Monday, September 1, 2014

Low-Hanging Fruit, Fish in a Barrel, and Roosting Chickens

It's another one of those days.  Roy Edroso's latest post at alicublog promotes his Village Voice column collecting right-wing nutbaggery, which of course is easy work provided you wear protective apparel against the flying spittle.  He sums it up as follows:
The brethren's current fist-shaking reminds me that, had Al Gore been elected President -- excuse me, had he been inaugurated President -- we might not have had the clusterfuck we wound up with in Iraq; and if Romney had been elected in 2012, we might already be running back there full-strength. I know what George Wallace said, but to paraphrase Spencer Tracy in Adam's Rib, hurrah for that dime's worth of difference. 
At least Edroso allows that Al Gore might not have invaded Iraq -- most Democrats I know are quite sure that he wouldn't have, that 9/11 wouldn't have happened, the 2008 financial crash wouldn't have happened, etc.  All of this is speculation at best, a declaration of faith at worst.  Gore was hawkish on Iraq while he was vice-president, and wouldn't have needed the cover of the September 11 attacks to invade had he become President.  (Neither did Bush, really.)  The Clinton-Gore regime waged a low-intensity war against Iraq throughout its course, with almost daily bombings and sanctions that killed at least half a million Iraqis with hunger and disease.  And that was just one of Clinton-Gore's wars.  There was very little domestic opposition to any of these adventures, least of all from Democrats.  They'd have celebrated President Gore's invasion of Iraq as joyously as most of them did President Bush's at first, and defended it as they defended Clinton's wars.

The comments by Edroso's brethren are more of the same.  This except from one regular is especially entertaining, in its own perverse way:
3.) If only we'd listened to John McCain and Lindsey Graham, we would now have troops on the ground and fighting in:
Libya
Syria
Iran
Iraq
Chad
Nigeria
Sudan
Ukraine
Afghanistan
And probably China and Korea as well.
Look at that list, and remember Obama's record.  We already have troops on the ground in several of those countries -- including South Korea, where 28,500 are currently stationed, and the government is building a major naval base which will be used by the US navy to threaten China.  Obama has initiated hostilities in several others.  And Afghanistan?  The true believer will of course forget that Obama escalated US combat there, and tried to extend our occupation of Iraq.  Mostly, like any prudent American executive, he's preferred to keep American troops off the ground, relying on air power to keep US casualties low.  He wanted military action against Assad in Syria but had to back off, and now he's siding with Assad.   (Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.)  US belligerence has not diminished under Obama, whose repellent embrace of war as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize was typical American deceit and hypocrisy.  But when you're defending your team and its coach, facts are inconvenient and dispensable.  And surely, comrades, you don't want Bush back?

I looked again at then-Senator Obama's 2007 op-ed piece on Iran, and noticed this amusing bit: "the Bush administration's policy has been tough talk with little action and even fewer results."  This is what now-President Obama's hawkish critics are saying about him, to the great indignation of the faithful.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

First World Problems

Bernie Sanders is probably one of the better members of the Senate, though it should never be forgotten how low the bar is.  A lot of my liberal Democratic friends post fiery quotations from him, like the one above, or from Elizabeth Warren, which apparently make them feel good but show the limitations of their politics.

It happened that I noticed the meme above while I'm reading David J. Blacker's The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Regime (Zero Books, 2013).  Blacker is a philosopher, and Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Delaware.  I hadn't heard of him until this book was mentioned in connection with the University of Illinois' firing of Professor Steven Salaita.  I ordered an e-book copy, and so far (about 60 pages in) I'm enjoying it.  The technical language might put off some readers, and I admit that at first I wasn't sure Blacker was going to deliver the goods of substantial analysis, but that changed quickly.
Let us stipulate, say, that there is greed on Wall Street.  There "greed is good," in fact, as says Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko in 1987's Wall Street.  But bankers and people in general have always been greedy.  Did they suddenly get more greedy in the 1990s when the subprime housing crisis was brewing and the many "innovative" speculative strategies were being rolled out?  It is logically possible that there was some mass alteration of human nature a couple of decades ago but this possibility seems so remote that it serves as a reductio ad absurdum of the "greed" hypothesis  [5*]...

