Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Virtually Freaky; or, The Slithery Slope

I was going to say something like "While I'm talking about religion...", but I'm not sure how much this is about religion. Ostensibly it's not, but religion's probably lurking beneath the surface.

IOZ linked to this article at National Review Online by Mona Charen, the author of a couple of attack books on anyone to the left of Ronald Reagan. It's an oddly half-hearted defense of Rick Warren, in particular of his comparison of homosexuality to polygamy, pedophilia, and incest. "Those were not the most felicitous comparisons and probably unnecessarily hurt the feelings of gays and lesbians," Charen allows. I hadn't looked at Warren's actual remarks before, and they're interesting if you look at them with any care.
Steven Waldman: Now you, one controversial moment for you in the last election was your support for proposition 8 in California. A couple of questions about that. First, to clarify, do you support civil unions or domestic partnerships?

Rick Warren: I don’t know if I use the term there, but I support full equal rights for everybody in America. I don’t believe that we should have unequal rights depending on particular lifestyles or whatever stuff like that. So I fully support equal rights.

Steven Waldman: But what about, like, partnership benefits in terms of insurance or hospital visitation?

Rick Warren: You know, to me, not a problem with me. But the issue to me is, I’m not opposed to that as much as I’m opposed to the redefinition of a 5,000-year definition of marriage. I’m opposed to having a brother and sister be together and call that marriage. I’m opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that a marriage. I’m opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.
It looks to me as though Warren is dodging the question about civil unions and domestic partnerships, though he does seem to say that insurance and hospital visitation are "no problem" with him. On the other hand, he also says, "I’m not opposed to that as much as I’m opposed to the redefinition of a 5,000-year definition of marriage," which means that he is opposed to guaranteeing insurance and hospital visitation for same-sex couples, but not as much as he is to letting them marry. I think he should be pressed closer on civil unions and domestic partnerships (which are not, be it noted, limited to same-sex couples). Don't let him blather about equal rights regardless of "particular lifestyles": does he or does he not approve of same-sex civil unions?

Look at what Warren says about "a 5,000-year definition of marriage." Even if I agree to let him focus solely on Judaism and Christianity here, he's being absurd. Brother and sister marriage? Abraham and Sarah, according to Genesis, were half-siblings -- same father, different mothers. Most people would call that incest, yet according to Genesis they were husband and wife. Who's Rick Warren, to go against Scripture?

Maybe Abraham and Sarah are an isolated case, but "one guy having multiple wives and calling it marriage"? That is virtually the norm in the Old Testament, as a Bible-believing pastor like Rick Warren must know, and when the Christian father St. Augustine wrote about marriage he conceded that biblically speaking, polygamy is lawful, but "Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer allowed to take another wife, so as to have more than one wife living." It appears, then, that the ban on polygamy derives from Roman paganism, not Christianity. From Jacob, who married two sisters (and his first cousins), to Solomon with his seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, there is no suggestion that plural marriage is anything but marriage. Who's Rick Warren, to go against scripture? I'm not sure why people like him should be allowed to redefine marriage, etc., etc.

Mona Charen takes basically the same line in trying to defend Warren.
Once traditional marriage — supported by centuries of civilization and the major Western religions — is undermined in the name of love, there is no logical or principled reason to forbid polygamy, polyandry, or even incest. Gay activists recoil from incest. But on what grounds exactly? Suppose, after we formalize gay marriage, two 25-year-old sterile (to remove the health of offspring argument) twins wish to marry? Let’s suppose they are loving and committed. What is the objection? That it offends custom and tradition? That it offends God? Isn’t that just bigotry?
I think that it's misleading to speak of "the major Western religions" as though there was a slew of them; granting Judaism "major" status because of its influence on Christianity, there seem to be two major Western religions. But as a Jew, Charen must know as well as Warren that "traditional marriage" is compatible with polygamy. In Judaism, plural marriage was only banned about a thousand years ago. Who's Mona Charen, to go against zillions of years of polygamous tradition?

Even more, she offers no "logical or principled reason" for opposing same-sex marriage, plural marriage, incest, or marriage between adults and children; all she does is appeal to "tradition." Tradition in the West has permitted slavery, anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, child labor, and many other practices that I doubt Charen would want to endorse now. (If Tradition still ruled, she'd be running a grocery stand in a ghetto while her husband did the studying and writing, but they'd both be worrying about pogroms and the Inquisition.) Adultery, traditionally, means having sexual relations with a married woman: a married man is allowed to stray with impunity, and as late as the end of the 1800s the English parliament refused to make a husband's adultery grounds for divorce, as a wife's adultery was already (see pages 38 and 39 at that link).

As for marriage between a child and an adult, the definition of a child has been in flux for some time. When Victoria became Queen of England in 1838, the age of consent was 10 (though a girl couldn't marry until she was 12), and it stayed there for most if not all of her reign. What most Americans and Britons nowadays would consider the marriage of a child to an adult was legal in an officially Christian nation in those days. (How old was Juliet again?) I'm not sure what the age of consent ought to be; logical and principled reasons for raising it above 10, as it was traditionally, seem to be in short supply, but I'm open to discussion.

The same goes for "incest." Leaving Abraham and Sarah aside, what about marriage between first cousins? Thirty-one states in the US forbid marriage between first cousins, though Canada and most European countries do not. As I mentioned before, the Bible seems to have no objection either. To be honest, I am not sure I see any logical or principled reasons to forbid even brothers and sisters from marrying; certainly Charen doesn't offer any. If there are no such reasons, maybe it should be permitted. Again, I'm open to discussion.

Please understand: my point here is not that I endorse polygamy, or the marriage of children to adults, or of siblings. My point is that Charen and Warren, and the gay and pro-gay Christians they oppose, have no real arguments against such practices either. Or against same-sex marriage, come to that. All they can do, apparently, is point to Tradition, as if it were monolithic and unanimous in its judgments. But it doesn't really support them. Despite all their babble about "redefining" marriage, marriage has been redefined in many ways over the past several millennia, let alone in the past half-century. (In 1967 the US Supreme Court redefined marriage in America to include mixed-race couples, for example; the early Christians redefined marriage to forbid divorce, which was permitted in Judaism, but since the political rise of Ronald Reagan at least, conservative evangelicals have decided that divorce is tolerable, and their own divorce rate is higher than that of the general population.)

On top of everything else, it would be interesting to know why both Warren and Charen present themselves as willing to accept homosexual relationships short of marriage. I mean, if the government gives special rights to sodomitical couples instead of putting them in jail or executing them (as the 5,000-year definition of sodomy would require!), letting them have insurance, and visit each other in the hospital, isn't that approving homosexuality? Won't we have to let polygamists visit their wives, or incestuous couples have insurance? What are we going to tell the children?

Charen says,
Gays and lesbians argue that their same-sex unions are loving, committed relationships. Fine. But there are, or could be, other loving, committed relationships involving more than two people. Supporters of gay marriage say this is a ridiculous slippery slope argument.
I'll pass on whether it's ridiculous, but it is a slippery slope argument, and as I've already suggested, it's a bit late to invoke it now that American traditionalists have already caved in on miscegenation, divorce, letting wives own property (or vote, or serve on juries, or keep their wages when they work outside the home), and so on -- they even seem to have given up on sodomy laws! To say nothing of Warren's claim that he supports equality for sodomites and sapphists. I don't believe he really means it, he's too cagey in his phrasing, but it's still a retreat from the grand Judeo-Christian tradition of stigmatizing queers.

My ambivalent Obama-supporting friend, by the way, referred me to Change.gov, the Obama Transition Team's site. It says there, inter alia, that "Barack Obama supports full civil unions that give same-sex couples legal rights and privileges equal to those of married couples." That's pretty clear, but 1) most state constitutional amendments that ban same-sex marriage also "affect unmarried relationships of same-sex and different-sex couples," according to Nancy Polikoff in Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage (Beacon, 2008, page 95), which means Obama has his work cut out for him; and 2) what's to stop same-sex couples in civil unions from considering and calling themselves married, especially if they decide to have a religious wedding of their own, which the law doesn't and can't forbid?

