Tuesday, August 13, 2019

It Didn't Begin with Smartphones...

Most people still went about on foot in Göttingen.  The distances to be traversed inside the city were so short that it would have been hardly worth while to go by car or motorcycle.  Not until after the First World War did students and professors adopt the bicycle and this was a novelty not popular with everyone.  Was it not those leisurely strolls before and after lectures which had so often given rise to the most interesting ideas?  Had not chance meetings at a straight corner or along the picturesque city wall often accomplished more than formal seminars or committee sessions?
-- Robert Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists  (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1958), page 11

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Say It Ain't So, Joe!

Joe Biden has lost the Democratic presidential nomination four times already, so he probably won't mind too much losing it, or the general election, again.  The Democratic establishment (by which I mean not only the Party leadership but the corporate media punditry) seems determined to anoint him, and that means it will be an uphill struggle to stop him, but we're still several months from the primaries and almost a year from the national convention.  A lot can change in that time, as it has before.

There's been some consternation about Biden's handsiness, his irresistible fondness for violating other people's personal space.  It's not the only reason to reject  him, and probably not the most important one, but a good many anti-Biden people have thrown tantrums over it.  People's -- especially children's -- boundaries around physical affection should be respected, but I'm not sure how sincere a lot of the outrage has been.  I'm not defending Biden here, but there are so many double standards in partisan politics that I've become more than a little cynical, and as I say, Biden has a lot worse on his record.

A couple of weeks ago (I've been procrastinating again, sorry), someone posted a video clip on Twitter of Biden at some campaign event, kissing a young woman lightly on the lips, after which she leaves the stage.  I haven't been able to find it again in the bowels of Twitter, but of course a version of it has been posted on Youtube.  The young woman, wearing a Biden t-shirt, turned out to be his granddaughter, and she didn't exhibit any of the discomfort some other people, including young children, have exhibited when Biden caresses their shoulders or sniffs their hair.  The clip was, of course, overanalyzed, so that her serious expression as she steps down becomes a cry for help against her rapey Grandpa, but I don't see it.  My reading is that she's concentrating on not stumbling as she leaves the stage; she might even be thinking Oh, no, people are going to make a big thing out of that.  I doubt anyone but her and her family know, and I wouldn't care to see her interrogated publicly about it.  Pick on Joe, but leave the kid alone.

What I noticed in the comments under the tweet went beyond just hatred of Joe Biden.  It was a remarkable squeamishness about familial affection.  For parents or grandparents to kiss their children or grandchildren on the lips was disgusting, numerous people said.  Not in their family!  Any family that indulges in such behavior is sick and perverted.  One person posted a 2009 photo of Melania Trump kissing her son Barron, who was three at the time, on the lips; he's kissing her back.  The poster was disturbed by the kiss -- parents shouldn't do that, she said.

I don't really have an opinion about the propriety, let alone psychopathology, of family members kissing each other on the lips.  Again, people's boundaries should be respected, but the reactions to the Biden clip and the Melania / Barron photograph went beyond that: even if the kids didn't know it was wrong, it was wrong and abusive and sick.  Now, my own family was not very affectionate; I can't remember the last time either of my parents kissed me or my brothers.  But I know that families differ widely in their practices and attitudes, and I don't know how to draw the line in principle, as opposed to individual comfort.  A child might be traumatized by demands that she kiss an adult relative if he doesn't want to do it, but the harm comes in the coercion, not the kiss, as far as I can see.  And no one, needless to say, justified their strictures: they were just certain that they knew.  If they thought it was disgusting, then it was objectively disgusting, and no one ought to do it.  That, to me, is a sign of something seriously wrong.

