Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Kafka, 畢惠, and the Ghosts

畢惠 and Franz Kafka: Will these two get along?

Though I’m not at all sure she will take to such literature, I’m delighted to have convinced my young student to begin reading Kafka. She will soon begin study in one of Taiwan’s German departments. She sends me the following photo with the words: “I bought these at the book store today. There are so many books by Kafka there! Do you know his 變形記? I decided to go to Eslite book store and read 變形記 there, so I can save money. :) I will find 哲學的慰藉 tomorrow.”

Just yesterday I was rereading Harold Bloom on Kafka (in The Western Canon), who writes of the “sweetness” of Kafka’s mockery:

Everything that seems transcendent in Kafka is truly a mockery, but uncannily so; it is a mockery that emanates from a great sweetness of spirit. Although he worshiped Flaubert, Kafka possessed a much gentler sensibility than that of the creator of Emma Bovary. And yet his narratives, short and long, are almost invariably harsh in their events, tonalities, and predicaments. The dreadful is going to happen. The essence of Kafka can be conveyed in many passages, and one of them is his famous letter to the extraordinary Milena. Agonizing as Kafka’s letters frequently are, they are among the most eloquent of our century.

The passage:

It’s a long time since I wrote to you, Frau Milena, and even today I’m writing only as the result of an incident. Actually, I don’t have to apologize for my not writing, you know after all how I hate letters. All the misfortune of my life . . . derives, one could say, from letters or from the possibility of writing letters. People have hardly ever deceived me, but letters always--and as a matter of fact not only those of other people, but my own. In my case this is a special misfortune of which I won’t say more, but at the same time also a general one. The easy possibility of letter writing must--seen merely theoretically--have brought into the world a terrible disintegration of souls. It is, in fact, an intercourse with ghosts, and not only with the ghost of the recipient but also with one’s own ghost, which develops between the lines of the letter one is writing and even more so in a series of letters where one letter corroborates the other and can refer to it as a witness. How on earth did anyone get the idea that people can communicate with one another by letter! Of a distant person one can think, and of a person who is near one can catch hold--all else goes beyond human strength. Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. Humanity senses this and fights against it and in order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and to create a natural communication, the peace of souls, it has invented the railway, the motor car, the aeroplane. But it’s no longer any good, these are evidently inventions being made at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal service it has invented the telegraph, the telephone, the radiograph. The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish.

Bloom comments:

It is difficult to conceive of sentences more eloquent than “Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts” or “The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish.”

The keen awareness that in writing a letter one not only evokes a spectral other who is not the intended recipient, but rather a “ghost”, and the more writerly awareness that in penning words on paper the writer himself also inevitably becomes a disembodied voice (or voices), even when supposedly writing in his own name--these two kinds of awareness Kafka possessed to a uniquely high degree. Which is doubtless what let his writing speak; what, in many supreme examples, let the ghost voices speak their truth. Given Kafka’s more gnostic or Kabbalistic sensibility, such “inspiration” was always seen as more uncanny or demonic than in any sense holy. Thus the sharp critique of communication technologies as a tool of the “ghosts”, beginning with writing and ghoulishly progressing onto electronic forms. Probably Kafka would see in our own era of text messages and tweets and “likes” a world where the ghosts had entirely taken over, and one where their annihilating banality had finally revealed itself. (As Faust, who at the end of his joyride of unparalleled discovery and experience had finally to face the cold reality of damnation that Mephistopheles brought. But this switch of register to the Faustian or Christian is perhaps out of line, for Kafka was very Jewish, in a heretical gnostic register all his own.)

I also encouraged 畢惠 to buy some more general reading to give her a rough idea of the range of Western philosophical traditions: Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy (Chinese title: 哲學的慰藉). Yes, I’m a bit worried she’ll like de Botton’s book more than Kafka; or, even worse, that after two years of German study she'll switch to advertising or accounting. In any case, whenever I have a student who goes into language or literary study, I always keep my fingers crossed.


Eric Mader

(NOTE to whom it may concern: I disagree somewhat with Bloom’s reading of Kafka. It is of course brilliant on my levels, but as sometimes is the case, I find the critic insists too dogmatically (and polemically) on the monism of Jewish culture, so as to oppose it to the dualism of Christian or Cartesian culture. Bloom quotes one of the most suggestive of the aphorisms in Blue Octavo Notebooks:

If what is supposed to have been destroyed in Paradise was destructible, then it was not decisive; but if it was indestructible, then we are living in a fake belief.

Here Kafka finds, I believe, the Christian truth as given in Luke 17:20-1:

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Which teaching the Gospel of Thomas (saying 113) renders as follows:

His disciples said to him: “On what day will the kingdom come?” [Jesus said:] “It will not come while people watch for it; they will not say: Look, here it is, or: Look, there it is; but the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and men do not see it.”

Kafka’s “fake belief” is a recognition of the same truth we find in Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom is in our midst but we “do not see it”. The first phrase of Kafka’s aphorism could be rewritten as: “If our being in Paradise [i.e. our eternal nature] was something that could be destroyed, then it was not eternal to begin with, and so there is no Paradise.” The second phrase would then be: “If, on the other hand, our eternal being was indestructible, then we still have it, and so our belief that we are not in Paradise is false.”

Of course Jesus’ teaching insists on the eternal reality of Paradise as well as on our access to it. In fact, as Luke 17 would suggest, we are already possessed of it, if only we weren’t blinded (Kafka’s “false belief”).

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Don’t Allow Gay Marriage to Threaten American Pluralism

In one of the many cases now pending, this Oregon couple will likely soon lose both home and business. It doesn’t have to be this way. The answer? A sane legal balance. RFRA laws.

The situation in America for many people of faith is growing intolerable. And all indications are that it will only get worse.

Personally, I recognize many strong arguments in favor of same-sex marriage, as well as many strong arguments against it. The issue is immensely complex, with potential ramifications that are rarely raised to the level of public discussion.

Although I've long supported the LGBT movement in most of its goals, going back to the 1980s and 1990s, I was until last year strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. This wasn't simply a religious stance on my part either, but also an anthropological one. Though my position has since moved more toward support, I don't count myself as being either in the support or opposition camp. I believe rather that as of yet we cannot map out what this cultural shift even means. As regards the long-term viability of same-sex marriage in society, I think only time will tell--and by time, we should think decades at a bare minimum. Why? Because no one at present can predict how such a change in familial mores will play out over generations.

My thinking on the issue entails a special sympathy for both sides: a sympathy that pushes me this way and that. And so, though I can well understand gays and lesbians’ desire to make a clean sweep of their previous outsider status by claiming same-sex marriage as a "right" along with the other rights they have fought for, yet I see the suddenness of the push to establish this last new "right" as a step onto thin ice, one which besides is leading to systemic new forms of injustice, with results that may well prove bad for everyone, gays and lesbians included.

Among these injustices, the growing animosity against orthodox believers, Christians or others, is making possible a serious betrayal of the American project. It's this betrayal I want to address.

Many Americans seem to believe that the “definition of marriage” has been decided by our Supreme Court. This is incorrect. The meaning of marriage has not been decided by the Supreme Court because the Supreme Court has no mandate to legislate any such thing. It is not the right of courts to change the definition of a cultural institution as fundamental as marriage.

As a Catholic, I could follow many other Christians and weigh in here by insisting that God has given us the definition of marriage. But I will not, and never have, followed this line of debate with secular Americans, because quite simply I do not intend to impose Catholic thinking on them. I recognize that the Catholic understanding of marriage is founded in traditions that many Americans don't adhere to and that we Americans live in a pluralist society.

I say, then, that I do not believe any church, mine included, can impose its teaching on marriage on the whole of American society. And so, even when I was adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage, I didn't attempt to make my case simply by stating my church's position. In a pluralistic society, one might argue vehemently; one cannot, however, expect to impose one's arguments as absolute.

But on precisely the same grounds, and for the same reasons, this "new" definition of marriage now being imposed by the "marriage equality" movement cannot be claimed as absolute either. It is not absolute because, first, we live in a pluralistic society, and, second and more importantly, marriage norms, in any culture, can only be decided by that culture as a whole. As I’ve argued elsewhere on anthropological grounds (see Appendix below) this “as a whole” really must mean virtually the whole of the people.