Virtually Satirical

Just to return his courtesy, I should mention that Jon Swift has posted "Best Blog Posts of 2008 (Chosen By The Bloggers Themselves)." Though Jon is a reasonable conservative, he allows even crazed radicals like your Promiscuous Reader to participate. It's worth browsing through his compilation; I found several interesting posts in it, and I daresay you will too.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Virtually Catholic

Homo Superior features several quotations that come from Andrew Sullivan's blog, either directly or filtered through him. I've never liked Sullivan, but there's some interesting stuff here that I wanted to comment on. This, for example:
The essence of fundamentalism is not, it seems to me, the assertion that Christ is the same “yesterday, today and forever” (I believe the same and my faith is anti-fundamentalist); it is the assertion that every single aspect in the bewilderingly expansive and contradictory and over-determined texts we call the Bible are literally true in every particular and every injunction should be applied today as literally as possible.
Why are so many critics of fundamentalism obsessed with "literalism"? (Especially since so few people seem to know what "literal" means.) Conservative evangelical Christianity (which is what is generally meant by "fundamentalism" in a Christian context) shares with Sullivan's Roman Catholicism the postulate that the Bible is inerrant, which is not at all the same thing as taking it literally. Far from it, in fact -- to interpret the Bible so as to preserve it from error requires very non-literal interpretation. But I've written about this before. Now we get to watch Sullivan applying his own fundamentalism to the Bible.
So a vast document that has only a handful of opaque references to sex between two heterosexuals of the same gender and no concept of homosexuality as such requires interpretation. We cannot resolve this issue by the plain meaning of the text alone. The minute we do this reduction - with, say, the Leviticus proscriptions - we are required to explain further why the prohibition of eating shell-fish is no longer operable. And an attempt to insist on the eternal, literal authority of Scripture with respect to marriage in churches that accept divorce - plainly and clearly ruled illicit by Jesus himself - reveals the deep intellectual confusion among the fundamentalists.
First, of course, the Bible is not a document but a collection of documents; it reveals Sullivan's own theological preconceptions that he refers to it as if it were a single, unified text. The references the Bible contains to sex between males, though it's true there aren't many of them, are not really "opaque" -- they're clear enough -- nor are they about "sex between two heterosexuals of the same gender". (More on that in a moment.) Sullivan's claim that the Bible has "no concept of homosexuality as such" is false; what he really means is that its concept of homosexuality doesn't agree with his. The Biblical writers arguably didn't consider homosexuality to be an expression of an internal biological condition that shuts off heterosexual function and imposes same-sex expression instead, which is Sullivan's concept, but that doesn't mean they didn't have one, or several, of their own.

No reason is given for the prohibition of sex between males in Leviticus, except that such behavior is hateful ("an abomination") to Yahweh, so in that sense it's true that Leviticus doesn't develop a "concept of homosexuality as such." That hasn't kept either anti-gay or pro-gay Christians from reading their own obsessions into it. Pro-gay Christians try to explain the Levitical prohibition as being actually a prohibition of male-to-male rape, though there's nothing in the text to support this; or based on a belief that sex between males confuses gender, though again there's nothing in the text to support that theory; or that the prohibition refers to same-sex 'cult prostitution' in ancient pagan fertility cults, though there's nothing in the text to support that either, and how would two men bonin' symbolize fertility anyway? Sullivan's notion that Leviticus forbids sex between "two heterosexuals of the same gender" also has no basis in the biblical text. It's true that you can't just yank verses out of context without a "larger theological argument", but your theological argument has to make sense of the text.

What is probably the only New Testament reference to homosexuality, in the first chapter of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, arguably does have a conception of homosexuality as such. It occurs in a diatribe against paganism which declares that even though human beings had good reason to see one creator God behind the world they lived in, they deliberately refused to worship Yahweh and chose instead to worship idols.
[24] Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,
[25] because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
[26] For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural,
[27] and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
[28] And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.
[29] They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips,
[30] slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,
[31] foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
[32] Though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.
This passage treats homosexuality not just as isolated acts, but as the expression of desire, and indeed as desires inflicted by Yahweh as a punishment for idolatry. It's not what I'd consider a workable explanation of why some men desire others erotically, but it's a theory in its own right, and one which numerous modern Christian writers have not cared to abandon entirely. It doesn't explain why all pagan men didn't burn with lust for each other, or for that matter why some Jewish men did. But modern scientific theories are pretty inadequate too, which doesn't keep Sullivan from waving them around as if they were solidly proved. (For that matter, I've argued that contemporary science doesn't have a concept of homosexuality as such, only of tops and bottoms, penetrators and penetrated. Science may turn out to be correct -- time will tell -- but it doesn't support Sullivan's position.)

Modern pro-gay Christian interpreters have read some odd theories into Romans 1:26-28. Some, again, think it refers to 'cult prostitution'; others that it it refers to people who were constituted heterosexual by nature, but wickedly chose to engage in homosexual sex anyway. (This is probably what Sullivan means by "sex by heterosexuals of the same gender", drawing on the theories of D. S. Bailey as modified by John Boswell.) Some think that the payment in their own persons refers to venereal disease, as though STDs were unknown among heterosexuals. (See my comments on James Nelson's discussion of Romans here; he tries to save Paul's polemic against the gentiles while being pro-gay.)

It's odd to see Sullivan denouncing "fundamentalists" for their inadequate approach to scripture here, just as Pope Rat was getting ready to attack homosexuality in basically the same terms as Pat Robertson or Rick Warren. Back in the days when he was just plain old Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope John Paul's hammer of heretics, in Sullivan's 1995 opus Virtually Normal he fawned on Ratzinger as a fount of compassion and opposition to bigotry:
And the Catholic Church doggedly refused to budge from its assertion of the natural occurrence of homosexuals, or its compassion for their plight.

... the Church stood foursquare against bigotry, against demeaning homosexuals either by antigay slander or violence or by pro-gay attempts to reduce human beings to one aspect of their sexuality ... [while] simultaneously, it deepened and strengthened its condemnation of any homosexual sexual activity [page 36].
Doesn't that just make you feel loved? Sullivan is describing here Church documents which warned that the gay movement would, regrettably, cause decent people to lose control and attack us; which insisted that homosexuals were "objectively disordered"; and which opposed "unjust discrimination" against us, but considered most forms of discrimination against us to be just. The guys in funny hats who wrote these documents had both a concept of homosexuality as such and a larger theological argument; Sullivan wrote in Virtually Normal that what he called "prohibitionism" has "a rich literature, an extensive history, a complex philosophical core, and a view of humanity that tells a coherent and sometimes beautiful story of the meaning of our natural selves" (23) -- yet despite all these qualifications, the Vatican's position on homosexuality is hardly distinguishable from that of Sullivan's "fundamentalists."

Besides, Andrew Sullivan is a layman, so why should I take his analysis of the Bible or of Church teaching on sexuality to be authoritative? Better thinkers than he, including the gay Catholic theologian, Mark Jordan, have shown the flaws in his, um, reasoning. (See Jordan's The Silence of Sodom [Chicago, 2000], especially page 29ff.)

For me the most memorable Christian response to homosexuality has always been a 1973 article by a Methodist clergyman named Robert L. Treese and published in Loving Women / Loving Men: Gay Liberation and the Church (Glide Publications, 1974), an influential collection edited by Sally Gearhart and William R. Johnson. The article, "Homosexuality: a Contemporary View of the Biblical Perspective", begins with these words:
What is God trying to tell us about homosexuality? About sexuality? About creativity and the redemptive community today? These are the questions this paper attempts to face.
I've never been able to read or think of this opening without thinking of theology as a game of Charades, with Yahweh jumping about in his white robe and long beard, gesturing theatrically: First word -- sounds like -- abomination! The situation hasn't improved in the past 35 years. On one hand we have those who advise us to turn up our hearing aids so that we can hear what Yahweh is 'trying to tell us'; I have little doubt that an omnipotent deity with firm ideas about human conduct could find a way to make himself heard if he wanted to. On the other hand, we have the fundamentalists of various positions, antigay or pro-gay, who have Yahweh on the cell phone and know exactly what he wants of us.

I'm far from the first person to notice that Yahweh tells his different human intermediaries diametrically different things. First they need to sort out how I'm supposed to tell which one of them is telling the truth about their hotline to heaven. As for Yahweh himself, as Terry Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax said, even if the gods exist that's no reason to believe in them -- it only encourages them.