A precondition for any Marxist [or, I would add, systemic and structural - DM] analysis of the financial crisis is that it is not ultimately caused by individual bad actors such that we could punish the culprits and/or re-regulate the banks and all will be well again ...  While deregulation certainly hastened the crisis and so is highly germane to any analysis of the late domination of the economy by the financial sector, it still begs the question, why?   Why the neoliberal zeal for deregulation or, perhaps one should say, why did this simple market idolatry suddenly become so appealing to so many? ... Why the rise of the neoliberal matrix in the first place? [59] ...

But humility also requires to recognize the inadequacy of system-preserving proposed remedies like reining in personal greed, merely re-calibrating the regulatory parameters on finance or even redistributing corporate profits.  All of these may be fine things to do and defensible ad hoc in context, but piecemeal melioristic approaches share the unfortunate assumption that the extant underlying forces of production are static and legitimate [60].
The tendency of wealth of concentrate upwards isn't a bug, it's a feature of capitalism, along with the business cycle, bubbles and crises of the kind we saw in 2008.  My only quibble with Blacker is that he doesn't mention (I assume he knows) that these are also features of state-capitalist industrialization in nominally socialist countries like the former Soviet Union and present-day China.  The passages I quoted from Raymond Williams in these posts, along with Chris Harman's analysis in Zombie Capitalism (which Blacker cites, so he knows), pointed me in he right direction.

Bernie Sanders is a socialist, but he's the kind of socialist that Obama Democrats can get behind.  Like Warren (but also like Rand Paul from another political position), he's isolated.  He can safely denounce the corruption of the plutocrats, but if he looked to be making any real progress toward structural change, Obama himself (or Hillary Clinton, or whoever succeeds Obama) would attack him and try to bring him down, and Obama's devotees would regard him as they regard someone like Michael Moore.

*I'm not sure about the accuracy of page numbers; I'm quoting from an e-book that supposedly has "real" page numbers, so I hope that anyone who refers to a print copy will be able to find the passages I'm quoting.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

I've Got a Little List

Another of my right-wing acquaintances, this one a guy I went to high school with, posted a link to the above meme last night.  It's worth noticing, I think, because the claim that Bibles and prayer aren't allowed in school is so popular in certain circles, and because it's a flat lie.  I commented:
It's false that Bibles are not permitted in schools. I realize that the truth doesn't matter to Christians; I'm just pointing it out for the record.
I didn't really expect to get a response, but this morning I found that another person from my high school had asked:
To what Christian types does the truth not matter?
I replied:
Just for a start: those who post stuff like this.
I think I've said before that there seem to be some public-school teachers and others who may genuinely believe that they mustn't allow their students to pray on their own initiative during the school day, or read the Bible, or use Biblical material in class discussion or for writing assignments and the like.  But that would certainly be because they've believed the false claims of religious reactionaries who misrepresent Supreme Court decisions which forbid public schools to impose religious observances (like prayer or devotional Bible-reading) on their students.  (A misrepresentation which surely casts doubt on the implication of the meme that people who read the Bible are more honest or conscientious than those who don't.)

Of course, I exaggerated slightly in implying that there are no Christians to whom the truth matters.  I can think of several; but I think of them as the exception that proves the rule, since they generally are the targets of attack from other Christians for what they say and write.  Ironically perhaps, they aren't particularly "radical" (whatever that means in a modern Christian context) or even dissident in their theology: I have in mind the scholars James Barr and Dennis Nineham, from whose work I've learned so much.  Both are ordained clergymen in mainline denominations as well as scholars, and they seem comfortable enough in their churches.

But here's another example of dishonesty about religion from a source I've noticed before:

This one was shared by some Facebook friends who are gay and not religiously orthodox but still seem to want to find shelter under His wings.  My objection is what it was before: I see no reason to believe that there's a supreme or superior being who's doing anything for starving babies or people with cancer.  This meme is like a kid saying, "Mom, I don't have time to take out the garbage, I'm doing my homework, I have a big test tomorrow I have to study for!" -- while really he's watching Internet porn.  And if there's anyone who can't use the excuse of not having time, it's God.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Taking Life by the Neck; or, Say It Ain't So, Henry!

I've been trying not to write more about Robin Williams's suicide, but then the other day the sf writer John Scalzi denounced Henry Rollins for his piece in the LA Weekly attacking Williams.  Rollins has since apologized; Scalzi approves of the apology, I don't -- but I don't think Rollins had anything to apologize for.

