Friday, February 27, 2009

Poetry Friday - buzz


The year just past, all things considered, has
been good to me: my writing has returned,
the things (however painful) I have learned
about myself have not been useless. As

my thirties peek at me from ambush three
years in the future, I take comfort from
the knowledge I can take them as they come.
Till then, there's nowhere else I'd rather be,

so long as I succeed in keeping men
at arm's length. I don't want to have to start
all over every year, Greg. More is less

and less is more, that's what I've learned, as when
you asked me, Do you see how far apart
we're sitting? and I should have answered, Yes.

31 October 1977
2 November 1977

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

This Blog Is Not a Safe Space, part 4

I once heard a gay minister snidely dismiss freedom of speech issues in the classroom. This gives him common ground with many of his opponents, who would gladly keep him and other GLBT people out of even college classrooms, let alone secondary or primary schools. This same minister was among the IU staff, students and faculty who agitated against the First Amendment in September 2003, demanding that the University censor a faculty member's antigay web log. Some of them jeered at the First Amendment and the Constitution in general, dismissing them as a piece of paper for the benefit of rich white men only. Not long after, of course, many of these same cultured despisers of the Constitution were outraged that George W. Bush wanted to change the sacred Constitution to forbid recognition of same-sex marriage.

Freedom of speech in the classroom is a sticky issue. I don't think any court would invoke the First Amendment to support a student who disrupted a class by launching into a one hour sermon complete with scriptural references. The Christian Right, for its part, only supports student freedom and activism by its own children against competing sects or secularists; in general they prefer students to be silent and passive.

Preventing a kid from harassing another kid for whatever reason in the classroom, the hallways or school grounds is not an infringement of the harasser's First Amendment rights. Some bigots might argue informally that it is (like a jaywalker who defends himself by arguing, "It's a free country!"), but I don't believe such arguments would or should stand in any court. However, students' rights are already limited enough without trying to stifle them further.

I understand that where a teacher can't (for political or other reasons) make a teachable moment out of a bigoted remark, squelching certain terms in class may be the only available course. This does not make a safe space, though, and there should be no pretense that it does. It's a stopgap, a papering over that may be unavoidable, but it isn't education. Nor does it prepare students for life in a pluralistic society.

Rather than "safe space," we need to build institutions for teaching self-defense, to help children and adults deal with difference and disagreement, even offense, without panicking; but also to defend themselves against bigotry. More positively, we need to encourage everyone to know why they hold the beliefs they do, a kind of knowledge that requires understanding of opposing beliefs. We also need structures for conflict engagement -- horizontally (person to person) rather than vertically (authority to perpetrator). Teachers would function here as referees, monitoring procedures and preventing verbal disputes from turning into violence, rather than as coaches who are trying to produce a given outcome. I realize that my proposal won't go over very well with diversity managers and other professionals, because it will ultimately teach students to defend themselves against their teachers -- and their parents. I intend it to do so.

Some gay men in an Internet chat room I frequent argued against my self-defense approach. They said that teaching everyone self-defense would just produce better-equipped bullies. These guys were mainly concerned to rationalize a do-nothing attitude, but they did stumble on a valid point, which is that bigotry is a moving target. If we try to change the school environment, the children (and their parents, and teachers and administration) will not be molded passively like clay. They will respond creatively, unpredictably, to try to prevent changes in their accustomed environment. Whatever intervention we design had better include provisions for spotting and reacting to creative, unpredictable counter-moves. I believe that a self-defense approach, based as it is on dialogue -- which means listening seriously to the other sides -- leaves room for such a response, and makes it possible.

Frustrating though it is, this same resistance to indoctrination is one of the things that makes change possible. Because some people refused social indoctrination about race, class, sex roles and sexuality, change has happened in American society -- change for the better, in my opinion, though not everyone agrees with me.

Any program which fails to take resistance into account is not only doomed to failure, but wrong-headed. One of many things I like about Speakers Bureau is that we have no real authority. We can't tell people what to think, we aren't there to enforce anything. We're there to make more talk; not less speech, but more speech.

Let me try to make one thing clear: I am not saying that minority kids need to develop thicker skins, as some apologists for bigotry have been known to suggest. I think everyone needs to develop thicker skins, including bigots as well as, well, liberals. In a much-anthologized article, self-styled free-speech champion Nat Hentoff attacked "PC" and "speech codes" because "liberal students and those who can be called politically moderate ... no longer get involved in class discussions where their views would go against the grain of PC righteousness" -- that is, where someone might disagree with them too vehemently ("'Speech Codes' on the Campus and Problems of Free Speech", Dissent, Fall 1991; reprinted in Patricia Aufderheide, ed., Beyond PC: Toward a Politics of Understanding [Graywolf Press, 1992], 52). Hentoff quoted a cartoonist who got "hisses from the audience" for criticizing "PC" at a "free speech forum" at Brown University. Liberal white and black faculty are reluctant to oppose "PC" publicly, Hentoff claimed, because "they want to be liked -- or at least not too disliked" (53). Minority students, Hentoff argued, should fight hostility with "more speech," rather than being intimidated. If they do so, however, people like Hentoff attack them for "PC righteousness" and intimidating liberals and moderates; the contradiction looks pretty blatant to me. "Liberals" and "moderates" (two groups which Hentoff apparently thinks contain no minorities!), however, should not be exposed to unkind words or criticism, nor need they meet them with "more speech"; they -- but not blacks, gays, or women – can simply play the victim. (Hentoff’s complaint is really quite funny in its way, for in addition to its other self-contradictions it’s exactly the people he considers “liberal … and those who can be called politically moderate” who are denounced by the Right as the enforcers of “PC righteousness.”)

There is -- how shall I put this? -- a passive-aggressive element in this liberal and moderate withdrawal from discussion, a refusal to face the undeniably unpleasant anger of minorities: if they can't ask for their rights nicely, we won't listen to them. The African-American lesbian poet and feminist Audre Lorde was sharply critical of white feminists who want "to deal with racism without dealing with the harshness of Black women." (Sister Outsider [Firebrand,1984], 126)

As gay scholar Jeffrey Escoffier wrote in a valuable essay on multicultural public dialogue (in American Homo [California, 1998], 200), "Stoicism is necessary in public debate. No one enjoys being humiliated in public. Participation in public dialogue will not be fruitful if we do not learn to accept conflict, pain, and hurt feelings. Some of the detrimental effect of political correctness stems from the fear of being criticized or misrepresented in public. Expressions of anger and hostility should be expected." Escoffier also quoted African-American activist and singer Bernice Reagon (198): "We've pretty much come to the end of a time when you have a space that is 'yours only.'" Dialogue is the primary medium through which we can construct political coalitions and a multicultural project."