Park Hyo Shin

I haven't done a video introduction to a Korean pop musician in a while, and I still have a few who deserve your attention. This time it is Park Hyo Shin, whom a friend recommended to me a few years ago. I bought his fourth CD, Soul Tree, which at the time was his newest work. Much of it was pretty standard K-pop ballads, but a couple of tracks caught my attention, especially "Hey U Come On":

The distracting sax squeal (probably sampled) is mixed too prominently in this clip, but it's the best version I could find on YouTube; and aside from that cavil, it's a good performance. Park's voice reminds me of various American R&B singers I liked in the 80s, like Jeffrey Osborne or James Ingram.

Park has also performed with other singers, often from outside Korea:

And with other Korean singers. I'm trying to remember where I first heard this song, if it was on a compilation or on one of Park's albums:

The second, of course, is from Disney's Aladdin. (There seem to be a number of versions of this song by K-pop singers on YouTube.)

Park has also been doing some slightly different things, possibly trying to leave his teenybopper idol image behind. (He was only about 20 when he put out his first album, and I was surprised, when I first heard his singing, to learn how young he was.) This clip, for example, shows him improvising and scatting in a radio studio with a keyboard player and drummer, and then singing a trote, an older Korean pop form.

His voice is so distinctive that I doubt he will ever be able to broaden his range very far -- I suppose that's one reason, aside from Show Biz reasons, that he's doing all those duets and collaborations, to participate in some different sounds. I enjoy him enough, though, to want to keep track of his work. There's a lot of clips featuring him on YouTube (including a creepy news item from the time in 2007 he checked into a hospital suffering from stress), so look him up if you find these samples interesting.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

If Helen Keller Could Get Through Life, We Certainly Can

I got my old copy of The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (Black Sparrow Press, 1975) off the shelf last night and looked through it; I'm thinking of trying to read at least some of it while I'm still on vacation. I bought it soon after its original publication, partly because I always liked Black Sparrow's book design and partly because Spicer was said to be gay. Back then it seemed possible to keep up with all the gay poets, and it even seemed important to do so, whether I liked their work or not. I kept meaning to read Spicer. His poetry looked interesting, if not exactly welcoming, but what with several thousand other books to read I never got around to it.

What led me to dig out that particular book was the news of the recent publication of My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan University Press), edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian. The new volume contains a lot more material than the earlier one, and maybe I'll look for it at the library after I read the Collected Books. I learned about My Vocabulary Did This to Me (the title is reportedly Spicer's last words; actually it was booze that did him in, at the age of 40) from a post at Christopher Hennessey's blog Outside the Lines. Hennessey quotes the New York Times review of My Vocabulary, which says that its editors "speak touchingly of his 'status as an unattractive gay man.'" So does the Time Out review. Rub it in, why don't you?

Y'know, I'm a well-known pervert, but from the photos I've found online I wouldn't say that Spicer was unattractive. (I found both here; the one on the left is credited to the collection of Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, the one on the right to the photographer, Robert Berg.) I guess what these people mean is that he wasn't a gym-toned Adonis. If so, who among Spicer's contemporaries, gay or straight, was? Allen Ginsberg? Robert Duncan? Chester Kallmann? Frank O'Hara? John Ashbery? James Merrill had a sort of elfin cuteness about him, I suppose, but no one was going to put him in an Abercrombie ad. From these photos it looks to me as if Spicer had a sweetness and vulnerability that I find kinda sexy. No doubt the drinking didn't do his looks any good as he got older. And of course he's dead now, which I find a bit of a turnoff.

From the other stuff that Christopher Hennessey linked to, it seems that Spicer wouldn't have been the easiest person to love. (Not that I'm casting the first stone, mind you!) And like many people, he no doubt fell in love with people who didn't reciprocate, maybe even people whose value in the sexual marketplace was higher than his. Maybe, like many people, he went around complaining that he was unattractive and no one loved him, perhaps in hopes that this would make them feel sorry for him and see his inner beauty. I don't know much about Spicer's life, let alone his love life, so I can't say: I'm mainly generalizing from my own experience and that of other men I've known. But worse-looking men have found love, sometimes even with much better-looking men than they were. And I have to wonder why these reviewers, or Spicer's editors for that matter, felt it relevant to dwell on Spicer's looks. (He may have been a great poet but nyeah nyeah, Jack Spicer couldn't get laid!)

Somewhere Edmund White wrote, or said, that back in his most promiscuous days he still felt that he was getting hardly any sex, and that lots of other guys must be getting more. At some point he recognized that in fact he was getting a lot of sex, with hundreds or even thousands of partners, but he still felt deprived. I hope that Jack Spicer got his share of nooky and love; he seems, however, to have known with some confidence that he was writing good poetry. (At the site where I found those pictures you can find him speaking with assurance, in a public lecture, about his art and that of others.) If I had a time machine, I'd go back to 1955 and hit on him, but how much do you want to bet he'd turn me down?

Friday, December 26, 2008


A couple of weeks ago I mentioned in comments on another blog that many gay people, including advocates of same-sex marriage, confuse civil marriage with religious marriage. Another commenter said that she had participated in some big anti-Proposition 8 protests, and she'd never seen anyone making that mistake. I haven't replied yet, but when (or if) I do, I'll say something to the effect that she probably just hadn't noticed the confusion. (Perhaps because she's not completely free of it herself, as shown by some things she said.) Once you start noticing something, it turns up everywhere.

For example, at the Nation website, Richard Kim (who's often written for them on GLBT issues, and so is probably gay himself) has a sensible article on GLBT liberals' feeling of betrayal because their Messiah-elect invited Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. I thank Kim for the information that Warren's ballyhooed global AIDS programs, "some funded by Bush's global AIDS plan, advocated abstinence-only education and Christian conversion." Just as I thought.

Kim notes Obama's oft-quoted remark that "my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman." And then he writes:
But here's the bright spot for gays and lesbians: there's actually common ground that they might find with Obama and Pastor Rick--it's just not on religious terms. Both say they support full equal rights for gays and lesbians. Let's test this premise by pushing forward a federal civil union bill that guarantees all the rights of marriage for same-sex couples, as Obama has suggested in his platform. Perhaps over time, some straights will want in on this God-free institution too, and we'll have civil unions for everyone. Then Warren will be free to sanctify as marriages only the unions he likes. And I'll be free to sanctify mine by whatever idol I choose, or to choose not to at all.
Um, Richard, we already have a "God-free institution" that "guarantees all the rights of marriage", if only for mixed-sex couples at the moment. It's called civil marriage, and it's available in every state of the union. It's not sanctified unless the couple involved chooses to take it to church. Warren is already "free to sanctify as marriages only the unions he likes", as is every other minister or priest. Civil marriage is not religious marriage, okay? I swear, you children are just saying these things to drive me crazy!

(Image above from here.)

Poetry Friday - Quark in the Desert

His eyes fixed unwavering on the wavering horizon,
his jaw stoically set,
his bulletproof Bible over his heart,
Quark marches through the desert with the Foreign Legion.
The sun blazes down on his head like a merciless God,
hot enough to render the meager flesh from his bones
till they saw through his skin like guilt through his heart,
and the parched air sears his throat,
but Quark is here to bury his past in the shifting sands of the Sahara,
to mortify his flesh and purify his spirit with fire.
He cannot punish her, so he punishes himself
to punish her. If only she could see him now,
gaunt and ravaged by sin and aridity;
perhaps he will send her a photograph.

Quark, is this the fire foretold and promised?
Is this trip really necessary?
Is it your God's will or your own?
You say the woman tempted you,
but she is not a magnet and you are not iron.
She is no receptacle,
not for your seed, not for your guilt.
Your own feet carried you to her
as surely as now they carry you away.
Hanging from your neck there is a cross,
or is it an albatross?

29 January 1977
To my surprise, much as I loved Bloomington, I stopped writing poetry after my first year there. What I did write during that first year was mainly for the writing course I took. Was it because I had less to sublimate after I came out? Or was it because, in order to get anywhere in a poetry scene, you have to hang around with other poets, and there didn't seem to be any I wanted to hang out with. (That hadn't been true back in South Bend.)

