Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Apocalisp Now

Another review for GCN, probably published sometime in 1988. I swiped the title from a panel of Gary Ostrom's chillingly hilarious "Homos at War" comic strip which had appeared in the great Toronto gay magazine The Body Politic a few years earlier. (It doesn't seem to be available online, alas.)

What I said about the vision of The Boiled Frog Syndrome turned out to be prescient: now more than ever, American liberals and progressives appeal to nostalgia for an America that never was: as Molly Ivins put it in January 2007: "What happened to the nation that never tortured? The nation that wasn't supposed to start wars of choice? The nation that respected human rights and life? A nation that from the beginning was against tyranny?" What indeed? I don't know which nation she was talking about, but it wasn't the U.S.

P.S. Jeez, I just took another look at the name of this book's hero: Stephen Ashcroft. Any relation to John? Marty Rubin must be a prophet.

The Boiled Frog Syndrome
by Marty Rubin
: Alyson Publications Inc., 1987
$7.95 paperbound
231 pp.

The time is the near future. Shortly after the assassination of a gay political candidate, the U.S. succumbs to a religious dictatorship led by a Pat Robertson-like Christian fundamentalist. As members of various groups, including gay men, are herded into concentration camps Stateside, a wave of refugees washes into Europe. Stephen Ashcroft, formerly a photojournalist and now a member of the Gay Resistance, is holed up in a hostel/leather bar in Amsterdam with his boyfriend Kiki, an Indonesian teenager with a penchant for running around in nothing but red bikini briefs. As the novel begins, Ashcroft is asked by wealthy diamond merchant Aaron Ten Eyck to amass documentation of gay oppression under the new U.S. regime. But Ashcroft is unhappy, for his wealthy advertising-exec lover of five years, Troy Anderson, hadn’t seen the writing on the wall in time, and languishes in a concentration camp back home.

In the end, of course, Ashcroft rescues Troy, but I see no point in describing the rather tortuous series of events which leads to their reunion. The real heart of The Boiled Frog Syndrome is political commentary -- even the (not very explicit) sex scenes get drowned in speechifying -- mostly put into Ashcroft’s mouth, and the adulation he gets from the other characters makes it clear that the reader is meant to take his chatter seriously.

On one hand there is lamentation for the glorious past, when America, slave state and slaughterer of its native peoples, “was once the arsenal of democracy” (52). “We want to see,” Ashcroft opines, “a Democratic party in the tradition of Harry S. Truman, who not only called a spade a spade, but, if he felt like it, a goddamn shovel” (137f) -- and who, I might add, was largely responsible for the national security state Ashcroft rightly deplores, installing and supporting vicious dictatorships worldwide and instituting a purge of reds and fags from our government years before Joe McCarthy. We had our chance but we blew it, thanks to the shadowy machinations of Them, Ashcroft’s unholy alliance of crooked politics, big business, and organized crime: “There was simply no way that ... they could have allowed John F. Kennedy to bring about world peace” (139).

There must be some mistake here. Ashcroft is talking about the man who brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in October 1962, who escalated the US invasion of Vietnam for fear of being thought soft on Communism, who invaded Cuba, who dragged his feet while American citizens were being beaten and murdered by racist bigots in Alabama and Mississippi. Robert F. Kennedy, another of Ashcroft’s heroes, declined to run for the Presidency in 1968 until Eugene McCarthy had toppled LBJ from incumbency; he then moved in to take what he and his fans supposed was rightfully his, as heir apparent to Camelot, though he’d done nothing to earn it. I can see no reason why They should have bothered to off two politicians who served Their interests so faithfully.

On the other hand Ashcroft is not unaware that the past is not so rosy, as witness this excerpt from his article “The Shame of Miss Liberty -- a Last Hurrah on the Brink of Fascism” (97f):

The glitzy extravaganza which was staged in New York this weekend was a psychological masterpiece. Brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed, it was perfectly programmed to make the mindless multitudes wallow in an orgy of patriotic fervor. Extolling an idealized and romanticized version of the history of our immigrant forebears which had absolutely no relation whatsoever to the grim reality, it turned the nation’s attention away from our human rights violations in Central America, our economic injustices at home, and the crippling national debt caused by the scandalous waste and outright criminal fraud of our bloated military procurement.

Does Ashcroft, I mean Rubin, really believe that glitzy patriotic extravaganzas designed to whip up nativist frenzy are a new development in the US? If he can’t think his way out of a paper bag, how can he expect the “mindless multitudes” to do any better? Evidently he thinks that those “lobotomized couch potatoes” disagree with a boldly independent thinker like him because they have been programmed by Them. But Ashcroft hasn’t an original thought in his head. His politics are received, his history is (yes) “idealized and romanticized,” and his political homilies are as flatulently platitudinous as a Reagan speech. And though he commiserates with the president of “a small South Florida private college of unusual academic distinction quite unequaled in the state” (107) about the “vast, ignorant functionally illiterate mass” (109) who don’t know Latin or Greek and therefore can’t write English good, Ashcroft/Rubin has a tin ear for English style. He makes George Will look profound and Ayn Rand seem lyrical by comparison.

As for Ashcroft’s sexual politics – we’ll leave S/M out of it, if he wants to kiss the boots of an Aryan superstud yuppie like his Troy Anderson it was still a free country last time I looked -- they seem to be the “I-may-be-a-homo-but-I’m-still-a-real-man” variety. He is contemptuous of “dizzy little twinkies [and] Cuban cha-cha queens” (though he “can assure you that my prejudices against Cuban cha-cha queens were strictly social, not ethnic” [31], what a relief!), in short of any fag who doesn’t or can’t act like one of those respectable Americans who want to put Ashcroft in a concentration camp. The word “manly” gets dropped on almost every page, and every significant character is a manly strapping hale fellow well met except perhaps little Kiki, Ashcroft’s fey Indonesian bumboy, but by page 162 even Kiki has “rolled on a condom and made manly love to Anton.” The only thing I'm going to say about Ashcroft’s insistence that AIDS is CIA germ warfare is that the evidence is imaginary (“We almost had it documented, but then they killed a few key people” [50]).

It’s tempting to dismiss The Boiled Frog Syndrome as all-too-typical gay-male soft-core porn, subgenre leather-and-discipline, with political pretensions -- which is what it is. But it's worse than that. The Boiled Frog Syndrome seems inspired by the kind of whining self-pity and convenient historical amnesia that I usually associate with the Reaganite Right, rather than the gay liberal-left. Yet now that I think about it, this nostalgia for an America that never was characterizes a lot of counterculture discussion. Marty Rubin has written a work of soft-core political porn, intended to stoke the political hysteria of middlebrow liberals.