Schools are among the places where such dialogue should take place. In practice, totalistic safe space too often means that what makes the teacher uncomfortable will become unspeakable, and it is expected that the teacher will become uncomfortable very easily, as an example to students. I submit that teachers should rather be guides into new and sometimes frightening realms of ideas, showing by example that what makes us uncomfortable or even offends us will not disable us, let alone kill us, and that anything can be questioned, discussed, debated.

Recently while I was rereading Lawrence Block’s murder mystery Eight Million Ways to Die, I found this wonderful passage, set in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting:
Mary, one off the regulars at St. Paul’s, had said it. She was a birdlike woman with a tiny voice, always well dressed and well groomed and soft-spoken. I’d heard her qualify once, and evidently she’d been the next thing to a shopping-bag lady before she hit bottom. One night, speaking from the floor, she’d said, “You know, it was a revelation to me to learn that I don’t have to be comfortable. Nowhere is it written that I must be comfortable. I always thought if I felt nervous or anxious or unhappy I had to do something about it. But I learned that’s not true. Bad feelings won’t kill me. Alcohol will kill me, but my feelings won’t.”
Alas, many teachers (and others) do not believe this: they agree that what offends us will disable us, perhaps permanently. They are wrong. So let me close with this question to "safe space" advocates. If, as I've been arguing, totalistic safe space is incompatible with serious dialogue about serious issues, what do you envision as a proper place for discussion?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Are You Born Homosocial, Or Is It A Lifestyle Choice? (Reprise, With Thong)

I was up too late tonight, surfing the web, and I found this article on this blog. (It's not the most work-safe of blogs, so be prudent, Prudence; but it's quite entertaining, a quality not to be sniffed at in this day and age.) Which prompted me to look for, and find, this article by the gay critic Andy Medhurst about Batman, "deviance," and camp, which happily is available online; Medhurst's article had some influence on this earlier posting of mine. Which leads to the question of what a gay critic is, or gay writing, or gay poetry. (Silly! A gay critic is a critic who has sex with other critics of the same sex.) But that's another question for another day.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

This Blog Is Not a Safe Space, part 3

Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, singling out certain students as pariahs -- all these have long been part of school culture, as of adult life. Before shootings in middle-class, predominantly white high schools became a hot media topic, a certain amount of "boys will be boys" harassment and violence was considered normal background noise in school. 'Toughening them up' was even considered desirable: "The boy in America is not being brought up to punch another boy's head, or to stand having his own punched in a healthy and proper manner. ... There is a strange and indefinable air coming over the men: a tendency towards a common ... sexless tone of thought." That was the U.S. commissioner of education, an early advocate of Boy Scouting, in 1910; quoted in Colette Dowling, The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality (Random House, 2000), p. 23. This isn’t found only among boys, either: girls are capable of emotional and physical cruelty to each other, which also has been taken for granted as part of the way things are. (See for example, Leora Tannenbaum, Slut!: Growing up Female with a Bad Reputation [Seven Stories Press, 1999]; and Emily White, Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut [Scribner, 2002].)

Since inculcating social norms is part of education, teachers and administrators are expected to voice and enforce a normal level of bigotry. The infamous teacher who dissuaded young Malcolm Little (later Malcolm X) from his professional ambitions was certainly racist, but he was also reflecting and enforcing white American norms of the 1930s. The same was true in my own pre-Title IX high school days (1965-1969), when girls who got married were expelled, whether they were pregnant or not. (Not the boys who married or impregnated them, of course.) At my high school, one married teacher had to dig in her heels to go on teaching after her pregnancy began to show -- she was pressured to go on leave even earlier, but resisted successfully. God forbid students should see a married, pregnant woman: they might want to get married and have a baby when they grew up! What was really at stake was probably the social norm that respectable middle-class white wives and mothers should not work outside the home. In my parents' schooldays, a teacher would not have been allowed to work after she married.

Social norms change, however, and schools' and teachers' practices change with them. Today's bigotry was often yesterday's norm, but the process of norm enforcement continues, generally without acknowledging that change has taken place. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. Four legs good, two legs bad.

Michael Bérubé, a professor of English and the father of a son with Down Syndrome, wrote (in Life as We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child [Pantheon, 1996], 26f):
One night I said something like this to one of the leaders of what I usually think of as the other side in the academic culture wars. ... Being a humane fellow, he replied that although epithets like "mongoloid idiot" were undoubtedly used in a more benighted time, there have always been persons of good will who have resisted such phraseology. It's a nice thought, the kind you usually hear from traditionalists when you point out the barbarism and brutality of our human past. But it ain't so. Right through the 1970s, "mongoloid idiot" wasn't an epithet; it was a diagnosis.
One of the most insidious aspects of diversity management is its erasure of the history of such change, by making it seem that bigots are just bad people who need to diversify themselves, unlike the respectable people and institutions that protect minorities' feelings. Awareness of this history might produce a becoming humility in the enforcement of today's social norms. But never mind the past. Never mind that earlier in his or her career, today's diversity manager might have expelled gay students or pregnant students or female students who simply failed to return to their locked dormitories before curfew. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. That was then, this is now. You can't change people's minds overnight. Four legs good, two legs better.

What happens, though, when a commitment to diversity and respect for other cultures clashes with other commitments, such as the protection of children against violence? Historian Lillian Faderman (feminist, lesbian, daughter of an immigrant Jewish single mother -- impeccable diversity credentials) cowrote with Ghia Xiong a book on Hmong immigrants in the United States, I begin my life all over: the Hmong and the American immigrant experience (Beacon Press, 1998). "In Laos," they noted, "for a loving parent to beat a child until he was bruised was considered an appropriate, tried-and-true method of teaching him. Hmong parents are puzzled when their American children accuse them of 'child abuse,' as they learned at school such treatment is called. They are devastated when the children threaten to report them to the authorities, as their American teachers informed them they should do if they are being abused." Faderman and Xiong seem to side completely with the parents here; and I have talked to diversity managers who seem to assume that in any conflict of norms, Old Country ways should always prevail against American cultural imperialism. (See also Susan Moller Okin et al., Is multiculturalism bad for women? (Princeton, 1999) and Vijay Prashad, Everybody was Kung Fu fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity [Beacon Press, 2001].)

Should American teachers ignore bruises on Hmong children, but not on white ones? Breaking the perverse wills of children is an explicit part of much traditional Christian teaching, carried on by James Dobson and other Christian-right gurus. Should Hmong parents be permitted to bruise their kids and still be regarded as "loving" by diversity managers, while Dobson must instruct his readers how to discipline their children without leaving visible marks?

The question of parenting came up on another occasion when I was on a GLB panel speaking to an undergraduate health class. One of the students in the class asked us whether it wasn't reasonable, if the majority in a community sincerely believed gay parents were bad for their children, to take those children away from their parents? I posed an analogy: suppose that in a primarily Episcopalian community, the majority thinks that conservative evangelical parents are bad for their children; or that in a Protestant community, the majority thought Roman Catholics made unfit parents?