I didn't much miss writing poetry -- or at least I didn't think I did. I remember a weird encounter I had with a graduate student, probably in 1974 or 1975, to whom a friend had introduced me as a poet. He began grilling me aggressively about what I'd written, what I was writing at the moment, where had I published, and he wouldn't lay off. I was defensive, understandably enough I thought (and think); what is a poet anyway? Are you a poet if you have written poetry in the past but haven't written any in a couple of years? I still have no answer to the question. I tried to fend the guy off, which led the friend who'd introduced us to take me aside and ask, "What's going on? I've never seen you like this before. It's ... ugly." No shit.

Sometime later, when I had begun writing again, I read some of my new work at an English Department reading, in the open mic segment after the grad students had read theirs. Guess who one of the scheduled readers was? I was relieved to find that he wrote rather standard misogynist-straight-guy neo-beat open-form verse of no interest whatsoever, at least not to me. Was mine any better? I have no idea, but it was a relief to find that I didn't have to respect his work any more than I did his personality.

Whatever. In 1976 I became fascinated with another one of the ambivalent men I've always had a thing for, and out of the turmoil I began writing again. The turmoil extended to the writing itself: I wasn't sure I wanted to be writing poetry again, but I kept doing it anyhow. Even though I recognized that I'd found a muse in this man, I didn't write about him for quite a long time. The poem above was inspired by the travails (not very different from my own, as I recognized when I wrote it) of another straight friend, but though I tried I didn't come up with anything else good for several months.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Bringing the Good News to Particular Lifestyles

There's a pretty good article (via) at Huffington Post by one Bob Ostertag, arguing that gay marriage is the "wrong issue." To some extent I agree with him -- in fact much of what he's saying is what I've been saying for some time now, so of course he gets attacked in comments by people who carefully misunderstand what he's saying -- but I notice that while he argues (correctly, I believe) that gay people need to "look beyond their cultural ghetto", the only other issue he really talks about is global warming.

And I agree, climate and environment are important issues. But one, he has an unduly positive view of Rick Warren, whose concern about poverty and global AIDS may not mean that he agrees with Ostertag on what should be done about those problems. (Does Warren advocate serious safer-sex education in Africa, or does he think that abstinence is the answer? This is one of the things I plan to look into more while I'm off work for the next couple of weeks, but given Warren's celebration of George W. Bush's "unprecedented contribution" to the struggle against AIDS, I feel fairly sure that he comes down for abstinence rather than education and condoms.)

Ostertag quotes an interview with Warren where he cagily hints that he doesn't oppose civil unions for same-sex couples that would give them equal privileges with straight married couples, but he won't come out and say that he supports them either. That's politically wise of him, since Warren's constituency doesn't want civil unions for queers any more than they want us to marry, and most state measures against same-sex marriage also forbid marriage-equivalents like civil unions or domestic-partner registration even for straight couples. So, Bob, don't get too warm and fuzzy about Warren, okay? He's a bigoted pig, even if he looks like a cuddly bear in a Hawaiian shirt.

Two, Ostertag blames the Christian Right for things that they weren't the only ones to support, and weren't the main engine behind: "For thirty years Evangelical Christians have been the anchor that has pulled this country to the right, giving us first Reaganism and then Bushism. Wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc." What about Clintonism, Bushism I, Carterism, and so on all the way back to Trumanism and beyond? Even now, Obama is gearing up for more war in Afghanistan, wants to continue the Cuban blockade, and many of his liberal fans are eager to see him take down Chávez and Ahmadinejad, whom he has falsely denounced as dictators -- just like Bush. Nor, as I've said before, do I really expect Obama to do anything much about global warming; his appointment of Ken Salazar supports my pessimism. Evangelicals (and Mormons and Catholics and Orthodox Jews) are a problem, but not the problem -- the problem is mainstream corporate-friendly Republocrats.

Ostertag concludes, "I am delighted that there is a new generation of evangelicals that thinks the biggest issue isn't homosexuality but global climate change, AIDS, and poverty. And who 'don't believe we should have unequal rights depending on particular lifestyles.' I am so ready to make common cause with them. I couldn't care less about what they think of gay marriage." Don't be too ready, Bob: just because that "new generation of evangelicals" has more than one issue on their plate, it doesn't mean they're ready to make common cause with you. Warren doesn't consider heterosexual marriage, let alone evangelical Christianity, to be a "particular lifestyle" -- haven't you been around long enough to recognize "lifestyle" as code for "militant recruiting homosexuals"?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Obama Makes Another Good Choice -- That's What, Three Now?

Following my intention to take notice when President-elect Obama makes decisions I approve, I'm pleased to report that his nominee for Secretary of Labor, Congresswoman Hilda L. Solis of California, looks very good, possibly Obama's first Cabinet appointee who could actually be called progressive. (You can take a peek at her voting record here.) As David Macaray says at Counterpunch today,

Solis is not only the daughter of poor Latin American immigrants, she could very well be the first Labor Secretary in history who has firsthand knowledge of what it actually means to “work” for a living. Her father, a Mexican, was a shop steward with the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters), in Mexico, and her mother, a Nicaraguan, was a former assembly line worker.

That her nomination was greeted "with groans and whining from the business community" is a positive sign too, but it's a reminder that she'll face strenuous opposition after she's confirmed for the post. This will give Obama's progressive supporters a focus for organizing and other activism, if they want it. As Macaray warns, Solis could "hit the ground running" but still "could fail because she didn’t have Obama’s support, because she didn’t have Congress’ support, or because, hardworking and resourceful as she is, she didn’t possess the leadership skills to pull it off. The Department of Labor has close to 17,000 employees and a budget of close to $70 billion. It’s going to take an inspirational leader to have an impact." All the more reason to help her out.

Incidentally, I corrected the spelling of Solis' name in the paragraph I quoted from Macaray above. The first three times her name appears in the article as "Soils", after which it is spelled correctly. We can probably expect that to happen fairly often, even in commercial media. I did a Google search for "Hilda Soils" and got a surprising number of hits.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Love the Sin, Hate the Sinner

It’s official! Rick Warren loves us. He says so. His ministry is based on love! He even appeared on the same stage with Melissa Etheridge, of whom he’s a big fan. (Just as John McCain appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’s show. Would a hateful person have done that?) I’m sure the Mormons and the Roman Catholics and every other religious opponent of gay people would say the same thing, so could all you opponents of Proposition 8 and other manifestations of antigay bigotry please stop accusing Warren of hate? It makes you seem so … hateful. And negative. And bitter.
I’m not being sarcastic. The words “love” and “hate” aren't always empty verbiage, but in this context that is just what they are. They are irrelevant distractions, and now more than ever, we can’t afford to be distracted by irrelevancies. The image of a sign inscribed “Love Never Fails,” which I’d used in a previous post, was invoked again by a commenter at Nicola Griffith’s blog this weekend as evidence that the “No on 8” campaign, and the quest for same-sex marriage generally, were all about love. This time (and not for the first time either), though, love not only failed, it fell flat on its stupid face.
Besides, civil marriage, gay or straight, isn’t about love. It’s about property rights and child custody and access to each other’s bodies and tax breaks and pensions and a bunch of other things, and those things endure even if a married couple stopped loving each other years ago. If two people love each other and want to be together, they can exchange vows and have a wedding party and there’s no law to stop them. The parties to a contract -- which is what civil marriage is -- are not required or expected to love each other (do you love your credit card company?). Love is not the business of the state, and it shouldn’t be, any more than any other emotion ought to be.
Even on the personal level, “love” doesn’t tell you much. In one of my all-time favorite movies, Denys Arcand’s Love and Human Remains, one character, who being a psychic has looked into the mind of another, reports to a third:
Benita: He really loves you.
David: There’s no such thing.
Benita [skeptically]: No?
“There’s no such thing” isn’t the reply I’d have made. I’d have asked something like, “What does that mean? Does it mean that he’ll adore me forever, do whatever I ask of him sexually and otherwise, never disagree with me, support me financially, be a doormat?” (And even if he will adore me forever, there’s no guarantee that I’ll return the honor.)
On the personal level, love can be pretty scary. Stalkers love their targets. Abusers love the people they abuse. This hurts me more than it hurts you. If I can't have you, no one will. ... Many people would say that such behavior isn't really love. I couldn't say; it seems to be a matter of definition, since so much of the literature of love from the past to the present enshrines such obsessive behavior. On another level, I recall reading somewhere that heterosexual men often justify their resistance to helping with the housework, by claiming that they show their love for the women in their lives by copulating -- um, making love (via) with them. (And, apparently, in no other way.)
Religiously speaking, the love of God doesn’t tell you much either. God may love you, but he’ll sit up there on his golden throne and watch while you die slowly of cancer, are mangled in a car accident, are tortured at Guantanamo, starve to death in a famine. (According to traditional doctrine, he doesn't just sit back and watch: he does those things to you, perhaps as a test of your faith, but no sparrow falls without his knowing it.) Even when you’re burning in hell eternally for that time you took his name in vain after you stubbed your toe, you will not be separated from the love of God. I call that cold comfort myself, but to each his own. In the Bible, Yahweh is depicted as an abusive husband and father, who will strip his child bride Jerusalem naked in public for her infidelity, and torture his disobedient children for eternity. But it hurts him to do so, because he loves them. If only they would behave themselves, he wouldn't have to punish them (for whom he loves, he chastises). People created such a god to embody their own ideas of what love means, unfortunately.
My position is that professions of love and accusations of hatred have no valid place in political controversy. No doubt Rick Warren also loves Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose assassination he advocated on US television earlier this month. Who cares? We shouldn't even kill, torture, bomb, maim, defame or otherwise deny human rights to people we love, let alone those we don't; neither hate nor love is an excuse. I don't see much love, if any at all indeed, in most of the overwrought reactions to Obama's invitation of Warren to pray at his inauguration, from the same people who accuse Warren of hate. Not that I am urging Warren's critics to be more loving: I am urging them to stop pretending they're all about love, and to start developing some political strategies to pressure Obama to be a better president once he takes office. (IOZ says roughly the same thing here, only nastier, bless his heart.) As Mae West might have said (but didn't, as far as I know), Love has nothin' to do with it, honey.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Carol Chomsky, 1930-2008