And so: When 98% of Americans recognize same-sex marriages as valid, we will be able to insist that American culture has abandoned its previous understanding of marriage. But we are nowhere near such unanimity at present, are we? What we have instead is a situation in which the meaning of marriage remains contested. It is contested between two rough camps--one of which sees marriage as always between a man and a woman, the other of which claims that it can also be between people of the same sex.

The upshot: Neither side can be judged to be definitively right, in the public sphere, if we are to remain true to our ideals as a liberal and pluralist society. This seems to me an evident matter of political fact. That many on both sides of the current debate don’t recognize this fact is perhaps to be expected. But that so many in the LGBT camp are now so aggressively set on denying it is disappointing. Having suffered bigotry for so long, they are swiftly turning into bigots.

The right legal path to take for the committed American pluralist is similarly clear: None of the contestants in the current battle over marriage should be discriminated against under the law. Which means that the now ascendant culture, represented by the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, has no right to force Americans to agree with it that these new "marriages" are actually marriages. Which entails, in turn, that those refusing to cater to these marriages either in speech or business practice must not be prosecuted or forced by law to do so. Again, this goes with pluralism, and it goes with the constitutionally protected right of free exercise of religion.

But this is not what we are seeing in America at present. Quite the contrary. We are seeing witch hunts--and worst of all, state authorities are validating and sometimes even organizing these witch hunts.

If Americans who refuse to recognize same-sex marriage are to be “discriminated against” in any way, let them be discriminated against by neighbors or future customers who might of their own accord decline to befriend them or patronize their businesses. That would be within the bounds of reason. That would be just. But the state itself, if it is the American state, cannot begin to fine citizens or run them out of business or require them to undergo “diversity training” just for adhering to their religion. That is not the American way. So what exactly is going on?

I would argue further that school boards, universities or private companies should not be able take action against citizens based on their religious convictions on marriage, because, just as it is illegal to fire someone because he or she is a Christian or a Muslim or a lesbian, so it must be illegal to fire someone for holding firm to their traditional beliefs on marriage, which beliefs are for many a crucial part of their religion, besides having literally millennia of history and precedent behind them.

But rather than respect for the constitutional rights of religious people, what are we seeing instead? We are seeing witch hunts.

To refuse to bake a cake for or photograph a gay wedding is not "discrimination" against homosexuals as such. It is plainly, and only, a refusal to recognize the newly proposed definition of marriage.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, if a bartender were to say to a customer “I won’t serve you because you’re gay”, this should be seen as a very wrongful kind of discrimination and I would agree that the bartender should be subject to legal consequences. Because everyone has the right to order a drink. In this register all customers are equal. But that same bartender, if he were to say, “I’m willing to serve you drinks at my bar, but under no circumstances would I be willing to cater your wedding”--if he were to say this, he should be fully protected by our law.

And what law is that? The kind of law that should already be in effect in all fifty states: a religious liberty protection law (an RFRA law) that would give defendants legal standing to argue in court that forcing them to participate in same-sex marriages is an intrusive burden on their sincerely held religious beliefs. Such laws are the bare minimum, and we would have them if the wisdom of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 were being followed at state level. Such laws are not about discrimination, regardless of the way our mainstream media, always out for the provocative headline, presents them. RFRA laws protect Americans of many different faiths in their freedom to pursue their beliefs and traditions. If you don't believe me, if you think "RFRA law" just means an excuse to discriminate against gays, go read the article just linked.

Personally, as I say, I believe RFRA laws are the bare minimum. That they are howled against, that even corporations choose to threaten boycotts against states trying to pass them, shows how poisonous the American climate has become.

The level of rancor shown by liberal fundamentalists over this issue impels me to suggest an even more direct legal route, one I know will get little hearing, but I will propose it even so. Since marriage is deeply contested in our polity at present, what we need are laws that stipulate something such as the following: No fines or suits shall be levied against any business, religious organization or private citizen based on differing definitions of marriage. Yes, I can hear the screaming already. But such a law would firmly uphold our Constitution (see the arguments put forth by same-sex marriage supporter Damon Linker and by Yuval Levin). It would be simple, clear in scope, and would protect the millions of American citizens who have reasons of faith for not recognizing same-sex marriages. End of story.

And is it really true that these latter Americans are motivated by hate and bigotry, by a desire to push gays and lesbians out of the public square? Isn't it clear rather that this is generally not the case? Many of the most prominent instances we see where individuals are being sued or run out of business involve people who hadn’t previously refused to serve gays or lesbians.

This current conflict is clearly not a matter of animus against gay people but rather a matter of religiously grounded refusals of a radically novel definition of marriage. Again: End of story.

The overly dogmatic assertion of LGBT rights at present, especially the current knee-jerk belief that they must trump all other established rights, is un-American. And the insistence on such rights so confidently in the realms of marriage and family risks, sorry to say, a very evident slippery slope. To take just one possible example, one may likewise argue that everyone has a right to be a mother. Motherhood, after all, is a good thing, a natural and eternal thing, and everyone should have the right to it. So lets all support maternal rights!

Fine and good, so far. And yet, as a man, I cannot exercise this "universal right". But what if I were to insist on my right to give birth? What if I were to start attacking and demonizing anyone who claimed my new demand was out of line? And what if, eventually, the majority came to agree with me?

What we would have, I propose, is a situation almost precisely parallel to what we have seen in the marriage debate. A social fact previously seen as fixed and biologically grounded (on the one hand motherhood, on the other marriage) would suddenly be up for revision, and those against the revision would be demonized as archaic "haters".

And in our current climate no one should find my analogy outlandish or flippant either. I personally wouldn't be in the least surprised if in future decades technology did allow the possibility of men becoming “mothers”. I would see it a possibility that shouldn’t be taken up--but who’s to say what others might think? In fact I’m sure there are men out there right now who'd thrill at the chance of being able to carry a baby to term inside their medically altered bodies. I've read comments in online threads stating this very desire. But as I say, I wouldn’t be among those supporting the practice. I'd support laws against it. Will that, in these coming decades, make me a “bigot”? I’m afraid it will. Which should indicate something of the misuse of this term in our present impasse.

Let the contest over marriage continue, by all means. It was perhaps inevitable this contest would come. But the state, if it is truly the American state, must not take definitive sides. Even though I personally may incline toward supporting same-sex marriage, I see it as deeply wrong that recognition of such marriages should be imposed on those who have their own long-established reasons not to recognize them.

Is the state going to return to reason? Sadly, it now seems unlikely. Rather than balanced laws that protect the deeply held beliefs of Americans, we have state-sponsored persecution and predatory lawsuits. This is not American. Even many who support gay marriage shake their heads at what is happening. It is deeply un-American.

Religious liberty protection laws are needed now. These laws are needed to erect a wall of protection around Americans whose rights to free speech and free exercise of religion are being curtailed and whose livelihoods risk being taken from them over what is, at present, a contested social issue.

If there should be a renewed push for such laws, I would ask that people in support of gay marriage think over the proposals carefully rather than merely react against them. Because this is not only a matter of LGBT rights. It is a matter of our polity and its long history of recognizing the rights of competing beliefs among citizens. And if things are getting ugly now, they will almost certainly get worse, and get worse quickly, if the current trend continues. American pluralism is not something we can afford to betray.

