Thursday, April 19, 2012

O Ye of Too Much Faith

I'm disliking Rachel Maddow more and more. I've had doubts about her for a long time, because of her willful ignorance about the breadth of the political spectrum -- she obviously got off more on having Martha Stewart as a guest than Naomi Klein -- and I pretty much wrote her off when she shilled for President Obama at Netroots Nation in 2010. You can't be a bold independent journalist and an overt partisan for one party and one President.

More recently she published a book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, in which she "traces how U.S. national intelligence agencies have taken over duties that were once assigned to the military, and how this shift has increased the public disconnect from the consequences of war." Band of Thebes kvelled over the book, mentioning Maddow's own close ties to the military -- her father was a Vietnam vet, "and she might have joined up herself, were it not for that LGBT ban." Glenn Greenwald praised it, and David Swanson did a good takedown of it, pointing out among other things that "Missing is the fact that U.S. wars kill people other than U.S. troops." (Glenn Greenwald's interview with Maddow confirms this: she just doesn't want to think about the effects of our invasions on our victims, she refuses to imagine how anyone could want to hurt America.)

Now she's done a story on what she calls "Praying the Gay Away," which is full of factual errors and illogic. Factual errors include her deliberate confusion of religious bigotry and scientific bigotry: you can see her stumble over a transition from praying to therapy, trying to make them equivalent by sheer dogged insistence. She ties what she sees as a "mainstreaming" of ex-gay pseudotherapy to the 2001 publication of Robert L. Spitzer's study purporting to show that some gays can change their sexual orientation through therapy -- a study which Spitzer recently repudiated. This ignores just how mainstream antigay bigotry is, long before Spitzer's study was published. Newsweek did a cover story on the ex-gay movement in 1998, featuring John Paulk, who was caught in a Washington D.C. gay bar two years later. The sex researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson claimed in a 1979 book that they had changed some people's sexual orientation; Time took them seriously; it now appears that these claims were false, even fabricated. (It's worth noticing that Masters wrote repeatedly of heterosexuals being "recruited" to homosexuality.)

Sure, decades worth of history don't fit easily into a nine-minute segment, but you can often tell whether a commentator actually knows the whole story; listening to Maddow, I don't think she does. But when you know you have the truth, and that you're superior to all those wingnuts, who needs factual accuracy?

(Compare Maddow's tone in the video clip to her characterization of antiwar activists in Drift, quoted by Swanson: "advocates of ending war show up in a brief reference to 'student activists and peaceniks,' and a characterization of publications favoring peace as those advertising 'Oriental herbs, futons, prefab geodesic homes, all-cotton drawstring pants, send-a-crystal-to-a-friend, and the magic of Feldenkrais’s Awareness Through Movement seminars.'" Ironically, Maddow's caricature of opponents of war sounds a lot like certain caricatures of lesbians.)

If there has been a change in "ex-gay" hucksterism over the past few decades, it's that the movement has increasingly stressed therapy over prayer, dusting off discredited psychiatric theories from the 1940s and 1950s such as Close-Binding and Intimate Mother / Distant or Absent Father, and/or Confused Gender Identity. Evidently they don't expect to convince anyone anymore that homosexuality is a sin; they now present it as a sickness.

This leads to certain difficulties, some of which could be exploited by their critics: the mental-illness model is, or at least used to be, denounced by conservative Christians as a denial of human sinfulness, since it rejects judgment of the mentally ill in favor of compassionate medical care. If I'm gay because my mother held me too close, then it's not my fault. In the medical model, homosexuality isn't a "lifestyle choice," or a choice of any kind; it's beyond our control. This suggests to me that many antigay Christians aren't all that comfortable with fulminations against Sodomites, and want to take a different, less hostile tack, if only to make themselves feel better. (On the other hand, doublethink is a treasured Christian tradition, so it's entirely practicable to froth about the sin of Sodom and weep salt tears of compassion for our blighted lives, just as gay people have turned the mental-illness concept of "homophobia" into a moral judgment of tremendous harshness.) People who want to attack the ex-gay movement should try pointing out its abandonment of religion for secular medicine.

On the other hand, the idea that gay people suffer from gender identity confusion is compatible with current allegedly pro-gay theories which hold that we are biologically feminized males and masculinized women. Except that when we say it, it's a good thing -- or rather, it's supposed to be, but many gay people still adopt the tactic of wailing that no one would choose a lifestyle that causes us to be hated, discriminated against, etc., which sounds like it's not such a good thing after all. This, I've argued before, is why so many gay people become infuriated at the claim that homosexuality is a Choice: they hate being gay, they hate being different, and can only come to an uneasy accommodation with their condition by blaming it on their genes. They really agree with the bigots: If we weren't born gay, we can change, and if we can change, we must change.

Maddow argues that Spitzer's 2001 study gave the ex-gay movement support for their agenda. This only makes sense if you're unaware, as she evidently is, that the ex-gay movement is decades older than that, dating back to the 70s at least. She knows that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used to list homosexuality as a disorder, but she blames that on religion, without any evidence. But antigay Christians didn't need Spitzer, or Masters and Johnson, or Freud for that matter: they just latched onto anything that might make their case look respectable, just as many gay people seize on scientifically invalid research that can be used to support the claim that we are born this way. What matters is the conclusion, not the evidence.

It never seems to occur to people like Maddow to question whether the status of gay people should be decided by psychiatrists or other mental health professionals. After all, the DSM is subject to regular review and change. How did homosexuality change overnight from a dread illness to a neutral condition? Even though the American Psychiatric Association no longer considered homosexuality to be a disease, it still considered it valid for therapists to treat us and even try to change us, until the past few years. Why should gay people -- or anyone -- trust the APA at all? The Gay Liberation movement rejected any claims to authority over us by professionals, and I still think that was the right attitude.

Even if sexual orientation could be changed, no one would be obligated to do so. One's religious affiliation can be changed, after all, yet people are allowed to remain in the sect they choose, or to change to another one if they wish. Whenever I hear the rhetoric of people "struggling with same-sex attractions," I always want to ask, "What if I'm not struggling with those attractions? What if I embrace them?"

Maddow's performance in the video clip is more of a rant than a reasoned exposition; as she says at the beginning, "I've been looking forward to doing this story for a long time." If that were so, she should have prepared better. But lack of preparation combined with pomposity and truculence seems to be her style, rather like the unlamented Keith Olbermann. In the end she interviews Gabriel Arana, an ex-ex-gay who reported Robert Spitzer's retraction of his study. In an article at The American Prospect, Arana writes that when Spitzer's study was published,
With few voices to challenge the testimonials, reporters transmitted them as revelation. Newsweek ran a sympathetic cover story on change therapy, and national and regional papers published ex-gays’ accounts. My mother might not have so easily found information about ex-gay therapy had the Christian right not planted this stake in the culture war.
This is highly misleading, and a typical distortion of our history. In 2001 there were many voices that could have "challenged the testimonials." The straight media simply weren't interested in listening to them, let alone reporting them.  That's not surprising; what is surprising is that most gay people weren't interested in listening to them. The ineffectiveness of change therapy had been known for decades at that time, and the sex scandals that plagued the ex-gay ministries had been reported all along, mainly in the gay press because the straight media weren't interested. Arana's whole article is equally disingenuous, and while I sympathize with his struggle and suffering, he really needs to inform himself -- and his readers -- better. When he was in "therapy" with a change therapist, from 1998, he blamed his parents for his homosexuality; now he blames his therapist. When do we start taking responsibility for our own lives?