Rad Geek People's Daily

official state media for a secessionist republic of one

Posts filed under Great Conservative Cultural Revolution

On traditionalism: how homoeroticism flourished in medieval Persia, and how political homophobia came to be imported from the West

One of the difficulties in having serious conversations about cultural conservatism — both here and abroad — is how often it turns out that what the so-called conservative wishes to preserve or to restore the conditions of a past that never existed. When this kind of mythistory is used to pass off modern authoritarian’s political desiderata as if they were accurate representations of history, both the pseudotraditionalists, and their self-styled progressive opponents, tend to take for granted that history must have been whatever modern political conservatives want it to have been; they just argue over whether that history is a good thing or a bad thing, and so whether to join in the march of Progress or to stand athwart history yelling Stop! In reality, though, antiquity is always a much more complicated affair than simple-minded political progress narratives would make it. And often it is exactly the opposite. Take, for instance, the story of queer eroticism in Iran, where — setting aside the propaganda of the Ayatollahs and the colonialist liberals both — it becomes clear that medieval Iran was full of passionate expressions of same-sex eroticism and same-sex romantic love, and that political homophobia, far from being an ingrown feature of traditional culture or religion, is in fact a colonial import, which came into Iranian political culture mainly through the modernizing ideologies of Marxism and Westernizing progressive nationalism.

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his infamous claim at a September 2007 Columbia University appearance that In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country, the world laughed at the absurdity of this pretense.

Now, a forthcoming book by a leading Iranian scholar in exile, which details both the long history of homosexuality in that nation and the origins of the campaign to erase its traces, not only provides a superlative reply to Ahmadinejad, but demonstrates forcefully that political homophobia was a Western import to a culture in which same-sex relations were widely tolerated and frequently celebrated for well over a thousand years. Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, [by Janet Afary,] to be published at the end of next month by Cambridge University Press, is a stunningly researched history and analysis of the evolution of gender and sexuality that will provide a transcendent tool both to the vibrant Iranian women’s movement today fighting the repression of the ayatollahs and to Iranian same-sexers hoping for liberation from a theocracy that condemns them to torture and death.

In her new book, Afary’s extensive section on pre-modern Iran, documented by a close reading of ancient texts, portrays the dominant form of same-sex relations as a highly-codified status-defined homosexuality, in which an older man — presumably the active partner in sex — acquired a younger partner, or amrad. . . . Afary dissects how classical Persian literature (twelfth to fifteenth centuries)…overflowed with same-sex themes (such as passionate homoerotic allusions, symbolism, and even explicit references to beautiful young boys.) This was true not only of the Sufi masters of this classical period but of the poems of the great twentieth-century poet Iraj Mirza (1874-1926)… Classical poets also celebrated homosexual relationships between kings and their pages.

Afary also writes that homosexuality and homoerotic expressions were embraced in numerous other public spaces beyond the royal court, from monasteries and seminaries to taverns, military camps, gymnasiums, bathhouses, and coffeehouses… Until the mid-seventeenth century, male houses of prostitution (amrad khaneh) were recognized, tax-paying establishments.

. . . Unmistakably lesbian sigeh courtship rituals, which continued from the classical period into the twentieth century, were also codified: Tradition dictated that one [woman] who sought another as sister approached a love broker to negotiate the matter. The broker took a tray of sweets to the prospective beloved. In the middle of the tray was a carefully placed dildo or doll made of wax or leather. If the beloved agreed to the proposal, she threw a sequined white scarf (akin to a wedding veil) over the tray… If she was not interested, she threw a black scarf on the tray before sending it back. As late as the last half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, Iranian society remained accepting of many male and female homoerotic practices… Consensual and semi-open pederastic relations between adult men and amrads were common within various sectors of society. What Afary terms a romantic bisexuality born in the classical period remained prevalent at court and among elite men and women, and a form of serial love (‘eshq-e mosalsal) was commonly practiced [in which] their love could shift back and forth from girl to boy and back to girl.

In a lengthy section of her book entitled Toward a Westernized Modernity, Afary demonstrates how the trend toward modernization which emerged during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and which gave the Persian monarchy its first parliament was heavily influenced by concepts harvested from the West.

One of her most stunning revelations is how an Azeri-language newspaper edited and published in the Russian Caucuses, Molla Nasreddin (or MN, which appeared from 1906 to 1931) influenced this Iranian Revolution with a significant new discourse on gender and sexuality, sharing Marx’s well-documented contempt for homosexuals. With an editorial board that embraced Russian social democratic concepts, including women’s rights, MN was also the first paper in the Shi’i Muslim world to endorse normative heterosexuality, echoing Marx’s well-documented contempt for homosexuality. Afary writes that this illustrated satirical paper, which circulated among Iranian intellectuals and ordinary people alike, was enormously popular in the region because of its graphic cartoons.

MN conflated homosexuality and pedophilia, and attacked clerical teachers and leaders for molesting young boys, played upon feelings of contempt for passive homosexuals, suggested that elite men who kept amrad concubines had a vested interested in maintaining the (male) homosocial public spaces where semi-covert pederasty was tolerated, and mocked the rites of exchanging brotherhood vows before a mollah and compared it to a wedding ceremony. It was in this way that a discourse of political homophobia developed in Europe, which insisted that only heterosexuality could be the norm, was introduced into Iran.

MN‘s attacks on homosexuality would shape Iranian debates on sexuality for the next century, and it became a model for several Iranian newspapers of the era, which echoed its attacks on the conservative clergy and leadership for homosexual practices. In the years that followed, Iranian revolutionaries commonly berated major political figures for their sexual transgressions, and revolutionary leaflets accused adult men of having homosexual sex with other adult men, of thirty-year-olds propositioning fifty-year-olds and twenty-year-olds propositioning forty-year-olds, right in front of the Shah. Some leaflets repeated the old allegation that major political figures had been amrads in their youth.