Eric Mader

APPENDIX: How cultures validate marriages

I post the following to explain something of why I would insist the whole community must recognize marriages for them to be valid. I won’t try to reproduce the whole debate context in which I made these remarks back in 2011, but post only part of my rebuttal to what I found were my opponent's reductive arguments as to "what marriage is". I begin by laying out his own argument:
Right at the outset you try to get at the essence of marriage by saying it is "an agreement between two people". I think this fact that you take to be so obvious is crucial to where your argument goes subsequently. Now don't get me wrong here, I don't really disagree with you. Yes, marriage is always, in our America, an "agreement between two people". But still, I find this description only partial, and that if you use it as the definitive one, you will quickly, so to speak, throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In my thinking marriage is not so much an agreement as a status. It is a status shared by two people vis-a-vis society and God. You can even leave God out of it if you like, I think my point still stands. Marriage is not so much between two people as it is, first, between two people and, secondly, between that couple and society. What's more--again even if we leave God out of it--I think we can see here the importance of a kind of "sanctifying" in relation to marriage. Cultures everywhere, ours included, typically affirm the beginning of a couple's married life with a complex ritual. This universality of ritual demonstrates, I think, that marriage has an important communal element. And so I would argue: marriage is not simply an agreement between the two people marrying, and perhaps it is not even essentially such.

When you write[, evoking your disbelief in God,] that marriage is "sanctified . . . by a group . . . yet to be seen at a podium that can read a teleprompter", I find myself asking what you can possibly mean by "yet to be seen". You yourself chose to use the word "group"--because I think you acknowledge the communal element of marriage. To me it's obvious the pastors or priests or rabbis who perform the majority of marriages in our society do just this "teleprompter reading" when they conduct marriage ceremonies: they do it as spokesperson for the "group": i.e., the community gathered for the event. And they are present and visible. What I'm getting at is this: Even if you don't believe in the God that is the ground of these religious systems, you still must recognize, anthropologically speaking, that this is a communal ritual meant to confer a certain status on the couple. Further, that the great majority of marriages still happen via these ancient rituals is just more evidence that, as I argue in my essay, the meaning of marriage predates the modern state by a long shot. These rituals reach back centuries or millennia, as you know. Marriage, even our current understanding of marriage, is much older, and more primal, than the mere "registry of marriages" that our state governments provide in city halls across the country.

But then what does it mean to base your support for same-sex marriage on this state-sanctioned aspect of marriage that finds its most tangible form in a mere license (choice B in your dichotomy)? You seem finally to be arguing that marriage is just a matter of "two consenting adults" and "a license". For me, this is such a partial definition as to be almost meaningless. It fatally impoverishes one of the central institutions of our culture. You even choose at one point to evoke a fishing license as a kind of metaphoric parallel to marriage. I know, I know--you'll say that this is because here you're trying to stress the "non-holy" or merely "statutory" aspect of marriage, that in fact this is the whole point of your choice B--namely, the state shouldn't "get involved" in issues that relate to the choice A aspect of marriage, the "special" or "holy" aspect. Well, I also believe in separation of church and state, but on this point, I think you're putting the cart before the horse--way before the horse. Because, in America, the state was not founded with a charter to establish the definition of marriage. That definition had already been established by the people the state was founded to serve. Yes, the state's business may have eventually extended to offering "marriage licenses", etc., but this doesn't change the fact: the state had no charter to impose either marriages or divorces upon the citizenry. The only instances otherwise would have been when the state enforced the divorce of accidentally married siblings (I don't know if this has happened in the US) or when the state outlawed Mormon polygamy. But this latter example only further proves my point: the state was there to support monogamous marriage as the only acceptable kind because this is what the American people had recognized from the beginning. In other words, in the Mormon case the state did what it was supposed to--it defended the marriages of the vast majority of citizens against a minority attempting to change the definition to suit their own new practice.

The idea, then, that the state is entitled to change the definition of marriage is wrong. Further, even if a slight majority of citizens were to vote for such a change it would still be wrong. Why so? Because marriage is a status recognized by the community; and in the case of state or federally licensed marriages, one must say: recognized by the community as a whole. Thus if even twenty or thirty percent remain unconvinced that a couple is viably married, this should be decisive in convincing the state not to license such a marriage. The license, after all, is not the marriage itself, but merely a recognition that the community acknowledges the marriage as real. And the community, in this case, is the whole of the citizenry, not a mere majority.

What we have, then, in the case of the "marriage equality" movement is an instance of a minority pressing a) an entirely novel definition of marriage that b) has zero historical precedent, and hoping to get it established in law by c) a majority of Yea votes, while ignoring d) the sizable percentage of Americans that, whether for religious or cultural reasons, will not regard such marriages as real. This, in short, is a serious impasse. And the state shouldn't go there. Because the state's business is only to recognize marriages recognized by the community--it is emphatically not to suggest that certain novel kinds of marriage be recognized by offering to license them.

Aside from the other problems I raise in my essay, I think this problem of tens of millions of American citizens who don't agree with this changed definition should already be enough to decide the issue.

It used to be the case, and doubtless still is in some churches, that the pastor conducting the ceremony would say: "Into this holy estate these two persons now come to be joined. If any person can show just cause why they may not be joined together--let them speak now or forever hold their peace." I think the case of same-sex marriage can be considered from this point of view. There are still far too many people who would stand up and say: "Sorry, but, er, yes, I do have reason these two should not be married. They're of the same sex." You might call this bigotry if you want, and in some cases it certainly is connected with bigotry, but usually it's simply a matter of our culture's idea of what marriage is.

If it some time comes about that 98 percent of the American population believes same-sex couples can be married, then we'd be talking about a different reality and my argument here would lose much of its force. Because 98 percent would amount to communal recognition. But this is nothing like American reality at present. And so I think: case closed.

Perhaps you can see by these remarks why I think your dichotomy A [marriage as a holy or sanctified bond] or B [marriage as a legal status offered and licensed by the state] can't really support your argument. Marriage in America is both A and B. Anthropologically speaking, the two "choices" can't be separated, so ultimately they aren't choices, and your attempt to argue for same-sex marriage by saying that marriage is mostly B doesn't hold up.

And it doesn't hold up on one further ground as well. If one were pressed to choose which of the two, A or B, the institution of marriage could live without, one would have to choose B. Because choice B, as I've shown, is little more than the state's recognition of a communal reality. It is nothing but a license. It says something about the merits of their arguments that those pushing for same-sex marriage have to lean so heavily on this choice B.

I can't help but feel, Steve, that in many of my remarks above I am not so much arguing against your points as I am raising aspects of marriage you already recognize but that you have decided, in the interests of the same-sex marriage debate, to put aside. You can do this maybe because these aspects don't much matter to you.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Human Tissue and the Meaning of sell

Planned Parenthood doctor Mary Gatter needs a new car.
Your child can help.

First, take a few minutes to watch the newly released video from the Center for Medical Progress. It’s embedded in an article at Breitbart, along with some transcripts.

What is going on here? Or rather: How can anyone continue to deny what's going on here? In their public pronouncements Planned Parenthood insists they don’t “sell” tissue from aborted children, that the clinics and their directors are making no profit from what they call “transfer” of tissue. But in the video, a senior Planned Parenthood figure talks about prices for human body parts being enough to make it “worthwhile for me”, and charmingly ends her discussion by saying “I want a Lamborghini.”

Critics of the first Center for Medical Progress video argued that the featured doctor’s remarks were taken out of context and that the video was pure spin. But who is doing the spin here?

Planned Parenthood’s has defended their practices so far by claiming that any money acquired for human tissue has been to cover the costs of “storage” and “processing". But consider the scenario being discussed in the video. The buyer comes to the clinic and takes what he/she wants, then pays the clinic per sample, $75 to $150 being ballpark figures. Planned Parenthood affiliated clinics are not “transferring” or “storing” tissue beyond a bit of refrigeration until buyers arrive.

A distasteful, but unfortunately accurate, analogy comes to mind. Any butcher could likewise claim that his business is not “selling meat”, but that his fees are simply to cover the cost of “storage” while the meat is “transferred”. For the butcher, as for the Planned Parenthood clinic, the “storage” referred to is the same cheap method you use in your kitchen: refrigeration.

And how much does an ounce of pork liver go for now? Is it 35 cents an ounce or 45 cents? Compare this to a human baby’s liver as per Planned Parenthood prices: 75 dollars per liver (being about $30 an ounce). That’s a business at least 100 times more profitable than the one the butcher is engaged in. And sorry, but profitable is the correct word here, because the clinic doesn't have to do anything but put these human body parts in a cooler for a day or two.

