Sunday, April 27, 2008

Human Rights and the Olympics

A student I work with told me the other day that he was giving a speech on human rights and the Olympics for a class, focusing on China’s maltreatment of Tibet. That jarred something in my memory, and I asked him what he thought about poor and homeless and politically suspect people being cleared from the streets of cities where the Olympics have taken place in the past. Or about big areas being razed so that new stadiums and playing fields and Olympic Villages can be built. In the end I went to the library to find Dave Zirin’s Welcome to the Terrordome (Haymarket Books, 2007), which I read last summer, for its meaty chapter on the politics of the Olympic Games.

Sports, you may remember, are not a great interest of mine. But ever since Noam Chomsky freaked out some of his fans in the 1980s by speaking critically about the distractive function of commercial sports, I’ve been paying a little more attention. (Those remarks won Chomsky a shocked mention in the Village Voice’s sports page – it’s one thing to criticize American imperialism and Big Business making obscene profits in other realms, but Sport is holy even to many progressives.) Montreal is still paying for the 1976 games it hosted, over thirty years later, and Greece went into deep deficit to pay for the 2004 Athens games.

Then there’s

the web of temporary martial law that accompanies every Olympics. Already in Britain, and in Beijing as they prepare for the 2008 Games, we are seeing a familiar script replayed every two years, with only the language changing. Political leaders start by saying that a city must be made “presentable for an international audience.” Then the police and security forces get the green light to round up “undesirables” with extreme prejudice [133].

As examples Zirin cites “the jailing of thousands of young Black men in the infamous ‘Olympic Gang Sweeps’” in Los Angeles in 1984, using a 1916 law enacted to suppress the Wobblies; the Atlanta Games of 1996, where “officials razed African-American-occupied public housing to make way for Olympic facilities”; Athens in 2004, where psychiatric hospitals were stuffed with the homeless, and “Greece actually overrode its own constitution by ‘allowing’ thousands of armed-to-the-teeth paramilitary troops from the United States, Britain, and Israel into their country” (134). He then devotes several pages to the repression in Mexico in 1968, when hundreds of students and workers were gunned down by security police shortly before the games. “In China,” he adds, “where human rights and trade union organizing are a daily battle in normal times, the government will at the very least use the Olympics to crush even mild dissent” (138).

And I’m sure I don’t need to mention the 1936 games in Hitler’s Germany? Avery Brundage, then

the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee … personally set out to quash a rising din of protest. He met with Hitler in Berlin, where they shared smiles and handshakes for the camera. Brundage returned to the States with tales of a new Germany that treated Jews and other national minorities with exceptional care. He dismissed the anti-Hitler rumblings as the work of a communist conspiracy. … As late as 1941, he was praising the Reich at a Madison Square Garden America First rally [127].

His fondness for Hitler didn’t keep Brundage from becoming the President of the IOC, a post he held until 1972. It’s worth reading Zirin’s entire chapter on the Olympics, and indeed the whole book.

It’s an odd paradox. The Olympics bring repression with them, but they’re a useful platform for drawing attention to repression. Governments woo the Olympics in order to distract world attention from their misconduct with Riefenstahlian spectacle, yet that very visibility makes them vulnerable to exposure. Will anyone be very surprised that George Bush and Kim Jong-Il are on the same side in this controversy? There was violence as the torch passed through Seoul, but no disturbances are likely to mar its passage through Pyongyang. Despite Avery Brundage’s declaration that “The cardinal rule of the Olympics is no politics,” the Olympics are political through and through. I’m glad that people are using the Olympics to make noise about China’s abuses, though these abuses aren’t confined to Tibet. Given the history of the Olympics, though, I wonder whether resistance to the games themselves isn’t a better idea.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Another book review for Gay Community News, published in the April 30-May 6, 1989 issue. As I feared, Whitmore died between the time I wrote the review and the time it appeared in print. Rereading the review now, I wonder if I should reread Nebraska, but I really have little interest in stories which pile on the misery for no evident reason except, I suppose, to show the author's High Artistic Seriousness. Happy endings and happy people are like, so gay, y' know? For this reason I've never gotten very far with Dennis Cooper, Scott Heim, and other gay writers like that. It's not that I object to unhappiness, even misery, per se, nor to characters devoid of affect; but I don't get what these boys are driving at. I guess it's just a blind spot of mine, and again, I have no idea why my editor sent me the Whitmore books. Hell, I couldn't even come up with a flip header for the review.

And then it occurred to me that Nebraska would make a great Coen Brothers movie, or a movie by any filmmaker who shows his or her High Artistic Seriousness by tormenting the characters mercilessly. "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. They kill us for their sport," King Lear lamented. No, dear, that's playwrights and moviemakers and edgy gay novelists.

Someone Was Here: Profiles in the AIDS Epidemic
by George Whitmore
New York: NAL Books, 1988
224 pages
$17.95 hardcover

by George Whitmore
New York: Grove Press, 1987
154 pages
$15.95 hardcover

I've been reading George Whitmore's articles in the gay press for years and always found them intelligent, interesting, and well-written. (Also sometimes wrongheaded and infuriating, but that's gay journalism.) So I wasn't too surprised when I found a book by him displayed in the window of my usual local bookstore. Nor was I too surprised that Someone Was Here had originated as an article in the New York Times Magazine; whatever my differences with the Times, it represents a level of professionalism that Whitmore has certainly achieved. On the other hand, the Times also represents a self-consciously haut-journalese style that absorbs the prose style of any writer in its path, and Whitmore is no exception. Most of Someone Was Here could have been written by almost any competent journalist, and that's a shame, as proven by the book's epilogue, where the tone abruptly shifts: Whitmore acknowledges that not only is he gay, he has been diagnosed with AIDS himself. Up to this point the book has consisted of omniscient-narrator third-person accounts of people with AIDS and their families and helpers; now Whitmore suddenly appears in the midst of these people, shipping parcels to Houston for one of his subjects, visiting and holding a small HIV-infected child named Frederico whose parents both died of AIDS. Perhaps the rush of involvement the reader suddenly feels compensates for the detachment of the previous two-hundred-odd pages, but it also throws that impersonality into uncomfortably sharp relief. Thanks to writers like Whitmore as well as to the Names Quilt and other projects, AIDS is becoming a plague with a human face; we are -- to a perhaps unprecedented degree -- enabled to know its victims not just as statistics but as people. Someone Was Here is interesting, intelligent, and worth reading as an object lesson in the difficulty of playing chicken with an epidemic: we can't get too close, but we have to get as close as possible, for all our sakes.

Nebraska, Whitmore's second novel, was published a few months before Someone Was Here. It's a strange little book. This time we have a first-person narrator, but his voice is not the author's: a twelve-year-old Nebraskan named Craig McMullen, who has been run over by a truck and lost a leg. It would be going too far to say that his family is in trouble; rather, they are classically 1950s' lumpen-Midwestern. Dad is a handsome drunken Irish redhead, violent when present, but mostly absent. Mama works at "Monkey Wards", her body swelling from the ankles up. Grandpa, an old railroad man, lives with Grandma in a ramshackle house he built himself, one room at a time. Sister Betty becomes a cheerleader, sister Dolores grows up too fast. Uncle Wayne, Mama's baby brother, comes home after his discharge from the Navy, waiting for a call from his friend the Chief; the two of them plan to open a garage in California as soon as they can get the money together.

But there are delays, punctuated by mysterious long-distance phone calls from the Chief, and Wayne stays on. Coming home one night after a drinking bout, he helps the convalescent Craig change his sweat-soaked pajamas, and briefly touches the boy's scrotum. A few weeks later the highway patrol brings Wayne home, though without arresting him. Not surprisingly to a gay reader with any knowledge of the period, it turns out that Wayne was discharged dishonorably from the Navy for homosexuality; that the Chief, his lover, has rejected him out of guilt; and that Wayne has been cruising the rest stops. After Craig has been manipulated into claiming that Wayne "interfered with" him, Wayne is committed to a mental hospital for electroshock. Craig is sent to live with his grandparents. His father, who has been living in Denver and has given up booze for Jesus, suddenly appears and kidnaps him, but Craig escapes. His father then returns to Denver and blows out his own brains with a shotgun.