Graham Shaw's 1982 book The Cost of Authority: Manipulation and Freedom in the New Testament (Fortress Press) contains much intelligent discussion of community and power, but I've always been dissatisfied with his remarks about the apostle Paul and the controversy over meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8.  (I bring this up not because the Bible has any authority, but to show that the problem I'm discussing now is not new.)  There seems to have been concern among the Corinthian Christians over Christian freedom to eat: meat was usually connected to sacrifice, whether to Yahweh or to the old gods.  "As the false gods to whom food has allegedly been consecrated have no real existence, it might be assumed that Christians are free to eat it. But not everybody knows that the false gods do not exist, and they feel shame in eating such food" page 80).  The Christians in Corinth were not Jews but Gentiles, so they would have grown up eating meat from those sacrifices.  Paul acknowledged Christian freedom - after all, it was a pillar of his teaching - but encouraged his congregation to limit their freedom in consideration of the weaker faith of some of their fellows.  Shaw writes:
Much in Paul's response to the food question has been self-regarding, authoritarian and manipulative, but this should not conceal either the radical nature of his teaching or the sophisticated way in which he permits the conscience of others to limit the freedom of the Christian [85].
This fits oddly with Paul's confrontation with Simon Peter, recounted in Galatians 2:11-21, over the freedom of Jewish Christians to ignore traditional purity rules so that they might eat with Gentile Christians.  Paul brushed aside the conscience of weaker brethren, which he dismissed as "hypocrisy" (Gal. 2:13), to insist on "the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus" (2:4).

Shaw continues:
What seems to worry Paul is not that the other person might remain unenlightened, but that he might be shocked.  Thus he concludes the passage: 'Give no offense to Jews, or Greeks, or to the church of God' ([1 Cor.] 10:12).  The moral sensitivity of other people would seem here to be a constraint on the Christian's freedom.  Paul is trying to avoid a situation where freedom is aggressively asserted without regard to the response of other people [85].
The letters to Corinth are later than the one to the Galatians, so perhaps Paul modified his views in the light of further experience.  But it would seem that he should have restrained himself when Peter suffered pangs of conscience and shame, and stopped eating with the Gentile Christians.  Not only Peter but the rest of the congregation must have been confused, but Paul didn't worry about their scruples; he aggressively asserted his freedom.

This episode is useful because we no longer eat meat that has been sacrificed to any gods, so we can focus more on the principles involved with a minimum of gut-level reaction.  (There are other such controversies in Paul's letters, such as whether Gentile Christians should be circumcised, and the status of women as teachers in the churches.  Paul wasn't any more consistent or clear on these issues than he was on food.)  I see Shaw's point, and even agree to some extent; but I think it works both ways.

Paul and Shaw frame the question in terms of "knowledge" (conflated, perhaps inaccurately, with gnosis) invoked by some Christians to justify their freedom, versus the tender consciences of the weaker brethren.  I suspect this is not quite fair to the freer Christians, especially given Paul's own practice, and too indulgent of the weaker ones.  I think that letting the more restrictive believers set limits on others is how you end up, for example, with women covered from head to toe to protect the "weakness" of men.  There needs to be some restraint on the power of more restrictive members of a community to control others.  Of course the latter will try to present themselves as victims of the former, and to claim that the only alternative to their restrictive position is total, destructive license.  In Paul's case, he declared that if women cut their hair at all, they might as well cut it off entirely.

The territory between the two poles can be viewed as a continuum -- or a slippery slope, as it's often called -- and the problem is that there's no obvious point at which to stop, at least in theory.  In practice, a slippery slope is invoked to claim that though a given practice -- gay marriage, say -- may not seem so bad, but if you allow it, why not permit marriage between humans and animals, or incest, or polygamy?  The proper reply is that if these latter practices can be shown to be harmful, then they can be forbidden, but they aren't grounds for forbidding gay marriage.

So, back to grandfathers and granddaughters, or mothers and sons, kissing each other on the lips.  The people who were repulsed by Melania and Barron didn't give any reason for their revulsion; it was just obvious to any decent healthy person that what they were doing was wrong, and if we don't draw the line there, we can't stop Donald Trump from grabbing women by the pussy.  Or something.  But where will we draw the line?  Not so long ago, it was obvious to all decent healthy people (including many gay men) that two men kissing was disgusting, sick, perverted.  Some people are horrified by women breastfeeding infants in public, or even by the mere idea of women breastfeeding: it's barbaric, it's animalistic.  (If we don't stop them, why not let men just "all hang out" in public?)  Many liberals who endorse same-sex marriage are squicked by the thought of cousins, even third or fourth cousins, marrying.  When the movie The Watchmen featured a nude male blue CGI character, many people panicked, and claimed that the trauma of the sight of a penis was equivalent to seeing one's grandparents copulating.  There was also a tendency to claim that the blue penis was on screen for the entire two and a half hours of screentime, which was false -- that slippery slope again.