Here I can already hear the Planned Parenthood defender standing up to say: “You can’t talk about it that way! It's not just meat, it’s human tissue being stored. It’s for scientific experiments.”

To which I would answer: “Voilà! Now you’re starting to get it. It is human tissue; it is developed human tissue. And in this case a person was killed to get it. And the tissue is being sold for a profit.”

If Planned Parenthood's selling of aborted children's organs doesn't generate a profit, how exactly does it relate to this doctor's "wanting to get a Lamborghini"? Again, I think we're dealing with something painfully obvious.

Eric Mader

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What is the past tense of fire? George Steiner on the Poetry of Thought

Ancient bust of Parmenides,
5th century BC founder of the Eleatic school

On another tour to the center with George Steiner as intrepid guide. This time it’s his 2014 book The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan. Some paragraphs:

The definition of men and women as “language animals” put forward by the ancient Greeks, the nomination of language and linguistic communication as the defining attribute of what is human, are no arbitrary tropes. Sentences, oral and written (the mute can be taught to read and write), are the enabling organ of our being, of that dialogue with the self and with others which assembles and stabilizes our identity. Words, imprecise, time-bound as they are, construct remembrance and articulate futurity. Hope is the future tense. Even when naively figurative and unexamined, the substantives we attach to concepts such as life and death, to the ego and the other are bred of words. Hamlet to Polonius. The force of silence is that of a denying echo of language. It is possible to love silently, but perhaps only up to a point. Authentic speechlessness comes with death. To die is to stop chattering. I have tried to show that the incident at Babel was a blessing. Each and every language maps a possible world, a possible calendar and landscape. To learn a language is to expand incommensurably the parochialism of the self. . . .

I have suggested that the “discovery” of metaphor ignited abstract, disinterested thought. Does any animal metaphorize? It is not only language which is saturated with metaphor. It is our compulsion, our capacity to devise and examine alternative worlds, to construe logical and narrative possibilities beyond any empirical constraints. Metaphor defies, surmounts death--as in the tale of Orpheus out of Thrace--even as it transcends time and space. . . .

It is out of a metaphoric magma that Pre-Socratic philosophy seems to erupt (the volcanic is not far off). Once a traveler in Argos had perceived the shepherds on the stony hills as “herdsmen of the winds,” once a mariner out of the Piraeus had sensed that his keel was “plowing the sea,” the road to Plato and to Immanuel Kant lay open. It began in poetry and has never been far from it.

Natural language is the ineluctable medium of philosophy. . . [I]n essence and, as we have seen, barring the symbolism of formal logic, language must do. As R.G. Collingwood puts it in his Essay on Philosophic Method (1933): “If language cannot explain itself, nothing else can.” Thus the language of philosophy is “as every careful reader of the great philosophers already knows, a literary language and not a technical.”

From his first chapter treating the Pre-Socratics:

“The power of Heraclitus’s thought and style is so overwhelming that it is apt to carry away the imagination of his readers . . . beyond the limits of sober interpretation.” So remarked Hermann Fränkel, soberest of scholars. . . . For Nietzsche [Heraclitus’s] “legacy will never age.” Together with Pindar, rules Heidegger, Heraclitus commands an idiom which exhibits the matchless “nobility of the beginning.” Meaning at dawn.

. . . Heraclitus’s dicta are arcs of compressed voltage setting alight the space between words and things. His metaphoric concision suggests immediacies of existential encounter, primacies of experience largely unrecapturable to rationalities and sequential logic after Aristotle. The Logos is at once performative enunciation and a principle inherent in that which it signifies. Thus enunciation, the decoding of thought, takes on a substantive reality somehow external to the speaker (Heidegger’s die Sprache spright). In some respects, Heraclitus bears witness to the origins of intelligible consciousness (Bruno Snell). Thus Heraclitus both celebrates and wrestles with--all celebration is agonistic--the terrible power of language to deceive, to demean, to mock, to plunge deserved renown into the dark of oblivion. Dialectically, the capacity of language to ornament and enshrine memory also entails its faculties of forgetting, of ostracism from recall.

Heraclitus “works in original manner which the raw material of human speech, where ‘original’ signifies both the initial and the singular” (Clémence Ramnoux, one of the most insightful commentators). He quarries language before it weakens into imagery, into eroded abstraction. His abstractions are radically sensory and concrete, but not in the opportunistic mode of allegory. They enact, they perform thought where it is still, as it were, incandescent--the trope of fire is unavoidable. Where it follows on a shock of discovery, of naked confrontation with its own dynamism, at once limited and bounded. Heraclitus does not narrate. To him things are with an evidence and enigma of total presence like that of lightning (his own simile). What would be the past tense of fire?

. . . Already to the ancients Heraclitus was proverbially obscure. A proponent of dark riddles . . . [As for us, we] know next to nothing of Heraclitus’s idiom and terrain of allusion. We cannot “look things up.” . . . We simply do not know enough about oracular, mantic and Orphic conventions to assess their influence on Heraclitus. Famously, Fragment XXXIII professes that Apollo “whose oracle is in Delphi neither declares nor conceals, but gives a sign” (a Wittgensteinian move). Contrary to an Adamic nomination, Heraclitus does not label or define substance but infers its contradictory essence. Semantic ambiguities, a second order of difficulty, both relate the internal to the external and signal their dissociation.

. . . .

[In Heraclitus we recognize] the fundamental, generative collision between the elusive opacity of the word and the equally elusive but compelling clarity and evidence of things. Immediate or hurried apprehension, the colloquial, misses this decisive tension, that, in Heraclitus’s celebrated duality, of the bow and the lyre. To listen closely--Nietzsche defined philology as “reading slowly”--is to experience, always imperfectly, the possibility that the order of words, notably in metrics and the metrical nerve-structure within good prose, reflects, perhaps sustains the hidden yet manifest coherence of the cosmos.

. . . .

As do poets, Heraclitus follows language where it leads him, where he is receptive to its inward and autonomous authority, with somnambular yet acutely lucid trust.

. . . .

When Beckett bids us fail, fail again but “fail better,” he locates the synapse at which thought and poetry, doxa and literature mesh. “It’s the start that’s difficult.”

That inception, that tenor of thought at dawn, is emphasized by Heidegger in his lectures on Parmenides of 1942-43. Editorial, exegetic attempts to discriminate between poem and cosmology in Parmenides are anachronistic. No such dissociation is valid. Instead of Lehrgedicht or didactic verse, Heidegger proposes sagen, a “Totality of the enunciated,” as the only category appropriate to what we can make out of Parmenides’ vision and intent.

. . . .

The mythological lineaments of [Parmenides’] poem are not vestment or masque in the baroque sense. The mythological embodies, allows, the only direct access to the invocation and articulation of the abstract where language, prior to Aristotle, has not yet evolved key modes of logical predication. . . . For Parmenides, the world is nothing but the mirror of my thought--a proposal whose enormity across the millennia should never escape us. Thus poetic form becomes the natural configuration for the most radical, overwhelming yet also strange and perhaps counterintuitive of assertions: that of the identity of thought and being. This existential identity will be a determinant in the genesis and pilgrimage of western consciousness. In a sense, Descartes and Hegel are footnotes.

Steiner the polymath has often been accused of losing his footing on this or that path, but no one else has the breadth and energy to lead this kind of tour. Some of his pages are precious for their rugged vigor. Reading for those who want “to go toward the beginning.”

Eric Mader

Check The Poetry of Thought at Amazon.

Bravo, Hanna Yusuf! The hijab and Western feminist hypocrisy

Finding Hanna Yusuf’s arguments on the hijab and Western feminism valid, I shared her video on Facebook. Some interesting debate followed, parts of it showcasing the very gestures and stresses mainstream feminists in my own country (the US) have employed to bankrupt their own movement. Oh, well.

I’ve changed the names of some of the participants to protect the innocent. Here they are:

Eric Mader (myself): left-leaning Catholic; American
Paul Wylie: Irish student
Renge Grace: American businesswoman
Christine Mahler: American businesswoman
Matthew Salmon: American liberal; counselor
Theodore Mugg: strip club DJ; New Atheist
Nancy Wellington: Professor of English
David Becker: American

The original video, from The Guardian:

My hijab has nothing to do with oppression

Why is the hijab seen as the very epitome of oppression? It has nothing to do with it. It's a feminist statement, says Hanna Yusuf.