. . . The expansion of radio, television, and print media in the 1940s — including a widely read daily, Parcham, published from 1941 by Kasravi’s Pak Dini movement — resulted in a nationwide discussion about the evils of pederasty and, ultimately, in significant official censorship of literature. References to same-sex love and the love of boys were eliminated in textbooks and even in new editions of classical poetry. Classical poems were now illustrated by miniature paintings celebrating heterosexual, rather than homosexual, love and students were led to believe that the love object was always a woman, even when the text directly contradicted that assumption, Arafy writes.

In the context of a triumphant censorship that erased from the popular collective memory the enormous literary and cultural heritage of what Afary terms the ethics of male love in the classical Persian period, it is hardly surprising as Afary earlier noted in Foucault and the Iranian Revolution that the virulence of the current Iranian regime’s anti-homosexual repression stems in part from the role homosexuality played in the 1979 revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers to power.

In that earlier work, she and her co-author, Kevin B. Anderson, wrote: There is… a long tradition in nationalist movements of consolidating power through narratives that affirm patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality, attributing sexual abnormality and immorality to a corrupt ruling elite that is about to be overthrown and/or is complicit with foreign imperialism ….

— Doug Ireland, Direland (2009-02-27): Iran’s Hidden Homosexual History

Read the whole thing.

(Via Jesse Walker 2009-03-09.)

On sound and fury

I spent most of this morning reading through The American Prospect‘s recent insert on the politics of mental illness. With only two exceptions, the articles generally range from dull political hack-work to unsettling exercises in missing the point to disturbing demands for massive, federally-driven centralization and escalation in the size, scope, power, and invasiveness of State-backed institutional psychiatry, its regimentation of everyday life, and its access to fresh captives to call patients. (The two exceptions were a first-person account by a woman who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, which is mainly about how you should be nice to people who have been labeled mentally ill and treat them like human beings worthy of your concern; and another article on treatment alternatives, which spends about half of the article talking about Clubhouse model centers, which were founded by former inmates of the psychoprison system, which are strictly voluntary, and which are organized around principles of participation and equality among the crazy owner-residents and their hired helpers.)

I was originally referred to the feature by an Utne online feature focusing on the articles that had most to do with the intersection between institutional psychiatry and the prison system; the point of that feature (and the articles it referenced) was to call for more diversion programs and mental health courts. If you’re not familiar with the concepts, the way a diversion program works is this: somebody, usually somebody poor, gets busted by the cops for doing something that endangered nobody, or at most endangered herself, like consensual drug use, or prostitution, or just acting kind of funny in public, but which other, usually more privileged, people in her society find distasteful, contemptible, or trashy. She is forcibly restrained and locked in a cage for this victimless crime. Some professional busybody, usually a shrink or a government social worker, is sent by to declare that the poor thing can’t help herself, and that, rather than being locked in a cage for even longer, she should have a judge order her into a program that will teach her what a worthless shit she has been all her life, and how she needs to submit to the help being forced on her by court order so that she can live a worthwhile and healthy life, where healthy is defined as holding a low-wage job in a legal capitalist workplace, paying a landlord regularly for an apartment which you keep reasonably neat and tidy, and generally living up to a lowered set of social expectations and not acting in ways which your neighbors find obnoxious. It is an overt tool of normalization through the use of force and the threat of even more violent measures against a captive victim-beneficiary (usually, the threat of throwing you back into a hellhole jail or prison; if you have children, this is often accompanied with the threat of abducting your children and putting them into the hellhole foster care system). This is then passed off as an act of liberal humanitarianism and wise statesmanship by self-congratulatory government legislators, judges and bureaucrats. These programs typically make use of special court systems in which defendants are stripped of normal procedural rights on the excuse of a non-adversarial process supposedly being carried out for the good of the defendant’s soul — like a mental health court, which is a special court of inquisition, in which defendants have no right to a trial by jury, no due process rights against self-incrimination, and in which it is expected that the defendant’s legal representative will be collaborating with the judge, with or without the knowledge of her client, to come up with invasive and controlling treatment regimens of captivity in institutions, submission to all kinds of invasive surveillance by doctors and government hirelings, and, more or less invariably, some form or another of forced drugging, with the threat of prison used as a back-up plan if the defendant refuses to comply. Once again, this reversion to the standards of jurisprudence popular in the early modern trials for heresy and witchcraft, usually inflicted only to control the behavior of non-violent offenders, i.e., as an act of aggression against those who have done nothing to invade anyone else’s rights, is passed off as both pragmatic cost-control and humanitarian concern for its victims.

Of course, it’s generally true that diversion programs and mental health courts and the like are in some ways notably better than what they replace — that is, the torture and confinement of harmless people in government jails and prisons. Being whacked on the head with a hammer is better than being shot in the head by a shotgun; but if someone came up to me and said I ought to kill you for what you’ve done, but, you know, I feel sorry for you, so I’m going to divert you into the hammer-whacking instead, I think the proper response is, Well, don’t do me any favors. The real solution is for the State to stop violently persecuting people who aren’t invading anyone else’s rights, and for shrinks and social workers and all the rest of the crew to confine themselves to offering help to those who are looking for help, rather than having a dangerous street gang grab people off the street for their own particular use.

But of course you won’t see that, or anything like that, unless, and until, the majority and the politico-therapeutic power elite no longer agree amongst themselves more or less unanimously on the propriety of treating anyone who can be labeled crazy as something less than a fellow individual human being, with her own thoughts, desires, goals, dreams, and reasons for doing the things that she does. But of course if you insist on respecting a crazy person’s inner life, or on taking her seriously as a human being with thoughts and reasons of her own, which, even if you disagree with those thoughts and reasons, can and ought to be understood and engaged with, rather than fixed, then you will be immediately shouted down by a hooting horde of self-appointed experts and advocates who will insist that you are romanticizing a serious illness, and who will make ridiculous pronouncements like this comment in response to an article written after David Foster Wallace killed himself:

It is nothing more than dangerous romanticism to think that we can logic our way out of mental illness.

