, 2020

A Full (Re-)Introduction

I have been out as bisexual, to most people and for most purposes, since I was 16 years old. (A salient exception to this would be my father. If he happens to stumble across this post, here is my personalized message to him: Yes, your eldest son is a faggot, a poustis, to use a word you used so often and freely in both English and Greek. If you're fine with that now, I still have many other reasons to hate you and not want you in my life, so fuck off and die.) Yet I have not identified publicly, until now, as anything other than a man. This despite the fact that my questioning of gender identity began even before my questioning of sexual identity. Yet I have heard so many of my fellow 40-something queers bemoan the fact that we have been slower to come at this than has been possible for the "kids these days," young people who have so many more ways available to question and problematize the prisonhouse of gender. The consoling truth, though, is that we simply did not have the language available to us, at least not readily. Here is my story, interlaced with some textual analysis.

As soon as I was grown enough to pull it off, about the age of 13, I started sneaking into my mother's clothes whenever I had the house to myself. This was not easy. My mother is a very tall woman. She's still taller than I am. If my mother reads this, I doubt that is when she finds this out: I was never as good at hiding things from her as I thought I was, so I suspect she already knew. It was along a similar timeline that I had my first sexual experiments with other boys. I will not go into details about this because people are justifiably queasy about descriptions of childhood sexuality. Suffice to say that both for me, and for the other boys involved, it was possible to mentally compartmentalize these experiences as a kind of "opportunistic homosexuality," similar to that found in prisons and on ships at sea. That is, since we were all nerds and dorks of various sorts, we could rationalize that we were just "practicing" for the girls whom we perceived as being unavailable, and thus that we were able to reassure ourselves that we were really not "that way."

I started college early, at the age of 15, and began my first sexual relationship with someone of the opposite sex shortly before my 16th birthday. This complicated relationship lasted the better part of an academic year and was in most ways bad for both of us, but since she was frankly bisexual herself, I owe her the debt of gratitude of helping me recognize that I was and am also bi. Within a few months of this realization I had told nearly everyone in my life, even my then-7-year-old little sister.

So if I was able to come out so soon as bi, why not as genderfluid, the word that I now believe best encapsulates my gender identity? A long answer would entail a detailed gloss on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet, of which I do not presently own a copy. The short answer is: The word did not exist yet. But there are historical and biographical details that help explain why I would not be the person to coin it, either. Those details are worth retelling.

In college, I continued dressing from time to time. (In the first year, I was particularly blessed that that first girlfriend and I were the same size!) But I was fairly certain--and grew more certain as I entered my 20s--that I was not trans. That is, according to the cultural codes & definitions still prevalent in the mid 1990s, I was not "a woman in a man's body." I felt no dysphoria in relation to primary sexual characteristics (though some in relation to secondary sexual characteristics). So I thought of my forays into femininity as being "drag."

This way of conceptualizing things was helped, once I declared a major in philosophy, by the popularity of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, which had been published a few years before in 1990, and her conceptualization of gender as performativity. I still find this conceptual framing quite useful, and most objections I have seen to it are based on misunderstandings of the meaning of "performative." (I will not discourse on that at length, as it would take us too far into the realm of philosophical nerdery and in ways that Butler herself has already answered better than I can.) In retrospect, however, my ventures in "drag" differed from most of what is understood as drag in the absence of "camp". The object was not to portray an exaggerated notion of femininity, but to express a feminine dimension of myself, to be related to publicly & sociably as femme. Yet since I did not always wish to be such, since there was also a masculine dimension of self which I was often quite comfortable expressing publicly and sociably, it did not seem, by the lights of what I understood at the time, that I could be "trans" in any way.

I am certainly not saying that such an understanding was absolutely impossible at the time: I had contemporaries in college who were transmasculine or transfeminine in ways that differed from the popular understanding of transsexuality, and that I did not fully understand at the time. I only mean to say that it was not in me to be a pioneer of a term that had not yet been coined. The first written usage of the word "genderqueer" that I can find via Google Books is from an academic book published in 1996, when I would have been a junior or senior in college, and may actually not be an intentional coinage of the author but an artifact of hyphenation. Even if I had been searching for such a concept, it is unlikely I would have encountered it.

