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Posted By Subaltern Queer


I write this as a member of the species 'homo sapiens'. Do you know what sapiens means? We define ourselves as the 'wise' being--or 'discerning' or 'sensible'. I confess that 'sensible' sounds to me like an apt descriptor for a shoe.

But 'sapiens' distinguishes us from those nasty and brutish Neanderthals. You wouldn't want to be a Neanderthal, would you?

Isn't such a judgment racist? Carl Linnaeus chose the term sapiens in 1758--to describe himself. Over the years, there has been continuing discussion whether Neanderthals are a part of our species or another species altogether.

Such a discussion may strike you as quaint and archaic. Indeed, the people who specialize in this (sapiologists?) speak of 'archaic humans'. Yet the discussion is as relevant for our current time as it could ever be. Who is included in us?

If you look at the very complicated genealogical trees of human descent, at least as we conceive of them now, it becomes clear that any kind of line one draws is simply a construct. We can decide that those 'creatures' were not part of us.

But the ways in which we make such distinctions are precarious. Consider the image above. Does that look like a 'something' that is another species from 'human'? I can say that it doesn't look like me. But I find it very hard to say definitively: this is not a human face. It looks human to me.

We may have a 'basis' for saying that such a being does not look like us, but the 'basis' for such a statement is one wholly created by us. We may make distinctions on the basis of posture or cranial size. Yet we must not forget that the distinction between 'highbrow' and 'lowbrow' culture is literally based on the distinction between Shakespeare (who literally had a high brow) and the Maori (who literally did not). 

If you think "this is crazy," you are right. But consider this example:

Phrenology Mother2

The fine print tells us that the woman on the right is a 'deficient' mother and the one on the left is a 'devoted' one. That judgment is made solely on the basis of their cranial structure. The 'science' that gave us such information is called phrenology and is, fortunately, completely discredited today.

Scientists speak of an 'anatomically modern homo sapiens' as dating back at least until 196,000 years ago. Yet isn't such a phrase simply a fancy way of saying 'people who look like us'? And isn't the problem that looking 'like' us has always been in flux?

Human beings have a very long and complicated history of the very concept 'looking like us'. The tribe that lives 'over the hills' might look different to the people who are part of the tribe on this side of the hills. Probably most of us would look at both and think "I can't see any difference."

Although it is now politically incorrect, people often used to say (now they just think) things like "all of you white people look the same." White people, in contrast, think "not at all." But this is a very common problem. It's the problem of not being able to see the subtle differences among the people we perceive to be categorically different from us.

I have a friend who taught at an elite boarding school that had many Asian students. She is able to tell, just by looking, who is Japanese, or Chinese, or Korean. I'm sure that I could learn to make such distinctions. But I'm not quite sure I want to make those distinctions.

As people reading this blog know, I live in Scotland. At the moment, I am in Spain enjoying the sunshine, not a strong feature of Scotland. Visitors might come here expecting that "all Spanish people look alike," but of course the reality hardly that. There is no clear 'hispanic' look--a strange concept imposed by non-hispanics.

One 'proof' of this is that many 'hispanic' people in the United States 'pass' for 'white'. But that should tell us that this distinction about who 'looks hispanic' is based on almost nothing.

The problem of people who look 'different' is not simply an American problem, nor even a problem of skin colour. Scottish people have tended to look different from English people. There is enough intermarriage at this point that such distinctions are not so pronounced. But they are often still there.

A very fine Scottish doctor told me that his counterparts in England probably suppose that he carries a knife and may be dangerous. While he said that with a smile, the point was clear enough. Scots don't quite look like English people. And English people often consider themselves superior to Scots.

Despite the talk of a United Kingdom, it is not quite so united. Simply think of the way in which the Irish are seen (by the way, only Northern Ireland is part of the UK; Ireland is its own country). The Irish have long been seen by the English as inferior.

Perhaps the best way to make this point is that the Irish were not welcomed in the United States when they emigrated there in the 19th century. When I would try to explain this to my students, they did not know what to make of this. After all, Irish people are white. What's the difference?