One thing that especially bothered me was the question of where the anti-kissers wanted to draw the line, what kinds of physical expression of affection between parents and children they considered acceptable.  There have been periods, fairly recent, when expert opinion discouraged parents from being affectionate to children at all.  There was no valid scientific reason for this position; it probably sprang from the hangups of the doctors in question. We know that young children especially need to be cuddled, held, and probably kissed if they're going to grow up healthy, and that people of all ages need physical affection and contact.  Perhaps some individuals don't, and their limits should be respected -- for them; but if they denounce others' affectionateness as sick and perverted, they should be opposed and blocked firmly.

I've considered the possibility that the people who denounced relatives kissing had experienced abuse of some kind themselves; but I don't recall any who actually said they had.  They simply claimed that such kissing was intrinsically sick, harmful and repulsive.  Not everyone agrees, however, so how to resolve the conflict?  I don't think it can be resolved.  It can only be negotiated.  But I think we need pushback against people who try to impose their limits on other people.  Those who draw the line elsewhere should, as Graham Shaw argued, show consideration to others, but the 'weaker brethren' should also show consideration for the 'stronger,' which they don't seem inclined to do.

Now, I'm not claiming that this sort of squeamishness is something new, or even more common now than it used to be.  I have no evidence for such a claim, and don't believe it anyway.  I think it has always been with us, as shown by its long pedigree in religious and other domains.  What surprises me is that it's still so prevalent, and still so virulent.  When I was growing up in the 60s, many (including me) took it for granted that these superstitious hangups were waning and would soon fade away altogether.  I don't think that's going to happen, which is all the more reason why we must resist those who want to impose them on others.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

It Became Necessary to Destroy the Business to Save It

Someone told me over the weekend that Steak and Shake was closing its restaurants.  This didn't surprise me, because two of the three local Steak and Shakes have closed this year.  One was supposedly closed for remodeling, but the building now sports a banner inviting people to take over the franchise.  The other is gone, all brand markings removed, with a realtor's information for the building.

I've never been an S&S regular, but lately a friend and I have gone there for lunch now and then.  My curiosity was piqued, so I poked around online.  Yes, Steak and Shake has closed sixty of its four-hundred-plus locations -- supposedly only temporarily -- since the beginning of the year.  The chain has been losing both traffic and money for a couple of years now.  Shareholders were notified in February:
“Despite our unwavering dedication to product quality and low prices, we erroneously stayed with equipment and kitchen design that was ill-suited for volume production ... We failed customers by not being fast and friendly.”
This rang false to me.  The basic model of the company has evidently not changed much over the years, so I can't see why the equipment and kitchen design should suddenly have failed to cope with the necessity of "volume production."  The service at all three Bloomington locations has been "fast and friendly" every time my friend and I have gone to them for the past couple of years, even when things were quite busy.  I smelled a rat in the business-consultant blather of that newsletter: it's typical to try to blame the underlings for everything that goes wrong.

It turns out that Steak and Shake was acquired by Biglari Holdings Inc. in 2008, joining "a collection of assets that includes First Guard Insurance Co., steak restaurant chain Western Fizzlin and Maxim, a men's magazine."  Maybe there's no connection between the takeover and the slowly declining fortunes of the chain.  But Sardar Biglari, the CEO, makes me suspicious with his assertion at a shareholders' meeting that Steak and Shake could save $1 million a year by getting rid of the maraschino cherries that top the chain's hand-dipped milkshakes, and that:
"He is literally inventing a new milkshake making process — he said at the meeting that this was going to be a patented process — and that is going to speed up service," one shareholder told [Indianapolis Business Journal] . "The shareholders seemed to think this was ridiculous — and I would tend to agree — to think that Sardar, with all his free time, is going to be able to invent a milkshake process to turn the whole chain around." 
One notable aspect of the coverage I found was that it was not only skeptical of Biglari's management, it was hostile. I wondered right away where he got the million-dollar figure; I suspect that like other embattled execs, he probably pulled it out of his ass.  Maybe a patented milkshake machine would cut labor costs a tiny bit, but enough to compensate for a $19 million loss this year alone?

I think he was bullshitting the shareholders, even taunting them with their inability to stop him from doing whatever he wants.  Unlike the CEO of the United States, private executives' power isn't limited by the Constitution.  And the more I read, the more I think that's what he was doing.