The questioner and some of the other students became upset, accusing me of religious intolerance. One student tried to defend me, pointing out that I wasn't really advocating the removal of children from Christian heterosexual families, only following the questioner's logic to its conclusion; but to no avail. The instructor complained in e-mail to a colleague of mine that I was "too combative." Which I am, often, but not in this case. I don't see why undergraduates couldn't follow a simple analogy; that a graduate student couldn't do so is alarming. Perhaps, instead of trying to show the questioner the flaw in her logic, I should have adopted her tactic, becoming distraught and accusing her of religious intolerance. Maybe it would have won me more sympathy from the class and instructor (though it's just as likely I'd have been accused of playing the victim), but would it have taught them anything?

I don't have a simple answer to my questions here, but I'm not asking them rhetorically either. The kind of conflict I'm talking about here is not a new one, but "diversity" sloganeering doesn't seem to have a way to deal with it. We're told, properly enough, to be respectful of other cultures (though not of very similar traditions within our own culture); but we must also protect children against abuse (as long as abuse isn't a treasured part of their exotic traditional cultures). The pretense of impartiality that diversity advocates seek to maintain simply ignores these conflicts, which is not going to make them go away.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Poetry Friday - a very practical nursery rhyme

(Notice: When I wrote this poem, I added a note in the margin:

This poem is for people who like to laugh a lot in bed. It is not for people who put on surgical masks and gloves before they commence.

When I read it in public, I'd introduce it with that note. I'd see people [usually college-age males] smirking and nudging each other with anticipation. The smirks generally disappeared after I read the first few lines -- they weren't expecting the poem to be totally gay, I presume. But you know better, don't you?)

a very practical nursery rhyme

a fuzzy boy
bounced in my arms all nite
much more practical than a teddy bear
covered from head to toe
with little brown and golden hairs

hairs on the sheets
hairs in our mouths when we kissed
the breeze from my window fan
teased our wet fur
while we played together
like puppy seals

all next day
his smells clung to me
rising smiling from my shirt
on my sheets
on my cheeks
like cotton candy
melted on my face and hands

now that fuzzy boy
lingers on the page
the same way
and though words are to hairs
like hairs are to cotton candy
(they don't melt
you must keep picking them off your tongue)
they linger longer in your mind
like a fuzzy boy,
much more practical
than a teddy bear

4 September 1977

Thursday, February 19, 2009

This Blog Is Not a Safe Space, part 2

A few years ago our campus GLBT group began producing and distributing Safe Zone stickers, which declared that "bigotry, harassment, and ignorance will not be tolerated" anywhere they were posted. The word "ignorant" bothered me, because everyone is ignorant, not least the people who designed the stickers. People who believe that they aren't ignorant may be among the most dangerous.

(I haven't got an image of the local Safe Zone stickers, but I've found a number from other universities around the country. I was struck that most of them promise safety explicitly -- and exclusively? -- for gay people, as though other people didn't have problems and weren't entitled to be safe too.)

The same organization sponsored a showing of If These Walls Could Talk 2, a lesbian themed made-for-TV movie. The showing took place in the campus Latino center, which was well-papered with Safe Zone stickers. The audience was about evenly divided between male and female undergraduates, almost all presumably GLB. As the video rolled, several of the young gay men in the room began groaning loudly in disgust whenever two women kissed on the TV screen, or when a bare female breast was exposed. Among these young gay men was the newly-elected president of the GLBT organization, a fervent booster of Safe Zone stickers. No one spoke up, no one intervened -- including me. At the time, I found their behavior merely childish and annoying. Only later did I realize how homophobic it was, and how incompatible with the Safe Zone in which we supposedly were sitting. In any case, it was the officers of the sponsoring organization who should have spoken up. But none did, and of course one of them was one of the offenders. Who guards the guardians? Who will protect us from our protectors? This same organization later sponsored viewings of Queer As Folk, the soft-porn cable TV series about gay men. I wonder if anyone made disgusted noises at the series' male to male kissing and exposed male skin -- and if so, if they got away with it?

Some readers might object that the people I'm discussing had no qualifications or training to create a safe space. That’s right, and that's the problem. "Safe Zone" stickers were distributed promiscuously to anyone who would accept them. To put a Safe Zone sticker on one's door is to declare oneself a person for whom enforcement isn't needed. On the night I just described, "bigotry, harassment, and ignorance" were not only tolerated, they were perpetrated by the very people who proclaimed themselves to be above such things.

Who, however, is qualified to create and maintain a safe space? Who is qualified to train others to do so? How are safe spaces enforced, and by whom? On another occasion, the GLB speakers' bureau I coordinate received a request for ... not so much a speaker as a sacrificial victim. The event was a weekend-long workshop on homophobia, sponsored by the campus gay-straight alliance. The workshop leader, a graduate student in counseling, wanted the subject to be present while the participants thought of anti-gay epithets, which would be written on slips of paper, and the slips of paper would be attached to the subject's clothing. Processing would follow. No rationale was offered for this bizarre exercise, but we were assured that it would be "facilitate[d] in a safe, caring way", in a "safe environment," and all participants were "already very sensitive and empathic." I was very uneasy about asking our volunteers to consider it; fortunately the other coordinator thought it was a great idea and offered to be the victim.

The word "doublethink" comes to mind. War is peace. Ignorance is strength. Bigotry is sensitive and empathic. Abuse is safe and caring. Given the nature of the exercise, why not use a heterosexual volunteer as the victim? Why was a gay person even needed? In the years since this request came before me, I've seen numerous announcements of programs on various hot topics, at IU or connected to it, assuring prospective participants that they will be in a "safe space", and I wonder if the term is being used in the same Orwellian sense. That's apart from the hubris involved in anyone's thinking they can deal with religious or sexual issues without offending or upsetting someone.

The core problem with totalistic safe space is that no one is capable of maintaining one. No one is so enlightened or free of prejudice as to be able to guarantee a space where no one will be offended. I'm probably better informed and more thoughtful than most of the diversity managers at my university, and for that very reason I would not presume to designate myself as an authoritative arbiter and enforcer of safety. (Indeed, I want the world to be less safe for bigotry.) Those who do so are not people I trust. Totalistic "safe zones" tend, from what I've seen, to produce complacency and self-righteousness in those who claim to know how to create them.