Posted by The Guardian on Wednesday, June 24, 2015


PAUL WYLIE: What do you think?

ERIC MADER: I have much more respect for this woman's position than for Femen or 90% of American self-professed feminists. Especially sharp, and needed, is the clear critique of how "liberatory" Western feminism just plays into the dictates of the market. I call it Sex and the City feminism, which program was little more than a marketing campaign for high-end fashion products, both Stateside and here in Asia.

PAUL WYLIE: We agree! Although I'm probably more angry about the Feminazi movement: "All men are rapists! End the patriarchy!"

ERIC MADER: We agree there too. Absolutely. Feminism has worthy roots, but has managed to grow all kinds of idiot branches. The majority of American feminists who go out of their way to remind you they are feminists manage, within a few words, to prove themselves some of the biggest hypocrites America has on offer. And that's a hard distinction to attain, what with all the competition.

THEODORE MUGG: Kinda ironic that something men compel women to wear in some societies is a feminist choice in a free society.

ERIC MADER: In some societies men compel women to wear Victoria's Secret lingerie and dance on stage in it.

RENGE GRACE: Hahahaha, good one!

THEODORE MUGG: Actually, as a former strip club DJ, this is wrong on many counts. Although more than a few dancers I knew had leech scumbag boyfriends, none of them were compelled. It is less of a cliche than you think, stripping your way through school. And no dancer would wear VS, as it’s far too poorly put together to withstand the rigors of day to day use.

ERIC MADER: I think you're undoubtedly right both on most strippers around the world and on the viability of VS on stage. But: I'm sure there are plenty of "strip/etc." clubs on various continents where the women are compelled.

DAVID BECKER: Love this: "Feminism has worthy roots, but has managed to grow all kinds of idiot branches" Frankly, one can substitute “feminism” with a whole lot of other things.

CHRISTINE MAHLER: Hair = sexuality. The women of this culture cover their hair because the men are not to be held responsible for their sexual attraction to the feminine. It is the woman's job to hide anything which could elicit the "desire" response from men outside of her family. Failure on the woman's part to conceal desirable features in public is a sin, it causes a man to want the woman sexually. The woman in the video is not emancipated, as she claims to be. She has found a clever way to point out the basest forms of Western objectivity of women, and use this as a model to veil her own kept-ness.

ERIC MADER: You put it well here, Christine, and make some good points, but in essentials I disagree. Part of it comes down to the fact that I don't accept the basic American position that we're all getting freer and better and the sky is the limit. Rather, I'd say no humans in society, men or women, can finally be "emancipated". This is true in almost every realm. We live in a web of mutual responsibility in constant tension with the individual’s desire to break free. But such breaking free is largely an illusion; it can never really be attained as a social condition.

As regards women and the current question, I'd insist that "emancipated" in the sense many American feminists now use it is a pipe dream: free to show and flaunt my sexuality--to live for this--but free to have it not noticed by those I don't want noticing it--and to live for this too. How many "feminists" out there gush with pleasure when the handsome lawyer notices their tight jeans, then, on the very same sidewalk, wince in disapproval when the working class man does so. One minute it's: "That guy is so hot. He said 'Hey' to me and turned round." Next minute it's: "Sexist pig.”

Certainly, given such a deep double standard, American women of this sort are not emancipated. Rather they're trapped in a vicious cycle of wanting every day to have their cake and eat it too--and screaming at the male half of the population when this hypocritical demand doesn't always work out.

Often what is gained in one area is lost in another. The Muslim woman in the video understands this, and this is why her choice and her position are valid. Given their refusal to recognize this whole dynamic of the lost and the gained, it's no wonder many American women have grown so bitter. I'd be bitter too if I kept trying to fit reality into an impossible template.

Personally, I'd much rather have lunch with the woman who made this video than with any half dozen of our "emancipators".

MATTHEW SALMON: Feminism has, for the most part, succeeded in its pursuit for equality in Western society. Women now outnumber men as college graduates and attendees as well as holding management positions in business and government. The only areas where women are not equally represented are in upper levels of government and STEM fields, mostly because those are fields women are generally not willing to engage in. Since these goals have been accomplished, the focus has turned to shaming men for "objectifying" women, and praising women as "liberated" while they openly ogle men. Men are "rape apologists" for not embracing all aspects of the new radical feminist movement, yet these women shut down meetings held by groups who want to focus on men's issues such as high rates of suicide and inequality in the family court system. I once considered myself a feminist, I raised money for NOW and NARAL in the 90s during my undergrad, but recently, I have seen where the movement has gone and now consider myself an egalitarian instead.

ERIC MADER: With you 100%. I also once considered myself a feminist. I agree that the legitimate goals of feminism have mostly been reached in the US and Western Europe and that the new wave of feminists is just riding the Grievance Cart for all it's worth. AND managing to censor men as often as they can.

MATTHEW SALMON: Ironically, they often portray themselves and women in general as victims of an imagined oppression, which actually, in my opinion, sets women back.

THEODORE MUGG: Hmm. “I consider myself an egalitarian.” Totally using that. A good answer to the question “Are you a feminist?" Not a dodge or a euphemism, but strikes me as a good way to communicate that you are in step with the laudable aim of making a safer, more equal society for women, but reject the demonization of men that is now such a dominant part of the movement.

ERIC MADER: I’ll be using it too. The perfect answer, forcing anyone within earshot to ask: "Hm, so feminism isn't egalitarian?"

NANCY WELLINGTON: And yet, how pleasant to imagine a world without men! In time, after the fragile Y chromosome gives out and men become extinct, so many other horrible things will also become extinct: ISIS and religious fundamentalism and oppressive religious hierarchies; fear of rape, domestic abuse and unwanted children; guns, big cars, big banks, big armies and big food; Republicans. The list goes on. It's no wonder that men feel threatened.

ERIC MADER: I hear you, Nancy! I'm personally in favor of choosing one of the continents and making it into Amazonia. All the women who want to live without men will emigrate there and build their own states. And of course we know there will be no oppression within these states and no conflict between them because women are incapable of conflict--being genetically peaceful and reasonable and nurturing. The idea of hierarchy or oppression arising within a state composed only of women is a contradiction in terms, I'd say.

At present Antarctica is available. And with the global warming caused by all the male overconsumption of resources going on (just go into any mall and you'll see it full of men buying things they don't need) Antarctica will soon be perfect for Femen habitation. It will be sweaty penguins, Amazons, and shoe stores on every block! Paradise!

NANCY WELLINGTON: Ha ha, Eric! One thing we will miss about men is their adorable and mischievous sense of humor. Suggesting that women could be placated with some uninhabitable ass-end of the planet, like the Antarctic--how cute! How historically consistent with the way male armies have moved indigenous peoples off to other ass-end spots! And the sparkling wit in suggesting that women shopping at the mall (buying stuff for their kids and for the men, who couldn’t spare the time to shop away from their main work of raping, robbing, murdering, war mongering and playing video games) are responsible for global warming--rather than, you know, the men who own the malls, who create the ad campaigns, who own the factories and the Humvees and the monster trucks and the weapons of destruction and other energy-gobbling machines. As for women’s ability to cooperate and get along, rather than rush in and blow up shit, remind me, what was the last war or invasion initiated by a woman? Women don’t want your ass-end spot, thanks all the same. We will inherit the earth, ALL of the earth, and if you’re nice, we’ll create a museum display for the Y chromosome, may it rest in peace. You have a nice day, y'hear!

ERIC MADER: Believe me, Nancy, I'm not interested in placating women by suggesting Antarctica. The idea of placating women is itself something far far away from me. So forget Antarctica. I'd willing give you gals all of North America. It'd be an interesting experiment. I'd love to watch it all unfold.