Twelve years pass. After Grandma's funeral, Craig goes to California to pick up Uncle Wayne's trail, hoping to understand what happened to him. He finds him living with the Chief, handsome and well-preserved, but regressed emotionally to pubescence -- to Craig's pubescence, in fact.

Nebraska reminded me somewhat of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, with its attempt to make a kind of poetry out of demotic speech, its merciless depiction of bigotry, cruelty, and madness. But Whitmore isn't interested in the kind of lyricism Walker achieved, nor does he offer more than a hint of her hopeful vision of redeeming love; in this he more resembles Raymond Carver, the poet and short-story writer who wrote stark, painful tales of human isolation. Imagine a cross between the two, then: more vivid than Carver's bleached-out, gray-scale snapshots, less optimistic than Walker's tormented but loving epic, but with all their power and then some. I hope Whitmore is as much a survivor as Craig, because I think he has important books in him, and these two are just a taste of what he could give.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Silence Equals ... ? Anyone? Anyone?

Silence did not kill Lawrence King. He was shot to death in his classroom by another teenaged boy for the crime of effeminacy. Nor did silence kill Simmie Williams Jr., who was shot to death while wearing a dress a couple of weeks later in Florida.

Silence did not kill Matthew Shepard. Fists, boots, blunt instruments killed him. In fact, Matthew Shepard is not the best choice as a victim of silence. His murder was featured prominently by the national heterosexual media, and has been the subject of a play and a made-for-MTV movie. Fans of the gay philosopher Michel Foucault should appreciate the irony.

Also, Shepard was openly gay, though one of his gay friends tried to closet him posthumously in Time Magazine. In my own life, it's difficult to say whether more gay people or more straight people have tried to stuff me back into the closet. When I came out in 1971, though, I was struck by the hostility of most gay people I met toward openly gay people in general, not just to me. But even nowadays, many gay people hate openly gay people, romanticizing the closet and arguing that it takes more courage to stay there. Being openly gay, in their eyes, is the easy way out.

Being silenced is not a serious problem for me, not anymore, thanks to my truculent personality (which discredits me in many gay people's eyes), my verbal articulateness (ditto), and my three decades of visibility in Bloomington (double ditto). If only I would let the professionals handle gay visibility for me! It’s not a job for an amateur without proper training.

Silence did not kill Harvey Milk. Four bullets killed him, fired by Dan White in his office in San Francisco City Hall.

Silence did not kill Rebecca Wight. Three bullets killed her, fired by Stephen Ray Carr as she lay with her lover Claudia Brenner (who was also seriously wounded) in a tent on the Appalachian trail.

Silence did not kill Allen Schindler. His fellow sailors smashed his head against a porcelain urinal. The Navy tried to lie about his murder by claiming that he fell and accidentally hit his head. Thanks to the determined efforts of Schindler's mother, the Navy's lie was exposed. Yet many gay people want to join the military, the House of Lies.

Silence did not kill Charlie Howard. A little mob of high school kids drowned him by throwing him off a bridge into a river, even though he told them he couldn't swim. He was on his way home from a gay discussion group, which in many gay people’s eyes is a silly waste of time. Why talk to other gay people in a bright, well-lit room when you could be snubbing them in a half-lit bar?

Today the National Day of Silence was observed at Indiana University. Paradoxically, a high-visibility Kiss-In was among the scheduled events, though I suppose technically a kiss is silent. It wasn’t so long ago, though, that the campus gay organization defended not having kiss-ins because they were gross, scandalous, and gave GLBTQ+ π people a bad name.

I’m very ambivalent about the whole thing. After awhile such an event loses its specificity, as people try to hang everything they possibly can on it, forgetting the original impulse and meaning. Why not observe the Day of Silence with speeches, noisemakers, and I don’t know, fireworks?

From another angle, even symbolic silence is, to my mind, less valuable than breaking silence. That could be related to my generation: we who were inspired by Stonewall and its aftermath weren’t interested in gay people being silent anymore. Twenty years later, Queer Nation showed that making noise was still necessary. And a few years ago, when the NDOS was first getting a foothold here, I noticed a sign-up table staffed by two straight girls who spent the whole time chattering about their boyfriends. Having straight people shut up for a day about their sexuality, now, that would be something. It would be educational for them to hesitate for a moment before exercising the privilege they have. As far back as the seventies (and probably further) some heterosexual bigots were starting to opine that the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name had become The Neurosis That Won’t Shut Up. No, dears, that’s heterosexuality you’re talking about.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Surely, Comrades, You Do Not Want Bush Back?

I’ve heard words to this effect from various Democratic liberals over the past year, but I was surprised to hear them from Michael Moore (via):

I’m almost at the point where I don’t care if the Democrats don’t have a backbone or a kneebone or a thought in their dizzy little heads. Just as long as their name ain’t “Bush” and the word “Republican” is not beside theirs on the ballot, then that’s good enough for me.

I, like the majority of Americans, have been pummeled senseless for 8 long years…

It’s true, the past eight years have taken their toll -- so much so that Moore, like so many liberals, has trouble remembering that the Democrats in Congress eagerly helped Bush pummel him senseless. Why should they be rewarded for collaborating with him?

But Mike, Bush’s name is not going to be on the ballot this year. If he could run, I have no doubt he’d be trying, but thanks to the Twenty-Second Amendment to the US Constitution, he can only serve for two terms. And because I’m hopelessly pessimistic (about the Democrats, mind you), I’d almost be curious to see what would happen if he could run again. Given his unpopularity even among many Republicans, could he get his party’s nomination? And if he did, could the Democrats defeat him? Frankly I doubt it, but fortunately we don’t have to find out. And they’ll still have Ralph Nader to blame if McCain beats whoever the Democrats take for their lawful nominee.

I’ve been surprised when liberal Democrats have started ranting in my presence that they want to see Bush defeated this year. I gently point out that he isn’t running. I know, they pant, but I want to see him defeated. (He isn’t running.) I know, but I want to see that bastard defeated, I want to see him go down It’s like listening to a feral wino muttering about the International Space Jews who’ve put wires inside his head to control his thoughts. “Reality-based”? They flatter themselves. What seriously scares me is how out of touch with reality most Democrats are; they aren’t more or less so than Republicans in general, they just have their own separate fantasy universe, as the Republicans have theirs.

A friend asked me last weekend, a propos my post on Barack Obama’s “proselytizing” remark, what I expect from a pro-gay presidential candidate. Well, it would help for such a candidate not to use bigoted and nearly forgotten clichés about us (this was the first time I can recall having seen “proselytize” used with regard to gays in a decade or more). But as I told my friend, that remark is not why I don’t support or trust Obama. On gay issues he’s quite good, all told, for a mainstream politician. But I’m not a one-issue voter, and I have plenty of other reasons for not supporting him. If I did support him and plan to vote for him, words like “proselytize” would set off alarms in my head, and I would criticize him (I hope) in the same terms I’ve been using here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

That Liberace Is One Hell Of A Piano Player!

Well-meaning liberals have a difficult history with minorities: they’re always putting their foot in it while trying to persuade us that they mean well, they’re on our side, they see us as normal human beings like themselves. Sometimes they just make fools of themselves, and there’s nothing so terrible about that. At other times they let slip something that shows that beneath the surface egalitarianism, they still at times feel a need to pull rank.

I don’t mean to be smug here – I’ve put my own foot in it often enough, an important and humbling reminder that while I may be an underdog from one angle, I’m an overdog from others. A Presidential candidate will be in constant peril of such missteps, and Barack Obama just succumbed. Not too seriously – it doesn’t bother me as much as his desire to bomb bomb Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – but it’s still a reminder of the craziness that lurks in the hearts of straights and those who fawn on them. An interviewer asked him,

What event or person has most affected your perceptions of or relationship to the LGBT community?