According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, drawing on a report by a blogger who attended the shareholders' meeting:
A sore point at the meeting was the $8.4 million that Biglari Holdings paid a Sardar Biglari-owned company last year to manage its investment arm. Repeated questions seeking an explanation of the expense and a justification for it yielded non-answers from Biglari, such as, “The board has perfect visibility into this.”

The Seeking Alpha poster highlighted a range of other dubious expenses, including paying his brother and father as consultants, maintaining an office in Monaco and opening a one-off Biglari Cafe in the Port of Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera, a destination Biglari enjoys visiting.
Biglari's compensation package is also excessive for the head of a company that is hemorrhaging money.  Coincidentally (?), the company was just assessed $7.7 million in total damages for unpaid overtime owed to restaurant managers -- and that was just in the St. Louis area.  But according to the blogger, Biglari mocked shareholders who complained about the falling price of the stock: if you think I'm overpaid and you're unhappy because the share prices dropped, just sell your shares.

Steak and Shake was founded eighty-odd years ago.  In general I bear in mind that businesses, even chains, are not immortal.  But it's one thing for a business to die because of its own inadequacies, and another for it to be killed off by a venture capitalist who has no interest in making it survive, and tosses out absurd and unfounded reasons why things are bad as he loots it to pay his relatives and support his jetsetting.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Que Sera, Sera...

This will be brief, I hope.  I'm thinking through a post on another larger subject and don't know when I'll feel ready to start writing it.  For now, then...

This week Dan Savage answered a question from from a man who's erotically excited by being cuckolded, and wondered why that should be.  The answer, with expert input, was a lot of admittedly unfounded speculation, but I was intrigued by Dan's closing remarks:
The erotic power of doing something that seems antithetical to the heteronormative and/or vanilla-normative expectations heaped on us by culture, religion, family, etc. should never be underestimated. While not everyone is turned on by the thought of transgressing against sexual or social norms, a significant percentage is. So long as our normative-busting transgressive turn-ons can be realized with other consenting adults, we should worry less about the “why” and more about the “when,” “where,” and “how.” (Now, in private, and safely!)
A few weeks ago, Dan fretted about white people who "fetishized" people of different "races."
It’s a good idea to ask ourselves whether our “types” are actually ours and not just assigned to us by conventional standards of beauty (white, slim, young) or a thoughtless/fetishizing reaction to those standards (a desire to transgress with nonwhite, larger, or older folks).
The new column raises some interesting questions about these strictures.  Suppose someone is turned on by a person of different skin color because it's transgressive.  In the real world, it's impossible to know that for sure anyway, but it seems likely to me that the erotic power of transgression also holds with "interracial" liaisons, even with same-sex eroticism. (For that matter, dating people outside one's comfort zone as a conscious strategy to broaden one's horizons is a kind of fetishization too, but it's likely to be anti-erotic in practice.)  I'm not sure it's necessary, or ethical, to inform a potential partner for a transient encounter that one is turned on by the prospect of transgressing against sexual or social norms with him or her; but then, he or she might just reply brightly, "Oh, that's okay!  I feel the same way about you!  Now quit talking and let's start transgressing."

But once again what I see here is Dan's own confusion about erotic ethics and values.  Is erotic transgression okay or not?  It seems that he draws the line at gender- or "race"- related transgressiveness, like many other people who fantasize that there is some pure, untainted erotic feeling that has nothing to do with real bodies.  I suspect that this fantasy -- or should I call it a fetish? -- is most common among people with very limited erotic experience, but the worldly Dan Savage really should know better.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

W for Wank

I've been working my way gradually through Chasing Danny Boy,* an anthology of stories about "Celtic Eros" -- apparently referring only to "Eros" between males.  The first story, "Puppydogs' Tails," was raunchy enough to draw me in, though most of the rest have been less appealing.