Diversity management professionals naturally present themselves as proponents of reason and tolerance against the superstitions of the ignorant many, but professionals don't have such a great track record. Professionals conceived and ran the Satanic Ritual Abuse witch hunt of the 1980s and 1990s; professionals think they know what proper sex roles are, and feel competent to force them on small children, even unto surgery and electroshock treatment (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “How to Bring Your Child Up Gay: the war on effeminate boys” in Tendencies [Duke, 1993]; Phyllis Burke, Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male and Female [Anchor Doubleday, 1996]). Psychiatrists and psychological professionals have embraced the belief that homosexuality is "genetic" or "biological," just at a time when the scientific evidence for that position is collapsing. More whimsically, I still recall with amusement how an education professional, my first-grade teacher, ordered me to use a red crayon to color Robin Redbreast's breast. Not knowing any better, I insisted that an orange crayon was closer to the actual color. Fortunately my mother backed me up, and I was allowed to be diverse.

From castration and sterilization of the mentally ill and retarded in the US before (and even after) World War II, to the abduction of "half-caste" children from their aboriginal families in Australia and North America, to lobotomy and electroshock, to infant genital mutilation in the US today, to the unnecessary institutionalization of children with Down Syndrome to the "war on effeminate boys", professionals have shown that they don't always know what is best for the people who are put into their care. The word "ignorant" is a popular term of derogation for those with views we dislike -- see above on the IU "Safe Zone" stickers -- but I am talking about programs conceived and implemented by educated people with advanced degrees. There is evidence, in fact, that professionals tend to be less tolerant of difference than the general population.

I'm not saying this to demonize all professionals, let alone teachers. And compared to lobotomy or electroshock, totalistic safe space is fairly tame stuff. I am saying that professionals, including teachers, should be very tentative about imposing anything on their students, no matter how innocuous or even noble it may seem. A great deal of intolerance and hostility leaks out from the paternalistic façade of safe space, and I think that's cause for concern. And simply from an educational standpoint, totalistic safe space is counterproductive. Far from teaching kids how to live in a diverse society, it will stifle diversity by refusing to acknowledge it.

Though the professionals who want to produce safe spaces generally seem to see themselves as progressive, and some of their values may be so, their approach is profoundly conservative. It fits into a familiar educational tradition which sees children as empty vessels, to be filled with knowledge by the wise. But there are other traditions. One approach, advocated by Gerald Graff among others, is "teaching the conflict." This recognizes that students are capable of reflection on issues that affect their lives -- and also that teachers not only may not have all the answers, but are not themselves impartial, outside the fray.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Third Time's the Charm!

Today my decreasingly-ambivalent Obama-supporter friend sent me a link to an article at the Huffington Post, headed "The Fiscal Stimulus Will Pay For Itself." Gee, that took me back.

First, of course, I remembered that the 2003 war on Iraq was going to pay for itself. Paul Wolfowitz rather notoriously said, "We're dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon." Not only that, Dick Cheney expressed his belief that the Iraqis would welcome the US as liberators. (Remember "Democracy, whiskey, sexy"? Those were innocent times, the 2002s and 3s. Not like today.)

Then I remembered that the Bush-Paulson-Obama-Pelosi-Frank bailout of last year was going to pay for itself. George W. Bush said, "Money will flow back to the Treasury as these assets are sold, and we expect that much, if not all, of the tax dollars we invest will be paid back." As a commenter declared tongue-in-cheek at The Distant Ocean, "The $700 billion may be a little high. Actually, once the oil starts flowing again, the bailout will pay for itself. I predict people on Wall Street will greet us as liberators!" Of course, it didn't work out that way; rather like the war on Iraq, the bailout plan was actually intended as the pillage of a prostrate nation.

Obama, of course, has already been welcomed as a liberator. I think that his stimulus plan has a better chance of doing some good than either the invasion of Iraq or the bailout, but what do I know? Certainly the HuffPost chose an unfortunate title for Ann Pettifor's defense of Obama's program.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Submitting to Homosexual Advances

Last weekend, prompted by Jon Schwarz' enthusiastic recommendation, I read Charles McCarry's 1974 spy novel, The Tears of Autumn. There's always a risk in reading a book that someone has praised to the skies; one expects too much, and is let down, though the book might have been enjoyable if one had expected less.

And your Promiscuous Reader, indiscriminate book slut that he is, felt let down. Far from stunning, The Tears of Autumn was pedestrian in its writing -- worse, it often read like a parody of the aging tough guy who goes after the truth, no matter what obstacles are thrown in his way. The characters were woodenly two-dimensional even for this kind of genre fiction. While I'm not exactly a fan of John LeCarre, I was surprised by fans of McCarry who rate him LeCarre's superior. The Tears of Autumn was first published as a paperback original, and it reads like one.

Since I outgrew the James Bond books as a callow teen, I've never had much interest in reading about espionage. It annoys me when Our spies get all self-righteous about Their spies spying on Us. The nerve of them Commies! We spy on them only because we have to, and we subvert and kill to frustrate their wicked aims, but they spy on us because they're wicked, because they like doing bad things, especially to us, because we're the good guys. So I'll give McCarry one thing: his politics seem to be a bit above the norm for spy fiction. (I see that in 1972 he published an apparently critical biography of Ralph Nader.) While his protagonist Paul Christopher is devoutly anti-Communist, the story grows out of the Kennedy administration's support for the 1963 military coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, the dictator of South Vietnam, which led to his murder by the conspirators; the Pentagon Papers report of this US involvement is quoted as an epigraph to the book. Christopher is such a straight arrow that he disapproves of his government's conduct. Three weeks after Diem's assassination, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and Christopher pursues the connection he discovers between the two killings.

I'm almost curious to see where McCarry took Christopher after this case. There are seven or eight more Paul Christopher books, published over the succeeding three decades and more. What happened to their politics as more evidence of dirty tricks by the US emerged in the late 1970s, and when the Soviet Union fell apart and the Cold War ended? But I don't know whether I want to read more of McCarry's prose to find out.

Also, though it was a minor element in the book, and amused me more than it offended me, the casual homophobia that turns up in the narration at a few key points is worth pointing out. Early on, for example, we're told of our spies that
Once a year, on the anniversary of their employment, they submitted to a lie detector test. The machine measured their breathing, the sweat on their palms, their blood pressure and pulse, and it knew whether they had stolen money from the government, submitted to homosexual advances, been doubled by the opposition, committed adultery. The test was called the “flutter.” They would ask of a new man, “Has he been fluttered?” If the answer was no, the man was told nothing, not even the true name of his case officer.
Notice the repetition of the word "submitted"; and maybe I'm just hearing echoes of "fluffer" in "flutter", but it does seem a rather campy euphemism. Of course this is historical background, a reflection of the official bigotry of the time when the book was published. It's a reminder of what decent, all-American CIA agents were expected to think in those days. McCarry himself, of course, is married and the father of four sons.