Note: Nobody had made this claim anywhere in the article or in the previous comments. Self-appointed mental health advocates very often try to establish themselves as caring by throwing out these scattershot accusations that somebody, somewhere is advocating a callous and trivializing just-suck-it-up sort of response to serious emotional suffering, regardless of whether or not anyone has actually said anything of the sort. –R.G.

As a culture, we need to start accepting that the gifts of the mentally ill — in this case, I’m told, his brilliance as a writer and thinker — often come with dangerous deficits.

But thinking and writing wasn’t enough to cure this man’s illness, just like a bottle of Wild Turkey wasn’t enough, either.

Don’t think you can make sense out of youngish man hanging himself. There is no sense in it. It is mental illness. Untreated mental illness, that had probably been overly glorified as profundity.

— Gina Pera, in re: David Foster Wallace (1962–2008)

The problem is that this is utter nonsense. We’re not talking about someone who, oops, managed to hang himself by accident. He had his own reasons for doing so, and everyone I know, either personally or through writing, who killed themselves or tried to kill themselves, had some fairly specific reasons for wanting to die. Often they are willing to tell you what those reasons are if you ask, or even if you did not ask. These are acts that are invariably part of a larger life story, and they are always done for perfectly explicable reasons that are plausibly connected with what somebody is going through in their life.

Those reasons, once explained, may be bad reasons; they may even be bizarre reasons. But it is completely irresponsible, and chillingly dehumanizing to the people whose lives you claim to care about, to talk as if those reasons just didn’t exist, even when it’s been explained to you what they were, or as if they can simply be waved off just so many meaningless chirps coming from a broken brain, rather than the results of a serious and impassioned process of reasoning and deliberation. Bad reasons need to be engaged with, not fixed, and the fact that you happen not to agree with them doesn’t make them any less real, or any less important in understanding why people do what they do, or any less vital to understanding the best way to help them if you really care about their lives.

One of the important points that Peter Breggin makes repeatedly in Toxic Psychiatry is the way in which official psychiatric ideology about mental illness literally dehumanizes people labeled crazy, and provides an excuse for laziness and aggressive disregard for the integrity of mental patients’ lives. The problem is almost never that what somebody being labeled crazy does or says cannot be understood; it’s that the rest of us fail, or actively refuse to understand it, and we rationalize our failure and blame it on the person herself:

Biological psychiatrists–nowadays most psychiatrists–are fond of saying You can’t talk to a disease. The communication of so-called schizophrenics makes no sense at all to these doctors who want to control symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, with drugs, electroshock, and incarceration.

The idea that these extremes of irrationality are due to a disease is inseparable from the survival of psychiatry as a profession. If schizophrenia is not a disease, psychiatry wold have little justification for using its more devastating treatments. Lobotomy, electroshock, and all of the more potent drugs, including neuroleptics and even lithium, were developed at the expense of locked-up people, most of whom were labeled schizophrenic. The search for biochemical and genetic causes keeps psychiatrists, as medical doctors, in the forefront of well-funded research in the field. The notion that patients have sick brains justifies psychiatry’s unique power to treat them against their will. It also bolsters psychiatry’s claim to the top of the mental health hierarchy. In short, if irrationality isn’t biological, then psychiatry loses much of its rationale for existence as a medical specialty.

— Peter Breggin (1991). Toxic Psychiatry: Why Therapy, Empathy, and Love Must Replace the Drugs, Electroshock, and Biochemical Theories of the New Psychiatry. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 23. #

He stresses that this is true of so-called affective disorders just as it is true of so-called schizophrenia.

When we cannot readily identify with the depressed person’s plight, more often it is due to our own lack of understanding than to the obscurity of the causes.

— Peter Breggin (1991). Toxic Psychiatry: Why Therapy, Empathy, and Love Must Replace the Drugs, Electroshock, and Biochemical Theories of the New Psychiatry. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 126.

And, once again, on schizophrenia:

On July 27, 1986, 60 Minutes produced a show entitled Schizophrenia. It was based on biopsychiatric theories, and one of their experts declared, We know it’s a brain disease now. It’s like multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease. On the show, vignettes of patients were presented to impress the audience with the bizarre quality of their communications, and hence the absurdity of any psychological meaning or underpinning to their disease.

The first 60 Minutes patient, Brugo, bolsters his identity with spirituality, as well as religion, and declares that he’s not extinct: And I’m Croatian Hebrew, which is Adam and Eve’s kin. And I have been Croatian Hebrew for centuries and cent–upon centuries. And I’m a Homo-erectus man, and I’m also part Neanderthal, and I mean to keep that heritage, ’cause I’m not extinct.

Packed into these few remarks is symbolism about his desperate need for personal value and dignity, his identification with religion and humanity, and perhaps his awareness of primitive impulses stirring inside himself, as well as his fear of personal extinction. Here is more than enough material to stimulate anyone’s desire to communicate with him.

The second patient, Jim, is dismissed by the interviewer because he is convinced he was shot to death when he was a baby. Yet his brief remarks seem like a metaphor for child sexual abuse by a male: I had my head blown off with a shotgun when I was two years old. And–and before that, things happened in my crib. I remember all these things and stuff, but I just remember, you know. I remember all this stuff.

A therapist with experience in listening to people immediately would wonder about what lies behind Jim’s direct hints about terrifying memories from early childhood, not to mention the symbolism of the crib in relation to his present trapped condition. More than one patient of mine has begun with just such anguished fragments of memory before discovering the agony of his or her abusive childhood and its relationship to current entrapments.