Start with Rollins's attack on Williams.  It's headed "Fuck suicide", typical boy-culture stuff.  (I've been even more annoyed by all the "Fuck the Police" stuff I've been seeing in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown.  It doesn't mean that these fine, radical thinkers love the police and want to give them pleasure, perhaps to teach them that love is better than hate; it means that they think fucking is degrading and debasing to the person who is fucked.  Women, pay attention to what the straight boys you're marching with are saying about you.)

But on to the article itself.  I shared Rollins's alienation from the popular and media reaction to Williams's suicide.  He went on to praise Williams as a performer, and for doing USO shows as Rollins himself does.  And then:
But I simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves.
How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children? I don’t care how well adjusted your kid might be — choosing to kill yourself, rather than to be there for that child, is every shade of awful, traumatic and confusing. I think as soon as you have children, you waive your right to take your own life. No matter what mistakes you make in life, it should be your utmost goal not to traumatize your kids. So, you don’t kill yourself.
I think that first quoted sentence says more about the limitations of Rollins's understanding than it says about Robin Williams.  As far as I can tell, Rollins is not himself a parent; nor am I.

I agree that suicide can be an expression of hostility towards others, as witness the childish line "You'll be sorry when I'm dead."  (Even better when it's combined with "... and I'll be laughing." No, they won't.)  But I think Rollins was cheating here a little bit.  Williams's youngest "child," Cody, was born in 1991, which makes him 23 now.  That doesn't mean he's too old to be traumatized by his father's suicide (or death from any cause), but it does mean he's old enough to understand that it wasn't about him, that his father was suffering terribly -- as everyone seems to agree Williams was -- and chose to end it because he didn't want to suffer anymore.  Cody is also old enough that his parents aren't obliged to "be there" for him at every moment anymore: they have feelings and needs and lives of their own, and so does he.  (Many parents have the same difficulty understanding that everything their children do isn't about them.)  Which is not to say that Williams's children aren't or shouldn't be hurt by his loss, only that at a certain point in life the feelings of offspring no longer trump the feelings of the parents.  It might be that Williams hung on for as long as he could -- he was 63, for heaven's sake, and had apparently been miserable for most of his life -- and finally decided enough was enough.

I can't think about this without also thinking of something I touched on in my previous post, the denial of mortality and of death itself.  The last year of Nelson Mandela's life brought this home for me.  For years before that, he had "retired from retirement" because of his failing health.  2013 was a morbid death watch, the way millions of people panicked every time Mandela went into the hospital.  At 95, after a very long life of public service, I'd have thought he had earned the right to rest.  But people still wanted a piece of him, and wanted him to go on living no matter what.  They saw this craving as love, but I think it was something else.  Selfishness is when you let your wishes override the wishes of another person, and I think that selfishness was the dominant emotion in those who wanted Mandela, or anyone else, to be kept alive forever, no matter what.

This kind of selfishness is evident in much of the public mourning for Robin Williams, needless to say, yet hardly anyone seems to have criticized it.

I don't mean that suicide should be committed lightly.  But Rollins, like so many people, seems to take for granted that Williams took his life casually or lightly and certainly for the wrong reason, even when they blame his decision on "depression." (Yeah, Fuck Depression.)  I don't know, and no one probably knows, exactly what chain of feeling and thought led up to Williams's final decision.  For that reason, a becoming humility should be evident in any judgment of that decision, and such humility has been conspicuous by its absence in most of the commentary I've seen.

Nor do I mean that parents and children shouldn't remain close and mutually considerate throughout their lives if they want to.  But once the offspring are adults, the obligations involved change.  It would be nice if a suffering person -- like Williams, say -- could consult with his or her family and reassure them that his or her decision to die was not meant to hurt them.  I don't think this would work in our society as it is, though.  Especially someone like Williams, with a long history of substance abuse and depression, would risk being forcibly committed for treatment if he confessed the wish to end his life.  Which might not be so bad if psychiatrists could accurately distinguish between a passing morbid suicidal impulse and a reasoned decision to die, or if "treatment" would actually help, but there are reasons to be skeptical on both counts.  Williams made sure his family was provided for, leaving generous trust funds to his children (who, being adults, could take care of themselves even if he'd died penniless); he apparently didn't leave a note.  But I see no reason to assume that his suicide was impulsive.