Well, it starts with my mom, who just always instilled in me a belief that everybody’s of equal worth and a strong sense of empathy -- that you try to see people through their eyes, stand in their shoes. So I think that applies to how I see all people.

Somebody else who influenced me, I actually had a professor at Occidental -- now, this is embarrassing because I might screw up his last name -- Lawrence Goldyn, I think it was. He was a wonderful guy. He was the first openly gay professor that I had ever come in contact with, or openly gay person of authority that I had come in contact with. And he was just a terrific guy. He wasn’t proselytizing all the time, but just his comfort in his own skin and the friendship we developed helped to educate me on a number of these issues.

“Proselytizing” – how that takes me back! Back to the days when “militant recruiting homosexuals” were the bogey of the Christian Right. (Also of sex researchers and militant recruiting heterosexuals William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who wrote in their books of homosexuals “recruiting.”) It shows that despite his claim to “try to see people through their eyes,” and despite making nice noises about giving us civil unions and letting us into the military so we can help stomp on Arabs, Obama is still seeing us through the eyes of bigots.

Even better, Obama was being interviewed for the gay magazine The Advocate when he said this. It’s as if a white politician were to tell Ebony about the first black professor he’d ever come in contact with, who was just a terrific guy and wasn’t chasing after white women all the time, just really comfortable in his own skin. How do you think that would go over?

When the interviewer asked Obama about his inviting an ex-gay preacher to address a gospel concert he hosted in South Carolina, Obama explained:

If you’re segmenting your base into neat categories and constituency groups and you never try to bring them together and you just speak to them individually -- so [if] I keep the African-Americans neatly over here and the church folks neatly over there and the LGBT community neatly over there -- then these kinds of issues don’t arise.

The flip side of it is, you never create the opportunity for people to have a conversation and to lift some of these issues up and to talk about them and to struggle with them, and our campaign is built around the idea that we should all be talking.

But according to the account I read, the gospel concert where Donnie McClurkin sang and preached was predominantly African-American in its makeup. So Obama was segmenting his base, pandering to the prejudices of one group -- I doubt he'd have invited McClurkin to perform at services in a predominantly white Episcopal church in Manhattan. I don’t see how this “create[s] an opportunity for people to have a conversation,” either. Obama has the strange notion (shared with the Christian right) that there are no gay Christians, or Christians among Democrats for that matter, so it’s necessary to bring the sundered groups together by keeping them segmented so they can have a conversation. Stuff like this probably sounds better in person or on TV, which is one reason I prefer to read text, where Obama’s charming personality doesn’t get in the way and what he’s actually saying comes through more clearly. And what he’s saying is reactionary.

Another revealing bit from the interview: when Obama says that he prefers to let “the LGBT community” decide whether to accept civil unions or to push for equal marriage rights,” the interviewer asks him, “Is it fair for the LGBT community to ask for leadership? In 1963, President Kennedy made civil rights a moral issue for the country. Obama counters by pointing out that Kennedy didn’t overturn the laws against interracial marriage, and the interviewer concedes the point. But Kennedy did not lead on racial issues, very much the opposite: he dragged his feet, refusing to intervene when anti-racism workers were being beaten and killed in the South; and he actively worked against the Civil Rights movement, trying to prevent the 28 August 1963 March on Washington. The movement forced him to act (along with embarrassment – when the US government did act in those days to protect the rights and lives of black Americans, it was out of fear that the Communists would capitalize on the bad image American racism was giving the country in the eyes of the world). It wasn’t Kennedy who “made civil rights a moral issue for the country,” it was the Civil Rights movement that did so. The best that can be said for Kennedy is that he followed, not that he led.

As will Obama, most likely. His small gaffe about “proselytizing” is probably less important than his expressed grasp of what equality actually means. (Not that I support him, much less trust him.) Voting will not bring about change, as the aftermath of November 2006 should remind us. But no politician can deliver on his or her fine promises, especially those not made to corporations, unless he or she is made to.

(A squidge o' the mouse to Al Schumann for the link to the interview, and to my old friend Leslie for the Onion clip.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

This Ain't Rock'n'Roll, This Is ...

This review appeared in the April 30-May 6, 1989 issue of Gay Community News. It garnered an angry letter from Barrus, published an issue or so later; I don't blame him, but I still stand by the review. Why did GCN send me the book? I have no idea -- one of the disadvantages of living a thousand miles away from the paper, in the days before e-mail was ubiquitous. The editor at the time, if I recall correctly, was a leather bear, but he printed the review.

More recently, in the wake of the James Frey debacle, it was revealed that Barrus had published three volumes purporting to be the memoirs of a troubled half-Navajo named Nasdiij. The books won raves for their intense prose; I'm almost tempted to take a look at one of them and see if I recognize the author's voice.


Genocide: The Anthology
by Tim Barrus
"A LeatherLit Book."
Pound Ridge NY: Knights Press, 1988
224 pp.
$8.50 paperbound

Genocide: The Anthology is a collection of allegories or parables for the Age of AIDS. Some are set in the indefinitely distant future; the first, for instance, "The Dependency of Variables", has two young men traveling in a faster-than-light spacecraft piloted by a sentient computer named Tsan. Others are set in a time which seems to differ from the present only in that PWAs are hunted down and quarantined. Each section is followed by a poem. Some of the poems seem to me not bad, but perhaps this is only by contrast with the prose, which is unspeakable. But that's just one queen's opinion. Try a sample.

Reaching for the realm Tsan discovered surrender. It was a definition more powerful to his sensors than information from the genocide stars. Lao plunged into Jia violently. There was a sensual, anguished glint of madness to the sex that could only be matched by the penetrating, pulsing madness, the blackness, the sweet swallowing blackness which surrounded them. Madness and need. It was the definition of an endless spasmed dream. It was glorious fuck and Jia shook from it. Screamed with it. Begged and pleaded for it.

Redefine who and what I am. Pour your semen into my bloody guts and split me into a hundred thousand unerring pieces. It was religion.

It was ecstacy.

It was the now of now. . . .

“Fuck him,” Tsan said. It was almost a whisper. “Fuck his ass.”

Tsan scanned blood pressure. Heartbeat. Increased adrenalin levels.

Intense rectal pain.

Whew; that was a moment. If the preceding looked good to you, go for it: Genocide: The Anthology, $8.50 plus tax at your nearest gay bookstore. Personally, I never thought I'd find a writer who'd make William S. Burroughs look good to me. Barrus has a certain raw energy that might have carried me along if I hadn't kept tripping over sentences like “Kandyapple applekandy”, “Chinatown Chinatown”, or the climactic “Heroin razzle heroin dazzle.” On the back cover, he writes: “My concept is one of irreversible annihilation. If you see hope in this work, that's your stuff, not mine.” Don't worry, Tim. You'll be pleased to know that I see no hope in this work at all.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The First Refuge Of Scoundrels

Roy Edroso had an interesting post last Thursday, in which he tried to find his patriotism. Hm, I know I left it here somewhere…

We are surrounded by conservatives who insist that they love America, and describe it as a horrible place where the unfortunate deserve only the back of the hand of power, which must be maintained by endless wars. After a bellyful of their patriotism I sometimes begin to doubt my own. Maybe they're right, I begin to think: maybe the ugly America they celebrate is the real America, and I have only deluded myself that it was something better.
Oh, here it is, under the couch:

The American people are often ridiculous and sometimes do horrible things, and I have turned my wrath on a broad array of our native fixers, crackers, dupes, dopes, and scumbags. But they are still my people. I too want more than I could possibly deserve, chafe at well-meant and even reasonable restrictions, and prefer a good time to a Great Awakening. And in the last ditch I'll take my stand with our credit-, pleasure-, and freedom-addicted folk against our would-be saviors.