However, 1996 was the year when I would have been least likely to be searching for such a term. I had just begun a serious, apparently heterosexual relationship, with the woman who would become my spouse. She now understands herself to be bi, and fairly butch. But she was not aware of either when we were both in college, and so she had not been involved with the LGBT student milieu on campus. Thus, by involving myself with her, I ended up getting exiled from that milieu. Let me say, it was just lovely hearing through the grapevine about friends saying, "Just watch, he'll be gay again within a year."

I had never claimed to be anything other than bi, and I was not claiming anything different. However, this adverse social pressure left me with the sense that, if I was to make the relationship work, I would need to distance myself from the queer "subculture" of which I had formerly been part. Honesty compels me to note, also, that while my wife is perfectly supportive now--we had a detailed conversation about my gender identity a couple of days ago, and as a result I am literally the happiest I've been in years--allowing her to get herself there took some work, time and patience on my part. She felt insecure about my sexuality for many years, and as we shall see, at times I gave her causes for insecurity.

I did not dress again for about ten years.

In that time, a few other things happened.

  1. After some episodic activism during college, in my senior year I began sustained, organized involvement in socialist politics.
  2. I entered and quickly quit graduate school.
  3. After leaving graduate school, I got my first full-time office job, as a data-entry clerk at an insurance company in North Carolina.

All of these facts, including the socialist politics, contributed to the reconstruction of the closet.

Let me first talk about the job. My boss there was a good old boy. He was racist and sexist in casual ways from which I slightly benefited (e.g. with a quick promotion). He wore suspenders every day, and would do his Foghorn Leghorn strut around the office every morning as if inspecting his property. Even before my first interview, I knew I would no longer be in an environment where people read Judith Butler. As soon as he shook my hand, though, I knew I would have to "butch up". That is, the gender that I would have to perform to my fullest was the gender which I presented in my pressed, white, Oxford collared, buttoned-down shirt. It was time to be a man, and particularly, a "professional" and white man. I returned his firm grip, and negotiated what I thought would be a decent starting salary.

My subsequent jobs were in what, to a casual observer would seem to be more supportive environments, but I entered each alert. For example, my next boss, in a law library, was a gay man. But after my collegiate experiences of biphobia, I was careful not to let on anything about my identity to him or other coworkers until I was sure that none of them would take it amiss. Later on, my first job in academia was a mixed experience. The "big boss" was a physics professor who was notorious for his racism, sexism, and general abusiveness to subordinates. However, my immediate supervisor was a woman who was involved in local Green Party politics. I still was cautious. Here is what caution and "butching up" got me at that job: A series of raises and promotions that nearly tripled my personal income in the span of six years, and moved me from the secretarial/clerical ranks to the lower layers of the managerial class. White male privilege is real.

Perhaps if my political life had been more of a refuge, the continual performance of masculinity would have seemed to be less of a necessity. It was not much of a refuge. My political home for just over a decade was a small Trotskyist group that most people reading this have no reason to know about. At the time of its formation in the 1970s, the group in question had had, by the standards of small Trotskyist groups at the time, relatively advanced positions on what was referred to back then as "the gay question." This was part of what had attracted me to it, since similar such groups were worse. Nonetheless, I did push gently to update its positions. For example, at a membership convention--the only one that was held in my years of membership--I had proposed updating our nomenclature from "the gay question" to "the LGBT question" and including some acknowledgement of the importance of trans rights in a "perspectives" document. (Apologies to readers unexperienced in far-left politics for the jargon. Those with some experience of democratic centralist groupings in general and Trotskyist ones in particular may have some sense of the internal significance of both a convention and a perspectives document; describing this to other people would take us too far afield.) I was not prepared for the ferocity of the response. For my efforts, one of the founding leaders of the group denounced my amendment, and by extension me, as "petty-bourgeois". Because of my academic background, this was a sore point that resonated even with some people whom I thought might be inclined to support me. My amendment was voted down by an overwhelming majority. The absurd irony that the denunciation was directed from a straight, retired professor to a young, queer secretary is only apparent to me in retrospect. (Also absurd: The fact that I can't "show receipts" because there were never any official minutes of that convention, because the person who was "National Organizer" at the time lost all the notes. But that's too far off the point, and the grouping in question is too politically insignificant to merit a retrospective polemic. Someday, I'll write a satirical novel and get it all out of my system.) What matters for the purposes of this essay is that, by the standards of "democratic centralism" to which I held myself at the time, any particular attention to trans rights had been held by a majority vote of the membership of my organization to be petty-bourgeois.