. . . The patients’ quotes were selected by 60 Minutes to demonstrate that so-called schizophrenia is a biochemical disease rather than a crisis of thinking, feeling and meaning. Yet people with real brain disease–such as Alzheimer’s, stroke, or a tumor–don’t talk symbolically like these people do.

Instead of metaphors laced with meaning, brain-damaged people typically display memory difficulties as the first sign that their mind isn’t working as well as it once did. They have trouble recalling recently learned things, like names, faces, telephone numbers, or lists. Later they may get confused and disoriented as they display what is called an organic brain syndrome. In fact–and this is very important–advanced degrees of brain disease render the individual unable to think in such abstract or metaphorical terms. The thought processes that get labeled schizophrenia require higher mental function and therefore a relatively intact brain. No matter how bizarre the ideas may seem, they necessitate symbolic and often abstract thinking. That’s why lobotomy works: the damage to the higher mental centers smashes the capacity to express existential pain and anguish. As we’ll find out, it’s also why the most potent psychiatric drugs and shock treatment have their effect.

How are we to approach people who get labeled schizophrenic? Do we think of them as troubled humans struggling in a self-defeating style with profound psychological and spiritual issues, usually involving their basic worth or identity? Or do we view them as if they are afflicted with physical diseases, like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease, in which their feelings, thoughts, anguishes, and aspirations play no role? Do we try to understand them, or do we try to physically fix them? . . . If we are beings rather than devices, then our most severe emotional and spiritual crises originate within ourselves, our families, and our society. Our crises can be understood as conflicts or confusion about our identities, values, and aspirations rather than as biological aberrations. And as self-determining human beings, we can work toward overcoming those feelings of helplessness generated by our past spiritual and social defeats.

By contrast, the typical modern psychiatrist–by disposition, training, and experience–is wholly unprepared to understand anyone’s psycho-spiritual crisis. With drugs and shock treatment, the psychiatrist instead attacks the subjective experience of the person and blunts or destroys the very capacity to be sensitive and aware. No wonder the treatment of mental patients often looks more like a war against them. It often is.

— Peter Breggin (1991). Toxic Psychiatry: Why Therapy, Empathy, and Love Must Replace the Drugs, Electroshock, and Biochemical Theories of the New Psychiatry. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 23–26.

See also:

Internet Anarchist Revision Brigade: how Burt Green tried to write about statist anti-imperialism and blocked his sink with tea leaves

Here’s something George Orwell wrote back in 1946 dealing with, among other things, the political writing of his day.

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

. . . As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. . . . In [the example from a Communist pamphlet], the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink.

Here’s an example of exactly that kind of writing, which I’ve taken from an article in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed. Unfortunately, the writing in this article is a lot like the writing in a lot of articles that appear in AJODA (right alongside an Anarchist Media Review media review section that constantly complains about jargony or dreary writing in other, less widely distributed anarchist zines). I’ve chosen this passage in particular because the writer clearly seems to know what he wants to say, and what he’s got to say is basically true, but–well, let’s just try to read it.

As long as Anti-Imperialism is presented as the foremost or central contradiction of capitalism, it will have innate limitations which are constitutionally incapable of supercession.

In the first instance, Anti-Imperialism still has to account for the way it was used in the past, and will always for that reason bear the heavy burden of the crimes committed in its name. To those who fought against imperialism in the Philippines and Chile, in South Africa and Vietnam, one must take care to add those in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary, and those who fight today in Tibet.

The uncritical assumption of statist perspectives implicit in the positioning of the organization of the National Liberation Struggle as the revolutionary subject, conceals both the class divisions between the forces that make up this organization — especially those between the bureaucratic class-in-formation on the one hand and the working class, peasantry and those sections of the intelligentsia supporting independence on the other — and the common interest all proletarians have in the elimination of their elites, regardless of nationality. The establishment of sovereign government (that is, a state) as the revolutionary objective, carries with it similarly bourgeois assumptions. It partakes with enthusiasm of the artificial and arbitrary separation in the activities of capitalist national and international political economies created by international law. Anti-Imperialists declare the extra-national colonization of markets, polities, societies, and cultures to be somehow worse or different in essence from the exercise of the same principles of capitalist economy in the country of its origin (a contradiction is not overcome by references to internal colonies). They take the borders of capitalist states more seriously, especially in the present epoch, than capitalists do themselves.

On the other side of the equation, then, Anti-Imperialism has been a means of avoiding recognition of the independent interests and struggles of the working class and peasantry in the imperial dependencies, save from the point of view of distortions created by the advancement of exogenous imperial interests. This lack of proletarian perspective allows Anti-Imperialism to become a weapon to be used against (competing) foreign exploitation without a critique of local inequalities and forms of domination, much less of the political economy as a whole. This kind of Anti-Imperialism is easy for the likes of Vladimir Putin (the pacifier of Chechnya) and the misogynists of Hezbollah to employ without damage to themselves. It also provides useful ammunition to that most perfect of modern princes, Hugo Chavez, in whom are embodied both the Leftist, pseudomodern authoritarianism of his friend and political patron, Fidel Castro, the Maximum Leader of Cuba, and also the right-wing pseudotraditionalism of fascism, as imparted by his mentor, the Argentine anti-semite Norberto Ceresole, author of Caudillo, ejercito, pueblo. La Venezuela del presidente Chavez [Leader, Army, People, the Venezuela of President Chavez.]o

o It is high time that revolutionaries make proper acknowledgement of the complementary parts played by Marxism-Leninism and Fascism, as two wings of the same general movement of reaction against the rising proletarian, peasant, and intellectual insurgency of thel ate 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest conscious expressions of these twin tendencies, those of Lenin on the one hand and Mussolini on the other, grew from the same source: (Marxian) social-democracy. The use of conspiratorial, quasi-military organization, of fronts and the infiltration of strategic organizations as a means to establishing influence, and then otion of themselves as the general staff of some kind of alleged revolution embodied in their own seizure of state power, unite these post-social-democratic factions. So does their presumption that the working class itself, incapable of more than a trade-union consciousness in Lenin’s infamous words, or unwilling to embark on crusades of national greatness (eg campaigns of forced capital accumulation, war), needs the Party, composed of this or that constellation of petit-bourgeois elements, at its head to lead it. To think that such tendencies, then or now, can be the allies of antiauthoritarian, anti-capitalist revolutionaries, is to ignore not just the overwhelming weight of the historical experience of the world’s proletarian revolutions, but the very material nature of the political economies and quality of life in the regimes created by these hyper-authoritarian Symbionese twins.

