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New Review: “Legacy of Brutality” (Beloved)

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BelovedBeloved by Toni Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Legacy of Brutality

That the cruelty and violence of American slavery is among the darkest chapters in human history is obvious. That over 60 million black Africans and their descendants suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of their white masters is well-known. The weapons of violent, cruel oppression employed by slave owners is a vast arsenal. Whippings, floggings, starvation, branding, hanging: all these and more were used to cow the meek and subjugate the defiant. Of all the tools used to terrorize slaves, however, none is more vicious, more insidious, than sexual assault. Rape leaves physical scars, to be sure, but it is even more devastating than a whipping in that the trauma is deeply psychological as well as physical. This mental damage can take a lifetime to heal, if it ever does. Toni Morrison’s novel of freed slaves in Ohio captures this horrid fact. In Beloved, the theme of sexual abuse binds the protagonists in a legacy of brutality.

We see this legacy manifest in the title character herself. Sethe speculates Beloved is unable to remember her past because she’s likely blocked out painful memories of rape. (140) Sethe has good reason to suspect Beloved has been victimized; Ella was confined and raped for over a year by a white slaver and his son. (140) Stamp Paid – himself the survivor of his wife’s rape by a slave owner – seems to acknowledge this same scenario befalling Beloved on page 277: “Was a girl locked up in the house with a whiteman over by Deer Creek. Found him dead last summer and the girl gone. Maybe that’s [Beloved].” Beloved perpetuates the cycle of abuse in her supernatural rape of Paul D. He clearly does not want to have sex with Beloved, but Paul is powerless to resist her command: “You have to touch me. On the inside part. And you have to call me my name.” (137)

Paul D’s forced intercourse with Beloved is not the first time he’s been sexually victimized; at a glance it would seem Paul is saved from forced fellatio, but close reading of page 127 shows Paul D is assaulted by the slavers:

“Kneeling in the mist, [the chain gang] waited for the whim of a guard, or two, or three. Or maybe all of them wanted it. Wanted it from one prisoner in particular or none – or all… Convinced he was next, Paul D retched – vomiting up nothing at all. An observing guard smashed his shoulder with the rifle and the engaged one decided to skip the new man for the time being lest his pants and shoes got soiled…”

This passage indicates all men in the chain gang are eventually forced to service one or more guards, and that the reprieve granted by dry heaves and the Hi Man’s call is only “for the time being” for Paul. The effects of his oral rape in Georgia have a lasting effect on Paul D’s sexuality. In Wilmington, after his escape from the chain gang, Paul and his tobacco tin heart lay down with a woman in exchange for a meal and nice sheets. “He fell in [to the bed] with a groan and the woman helped him pretend he was making love to her and not her bed linen.” (154) In essence, Paul whores himself for pork sausage and a luxurious bed to sleep in.

Paul D would later take to bed Sethe, a woman no stranger to the horrors of sexual abuse. Sethe was made aware of her mother’s multiple rapes at an early age. The wet nurse, Nan, tells Sethe her mother was “taken up many times by the crew” aboard the ship they were carried on. (74) She then further describes to Sethe how her mother discarded the unwanted progeny of these rapes. The impact of these revelations on Sethe’s psyche is clear: “As small girl Sethe, she was unimpressed. As grown-up woman Sethe she was angry, but not certain at what.” (74) While uncertain about the anger surrounding her mother’s rape, Sethe’s rage at her own assault by schoolteacher’s boys is white-hot and razor-sharp. In Sethe’s telling of the forced suckling to Paul D, we see one of the few uses of the exclamation mark in Beloved (19-20). The ultimate end to the rage, the shame, the horror of her assault is Sethe’s own assault on her children and the reason for it:

“…Anybody white could… dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived though and got over it, she could never let… a gang of whites [invade] her daughter’s private parts, [soil] her daughter’s thighs…” (295 – 296)

This is the true motivation of Sethe’s murdering Beloved: not to keep her from slavery, but to keep her from rape. Sethe knew the toll sexual assault could take, and refused to let her daughter succumb to that horror.

We see in Beloved a people decimated by the horror of sexual violence. This theme ties together the main characters of the story, as well as providing a common thread to connect supporting characters in the tale. Whether it’s Paul D’s rape by Beloved or the white guards in the chain gang, Beloved’s serial rape and captivity, or Sethe’s lifelong exposure to sexual violence, everyone in Toni Morrison’s novel is touched by the legacy of brutality left behind by sexual assault.

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New Essay: “Who Is John Galt Having Sex With?”