Nonetheless, I was not in a state of total epistemic closure. Around this time, I was fairly active on LiveJournal. My presence there was totally pseudonymous, and kept on the DL from my organization, which tended to be suspicious of the internet as a forum for political discussion. Thus my LiveJournal functioned as an outlet for practicing writing techniques too experimental, or working out ideas too heterodox, to be of use in either my work or my political organization. In effect, it was a lengthy rehearsal for my fictional writing "career," such as it has been.

It was on LiveJournal that I first encountered the word "genderqueer." And when I first encountered it, and explanations of what it meant, something about it sounded mostly right, but not quite right, for me.

Even so, "democratic centralism" had just decreed that innovations in terminology relating to sexuality and gender were "petty bourgeois". And so my initial response was mockery. My apologies in retrospect for anyone whom I may have hurt with that mockery: Know, then, that I was hurting myself as well.

Another irony: I am still friends with some members and former members of that group, and they are more vocally supportive of trans rights than they were back then. But I note that their changes of heart followed, rather than led, shifts in liberal public opinion (at least in the U.S., as opposed to the U.K., where much of liberal opinion, and a significant portion of the left as well, is virulently "trans-exclusive"). I have already written on why I no longer consider myself a Leninist, but Lenin did coin an excellent word for that type of political behavior: "tail-ism". Who's petty-bourgeois now, comrades?

So with my work life and political life framing our perspective, let us look at my gender expression in my mid-to-late 20s. I was in an apparently "straight" marriage. I was getting increasingly prosperous, in ways I had not expected. I was getting frustrated with but remained loyal to my political group. My partner was expecting that we would start working on having our first kid soon. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Therapy helped. After a lot of work, I realized that the major stressor was the issue of kids. I was afraid I would be like my father, and ironically, some of the destructive behaviors through which I expressed this fear mirrored his. One way to deal with the stress: I was fucking around with guys on the DL. Another way: Drinking too much, smoking too much pot, and getting in fights with people. With friends, family, and comrades, the fights were verbal, but because of my history of physical abuse, I was far too slow to recognize that verbal abuse is also abuse. (And my outbursts were not solely verbal: I got into public fights with strangers, sometimes in ways that were considered acceptable within a political framework, e.g. antifa work, and sometimes just because I was being an asshole. I was very careful never to be the one to throw the first punch, but I was good at dodging, albeit less effective at landing retaliatory hits. In retrospect, one thing I wish I had had during this time period were friends who shared my taste in punk and hardcore: I could have gotten this out of my system with some slam dancing at concerts, the way I used to as a teenager. But for the long term, therapy was more effective.)

In short, I was having my first major mental health crisis since grad school, and I had a lot to work on with my therapist. My biggest challenge was the issue of abusiveness and kids. If my marriage was to survive, I had to address it. I had to stop abusing others and myself. If I could achieve that, then I could assess honestly whether I did, in fact, want a child. That is where we focused our efforts. So while we did discuss sexuality some, I did not discuss gender much with her. (In fact, though I have had five therapists--two who were excellent, and three who ranged from mediocre to disastrous--gender has been the topic I've discussed least with any of them.) I am still married, and I have two kids, so apparently that worked out.

Another thing that helped, though, even though I did not discuss it much with my therapist, was dressing again. I went out to t-girl nights at bars in Manhattan, though not the kind (increasingly rare thanks to Giuliani's and Bloomberg's crackdowns) where sex workers congregated. Of course, there were chasers present, but mostly I succeeded in avoiding them, and hung out with the other ladies. It was through conversation that I realized that I was one of them to some extent, but not entirely, and not always. The question of "going full-time" would come up, and that didn't seem like what I wanted. Maybe there was something to that "genderqueer" neologism?

