Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

15 MAY, 2012

Sex and Punishment: A 4,000-Year History of Judging Desire

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How we went from medieval male marriages to executions to marriage equality.

It’s a momentous year for LGBT rights, with Barack Obama’s recent historic endorsement of marriage equality reminding us how far we’ve come since the days of legally punishing sexual orientation — for a grim flashback, we need look no further than computing pioneer Alan Turing, whose centennial we’ll be celebrating next month and who committed suicide shortly after being criminally prosecuted for his homosexuality. Whether bigotry can ever be wholly uprooted from insecure hearts and narrow minds remains to be seen, but we’ve certainly come a long way. How, exactly, did we get here?

In Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire, writer and lawyer Eric Berkowitz explores the millennia-long quest to regulate and mandate one of the strongest drivers of human behavior, and the tragic deformities that result from the dictatorship of external authority over the most intimate of inner realities. Tracing how we went from the male bonding ceremonies commonly performed in medieval Mediterranean churches to the lesbian executions in 18th-century Germany, along the entire spectrum of cultural attitudes towards mistresses, goat-lovers, prostitutes, medieval transvestites, adulterers, and other sexual-norm nonconformists, Berkowitz brings an eye-opening lens to one of the most mercilessly judged yet universal aspects of being human.

In the period up to roughly the thirteenth century, male bonding ceremonies were performed in churches all over the Mediterranean. These unions were sanctified by priests with many of the same prayers and rituals used to join men and women in marriage. The ceremonies stressed love and personal commitment over procreation, but surely not everyone was fooled. Couples who joined themselves in such rituals most likely had sex as much (or as little) as their heterosexual counterparts. In any event, the close association of male-marriage ceremonies with forbidden sex eventually became too much to overlook as even more severe sodomy laws were put into place.

Particularly interesting is a discussion of same-sex female relationships, which most scriptures — even those most vehemently condemning of male-male sex — have historically ignored, not because those were considered acceptable but because they appeared too unfathomable to be considered at all:

Can two women love each other sexually? Eighteenth-century morals said no, at least where the females involved were respectable. Among the better classes, lesbian relations were impossible to imagine. Good women could love and embrace each other, sleep together, and write each other passionate letters; all that was noble. But loving and making love were entirely different matters. Unless they were gratifying their husbands, women of ‘character’ were imagined as sexually numb creatures. British judges allowed that females of ‘Eastern’ or ‘Hindoo’ nations might act differently, but not the women of the ‘civilized’ world.

Boing Boing has an excerpt. Sex and Punishment is fascinating in its entirety.

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14 MAY, 2012

Occupy: Noam Chomsky’s Guide to The History and Practice of Protest

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How to protest intelligently without risking your freedom, or what flower petals have to do with PVC.

Noam Chomskypolitical critic, education anarchist, father of modern linguistics — has described the Occupy movement, which began on September 17, 2011, as “the first major public response to thirty years of class war.” His new book, simply titled Occupy (public library), is at once a vivid portrait of the now-global movement and a practical guide to intelligent activism, infused with Chomsky’s signature meditations on everything from how the wealthiest 1% came to steer society to what a healthy democracy would look like to how we can separate money from politics. Alongside Chomsky’s words are some of the most moving and provocative photographs from the Occupy movement.

From the very dedication, Chomsky’s stance and conviction reverberate:

Dedicated to the 6,705 people who have been arrested supporting Occupy to date, from the first 80 arrested in New York on September 24, 2011, to the woman arrested in Sacramento on March 6, 2012, for throwing flower petals. May our numbers swell and increase.

Chomsky peels away the many sociocultural layers of what culminated in OWS, examining the history of the American economy, the ecosystem of the working class, the osmosis of politics and money, the environmental catastrophe, and much more.

From his Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture on October 22, 2011:

I’m just old enough to remember the Great Depression. After the first few years, by the mid-1930s — although the situation was objectively much harsher than it is today — nevertheless, the spirit was quite different. There was a sense that ‘we’re gonna get out of it,’ even among unemployed people, including a lot of my relatives, a sense that ‘it will get better.’

[…]

It’s quite different now. For many people in the United States, there’s a kind of pervasive sense of hopelessness, sometimes despair. I think it’s quite new in American history. And it has an objective basis.

Along with the historical context, Chomsky also offers some practical points on engaging with protest in a way that wouldn’t jeopardize your freedom. For instance, some laws to be aware of:

You have First Amendment rights to protest lawfully. You have a right to hand out leaflets, rally on a sidewalk, and set up a moving picket line, so long as you don’t block building entrances or more than half the sidewalk. The law requires a permit to march in the street, rally in a park with 20 or more people, or use electronic sound amplification. In New York, a “Mask Law” makes it unlawful for three or more people to wear masks, including bandanas: the NYPD aggressively enforces this law. Police will seize signs on wooden sticks, metal, or PVC piping — it’s OK to attach signs to cardboard tubing. The police will not allow placing signs on fences or trees. If you hang a banner from a bridge over a highway, you risk arrest for Reckless Endangerment.

And some advice on what to do if the police try to talk to you:

You have a constitutional right to remain silent. If the police try a friendly conversation, you can say nothing and walk away. If the police say, ‘MOVE!’ or give some other order, you may ask, ‘Why?’ but you are advised not to say anything more. Notify a Legal Observer about the order. If the police ask to search you or your bag, you should say, ‘NO, I do not consent to a search.’ If the police search anyway, you are advised to continue to say, ‘I do not consent to a search.’ If you physically interfere with the search, you risk arrest. If the police question you, including asking your name, you may say nothing and walk away. If the police prevent you from leaving, ask, ‘Am I free to go?’ If they answer ‘YES,’ you may say nothing and walk away. If they answer ‘NO,’ say, ‘I wish to remain silent. I want to talk to a lawyer,’ and wait for the police to arrest or release you.

So there you have it, a What-Would-Chomsky-Do for the modern revolutionary.

Occupy comes from Zuccotti Park Press as part of the Occupied Media Pamphlet Series and is a fine addition to these 10 essential books on protest.

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11 MAY, 2012

Henry Miller on Originality

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“And your way, is it really your way?”

In response to yesterday’s brilliant letter from Mark Twain to Helen Keller, addressing the myth of originality, reader Skip Zilla flags this beautiful passage by Henry Miller, from the anthology Stand Still Like the Hummingbird.

Miller eloquently encapsulates the combinatorial nature of creativity and the constant borrowing and repurposing that takes place as we build upon what came before and recombine existing bits of knowledge and ideas to create what we call “our” ideas.

And your way, is it really your way?

[…]

What, moreover, can you call your own? The house you live in, the food you swallow, the clothes you wear — you neither built the house nor raised the food nor made the clothes.

[…]

The same goes for your ideas. You moved into them ready-made.

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