Monday, November 30, 2009

The Slippery Slope

I really appreciate Taylor Harris's concern (via) for the sensibilities of religious believers. I'm sure he feels exactly the same way about the devout Christians who opposed the Civil Rights Movement because of their sincere, scripture-based conviction that God intended the races to be separate. Yet these fine people were demonized as "racists," "bigots," "rednecks," and the like. And the definition of American was changed from white to any damn color you please. You can see the decline since then. It may be too late to repair the damage now, but at least we can draw a line in the sand over sodomitical marriage and say, "No pasaran!"

But ... just a thought. Didn't the trouble really start when the Christians forcibly changed the definition of religion in the Roman Empire from polytheism to monotheism? And probably at about the same time, changed the definition of marriage from polygamous to monogamous? Or maybe it was when the Phoenicians changed the definition of writing from syllabic or hieroglyphic to alphabetic, thus allowing the common people to achieve literacy more easily? You can see how the quality of literary production has dropped since then.

Or maybe it was when the first mitosis changed the definition of life from one-celled to many-celled? Some will try to tell you, "The individual cells that make up our bodies are still alive, and the majority of organisms are single-celled. Multicellular lifeforms are just a particular organization. Hive organisms of eusocial animals (freqently haplodiploid) are a scaled up analogy." Don't be fooled! That's what the militant recruiting multicellular organisms would like you to believe: that they're really no different from one-celled organisms, and that multicellularism is an "alternative lifestyle" no different from any other. From that first fateful mitosis it was only a few million years to meiosis and sexual reproduction, and just look where it's gotten us.

(image credit; via)

Department of Unintentional Irony?

Homo Superior Curates the Web quoted the closing paragraph of last Thursday's post, and credited it thusly:

Department of Back-Handed Compliments or How To Blog When Your Ego is Too Big to Allow Comments

I'm still not going to enable comments, for reasons I've given before, which I don't think have anything to do with my big, big ego. (Size queen!) I do confess to being so contrary that people trying to shame me into enabling comments just gets my back up more. But -- funny thing. I can't find any provision at Homo Superior Curates the Web for comments, or even contact information for e-mail.

(image credit)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Political Correctness Run Amok

Eighty-four percent of people think Political Correctness has gone mad, and you don't want one of those people coming up to you after a gig and going, "Well done, mate! ... Y'know, you can't even write racial abuse in excrement on someone's car without the Politically Correct Brigade jumping down your throat."
I've been meaning to put this clip up here for a few days now. (Via Lenin's Tomb, with thanks.) I'd thought that Political Correctness had mostly dropped out of use, until a recent e-mail exchange with an old acqaintance who used it, denied that he used it anymore, and then defended at length his use of it; so I appreciated Stewart Lee's satirical take. Except for the final punchline, which I still think misses the mark, and was debated at length in comments. Political Correctness has gone mad, Stew!

Indian Country

I'm listening to Earthsongs, a program of Native American music that airs each Sunday morning on our local community radio station. (There's also a locally-produced program an hour earlier, which is now run by the Native American student organization at the university. I've been listening to both of these for several years now.) This week's guest is the Muskogee poet Joy Harjo, my almost exact contemporary, whose work I've encountered here and there over the years. I liked the first books of hers I read, She Had Some Horses and The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, but the third, A Map to the Next World, was full of pomposity, racial stereotyping, and bad writing. Harjo is also a musician, with several albums out, and on the program she sang, unaccompanied, a new song she was working on. It included the following line:

Remember that a nation is a person with a soul ...

This is fascist nationalist crap, and I'm using "fascist" carefully and deliberately. A nation is an invented abstraction, an "imagined community" as the political theorist Benedict Anderson famously dubbed it. The corporate (from the Latin word for 'body') concept of nationhood (or of any group of people, like a religion) is highly dangerous and must at best be balanced by an emphasis on the individual members of the body; otherwise individuals become mere cells to be brushed off like dandruff when they're no longer needed. It can't even be defended as a specifically Native cultural heritage, since it has been a feature of modern European nationalism as well, which reached its epitome in blood-and-soil fascism in Europe and elsewhere.