I’ve seen liberals play this game numerous times over the years. Sometimes it was about reclaiming the flag – that one goes back way before September 11, 2001, to the days of the flag stickers, about the size of a 3x5 index card, that turned up in cars in the late 60s. Liberals and even a few leftists fretted: should they let the “hard-hats” have the flag to themselves, or should they show that they could wave the flag as well?

Well, sure, folks, knock yourselves out. Patriotism is more debilitating to reason than religious faith, so it took me a long time to work out my feelings about the flag. Then, back around the time of the first Gulf War I think, some airhead on a local BBS wrote something to the effect of, But don’t you love your only flag, the flag that gives you freedom? – and everything fell into place for me. The flag doesn’t give my freedom. It’s a piece of cloth. It is also a symbol, and like all symbols it’s a mess of conflicting meanings, some admirable, some despicable. But treating it as something holy is idolatry, and I’m still bemused by the number of hard-core Christians who are also flag-idolaters. Thou shalt have no other gods before me, nor make unto thee any graven image and worship it, remember? Anyway, I'm an atheist, and I don't worship anything.

On the other side, some friends wanted to burn a flag at a party I gave many years ago. I thought about it for a moment, then asked them to do it outside if they really insisted on doing it. They were excited like a bunch of much younger kids getting ready to torture a cat, and that alone (aside from the fire hazard: set something afire in my apartment?) made me uneasy. Far from being indifferent to it, they took the flag as seriously as any flag idolater, only they wanted to defile the holy thing. Homey don’t play that one either. I’m not sure my position puts me in the middle; more likely it puts me way out beyond all decent common-sense discourse, but since that’s where I’ve usually been, I can live with it.

Notice that Roy Edroso seems to be playing a similar, all-too-easy game. Either the right-wing blogosphere pundits or patriotism. The real patriotism, not their ersatz Hate-America-First patriotism. Either you’re for him or you’re against him. But again, I see other possibilities. I don’t want to see this country destroyed, not just because I live here and there are people I love who live here (though those are valid reasons), but because I don’t want to see any country destroyed. I didn’t want to see the Soviet Union destroyed in an orgy of blood-letting, nor did I want to see Vietnam bombed back into the Stone Age, nor did I want to see Iraq destroyed, nor do I want to see Iran destroyed, nor Israel nor Lebanon nor Afghanistan nor Colombia nor China nor North Korea nor Indonesia nor Cuba nor the frothing Batistas-in-exile in Miami – even though they all have the blood of countless innocents on their hands. (Disclaimer: The absence of any country in that list should not be construed as an endorsement of its destruction.)

This article from 2003, which I stumbled on while Googling for Chesterton’s witticism that “My country, right or wrong” is equivalent to “My mother, drunk or sober”, is a textbook case of either-or blindness. Note that it appeared in a left-liberal journal, Dissent (immortalized by Woody Allen’s old quip about Commentary merging with Dissent to become Dysentery); I could link to any number of articles by lefty-libs and progressives raving about leftists who said that 9/11 was all America’s fault, the chickens were coming home to roost, and the shoe’s on the other foot now, ha ha! – but this one will do nicely for now. (Michael Bérubé’s entry has a special place in my personal Hall of Shame, though, because I used to respect him.) For Joanne Barkan, to point out American crimes is to ignore totally the crimes of any other nation, to ignore all other geopolitical factors, to succumb to “the left’s negative nationalism.” But as usual with people of her ilk, it soon becomes clear that Barkan will not concede that America has ever done anything wrong, that any people anywhere in the world have reason to want to strike back at us, that no country in the world has any business defending itself against us, that it’s time to throw out reason and complexity and boil everything down to the question, “Do you want to see America conquered, or don’t you?”

No, I don’t -- not that America is in any danger of being conquered: the US has not fought a war of self-defense in my lifetime. But I don’t want to see any country conquered. People like Barkan get so furious at any mention of American malfeasance because they’ll gladly sic the dogs of war on any other country that behaved as the US has behaved, that killed a tenth as many people as the US has killed, that supported a tenth as many dictators as the US has supported, that harbors the kinds of terrorists the US harbors – so it is they who want to see the US attacked and humbled, if they had any consistency of principle. Those of us who can recognize the faults of our country, by contrast, simply want it to stop hurting people so wantonly.

I think it’s a safe bet, for example, that in 1967, when Martin Luther King Jr. called his own government the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, he wasn’t calling for other governments to invade the US. No, he said explicitly that he had come to realize that he couldn’t condemn the violence of others without first condemning and opposing the far greater violence being done in his name by his own government.

Whether King claimed to be a patriot, I don’t know; a search of the 700-page collection of his writings, A Testament of Hope (HarperOne, 1990), finds the word “patriot” only twice, and this quotation from page 327 is indicative: “It is a paradox that those Negroes who have given up on America are doing more to improve it than its professional patriots.” (The other passage, on 472, is a passing swipe at “sunshine patriots.”) It doesn’t appear that King set much store by the word.

In any case, I see no point in getting into a tug-of-war over words. (“Mine!” “No, mine!”) I’m an American, whether I or anyone likes it much: I was born here, I’m a citizen who pays taxes and votes, and so I have a say in what this country does. I don’t feel bound to support it unconditionally, but then no one does – those who attack others for lack of patriotism are ready, as Edroso said, to turn on their country whenever it suits them. I also don’t see how it can be meaningful to claim to “love” a country, any more than to “hate” it. (When I wrote earlier about the US as a collective, I was all too aware that it was problematic: what does it mean to attack “us” or to say that “the US” or “America” does something?) Whether I’m a “patriot” or not, whether my opinions are “patriotic” or not, is irrelevant, a distraction from questions of substance. My country, drunk or sober; when drunk, to be sobered up -- if that’s possible, which I increasingly doubt.

You know this old joke? “I defended you the other day – someone said that Promiscuous Reader ain’t fit to eat with the hogs, and I said, ‘He is so!’” Being a patriot is like being fit to eat with the hogs. Or not, if you prefer.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Men Without Women

It’s probably good luck that I saw Blood In Blood Out, Taylor Hackford’s 1993 film about Chicano life in East Los Angeles and San Quentin, right after I wrote the previous post about male homoeroticism, sexless love between men, and movies. BIBO, scripted by the Chicano writer Jimmy Santiago Baca, follows three young men from their late teens to their early thirties. They begin in 1972, playing on the edges of outlawry, mainly squabbling over neighborhood turf with rival gangs, but as Mom told you, it’s all fun until someone loses an eye – or, in this case, gets a broken back and internal injuries. At which point the guns come out, someone gets killed, and one (Damian Chapa) of the lead trio is sent to San Quentin. One of the others (Benjamin Bratt), also implicated in the killing, enters the Marines and serves with distinction, later becoming a cop. The third (Jesse Borrego), after multiple surgeries, becomes a junkie and a brilliant but death-obsessed artist. It’s a long film, most notable for its minute and apparently authentic portrait of barrio life and prison life: Santiago Baca spent his early adulthood in prison, but began educating himself there and became a poet; the prison scenes were actually filmed at San Quentin.

At the same time, BIBO is unsparing in its critical take on men’s culture, its obsession with turf, pride, and honor. (The theatrical release of this movie was titled Bound by Honor. As Adrienne Rich wrote many years ago, honor for men has something to do with killing: I could not love thee so much, dear, loved I not Honour more.) All the important relationships in BIBO are between men, in prison and out. There is not even a romantic interest. While it’s not surprising that Miklo (Chapa), whose destiny is prison, should be single, neither Cruz the artist (Borrego) nor the cop Paco (Bratt) are provided with lovers. (Cruz is with a girlfriend the night he’s attacked, but after that, zilch.) The important women in the film – the only women, in fact, aside from a gringa art dealer -- are mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. These women are not the doormats of wishful patriarchal stereotype: they withhold support from their men when they get involved in violence and drugs, and cut off the worst offenders. Adored though they may be, however, these women are not listened to. They can do nothing to stop their sons from rushing to their respective dooms.