Eventually I came to the ninth story, "Dublin Sunday", by P. P. Hartnett.  It's about a middle-aged gay man, musing on his life: "It was another beautiful summer sunset, making him feel pretty bloody awful."  Luckily he has a full supply of "Oil, nipple clamps, dildo, magazine collection, videos, poppers, and Caverject" (loc 1351, Kindle edition).  Or maybe not so luckily.
His left hand was fingering the deep wrinkles in his forehead. He knew exactly how he’d pass the evening. He wasn’t really in the mood for what he was going to put himself through. But it was in his diary. W. Inked in: W for Wank

He wasn’t getting any younger. Who’d have him when he left sentences hanging? Who’d help him when he couldn’t be bothered with food anymore, or washing? Who’d be the first to make him a bowl of clear soup, tidy his bedclothes, do his laundry, help him to (and from and during) the lavatory? Who’d attend to his needs, day and night? Answer: no one. 

Just thinking about his life was enough to render him immobile, paralysed by regret and indecision and ruminations on what might have been. The purposelessness of it all, not to mention the incompatibility of pheromones, phobias, and fetishes.
Oooookay.  In case you're wondering, this passage is representative of the entire piece, right up to the ending sentence.  "He'd feel better after a good night's weep huddled in the far back corner of his wardrobe, chin on knees, sobbing for the humiliation and, worse, for the loss of he wasn't sure what" (loc 1622).  This is a believable picture of some aging men's situations, but what is it doing in a collection of stories about Eros?  It comes across as more of a cautionary vignette, propaganda from an anti- or ex-gay organization, and the protagonist is the kind of person who, disappointed or frustrated in lust, becomes a monastic dedicated to the extirpation of all pleasure -- not just for himself but for everybody else.

That bit about "Who'd attend to his needs, day and night?" particularly annoyed me. A lot of people have this attitude towards marriage, and I've been asked "What are you going to do when you get old?" myself.  So I should find an unpaid body servant to wipe my butt for me when I go gaga?  That's highly ... spiritual.  Whose needs would he attend to, I wonder?  Aging and its attendant debility is unpleasant and scary, but this is the mindset of someone who thinks only of himself, and supposedly in couplehood if not marriage the caregiving should go both ways.  If P. P. Hartnett wrote this story as an exhortation to gay men to find boyfriends, he chose a repellent way to do it.

I'm sixty-eight years old, and have been single for almost all my adult life.  As I told a friend not long ago, I know that there will be a last time I have sex, though I probably won't know it's the last time until long afterward.  I view this with something like detached interest.  I still take delight in human beauty, and am comforted by nonsexual physical contact.  (When I join others in singing Christmas carols at area nursing homes each year, I notice how important hugs and handholding and other touching are to the people there.  I give them as much as I can, which started out being difficult for a shy person like me who's timid about initiating affection with strangers; but I'm getting better, thanks largely to the example of our organizer, who's very good at it.)

I'm inclined to be snarky about people for whom sex is the central focus of their lives, though to be honest I'm a bit skeptical about their existence.  I don't think I know of any such person in reality.  In Andrew Holleran's later writings, the protagonists are older men who are either still trying to keep up with what Holleran dubbed "fast-food sex" or have given up on it.  But Holleran, who seems to be his characters' model, is a writer, and he evidently has an inner life that finds expression in writing, reading at least.  His portrayal of aging gay men is therefore highly skewed, editing out everything else that might give a life meaning or interest.

I'm not denying the value of sex.  It's probably not possible to distinguish altogether between the pleasure of erotic interaction and the pleasure of affectionate physical contact, but I'm certainly glad I've had numerous sexual partners, far more than I anticipated as a young gay kid who found it hard to believe anyone would ever want him.  At the same time, many other pursuits give my life meaning: the arts, intellectual interests, friendship, food, travel. When sexual opportunities or capacity dry up, these and more will I hope remain.  This isn't a boast: so far I've been amazingly lucky in my life, and I know it.

But assume that there are people who only find meaning in copulation. That's fine, I don't care if  people have different priorities than I do. The trouble is that the protagonist of "Dublin Sunday" doesn't find meaning or fulfillment, or much pleasure, in sex.  When that's the case, it's time to try to remember if there's anything else that can give you meaning, or fulfillment, or pleasure.  If there are people like the protagonist, their situation is dire.  I can't see  "Dublin Sunday" as a story of Eros; I think it's a horror story.

------------------------------------------
*Edited by Mark Henry (San Francisco: Palm Drive Publishing, 1999).