Later, we meet a minor character who helps Christopher with his quest, a Dominican brother expert in Chinese.
He was twelve, and already sexually corrupted, when the priests took him off the streets of Macao and taught him to read and write. Before he was twenty, the Dominicans discovered his talent for scholarship, and he never for the next forty years lived outside the Church, or wanted to.
Well, you can get all the 'sexual corruption' you want or need inside the Church, so why bother going out for it? I presume that the boy was "corrupted" by males because McCarry is much more worldly about heterosexual eccentricities. Another of Christopher's helpers is a German (or Austrian, or Swiss, whatever) midget named Dieter Dimpel.
He asked to use the toilet, and Dimpel showed him down a long hall, switching on the light for him. The walls of the corridor were crowded with framed photographs of unclothed blond girls, all wearing white knee socks; the pictures were expertly lighted and posed. Because there were so many photographs, the effect was chaste, an arabesque of white skin against whiter cloth, spun hair and closed eyes.
In McCarry's world, fetishistic heterosexual erotica is "chaste" in effect, but submitting to homosexual advances enjoys no such indulgence.

Torture (though we are assured at least once that Christopher doesn't torture people -- of course not! that is what underlings are for) is okay too. Christopher engages a Macedonian agent and his Flemish sidekick to kidnap and torture a minor Mafiosi in order to get the rest of the information Christopher needs. He'd prefer not to use water torture (not quite waterboarding, though mainly because there's no board), but accepts the necessity (which turns out rather to be the sadistic impulses of his agents) with a shrug, and only cautions them:
"There’s no need to hit the eyes."

Glavanis, seeing the contempt in Eycken’s face, grinned broadly. "Jan isn’t used to working with a man who has scruples."
The subject, one Frankie Pigeon, soon breaks. "When at last he was able to speak, he did so in a rapid soprano voice, like a castrato." That's the voice of our manly narrator again, as in all of these quotations.

Now, again, this is all par for the course, both historically and in a genre that has always been as heterosexual as the Western, but that doesn't make it less distasteful to read. I'm still thinking over whether to read the next book in McCarry's series.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

This Blog Is Not a Safe Space, part 1

Obedience in the classroom is scary.
-- Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

For several years now I’ve been bothered by some institutional uses of the concept of "safe space" as a tool or goal in education -- particularly in what's called multicultural education. Lately my objections have been multiplying and crystallizing, so I think it's time to try to organize them and set them forth for others' comment, response, and critique.

I’m going to draw here, not on the educational literature on safe space, but on what has been said by people I've known and worked with, in a diversity-management context, including community education in dormitories and GLB panels addressing education majors and others. In the same spirit I will also refer to some things I've read. While I recognize the limitations of this anecdotal approach, I think it covers an aspect of my subject that deserves critical attention: "safe space" as its advocates actually practice it.

I’m not concerned here with safe space in a therapeutic situation, where it might be an appropriate tool. A classroom is not therapy, however. What works in therapy, with its particular agenda and methods, will not work in other arenas. I believe that "safe space" as a concept in education is incoherent and counterproductive, and needs to be abandoned for more constructive approaches, one of which I'll suggest here.

First I had better distinguish between different senses of "safe space": Certainly I don't think students or teachers or anyone else should be subject to harassment or physical attack, at school or anywhere else. But "safe space" is also conceived in more totalistic and encompassing terms, envisioning an environment in which nothing will be said that will offend or upset anyone, or that might conceivably offend or upset anyone. As the therapist Walt Odets wrote (In the shadow of the epidemic: being HIV-negative in the age of AIDS [Duke UP, 1995]: 274f.):
In any well-run group, safety can only mean one thing: any expression of feelings or thoughts will be received and tolerated by the group, and an attempt will be made to honestly respond to it. This will be done without physical violence or undue emotional hurt to other members, and without abandonment of the group. This essential objective is most easily accomplished in a professionally facilitated therapy group, because the group leader will have the necessary skills to mediate and limit conflict to a safe and constructive level. When the idea of safety comes to mean, as it often does in poorly constructed therapy groups and many support groups, that members be polite and "non-judgmental" toward each other, then the prime therapeutic objectives are undermined. Interpersonal interaction -- as opposed to social form -- necessarily involves feelings and judgments about others, and unless they can be expressed and discussed truthfully, the group can provide neither insight nor the meaning that comes of bearing witness....
The function of a group is not to make members "feel better when they leave than when they came in," as one poorly supervised peer facilitator has routinely billed his weekly support group for San Francisco gay men. It is the function of a therapy group, like individual psychotherapy, to help people attain the insight that allows them to make themselves feel better.
As Odets's own complaint shows, though, his idea of safe space is not the only meaning in current use. This third sense, which I shall call totalistic safe space, is my subject here.

In practice, totalistic safe space doesn't really mean that no one is to be offended or upset, since the sensibilities of conservative Christians and others on the cultural right are not only not considered sacrosanct, they are often fair game for mockery and derision by safe space advocates. Epithets like "Bible thumpers" are as routine in these circles as "faggot" is in others. Those who use these epithets often belong to what they consider kinder, gentler, more inclusive religious groups, for which they are ready to demand respect -- indeed, they want a "safe space" in which to deploy those epithets. I recall a liberal minister (and university diversity manager) saying to a class that he didn't like to think of the Christian Right as Christians, since he preferred a more "inclusive" conception of Christianity. Substitute "gay Christians" for "Christian right" in that sentence, and imagine the reaction!

As a gay man who grew up in less tolerant times, I'm naturally inclined to welcome the growing, if still very limited, acceptance of gay people into American society, along with decreasing tolerance for certain forms of anti-gay ideology. But I became wary when I realized the limits of those changes: they were accompanied by a familiar class prejudice, and a demand for conformity to standard American sex roles. Those who try to combat anti-gay bigotry by marking it as low class (or "ignorant"), are just hick-baiting, without really getting at the root problem. ("Redneck" also seems to be an acceptable epithet in genteel diversity-minded circles.)

I was, I admit, mildly shocked when a young gay teacher-to-be, with whom I was speaking on a panel, said that he would not allow "vulgar" words like "gay" in his classroom. "Gay" is not "vulgar," but the unprofessional kind of lace-curtain snobbery this student exhibited is. It has no place in any classroom, from elementary to college. Some social pressure will be necessary and should be used in my opinion, but it must be sharply focused. Bigots should be ostracized as bigots, not by calling them low-class bums. Those of us who are low class bums will take offense.

The same principle applies to race and racism. It's easy and safe to condemn what Allen Chase, in The Legacy of Malthus (Knopf, 1977), called vulgar gut racism. What he called genteel racism is not only more subtle and harder to stop, it still has considerable social acceptance. (See James Waller's excellent book Face to face: the changing state of racism in white America [Insight Books / Plenum Press, 1998], and also Jane Hill’s The everyday language of white racism [Wiley-Blackwell, 2008]).