Harjo then explained to the host of Earthsongs:

We were a hundred percent of the people in what is now America, and now we're one percent.

Hey, Joy, I know what you mean -- that's why so many Euro-Americans are worried about our demographics, what will happen to our gene pool if we let in too many "immigrants" -- we remember what happened to you guys when you let illegal immigrants swarm onto your shores! No doubt the first wave of people who came into the western hemisphere tens of thousands of years ago felt the same way about the later waves of foreigners, though we'll never know. (One of the benefits of oral, traditional culture is that it erases the past into an eternal present.) Harjo referred to other minorities in the US, such as Asian-Americans, but I don't think she's really thought about what she said today.

In saying this, I am neither denying nor minimizing the genocide of the American Indian by European invaders. But even accepting the largest estimates of the pre-Columbian population of the western hemisphere, the floods of Europeans and others from the eastern hemisphere who then bred like rabbits are also responsible in large part for the fact that Indians are no longer one hundred percent of the population here. Harjo is veering into nativism here.

Which may have something to do with the increase I've noticed of a familiar style of American patriotism among Native American artists and speakers over the past several years, an insistent claim to be, like, Americans. The latter, to an anti-essentialist like me is just fine, as an appropriation of the invaders' label. (I wish I really believed that was the intention behind the tendency.) The patriotism part, not so much. It's like the "gay American" trope in which the Human Rights Campaign advised Jim McGreevy to drape himself when he was in political trouble. (Patriotism is, as always, the first refuge of scoundrels.) The Cree singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, for instance, famous for her songs attacking the European invasion of the Americas and its consequences (which led to her being blacklisted by the Johnson and Nixon administrations), has recorded "America the Beautiful" for her new album. She wrote some new verses for it, and told Amy Goodman the other day on Democracy Now!,
It’s about America the country, not America the nation state. It’s about the real America that so many people, regardless of their political associations, really feel in their hearts—you know, this beautiful, beautiful place. So, it’s yet another take on “America the Beautiful.” People seem to enjoy it.
Of course, America is not a country, and never was. It's a large landmass which had many peoples, languages, cultures in it before the European invasion; the United States of America is just one country among many, and it's an annoyance to people in those other countries to see their existence disappear when "America" refers only to the big bully of the upper portion. Earlier in the same interview, Sainte-Marie referred carefully to "the North American public," but now she forgot that there's a lot more to the America than the USA. (Even speaking of "the North American public," perhaps because she was born in Canada and still has ties there, seems to lump in Mexico, which has a different history. Ethnocentrism is hard to avoid, even for the indigenous.)

But I digress. Back to Joy Harjo, who also said on Earthsongs:

We have a lot of veterans, people going over there to defend our country.

It's true, and should not be forgotten, that American Indians have contributed substantially to the body count of the American war machine, much as other oppressed groups have done, to the present day. But I guess I have to keep repeating, American forces "over there" in Iraq and Afghanistan are not "defending our country" -- they are attacking other countries. I wonder if Harjo talked the same way during the Vietnam era? (Subject for future research.) I don't see how anyone can deplore the US treatment of the Indians while being so complacent about US aggression against other peoples.

(image credit)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Poetry Friday - The Greater Yield

The Greater Yield

The male disease, the power strategem,
the way of sacrifice, the love that kills.
If something has to give, it won't be them,
men hope, as they engage their phallic wills.
Some say they'd rather be a soldier than
a cripple -- there's a difference?  They believe,
as Wilde did, in appearance, but the man
they praise must wear his balls upon his sleeve.
Be hard, my dear: until you break.  Be brittle,
so when your facade has fallen, then
the tenderness you struggle to belittle
and repress can be exposed again.
Your armor isolates as well as shields.
Some you'll realize the greater yields.