But then you have to explain that the Irish were not the only 'white' people treated as 'inferior'. So were the Italians and the Germans (who, when they arrived in the US, were hardly seen as 'the master race'). So were the Swedes and the Poles.

We assume that the reason there are problems accepting black and hispanic people in the US are simply due to the colour of their skin. But it has never been simply that. Racism comes in many forms and skin tone is only one variant on that.

To be sure, skin tone may be--particularly now--the most significant variant. Most 'white' people think the Irish and the Germans and the Swedes also count as white people. But a moment's reflection on this should make it clear that this assumtion is really odd. For Russians are also considered 'white'. But aren't they Asians

The term 'white' as we know it today has been cobbled together in a way that makes virtually no sense, except as a way to exclude others. Going back to Spain, 'hispanic' people are taken to be 'non-white' but Greeks and Italians are considered 'white'. What?

How different that is from thinking that Neanderthals aren't part of us?

Posted By Subaltern Queer

Trump and Evangelicals

Peter Wehner's recent article "The Cost of the Evangelical Betrayal" (The Atlantic) has the following subtitle: "White, conservative Christians who set aside the tenets of their faith to support Donald Trump are now left with little to show for it."

The usual way of reading this 'betrayal' is that white Evangelicals set aside their religious convictions to vote for Trump because he was the guy who was going to support their political agenda. Trump, so it would seem, embodies virtually everything that Evangelicals say they are against. But the real question is: "who has betrayed whom?"

I think Trump is exactly like so many Evangelicals I know. He will do anything necessary to get and to keep power. So will they. The idea that Evangelicals support Trump despite his continual lying, support of dictators, racism, and willingness to pay off anyone who has 'dirt' on him is misleading. These are qualities that Evangelicals admire.

Wehner, a self-described Evangelical, writes: "Much of the evangelical movement, in aligning itself with Donald Trump, has shown itself to be graceless and joyless, seized by fear, hypocritical, censorious, and filled with grievances." He goes on to give some qualifiers to that statement, such as "it's not true of all evangelicals who are Trump supporters." But I think it's much truer than Wehner himself wants to admit. I realize that such an admission is painful. But this is the reality.

Toward the end of his article, Wehner quotes an unnamed pastor of a large church on the 'Pacific Coast'. That pastor says that "for decades Hollywood has portrayed conservative Christians as cruel, ignorant, greedy, and hypocritical. For 20 years I have worked, led, and have sacrificed to put the lie to that stereotype."

What he says next, though, sums it all up. "Sadly, I now realize that stereotype is more true than I ever knew. It breaks my heart. . .  . [Trump's] everything that I've been trying to say isn't what the church is all about. But, sadly, maybe it is." I would simply remove the term 'maybe'.

The reality is that Evangelicals have shown their true colours. I grew up in the Evangelical world and my own experience is that the Evangelical institutions are largely motivated by fear. They are petty, hypocritical, and suspicious of any actual difference. They may talk about being open, diverse, and welcoming. But the pressures of conformity for anyone who is 'different' are enormous.

Wehner writes "Trump has engaged in a bromance with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, the worst persecutor of Christians in the world." Were American Evangelicals really concerned about Christians being persecuted in some other part of the world--except, perhaps, as an instance of the kind of persecution that they are convinced they receive in the United States--that might mean something. 

But Evangelicals admire dictators and their institutions tend to be run as quasi-dictatorships. They are highly top-down organizations which have various kinds of standards those in the institution are expected to follow. At almost all Evangelical schools, there are doctrinal statements. But, at some point, you begin to understand that there are many other things outside the doctrinal statements that are forbidden to believe.

Unfortunately, you often discover these precisely when it is too late--you have already something that is not allowed. Years ago, the philosophy department at Wheaton had invited someone to speak in chapel. But, once the president of the school heard about the invitation, the department had to 'uninvite' him because his views--in no way contrary to the official doctrinal statement--were contrary to the unofficial doctrinal statement.