So why did I not continue dressing regularly? Here's what is impossible to anticipate before you have kids: Just how much time, energy, and money they take. I stopped publicly expressing my femme moments, for no more substantive reason than this. I hadn't the time, energy, or money. Take, for example, hair removal: It's expensive if someone is doing it for you, and it takes a while if doing yourself. And yes, I know it's not an absolute necessity--women and non-binary people have body hair. But I'm Greek, and if I'm wearing a low-cut dress and mountains of chest hair are peeking out? It's not a good look. It's a dysphoria trigger. And if I had gained weight--as I did, heading into my mid-to-late thirties--and no longer fit the clothes I had bought before, should I buy more?

Here's where we get back, by a circuitous route, to my Daddy issues: My father was not just abusive, he was neglectful. He would spend on himself and his whims even when my family couldn't afford it. This would put my mother into the position of scrambling to make sure that bills were paid and food was on the table. This was another pattern of behavior I did not want to repeat. His whims were drugs, hookers, fast cars, and cockamamie business ventures. Some dresses, blouses and skirts would hardly be on that order of money wasting (though shoes might be another story--get me in a good shoe store, men's or women's, and it's dangerous for my credit rating), but this is psychological reasoning, not economic. Why spend money on clothes I couldn't wear to work, when the kids needed clothes of their own all the time as they kept growing?

Could I have worn such clothes to work after all?

Let's consider: By 2012, I had moved to Maine. I was working at a liberal arts college. I was no longer in the group I once was in. Was I in a welcoming environment? Yes and no.

Portland, Maine is the sort of place where someone could walk down the street with a full beard and wearing a summer dress, and people wouldn't look twice. They'd look once, to make sure they saw what they saw, but wouldn't look again--that would be rude. But I did not live in Portland; I lived in one of the affluent suburbs to its north, what I called "Country Club Land." Nor was the college where I worked in Portland, but in a former mill town that had fallen on hard times. As for the College itself, let us consider a few anecdotes:

Scene #1: A faculty conference on "inclusive pedagogy." There is a student panel on various forms of difference. One of the panelists is a physics major, an international student who is nonbinary. This student is the only one to include pronouns (they/them) in their introduction. None of the other students add their pronouns, nor do audience speakers during the discussion period.
In the discussion period, the chair of the Physics department praises the student effusively--but consistently misgenders them.

Scene #2: I am at a small-town bakery with a faculty member whom, at the time, I considered a friend, a cis gay male. He teaches Gender & Sexuality Studies.
He says: "I don't get the whole 'trans' thing."
I say: "What's not to get?"
Realizing he has messed up, he backtracks hastily.

Scene #3: A fairly well-known nonbinary BIPOC scientist is on campus for a job talk. They, an outspoken lesbian staff member, and I, are in a large room waiting for everyone else to show up. They are discussing lipstick shades. I love lipstick, so I join in.
Staff member: I've never seen you wear lipstick on campus.
Me: Well, I know this place, it would be the talk of the campus if I did. But I promise, if I ever leave here, after I give notice, I'll wear lipstick (and nail polish) whenever the mood takes me.
Some months later, after I have given notice because of my pending return to New York, I come to campus wearing lipstick and nail polish. That day, I have a meeting with the Dean, my boss, to go over a few things for the work transition. When I arrive, he says in a tone of voice that is somewhere between shock and a conspiratorial leer: "So it's true!" So, yes, I was right, even though I had been alone in my office for most of the day before then, it had been the talk of the campus.

To be fair to the institution, shortly after I left they hired a new VP of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, and I have reason to believe, based on how faculty and staff with whom I am still friends discuss gender diversity, that they have been somewhat successful in changing the atmosphere on campus. However, a VP is better positioned to be a pioneer than a staff member in middle management, let alone an international student.

So whence the recent shift in my own attitude? First, I credit my elder child. For coming forward as nonbinary before they had even become a teenager. For telling off their grandfather when he said some particularly hurtful things (even if we, their parents, wish they hadn't screamed quite so much at him). And also for demonstrating, through my mother's much better reaction to their coming out than to my own, that my mother had evolved. There have been none of the microaggressions that I got from her after I came out as bi. Having already cut off my father, I think part of me was subconsciously worried that if I came any further out of my butched-up closet, that I might end up a de facto orphan. (So, thanks Mom; please don't disappoint me.)

