Friday, May 31, 2013

Don't Demonize Me, Bro!

One of the things that made Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) so scary was that the audience never got a really good look at the monster.  This may not always be true, but often it's the unseen, what might be lurking in the darkness, that is most frightening: turn on the lights and there's nothing there.  And what the fearful imagination conjures up may be nothing specific; even the mind's eye averts itself.

In Homosexuality in Renaissance England (Gay Men's Press, 1988), Alan Bray recounts a remarkable story.  In 1630 "a labourer, Meredith Davy of Minehead in Somerset," was brought before the court.
According to the evidence of his master's apprentice, a boy 'aged twelve years or thereabouts' called John Vicary, with whom he shared a bed, Davy had been in the habit of having sexual relations with the boy on Sunday and holiday nights after he had been drinking; eventually the boy cried out and Davy ended up before the Justices [48].
Later in the book Bray adds,
Davy was not alone with the boy when he was forcing his attentions with him: throughout the whole time this was happening there was a witness, a servant who slept in the same room with him, to whom the creaking of their bed and the groans and cries of the boy were quite audible as he later gave evidence; and this was repeated on Sunday and holiday nights for almost a month [69].
Not only that:
But what is really astounding is the reaction of the household when Bryant [the servant who shared a room with Davy and Vicary] did go to the mistress and the boy told all.  Everything this society had to say about the nature of homosexuality and its horror would naturally lead us to expect a horrified reaction; at the very least one expects that Davy would have been locked up ... Not only was he not locked up; he was not removed from the boy's bed.  This is not the behaviour of people who think that they are dealing with a monster in human form [77].
Davy himself "denieth that he ever used any unclean action with the said boy as they lay in bed together; and more he sayeth not" (69).

Bray speculated that because the sodomite was culturally imagined as a monster, people were nonplussed when confronted with reality: since he seemed to be an ordinary fellow, how could Meredith Davy be a sodomite?

Davy's denial may have been born partly of the normal human reaction to lie reflexively when in trouble.  But I remembered it while thinking about some recent discussions of race and racism in America.

More than once I've seen people say, as Jason Richwine told The Washington Examiner (via), "The idea that I am some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth extremist never even crossed my mind ... The accusation of racism is one of the worst things that anyone can call you in public life."  Richwine, you may recall, formerly with the right-wing Heritage Foundation, is the guy who wrote that "No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites."  I'm not going to discuss the validity of IQ tests; like many other people, I'm more interested in Richwine's assumption that "Hispanics" aren't white.  (Does that mean he wants to keep Sergio Garcia out of the US?  If so, I could be persuaded.)  But for the purposes of this post, I want to talk about Richwine's assumption that a racist is "some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth extremist," and his ill-worded claim that "the accusation of racism is one of the worst things anyone can call you in public life."  Someone called him an accusation of racism?  That's pretty weird, but there are worse things he could be called.

Racism is not necessarily some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth extremism.  Much racism is soft-spoken, polite, middle-of-the-road, almost apologetic, and wields scientific research in its defense.  The racist is just a regular guy, hearty and ready with jokes about fried chicken and collard greens.  Just as much antigay bigotry wears priestly robes and clerical collars, and humbly quotes Scripture to justify itself.  As with Meredith Davy's case, if you believe that a sodomite has horns and a tail, you won't know what to make of an ordinary laborer who's porking his twelve-year-old male bedmate -- if you're Davy himself, you won't recognize that porking your male bedmade is sodomy, because you never thought of yourself as some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth monster.  You were just fooling around, having a little friendly fun.  Calling Davy a sodomite is so harsh, because the accusation of sodomy is one of the worst things that anyone can call you in public life.  Richwine, according to the Atlantic Wire post I cited above, can't even tell that someone like John Derbyshire is a racist, presumably because Derbyshire doesn't foam at the mouth either.

