Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sullivan's Drivels

Homo Superior has changed his format, but he's still linking to Andrew Sullivan, who's been complaining about the current state of the Right.
Once upon a time, the intellectual conservatives in this country cherished their dissidents, encouraged argument, embraced the quirky, valued the eccentric and mocked the lock-step ideological left. Now they are what they once mocked. And they have the ideological discipline of the old left.
Like HomoSup, I wonder which "intellectual conservatives" Sullivan has in mind, and when this Once Upon a Time golden age could have been. Homo Superior mentions William F. Buckley, who was as much of an intellectual second-rater as ... well, as Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan doesn't know his history very well, particularly of the American Right, but that's hardly news. What I find funny is that Sullivan himself started out as a hard-liner except for his homosexuality, and filled the pages of The New Republic with right-wing mediocrities like himself (remember Ruth Shalit?); he no doubt likes to think of himself as "quirky" if not "eccentric," but he has never been someone you could read for substance. When George W. Bush took the Presidency, Sullivan was exultant, jeering at the anti-corporate leftists who were going to rage impotently under the new dispensation; some years later Sullivan endorsed Barack Obama, which was not really that much of a change.

Not that I have anything against hard-liners; I suppose I'm one myself, though I'm not sure which line I'm hard about. Homo Superior goes on to say:

Having said that, I have had more valuable conversations, ones without judgment or ire, with people like Buckley than I have had with those on the lock-step ideological left, and that includes many, many on the Queer Left.

Like anyone with extreme viewpoints, their definition of dissident is someone who agrees with them.

I realized I didn’t belong in the left and sometimes call myself a lapsed lefty. I now embrace the descriptor, contrarian.

(The video clip above comes from Noam Chomsky's 1969 appearance on Buckley's PBS program Firing Line. Buckley's offer to "smash you in the goddam face" is a reference to his then-recent offer, made in earnest, to do the same to Gore Vidal. Here it's supposed to be a joke, though I've never gotten its point. It's the sort of thing that should be borne in mind, though, when Buckley is eulogized. So should Buckley's vacuous debating style.)

Maybe I should embrace "contrarian" myself, but the word has been dirtied more than a little since Christopher Hitchens began touting himself as one. I don't see my own positions are particularly contrary, if I understand the word correctly, which to me implies simply staking an opposing position; I find myself over yonder somewhere. And what happens when two contrarians clash? Do they cancel each other out like matter and anti-matter?

I don't know if I "belong in the left" either, but I do know that most of the thinkers and writers I've learned the most from have been associated with the left, and that left writers and media are those I can reliably look to for accurate information about politics and culture. The few right-wingers with whom I find some common ground are those who are least lock-step themselves, like William Buckley calling for the legalization of drugs (probably the only issue on which I agree with him). On the other hand, I'm not wedded to the word "left", anymore than I am to the words "gay" or "queer."

I'm particularly amused by the notion that the left is lock-step, considering how often people on the left complain about the deep divisions, the sectarian squabbling, that divide our portion of the political spectrum. And while I'm being amused, the use of the word "extreme" as a cussword is always good for a giggle. (I'm reminded of an old joke where a man accusingly asks an uppity woman, "Are you a lesbian?" and she counters, "Are you the alternative?")

I know very well about homophobia on the left, which is detestable and gives me opportunities to express my own hard-line extremism. Harry Hay founded Mattachine after he was expelled from the Communist Party of the USA for being a queer; Black Mountain College, a lefty-liberal experimental college of the 1930s through the 1950s, fired some queer faculty, notably the anarchist writer Paul Goodman, who wrote in a famous essay called "Memoirs of an Ancient Activist",
Frankly, my experience of radical community is that it does not tolerate my freedom. Nevertheless, I am all for community because it is a human thing, only I seem doomed to be left out.

On the other hand, my homosexual acts and the overt claim to the right to commit them have never disadvantaged me much, as far as I know, in more square institutions. I have taught at half a dozen state universities. I am continually invited, often as chief speaker, to conferences of junior high school superintendents, boards of regents, guidance counsellors, task forces on delinquency, etc., etc. I say what I think right, I make passes if there is occasion -- I have even made out, which is more than I can say for conferences of SDS or Resistance. [Len Richmond and Gary Noguera, eds.,The Gay Liberation Book (Ramparts Press, 1973, p. 24]
I especially like that bit about favoring community but always being left out of it, but then I've generally found myself not wanting in to the available communities. I've generally been content to deal with communities through their writings. If I'm marginalized, well, it's a dirty job but someone has to do it, and more often than not it's because I've sidled over to the margins rather than stay close to the people who are at the center or core or mainstream -- whatever you want to call it. ("I wouldn't belong to a club that would have me for a member" -- but there's not a club made up of those of us who identify with that line, either.) I've been a little disappointed to find that I don't necessarily get along with other misfits because being a misfit is not in itself enough to have in common; but that too has been a useful lesson. And despite all this, I've never been a total isolate either. I have something resembling community, and it serves to keep me going.

What to do about American politics, though, I don't know. As an intellectual I have little to say to the Teabaggers, but then anti-intellectualism is endemic to American society, including many intellectuals. Debate is hard, disagreement is generally painful, and most people prefer not to deal with either. Andrew Sullivan has done little to improve things; I've done even less. We're probably doomed.