So there’s no rivalry for women’s favor in BIBO. While the male leads love each other, often passionately, they also keep a safe distance from each other. Even when the reconciled brothers Cruz and Paco weep in each other’s arms at the end, there’s something, well, bloodless about it. I doubt anyone would find “homoeroticism” in these relationships, or that they’d want to. Miklo, who sought refuge in his mother’s familia after beating up and fleeing his abusive white father, fights to keep his anal virginity in prison, and finds a spiritual father in the icy Montana (Enrique Castillo), the leader of La Onda, the Chicano prisoners’ syndicate. Sex between males is kept outside this holy circle, embodied in punks and queens and the wolves who penetrate them; the one member of La Onda who tries to help himself to Miklo turns out to be the chief villain of the film (well, one of them).

Somewhere else Adrienne Rich wrote of the deadly passivity of men; whether or not Hayward or Santiago had ever read Rich, their movie is an explication of that phrase. Read the comments under the YouTube clip embedded above. It’s obvious even this early in the film that Miklo is doomed, but you can feel the little boys in the audience getting boners over those rigid faces, the expressionless voices, the discipline, the male bondage. A few scenes earlier we saw Paco in his Marine Corps uniform, seeking the same slavery, but he escapes by the skin of his teeth, as does Cruz: simply, they grew up.

In an essay on African-American mothers in his book Black Gay Man (NYU, 2001), Robert Reid-Pharr quoted the Black Panther militant and martyr George Jackson, who was killed in the yard at San Quentin in 1971:

In the civilized societies [wrote Jackson] the women do light work, bear children, and lend purpose to the man's existence. They train children in the ways of wisdom that history has shown to be correct. Their job is to train the children in their early life to be men and women, not confused psychotics! This is a big job, to train and propagate the race!! Is this not enough? The rest is left to the me[n?]: government administration, the providing of means of subsistence, and defense, or maintenance of life and property against any who would deprive us of it, as the barbarian has and is still attempting to do. The white theory of the “emancipated woman” is a false idea. You will find it, as they are finding it, the factor in the breakdown of the family unit [Reid-Pharr, 68].

Black Mama, you're going to have to stop making cowards. … Black Mama, your overriding concern with the survival of our sons is mistaken if it is survival at the cost of their manhood [Reid Pharr, 74].

As Reid-Pharr notes,

The irony is that at the very moment at which Jackson was imagining a black world with an essentially cloistered female population, the reality was that black women were entering in unprecedented numbers precisely the institutions that Jackson was hailing as exclusively male. As Jackson expressed his rage, his revolutionary ardor, inside increasingly small jail cells, female lawyers pressed his case, female activists kept his name before the public, and a handful of celebrity radicals: Angela Davis, Betty Shabazz, Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown were left with the mantle of Black radicalism as the men in whose shadows they had once stood either died or ran [69].

Blood In, Blood Out ends in the mid-1980s; I’ve been idly imagining what a sequel might be like. Despite decades of struggle by activists of both sexes and various colors, American apartheid persists in our schools, our economy, and of course our metastasizing prison system. Manhood – as the Rule of the Fathers, as Boy Culture grown in on itself, as a Holy Grail to be sought – is one more God That Failed. More than ever, as ruined human bodies pile up around the world, it’s clear that Big Daddy’s overriding concern is that his sons achieve their manhood at the cost not only of their own lives, but of everyone else’s.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Protesting Too Much

If I hadn’t already seen Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs (Columbia, 2007), I’d have been surprised that straight critic Robert Eberwein’s Armed Forces: masculinity and sexuality in the American war film (Rutgers, 2007) could be published by an academic press today. Besides, I’d already noticed that gay (and lesbian and queer, whatever) academics are capable of amazing foolishness on the most basic matters. It’s important to remember that even in the most ostensibly progressive milieu, including the self-avowedly radical, human sexuality still inspires terror, which in turn begets confusion and incoherence.

Disavowing bigotry and embracing Diversity are not enough; they’re barely a beginning. Many people in America believe that because some people protested 40 and 50 years ago, and some laws were passed, and almost everyone pays lip service to equality and fair treatment, we have put racism / sexism / antigay bigotry behind us. Most people would rather see change as something that happens to us and our society by magic, overnight, rather than something we must make happen, over long periods of time, with weary vigilance and self-scrutiny.

Eberwein’s main interest is male bonding in American war films, though his argument also applies to male bonding in other genres. His target is those critics who find ‘homosexuality’ in such bonds, and especially in triangles where two male friends find themselves competing for the love of the same woman; his aim is to advocate “that criticism move beyond this figure and acknowledge the problems that attend schematizing human relationships” (34). He’s adamant “against using strict dichotomies (heterosexual or homosexual) to categorize complex relationships” (53). And who, in this post-Kinsey, post-modern age, would disagree with that? Certainly not me. Opposition to dichotomies and binaries is being worn very high in academia this season.

Putting that principle into practice, though, is harder than you might think. Eberwein doesn’t really want to get rid of dichotomies. For him the strictest one is between male love that’s “sexual” and male love that isn’t, and gosh, he’s real strict about it:

The male friendships [in The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)], presented most intensely as Jim embraces his dead comrade Slim, whom he designates a “buddy,” have nothing to do with male sexuality, which throughout the film is presented unambiguously strictly in heterosexual terms [20].

[T]he somber tone and religious dimension [of a scene in A Midnight Clear (Keith Gordon, 1992)] neutralize any homosexual dimension [42].

Their heterosexual rivalry simply cannot be read as displaced homoerotic fraternal desire [45, referring to Hell’s Angels, (Howard Hughes, 1930)].

[Love Me Tender (Robert Webb, 1956)] is not in any way readable as a narrative that supports the homosocial-homosexual continuum [46].

The love at the center of the relationship is absolutely not erotic [48, re All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930)].

[Sucking pot smoke through a gun barrel in Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)] This is not fellatio. Both [Sheen and Dafoe] are unambiguously heterosexual [119].

I cite Sedgwick and the two reviews because I think the film [Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001] specifically denies a homosexual / homosocial reading by making both men fathers [180n9].

Oh yeah, right, homosexual and bisexual men never become fathers. Of course, it may well be that one reason for “making both men fathers” in the film was to establish their heterosexual bona fides, but this would be persuasive only to a mindset which assumes a strict homo/hetero dichotomy. From commercial entertainment such dichotomies are to be expected, but not from a critic whose express aim is to break them down.

Eberwein cites Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men (Columbia UP, 1985) as the source of what he calls a “homosexual / homosocial continuum”, but he either hasn’t read her, or has misunderstood her, as shown, for example, by his calling a “continuum” a “dichotomy.” (In fairness, the same appears true of many of the people who cite her favorably.) Sedgwick also sought to break down strict dichotomies, but dichotomies have a way of popping back up and knocking you over just when you thought you’d knocked them down.

I’m not saying that any of the films Eberwein discusses should be read homoerotically, though “should” and “can” are two different matters. I even agree that Vito Russo, whose groundbreaking catalogue of homosexuality in Hollywood film was tremendously important, wasn’t always a reliable critic. But Eberwein’s homophobia makes him even less reliable. He bases many of his readings on such crude stereotypes that it would take a heart of stone to read him without laughing. In addition to ‘fathers can’t be fairies’, there’s this:

The reviewer [of Air Force (Howard Hawks, 1943)] for Variety spoke about the bonding: “The affection of the crew of the ‘Mary Ann’ is genuine, manly and sentimental. It points to a type of team-work which may well be construed as a pattern for all Americans in the manner in which our team-work, on the home front and at the battle fronts, will achieve the ultimate victory.” The important aspect of this review comes in the suggestion that “affection” can in fact be “manly.” That is, the two are not mutually exclusive, and the union of these will lead to victory [44].

Um, Professor Eberwein? “Homosexual” and “manly” aren’t mutually exclusive either.

Eberwein also declares that “love between men needn’t be compartmentalized as heterosexual or homosexual” (33), but I’m not sure how “love between men” could ever be “heterosexual.” (He’s referring here to a passage he quotes – twice! – from Donald Spoto, who’s saying something rather different.)