Monday, July 15, 2019

Faithful and True

I don't know why I decided to pick up Gainsborough Pictures' 1945 melodrama The Wicked Lady from the display shelf at the public library, but it turned out to be a good choice.  It's an astoundingly raunchy film for the period, featuring adultery, highway robbery, multiple murders, gender transgression, plunging necklines and more.  Before it could be released in the US, several scenes had to be reshot with more modest costuming of the ladies, which shows the idiocy of censors: the glimpses of bosom are the least of The Wicked Lady's transgressiveness.  The title character, Barbara Skelton, steals her cousin's fiance, takes up robbery to get back a jewel she'd carelessly gambled away, finds she likes crime, has a wild affair with another highwayman, kills two people, and eventually is shot dead, dying alone as she crawls piteously on the floor of her lavish boudoir.

The Wicked Lady was based on a best-selling historical novel by Magdalen King-Hall. Lady Skelton is a semi-fictional character derived from the real-life Katherine Ferrers Fanshawe (1634-1660), celebrated with prurient delight in late nineteenth-century folklore.  In the introduction to a recent reissue of King-Hall's Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2016), Rowland Hughes shows that there's no contemporary evidence that Ferrers actually did any of the exciting things King-Hall describes, and it's likely she died in childbirth in London rather than of a bullet wound in Hertfordshire.  The legend of the Wicked Lady seems to have appeared full-blown two centuries after her death, ripe for exploitation by King-Hall and Gainsborough Pictures.  (There's also a 1983 remake starring - Faye Dunaway?)

I enjoyed The Wicked Lady and intend to have a look at Gainsborough's other "wicked melodramas."  What I'm interested in today, though, is what it implies about faith, especially now that liberal Democrats and Republican NeverTrumpers are wrestling with Robert Mueller III's apparent failure to vindicate their faith.  A popular motif in atheist / secular attacks on religion is the gullibility of people who believe in supernatural "fables told by Bronze Age goatherds." But there's nothing supernatural about what Russiagate believers hoped would be revealed, or about many other beliefs that people cling to without evidence or in defiance of evidence.  It's tempting to dismiss such faith as religious (or perhaps religion-like?), and I've been to known to succumb to that temptation myself, but I think it would be more accurate to turn it around: I think that "religious" faith is a subset of the way human beings think about and discuss the world, and it's not different in any important way from other beliefs -- even well-supported beliefs.  That latter is the scary part.

I just finished reading archaeologist J. M. Adovasio's The First Americans: In Pursuit of Archaeology's Greatest Mystery (Random House, 2002), about the controversies surrounding the first human settlers of the Western hemisphere.  Its core is the "Clovis bar," the belief held by many archaeologists that "Clovis man" was the earliest inhabitant, arriving about 12 to 13,000 years ago.  Adovasio's excavations at Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania during the 1970s were the first strong evidence that Clovis culture had predecessors, and he details the debates that raged over the issue.  He depicts his opponents as driven by an irrational refusal to change their position, though they don't see themselves that way: they see themselves as rational critics, doing the necessary work of Science.  He gives an exhausting account of a scientific summit held in Chile to evaluate another possibly pre-Clovis site, and while I'm basically sympathetic to the pre-Clovis position (for not particularly rational reasons), I can only rejoice that neither faction had the power to do more than hiss at each other.  Though apart from the scientific questions, there are real-world matters at stake: research funding, professorships, publications, etc., nobody was put to the rack or burned for heresy.  Given the very high emotional temperature Adovasio reports (and embodies himself), though, I wouldn't assume that torture and execution wouldn't have happened if the parties involved had the power to inflict them.

The conventionally religious will reject my suggestion as fiercely as the conventionally non-religious.  Both sides want to see religious faith as a special case, distinct from all the others and privileged.  One reason I don't see it that way is that religious believers, especially but not limited to Yahwist monotheism, lightly dismiss the religious beliefs of other believers, even other members of their own sect.  If faith is so sacrosanct, beyond rationality and question, why don't believers respect other believers' faith?