(Late 70s or 1980.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Rule 3 - The Naked Kitchen

I've been working on a review of Hong Ji-Yeong's 2009 release The Naked Kitchen, which seems not to have received much attention despite its quite bankable cast. (The Naked Kitchen is a misleading tease of a title; the Korean title is simply the English word Kitchen, transliterated into Korean. From here I'm just going to call it Kitchen.) Darcy didn't even list it in upcoming releases at as far as I can tell, and he's usually quite thorough. One thing that struck me when I watched it was how well it conformed to the Alison Bechdel / Liz Wallace Rule for movies, which requires that they have at least 1) two women characters, who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man.

Kitchen meets the requirement with ease, perhaps because writer-director Hong is a woman. Ahn Mo-rae (played by Shin Min-a, left in the photo above) lives happily with her financier husband Sang-in (played by Kim Tae-woo, right), and has her own shop which sells parasols decorated with her own painted designs. Her friend Kim Sun-woo is a photographer, still unmarried, and they talk to each other a great deal during the movie, not just about men (Sun-woo thinks Mo-rae married too young and needs more experience) but about their work. Early in the movie, for example, Sun-woo drafts Mo-rae to help her photograph a wedding, so they talk about the work they're doing and about Mo-rae's pay for the gig. Sun-woo is a familiar type, the slightly older, tough, brassy working female buddy, but she has a good-sized role in the story, and I find her very sympathetic. (I couldn't, however, find any photos online of the two women together.)

Other than that, Kitchen is pretty conventional. Sang-in quits his job to pursue his lifelong dream of being the chef in his own restaurant, and brings from France a young cooking prodigy, Park Du-re (played by Joo Ji-hoon, center in the top photo), to coach him and help work out the menu. Du-re and Mo-rae start an affair (Sun-woo was right, Mo-rae needed more experience) and things get complicated. Kitchen flirts, ever so delicately, with male homoeroticism -- there seems to be a hint that Sang-in and Du-re also had an affair when they met in France, which Du-re would like to rekindle in Korea; but the flirtation seems more fashionable than sincere. The 2006 hit The King and the Clown proved young Korean women to be as susceptible as young women elsewhere to the fantasy of pretty young men smooching each other, but Kitchen doesn't pursue the theme beyond the aforementioned hint. Too bad -- it might have improved the box-office.

"The Thankful Receiver Bears a Plentiful Harvest" (William Blake)

Today on Thanksgiving, I give thanks to Homo Superior Curates the Web, JaySays, and LGBTLatest Science for irritating me into posting after a week of procrastination. Like Easter and Yule, the Thanksgiving season evidently depresses IQs and brings the mushbrained out of hibernation. (And if they see their shadows, we'll have six more weeks of winter.) Homo Superior linked to posts at the latter two sites, which I followed and read, till smoke began coming out of my ears.

"Common sense tells me that God did not put pen to paper," writes geekgirl at JaySays in her meditation on the Bible and love; this is what Homo Superior quoted. Oy! Common sense tells me that the earth is the center of the universe, and that God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. To see a scientist invoke common sense, which is rightly undermined by so much of science, makes my brain hurt. In any case, fundamentalist Christians don't believe that Yahweh "put pen to paper", they believe that he inspired the biblical writers to do so, and preserved them from error in some obscure way. There's an old rabbinic story, quoted by the philosopher Walter Kaufmann in one of his books, in which Moses encounters Yahweh fashioning little decorations for the letters in the Hebrew alphabet so that, centuries later, Rabbi Akiba could come up with interpretations of their use in the Torah. But the rabbis didn't take this story literally; it was a loving joke about a revered, martyred teacher.

