Happy Halloween

According to Reuters, the Rev. Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka has been ordered to pay $10.9 million in damages to the family of a U.S. Marine who died in Iraq. Members of the church came to his funeral carrying signs saying “You’re going to hell” and “God hates you” and cheering. A federal jury has ruled that the church and three of its principals invaded the family’s privacy and inflicted emotional distress.

The church believes that the Iraq War is God’s punishment for the United States’ tolerance of homosexuality, and they have demonstrated at about 300 military funerals in the last two years.

The Rev. Phelps’s daughter called the decision a blow against free speech.

Listening to Prozac

I’ve been away at the Billy Club’s Halloween gathering this weekend; I come home today, probably calmer and more in balance. I’ve spent a fair amount of this gathering off on my own, taking walks and meditating and reading. I wrote a short poem (three quatrains) yesterday, and on Thursday night after a long meditation I had what still seems three mornings later like a very good idea for a new opera adaptation.

One book I’ve been reading — as ever keeping up with the very latest in best sellers — is Peter Kramer’s 1993 Listening to Prozac. I have been diagnosed as having a dysthymic personality myself, and I started taking an antidepressant a few years after my brain surgery, to pull myself out of a long dark funk that had developed after the surgery and that I hadn’t been able to shake, despite my recovery going well enough that I was not only working again after eight months but soon making half again as much money as I had been before the tumor. So for me, reading a book like this isn’t just a dispassionate interest in psychology (though there’s certainly that, too); it’s also seeing whether I recognize myself in any of it, and whether it has any useful or helpful insights for me.

The book is about what we can learn about personality and human behavior from watching the effects that Prozac and other antidepressants have on various people. I’ve only read a few chapters so far, but the chapter titled “Sensitivity” in particular contains a lot of stuff that is fascinating as an insight into how our brains and personalities work, and that also seems personally very relevant. The gist of the chapter is that it looks as though a lot of things we think of as personality disorders are maybe better thought of as the normal adaptive behaviors that you would expect from someone who is more sensitive than usual to the pain of loss or rejection; that if someone is experiencing a more acute pain from certain things than most people do, you can only reasonably expect them to develop different coping behaviors from others. If Event X causes a mild, brief feeling of disappointment in one person but three days of intense and crippling emotional pain in another person, it’s only to be expected that the second person will develop more extreme ways of behaving so as to avoid all risk of Event X happening at all costs, and those behaviors might look like a behavioral problem or personality disorder to someone like the first person.

An antidepressant, then, can be thought of as something that lessens that senstivity, with the result that the personality slowly changes, sort of in the way a lifelong limp would gradually disappear if a surgery removed whatever it was that was making it painful to put much weight on that foot. It’s a hypothesis than explains a lot of unusual things about how the drugs work on people.

I can see myself reflected in this chapter in a lot of ways — a number of the patients Dr. Kramer writes about remind me of myself, such as in my shyness and difficulty in approaching other people in certain situations where I fear I won’t be able to take a rejection in stride; the very long time I grieved, and very painfully, for my friend David Sherblom (Dr. Kramer writes about someone who grieved three years for a loved one, which was more or less my situation); the painful feelings of rejection I sometimes experience over things that even I can see are objectively no rejection at all. Over the decades I’ve learned to deal with these painful feelings in more useful ways, and I’m usually pretty good now at not letting the fear of the painful feelings or even the painful feelings themselves govern too much how I behave; I can do a passable imitation of a gregarious person if I need to (and I don’t have to keep it up too long!) or let myself feel emotional pain without feeling driven or controlled by it, recognizing and subverting the negative patterns of thought I can slip into in times of stress.

But it’s also true that it feels as though the effect of the antidepressant I take has been to lessen the intensity of those painful emotions, which is what the chapter is about; and over time, as I’ve grown better accustomed to being sent merely into a mild downer by things that used to send me into a tailspin, I’ve become more confident in certain kinds of situations. It may well be that that’s been because my fear of those downers has lessened as the downers themselves have lessened in intensity.

So that chapter has given me an interesting new way of looking at what goes on within myself.

Help, I’m Being Victimized by Gay People Trying to Exist in My Universe!

Google News reports 74 news articles — 74! — on J.K. Rowling’s comment that she thought of one of her characters as being gay. Many of them are disapproving or even blatantly hostile — headlines like “If Dumbledore is gay where’s the proof?”, “Leave It Alone”, “J.K. Rowling’s Big Fat Mouth”, “Harry Potter Author Plays Dumb, Acts Surprised at Reactions to Gay Character”, on and on.