In any case, I don't see that Rollins said anything here that was worse than what many others had said without being attacked for it, except for its bluntness, even though I disagree with him.

I don't feel that way about the rest of the piece, which is kinda embarrassing.
When someone negates their existence, they cancel themselves out in my mind. I have many records, books and films featuring people who have taken their own lives, and I regard them all with a bit of disdain. When someone commits this act, he or she is out of my analog world. I know they existed, yet they have nullified their existence because they willfully removed themselves from life. They were real but now they are not ...

I have life by the neck and drag it along. Rarely does it move fast enough. Raw Power forever.
Reading this made me wonder what Rollins thinks of Ayn Rand.  Apparently he once called her a "cunt," which fits nicely with his use of "fuck."  Gotta keep the bitchez in their place, eh, Henry?  But he's not as far from her as he'd like to think, with that "I have life by the neck and drag it along" line.  Anyone who fancies him or herself to be in total control of his or her life is a self-deluding fool, even though I understand what could motivate someone to delude himself in that way.  Which, just to be clear, is not to endorse a total fatalism either.  It's like the nature/nurture, free will/determinism divide. Yes, we make choices, but the choices start from where we are, what we have.  We don't chose to be born, and we don't choose to be mortal either; you'd think Rollins would be more respectful of people who choose when to die.  They've taken life by the neck too.

Should he have apologized for this diatribe?  I can't see why.  "That I hurt anyone by what I said, and I did hurt many, disgusts me,"he wrote.  "It was not at all my intent but it most certainly was the result." C'mon, Henry, you have life by the neck and you drag it along.  What you did was your intent. You can probably see why I don't share Scalzi's approval of the apology: it looks to me like the typical celebrity/public-figure nonapology, which is the same bilge regardless of nation, party, or political stance.  It's all about him: that he hurt anyone "disgusts me."  Who can help but sympathize with his disgust, it must be so painful for him.  I find it hard to believe that someone who's been performing and writing for decades could be unaware of the effect his words would have, especially someone like Rollins whose persona is built on blunt, straight-talking, fuck-this-and-that rhetoric.  His disavowal of responsibility here is at odds with his stated philosophy.

And what about the people who reacted to the original piece?  At least some of them must have been fans to begin with, who read Rollins for his tough, take-no-prisoners style.  (If they persist in reading him just to get the adrenalin rush of offense, they presumably got what they were looking for.)  Were they shocked! shocked! to find that Rollins didn't agree with them in every particular?  Were they fine with fucking capitalism but not a beloved media star?  Well, I don't know what was going on in his readers' minds either.  Maybe he should have apologized, but I don't take his apology seriously.  But maybe that just shows the limits of my understanding.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I'll Give You Something to Misspell About!

A friend, this one an academic in the Pacific Northwest, posted the image below in his timeline today:
He commented: "I guess there's no spell check for headlines, but regardless, no newspaper should hire a journalist who spells based on oral perception of sound rather than on something he or she has read in a book."  How, I wonder, would you learn that about a prospective hire?  Would you ask them if they spell based on oral perception, etc.?

One of his other friends remarked that while researching a book, they'd learned that "most news organizations no longer bother to hire copy editors, and that writing staff are required to edit their own copy. So if you ever feel like you're seeing more typos in news print these days, you are."  The reason for this, of course, is the (perceived) necessity of cutting back staff in order to keep profits up.  It's not exactly news.  Typos and misspelling are the least of the problems such cost-cutting creates.

The next commenter after I pointed this out wrote:
It's our society. We no longer want to correct people because we'll hurt feelings and we have set the bar at mediocrity. I work for a school corporation and the poor grammar and misspelled words from teachers and clerical staff makes me crazy.
I could almost see the steam pouring from her ears.  But this is nonsense.  There are lots of people who want to correct other people, and love hurting their feelings.  For that matter, what she was saying has been said for centuries, so when was this wonderful time when we supposedly did "want to correct people"?

"Makes me crazy" was significant here, I think.  The person in question is what I call a punctuation/spelling/grammar obsessive, who takes every typographical error not just as moral outrage as a personal attack.  I'm such a person myself, but I try to resist the siren call of public tantrums over grammatical trivia, even if I don't always succeed. 