–Burt Green, Anti-Imperialism or Anti-Capitalism, in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed 26.1 (Spring/Summer 2008). pp 41, 43.

How did you feel when you tried to read through this passage and the footnote? It actually makes several important points; I think at least one or two of the points it makes are both new and important. (For example, I think that the footnote at the end is really very sharp.) That’s the sort of thing that ought to be both fun and exciting to read. But in the entire passage I can think of only two places where the writing made me feel anything than a dull pounding on my forehead — They take the borders of capitalist states more seriously, especially in the present epoch, than capitalists do themselves, and that most perfect of modern princes, Hugo Chavez. The second phrase manages to be funny precisely because the pretense is watered by the sarcasm; the rest of the passge gives you the straight stuff and demands you drink it down. If we want to say the things we need to say, then we need to find better ways of saying it than this.

If you were going to try to rewrite a passage like this to try to make it more clear to those who haven’t spent years reading and writing in Marxist jargon, and more enjoyable to read even for those who have — to rewrite a passage like this so that the author’s point about anti-imperialist politics makes more of an impression than the dull, thudding drumbeat of his language — how would you go about it?

There are some obvious easy changes that you can make. Anytime someone writes a phrase like in the present epoch you can just about always cross it out and write in today; worker or working-class can be put anywhere that the author chose to put down proletarian, and you can strike exogenous and write in outside, or replace the whole phrase save from the point of view of distortions created by the advancement of exogenous imperial interests with something like except when the bosses are foreigners. But other stale fixed phrases (This lack of proletarian perspective …, … carries with it similarly bourgeois assumptions, … the working class, peasantry and . . . intelligentsia …) are harder to deal with. You could pretty them up a little by trimming unnecessary verbal filler and by taking out obviously pretentious words and replacing them with simpler ones. You can put lipstick on a pig, too. But the problem is that the dreariness of the writing has a lot to do with the dreariness of the thought itself. It’s not that the points being made are wrong, or even hackneyed, exactly. It’s that the approach to the point is hackneyed, that the writer can find no way of expressing what he wants to say except by leading you through this cut-and-paste collage of phrases from Marxist pamphlets and whitepapers. (As Orwell said, You see, he feels impelled to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern.) That kind of writing needs more than copyediting; it needs to be rearranged or rewritten from the start, with paragraphs either thrown out entirely or transformed into something that you wouldn’t know for a rewriting of the original.

For example, let’s look at paragraph 3 and think about what you might do about a paragraph like this.

The uncritical assumption of statist perspectives implicit in the positioning of the organization of the National Liberation Struggle as the revolutionary subject, conceals both the class divisions between the forces that make up this organization — especially those between the bureaucratic class-in-formation on the one hand and the working class, peasantry and those sections of the intelligentsia supporting independence on the other — and the common interest all proletarians have in the elimination of their elites, regardless of nationality. The establishment of sovereign government (that is, a state) as the revolutionary objective, carries with it similarly bourgeois assumptions. It partakes with enthusiasm of the artificial and arbitrary separation in the activities of capitalist national and international political economies created by international law. Anti-Imperialists declare the extra-national colonization of markets, polities, societies, and cultures to be somehow worse or different in essence from the exercise of the same principles of capitalist economy in the country of its origin (a contradiction is not overcome by references to internal colonies). They take the borders of capitalist states more seriously, especially in the present epoch, than capitalists do themselves.

Instead of that, you might write something like this:

The picture of the world that anti-imperialist rhetoric paints is a picture seen through the eyes of warring states. If you want to know who will make the revolution, it forces you to look for a national fighting force, organized by geographical or ethnic borders. If you want to know what kind of revolution they will make, it forces you to look for a new government — a government run by locals, after the foreign governments have been forced back over the border.

The only way that anti-imperialist has to talk about revolution is to stand at made-up borders and yell Stop! — as if it made any difference whether it happens to be foreign bosses or local bosses who take control over workers’ jobs, culture, and living arrangements. Anti-imperialism takes the borders of capitalist states more seriously than the capitalists do themselves. This kind of revolution has nothing to say about what powerful people within the nation do to their victims — and particularly not what aspiring bureaucrats do to workers and intellectuals. It’s a distraction from workers’ real interest in getting out from under bosses, no matter where the bosses come from.

As far as I can tell, this would convey almost exactly the same meaning. There are some losses — for example, (a contradiction is not overcome by references to internal colonies). But I threw out the parenthetical because someone who was making the point clearly would not think that you could just stick that point where Green tried to stick it. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but if it did, it’s only because the rest of the paragraph consists of so many stock phrases strung together that just stringing another one in may have seemed like logic. But the comment in between the parentheses has to do with a particular way that some anti-imperialist writers have tried to adapt their rhetoric in order to avoid glossing over the internal forms of oppression that Green says anti-imperialist rhetoric glosses over. For example, people who used this line often said that the white man’s government treats black people inside the borders of the U.S.A. the same way that it treats foreign people in the Phillippines or Vietnam; and you might say the same thing about groups of people who are oppressed within a post-colonial country when a more powerful group takes over power from the old colonial government. But the parenthetical mentions this position without explaining any of that, or making any of it clear to anybody who isn’t already familiar with a lot of anti-imperialist jargon. And it just states that this adaptation of anti-imperialist rhetoric doesn’t actually solve the problem, without saying why it fails. If talking about internal colonies doesn’t help, then you need to say something about why it doesn’t help, and it would probably take long enough that it belongs in a new paragraph or a footnote. If you can’t do that much, then you’d be better off not mentioning it at all.