Barbara Kay in Canada’s National Post wrote — under the headline “Dumbledore has been diminished”, for crying out loud —

There is something very odd though about Dumbledore being singled out from the huge cast of adult characters in the books as having any sexuality at all. Some of the characters in the books are married, many more are single. …

My emphases. In Ms. Kay’s universe, saying that a character is married to someone of the opposite sex and maybe even has children with that person does not say anything about his or her sexuality. Saying that a character had one homosexual infatuation in his remote past, though, is apparently tantamount to rubbing the readers’ noses in his soiled bedsheets. It’s “singling him out.”

Seems to me that Ms. Rowling’s real crime is that she is not cooperating with the desire of people like Ms. Kay to preserve their illusions that everybody normal and decent can be safely and tacitly assumed to be straight.

I love this, too:

However, as a symbol for gay activists eager to inculcate knowledge about human sexuality at the earliest possible age, Rowling’s revelation has been a marketing godsend.

That’s the most important thing about this in Ms. Kay’s mind: When Ms. Rowling says in public that she thinks a gay man could possibly be a wise and positive influence on children, she is enabling child molesters. And Ms. Rowling is supposedly the one saying inappropriate things here.

Ms. Rowling didn’t rub anyone’s nose in Dumbledore’s sexuality, she answered a direct question about how she viewed Dumbledore’s life beyond the borders of the book and she answered it honestly. She never said that she intended the reader to understand that Dumbledore is gay; in fact, she has explicitly said the exact opposite, that her intention is that the average child will see it as a friendship and only adult readers who are sensitive to it will pick up on the hints.

Everyone has the right to create their own delusion and live in it. But when you’re complaining about the mere existence of people like Ms. Rowling who don’t share your delusion, and you’re turning it into some kind of personal attack on yourself — you know, they have pills for that nowadays.

And Don’t Even Get Me Started on What Was Really Going On Between Emma Wodehouse and Harriet Smith

Dave pointed me to Jeffrey Weiss in the Dallas Morning News joining the chorus of Oh no it’s not that I’m homophobic no no no it’s because I care passionately about the nature of literature that I am so very very upset about Rowling saying she thinks of one of her characters as being gay:

With the greatest of respect, I’d like to say something to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling:

Shut up. Please.

Stop talking about what Ron will do for a living, whom Neville will marry, what kinds of creatures Hagrid will raise.

I’d have a lot more faith in Mr. Weiss’s pose of being equally upset about these other revelations as well if he’d uttered so much as a peep of protest at any of them instead of waiting for the first non-heterosexual tidbit to register his complaints. And isn’t it adorable how he blatantly expresses his hostility toward Ms. Rowling and at the same time pretends to be only doing it in jest? Thus indulging in all the intensely satisfying emotion of homophobia without having to take responsibility for its unattractiveness. Later he even writes “Jo — can I call you Jo?”, making a joke out of a display of arrogance and disrespect. A little problem with passive-aggressiveness, have we?

Then he abandons even the pose that he minded the earlier revelations:

I guess I don’t want you to stop explaining completely. I’d love to know more about what inspired some of the plot details in the books. If you want to dish about how you decided on those particular inscriptions for the headstones, how you came up with the names for the characters, or how you cleverly planned the religious underpinnings of the broad arc of the story – I am all ears.

But telling us that Dumbledore is gay, as you did last week? Why would you do that?

Maybe because it was true? Maybe because some of Ms. Rowling’s fans want to know more about what it was really like for her to write the book? And Mr. Weiss admits that he’s fascinated in all that, too — until it gets to finding out that Ms. Rowling thinks that putting one count ’em one gay character in a series of seven character-rich and increasingly bulky books might be a valid literary choice.

You gotta love this, too:

Based on what you decided to put in the books, I can imagine that Dumbledore once had a girlfriend or that he was so emotionally crushed by guilt that he sealed himself off from romance or that he was one of those rare men for whom romance never really came up …

In other words, Mr. Weiss is angry because Ms. Rowling has not participated in the preservation of his illusion that an author he likes cannot possibly have imagined that a character he likes could be gay.