But even if these hissyfits were justified, relentless and merciless correction of students' or others' technical errors in writing is known not to be an effective way of teaching them to avoid those errors in future.  The high dudgeon of my friend and the other commenter are no doubt very satisfying to indulge, but it won't do a thing to teach someone not to spell "sputters" as "spudders."  I am sure my friend would never behave like that to his students.  He teaches a couple of foreign languages to undergraduates, so I'm sure his patience must be sorely tested -- that may be why he felt the need to vent over the newspaper headline -- every day in the classroom.  You don't refrain from screaming abuse at your students just to avoid "hurting their feelings," though that's a perfectly valid consideration in itself, but because you know that doing so won't help them learn what you want them to learn.



It happened that another friend, this one a retired kindergarten teacher from northern Indiana, had passed along the above meme a day or so earlier.   It's odd, though, because whatever else James Dobson (a well-known fundamentalist Christian psychologist and antigay bigot) is also a proponent of corporal punishment of children.   (But then, so was Dr. Spock, despite his reputation for "permissiveness.")  I learned this from a book I read some years ago, Spare the Child by Philip Greven (Knopf, 1990), which quoted Dobson and other Christian child-rearing experts on the subject  at some length.
Despite the popularity of rods, other instruments can be used to inflict pain, depending on the preferences of parents (including "a shoe," "a handy belt," and even "a girdle"), supports the use of rods as the biblical method but also recommends using belts and switches rather than hands.  The chart that he includes in The Strong-Willed Child suggests a preference for the more flexible leather strap so commonly used by parents [75].
Dobson wrote in Dare to Discipline:
As long as tears represent a genuine release of emotion, they should be permitted to fall.  But crying quickly changes from inner sobbing to an exterior weapon.  It becomes a tool of protest to punish the enemy. ... I would require him to stop the protest crying, usually by offering him a little more of whatever caused the original tears [quoted by Greven, 78].
I have some differences with Greven, and it may be time for me to reread his book.  Some of my disagreement is summed up by his subtitle, The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Child Abuse.  As I've said before, as an atheist I don't believe that any human behavior has "religious roots," since religion was invented by human beings, and is used after-the-fact to justify what we want to do for other reasons.  And more recently, Alfie Kohn has shown in his book The Myth of the Spoiled Child (Da Capo, 2014) that the tendency to regard children as the enemy is widespread all over the spectrum of belief, including secular liberals and leftists.  (So, I've found, is PSG obsessiveness and rage at transgressors.)  But Greven's survey of fundamentalist Christian opinion on corporal punishment was eye-opening for me.

One well-known reason why copy editors are needed is that everybody these errors, and writers know well that we can't spot them all ourselves.  Where eliminating typographical and other errors is important, as in print media, it's necessary to have someone other than the writer go over the copy.  Such a person may be a PSG obsessive -- I imagine we're over-represented in the profession -- but the job doesn't involve punishing the writer for making mistakes, nor the does the writer have to feel guilty or defensive for making them.  The capitalists responsible for the ever-increasing concentration of ownership of mass media may or may not care about PSG in the copy their newspapers and magazines print -- they're probably serenely unaware of the mátter -- but their decisions to maintain profits will have the effect of increasing such errors, along with errors in content, which is more important.

The Devil's Workshop


I beg pardon for not having posted for nearly a week.  Thanks to heat and humidity and allergens, I've been contending with sinus congestion that interferes with my concentration, and so I have half-a-dozen unfinished posts in the pipeline.  A First World Problem, I know ("Sinuses Clogged / Can't Write a Blog Post").  But hey, I'm retired, I don't have to carry relentlessly on if I don't feel like it.

William Deresiewicz apparently dusts off his critique of Ivy League schooling every few years.  I wrote before about his American Scholar piece on the topic from 2008, and according to Grady Olmstead at The American Conservative, he published a similar piece at The New Republic in July, no doubt to help publicize his new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.  Olmstead pointed to a review of the book by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker, and something he quoted from it deserves comment.  (I actually tried to post a comment under the article, but it disappeared, as have other comments I've tried to post there in the past couple of weeks.  Maybe I've been blocked?)