Carol Chomsky has died after a long struggle with cancer at the age of 78. She was a distinguished linguist and educator, and from the occasional interview and video clip I saw, no less interesting a human being than her more notorious helpmeet, a fellow named Noam. This feels a bit absurd coming from a nobody blogger, but I extend my condolences to her family and friends. (Photo from the Boston Globe obituary.)

Probably coincidentally, in a discussion of Rick Perlstein's disapproval of the shoes thrown at Bush at A Tiny Revolution, John Caruso posted a link to this remarkable article by Noam Chomsky from 1971. Written in the wake of the massive protests against the Vietnam War of the past few years, Chomsky discussed the question of nonviolent civil disobedience with his usual clarity and insight.
Henry Allen was impressed, while in jail, by "the tough, almost amused cynicism of people who are no longer surprised that other Americans will sweep them off the streets on charges so ridiculous that no one even bothered to laugh at them." But only the naïve are surprised, these days, at the far more serious matter of brutality and excessive force. Contrary to many reports in the press, those subjected to illegal force, illegal arrest, or illegal detention did not appear to be "indignant when [the system failed] to protect their rights."

Much more ominous, their reaction was the amused cynicism noted by Henry Allen. This suggests growing contempt for the institutions of American society, contempt inspired by the hypocrisy, the lies, the resort to brute force on the part of the Administration, which seems intent on demonstrating—in a trivial way in Washington and on a vast scale in Indochina—that it regards the law as an instrument for its purposes, not as a principle to be upheld. By so doing, it is preparing the ground either for further tumults and insurrections, or else for a still more dangerous submission to what Thomas Jefferson called "elective despotism."

This contempt for law also appears in press commentary. The New Republic editorial comment considers it "paradoxical" that demonstrators should be "indignant" when their rights are denied, and the Christian Science Monitor comments editorially on the "ironies in the situation" as "demonstrators who sought to suspend the process of law and impose anarchy on Washington are now demanding the protection of law."

This remarkable view seems to be widely held. Is it also "ironic" or "paradoxical" for the murderer of dozens of Vietnamese civilians to expect the full protection of the law? If President Nixon were to be charged with war crimes, should he first be beaten bloody by arresting officers? In fact, if an embezzler, a burglar, or a murderer caught in the act were subjected to the abuse and violence directed as a matter of course against a person violating traffic ordinances to protest the war, the press and public would be appalled by this savagery. But there is slight attention when those committing this crime are brave and decent young people, with no thought of personal gain, who are simply demonstrating their commitment to end a miserable, criminal war. Those who are attracted by ironies and paradoxes would do better to look here.

Substitute "Iraqis" for "Vietnamese" and "Bush" for "Nixon" in those paragraphs, and you can see that little has changed in mainstream discourse in the succeeding thirty-seven years. Chomsky has sometimes been accused of harping on the same topics over and over, but that's only because the U.S. government and its journalistic defenders keep doing and saying the same outrageous things.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Spare Change?

Well, I managed to avoid writing about Muntadar Zaidi's encounter with Bush in Baghdad (until now, anyway). I can't believe that anyone reading this blog hasn't already heard / read plenty about it. The only thing I can add is that it's no wonder Bush took it so lightly -- he surely knew that Zaidi was being beaten in the next room, and having subordinates or proxies inflict pain on people is one of Bush's well-known personal qualities.

I've noticed that there are times when I sit down and simply cannot remember all the things I wanted to write about, because one particular issue is in the way and won't budge until I give in and address it. This is one of those times, and the issue is our Messiah-Elect's selection of pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguaration in one month. Of course there's been a flurry of comment on it, in the blogosphere and elsewhere. My no-longer-so-ambivalent Obama-supporter friend left a message on my answering machine yesterday, gloating over the reactions of the "ultraliberals." (Were you serious? Trying to provoke me to post about it? Or were you being satirical? People often say that you can't tell when someone's being sarcastic on the Internet; well, you can't always tell even viva voce.)

My friend's analysis was that it was a brilliant ploy on Obama's part, reaching out to the Christian Right to try to draw them into the big Democratic tent. No doubt that was a major factor; Obama said so in less crassly Realpolitik terms at the press conference where he defended his choice of Warren. I think Glenn Greenwald did a nice, judicious job on this argument at Salon.com; I'd only add that if he really wanted to show his willingness to reach out to religious "extremists", Obama should also consider mending his rift with Jeremiah Wright. He won't, of course: it's only right-wing extremists he's interested in appeasing.

But then, as Obama also pointed out at that press conference, he invited Joseph Lowery to deliver the closing benediction at the inauguration. Since Lowery has previously shown a tendency to be mildly inflammatory himself, in his eulogy at Coretta Scott King's funeral, he may surprise Obama as much as he surprised Bush. One may hope; one may dream. But using Lowery to balance Warren is classic Clintonian triangulation. Obama had previously shown his readiness to pal around with Warren, a readiness that Warren exploited; and Lowery showed his own willingness to hold Obama to lower standards than Bush. Warren has reportedly assumed a high profile on AIDS in Africa, but the competition among evangelical leaders in that arena is not exactly stiff, and there's evidently reason to doubt his greatness on any scale. This is something I hope to look into more soon, since semester break is upon me and I'll have more time.

I disagree that it's "ultraliberals" who are angry about Warren, though of course these categories and labels are hard to pin down. It seems to me that those who are angry are mostly what I'd rate as moderate liberals, those who were willing to forgive Obama a great deal all through his campaign. Those I think of when I hear the term "ultraliberals" would be those who were skeptical and critical of him all along, and so they (we) were not surprised by Obama's choice of Warren. It's interesting that people can overlook the selection of a bunch of war criminals and assorted other thugs for his cabinet, some of whom are known to have Christian-Right ties as unsavory as those Obama has been revealing for some time now; and what upsets most of them is Warren's antigay stance, not his endorsement of the assassination of foreign leaders.