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Human sexuality is a complex and diverse issue. Pornography, homosexuality, sadomasochism, other so-called perversions have real moral implications and affect real people. An issue as intensely personal as sexuality calls for a moral guide just as personal. Thankfully, in moral egoism, we have a theory of morality and ethical behavior centered on the individual. Proposed by philosophers like Ayn Rand, moral egoism in its simplest form states that an action is right for a person if, and only if, it promotes their best interests. As a consequentialist moral theory, egoism posits that the results of an action are what determine the moral worth thereof. Moral egoism also accounts for circumstantial relativism – the idea that the situation surrounding an action helps determine whether that action is right or wrong. If a given act in a given situation produces (or is likely to produce) outcomes that advance a person’s agenda, it is right. If not, it is wrong. Applied to sexual ethics, egoism requires individuals to rationally examine the potential outcomes of a sex act in a given situation to determine if engaging in the act is in their best interests. A sex act, then, is perverted (morally wrong) inasmuch as it opposes a person’s best interests. Through this lens, sexual activities that have traditionally been viewed as morally corrupt – such as promiscuity, sodomy, and masturbation – are actually morally acceptable behaviors.
Promiscuity, for example, is morally acceptable so long as the promiscuous person is honest with their partners that the relationship is purely physical in nature and safe sex methods are used. Sex is a near-universal desire in humans. Thus it is in most people’s best interests to have sex. If a person desires a large quantity of sexual contact, or multiple partners, being promiscuous could be in that person’s best interests. Desire alone does not make promiscuous behavior acceptable, however. As a consequentialist theory, moral egoism is concerned with the results of an action to determine moral rightness. It is for this reason that the would-be Lothario or Jezebel is morally obligated to practice safe sex and honesty about relationship expectations with potential partners. Unsafe sex has the potential for results not in the promiscuous person’s best interests, namely disease and unwanted pregnancy. Dishonesty with partners could create vindictive responses. Obviously, jilting Glenn Close’s character from Fatal Attraction is not in one’s best interests. Sodomy is also morally acceptable between consenting adults who find the act mutually pleasurable and perform the act safely. The egoist sodomite is morally required to use safe sex practices when engaging in anal or oral sex. As with promiscuous behavior, sodomy carries the risk of disease. Contracting a sexually transmitted is in no one’s best interests. Further, consent and mutual pleasure are morally necessary. Non-consensual sodomy carries the obvious legal ramifications of arrest and potential conviction for rape. One would be hard pressed to argue an arrest to be in one’s best interests. Masturbation is morally acceptable for those whose sexual desires cannot be met in full by their partners. Some people desire more sex than they receive from their partners, and it is in their best interests to relieve their sexual needs by themselves in lieu of engaging in rape or soliciting a prostitute.
Some will object to “deviant” sex on religious grounds. They will appeal to divine commands as condemning the immorality of non-missionary, non-heterosexual acts. The Christian Bible, for example, contains many prohibitions against sodomy and masturbation, and any sex outside of marriage is forbidden by church dogma, much less having sex with multiple partners out of wedlock. These dissenters appeal to the divine command theory of morality that states that an action is right if, and only if, God commands us to do it. According to this perspective, because God commands us not to have any sex other than vaginal sex with our spouse, these acts are immoral. Others may claim that engaging in promiscuous acts cheapens sex or fails to honor the other as a person. Deontologists like Immanuel Kant would likely take this perspective. Kant’s first Categorical Imperative states that we should only act on maxims we can will to be universal law. If everyone were to engage in promiscuity, the first Imperative argues, no one would form lasting, non-physical relationships. The second Categorical Imperative proposed by Kant states that we should always treat people as ends unto themselves, never as a means. Followers of CI2, then, object to promiscuity as failing to respect the personhood of the one-night stand. Still others object to sodomy and masturbation as defying natural law. As one of the natural functions of a human being is procreation, any sex act that does not (potentially) result in fertilization of an embryo is immoral.
Unfortunately, the objections of religious zealots appealing to divine command theory are essentially meaningless. As the existence of God cannot be proven, any morality derived from the deity is suspect. The egoist can look to studies, facts, and statistics to help determine what is in his or her best interests sexually. The first Categorical Imperative objection fails to conceive that some people might prefer not to be promiscuous. Egoists may be promiscuous or not, depending upon what best serves their interests at any given time. Kant’s second attempt at outlining a moral code also fails in condemning promiscuity adequately by failing to take into account the will of the seduced. It presumes the seducer is acting upon the seduced with no input from the seduced party. Egoism, on the other hand, only provides moral sanction to promiscuity if both parties are consenting. Appeal to the natural law theory to object to deviant sex relies on the premise that humans have a natural function. However, proving what this innate function is is impossible. There is no “functionometer” to measure how well a human functions and no means to adapt that function to varying situations. Moral egoism, however, takes into account that what’s in one’s best interests can change over time and in relation to differing circumstances.
Religious leaders and intellectuals alike struggle to rationally explain why “deviant” sex acts like promiscuity, sodomy, and masturbation are immoral. The theory of moral egoism provides a rational explanation that justifies these kinds of acts as morally acceptable in certain circumstances for a particular person. A given sexual behavior is therefore immoral only if it hinders a person’s best interests. As such, laws banning acts like sodomy and social stigmas regarding promiscuity and masturbation should be reevaluated. As there is no logical moral objection to the acts and no harm to society by engaging in them, there’s little reason to perpetuate antiquated ideas regarding these common aspects of modern sexuality.