Anyway, as one of Heller's "good points," Olmstead offers this:
And despite Deresiewicz’s criticisms of students’ frantic schedules, Heller writes that “the truest intellectual training could be how to stay calm, and keep thinking clearly, in the high-strung culture in which students need to make their lives.” These are truly lessons that will remain relevant throughout a person’s life.
Well, yes and no.  My first reaction was that one could say the same of any mother of small children, who must also keep calm and keep thinking clearly under a great deal of pressure, especially if she's a single mother.  But it also would apply to students at non-elite schools who carry a heavy academic load so as to graduate on time, and who may well work a job or two in order to keep their loans at a minimum.  Some of those students will also be mothers of small children, adding to the pressure.

Time management is important, but it isn't "intellectual training," let alone "the truest intellectual training."  I wonder if some of the usual elite distrust of leisure isn't in play here, not just for the proles but for everybody.  People do need to learn to manage their time just as part of the process of being adults, but intellectual as well as artistic training must leave time for reflection, time to sit back and dream and mull things over.

A friend posted the above demotivational meme on Facebook recently.  I knew, of course, that it is satirical and not to be taken at face value, so I commented, "I'm not?  Then what are these pension checks I'm getting for?"  My friend replied kindly that I'd worked hard for many years, so I'd earned the right to dream.  Which, given her own busy life as an academic, made me wonder if she'd missed the point of the meme herself.  I answered that I know many people who've worked a lot harder than I have, but have no pensions or even (in some cases) Social Security to look forward to; and maybe even more important, you don't have to earn a right.

There have always been elements of society that distrust people who aren't busy all the time, because the devil makes work for idle hands to do, and there's nothing more devilish than questioning the prerogatives of the rulers.  Pronouncing a driven, leisure-free, reflection-free existence as a positive good is, it seems to me, a declaration of allegiance to those rulers.

P.S.  According to the blogger post count, this one is number 1900 since I began the blog in May 2007.  Just saying.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Off the Old Bat

I picked up a copy of Against Equality's Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage (Against Equality Publishing Collective, 2010), and I look forward to reading it.  One thing I noticed right away: the recurring theme that "same-sex marriage is an essentially conservative cause" -- an odd claim from an anti-essentialist writer like Walter Benn Michaels, whose cover blurb I just quoted.  But leaving essentialism aside for the moment (I'm pretty sure I'll be returning to it), I think it's time to problematize the term "conservative."

Like many other go-to terms -- "moderate," "extreme," "skeptical" and "agnostic" come to mind right off the bat -- "conservative" shouldn't have any content, but is often treated as if it did.  It connotes a relation between two or more terms.  Think of William F. Buckley's definition from his 1955 mission statement for the fledgling National Review:
A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.
Of course there's some stupidity here, in the self-pitying and dishonest clause about "a time when no one is inclined to do," since there are always people who are inclined to try to stop history.  Liberals are just apt to claim that they stand alone, or defy the tide.  But the definition makes sense, in referring to a relation between people and the present: someone wants to conserve something, but might very well want not to conserve something else.  It would apply, as numerous people have pointed out, better to a New Deal Democrat trying to preserve the legacy of FDR than to someone like Buckley, Barry Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan, who wanted to dismantle the American system then in place and replace it with something radically different.  Those who claim to wish to return to bygone days seldom really want to; they generally are historically illiterate, and don't know what the bygone days were like.  What they dislike is the present.

Consider a 1986 PBS documentary called The AIDS Show, about a revue staged by a San Francisco theater troupe.  I quote from memory: a group of gay men are sitting around talking about how AIDS has affected their lives.  When someone mentions safe sex, one of them bursts out, "I'm tired of hearing about safe sex!  Look: I like to get drunk, take drugs, and go out and have sex with strangers.  You can call me old-fashioned, but that's what I like." That character's position should qualify as conservative, even essentially conservative, in the context of gay men's culture.  So, for that matter would be the closet, leading a double life, marriages of convenience, gender transgression (from men referring to each other as "she" to drag), diva worship, and so on.  Indeed any appeal to culture, be it queer or gay or lesbian or what have you, is likely to be a conservative if not reactionary move: thus far and no farther!