Admittedly, homoeroticism is to a large extent in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a given reading is fag-baiting by a reader uncomfortable with same-sex affection, as in Jane Tompkins’s “Female ‘screen’ characters, who are really extensions of the men they are paired with, perform this alibi function all the time, masking the fact that what the men are really interested in is one another” (West of Everything: the Inner Life of Westerns, [Oxford, 1992] p. 40). Sometimes the fag-baiting is obvious, as in the frequent reactions to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films: even though Jackson toned down the affection between Frodo and Sam compared to the books, many males had fits of giggles over it, while others indignantly defended the Hobbits’ virtue. Remember too how many scholars (both gay and straight, homophobic and gay-positive) read the nocturnal initiation scene from the Secret Gospel of Mark as a “sexually charged climax.”

A few years ago some collections were published of old photographs showing men being affectionate with each other: Russell Bush and Ron Lieberman’s Affectionate Men (Macmillan, 1998), David Deitcher’s Dear Friends (HNA Books, 2001), John Ibson’s Picturing Men (Smithsonian, 2002; new edition, Chicago, 2006). I was surprised when reviewers in the gay press simply took for granted that all the men depicted in the photos were gay. Some surely were, others probably weren’t, but it’s impossible to be sure in most cases, and it doesn’t really matter since I view the photos as a gay man who’s as interested in affection between males as in sex. But then consider the image below (via), one of a series of Cannon Towels ads that ran in Life magazine during World War II. (Click on the image to, um, make it bigger.)

Is this ad homoerotic? Eberwein quotes a writer, John Costello, who thinks so: “An indication that public attitudes to the taboo of homosexuality were also shifting came with the appearance of homoerotic advertisements in American magazines, which began featuring male ‘pinup[s]’ such as those for Munsingwear underwear and Cannon bath towels.” Eberwein is sure it isn’t: “I believe the opposite is the case. The very fact that naked men are shown cavorting demonstrates they are not homosexual. … In contrast, the Cannon advertisements present a celebration of male sexuality” (71). Once again Eberwein is confused: whether or not the men depicted are “homosexual” (and Costello didn’t say they were) is irrelevant to whether the ad is “homoerotic.” Both beg the question of what “homoerotic” means: does it mean “attractive to homosexual males”, or “depicting or suggesting sexual acts between males”, “depicting a homosexual male”, or something else? And last time I checked, male homosexuality was a subset of “male sexuality.”

But both of them are half right, half wrong. The ad is certainly a ‘pinup’: its flaunting of bare male skin has no purpose except display. Look at the sculpted bodies; a photo of a group of real GIs bathing in the river wouldn’t exhibit such uniform perfection. Notice the strategically placed head, dead center, which figleafs one bathing beauty’s pubic hair. I’d bet there was a gay art director involved somewhere, but I’d also bet that straight women (the ostensible target audience of an ad for towels) enjoyed this image too. It’s startling to realize that it was published in the 1940s, but I don’t agree that it signaled a softening of public homophobia, given the antigay crackdown that erupted right after the war.

I’ll happily agree with Eberwein that “that not every buddy film is necessarily about” covert male homoeroticism; does any serious critic claim otherwise? The trouble is that in practice he won’t concede that any buddy film is about it. When he discusses gay characters in post-Code war films, he’s palpably more comfortable because They are clearly demarcated in those films and there’s no need – he thinks – for coding: if a character isn’t labeled a queer, he must not be one. He gratefully cites Richard Dyer’s paper on the prison-escape film Papillon (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1973) because Dyer argues that “a nonsexualized love between men is possible” (47) and that the gay character “Maturette and his … admirer in the hospital, in part function as a model for what Papillon and Dega’s relationship is not” (Dyer, The Matter of Images, Routledge 1993, 127). Without disputing Dyer’s argument (I haven’t yet seen Papillon), I notice that once again Eberwein assumes a clear dichotomy between the sexual and nonsexual, violating his own stricture “that human beings function in multiple registers and … occupy complex overdetermined spaces” (24).

So, I find Armed Forces depressing: after decades of study of homosexuality in cinema and public culture, there are still critics who are unable to deal with the complexities of human sexuality. At least there are others – including Richard Dyer, whose work I’ve been reading lately with great pleasure – who don’t share Robert Eberwein’s incapacity.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Is It Not Time For My Painkiller?

If I say so myself, the best reviews I wrote for Gay Community News were of books related to religion. GCN spoiled me, partly because they depended so much on volunteer writers to fill up the pages, so I got to write extended essay-reviews that made me feel like a writer for the New York Review of Books.

This one, published in 1988 or so, is one I'm proudest of. The first title was supplied by my Significant Other at the time (is SO still in use?); it's a line from a play by Samuel Beckett, as he remembered it. The second, of course, is Satan's line from Milton's Paradise Lost, and it sums up my review of religious morality -- that religion too often manages to rationalize evil as good.

The review also earned a letter praising it from Joanna Russ, the lesbian-feminist sf writer and English prof, which appeared on the GCN Letters page. I was happy to see that Russ included that letter in the selection of her published letters that she included in her recent collection of writings, The Country You Have Never Seen (University of Liverpool, 2007). I think I may be justified in thinking that this piece holds up pretty well after 20-odd years.