That was during an era in which the president of the school officially said--I am the person who defines what the doctrinal statement means. I believe he said--a little more exactly--the board of trustees and I define what it means. But, given that the board of trustees was largely composed of people whose experience and training is in the business world, the president was really the person who 'decided'.

I think I may have previously mentioned that the provost, Stan Jones, who had absolutely zero formal theological training, assumed that he knew much more about the Bible and theology than any of the people who had PhDs in such subjects. I also discovered that he assumed he knew far more about philosophy than did I. How does one argue with someone who both thinks he knows more than you do but in reality knows very little? When I say 'argue' I don't mean 'disagree', I mean debate something that each of you is competent to debate.

It is no surprise that younger people find very little attractive in many of the kinds of Christianity they see on display. That is certainly true of the Evangelical world, which is rife with scandals. But Roman Catholics have had to deal with continuing scandals regarding abuse of children. As a Belgian friend of mine put it, "we trusted the church to provide a moral example for our childen and they betrayed us." No surprise that Catholic churches in Belgium are largely empty.

White Evangelicals in the United States do not support Trump despite him being racist but because of it. Did you notice any black faces in the photo? Of course not. Evangelicals were among those who attacked Obama for being a 'foreigner' or a Muslim. But their racism goes much deeper. I wish there were some way to say that "it's not really so bad." But it is.

One way of seeing that reality is by trying to imagine the phrase "Black Evangelicals." It sounds very strange. I can still remember a black woman theologian saying to me "I didn't realize that Evangelicals largely believe what we believe regarding Christianity."

But that wasn't quite true. Aside from agreeing that Jesus is Lord and Saviour, white Evangelicals also believe that black people need to know their place. And stay there. Gay people need to know their place too, though the reality is that, as a white male, my place is not nearly as precarious.

In the Evangelical world, everything is fine as long as you talk like a white, cis-gendered male. The moment you start talking like a Puerto Rican or African-American, or Asian-American, you are suspect. If you are one of those combined with being trans or gay, you are utterly excluded from the conversation.

Let me be quite precise. There is a certain way of thinking and acting expected in the Evangelical world. You can be accepted as a black woman, as long as you talk like a white Evangelical man. The moment you deviate from the script is the moment that you come under suspicion.

That is how racism in the white, American Evangelical world works. Evangelical colleges love to boast about the number of 'minority' faculty members they have. But those faculty members need to know their place. And stay there.


Posted By Subaltern Queer

American Way of Life

By the fourth of July of 1969, the Stonewall protests were ‘officially’ over. Fifty years later, the New York Police Commissioner offerred an official apology for the actions of the NYPD back in 1969.

The challenges facing the LGBTQ+ community have never ended, though the situation has improved in many ways. However, one way in which the situation has gotten worse is that, back in 1969, it was perfectly acceptable to be openly hostile to homosexuals. Today, people may have the same degree of hostility (and, sometimes, even more), but most people are smart enough to keep quiet. Employers mandate ‘diversity training’. Certain things cannot be said.

But those things can still be thought. Discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community must be covert. You can discriminate just as badly, but you need to do so in other ways. You can't say “we don’t hire gays.” But you can refuse to hire anyone you suspect to be gay. And you can find some ‘performance issue’ to fire them.

A Wheaton policeman told me that, yes, they did target black people driving west on Roosevelt Road. At least back then, that was the principal route for drugs to the western suburbs. When I asked about racial profiling, the policeman pointed out that there were many traffic laws that most people don’t know about. All the police need to do is follow a car for a little while waiting for an improper lane change. If the police think they're ‘justified’ to suspect you might be carrying drugs, they can search your car. Especially if you're black.

The phrase ‘American Way of Life’ arose in response to communism. But the very idea of the American Way of Life really goes back to the founding of the United States.