Totalistic safe space basically imposes a contemporary version of standard white middle class decorum, which has always been a tendency of American schools; but if this oversight were corrected, the result would be a classroom where almost nothing more controversial than 2 + 2 = 4 could be uttered. If everyone's beliefs should be treated with respect, those people whose religious beliefs condemn homosexuality, women's equality, Darwinian theory, or racial equality cannot be exceptions. If someone wants to argue that such exceptions can and should be made, the criteria will have to be made clear and explicit, and I don't think this can be done. Certainly it has not been done yet. If no exceptions are allowed, then a good many educated people of class will be in trouble.

On a GLB panel speaking to a university class in multicultural education for high school teachers-to-be, we were asked about our religious backgrounds. One of the other panelists mentioned that, though raised a Christian, he had not been much exposed to "fire and brimstone, and other Old Testament doctrines." I corrected his misstatement. Eternal damnation in fire and brimstone are New Testament doctrines, a major theme of Jesus' teaching in the gospels. The Old Testament has nothing to say about Hell, and very little about the afterlife at all; to this day Judaism is little concerned with existence after the individual's death. (For comparison, an actual example of an Old Testament doctrine would be "Love your neighbor as yourself", Leviticus 19.18.)

It wasn't a trivial error. What Christians call "the Old Testament" is, in Judaism, simply "the Bible." The speaker was blaming Judaism for a Christian doctrine he found distasteful. Given his evident ignorance about the Bible, he may not have realized this; his was hardly a respectful attitude towards a minority religious faith, especially when you consider that he had his facts wrong. But then, the vilification of Judaism and ancient Mediterranean paganism is standard practice in gay Christian apologetics. I don't know if there were any Jewish students in the class we were addressing, but even if there weren't, is it only wrong to defame a religion if some of its adherents are present? Anti-gay epithets are supposed to be suppressed on the same ground: you never know when one of them might be lurking invisibly nearby.

I myself enjoy mocking the Right; but I don't pretend that doing so creates a safe space, nor that I am tolerant and accepting of everyone, according respect to all belief systems. On the contrary, I think that some belief systems deserve disrespect. The crucial difference between respecting another person's right to hold an opinion, and respecting the opinion itself, is too often blurred.

Whether or not liberal Christians approve of conservative evangelicals, they are going to have to go on living in the same communities with them. Bible thumpers are people too, and some of them have children -- who are not responsible for the lifestyle choices of their parents, and who may attend the same schools and live in the same communities as more deserving children. "Respect for me but not for thee" is a poor strategy for promoting "diversity." It also exposes certain blind spots in "safe space" advocates themselves.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Poetry Friday - Tonight I am a lonely astronaut

Tonight I am a lonely astronaut
adrift alone among the galaxies
with my umbilical connection cut.
I cannot hear the music of the spheres
in this far place, but I can hear the cries
of human beings in my inner ears:
my bones report what antennae cannot.

Our fathers tell tales of Ultima Thule,
where bolder spacers than their sons reside,
but who has been there? None returns to tell.
The final spaceport is the same for all,
a black hole of infinite gravitation,
which even drags light to oblivion.
No one knows what is on its other side.

July 1977

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

But Is He Ready for Prime Time?

Obama's had his first prime-time press conference -- "prime-time" has been stressed in every report I've seen. I haven't taken the time to read the whole transcript yet, but this (via) has been pointed out to me:

I suppose what I could have done is started off with no tax cuts, knowing that I was going to want some and then let them take credit for all of them. And maybe that’s the lesson I learned.
Damn. I really feel safe and hopeful with a doofus like this in the Oval Office. Okay, so Obama is inexperienced in politics, but he has a slew of advisors who not only are more experienced, they're supposedly of the slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners variety. (And there's also the question, again, of why he wanted any tax cuts at all, since he knows they're not a remedy for the mess we're in. My not-so-ambivalent Obama-supporter friend reminds me that he campaigned on promises of middle-class tax cuts, and might as well keep one promise. Maybe so, but 1] as 40% of his economic plan, thereby undermining it? and b] he campaigned on those promises before the economy went belly-up, and might just gain credibility by explaining honestly that the situation has changed and other approaches are needed now.)

Obama went on rip Republicans who now lecture about the need for fiscal responsibility. “It’s a little hard for me to take criticism from folks about this recovery package after they presided over a doubling of the national debt,” he said. “I’m not sure they have a lot of credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility.”
I'm not sure Obama has a lot of credibility either. In fact, given his support for the original Bush-Paulson-Obama-McCain-Frank bailout, he doesn't have any, and he should think about getting some. Don't you think?

Years ago I wondered whether joining the political Right leads to a drop in intelligence, or only the unintelligent would join in the first place. I suspect it's some of both. But now I'm beginning to wonder whether similar factors are involved in joining the Center-Right. Back in 1993 I watched then-President Bill Clinton's move to lift the ban on gays in the US military collapse in disarray before a tidal wave of homophobia. I couldn't hold Clinton himself particularly responsible for his team's failure to anticipate the opposition the move would encounter; rather I blame his much-touted gay and lesbian advisors, who should have known what to expect and helped him work out strategy. But it seems that they were as ignorant as their President, which translates as stupid: stupidity is when you know better, and have every reason to know better, but ignore what you know, probably because you're in power now and think that every knee will bend and every mouth confess your glory.

I just finished reading Obama's first book, Dreams from My Father, and was surprised at how good it was. I noticed, though, that in the introduction to the 2004 reprint edition I was reading, his style had slackened, become vaguer and more pompous. I'd decided to read it in the first place because I'd seen some quotations that indicated that Obama had once been smarter about American history and politics, about race, about class, than he has shown himself to be since he began running for the Presidency. And it turned out to be true: when he wrote Dreams from My Father he knew full well that racism is endemic in America, and he'd seen enough of machine politics in Chicago to understand how structural racism and classism work. He seems to have forgotten all that in the past decade. He'd better start remembering, not just for his own sake (unless he wants to be remembered as another Jimmy Carter, a blip on the historical radar before the Republicans come roaring back), but for the sake of the people he's sworn to serve.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Plus Ça Change ...

At A Tiny Revolution, Jon Schwarz has posted an excerpt from an article in Time praising head of Obama's National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers:
[P]erhaps as early as March, they'll launch their biggest lift with the beginnings of a plan to reform Social Security and Medicare, the two entitlement programs that, even before the economy collapsed, were threatening the Treasury with bankruptcy. By any standard, it is a massive three-month agenda fraught with political risk. The key to getting it all done, Summers says, is entering into a "compact" with the country "that this isn't just government as usual throwing money at things." When Obama unveils his annual budget in late February or March, Summers promises that the President "is going to describe the kinds of approaches he wants to take to the entitlement problems that have been ignored for a long time." Some options might include delaying retirement, stretching benefits and lifting the cap on taxable earnings. Could one of these prevail? "Remains to be seen," Summers says...

On that front, Republicans could come to Obama's rescue. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has told Obama in person that his party favors entitlement reform and would work for passage if both parties shared the risk.