Of course there haven't been any invasions started by women in recent history, because, you know, patriarchy. Generally men have ruled and thus have ruled the armies. Things would doubtless be different if the majority of modern nations were ruled by matriarchal cultures. But I'm not at all convinced that either peace or social justice would be any closer. Are you? Are you really?

A lot of feminists over the years have told me that if women ruled the world we would have global peace right now. I can agree with this in only one sense. The Cuban Missile Crisis wouldn't have ended as it did, and at present there would be no humans on the planet, so yes, we would have global peace.

One further point: For every man out there driving a Humvee to prove his manliness I’ll bet there are three CARGO CONTAINERS of fashion items being shipped over the seas so women can sate their shopping lust and prove their chic. But it’d be an interesting study: Which gender has more negative environmental impact?

NOTE: I have equal respect for women and men in terms of intellect and judgment. I do believe there are differences between the two, making me an essentialist. I also believe, however, that these differences couldn't be adequately laid out in discourse, as it's impossible to get beyond the question of nature vs. nurture. To what degree is "men's way of thinking" hardwired, to what degree learned? We'll never know. In certain situations I suspect women would perform better and thus bring a better outcome than men; in other situations I think men would perform better. But again--who is to predict with any certainty? And in the multilayered aggregate that is a nation, in society with all its complexities, I think women in a position of rule will prove equally selfish, violent, tribal, and destructive as men, though they might express this in different ways. (For instance, the ICBMs might have a different designer each year: last year Hermes, this year Louis Vuitton, so that the military parades would also be a fashion event.)

NOTE 2: I have approaching zero respect for people who blame the world's ills on "patriarchy" and thus the male half of humanity. So, hopefully you're not actually in this camp, but only playing that you are.

Again, men are brilliant and loving and cooperative. And men are greedy and rapacious idiots. Women likewise are nurturing and brilliant. And vindictive bitches.

I'd really love to sit down and write that Madame Kennedy vs. Madame Khrushchev script.

PAUL WYLIE: No men = no bad in the world? Oh dear. The absence of men would leave a void. The void would be filled by bitchy women. The circle of life . . .

[Nancy didn’t reply to my above remarks, but two days I noticed she changed her profile photo. The new photo was a picture of herself next to her husband, college-age son and teenage daughter, all smiling. So I couldn’t hold off sending her a little barb:]

ERIC MADER: I just don't get it, Nancy. You just changed your profile photo, but as far as I can tell, there are two of those nasty Y-chromosome creatures in the photo with you. What gives? How could you let yourself in for such danger?

NANCY WELLINGTON: Ah, Eric, it's true: You just don't get it! Recently you have been opining left and right on the Woman Question. Maybe it's a seasonal thing? You know how when someone says, "I'm not racist, but . . .” and you know exactly what will follow? That is the vibe you give off whenever you begin some rant on--what’s your condescending term--femen? Women and their dress/modesty? You come across as someone filled with loathing for women, which I can only hope is not what you actually are.

ERIC MADER: You sure I'm the one who doesn't get it? Femen is not a condescending term for women, it's the name of a European-based activist group whose stance and tactics I find ridiculous. Besides, the group was referenced in the hijab video. So in using this term, I'm not criticizing women, but criticizing Femen.

I fully respect women as equal to men. But precisely because of this, just as with men, there are many many women who don't deserve to be listened to. Unfortunately, too many of these women self-identify as “feminists”, and I think it's ruining the movement. What's more, many women agree with me on this assessment.

1) Women who are obsessed with the male gaze, who think only of the sexual politics of everyday life, who think they are victims because they can't be sexy in public without getting reaction from unwanted men--these women are shallow and are ruining feminism.

One of the sillier kerfuffles of last year provoked me finally to write something on this particular raging hypocrisy:


2) Women who actually believe the world's major problems are gender-based (i.e., we are ruining the planet, we are fighting wars, because of "patriarchy"); women who actually believe that an era of peace and harmony would result if women ruled the world's polities--these women are ruining feminism. (It's this latter camp that you were channeling in your comments on the hijab video, and I supposed you were mostly being ironic. But were you? Of course in my view women ruling everything would very likely NOT make the world any more peaceful than it is now. If you think it would, then, voila, you reveal yourself as someone who thinks women innately superior to men--and so in my book you join the intellectual ranks of folks who, for example, think whites are superior to blacks.)

In conclusion, I think the best thing one could do for women and feminism is stridently ridicule "feminists" when their discourse is grounded in either hypocrisy (as in 1 above) or bigotry (as in 2).

Looking forward to any reply you might have to these comments, Nancy. If you have the time to reply. And yes, I "liked" your picture with your daughter and those two Y-chromosoids. You've very sharp-looking kids. What do they plan to do/study in the future?

NANCY WELLINGTON: Just one question: Do you get positive feedback from any woman on your posts?

ERIC MADER: Yes, I do get positive feedback from women on my posts. And sometimes women share such posts. But sorry, I don't think your question here, your reply, is very worthwhile. What would be much more interesting, don't you think, would be your saying something about the two hypocrisies I underline--hypocrisies that, in my view, have made much of mainstream "feminist" discourse entirely useless. Do you think they are indeed hypocrisies, or not?

NANCY WELLINGTON: My question actually was whether you get positive feedback from women on your anti-women posts--I saw no women responding to your hijab post at all, except me. I heard embarrassed silence, in fact. And you are not even remotely qualified to discuss "feminist hypocrisy," whatever you think you mean by that. As a self-described essentialist, surely you can see that! Move on to something you do know well, like education systems in Taiwan or elsewhere.

ERIC MADER: My "anti-women" posts? They are not anti-women, they are against a certain development in feminism. I don't think the current dominant American feminism speaks for women, and millions upon millions of women don't think it does either.

Anyone is qualified to discuss hypocrisy in a movement. I've studied feminist texts going back to grad school, and I've read the pronouncements and watched the stresses of the movement for decades. Why am I not qualified?

Essentialist. Yes, I'm an essentialist, but I don't use my essentialism on this front to claim that I (or anyone else) can exhaustively define women or men; I only believe there are differences that transcend upbringing; there are innate differences. Notice how you, on the other hand, entered this thread straight off with a tirade against men as such, linking the world's ills to men as such, the high point of which was a fantasy about the demise of men and museums in memory of how evil they were. Who is the essentialist (in the negative sense) here?

The formula isn't "Eric uses essentialist viewpoints to attack women" but rather: "Eric uses his observations of rank hypocrisy to attack (one dominant Western branch of) feminism." Surely you can see the difference.

And if I write of "feminist hypocrisy", it's not a matter of whatever I "think I mean by that". It's a matter simply of what I mean. And you still haven't addressed the two salient tendencies 1) and 2) that I underline as a problem. You have made no argument claiming they NOT in fact hypocrisy. And I don't think you will, for obvious reasons. The double standard and hypocrisy in these blighted branches of the movement are too glaringly obvious.

So: Champion women, respect women, recognize women as an equal element of humanity. At the same time, to hell with these kinds of feminists: ridicule them, ignore them, satirize them. Many communists loathed Stalinism; many Jews bitterly criticize the Israeli government; many Americans think Bush and Co. very nearly deserve jail time.

I foresaw that Nancy wouldn’t try to disprove my claims as to these two types of glaring feminist hypocrisy. She didn’t. The only answer I got from her was . . . crickets.

But she did prove one thing by her series of discursive moves. She proved she is herself, unlike me, well qualified to be an American feminist.

Vis.: In what was supposed to be a discussion of the hijab and how it can be understood as representing one cultural alternative to Anglo-American feminism, Nancy never mentioned the hijab once or tried to argue that Hanna Yusuf was mistaken. Rather, her very first move was to raise American feminists’ favorite topic: the inherent evil of men. When challenged to explain whether she was just joking in all this, and how she might reckon the equality (or otherwise) of the sexes, she didn’t do so, but rather just evoked the (supposed) unity of women in support of her side: “Just tell me this, do any women respond to your posts?” and then suggested that my comments on hypocrisy indicate I loathe women (which is absurd: I can respect and loathe both sexes equally, case by case). When finally told that my criticism was not of women but rather of the dominant trends in American feminism, she adopted the classic “You’re not qualified to comment on this”--because, presumably, I’m not an American feminist woman. All the while she herself hadn’t put forth one substantive remark on any of the points at issue. And finally, when I took the trouble to directly invite her to point out where I was wrong in criticizing the hypocrisy I see, she simply declined to respond.