Geekgirl begins by lamenting that "I can’t recall a year, in my adult life time, where religion has been used so much as a tool for discrimination and lies." Since she has been married for 32 years, she and I must be more or less of an age, so I suspect she simply hasn't been paying attention. During the struggle for African-American civil rights, for example, the Bible was used on all sides, for as geekgirl also writes, "The Bible can be used to support or dismiss almost any point of view." Opponents of racial equality appealed to biblical teaching to justify racial inequality and segregation, and of course many prominent leaders of the Civil Rights movement were Christian ministers. Since then we've seen the religious campaign against abortion, and the 1980s saw a flood of polemics against "Secular Humanism."  Then there's the use of the Bible to support anti-Semitism, the displacement and elimination of aboriginal Americans, internecine quarrels among Christians themselves, and of course Crusades against both infidel and heretic. And need I mention the Religious Right campaign against gay people, which began 30 years ago with Anita Bryant?  (Who, like the Lord Jesus, is with us always.)  The Bible itself, both Testaments, contains plenty of material witnessing to (sometimes literally) bloodthirsty attacks by believers on outsiders.

Geekgirl continues:
The Bible is a collection of writings, mostly found through archaeological means, written in ancient languages such as Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, over centuries. It has undergone translation and censorship. It has been studied by many people intensely for years at academic institutions. Common sense tells me that God did not put pen to paper. ...
Those who've read much of this blog may notice echoes here of other foolish things that liberal Christians say about the Bible. This time I was struck by geekgirl's remark that the Bible is "mostly found through archaeological means." While ancient biblical manuscripts have been found by archaeologists among the Dead Sea Scrolls and some other finds, the Bible has been in continuous use by Christians and Jews for around 2500 years. The ancient copies are useful for the scholarly study of the Biblical text, but they're not necessary; the Bible would still be with us if none of them had ever been discovered. I can't imagine what geekgirl thought she was saying, but on its face it's absurdly false. Further, while Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic have been used since ancient times, all three of them are still in use as first languages today: they are every bit as modern as they are ancient. If geekgirl (who "believes in Buddhism and attends the United Church of Christ") wants to write about the Bible, she should set her common sense aside and do some studyin'.

Next geekgirl picks out one bit of the Bible that she likes, chapter 13 of Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, his celebrated celebration of love. "If one reads the writings of St. Paul in Corinthians, it’s almost as if he is bipolar. There are passages regarding slavery, women shaving their heads, not speaking in church, and the list goes on. Yet, we have a passage that has remarkable insight." Her reference to "Corinthians" as if it were a book is a minor but telling confirmation of her ignorance about the Bible. There are two epistles to the Corinthians, and scholars believe that there were more; some may have been lost, or perhaps parts of them were incorporated into the canonical versions you'll find in a Bible today.

Diagnosing the mental health of a person who's been dead for almost two thousand years is rarely a good idea. Why does geekgirl suggest that Paul was bipolar? Is it because he expresses views on "slavery, women shaving their heads [another indication that she hasn't read Paul with even minimal care], not speaking in church" that she disagrees with, while expressing other views with "remarkable insight"? It's not necessary to look at other ancient writers to find similar behavior -- indeed, today's gay Christians and their allies are capable of prattling about love and then switching to hateful stereotyping of other, less sanctified homosexuals. I wonder if "bipolar" is replacing "schizophrenic" as a pseudo-medical label for people with erratic personalities -- or who simply make other, "nice" people uncomfortable.

As for what Paul wrote on love, I don't find it particularly interesting. "Love" is a buzzword now, and reading the New Testament indicates that it also was in Biblical times. One of my favorite examples, aside from Paul or Jesus himself, are the epistles of John. The famous slogan "God is love" appears in one of these, 1 John 4:8 and 4:16. In the second epistle, the writer warns, "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed; for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds" (10-11, KJV). But in the third epistle, the writer complains that he has been treated as he treated others: "I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church" (3 John 9-10, KJV). By geekgirl's criterion, John the Elder must also have been bipolar.