Who said bipartisanship wouldn't work? The Republicans are perfectly willing to collaborate with a Democratic President if it means getting rid of Social Security, a Republican (and elite Democratic) dream since the Thirties. Even Bill Clinton, who pushed through major items on the Republican wishlist like NAFTA and welfare "reform", couldn't manage this one. But maybe President Hope and Change can succeed where lesser men have failed.

Saturday night a friend sent me a link to Obama's video message asking for his supporters' help to pass his stimulus package. Sez our Prez:
Let's be clear: We can't expect relief from the tired old theories that, in eight short years, doubled the national debt, threw our economy into a tailspin, and led us into this mess in the first place. We can't rely on a losing formula that offers only tax cuts as the answer to all our problems while ignoring our fundamental economic challenges – the crushing cost of health care or the inadequate state of so many schools; our addiction to foreign oil or our crumbling roads, bridges, and levees.
I agree, but if Obama recognizes that tax cuts are a "losing formula," why has he accepted a compromise bill that is 40% tax cuts? I suppose he can argue that at least it doesn't "offer only tax cuts as the answer," but 40% is too damn much of a losing formula.

In comments under Jon's post, one person wrote that "Larry Summers is a disgrace." True. But I recall back when Obama was announcing all these disgraceful appointments, his partisans were telling us that it was okay because he was going to be boss, they were just going to be the team of rivals that would do his bidding. And I believe that. So let's not put all the blame on Summers, scum though he is; just remember where the buck stops.

update: I corrected Summers's title at the beginning of the post. What is wrong with me? I knew perfectly well that he wasn't Secretary of the Treasury.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Poetry Friday - Husbandry


If you will plant me on your windowsill
and shine your gentle face on me each morning
you may shape my growth to please yourself
and I will do my best to like it

I will hold still
while you trim me with a scissors
clipping my oddness away
like the gardeners who produced trees
in the shapes of hearts and chickens

but somewhere inside --
I can't help it --
I will nurture secretly
the wild growth, the craziness
you can't prune away

[1977 or 1978]

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Come To Bed, Honey, You Did What You Could

I admit it, I'm slow. I'm sure everyone else figured out long ago the bind involved in getting President Obama's economic stimulus bill through Congress. It doesn't really matter if the bill is any good or not; if it fails to pass, Obama's credibility will take a hit, and the Republican media (by which I mean the corporate media) will swoop in like vultures to feed on his eyes while he is still alive.

They're already hovering. I, even I, allowed myself to have some small hope when Obama told Republican lawmakers that this bill was going to go his way and not theirs, because "I won", and that they should listen less to Rush Limbaugh. Maybe he wasn't going to be as 'bipartisan' as he'd promised, and that would be no great loss since the kind of bipartisanship he was talking (and the kind the Republican media want) is simply moving further to the right.

I don't believe Obama's program is fatally flawed, just timid. He conceded way too much to the Republicans in the way of tax cuts, not to mention removing contraception from the bill under right-wing pressure -- but even if it were a disaster, Obama's partisans would be yammering that it has to go through, and now. To delay, even to improve the bill substantially, would be a sign of weakness. So We've Got To Do Something, Right Now. And that is a sign of trouble right there, because in purely strategic terms they'd be right: that's how politics works. That's how it worked in 2001, too: panic the sheep and drive them in the direction you want.

Obama doesn't have four years to succeed, he really only has two, until the midterm elections in 2010. That's what hamstrung Bill Clinton in 1994, though it was his own fault as a Reagan Democrat, pushing through an unpopular measure like NAFTA. The voters reacted by giving Congress to the Republicans, who then began planning a coup against Clinton. First they tried to shut down the entire Federal government, which didn't work and didn't make the Republican Party any more popular, then they impeached Clinton for his affair with a White House intern, which also didn't work.

As FAIR pointed out, the Republican media are spinning the fact that no Republicans voted for the stimulus bill in the House as a failure of Obama's "bipartisanship," not of the Republicans'. Obama should stop trying to triangulate his base, impose some limits on his deeply rooted craving to appease the right, and set his own agenda instead of letting others set it for him. I might not like him any better, but at least it would be possible to know what he's trying to do, and go from there.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I Am Bobby, Hear Me Roar

Today's Indiana Daily Student sported a front-page story about the possibility that former Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight might return to coaching. (Knight resigned last year from Texas Tech, where he'd coached for seven seasons, and became a sports analyst for ESPN.) Not, heaven forfend, at IU -- at the University of Georgia, which recently fired its head basketball coach. The article isn't even really news, it's just gossip:
ESPN commentator Dick Vitale said Monday he believes former IU men’s basketball coach Bob Knight is interested in coaching at Georgia, while former Hoosier basketball coach Dan Dakich said Knight would be good for any program.

No one at Georgia is saying if the school has interest in Knight. ...
There's less substance here than in the reports that Madonna has been seen around town with a hot young Brazilian model -- at least they've actually been seen in public together -- and just as little importance. Yeah, I know, it's a student newspaper. And I was touched, when all is said and done, by the loyalty of young sports journalists who were barely on the verge of puberty when Knight left IU in 2000, but who still find his every move, whim, and belch to be supremely newsworthy. Similar young writers also felt, last spring, that the hiring of new basketball coach Tom Crean was bigger news than Bill Clinton's visit to campus to campaign for Hillary. I notice that the IDS writers are aware, but dismissed on a technicality,* that Knight's record of 902 wins in his coaching career was broken by Northeast State's Don Meyer. No Division II upstart is going to take away the General's glory! Knight is still worshiped at IU as a living god, and if ever he returns to Bloomington, he will still find faith here.

Only one photo accompanied the article on the Daily Student website, showing Knight crouched "down in frustration" as though in prayer. On the front page of the print edition, though, there was a collection of images of the great man, including one with his trademark expression, his face distorted with rage. But I'm not being fair: it's a regular part of the iconography of sport to show coaches yelling angrily. (As I recall, Knight's first successor, Mike Davis, was even granted special dispensation as a coach to be an Angry Black Man, no small indulgence.) I wonder why. A politician, for example, must never allow himself (or herself) to be seen or shown with such an expression: Howard Dean didn't sound angry to me when he let out that yell that came to be known as "The Scream", and the corporate media used it to pulverize him. "Within a week, this smart, tough politician was reduced to a caricature; a red-faced, angry man whose ideology trumped his judgement," writes one political blogger. If Dean had been a college basketball coach, the media would have been slobbering at his feet. If he'd been an Angry White Republican Man, they'd have sought him out for interviews, as a harbinger of doom for the Democrats.