I also want to credit the students of my most recent, former employer, Sarah Lawrence College. Unlike my prior institution, it is genuinely open to gender and sexual diversity, and the credit for that goes more to the students than to the faculty and staff. In my short tenure there, I only had a few opportunities to attend meetings with students present. Every single time, the students (including cis students) took the initiative in making introductions with pronouns. Faculty went along, some more comfortably than others. Discussions about this topic with administrative staff were variable, depending on who was in the room. But on campus at least, students set the tone, and a good one. In those meetings with students present, I started introducing myself as he/they, not 100% sure what I meant by that, but knowing that it felt right.

My breakthrough came last week while I was in isolation due to a possible case of COVID-19. I had been feeling some dysphoria (focused mostly on body hair) for some time. With plenty of spare time and the master bathroom to myself, I shaved legs, arms, armpits, chest and belly.

Then on Wednesday, after Spouse and I had the good conversation in which, for the first time, I used the word "genderfluid" out loud to describe myself, I went to a consignment shop for a small treat. I now have a lovely dress--scoop-necked sleeveless black sheath, with a lightly ruffled sheer outer layer in a floral pattern and half sleeves, that I can wear whenever the mood takes me. (I need more clothes, "men's" and "women's" alike, but I'm still a parent, still inclined to put my kids' needs before my own. And I am unemployed at the moment, thus cautious about money. But it was less than $10, so one delightful item isn't going to break our bank account.)

If you search the Google Books N-gram viewer, which cuts off at 2012, the word "genderfluid" does not appear. If anyone has ideas of when and where it may have first appeared, I would be grateful for your leads. Since it does seem to be the word that best describes how I see myself, I would love to know who coined it and when.

If my career-path shows the reality of white, male privilege--the privilege for which I felt I had to butch up and construct a new closet in order to be able enjoy it fully--my layoff and present unemployment also show that, in the face of capitalist crisis, it is transient. After several years of being the "breadwinner," advancing in my "career," I am unsure of what is next. And now, thanks to this essay (and the Twitter thread that gave rise to it), the closet is over and done with, exploded into a million pieces. Wherever my next job is, even if I could rebuild it, I won't.

I am genderfluid and bi, devoted to my bi, butch wife, amazed with both my nonbinary elder child and my younger one who hasn't quite figured such things out yet. We are out, proud, and fighting. My name is Joseph, and my pronouns are he/him or they/them.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Against Ism

Is there anything more frustrating than to live to see what one has been waiting for one's whole life, only to be mostly sidelined by circumstance? The event I had been waiting for, apparently, was a nationwide uprising against racist police terror. And circumstance refers here to COVID-19, my own asthma, and thus my mortal fear of the former in relation to the latter.

More frustrating could be this: To recognize, through discourse tangentially related to such events, how one has left behind what once was an important component of one's political identity, and to have no better outlet for that recognition than a mere blog.

In occasional correspondence with friends, I have for the better part of this year been referring to myself as "no longer a Leninist." This after a lengthy period of simply keeping silent on my relationship to Leninism, in recognition of the fact that it was too much in flux for me to say anything meaningful about it; when in doubt, I follow Wittgenstein's maxim, "whereof one cannot speak, one is obliged to remain silent."

At first the motivation for my change of attitude was largely negative. All too many who profess "Leninism" do so as a means to justify support, against mass uprisings, of some of the world's most hideously repressive regimes. But I have always been aware enough of the diversity of political currents to recognize that these were not the sole representatives. Yet even among more humane representatives of the current, one can find more than a few examples of those who engage in selective readings of sanctified texts and dubious historical analogies to sanction doing, in the present moment, whatever it is they happen to wish to do. This is antithetical to the principled approach to politics that I thought, for most of my adult, politically active life, was represented by the term "Leninism," but I now see it as the sort of thing one ought to expect when one attempts to transform a person with a contradictory life into an Ism.