If it were really a matter of Ms. Rowling inventing a character’s gay orientation after the fact, Mr. Weiss would be free to continue thinking whatever he wanted to think. If a long-lost diary entry revealed that, say, Agatha Christie always thought of Hercule Poirot as a werewolf, or Herman Melville thought of Ahab as a hermaphrodite, you’d think, oh my god, that is really weird, and then you’d go back and skim through a few chapters to see if you’d missed anything. And you’d conclude that if that’s really what he or she thought, there really isn’t any trace of it in the book, and you’d file the fact away under Literary Curiosities and never let it affect how you thought about Death on the Nile or Moby-Dick again.

But that’s not the case here. Remember: Fans all over the Internet have been speculating about Dumbledore for months because there are genuine hints in the last book. And what Mr. Weiss is upset about is that he wanted to be able to read the book without having to pick up on those hints, and now he can’t any more. Because the hints are really there, and now that they’ve been called to Mr. Weiss’s attention, he can no longer go back to not seeing them. He will never be able to read the books again without seeing that thread, and that it was there all along. Nor has Ms. Rowling left it possible for him to pretend to himself that he hasn’t seen it, or that fans arguing that Dumbledore is gay are imagining things that are not there.

The Harry Potter books were a place where he could pretend for a while that a man who isn’t attached to a woman must be that way because he once had a girlfriend or is crushed by heterosexual guilt. A romantic fantasy world where admirable men are much more likely to be asexual by nature than gay. Where he could pretend for a while that gay men don’t exist.

And now the books are not such a haven for him any more.

Remember How Nobody Ever Demeaned Blacks, Women, Gays, or Foreigners Until She Came Along?

From a Washington Post column about Ann Coulter:

Recently on CNBC’s “Big Idea with Donny Deutsch”, Ms. Coulter said America would be better off if there were no Jewish people here and that Christians are “perfected Jews.” The whole conversation was offensive which, I suspect, is what the media loves about her. But there used to be a time when such words of hatred and intolerance were not given any public platform in the mainstream media.

I’m delighted to see people tiring of Ann Coulter’s hateful absurdities, but I disagree with that last sentence. There has never yet been a time when “words of hatred and intolerance were not given any public platform in the mainstream media”. What has changed over time is only which particular groups it’s OK to hate.

Besides, Who Else Would Be That Obsessed About Wands?

So J. K. Rowling made an offhanded remark during a Q-and-A session that she thought of Dumbledore as being gay, and now there’s a huge uproar of people writing crap about how wrong this is — but I’m not irate because I’m homophobic, mind you! I think gay folks are fine! Oh, no, I have perfectly rational reasons for being angry and hostile about this! It’s because I believe with heart and soul that the work must speak for itself! And there are no clues about this in the books, so it’s just my perfectly normal and non-prejudiced reaction to this blatant display of political correctness after the fact that makes me froth! at the mouth! in! this! way!

Which is all bullshit, as you can figure out in about five seconds if you imagine the lack of a fuss there would be if her offhand revelation about Dumbledore had been, say, that she’d always thought of him as having had a similar but heterosexual romantic attachment in his youth. Wait a minute, would be? In fact, J. K. Rowling has been making plenty of equally innocuous remarks about her backstory for the books in public appearances all over the place, and nobody in the press has even taken notice of it, let alone let forth with the howls of outrage we’re currently getting. But now the tidbit du jour is that one of the characters is gay, and suddenly everybody is a passionate, angry advocate of the principle that “the work must speak for itself”.

Most of the time the opiner will also make a point of saying that the Harry Potter books aren’t very well written, maybe even adding that the books would have been better if things like Dumbledore’s gayness had been more evident, just to see if we can rub a little salt into the wound we’d like to believe we’re important enough to inflict. Personally, I’m not for the life of me going to defend Ms. Rowling’s leaden prose, but if you think the work isn’t any good, what the freak do you even care whether or not it is being allowed to speak for itself? All over the country, innocent college students are being fed the most ridiculous and countertextual postmodern notions about the characters of Beowulf, Hamlet, and Humbert Humbert, for crying out loud, and not a peep out of you; but now you’re charging to the rescue of Dumbledore? Where are your priorities, man?

And a little bit of unconscious homophobia doesn’t have a thing to do with it, eh? Well, good for you.

By the way, fans have been speculating about precisely this issue, Dumbledore’s sexuality, in discussion groups around the Internet for months. Why? Because there are freaking hints about it in the books, that’s why.