Putting sport first is of course a safe journalistic move in America. The victors of Sunday night's Superbowl, whoever they were, made the front page of the next day's New York Times, with a big color photo across the whole page above the fold. (Don't be fooled: everything I know about Knight's career since 2000 I learned from a few minutes with Google.) Why not fill up space on the front page with material that is of no importance whatsoever? Granted that America's owners prefer their fellow citizens to be ignorant and distracted, there's no inherent reason why the bulk of Americans can't follow sports while also informing themselves about things that matter; they just don't want to. So they confuse sports with politics and vice versa, and both of them with war -- Knight isn't known as The General for nothing. As one sports blogger wrote, if Knight hadn't made certain unfortunate moves (like his many tantrums, or moving to Texas for that matter), "He could run for Senator of Indiana and win in a landslide." Now, there's a scary thought, on a par with having Sarah Palin as Vice President.

*They referred to Knight as "the all-time winningest men’s major college coach with 902 victories" (emphasis mine); CNN's Sports Illustrated and other sports sites may recognize Meyer's record but true believers know better.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Match Made in Heaven

This entertaining image from two years ago has been making the rounds; I found it at, or rather via, the Sideshow. The tie-in for Crooks and Liars was a study which found that Hummer owners get almost five times as many traffic tickets as average drivers.

I saw some speculation that the picture had been Photoshopped, but evidently it's legitimate. Even more interesting is the story behind it, as I found when I tracked it down.
Police said Sabrina Trotter, 44, the driver of an Indianapolis Public Schools bus, stopped on the road to take a cell phone call from her mother. Police said the driver of a Hummer, John Northrop, 54, was going northbound and was tuning his radio when he plowed into the back of the bus.

Northrop suffered minor injuries. Police ticketed Trotter for an improper stop.

No children were on the bus at the time, apparently.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

I Don't Patronize Bunny Rabbits!

Whenever I start thinking that I might be better off after all if I were normal, something comes along to reassure me. In this case it was Ramon Esquivel's new play Nocturnal, which had its premiere at Bloomington Playwrights Project last week. I saw it last night, and while it's not my favorite kind of play, it was well-written, well-acted, and well-staged.

Three of the four characters are boys, high-school freshmen out to have some fun by defacing the seniors' official prank, a sign with "SENIORS" painted on it. (Yes, "official prank" is deliberately oxymoronic.) Their outing is interrupted by a girl a year or two older than they are, who had briefly dated one of the boys the previous summer. The ringleader wants revenge, not only because the girl stole his thunder but because his sidekick betrayed his plan to her. Besides, revenge is the code of the macho-wannabe geek. Things escalate as the leader tries to act out his movie fantasies; dares are issued and accepted. Insecurities are exploited, expressed, and confronted. But these are good kids, "smart kids who went to a good school, who were brought up in two-parent families, and who lived in a safe neighborhood" as the playwright insists, and everything turns out all right in the end. (I hope that's not a spoiler.)

I'm not complaining about the play, mind you. As I said before, it's thoroughly well done, and it's the sort of thing that most people seem to like watching. But replays of the anxieties of adolescence are like nails on a blackboard to me, and I'm not entirely sure why, especially since they have no point of contact with my own high-school years. Okay, I was a smart kid who went to a good school, brought up in a two-parent family, lived in a safe neighborhood. I was something of an isolate, but I did have people I could hang out with from junior high school onward. Some of the kids I knew smoked, drank, fooled around (heterosexually), and drove their cars too fast, but I never felt pressured to do any of these things, or anything else I didn't want to do. The trouble was that I didn't respect myself, not that other people didn't respect me; they did, in fact, respect me, for which I'm forever grateful. But I never tried to cope with my personal fears about being a queer, being a sissy, being a bookworm, about being fundamentally unlovable, by trying to prove anything. If anyone had dared me to do something risky that I didn't want to do, I am pretty sure I'd have given them a chilly glare and refused without any qualms at all.

When I wasn't in school, I spent my teen years reading, writing, listening to music, and learning to play guitar. These were all things I wanted to do, and I enjoyed them. Learning to play guitar gave me some common ground with the kids around me, which was important because I didn't have any other. There were smart kids, but as far as I know they weren't interested in the books and ideas that interested me. Mine was a small school (my graduating class was 95, after consolidating three townships), so there just wasn't a large pool of people to guarantee any like-minded spirits to keep me company. That didn't bother me too much; I knew that when I graduated I'd go to college and enter a world that suited me better -- which is pretty much what happened, if not quite in the ways I foresaw.

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like there had been some other serious intellectuals around. There was one girl I met in junior high school, really brilliant, but my social skills were too undeveloped to deal with a girl; I behaved churlishly and lost touch with her for a few years, until we met again at college. But she was much smarter than I, and her interests were in other areas; we never really became friends. The first real friendships I made, after high school, were with other pop-folk musicians. I now see that I was keeping my distance from all sorts of possible contacts. It didn't hurt (or help, depending on how you look at it) that my family lived in the country, which limited the possibilities of just dropping in next door to listen to the newest Bob Dylan album. Then I came out, and found that I could be as alienated in a crowd of gay people as I'd ever been in a crowd of straight people. Would it have helped if I'd met another gay kid in high school? What kind of friends was I looking for? I still don't know. But I'm raising this question because the next one is: if I'd found a circle of people to hang around with, what would have happened when the groupthink began, when someone decided it would be cool to take a risk for the sake of taking a risk -- jumping off a railroad bridge into a lake thirty feet below, for instance, on a dare -- or spray-painting the wall of the school, the sort of harmless pranks that normal kids do? I wouldn't have hesitated, not for long: I'd have said, "No, thanks, count me out," and walked away without looking back. I've never had any tolerance for practical jokes, which is another thing that makes me weird.

And I don't feel that I missed anything because of these gaps in my experience. On the contrary: if there were a God, I'd thank Her for sparing me such adventures. But so many people do seem to think that pranks and contests of pride, shaming and humiliating other kids (or being shamed and humiliated by them), the games of hierarchy and social-climbing, are essential parts of growing up, that I understand at last why I've always been an outsider, and always will be. And rightly or wrongly, I don't consider it a deficiency on my part. This, I think, is why Nocturnal felt to me like a skillful portrait of life on another planet, except that it's the planet where I live too.

Nocturnal was written with a teen audience in mind, though it clearly appeals to people of all ages. That's another issue. The playwright says, “Adults can influence, encourage, inspire and teach young people, but what happens when adults are not around? Nocturnal is a world without adults.” This immediately reminded me of my personal favorite exploration of teen angst, Daniel Waters and Michael Lehmann's great 1989 film Heathers. In one crucial scene, the heroine's mother asks her, "How do you think adults act around other adults -- do you think it's all one big game of doubles tennis?" The world of adults is too often a world without adults: of people who think that video games and romance movies are real life, who want to be in with the cool crowd, who'll do anything in order to be popular, and who'll happily sacrifice anyone handy in order to protect their pride. Who will teach the teachers?