It is only now--literally, in the last few hours--that I can begin to articulate a positive rationale for my rejection of the Ism. One thing that is striking about the current political moment is how consistently protestors have refrained from putting forward a charismatic leadership. This seems not to be a mere lack, but a conscious resistance, a result of a lesson collectively learned from the last such outbreak, the 2014 events associated with names like "Ferguson" and "BLM". Put bluntly, every person who came forward in that moment as a leadership figure of some sort has either been not-so-mysteriously found dead, or has since exposed themselves as some sort of grifter. The apparent absence of charismatic leadership is better understood, then, as an expression of collective will, a determination not to expose oneself or others to repression or selective buying off. It is an expression, therefore, of the creativity of revolutionary movements so often seen historically, in which lessons learned from prior events take the form of novel means of organizing struggles.

You cannot have Leninism, or any other name-based Ism, without charismatic leadership. And given a choice between allegiance to a name-based Ism, or learning from the creativity of the present movement, I choose the latter. Ironically, it is a willingness to do that which Lenin the historical figure, in contrast to Lenin the Icon, showed at his best moments. Even his closest Bolshevik party comrades were perplexed at times with his enthusiasm for such innovations as the mass political strike or the workers' council (Soviet). Historians better equipped than I am with Russian-language ability have documented how rarely the caricature of lockstep discipline projected back onto the Bolshevik party by opponents and would-be disciples alike was borne out in evidence.

So what to make, then, of the historical figure, rather than the icon? I see him as neither beatific nor demonic, but tragic, in the strict Aristotelian sense of tragedy. His success at intermediate aims--the overthrow of the autocracy and taking of state power--overwhelmed his ultimate aims of the liberation of peoples and worldwide achievement of communism. I recognize that in this reading I am making a choice to read his more democratically inclined writings, such as The Right of Nations to Self-Determination and State and Revolution, as sincerely meant, rather than gestures whose cynicism is "revealed" by the actual practice of Bolshevism in power. That the latter was not a pure emanation of the famous bald pate is, I believe, shown by his final, failed attempts from his deathbed to undo some of the worst abuses of the machine he had helped to create: The sallies against bureaucratization of the state and party, the reminders of the importance of self-determination, the so-called "Testament". (And lest the reader think I am engaged in a certain kind of Trotskyist demonology, let me point out that in the context of civil war, violations of the rights of nations to self-determination were at least as much the responsibility of the Commissar of War and Architect of the Red Army as they were of the Commissar of Nationalities.)

The tragic hero is meant as a warning, an exhibition of flaws for the viewer to recognize and avoid in themselves, not a Christ whose letter-perfect imitation in word, deed, and gesture can usher in a second coming. You don't become a communist by swapping the "J" for an "L" in "WWJD?" The tragic flaw, in this case, was to attempt to harness a relatively new political formation, whose counterrevolutionary and bureaucratizing tendencies had only just begun to be apparent--the mass political party--to a revolutionary aim. To generalize more, the same appreciation for novelty that he showed with regard to the council or the mass strike enabled him to regard the party as a tool that could be used as well in one way as another. In contrast to the standard "Leninist" gloss on Luxemburg, which argues that she was "too late" to recognize the importance of the party, I would argue that both Lenin and Luxemburg were too late to recognize that the ways in which political parties are inimical to their stated emancipatory aims are intrinsic, rather than accidental.

So, to borrow a question which had already been borrowed, what is to be done? I am no longer so arrogant as to think that I know. To borrow another phrase that seems a bit more current, I guess we'll keep fucking around and finding out.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Human Dignity and the Law of the Land

Rabbi Marcus Rubenstein is the rabbi of Temple Sinai, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue about half an hour from where I live. We came to each other's attention when he organized the first Never Again Is Now action in our area--which I unfortunately found out about too late to attend. He has been hosting a series of iyyunim (roughly translatable as, lecture and discussion on topics of Judaic interest) at his synagogue, which fortunately for me one need not be a congregation member to attend. Monday's iyyun was Talmud Berakhot 19b through 20a, in which the rabbis discuss situations where strict adherence to certain commandments might conflict with showing respect for the dignity of other people. I missed it; the traffic on Route 6 was terrible, giving me ample opportunity to observe the texting habits of my fellow drivers. But after the iyyun, R. Marcus posted some thoughts on Facebook prompted by his own presentation. And I was with him until his last paragraph, when he attempted to derive its practical application by trying to draw conclusions about how DHS or ICE agents should act in their efforts to enforce, not divine law, but the all-too-human law of who may cross borders and abide within them.