But at the same time, I recognize that a lot of people who had looked to Obama to bring Change to the Oval Office now feel betrayed, though it's not clear what most of them intend to do about it. "There’s nothing more to say ‘cept Barry — you are DEAD to me," David Ehrenstein boldly wrote on his blog. I know what you mean, David, I defriended him on Myspace too. I expect him to come crawling back, begging forgivenness, any minute now.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Poetry Friday - The Guilt Museum

The Guilt Museum

Yes, I've lived here in my guilt museum quite awhile,
rocking endlessly in my mother's chair,
surrounded by these little trophies of my past.
Here, let me show you a vintage faux pas,
Gaucherie 1956, bottled even before I had entered kindergarten.
Or something in a classic 1959 mistake:
the chrome still as dull as the day it came off the production line,
the tires flat and dusty as a crone's breast, heh heh.
Sometimes the passage of time imparts a kind of deceptive polish to these old wrecks
(the way a suit gets shiny from wear, you know)
and I have to spend a good many hours in the lab restoring them
to show just how bad they really are. ...
Hm, perhaps I could perform a musical composition for you,
one of my early forays into dissonance,
D. C. Mitchel, Op. LVII (1962), Rondo for Solo Stumble?
There's so much here, you could spend days going over it -- I do.
And how about this unfinished mural depicting, or attempting to depict,
that time back in 1964 when I failed miserably to --
You're not leaving already? What a shame.
Well, it was time for me to consider dusting my treasures,
and to think about what the future holds for my little collection here.
(Why, I've barely filled up this one room so far;
can you imagine what I'll have in ten years?
Sometimes I just sit here rocking all evening,
running my hands over some fine old blunder and daydreaming, you know.
You have to pay attention to these antiques or they wither and die,
after a fashion. It's almost as if they were alive.

dedicated affectionately to David,
for no sensible reason except it's
the first good thing I've written
in months

Monday, December 15, 2008

This Is So Gay -- Or Is It?

I wish I could bring this video to Jonah Goldberg's attention, as a hopeful sign of the backlash against hate ads attacking culturally conservative religious denominations. These two guys must be Mormons -- who else would mount such a vicious, irreverent, blasphemous assault on one of the holiest texts in gay male culture? It is a slap in the face to everything that Homo-Americans hold sacred. We culturally conservative devotees of Gloria Gaynor won't hold still for this! (Oh, and can I date the pianist? In the biblical sense?)

(via She Translates -- thanks, Karina!)

El Ultimo Trago

I had fond fantasies of doing a lot of writing last weekend, but like so many fantasies they failed to materialize. I did manage to read and watch some movies, so I don't feel totally useless. The reading was mostly old Lawrence Block mysteries, originally published in the 60s and 70s under pseudonyms but recently reissued under his real name; but I finally finished reading James Traub's very annoying The Freedom Agenda, which I'll discuss at greater length another day. I also reread Noam Chomsky's pamphlet The Umbrella of U.S. Power, on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, mostly to get the taste of The Freedom Agenda out of my mind; and began Pearl Cleage's 1993 book of essays Deals with the Devil, and other reasons to riot. I'm also going through Alan's War, a graphic novel/memoir by the French artist Emmanuel Guibert about a young American's experiences during and after World War II.

The movies I watched were, first, The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), an action film starring Geena Davis and directed by her then-husband Renny Harlin. Davis plays a former CIA assassin who emerges from eight years of amnesia and thwarts an Agency plan to fake a terrorist attack in the US. Of course, it will be a real attack, killing 4000 people, but it will be blamed on "the Muslims." This scene has apparently excited a number of people who see it as a foreshadowing, if not a prophecy, of the September 11 World Trade Center attacks... which reminds me, I've been meaning to do a post on conspiracy theories, but that too will come later on.

I hadn't watched The Long Kiss Goodnight in several years, but having just bought the DVD, I sat down Saturday afternoon and had a look at it. Like most action movies, The Long Kiss Goodnight isn't particularly coherent, but it has some good set pieces. I spent too much time looking online for a clip of one of my favorite scenes to embed here, where Davis's character kills a hitman in an alley, but no luck.

Sunday I watched Pedro Almodóvar's La flor de mi secreto (The Flower of My Secret), the 1995 melodrama that makes a sort of fulcrum between his earlier 'outrageous' films and his later 'mature' ones. I had also watched Flor before and was curious to see it if it would move me as much as it had the first time. It didn't quite do so, but I still enjoyed it. It's a little less color-coordinated than many of his later films, which share with his earlier work a tendency to bright, almost blinding primary colors. Here the production design is generally more subdued. The script may not hold together as well as, say, Volver or All About My Mother -- I haven't really made up my mind about that -- but it has some deeply felt emotion, with a minimum of campy irony.

Flor is the story of Leocadia Macías (Marisa Paredes), whose ability to write the trashy romance novels (under the nom de plume Amanda Gris) that have made her well-off is deteriorating along with her marriage. Grasping at straws, she decides to try writing literary criticism for a newspaper literary supplement, which leads her into an ambiguous friendship with Ángel (Juan Echanove). Ángel is a grey-bearded, red-eyed butterball, in contrast to Leo's handsome, lean and hungry-looking husband Paco (Imanol Arias), a career military man on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia. I'd quickly and uncharacteristically developed a crush on Ángel the first time I saw Flor, and he's even cuter now. One thing that had prompted me to revisit this movie was the remark of some critic that Ángel is gay, which I hadn't remembered and wanted to check. I don't see it. Presumably the critic made this leap because of Ángel's passion for old movies like Casablanca and his fondness for Amanda Gris' romances. But he seems to be interested romantically in Leo, and I didn't see any subtext.

Still, I enjoyed seeing La Flor de mi Secreto again, and will probably return to it sometime. Another attraction for me in Almodóvar's films is his use of music. There's a scene in Flor where Leo, having hit bottom pretty hard, sits in a coffeeshop while a gorgeous old woman in a red poncho sings on the TV. I liked the song and the performance, so I looked for it in the credits: it's "En el Ultimo Trago" by Chavela Vargas. I couldn't find a clip of that performance online, but the one at the beginning of this post will give you some idea of it. Vargas was born in Costa Rica in 1919, but moved to Mexico as a teenager and built a career there. Almodóvar apparently is a friend of hers and has used her music in several of his films. In the past few years, she came out as a lesbian, bless her. (According to Wikipedia, there are rumors that she and Frida Kahlo were once an item.) Look at this 1968 clip of her; she's evidently always been a knockout, as she is to this day.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Poetry Friday - at night the wind is a lonely sound

at night the wind is a lonely sound:
soft, insistent, desolate.
the trees turn their faces from it;
the clouds, fringed with moon,
run from the wind, away to the darkness --
away to anywhere really.
and the wind walks ceaselessly over the hills,
between the trees,
stirring through the leaves on the ground,
whispering in its soft hopeless voice
words that no one can hear.
i shouldnt have to lie here alone,
looking at the stars on my ceiling,
thinking about this.
no there should be someone beside me,
and we breathing together,
listening together
to the wind wandring lost in the endless night.

Another poem from 1972 or 1973. I detect a touch of Whitman or Ginsberg here and there, but as I was typing it in I liked it better than I'd expected to. I was tempted to change some of the affectations -- the lack of capitalization, the Ginsbergish "wandring" -- but decided to leave it pretty much as I wrote it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Turnabout Is Fair Play

I was pretty entertained by Jonah Goldberg's column attacking a No on 8 attack ad:
... surely you saw the TV ad in which two smarmy Mormon missionaries knock on the door of an attractive lesbian couple. "Hi, we're from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!" says the blond one with a toothy smile. "We're here to take away your rights." The Mormon zealots yank the couple's wedding rings from their fingers and then tear up their marriage license. As the thugs leave, one says to the other, "That was too easy." His smirking comrade replies, "Yeah, what should we ban next?" The voice-over implores viewers: "Say no to a church taking over your government."
Actually, no, I didn't see the ad, since I don't live in California. And thanks to Jonah's summary, I don't need to look for it on Youtube. But Jonah's upset: the scurrilous ad didn't get the condemnation he thought it deserved.
This newspaper [the Los Angeles Times], a principled opponent of Proposition 8, ran an editorial saying that the "hard-hitting ad" was too little, too late. The upshot seemed to be that if the pro-gay-marriage forces had just flooded the airwaves with more religious slander, things would have turned out better.

At a pro-gay-marriage rally in Los Angeles after the vote, chants of "Mormon scum!" were reported. Envelopes containing white powder have been sent to Mormon temples in California and Utah; vandals hit other temples. Lists of businesses to boycott -- essentially Mormon blacklists -- have sprung up on the Internet. The artistic director of the California Musical Theatre resigned because of pressure after it was revealed he gave $1,000 to a pro-Proposition 8 group.