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This I Believe

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I decided last night (after a fairly heated exchange on Failbook) that I would put this post up so that people considering whether or not to create or maintain a friendship with me would know what they’re getting into. Consider it truth in advertising. Also, on the off chance that NPR ever asks me to do a “This I Believe”segment, most of my work will already be done. Yay for advance preparation!

Fair warning: this post is probably not safe for work. These beliefs are in no particular order. While I do hold some convictions more strongly than others, their order in this list in no way denotes their importance to me. This list is pretty thorough, but not comprehensive. Also, some of the things you’re about to read are intended to be humorous and light-hearted; some are not. You figure out which is which.

  • I believe choice and free will are the greatest and most frequently squandered gifts humanity has.
  • I believe you are ultimately responsible for your own life and must deal with the consequences of the choices you make.
  • I believe rape in all forms is one of the most heinous crimes possible, because it denies the victim choice in one of the most private and inviolate parts of their life.
  • I believe the Chicago Blackhawks will win the Stanley Cup this year.
  • I believe people are betrayed by their biology more often than they would like to admit.
  • I believe I’m a conflicted and hypocritical person, but I’m working on it.
  • I believe it is the height of arrogance to presume to speak for anyone but yourself.
  • I believe it is the depth of self-loathing to allow anyone to speak for you.
  • I believe in peace, bitch.
  • I believe there is a power greater than myself in the universe, but I don’t pretend to understand what it is or how it works.
  • I believe humans can live better lives through the practical application of chemistry, biology, medicine, engineering, and imagination.
  • I believe I love my daughter more than any other person in this world, including my wife, whom I love very much.
  • I believe my wife understands the preceding statement and feels much the same way.
  • I believe the preceeding two statements do not diminish the relationship my wife and I share, but enhance it instead.
  • I believe marriage is a social contract between two individuals, not a holy institution. As such, it should be available to all consenting adults, regardless of sexual orientation or gender.
  • I believe government-issued underwear are very uncomfortable.
  • I believe it is better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
  • I believe words are innocent. They have no meaning except that which you ascribe to them. Make them your own and define them: don’t let them define you.
  • I believe the following statement is true.
  • I believe the preceding statement is false.
  • I believe most people take themselves too seriously.
  • I believe I have many acquaintances, but few friends. You may be one.
  • I believe things on the Internet are not real.
  • I believe fascism by committee in the guise of social justice is the most insidious lie ever told to Americans.
  • I believe American federalism is not a perfect governmental system, but it’s as close as we’ve gotten so far.
  • I believe the Framers of the United States Constitution would not recognize our country as their own.
  • I believe the American federal government has little to no authority to legislate social issues.
  • I believe abortion is abhorrent, except in cases of rape and incest. However, I would never presume to tell a woman what she may or may not do to her own body. That’s between her and whatever higher power she believes in.
  • I believe anyone who would claim I’m not entitled to an opinion regarding reproductive rights because I have a penis is the worst kind of hypocrite.
  • I believe we are not alone.
  • I believe freedom of choice is the only true freedom.
  • I believe thou shalt not kill.
  • I believe Metallica sucked, then got good, and now sucks again.
  • I believe Rush is the greatest rock band of all time.
  • I believe pity is something reserved exclusively for children and the mentally handicapped.
  • I believe disagreeing with one aspect of a person does not invalidate the entirety of that person.
  • I believe magic is nothing more than the judicious application of human will.
  • I believe in striving today to be better than I was yesterday.
  • I believe the only valuation of my worth as a human being that truly matters is my own.
  • I believe “I” is the most beautiful word in the English language.
  • I believe, if you don’t like what I have to say, you can kindly go fuck yourself.