Despite my reservations about the whole project, I'm not so sure that gay marriage is an essentially conservative cause.  Nor is it essentially progressive.  It can be seen as either, or neither.  The first thing you have to notice is that those who are usually called conservatives in the US political map have not exactly rushed to embrace the idea.  Neither, for a long time, did those who were usually styled liberals, though it's certainly legitimate to question whether the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton should be called liberals.  As Nancy Polikoff pointed out, the gay marriage movement seems to be dominated by people with otherwise reactionary views on marriage that they hold in common with the right-wing marriage movement:
... [S]ame-sex marriage supporters borrow from flawed marriage-movement arguments that further a political agenda historically out of line with the gay rights movement.  For example, psychology professor Gregory Herek argues for marriage rather than civil unions by referencing that “heterosexual cohabiting couples do not derive the same advantages as married couples from their relationships.”  But critics of the marriage movement point out that such claims are based on bad science, reflecting “selection effect” and assuming a causal connection that cannot be proven.  Similarly, cultural anthropologist Gilbert Herdt and psychiatrist Robert Kertzner assert that because “marriage supports mental and physical health,” the ban on same-sex marriage “compromises the well-being [of lesbians and gay men], that of their children, and the well-being of future generations.” …
 

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders has expressed the belief that the marriage of lesbian and gay couples will strengthen the institution of marriage, not weaken it, as though strengthening the institution of marriage, on the terms that rhetoric is usually deployed, is an unqualified accomplishment.  When the marriage movement speaks of strengthening the institution of marriage it is always in a context that asserts the superiority of marriage [Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, Beacon Press, 2008, 99].
Of course, if these views are "historically out of line with the gay rights movement," rejecting them is the conservative thing to do.

Marriage might well be "conservative" for heterosexual couples and "progressive," even radical, for same-sex couples.  A conservative stance on homosexuality would entail that gay people remain invisible, silent, closeted.  Conservative gay people, the kind I met and argued with in the 1970s and after, would agree.  Why do you have to advertise your sex life? they'd ask peevishly, much like their heterosexual counterparts: My private life is nobody else's business.  Legal marriage, which entails putting your couplehood on public record, registered with the state, entails leaving the closet, and I've often been amused by closeted people who nonetheless wanted a marriage license: to get that piece of paper, they'd have to declare their sex lives publicly.  Even if they didn't take out a wedding announcement in the local paper, the issuance of a license would be published.  If you're married, that person you're living with can no longer be euphemized as your friend, your longtime companion: that person becomes your spouse, and it's been revealing how many gay people who want the social and historical baggage that comes with marriage are queasy about the social and historical baggage that goes with husband and wife.

When I've pointed all this out, the reactions I get told me that they hadn't really thought through the implications of their position.  The same was true of those who said they wanted government to get out of the marriage business, ignoring the fact that a marriage license and all the benefits and privileges it bestows are the result of government getting into the marriage business.

True, a lot of gay people seem to think that legal marriage will prove to straights that we are sober, responsible, respectable people, just like heterosexuals.  But the right-wing backlash to the drive for same-sex marriage has shown how naive such a belief is, so it's strange to see that a self-styled queer vanguard seems to share it.  And of course there's a lot of hypocrisy among the advocates of same-sex marriage.  As a group we probably are  as sober, responsible, and respectable as straight people are, as a group -- which isn't very.  But hypocrisy, defined as the homage vice pays to virtue, is a very conservative practice.

I've mentioned before Duncan's First Law of Gay Respectability, which holds that if gay people want to have a “respectable” public life, we have to have a “scandalous” private life, and vice versa. The exact content of a respectable public life and a scandalous one has changed over the past few decades, thanks to generational changes in straights' attitudes toward homosexuality.  I've also observed that presenting ourselves so as to please straight people is a hopeless exercise, since some straights are more comfortable with gender-compliant (not "stereotypical") gays and others are more comfortable with gender-noncompliant ("stereotypical") ones.  No one approach will work across the board, so I've been skeptical for decades about buzzwords like "assimilation," "transgressive," "conservative," "liberal," and "radical."  It's not always possible to avoid using them, but they are mirages that recede as one pursues and tries to capture them.

It's essentialist to posit that gay people should be "outlaws," just as it is to claim that we should be respectable citizens.  Like straight people, we aren't by nature anything.  Human sexuality is expressed in many different ways, some of which are invalid and other of which aren't.  I see many prescriptions about what sex and love should be for; some I agree with and others I don't, but none of them is universal or mandatory.