It's amazing. Hollywood liberals, who shout "McCarthyism!" as a first resort, see nothing wrong with this. ...
Well, I certainly do not approve of vandalism or sending "envelopes containing white powder" to anyone. (I'm serious about that, though readers sensitive to nuance will probably detect just a wee smidgin of sarcasm, since it's common for public bigots to express their dismay and disapproval of any violence directed at minority groups, while allowing their inner satisfaction to leak out around the edges. But you can be sure that I'm serious about opposing violence or the threat of violence, even against the most degraded bigots, because I'm about to avow my support for harsh verbal criticism and economic pressure against religious and political groups that foster bigotry.) I wonder how accurate Jonah's list of offenses really is, though, because he also says that "bans on gay marriage have now passed in 30 states." The true number is over forty -- forty-five, according to Nancy Polikoff's Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage (Beacon Press, 2008), and most of them ban civil unions as well.

McCarthyism is a funny bogeyman for Jonah to invoke. No doubt Hollywood liberals do shout "McCarthyism!" all the time, but so do conservatives. One of the major themes of the culture wars of the past couple of decades has been the claim of the Right that Political Correctness and runaway liberalism constitute a New McCarthyism. Whenever I hear this claim, I want to say, "But I thought you guys like McCarthyism!" When did the Right suddenly decide that it's wrong to harass and persecute people for their political views? Why, when it affected them, of course! (To digress for a moment, I had the same reaction when right-wingers would accuse Bill Clinton or Al Gore of lying. The accusations were often true, but when did those who adulated Ronald Reagan decide that lying was a bad thing?)

Why not boycott Mormon businesses? There may be good reasons not to do so, but the boycott has often been used by what Jonah calls "traditional" religionists to try to get their way: for example, the Southern Baptists' attempted boycott of Disney for being too gay-friendly just a few years ago. It didn't have any detectable effect, of course, but is it only okay to field a boycott if it's going to be hopelessly ineffectual?

I agree with Jonah that it was perhaps unfair to pick on Mormons with that ad, considering that the Roman Catholic Church and other reactionary religious groups also supported Proposition 8. No doubt No on 8 targeted the Mormons, as Jonah says, because they "are the most vulnerable of the culturally conservative religious denominations and therefore the easiest targets for an organized campaign against religious freedom of conscience." Ahem ... why not attack a vulnerable target? But if No on 8 had also done ads showing a couple of nuns, or a couple of Orthodox rabbis, or a Southern Baptist, tearing up a gay couple's marriage license, that would be fine with me.

I must say, though, that Jonah's objection smacks of "But Mommmm! All the other culturally conservative religious denominations are doing it!" Just because other denominations are bigoted, that doesn't mean the Mormons are innocent. The Mormons have a long and unsavory history of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Consider writer and ex-Mormon Sheldon Rampton's memories of the not-so-distant past:
On this point, I remember my own experience as a teenager in the 1970s, a time when Mormons continued to cling to another discriminatory value -- the so-called "Negro doctrine" which excluded people of African descent from the Mormon priesthood. As justification for the priesthood ban, a number of pernicious theories were popular in Mormon culture. I own a book from that era titled Mormonism and the Negro (co-authored by a vice president at BYU), which patiently explains that Negroes are "descendants of Cain" and therefore subject to "Cain's curse" because their spirits were "less valiant" than the spirits of white people. (Although I didn't know it at the time, even these ideas were an improvement over the statements of Brigham Young in the 19th century, when he declared as a "law of God" that "If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot.")
Rampton also quotes a book (still promoted by the church, he says) by a former president of the Latter Day Saints, Spencer W. Kimball, who wrote that "[P]erhaps as an extension of homosexual practices, men and women have sunk even to seeking sexual satisfaction from animals. ..." This is a reminder of the days, which are not yet gone, when gay people were perhaps the most vulnerable of minorities, and conservative religious denominations could attack us in the most shamelessly extravagant and dishonest terms. And if we're going to talk about trying to stifle freedom of religious conscience, where would Jonah Goldberg put the bitter struggle over the consecration of a gay Episcopalian bishop? Within religious bodies, it's not at all clear who are the aggressors in the culture wars -- gay believers and clergy and their allies, or the antigay believers and clergy who are trying to subordinate and expel them. (If Jonah really thinks that conservative religious denominations should be allowed their little quirks, how does he feel about traditional Christian anti-Judaism?)

If conservative denominations are now on the defensive, it should not be forgotten that it wasn't always so, and that such denominations don't go after their targets with kid gloves on. The Religious Right in the 70s and 80s denounced not only homosexuals, but liberal denominations and "secular humanists" with abandon. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins's Left Behind series is infamous for its hostility to non-fundamentalists, gay or straight, but it's nothing new. LaHaye wrote a series of books lambasting secular America, including The Unhappy Gays (1978), before he found his best-selling formula. Frank Peretti's million-selling novel This Present Darkness (1986) depicted liberal Protestants as conscious and willing agents of Satan. And so on; in general, religious conflict tends to be anything but civil, even when it isn't overtly violent.

A few weeks ago I criticized journalist-blogger David Ehrenstein for his gleeful endorsement of firing people who'd supported Proposition 8. What I objected to then was Ehrenstein's double standard -- I know he wouldn't like it if opponents of Proposition 8 lost their jobs. The double standard is on both sides, though, as Jonah Goldberg's lament shows. It's okay for conservative religious denominations to foster bigotry, but they are very sensitive to anyone turning their own tactics against them.

As I've said before, we must never forget that religion (including gay-friendly religion) is a lifestyle choice; by the Christian Right's standards, that makes them fair game for any tactics they use against gay people (or against other religious believers). But gay people who want to take advantage of this should ask themselves if stooping to the level of our worst opponents is something we really want to do -- if it will produce a world that celebrates human difference, as which most of us would say is our aim. I don't think so, which is one reason I'm so alienated from the mainstream gay community. And really now, that ad Jonah was decrying -- did the people who made it and aired it really think it was going to persuade supporters of Prop 8 to change their vote? If so, they're even dumber than I thought. No, they were preaching to the choir, which no doubt made them and the choir feel good, but Proposition 8 passed. Worse than a stupid campaign is a losing one.

Monday, December 8, 2008

I Can Has Democracy?

President-elect Barack Obama has managed to surprise me: he has expressed approval of the plant takeover by laid-off workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago. That's one more bit of hopeful news from him, and since I've been so critical of him I feel obliged to note when he does something I can approve of. That doesn't erase the things I disapprove, of course: he did support and help push through Bush's bank bailout, of which $15 (some sources say 25) billion went to the Bank of America, whose refusal to extend Republic's line of credit led to the layoffs. For now, the Chosen One can only cheer from the sidelines, but that's a good start. Meanwhile, politicians at the city, county, and state levels are working to stop giving government business to the Bank of America. (Video here.)

We could be in for an interesting four years -- in a good way. I certainly wouldn't mind.

P.S. Another good account of the situation (via). Plus this article from Counterpunch, which quotes evidence that the owners of Republic didn't really want the Bank's money -- they were sneaking out of Illinois to open a new, non-union plant in Iowa.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Is For Ay-leet

(Not work-safe. You have been warned:)

Jeez, so much is on my mind and I don't know where to begin. I guess there's nothing to do but pick a place and dive in.

Details is a fashionista magazine that began its existence in the 1980s with, as I recall, an eye to the gay male market. After a few issues it began to tone down gay content (whatever that might have been) to pursue a fashion-conscious straight male readership, sort of proto-metrosexual. Those who've read this blog for any length of time will probably guess that I never paid Details much attention, any more than I do to Opera News or GQ. I noticed the flap over a hopefully satirical 2004 piece called "Gay or Asian?", because the diversity managers at my university passed the word along, but beyond that Details has not been in my radar.

This past week, though, some of the gay blogosphere got excited about an article on the magazine's website (I don't know whether it appeared in print) called "The Rise of the A-Gay." The writer has, like Columbus, discovered a whole new gay world: like, omigod! there are like these totally hot, totally rich gay men! They vacation at Gstaad! They wear perfectly tailored Savile Row suits instead of off-the-rack! And even though some of them are opera queens, they are like totally butch, which will cause you straight guys to develop a "man crush" on them, making your wives go Hmmm. And although the writer claims that these guys don't want to be part of a "closeted group or velvet mafia", he names no names. "And they can pull off having much-younger boyfriends without looking creepy."