I don't see that calling someone a racist is so bad in American public life.  Yes, Richwine was dumped by the Heritage Foundation, but he'll probably find another paying gig with another right-wing think tank.  People like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Pat Buchanan, and so many other notorious American racists have been accused of racism, yet they soldier on, and their careers haven't ended.  That could be because racism is so popular in right-wing circles, which almost by definition are well-funded, and even the fact that Richwine doesn't seem to be very bright won't count against him.  (On the other hand, even if Richwine ends up flipping burgers or driving a cab, worse things could happen to him, and worse things have happened to better people.)

Of course I read selectively and lazily, but I haven't seen anyone call Richwine some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth extremist.  What I have seen is that his work has been picked to pieces on its substance, including his strange assumption that "Hispanics" are a discrete racial group.  Since "Hispanic" refers to language and not biology, it covers people from a rather wide range of physical and cultural groups, many or most of whom consider themselves to be white.  He told one audience in 2008, "Decades of psychometric testing has indicated that at least in America, you have Jews with the highest average IQ, usually followed by East Asians, then you have non-Jewish whites, Hispanics, and then blacks."  Aside from the fact that Jews aren't a race either (except when they are), nor are "non-Jewish whites," Richwine is evidently ignorant of the history of IQ ranking in the United States.  A century ago, Jews were ranked as feeble-minded, along with Italians and Slavs, way behind the pure Anglo-Saxon race.  Those who criticized the validity of such judgments were denounced as hostile to Science, usually because they resented that Science revealed their innate inferiority.  As the prominent American eugenicist Madison Grant said, the Jewish anthropologist Franz Boas "naturally does not take stock in any anthropology which relegates him and his race to the inferior position that they have occupied throughout recorded history."

So, people like Richwine create a spectre of The Racist, lurking in the shadows and ready to leap out and eviscerate the unwary with its teeth and claws.  That, they insist, is The Racist, and since they demonstrably are nice respectable people, they couldn't possibly be racist.  (This spectre occupies a place in the American imagination much like the one Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church does: bigots need someone demonstrably and visibly extreme, someone beyond the pale, so they can plausibly define themselves as moderate by comparison.)  That much is fairly obvious, I think, but it seems that they are also somewhat vague about what racism and racists are, perhaps so they can continue to frighten themselves with inchoate fantasies.  Richwine, with his "foaming-at-the-mouth" image, is a bit more concrete than most, but he still fits this familiar and ancient pattern.

Here's the point: Racism, like any other form of bigotry, is not necessarily monstrous, though it is often expressed in monstrous ways.  Since I'm not black and don't wish to tell black people how they should respond to racism, I'll put this in terms of antigay bigotry.  (It should be noticed, though, that Jason Richwine and people like him are at least as upset by other whites calling them racist as they are by what non-whites think.)  I don't think that someone should do hard time for calling me a faggot, nor is such a person a monster; I do think that fag-bashers like the guys who brutally murdered Matthew Shepard, should have gone to prison.  I'm not sure such people are monsters either; certainly antigay violence has often been socially acceptable in American society.  I recognize that there are degrees of bigotry.  But I'm not obligated to laugh at someone else's fag joke, nor to refrain from declaring that I don't think it funny.  I'm not obligated to respect someone who calls me a faggot, or even those who want me to be a second-class citizen legally or socially -- even if they do so out of sincere religious faith.  As an advocate of freedom of speech, I respect people's right to say bigoted things, but I'm not obligated to respect their bigotry.  This is not because they're monsters, but because they're bigots.  And my disrespect for them does not constitute throwing them under the bus, or "sending in the drones to take [them] out."  Michael Kinsley asked (via) why gays "can't laugh off nutty comments like [Benjamin] Carson"; why the hell should we?  The alternative to laughing is not "sending in the drones to take him out": it's withholding respect from him, and correctly labeling him the bigot that he is.  Even that, little as it is, upsets the likes of Richwine and Kinsley.