This did not sit well with me. But rather than fire off a glib response, as Facebook's interface encourages people to do, to the detriment of their relationships and thoughts, I decided to sit with that discomfort for the day and see if anything came to mind that would account for it.

This is where I arrived in my thoughts: The rabbanim were not giving guidance to agents of state power, but to a dispersed, minority people scattered through the Sassanian and Byzantine Empires and beyond. And their words live inasmuch as they have meaning to persons--Jews, yes, but any who can read and understand their words, and apply them with intelligence--persons who are striving to act ethically. Not those who are enforcing the laws of earthly power, but those who are trying to do what is right by others. (Yes, my operating definition of "ethics" here borrows heavily from Emmanuel Levinas.) That is not to say that Jews, or any other would-be ethical actor, is under no obligation to the laws of the state in which they live. As the rabbanim dictate, dina de-malkhuta dina, that is, the laws of the land are binding upon the ethical subject inasmuch as they do not conflict directly with Torah. How, then, could adherence to the law of the land in this country come into conflict with human dignity? Consider the case of Scott Warren, against whom the Federal government brought felony charges for leaving water in places where immigrants could find it in the desert, and against whom they could still elect to attempt a retrial. If someone is presented with an opportunity to protect the dignity of an immigrant by offering food, water, or shelter, should they shy away from that ethical obligation, for fear of transgressing dina de-malkhuta, the law of the land?

Referring back to Berakhot, then, and Rabbi Marcus's iyyun, how might the conclusion reached by the rabbanim apply, that human dignity takes precedence over positive ("thou shalt") commandments and rabbinical ones (those derived by the rabbanim in the course of building series of "fences around the Torah"), but not over negative ("thou shalt not") commandments? Dina de-malkhuta is a rabbinical commandment, an adaptation to the loss of temporal power by Jewish communal institutions under Roman and Persian rule, and an injunction that no individual Jew should jeopardize the security of the community as a whole by claiming that the superiority of divine law gives license for all forms of rebellion. It is not absolute and for all time: Had it been, the Bar Kokhba rebellion would have been heretical, but Mar Samuel, the rabbi on whose authority it is given, was born more than forty years after that rebellion's defeat. As a rabbinical commandment, dina de-malkhuta is of a lower order than the defense of human dignity. Fear of breaking the law is no excuse for failure to come to the aid of immigrants, but rather, pusillanimity and moral cowardice.

So what does this have to do, then, with DHS or ICE? Rabbi Marcus may be more sanguine than I about the possibility that there remain, within those organizations, people still capable of behaving as ethical subjects. I find any such hope doubtful on its face. At this point, the actions of those agencies do not only transgress against human dignity, but also against certain basic, negative commandments that should be known to all: "Thou shalt not kill," "thou shalt not steal," and these more than suffice for critique of its actions. Ethical behavior within these organizations would require consistent and organized defiance of orders that not only transgress basic moral law, but also international treaty obligations. An employee of DHS or ICE, if they are not to risk being cast out from humankind as an agent of depravity, would have to take specific actions by which they would risk their job, or quit the filthy job entirely.

Longtime readers are probably perplexed that an atheist of known communistic sympathies is engaging in such Talmudic analysis, but as I already wrote six years ago when my worldview started to shift, "the main tasks of the moment are neither political nor economic, but ethical or moral." When one speculates on what the agents of a state ought to do--or, if one has given up hope that they might do otherwise than they are doing, how to frustrate their intent--one is engaged in political reasoning, and in that domain my training, the conceptual and analytic tools which I have most readily to hand, can be grouped under the broad heading of "Marxism." When one is discussing what persons ought to do, not necessarily with an eye toward the transformation of power relations but simply to demonstrate respect for others, one is engaged in ethical reasoning, and there, the earliest training I was given, the vocabulary to which I default, and the dialectical methods through which I attempt to navigate my way through contradictions, these all remain Jewish.