All this is very disappointing; I wish it hadn’t turned out so. I’d much rather have learned something about where I might be wrong. I’m always willing to learn something new. But you rarely do from this tribe. They are a solid wall of self-contradictory soundbites--and their soundbites haven’t changed since 1990.

If this is the standard of discourse, I’m very glad to admit I don’t qualify for such discussions.

Very little of the thread ended up being about Hanna Yusuf’s challenging short video. Predictably, much of the online reaction to the video in Britain is negative. Having read some of it, I think it’s clear Yusuf is getting criticized because she dares to point out the obvious. Feminism as it’s currently screamed in our capitals is deeply hypocritical and ultimately bad for women. Yusuf says clearly that the Feminist Empress wears no clothes. And Western feminists, who’ve spent decades trying to have their cake and eat it too, don’t want to hear it.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Citizens in Uproar Over Howard Dogs

I couldn’t get the guy in the cafe to give me his newspaper, so I had to copy the article out by hand. --E.M.


Taiwan Howard Dogs’ Breeding Season Has Begun: Careful You Don’t Get Bitten
May 29, 2015

by Mei De-Lin

From April to August each year, the Taiwan Howard Dog, Taipei City’s civic animal, enters its breeding season. This year, however, the number of reports from citizens attacked by the dogs is higher than usual.

Linda Lee, a spokesperson for the conservation branch of the Taipei City Animal Protection Bureau, says that already 2015 has had many more citizens’ complaints than usual, most of them about incidents in areas around Taipei Da-An Forest Park and the 228 Memorial Park.

Since the Taiwan Howard Dog is an endangered species, Ms. Lee says, it is improper to approach or harass the dogs during their mating.

Ms. Lee explained that during mating season, in order to protect the female dogs, male Howard Dogs will sometimes approach passersby from behind and bite them, causing citizens to be injured or their clothes to be torn.

Further, given that during last year’s mating season the male Howard Dogs were observed to be particularly fierce toward the females, causing a large number of female Howard Dogs to book flights to Malaysia to escape Taiwan, this year’s number of available females is smaller, resulting in even more aggressive behavior from the males. (Airlines do not allow male Howard Dogs to book flights.)

The Animal Protection Bureau is thus planning to post warning signs in areas where incidents are more likely, and reminds citizens to be aware at all times of the Howard Dogs’ behavior, so as to avoid getting bitten during this difficult season.


The following week the newspaper’s English edition contained a few pages of citizen reaction. Here:

In response to last week’s article on the Howard Dogs above and their threatening behavior when breeding (5.29.2015), we received an almost record number of letters from concerned readers. We are publishing some here. --Ed.

[NB: Again, being that these students are nearly all teenage boys, some of the letters needed to be edited for inappropriate content. It’s too bad I had to edit Duku’s letter, because it was really very Duku, which usually means: hilarious. --E.M.]

Dear Editor: I believe it’s important to protect endangered animals, but this Howard Dog situation is really out of control. Like many people, I have had problems with Howard Dogs.

Recently a Howard Dog in my neighborhood has been breaking into my house while I’m at work. It’s eaten nearly all the food in my refrigerator and urinated on my TV, my computer and all around the house. Also, when outdoors, these dogs are often found in places with many cockroaches and maggots and are known to wallow in their own excrement. This makes me even angrier to know one of these dogs is dirtying my house.

Do citizens really have to put up with this kind of thing just to protect one species? I strongly believe Taiwan’s government should rid the country of these animals.


Allen 1

Dear Editor:

Many of Taiwan’s species are endangered, and it’s important to protect them. But the Howard Dogs? They don’t seem endangered to me. I see them everywhere, and their behavior is becoming a serious problem.

Two nights ago, coming home from my job, I saw one of these f***ing Howard Dogs in my lane. It was obviously very angry and very yellow. It was sexing with my neighbor’s tree. I’ve also seen them sexing with parked bikes or school bags that students leave on the ground. When this one saw me, it stopped sexing the tree and started to drool in my direction. I was disgusted. I was afraid the dog might choose me over the tree, so I ran to the nearby police station, but when I arrived there I found the police officers busy cleaning themselves off from being licked and harassed by Howard Dogs during the day.

Finally when I got home, an hour later, the dog was gone, but when I turned on my TV, half the news reports were about yellow things Howard Dogs had done around Taipei.

I believe these dogs are a health hazard. The government needs to do something about them.



Dear Editor:

Is protecting Howard Dogs more important than protecting people? That’s the question I’d like to ask our Animal Protection Bureau.

Last week I saw one of the “protected animals” in our park. There was a young woman walking through the park, wearing a short skirt, and the Howard Dog pounced on her and knocked her over. It then tried to lick between her legs in a way that made the woman scream. It was an obscene sight--right in our neighborhood park! A mother there with her child had to cover the child’s eyes.

I think city authorities should capture all the Howard Dogs and put them in a big detention center. Let them attack and lick each other, not innocent people walking on the streets!



Dear Editor:

Though many species in Taiwan are endangered and need protection, I strongly believe it’s a mistake for our government to continue protecting the Taiwan Howard Dogs.

I have a pet dog myself, a female golden retriever, and unfortunately she was mounted by a Howard Dog three years ago while on a leash down by the entry to my building. She had a litter of retriever/Howard Dog puppies, and these puppies have grown into terrible creatures. For one thing, they bite everyone who comes near them, including myself. Also, they bark all night, so that the neighbors complain and want me to kill them. I would kill them too, but the police say they are “protected” because they are basically “Howard Dogs”. It’s ridiculous.

We need to round up all these Howard Dogs and keep them in a place where they will see no bitches. It’s the only solution.



Dear Editor:

Taiwan has many endangered animals, it’s true, but I think it’s time that the government recognize the Howard Dog is different. If they are endangered, why are there so many of them? Their constant barking at night keeps the people of Taipei awake and makes many tired at work the next day. Also, as everyone knows, during breeding season the Howard Dogs breed everywhere in the city and cause disturbances. But the recent phenomenon, where the Howard Dogs are starting to evolve into Howards, is the worst. How many men will be killed and how many women raped by these half-dog, half-human monsters? I’ve heard reports about these murders and rapes already, but the government tries to cover it up. I have one of these Howards who sits near me in my English class, and it’s scary. The city authorities must protect us from this threat.


Allen 2

Dear Editor:

Why are so many Taipei citizens on TV and in the news complaining about the Taiwan Howard Dogs? These animals are rightly protected by our government, and are an important part of the island’s ecology. I find them beautiful and brave animals. They should be the national symbol of Taiwan.

Meanwhile people are ignoring a serious threat. I mean, of course, the Eric Monkeys that we’re starting to see around the city.

First, it is very unusual to see a monkey taking a subway and even standing there reading a book like it was a person. Second, I’ve heard that these monkeys, when they get into people’s houses, will eat all the food in the refrigerator and destroy the furniture. I’ve heard more than twenty reports of this from people who are stupid enough to invite the monkey to parties. Finally, when Eric Monkeys appear in public, they often have female monkeys with them, and because they are monkeys and aren’t civilized, they start to have sex in public.

It’s wrong to let this situation continue.



Dear Editor:

Of course we must protect endangered species around the world, and in Taiwan we have species we need to protect too. But the Howard Dog situation is out of control.

One day. Another f**king day. On my way to school I saw a Howard Dog licking [censored].

What a f**king morning. You know that. You see that scene. You just want to go to hell.

So we must kill them all.



Dear Editor:

Like many Taipei citizens, I am outraged at the government’s continued insistence on the “protected” status of the Taiwan Howard Dogs.