It’s a way of life in which all people are supposedly equal. Except if you’re black (since you’re only 3/5th human), a woman (since you had no vote), a native American. We are taught in school that the Puritans came to the new world to have religious freedom, but it's not mentioned that their religious freedom included oppressing anyone not like them. That has not changed.

The idea that the ‘American Way of Life” is open to all is a delusion. Native Americans were systematically oppressed and forced to accept treaty after treaty after treaty—none of which were followed by the European colonists. Black Americans were almost all brought to the ‘city on a hill’ as slaves. Once they were ‘freed’, there were numerous ways to make sure they were never really free. They were promised ‘reparations’ in the form of forty acres of land and a mule. For a very short period, that happened. But, when African-Americans started to thrive economically, that success was always snuffed out by white people, sometimes by killing but more often by subtler means.

When we talk about systematic oppression, we mean things like ‘redlining’, in which certain neighborhoods were off-limits to black people. We mean the federal government making sure that black people couldn’t get the typical thirty-year mortgages that white people could get. In the US, the quickest way to wealth accumulation was owning a house. Making sure that it would be next to impossible for black Americans to own a house meant that they would always be renters and never able to build up personal wealth.

As a white person (and one with blond hair and blue eyes), I always worry about trying to make my struggles as a queer man sound like they are anything like those which confront blacks. would not be red-lined; I’ve been able to get a mortgage. You can’t see that I’m gay by the color of my skin.

Yet I think Stonewall and the Black Lives Matter movements address similar concerns. The first of them is simply the right to be, to exist. We noted that homosexuals were in effect criminals. Black people in the US are usually seen by white people through the same lens.

Historically, when people in the LGBTQ+ community tried to make their voices heard, they were often silenced. In 1953, an organization tried to publish a magazine called One. It’s first issue featured a story about homosexuals in heterosexual marriages. Even though the issue was wrapped in brown paper, the postal service alleged that the magazine was ‘obscene’ and refused to deliver it. Five years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the postal service was obligated to deliver the magazine—hot off the press from five years ago!

I remember my father (who grew up in Chicago) telling me that Mayor Daley (the senior) was effective because “he kept the blacks in their place.” To this day, I’m not quite sure as to the extent with which my father approved of that. But ‘keeping people in their place’ has always been essential to the American Way of Life.

Native Americans need to be on reservations where they are neither seen nor heard. Black people need to live in the ‘other’ part of town. It is debatable whether the gay guys moved to Boystown in Chicago (yes, it’s really called that) because they wanted to belong to a community or whether they didn’t feel welcome in other places. But the American Way of Life depends on making sure everyone knows their place—and stays there.

Stonewall must be seen as being in line with protests against the assumptions of the American Way of Life. ‘Family values’ has long been code for ‘straight people’. The American Way of life may perhaps be finding some room for gays but only with reluctance. Gay marriage was never simply about allowing gays to get married; it was also about allowing them to become part of the American Way of Life.

But the challenge for the LGBTQ+ community to become part of the American Way of Life is of an entirely different magnitude than that of black Americans to become part of the American Way of Life. How could the American Way of Life find room to include people that the American Way of Life was established to keep in their place?

Today, as we celebrate Independence Day, we have to take a hard look at what we are really celebrating. In effect, we are celebrating the independence of white people of means to be free. Poor white people were not initially allowed to vote, nor were any women, nor were people of color.

I find it heartening to read that, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 83% of Americans are not proud to be Americans at the moment. I have long been part of that group, often taking refuge in my Canadian citizenship (though recognizing that Canada has a long history of oppression too). 

The difficulty—of a huge magnitude—is that, as long as the American Way of Life is the norm, people who don’t ‘fit’ are going to be excluded. To fix that, the American Way of Life itself needs to be scrapped. Perhaps that means rewriting the Constitution. At the very least, keeping people in their ‘place’ means that only some people have true ‘independence’.

Is the United States of America ready to be a place where African-American, Native American, and LGBTQ+ lives are treated as equal in everyday practice?

Don't hold your breath.