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Sensibility

I don't think I'll continue reading Walt Odets's new book, Out of the Shadows (FSG, 2019).  Right after the passage I discussed last week there came this:
For gay men, sexual attraction to other men is only one expression of something more formal, more fundamental, something that might be called a gay sensibility.  As I am using the term, gay sensibility describes the man's internal experience of himself, and his characteristic external expression of self to others.  Together, the two constitute "a sensibility," and a gay sensibility is often different from that of heterosexual men.  Sexual attraction is not the cause of gay sensibility, although it may influence and inform it; nor is the simple idea of the homosexual an adequate characterization of that sensibility.  The question I am raising -- whether or not gay men are homosexuals -- is not at all intended to dismiss the importance of gay sexual lives.  Sexuality is of central importance in all human life, whether acknowledged or not.  What it means to "be gay" has for too long been defined by others, and too much of that imposed definition has been incorporated into gay self-experience.  Being gay offers important opportunities that can only be realized if gay people can free themselves from the conventional idea of the homosexual.  Freed from this narrow characterization, gay people have lives that are, in some ways, like heterosexual lives and, in other ways, appreciably different.  Lives that express such complexity are often better, fuller, more authentic lives [20].
Odets might possibly make an interesting and useful case from this mess, but right now I don't have enough energy or curiosity to find out.  He allows that gay men are different from each other, but I can't see how to reconcile that acknowledgement with the notion of a "gay sensibility."  If erotic experience is only one expression of this putative sensibility, it would seem to follow that a gay male sensibility could express itself in erotic interaction with women as easily as it could with men, and that a man could have erotic experience exclusively with other men without having that sensibility.  In that case, it's hard to see why that sensibility should be called "gay."

This same problem arises in attempts to make sense of gender.  The psychological traits that are stereotyped "masculine" or "feminine" are really found in both / either sex most of the time, so it makes no sense to gender them.  Doing so just keeps people, whether they are professionals or laypeople, confused.  My sensibility is gay, not because I possess some indefinable gay essence, but because I am gay, so whatever sensibility I possess is a gay one.  In that I echo the "woman-identified woman" who asserted that whatever she wears, be it a gown or an army-surplus coat, it is by definition women's wear.  I am different from many straight men, but I'm also different from many gay men.  (I wonder where bisexual men fit into Odets's schema.)

I still disagree with his characterization of "the homosexual" as a concept consisting purely of sex.  In fact "the homosexual" has always been an incoherent conception, but it has always been more complex than Odets allows.  Foucault was correct when he wrote: "We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized ... less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself" (History of Sexuality, 1:43).  Gayish men had a good deal of input into the construction and elaboration of "the homosexual," not just as case histories but as thinkers and writers.  Perhaps Odets will take this history into account as he proceeds, but I'm not going to find out in the foreseeable future.

But I also object to Odets's stereotyping of heterosexual men.  It's not news that the social construction of heterosexuality has been restrictive and destructive of men's lives, as well as women's.  Nor should it be news that heterosexual men are as varied as gay men, and that there are large differences between cultures in the official definitions and limitations imposed on straight men.

For example, last week as I headed downtown I passed a group of about twenty international students being shown around.  They were all black Africans, mostly male, and two of them were holding hands.  They looked a bit uneasy, almost defiant, but they held on.  I presume they had been told that in America, men holding hands is taken as a sign of homosexuality.  Even many if not most gay men would make that mistake.  In many cultures, even quite homophobic ones, people of the same sex hold hands in public.  But in the US, any public display of physical affection between males is a fraught business.  (That 'affection' in that phrase generally is a euphemism for eroticism says a lot about our moral impoverishment.)

Even within a culture, manhood is an incoherent concept.  For an easy example, consider the attempts to limit artistic expression to males, to defend it as an inherently male capability, at the same time that male artists' manliness is often suspect.  For another, consider male bonding: men are supposed to be heterosexual, but they are also supposed to form powerful, even intimate bonds with other men -- yet they can never be sure they haven't gone too far and crossed the line into homosexuality.  Freed from the narrow and self-contradictory characterizations that constitute gender, everybody has the opportunity to build lives that are better, fuller, and more authentic.  I don't believe that a "gay" or a heterosexual sensibility is necessary for doing so.

The quip that gay people are different from straight people except for what we do in bed has been attributed to more than one gay sage, but I've never seen a good enumeration of what the real differences supposedly are.  Harry Hay was one of those sages, and I think it's significant that he not only wanted to define a gay spiritual sensibility, he based it on a biological-determinist theory of our origin and nature.  Odets objects to the born-gay dogma; I wonder if he realizes that Hay believed we are born fairies. For that reason I feel free to reject the claim, which feels to me like one more attempt to force us all into boxes instead of encouraging us to explore and own our complexity and richness.