The only source quoted by name in the piece is one Laura Gilbert, a pop-culture maven with her very own personal A-gay, whom she drags to gay bars and uses to torture other straight women. "A-gays mark measurable societal progress ... People can now be out without being expected to swish. It's the Neil Patrick Harris/Portia de Rossi brand of gay."

I love trendoids. They're always discovering the newest big thing that on second thought turns out to have been around since the dawn of time. Armistead Maupin wrote about a clique he called "A-gays" in his first Tales of the City book, published in 1976. There've always been upscale homos and their circles -- W. Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, various Hollywood and Broadway circles and so on -- and I daresay Natalie Clifford Barney and Radclyffe Hall would have thought of themselves as A-dykes if the terminology had been available to them. "We are everywhere" is a durable gay-movement slogan, and "everywhere" includes living La Vida Rich and Famous.

And this notion that "People can now be out without being expected to swish"? Of course that's an evergreen too. Gay men who came out (as opposed to being pigeonholed as queens from childhood) have always rejected the expectation to "swish," which comes from straights no less than gays. As long ago as 1971, then-closeted sociologist Laud Humphreys published an article in a professional journal, Transaction, entitled "New Styles in Homosexual Manliness." Nor were those styles exactly new then. To combine both themes, consider this quotation from one of Humphreys's informants, speaking of a park "near the heart of a metropolis on the eastern seaboard":
Back around 1930, when I was a very young man, I had sex with a really old fellow who was nearly 80. He told me that when he was a youngster -- around the end of the Civil War -- he would make spending money by hustling in that very park. Wealthy men would come down from the Hill in their carriages to pick up boys who waited in the shadows of the tree-lined walks at night.
So there you are: homos with money, homos who don't "swish", a writer who hopes some of that money and class (but maybe not the homo part) will rub off on him. BFD. Yet this little squib drove some gay bloggers right off the deep end. "Fuck You, Details Magazine!" is the title of a post by one, a self-described "gay men's health activist and thinker", who was so enraged by the "heteronormativity, embodied" of the piece that he neglected to think about the heteronormative, homophobic/misogynistic aspects of using "Fuck you" as an insult. His fury was inspired by the article's opening claim that A-gays are "smarter, sexier, and far more successful than you'll ever be." Y'know, there are literally dozens of people who are smarter, sexier, and more successful than I'll ever be. It's not something that keeps me up nights, but then it's not news to me either.

"This isn't just an expose on the new gay elite, it's a hit piece on sissies everywhere," he bellows in boldface, then delivers another ringing, butch "Fuck you!" to Details: "I haven't ever picked up your trashy excuse for a magazine, and I won't be anytime soon." (Cancel my subscription! Oops, I don't have one. But if I did...) I can't help but recall that the sissies of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, whom the Details writer dismisses as the old public face of American queerdom, now in the dustbin of history, were also denounced by PR-conscious Homo-Americans for collaborating with the patriarchy. Or whatever. As a hit piece on sissies, I don't see the A-gays article as having much of a punch. Any self-respecting sissy, including me, is most likely to deliver a sassy Snap! or two to the writer and the magazine, while recalling what one of the openly gay sociologist Martin Levine's clone informants told him: "Darling, beneath all this butch drag, we are still girls."

Meanwhile, over at Christopher Hennessey's Outside the Lines blog, where the Details piece was linked, one commenter fumed, "Jesus H with the A-Gay crap. Basically, they are creating a class system within the Gay 'community'". I'm not sure why she felt the need to put "community" in quotes, which suggests that she doesn't take gay community seriously to begin with; but more important, class divisions among gays are nothing new and don't need Details to 'create' or maintain them.

Another commenter declared the article "a big steaming turd" and its subjects "the fags who have decided they need to be butch or lipstick lesbos to fit in. They can kiss my big, fat sissy ass." This is more serious. I've noticed that a good many people (not just gay ones) assume that anyone with a different style of self-presentation is motivated by false consciousness: those who dislike gender nonconformity denounce sissies and bulldykes for "fitting the stereotype" out of a wicked desire to give decent gay people a bad name, while gender nonconformists accuse their counterparts of covering up their difference out of a desire to "fit in." No doubt both groups had moms who accused them of Just Behaving Like This To Drive Me Crazy. My mother used that line on me too, yet I managed somewhere along the line to realize that other people's behavior, no matter how much it annoys or offends me, is not born of a calculated desire to annoy me, but of other reasons that probably have nothing to do with me. (It should also be noted that gay communities, which are not much more tolerant of difference than the straight, have their own peer pressure aimed at controlling behavior and style. And incidentally, "Kiss my ass", no matter how sissy it is, is also a homophobic putdown.)

Much of this goes back to the great debates over whether gay people should "assimilate" or not. The thing is, we are born assimilated. Almost all of us had straight parents and grew up in a heterosexual milieu. At some point we emerge from the great Babylonian exile of gay childhood, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called it somewhere. Of course, we no more leave behind all of our parents' folkways than than the children of Israel left behind all the customs of Babylon, or of Egypt before that. Nor should we try to, if only because we'll always be ambivalent about what we reject. It takes serious work to reach the point where one can think about what of theirs to keep and what to abandon, and what to accept in the exile communities our foreuncles and aunts built.

Can it really be news to anyone that there are rich queers and bourgeois queers and blue-collar and pink-collar and poor queers? I guess it can, which doesn't inspire confidence in their knowledge of the world generally. The gay men I've known over the past several decades have been pretty ambivalent about class, often haunted by a desire to rise to the level of the people they imagine to be their betters. Remember the poor brown and black drag queens of Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning whose dream was to become rich white women? Gay men's culture has always had this aspect, exemplified by the way our slang borrows from High Society, with its "coming out" (derived from debutantes' emergence into the marriage market), "tearooms" (public restrooms used for cruising), "queens" and so on. Coming out for me also meant leaving the working-class (with aspirations to shabby-genteel) background of my childhood and adolescence for the world of the University, with academia's own special ambivalence about the status of the scholar in society. I didn't have Raymond Williams's class consciousness, but I recognize something of myself and some of the people I met in his account of his first years at Cambridge in the 1930s:
The myth of the working-class boy arriving in Cambridge – it has happened more since the war, though the proportion is still quite unreasonably low – is that he is an awkward misfit and has to learn new manners. It may depend on where you come from. Out of rural Wales it didn’t feel like that. The class which has dominated Cambridge is given to describing itself as well-mannered, polite, sensitive. It continually contrasts itself favourably with the rougher and coarser others. When it turns to the arts, it congratulates itself, overtly, on its taste and its sensibility; speaks of its poise and tone. If I then say that what I found was an extraordinarily coarse, pushing, name-ridden group, I shall be told that I am showing class-feeling, class-envy, class-resentment. That I showed class-feeling is not in any doubt. All I would insist on is that nobody fortunately enough to grow up in a good home, in a genuinely well-mannered and sensitive community, could for a moment envy these loud, competitive and deprived people.
Within a few years I had stopped wondering if I'd find a place among the gay men I met in the University, because I'd realized that I didn't want a place among them. I had my own sense of entitlement, based not only on high SAT scores but on my parents' love and encouragement (though it took me some years longer to realize what a foundation of confidence and optimism they gave me, and how much I owe them for that). When I encountered gay people whose sense of entitlement was based on their middle-class background and professional status, despite their aggressive ignorance and complacency (to say nothing of their racism and sexism) I found that I didn't recognize their superiority, and wandered off in directions more interesting to me. Whether those directions are superior generally is not for me to say; I only know that they're better for me.

Maybe I should be angrier about the Details piece -- it seems to have been written as a provocation of some sort -- but I don't see it as having any bearing on me. There are rich gay men? They've always been there. Will they let me play with them? Who cares? I'm not much interested in their world, nor do I care if they're interested in mine. I can't help suspecting that the anger the article inspired is born of envy and a sense of exclusion from a world of Savile Row suits, fairy-tale weddings, refinement, and class -- that these writers nevertheless identify with and aspire to. Right now I think there are more important things to worry about. But what do I know?