And there are also some additions — a couple of attempts at shifting the emphasis or making use of some imagery. Because if I just stopped at cutting out the parts that had gone bad, then the leftovers would be wholesome enough, but not enough to be filling — a single paragraph that’s short and clear, but also a paragraph with nothing to really drive the point home. That would be fine if this passage was a brief stop along the way to some other conclusion. But it’s actually supposed to be about half of the essay’s conclusion.

And now that I mention it, that brings up another problem. If the simple statement of the point is as simple and boring as the simple statement of this point is (so–it’s a mistake for radicals to use an approach that doesn’t deal with oppression inside national boundaries, because it’s the bossing that really matters, not where the boss comes from) then maybe the essay needs to say more than what it does, insead of just leaving off on such an obvious point. (For example, why spend so long making a point like this, when you could use that space to make a genuinely novel point, like the point about the similarities between conspiratorial Leninism and conspiratorial Fascism, instead of hiding that point away in a footnote?) So even this kind of rewriting, paragraph by paragraph, can only do so much. What a passage like this needs, in the end, is rethinking. What do you think? How would you do it? Given what he wants to say, how would you say it well?

Bow down before the one you serve

(Via Lew Rockwell 2008-05-09: Young Heretics vs. the Flag Religion.)

I spent my first few years of school in a Montessori co-op school with a large contingent of aging New Leftists and burned-out hippie types among the parents. But after that it was all government schools, and, as far as I can remember, every government school I ever attended started business each day with the Pledge of Allegiance. I started having problems with the Pledge around the time I got to junior high school; I didn’t like being expected to chant out one nation, under God, and I figured it violated my religious liberty, so I stopped saying that. In high school I refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance at all, and I usually wouldn’t stand up, either, unless I felt like someone in the room was eyeing me. It’s not that I was trying to make some kind of anarchist protest; I was a fairly boring sort of Democratic Party-identified state Leftist for most of the time I was in high school, and didn’t become an anarchist until after I spent a couple years kicking around more radical forms of Leftism in college. But even then I considered the whole ritual Strength-Through-Unity exercise stifling and creepy, and I didn’t want to participate. So I feel a lot of personal, not just political, solidarity for these three teenagers in western Minnesota:

Three small-town eighth-graders were suspended for not standing at the start of the school day Thursday for the Pledge of Allegiance.

My son wasn’t being defiant against America, said Kim Dahl, mother of one of the students, Brandt, who attends Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton Junior High School in western Minnesota. She said her son offered no reason for sitting.

Brandt told the Fargo Forum that Thursday’s one-day in-school suspension, was kind of dumb because I didn’t do anything wrong. It should be the people’s choice.

Kim Dahl said the punishment didn’t fit the crime. If they wanted to know why he didn’t stand, they should’ve made him write a paper.

— Paul Walsh, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribue (2008-05-09): Principal who punished 3 who sat pledge foresees policy rewording

I understand the desire to try to protect your son from abuse in a case that’s sure to draw the howling attention of the Patriotic Correctness bellowing blowhard bully brigade. But, in all honesty, what would it matter if he were being defiant against America? Everyone’s got the right their convictions and nobody should be forced to participate in theo-nationalist rituals that violate their conscience. I also understand the desire to try to get a lighter punishment for your kid when the school is so clearly throwing its weight around in an attempt to bully and intimidate through a heavy punishment. But, in all honesty, what possible justification could there be for forcing this kid to take on extra academic work or to explain himself any further than he cares to do so freely?

She said that Brandt has not been standing all year, and all of a sudden it became an in-school suspension.

The district today is defending the punishments. The school’s handbook says all students are required to stand but are not obligated to recite the pledge. The same is true for all four schools in the district, a school official said.

These three [students] didn’t, and they got caught, said Mel Olson, the district’s community education director. He said he backs the punishment, being a veteran and a United States of America citizen, absolutely. Olson served in the Marines in Japan during the Vietnam War.

— Paul Walsh, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribue (2008-05-09): Principal who punished 3 who sat pledge foresees policy rewording

Another thin-skinned Veteran Against Individual Freedom, I guess, who has nothing better to do with his time than rant and cry about how nobody gives the military and its obsessive flag protocol the respect they allegedly deserve.

One of the things that makes me happy to see is that there is vigorous debate in the comments section on this story, with many posts from people who condemn the school’s actions (and the very idea of forcing children to recite a pledge of loyalty to the federal government on a daily basis), with reasonable argument and also, at times, with the ridicule and withering sarcasm that this asinine school administration deserves. The only thing there that’s irritating is the number of people who feel compelled to say things like, Oh, I think that everybody ought to jump up and shout Sir, yes Sir! when it comes time to say the Pledge, but I’m not sure that it’s really right to force people…. Whatever your personal views about flag protocol may be, this is an argument that can and should be made without doffing your hat to Patriotic Correctness.

As for the commenters who have posted in defense of the school’s actions, they’ve offered three different sorts of arguments, each one of which is beneath contempt. In order of increasing outrageousness, here are some examples of each.