A couple days ago on my way home from work, I saw one of these dogs on the sidewalk watching all the passers-by. It had that look in its eye that Howard Dogs always have when they are going to do something evil. I watched it, waiting to see what it would do. Sure enough, when a junior high school girl with a skirt walked by, the Howard Dog began to follow her. It was trying to look up her skirt and lick at her legs. The girl cried out and dropped her bag. The Howard Dog then looked in the bag and took out a packet of Airwaves. The dog didn’t even open the packet, but just started chewing the whole thing. A dense smell of mint spread over the street and people walking by all frowned in annoyance.

I’m not sure, but maybe it was the same Howard Dog that howled through most of the night near my building. In the morning I was ready to go out and kill some of these pests.

I’ve always been a good citizen, giving to charity and even donating money to protect Taiwan’s forests. But please, this is one species we don’t need. Kill ALL of them before this problem gets any worse.



Dear Editor:

Protecting our environment and the many species that live in Taiwan is important for our future. But sometimes we must recognize when a species becomes a public nuisance.

The Howard Dogs are a nuisance worse than rats.

Have you ever been to the public toilets at Da-An Park? Howard Dogs have been hanging around them for months now, throwing cherry bombs and fireworks into the toilet stalls when people are inside. Nobody dares use the toilets any more.

Also consider what the Howard Dogs eat. They’re often seen digging through garbage cans looking for moldy cheeseburgers, fried chicken trash and other garbage. The meat already has maggots on it, and the dogs make a terrible mess when eating it. Near my house this happens near the Ubike stands, so that when you take a bike you have to cover your nose. I’ve even seen maggots in bike baskets. I guess the Howard Dogs think it’s funny to throw their trash in Ubike baskets instead of back into the garbage cans.

And what is this attraction Howard Dogs have for expensive bags? Many women in Taipei have had this experience. If they carrying a Louis Vuitton or a Hermes bag, the Howard Dog will follow them and try to get the bag away. Recently the dogs have learned a new trick. After stealing the bag, the dog will scratch an “H” into the front of the bag and pee all over it. I suppose they think the bag is then theirs.

All male dogs sometimes hump things, it’s natural, but it seems these Howard Dogs never stop humping. I’ve seen them trying to hump helmets, plastic ducks, parked motorcycles, etc. What’s worse, they often smoke after they hump things. What kind of animals species is this that learned how to smoke? After smoking in Da-An Park, they will toss their cigarette butts into the pond, which ruins the ecosystem for the night herons and other animals.

We do not need signs around the city warning people to avoid Howard Dogs. What we need is swift action from the government to get rid of them.


Claire Fan-Chiang

What is the future of the Howard Dogs? And what of that other problem of the Eric Monkeys? We will keep readers informed as this debate continues. --Ed.


55 other important public service announcements can be found in my new book Idiocy, Ltd. Don't hesitate. Protect you and your loved ones today!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

My Porn

If you live in a foreign country for any number of years, you are certain to offend people. And the more distant the culture is from yours, the more frequent your offenses will be. There’s really no getting round this. You can use your own language, their language, or a mix of both, but every couple months, in one context or other, you’ll set someone to muttering curses at you under their breath.

Just today, here in Taipei where I live and teach as an expat, I ran into Daniel, a student I’d taught five years ago when he was a senior in high school. I was waiting for a traffic light, and noticed a young man on the sidewalk a few paces away, staring at me gravely but not moving. I finally recognized it was my ex-student. I said Hi to him, he loosened up a bit, and told me he’d just graduated with a degree in finance. I wished him well on his job hunt, but explained that I had to run as I was late for my class. As I stepped away from him to cross the street, I couldn’t help chuckling to myself, wondering if he still remembered the terrible insult I'd delivered him when he was my student.

Given his initial glare as we waited for the light, I was guessing he did remember.

The insult, as usual, was an accident, actually more his fault than mine.

Back in the days when I taught him, Daniel was known in our school for two things. First, he was obsessed with magic. Rather than prepare for exams or finish homework, he spent free time before class performing magic tricks for the other students (who then likewise couldn’t finish their homework). I’d come into the classroom and Daniel would be at the front, in the middle of some trick.

“Uh, sorry,” he’d say, and sit down.

Second, Daniel was hopelessly smitten by a classmate at his high school, a girl who rejected his love and now and then left him visibly on the verge of tears. When Daniel had no one to watch his magic tricks, he could often be found sitting in a funk, staring at the floor or wringing his hands. None of us at our English institute knew who this mystery girl was; we only knew she was ruining his life.

In short, I knew Daniel as a budding teenage magician whose tricks did nothing to sway the unknown beauty he loved and whose picture he refused to show us.

How then did the insult happen?

One day after class, Daniel came up to me at the front of the room to show me a copy of a copy-shop printed magazine. He opened it to a certain page and pointed at a simple line drawing of a girl in a miniskirt on a park bench, sitting in what was supposed to be a seductive pose. There were some lines in Chinese next to the drawing.

“Teacher, this is my porn,” Daniel announced weirdly, pointing at the page.

I thought the drawing wasn’t very good, and as for porn, it didn’t even count. But Daniel was waiting for my reaction.

“Hm,” I said after looking at it for awhile. “That’s pretty bad porn. I feel sorry for you.”

I remember that his face went red at these words, and he clenched his fist, ready to punch me. But since the students had been raucous during class, and Daniel was something of a performer, I thought he was just joking, so I laughed and walked away.

Ten minutes later, after Daniel left for the night, my colleague Erica was putting away papers next to my desk.

“Poor Daniel,” she said. “He’s really totally in love with that girl. He thinks about nothing else.”

“Nothing else except magic,” I said. “Anyhow, suffering is good for art, so maybe he’ll end up being a great magician.”

“Did he show you his poem?” she asked.

And then it hit me. What Daniel had tried to show me wasn’t the lame line drawing of the girl, but the Chinese lines next to it, which I hadn’t bothered to read, and which were obviously a love poem he’d written. And the book he’d shown me must have been his school’s literary magazine, in which he was declaring to the world his true love for the girl. And when Daniel had said to me “This is my porn,” what he really was trying to say was “This is my poem.” So that, from Daniel’s point of view, our brief exchange had gone like this:

“Teacher, this is my poem [which I wrote for that girl I love].”

Teacher reads through poem, says: “Hm, that’s a pretty bad poem. I feel sorry for you.”

Student is mortally insulted, wants to stand up for himself and his love, wonders if he should punch teacher.

But before he makes up his mind, the teacher laughs in his face in front of the whole class, and walks away.

It was all so sad. I knew I’d have to explain to Daniel what had really happened the next time he came to class. But in fact, that night was the last time he ever came. It was end of semester, and he wasn’t taking summer classes.

Though this particular insult was mostly the fault of Daniel's poor pronunciation, I know for a fact I’ve also offended more than a few people thanks my faulty Chinese pronunciation. Any Westerner who lives here is fated to say at least a handful of outrageous things in public per annum. It comes from the fact that Mandarin is a tonal language, and if you get the intonation a little wrong, if you sing the words a bit off key, the words become entirely different words.

I knew one Canadian who, when he first got here, wanted to get some aspirin for his cold symptoms. He went into a pharmacy.

“Uhh . . . I have a problem,” he said to the woman behind the counter.

“Yes? What is the problem?” she asked.

“Mm . . . Uhh . . . I fuck cats.”

The pharmacist stepped back from the counter, and the other people present all turned to look at him.

What my Canadian friend had meant to say was: “Mm . . . Uhh . . . I have a cold.” But get the tones wrong, and “have a cold” quickly becomes “fuck cats”.

This is only one of thousands of possible slip ups given the slipperiness of tonal languages like Mandarin. I once left a coffee shop with all the counter girls laughing aloud at me. I’d wanted them to help me grind the beans I’d just bought and couldn’t figure out what was so funny. Later I figured it out. What I’d been saying was: “Excuse me. Do you think you could help stroke me?”

Often enough I leave people laughing or frowning, but still, later on, can’t figure out what I’d actually said.

With more Westerners in Taiwan now, the locals have grown used to these mishaps. It makes for good comedy. But still a basic rule applies: If you’re a man who makes it a decade in a country this foreign without getting punched, you’re already doing pretty well.


My new book Idiocy, Ltd. is now available at Amazon.