Ecstasy Is a New Frequency: Teachings of the Light Institute
by Chris Griscom
Santa Fe NM: Bear and Company, 1987
180 pp.
$9.95 paperback
Plague: A Novel About Healing
by Toby Johnson
Boston: Alyson Publications, 1987
250 pp
$7.95 paperback
Although Protestant fundamentalism and the New Age movement are ostensibly antagonistic to each other, they are basically the same syndrome elaborated from different socioeconomic groups. Both are attempts to regress, to flee from the present into the womb of the past, to escape from the essential moral ambiguity of the universe, to reject autonomy and moral responsibility and the terrors thereof. Both piss on what they regard as human pride while simultaneously pissing on it – fundamentalism by placing humanity ‘a little below the angels’, the New Age by claiming that we are all really gods, sort of, who have fallen from our true glory. Both offer to the victims of natural disaster and human violence the cold comfort that their suffering is their own fault. Both are anti-intellectual. Both credulously embrace the supernatural. Both exploit the gullible financially. (Fundamentalism uses the mass media more effectively, but Shirley Maclaine’s TV movie Out on a Limb has shown that there’s no reason New Age couldn’t do the same with equal success.) Both even share a belief that we are on the eve of a new world: fundamentalism with its fantasies of Harmonic Convergences and the imminent dawn of a New Age. And while both give some kind of meaning to the lives of their adherents, both are ridiculous and fraudulent insults to the human mind, heart, and spirit.
The difference, as I mentioned, lies in class. Though there are undoubtedly exceptions, the kind of Protestant fundamentalism that has provided a spiritual rationale for the Reagan regime’s right-wing blitzkrieg flourishes mainly among upwardly-mobile white trash. New Age seems to be popular among college-educated and supposedly sophisticated middle-class types, who are often scornful of born-again superstition – definitely a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
I guess the reason a copy of Chris Griscom’s Ecstasy Is the New Frequency was sent to GCN for review is that it contains some carefully nonjudgmental comments on homosexuality. Griscom runs something called The Light Institute in New Mexico, publicized by Shirley Maclaine’s Dancing in the Light, where she helps people clear their emotional bodies by re-experiencing their past lives. Ecstasy Is the New Frequency is written “from notes taken … as she trained her colleagues and from talks she gave during 1986” (xi) in a style reminiscent of the speeches of Ronald Reagan: “Physicists are beginning to explore the fact that there’s something on the other side called negative space-time. There’s something on the other side of reality” (63). Her vocabulary is a word salad of computer jargon, psychobabble, and her own pet usage (this last helpfully collected in a glossary at the book’s end). Even with heavy editing Griscom is so incoherent that, as my roommate observed, you could rearrange all her sentences at random and they would make just as much sense.
For some readers, however, all that will matter is that at The Light Institute, “we don’t have to define or discuss homosexuality in terms of ‘Is that OK?’ or ‘Is it not OK?’ Instead, we see how someone is using it in relationship to the themes, or choices, they have made in this lifetime. … First of all, recognize that the choice of homosexuality, the choice itself or merging only with like kinds, is not as interesting as how it is teaching people to grow” (111). Griscom even says that “On some octave, on some level, homosexuality has to do with a spiritual understanding that can be very advanced” (112).
Thanks, but no thanks. Though Griscom may have made the happy discovery that by adopting this stance she can make money off of self-accepting gays, she makes it clear with this “example from a past-life session” that she doesn’t know a damned thing about male homosexuality:
A being from the planet Saturn volunteered to participate on a mission to Planet Earth to help seed a more advanced civilization. On Saturn, sexual procreative activity never includes penetration on physical levels, but instead is produced by mutual thought-form. For the purpose of this mission to Earth, the being exchanged an androgynous body for a male body in order to impregnate the Earth beings with the proposed genetic coding. The horror of actual penetration of another being was so intense for the Saturnian that he joined a homosexual group rather than continue the sexual practices predominant on Earth. Communion with like kind was more tolerable than participating in an unthinkable, interpersonal affront from the perspective of the Saturnian culture at that time … [102].
Oh sure, there have been sexually active gay men who have gone through their whole lives without penetrating or being penetrated by another man’s body. But it’s just a tiny bit naïve to assume, as Griscom clearly does, that “communion with like kind” necessarily excludes such penetration. (It’s also naïve to understand homosexuality simplistically as “communion with like kind.”) Still, naiveté is no crime, and neither is Griscom’s enthusiastic embrace of every quasi-spiritual fad of the past fifty years, from Edgar Cayce to acupuncture (for accessing past lives!) to fantasies about the intelligence of whales to Hindu versions of Oral Roberts (“There’s a great guru in India named Sai Baba who manifests ashes and jewels and whatever” [31]). Whether someone this dumb should be taking money to play with other people’s heads, however, is a fair question. Maybe she makes some of them feel better for a while; quacks often do. And if psychiatrists and their ilk (whose track record is bad enough) are allowed to fatten on the miseries of others, why not Chris Griscom? No reason I can see.
But Chris Griscom’s ideas are not just ignorant and silly; they are also contemptible. She begins the book by telling how, as a Peace Corps volunteer during the 1960s, she witnessed the death of a little girl in a village in El Salvador. Her first reaction was anger: “Where was justice? How could God show such cruelty to an innocent child?” But that first reaction seems to have been followed by thoughts of her own fate: “Nothing made sense or had any value if cruel death was our only certain future” (2). Gradually, she says, she learned that she witnessed this and other deaths because “God just wanted to test me on my capacity to surrender blame – the projection of injustice”, and “Compassion became a flood coursing through my being” (3). And now she realizes: “That tiny child gave up her life and freed me … she picked that moment in my arms for me” (6).
There’s a sort of sequel to this story. Flying back to the U.S. some years later, “I should have been feeling a sense of elation, but instead I felt heavy and lifeless. … I began to look at my fellow passengers. Ill health, depression, cancer, addictions were oozing out of the auric fields of almost everyone. … These were the living dead! … As I passed up and down the aisles, no one raised his or her eyes to meet mine” (65f). But just as all seemed lost, Griscom noticed a blond blue-eyed little girl of about six: “We talked to each other with our eyes. I felt such recognition from her, such profound compassion. I knew I was in the presence of a teacher, a very wise soul, a loving friend” (66). Perhaps I am overly cynical, but it isn’t it interesting that although the death of a child is nothing to get excited about, Chris Griscom’s anxiety attacks get fast fast fast relief from the universe? Indeed, it turns out that everything that happens is just God’s audiovisual aids for Chris Griscom’s spiritual training. And for yours, too: “You’re not accidentally reading this book” (6).
And the lesson God wants us to learn? Simple: “There are no victims” (37, emphasis in original).
Sympathy is something that’s very important to understand. In our society, we are trained to be “sympathetic.” But, it’s the most destructive thing you can do for an emotional body. Feel this difference. When somebody’s ill or has had something happen, and you say, “This is awful; that should not have happened to you,” what you’re doing is triggering that person’s emotional body’s crystallization of itself, of the view from itself: “Yes, I’m the victim, and I deserve to be in this spot” [57].
Whoa! Maybe viewing oneself as a victim is unhealthy, but by definition a victim does not deserve to be in that spot. It’s Griscom who says that victims deserve their plight, since she holds that they have chosen it. Not only that, they have chosen their victimizers:
If they are now the victim, then they have been the victimizer of that same soul before. Beyond that linear balancing is the balancing of the scales. You do it to me, and I’ll do it to you, and we’ll keep this going forever and ever. … Nobody else is going to dirty their hands on an idea you have about some punishment that you think you deserve. No other soul will do it for you. Your enemy will not kill you, I promise you [!]. Your enemy is moving into the light and will not move backwards into evil or darkness for you. It takes a profound love to say, “Do you really feel that you can learn by being abused by me?” [37]
If this is spiritual wisdom, I’d rather be a fool. But I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it. Nowhere in Ecstasy Is a New Frequency – and I struggled through all of it – could I detect any real intelligence or compassion, or any reason for this book to exist. What I did find was considerable stupidity, sentimentality, callousness, and Chris Griscom loving the sound of her own voice. Translated into more concrete terms, what Griscom is saying is that, say, a nine-year-old Nicaraguan girl who is gang-raped and then disemboweled by a Contra brigade is not a victim; that in a previous life she tortured them; that they butcher her out of a profound love in order to further her spiritual development. Think I’m being unfair? That Griscom doesn’t really have such things in mind? Wrong. She does.
Perhaps the soul says, “You need to understand permission, so go in and kill a few people, and you will begin to understand the cosmic law of permission.” We go in and get the sword … but what happens is we are so imprinted by the experience of it – the intense imprint of pain and torture – that we don’t release it. We don’t let it go. We hold it in the seat of our emotional body, and then we pass judgment on ourselves. We forget that our soul is saying, “There is no good and evil. There are no victims. You are just experiencing this so that you understand permission, so that you understand cosmic law.” Instead, we imprint the guilt, fear, and anger [15].
Christianity has similar ideas in its repertoire. On one hand, there’s Original Sin: you’re an abominable sinner, and the most terrible suffering is too good for you. On the other hand, there’s Heaven: no matter how much you suffer now, when you view it from a cosmic perspective in the afterlife you’ll see that it was necessary to make you a better person. The jargon is different, but God is still saying: This hurts me more than it does you, you brought it on yourself, and someday you’ll thank me for it.