First, there’s the standard Patriotic Correctness argument, along with several direct invocations of love it or leave it, some bizarre non sequiturs about caring about the Constitution (which is nowhere mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance, has nothing to say about the Pledge or about flag protocol, and seems to mean absolutely nothing in the mouths of the people citing it except as a synecdoche for the authority of the United States federal government), and the usual long litany of demands for unearned respect in return for unasked-for services. The idea here is that the kids ought to be punished for daring to hold, or at least to express, anything other than glassy-eyed unquestioning loyalty to the federal government of the United States of America:

Out of respect for our country..

Its really not that hard to stand up and show some respect- not merely for the flag, but for the values that the flag represents: liberty, justice, and truth. Yes, this is a free country, but that also means that these families are free to leave if they cannot respect our nation.

olin157 @ 9 May 2008, 10:07 AM


Snot Nosed Brats

These snot nosed brats should not only stand but they should gladly participate in the pledge. At a minimum they should obey the rules of the school which means get off you rear and stand. You don’t have to harm your little sensibilities by actually pledging allegiance to the only country you have, just stand up for goodness sake. The school was right, ACLU and these punks are legally wrong.

seanintucson @ 9 May 2008, 12:21 PM

Not to mention:

Idol Worship?

Are you people serious? It has nothing to do with the sort. You are not idolizing anything by standing up during the pledge. Hey, you don’t have to say it, the all powerful Supreme Court has brought that commandment down, if you will. Have we forgotten so soon what the Standard represents? Have you Baby-Boomers forgotten your parents who fought to raise that same flag during WWII? How about the current generation, your grandparents fought for it in WWII or Korea, parents in Vietnam and your friends now in Iraq and Afghanistan. I AM a current soldier, not retired, and HAVE served two tours in Baghdad. I truly believe you have the right to free speech, which is why you can go ahead and not say the pledge, but for the sake of my brethren who have fallen and those in the past who have died, show THEM the respect they deserve. Parents, you need to be teaching that this country isn’t about the government, but the people, and the people who formed it. This country’s freedom has, and is, constantly being paid for with the lives of its fighting men and women. While you may have the luxury of sitting back and saying its a free speech thing, just remember who gave you that same free speech.

SGT_M on May. 9, 08 at 12:26 PM

I should pause to note that my father was indeed in the Army in Vietnam, and my father’s father was in the Army in Korea. The claim that either my father, or my father’s father, fought for free speech, or this country’s freedom, is absurd. Neither the North Korean government nor the North Vietnamese government, let alone the occupied countries of South Korea and South Vietnam, ever posed any threat to free speech or freedom in the United States of America. They did nothing in the Army to give me free speech because freedom of speech in the U.S. was not at risk in the first place.

The claim that either my father or my grandfather fought to raise a damned flag on the other side of the world is also absurd. The reason that my father and his father were in the Army is because the federal government sent each of them a letter announcing that if he did not join the Army, he would be arrested and thrown in prison. I’ll be damned if I sit around and listen to some sanctimonious volunteer soldier talk about how the United States Army, which conscripted both my father and my grandfather against their will, deserves my respect and gratitude for guarding individual freedom during the wars on Korea and Vietnam

As for the statement Parents, you need to be teaching that this country isn’t about the government, but the people, and the people who formed it, I’m inclined to agree, but I think the upshot is not quite what SGT_M takes the upshot to be. And I certainly don’t know what any of it has to do with standing during the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge of Allegiance is not about the country, much less about the people; it’s about loyalty to *the government*, and it says so right at the beginning:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

And to the republic, for which it stands.


For the second argument, there’s the These snot-nosed punks got no respect line. This is, honestly, even worse than the belligerent appeals to American theo-nationalism, because, as disgusting as the latter is, the former involves singling out harmless kids for sneering speculation on their motivations and character. And also because they are is no longer attacking a difference of view and an exercise of liberty because they think something more important (love of the government and its symbols, or whatever) overrides it, but rather attacking difference and liberty just as such, because these teenagers are acting like free human beings instead of doing as they’re told by the wise and powerful authorities. Thus:


Even if you do not like the Pledge of Allegiance for what ever reason. You should respect others who care and stand! The lack of respect is the main part of our trouble in this rough times.

hussman02 @ 9 May 2008 10:05AM


If it’s a school rule and he doesn’t have an answer as to why he didn’t stand – then he clearly is just being obstinate. I can’t believe a parent would support their kid in this situation!!!

Cartert1 @ 9 May 2008, 9:55 AM


$10 says these are pain-in-the-rear kids with pain-in-the-rear parents that hover around their kids and never make any acknowledgment that their kids could ever do anything wrong. If these kids were formally and legitimately protesting the United States they should not have been punished, but the tenor of the article suggests they are just smart asses and that they did not have any political/personal convictions when they sat out the pledge.

pipress1487 @ 9 May 2008, 10:23 AM

I don’t think that Brandt Dahl’s statement that I didn’t do anything wrong. It should be the people’s choice. suggests they are just smart asses without any political/personal convictions. But suppose this were true. Then so what? Freedom of speech and expression don’t depend on you having something to say that fits some highly stylized model of formal and legitimate protest. The chief value of freedom of association just is being able to be a lazy smart-ass and live your ordinary life as you see fit, rather than spending your time protesting and fighting an overbearing, invasive government. While the right to speak out against injustices is vitally important, what’s even more important, and in fact what makes the right to speak out against injustices as vitally important as it is, is the right to just be left the hell alone and not be subjected to the officious demands of busybodies and blowhards on your time and energy.

If these kids are just trying to be pains in the ass over a ritual that they find stupid and tiresome, I support them and salute them. I can think of no better reason to refuse to participate.