This Time essay, charmingly titled Put Dumbledore Back in the Closet, is not only a typical snark-a-thon, it contains this maddening statement:

Yes, it’s nice that gays finally got a major character in the sci-fi/fantasy universe.

The author’s examples to back up this remarkably ignorant statement? There are no gay characters in Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Well, there you go.

I guess the appearance of gay and other sorts of alternatively sexed characters since at least the 1970s in books by minor, unimportant, scarcely known science fiction writers like, oh, say, Robert A. Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mercedes Lackey, Theodore Sturgeon, Poul Anderson, Orson Scott Card, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Samuel Delany don’t count. We’re only talking about major works of science fiction. You know, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and the Harry Potter books.

Sorry, guy, but science fiction got around to making gay characters a normal part of the human landscape well before any other literary genre, or at least among those genres that you could peruse outside an adult bookstore. Same-sex relationships were common in science fiction when they were still rare and controversial in other genres.

Fun fact: The San Francisco gay and lesbian bookstore “A Different Light” gets its name from a 1978 repeat 1978 science fiction novel featuring a relationship between two men.

(One might also ask how the Time writer knows that Gandalf isn’t gay. Is there something establishing his heterosexuality in the books that I’m forgetting? Or are we just assuming that anyone not explicitly identified as gay is therefore straight, and isn’t that assumption itself unconsciously homophobic?)

I’m not saying I’m a Harry Potter fan. I’ve seen the movies so far, which I thought were charming but nothing more, but I tried reading the first book and was bored by chapter five.

I’m just getting royally irritated at the dozens of columnists raking Rowling over the coals for this, the steam rising off their printed pages even as they adopt the pose that they aren’t homophobic at all, oh no, they’re just literary purists and have been so all along. Mm-hmm.

Sorry, Wrong File Packet

Good and important story in the Machinist, Salon.com’s tech blog, about Associated Press’s discovery that Comcast is selectively interfering with its user’s data transfer.

Comcast, the AP determined, actively manages data on its network by using software to essentially masquerade as its subscribers’ machines. When non-Comcast Internet subscribers request files from your Comcast-connected machine — as happens in peer-to-peer file-sharing applications — Comcast’s technology steps in and tells the non-Comcast subscriber you’re not available.

No one disputes that Comcast has the right to manage data transfer to increase performance for all its subscribers. The objection is that the method is dishonest. According to the AP story, Comcast’s software inspects data coming into the network, and if the data appears to be peer-to-peer file transfer between a subscriber and a non-subscriber, the software sends out forged data packets to the two computers.

Each PC gets a message invisible to the user that looks like it comes from the other computer, telling it to stop communicating. But neither message originated from the other computer — it comes from Comcast. If it were a telephone conversation, it would be like the operator breaking into the conversation, telling each talker in the voice of the other: “Sorry, I have to hang up. Good bye.”

Of course, Comcast doesn’t mention in its advertising or in its contract that it is blocking this kind of use of its service. In both, Comcast emphasizes the high speeds and the unlimitedness of its services, and the company is perfectly happy to take the money from subscribers who want the service precisely in order to use peer-to-peer file sharing.

I’m already down on Comcast from my experiences trying to email their subscribers. I am a technical editor for a small publisher, and as a result I send and receive a lot of attachments, mostly Word docs and PDF files, to and from authors. Well, now and then when I email an attachment to an author on Comcast, I get a message back saying that the message couldn’t be delivered because my company has been identified as a spammer.

A spammer. Right. You may have noticed what a problem you have been having lately with all that unsolicited email in your inbox urging you to buy study materials that are claimed to help you pass your licensing exam in structural engineering. You know the ones: Get stronger, deeper understanding — fast! Last longer under time pressure! Insert joke about stress analysis of steel members here!

Turns out, we get on this list because from time to time we send out email promotions to people who have signed up to receive them, and these promotions keep triggering whatever spam detection software Comcast has set up. It never seems to trigger anybody else’s, just Comcast’s, and they respond by blocking all messages over a certain very small size. Whenever this happens, I usually just forward the attachment to one of my several personal email accounts and then send it along from there, but it’s a pain in the butt.

Well, our marketing director calls Comcast up and says, look, we’re a small company and everyone who receives our promotions has signed up for them, please take us off your list of blocked addresses. And they do, and after a half a day or a day passes, I can send attachments again. Until the next time it happens again. And again. And again.