So let’s talk about AIDS. Griscom says that “part of the new understanding is that limiting sexual expression only to the lower chakras without access to our spiritual, heart chakra (especially with multiple partners) invites disease. Through our addiction to immediate gratification, we have been avoiding this teaching for eons. Witness syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes, chlamydia, AIDS!” (76f). Nonsense. You can catch STDs as easily from an infected lover as from a trick. And what, pray tell, is the moral significance of AIDS transmission through blood transfusions? Or of an air-vectored disease like influenza, which killed millions of people in the great epidemics of this century? Under the pseudo-yogic jargon, Griscom’s sentiments are those of the Moral Majority. “However, in terms of evolutionary leaps of consciousness, AIDS is a perfect healing tool. … When we have mastered the mystery of death, we will be able to participate in the divine plan of the universe. We are ready!” (77). But don’t get your hopes up – “In truth, we are not yet in the era of healing” (ibid.). I’m reminded of the time I saw Pat Robertson suggesting on the 700 Club that, just maybe, no promises, we’d see God healing cases of AIDS: those who cynically hold out false hope to the desperate are the scum of the earth, whether they do it in the name of Jesus or a New Age.
Which brings me to Toby Johnson’s Plague, the second novel I’ve read this year which postulates that AIDS is a CIA germ-warfare plot. That’s two too many. In Plague, which is set in “the possible near future”, a young woman working for a right-wing Washington D.C. think-tank stumbles onto evidence of CIA responsibility for the creation of the AIDS virus, and for the existence of an “antidote” to its effects. Her fiancé, a former computer hacker who had in adolescence been the lover of a man who later died of AIDS, breaks into the think-tank’s files to recover the information. They pass this dossier to a gay psychiatrist from San Francisco who counsels PWAs and is exploring philosophies of “attitudinal healing”; the psychiatrist is on the East Coast to appear on the Donohue show, where he argues that it isn’t surprising that AIDS, which is “a condition of vulnerability … would show up among gay men, or for that matter, that it would show up at this time in history when we’re all feeling so vulnerable because of things like toxic waste and pollution and, of course, nuclear war” (132). While trying to confront the man responsible for the concealment of the CIA project, the psychiatrist has a mystical experience in which God tells him that he must forgive, and so he does. In an epilogue we learn that the psychiatrist, the ex-hacker and his fiancée have founded the Twin Peaks Center for Attitudinal healing; that a sort of vaccine has been developed; and that the bad guy has died in a plane crash. Everyone is forgiven, and it’s the best of all possible worlds.
Suppose for a moment that someone managed to prove that the CIA was behind AIDS; what then? Those responsible would never be brought to justice, of course; nor would the CIA itself be dismantled. The dead would not come back to life, the sick would not rise from their beds, bigots would not have a change of heart. If it’s true, I want to know it, but so far no one has shown that we do know it. And when a lot of people cling so desperately to a fantasy, it’s legitimate to ask why that fantasy is so attractive to them. Could it be that they cannot face the thought that no one is to blame for AIDS? That there has to be a human villain to give the disease meaning?
For antihomosexual bigots, AIDS had a ready-made meaning. They had been yearing all along for something in this life to correlate with the damnation they promised us in the next, and with the loathing they felt for us for reasons of their own. Suicide was cited as a punishment we allegedly inflicted on ourselves, but it had a way of backfiring, since people might legitimately ask why so many gay people found life so unbearable that they tried to end it; our promiscuity was noted, but the idea of having many sex partners is downright attractive to most people on some level, so it didn’t work too well either. So when gay men began dying of a mysterious and terrible new disease, the bigots were overjoyed at having been vindicated – and, of course, at seeing us die.
AIDS threw us once again on the defensive when we were still battling accusations of child recruitment / molestation. But this time it wasn’t just a lie: we were, indeed, dying. So we panicked, looking for our own scapegoats. The ‘excessively’ promiscuous were blamed for their own deaths; some gay men who had denounced others’ lifestyles with the fury of a Falwell found themselves vindicated too, and despite the service they rendered their dying brothers could not help exuding a certain satisfaction. Cautious warnings to avoid exchange of body fluids were denounced as anti-sexual propaganda, though the suggestions were reasonable enough. Early on someone suggested that the whole thing was a CIA plot, and although no real evidence has surfaced that I know of, the notion caught on. Although it did not save one person’s life, people seemed to feel better having someone to blame, denounce, revile. And one mark of the absurdity of the fantasy was the accompanying daydream: the CIA had, locked away somewhere, an antidote, a cure. After all, they had made it, so surely they could make it go away. Right? Wrong.
The strange thing about Plague is that it offers three separate explanations for AIDS, of which the CIA connection is only one. The second is that the bigots created AIDS with their hatred. The third is that gay men did it to ourselves, our shame and guilt over being gay made us sick. It’s bad enough having to live in a world where we are the object of nearly universal loathing by people whose morals make a barracuda look like Mother Teresa. But when gay people spew out this kind of stupidity and then expect to be congratulated because they are spiritually enlightened enough to understand these strange paradoxes and you aren’t – well, then I begin to suspect that there is no hope for the human race. But that suspicion isn’t going to keep me from publicly denouncing this kind of ‘spiritual teaching’ for the mushbrained swill that it is.
There is a vital difference between saying that the bigots wanted us to die, were glad to see us die – and saying that they made us sick with the vibrations of their hatred. There is a vital difference between saying that a PWA’s mental and emotional attitude is essential in fighting the disease, and saying that he or she got sick because of a bad attitude. People who say that they are ‘into spirituality’ often accuse me of being to literal-minded in dealing with their fatuous paradoxes and platitudes; but usually it is they who are taking metaphorical and mythical statements literally, and I sometimes suspect that this mistake constitutes the core of spirituality.
Now, HIV may not be the actual or sole cause of AIDS. But the hemophiliacs, surgical patients, and babies of IV drug users who got AIDS didn’t get it from guilt or other people’s ill-will: there was some biological, medical, material cause as contemptuous of human volition as an earthquake. Similarly, it may be that New Age and other ‘attitudinal’ therapies have something valid to contribute to the treatment not only of AIDS but of many diseases – but their practitioners must not be allowed to defend stupid and hateful theories about those therapies with anti-rationalist obfuscations. Reason, like any tool developed by human beings, certainly has its limits, but they are not the limits these retrograde geeks recognize.
The author claims in a prefatory note that that his novel’s “teachings about attitudinal healing are accurate.” In what sense does he mean “accurate”? Does he mean that Plague accurately represents the teachings of attitudinal healers? (I hope Johnson is better informed on attitudinal healing than he is on the teachings of Jesus. Plague contains many pages of embarrassingly shallow and ill-informed ‘spiritual’ dialogues, which present a picture of Jesus as one-sided and misleading in its own way as any televangelist’s.) Or does he claim that their teachings are as effective as the novel shows them to be? One character in Plague says that he cured himself of AIDS by techniques he learned from A Course in Miracles. Maybe this is possible. But before I will concede that it happens, I want to know:
a) that people who’ve used such methods really have recovered from AIDS;
b) that they remain healthy to this day;
c) that more people who’ve used such methods experience such remissions than people who’ve undergone standard medical therapy, or no therapy at all.
It should be easy enough to document such facts, if they are facts. Until I see some kind of documentation, I will continue to equate attitudinal healing with faith healing, and to consider its claims at best disingenuous and at worst fraudulent. (And by documentation, I mean results of clinical tests to prove the diagnosis in the first place. In other words, if someone ‘knows’ that the bout of flu he had last November was really pneumocystis, and that he ‘cured’ himself by applying the techniques in A Course in Miracles, he doesn’t qualify.) Unless Toby Johnson can point to real cures, then he is not only guilty of having contributed to the needless death of many trees by writing a lousy novel, but also of trying to send PWAs and PWARCs off on one more wild-goose chase after a worthless treatment. In which case he can put on his dunce cap and go sit in the corner with Pat (“I see a Presidential campaign! That campaign is healed!”) Robertson.
Personally, I’m tired of hearing believers in various kinds of spirituality sneering at atheists like me as humorless, literal-minded killjoys who want to reduce the mystery and beauty of the universe to a mindless, soulless machine. As far as I can see, it is the believers who hate mystery: they have to an explanation for everything, and their explanations have all the poetry and beauty of the Los Angeles phone directory. They spit on the loveliness of the human body because it isn’t eternal – when it is beautiful precisely because it isn’t eternal. They despise the material world because they can’t see the soul in it. And their attempts to find an underlying justice in the tragic fragility and brevity of life end up reading like operating manuals for a concentration camp.
Surely we can do better than this. Surely it must be possible to have a spirituality which recognizes that, though on a cosmic scale our lives have no significance, it is the human scale which really matters to us. We have to fuse the personal and the political, the cosmic and the microcosmic, the poetic and the scientific. I’d like to think that the trouble doesn’t lie in the spiritual quest itself, but rather in the way it’s usually conducted. ‘Spiritual”-minded friends have often accused me of excessive skepticism and cynicism; to them I reply that until skepticism and even cynicism are recognized as cardinal spiritual virtues, spirituality will continue to be the domains of fools and frauds. I wouldn’t be cynical if I thought we couldn’t do better.