The third, and worst, of the arguments seems (surprisingly, for me, anyway) to be the most common: the idea that even if the school policy is unjustified, and even if schools oughtn’t force students to stand, and even if the kids have got a legitimate beef with the school board, it does not matter, because they broke The Rules, and you got to punish anybody who steps out of line, even if they had a perfectly good reason to object. Now it’s no longer a matter of attacking them for having the wrong beliefs about public political devotion, and no longer a matter of attacking them for being thoughtless or not following orders that the authorities had good reason to hand down. It’s a matter of attacking them for not subordinating their own considered judgment and obeying orders which are admittedly arbitrary and perhaps even wrong in themselves. (If you have some free time and a high tolerance for pain, feel free to count the number of times that people repeat, verbatim, the phrase rules are rules.)


he wasn’t protesting.

he didn’t have a reason why he didn’t stand, he just didn’t want to! what happens when mom and dad have house rules that he doesn’t want to follow? should they force him to follow their rules? life is full of rules that different people think are pointless, it just depends on whose ox is being gored. so now he’s learning that he doesn’t really need reasons for his actions, just whether he wants to do it or not. and we wonder why our youth have become so complacent today!

K_Zemlicka @ 9 May 2008, 10:37 AM

And (all-caps is from the original):



securpo on 9 May 2008, 10:43 AM

Of course, there are two kinds of consequences in this world. There are the natural consequences of an action, and then there are the artificial consequences that people attach to an action by their chosen responses. In this case the only natural consequence of not standing for the Pledge is getting to spend a minute longer sitting rather than standing. The consequences that these three teenagers are being forced to deal with are better described as the choice of school administrators to flip out and try to make teenagers suffer in the name of Old Glory. In any case, statist logic aside, the fact that school administrators flip out when you don’t obey this stupid policy can hardly be used as a justification for their flipping out, without making your argument do doughnuts around the parking lot.

And then there’s this:

I find it interesting that the school has a policy that students must stand during the Pledge. But, policy is policy and rules are rules, so I agree that the students should be punished. I do think it’s an anti-patriotic policy though and standing for the Pledge would be made more meaningful if kids are allowed to do it through free will.

ttepley @ 9 May 2008, 10:28 AM

In other words, God forbid that anyone should sit down when there are rules to be followed. Students should be punished for refusing to co-operate with a policy which you yourself believe to be foolish and wrong, because rules and authority need no rational justification, and indeed can defy any rational justification, and they ought to be obeyed nevertheless.

And then there’s this:

My son wasn’t being defiant against America

My son wasn’t being defiant against America, said Kim Dahl, mother of one of the students, Brandt, who attends Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton Junior High School in western Minnesota. Yet The school’s handbook says all students are required to stand but are not obligated to recite the pledge. So her son wasn’t being defiant against America, but defiant to the school policy itself. Ignorance is not a justifiable defense.

pizann0 9 May 2008, 12:12 PM

I can’t stand flag creeps. I think that kind of belligerent theo-nationalism is absurd, contemptible, and dangerous. But what’s even worse than those who believe that every individual conscience should be turned towards a servile worship of the State, are those who believe that whatever your individual conscience is turned towards, you damn well ought to ignore it and follow the rules, because being defiant to authority is itself a mortal sin, whatever that authority may be and however pointless or wrong may be the rules that they are trying to impose. Where the complaint is not that they ought to be worshipping the one true God, but rather that they had damn well better bow down, no matter what may be before them at the altar.

Incidentally, the state ACLU says that punishing these students is against the rules, as set out in the U.S. Constitution and in rulings by the Supreme Court. I don’t care, and neither should anybody else.

See also:

On people as possessions

Did you know that your marriage license is a property title to your spouse’s body and affections? Just ask Jake Knotts, conservative Republican and arbitrary legislator over the state of South Carolina:

COLUMBIA — Men and women who seduce married people could be sued by jilted spouses under a proposal that won initial approval from S.C. lawmakers Thursday.

You know, we protect our automobiles. We protect our homes. There’s laws to protect everything, and we just need laws to protect the family, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jake Knotts.

— Jim Davenport, Myrtle Beach Sun Times (2008-04-18): Bill aims at marriage interlopers

Here’s where the bill is at:

The S.C. bill says someone can recover unspecified damages if they prove wrongful conduct between their spouse and the defendant during their marriage and that the defendant caused them loss of affection or consortium of their spouse.

The bill was approved by a Senate subcommittee on the heels of a study this week that found divorce and out-of-wedlock births cost S.C. taxpayers $469 million each year and $112 billion overall for U.S. taxpayers. The study was done by groups that advocate more government action to bolster marriages.

The chairman of the subcommittee said failed marriages are damaging society and there should be repercussions for interlopers in marriages.

Whatever we can do to strengthen the bonds of matrimony, we ought to try, said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens.

— Jim Davenport, Myrtle Beach Sun Times (2008-04-18): Bill aims at marriage interlopers

You might have thought that the best way to strengthen a marriage is to be kind and respectful to each other, to talk things out that need to be talked out, and generally to treat your spouse like a free and equal human being rather than as one of your precious possessions. You might also have thought that a husband or wife remains her own person after the wedding, and can do what she will, even if she makes choices that are foolish, hurtful or wrong, because her spouse has no enforceable claim on anything more than she freely gives of herself. But Knotts, Martin, and their colleagues think you ought to be able to call out the force of the State in order to punish interlopers, if you don’t want other people touching your things.

I’ve heard no word yet whether or not the South Carolina senators are considering an amendment to the criminal code for branding cheaters with a scarlet A.

Rad Geek’s Note. The study is The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and for All Fifty States. The principal investigator is Benjamin Scafidi. The Marriage-Nationalization groups that sponsored it are the Institute for American Values, the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, the Georgia Family Council, and Families Northwest. I mention this because one of the ways that the press spreads bogus research and dumbs down the discourse is by presenting out-of-context factoids from uncited studies by anonymous experts or groups, without giving any of the information a reader would need to get started on following up on the claim. In these days it’s trivial to put a brief note in print and even more trivial to add a link to a story posted on the web. I’ll do it here if the Responsible News Professionals won’t do it themselves.

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