Next we move to geekgirl's own blog, LGBT Latest Science. In the post linked by Homo Superior, she takes on the argument against same-sex marriage that "Marriage is for procreation." She doesn't provide any links to people who actually say this, however; at most it is a shorthand for a more complex position, like "Marriage is about love." What I've seen in this regard is something slightly different, that the (or at least, one) marriage is to provide a stable environment for children to grow up in. Earlier today, for example, I saw an article at the Advocate online, quoting former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to the effect that "the basis of marriage is procreation; children ideally need a man and woman as parents he said." (Huckabee also brought up polygamy, inexplicably treating it as a bad thing instead of a return to traditional biblical values.)

On this point, however, Huckabee isn't that far from advocates of same-sex marriage, who also often claim that children need parents who are married to each other. In Beyond (Gay and Straight) Marriage (Beacon, 2008) Nancy Polikoff wrote:
The marriage movement uses one refrain to push its agenda: that marriage is good for children and that raising children outside marriage damages both them and society.

It’s especially troubling when marriage-equality advocates make similar assertions. The constitutional mandate and law reform of efforts of the late 1960s and 1970s reflected the understanding that children are not supposed to suffer harm as a result of having unmarried parents. The lifelong disabilities of “illegitimacy” have been erased. If a law discriminates between a child born to married parents and a child born to unmarried parents, it is subject to heightened scrutiny under the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

… Some who urge marriage as the solution to children’s needs fail to distinguish between consequences of marriage and consequences of parenthood. For example, a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force publication refers to the lack of educational assistance for the children of deceased public safety officers “who lack legal recognition of the parent-child relationship due to the lack of marriage rights of their parents.” But a child does not need his parents to be married to get these rights; the child needs his parent to be legally recognized as his parent. The same is true for children of heterosexual parents.

…For those advantages linked to parenthood, marriage is not necessary for the children of either same-sex or different-sex couples. For those requiring marriage of a child’s parents, all children with unmarried parents suffer. All the costs to children of what the Human Rights Campaign Foundation calls “marriage inequality” would be eliminated by building on the changes started in the 1970s to eliminate the disadvantages that children of unmarried parents experience [pages 100-1].
Though geekgirl disavows the intention of getting into religion in this post, she can't quite stay away from it. "For years, conservative religions have encouraged abstinence. The Catholic Church went so far as to say that couples should have sex only when they want sex." (I think she meant to end that sentence, "... only when they want children." I don't think she disagrees that couples should have sex only when they want sex.) "Conservative religions" have indeed "encouraged abstinence" for years: the New Testament is at best ambivalent about marriage, with Jesus encouraging his followers to become eunuchs for the Kingdom (Matthew 19:12) and forbidding divorce, which his disciples took as discouraging marriage in the first place (Matthew 19:10). Paul discouraged marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, where he argued that although marriage provides a licit outlet for sexual desire, a married man cares about pleasing his wife while a single man cares about pleasing the Lord, so it's better to remain single if possible. This remained the ideal of the Christian churches for centuries afterward.

I have no quarrel with geekgirl's observation, quoted by Homo Superior, that "Our desire for sex is a desire for sex, not a desire for children," nor with the Darwinian framework in which she put it. I suspect that our desire for marriage is also a desire for an fairy-tale wedding, not a desire for children. But I do think that geekgirl needs to inform herself a little before engaging in debate as a GLBT ally. As I've said before, gay people and our allies shouldn't spread misinformation -- that's what bigots are paid to do.

And now, I'm going out for a walk. I hope it's not raining too hard.

(image credit; and thanks, seriously, to the teachers I had who inspired and encouraged me to be the reading, thinking person that I hope I turned out to be, even if not in the way they might have wished)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Edge of Night

Last weekend I reread Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel A Single Man, about a day in the life of a man grieving for his younger lover who has died in an auto accident. It was at least the fourth time I've read it over the past thirty-odd years. Ex-Gucci fashionista Tom Ford's new film version has been getting positive reviews, and there's been some noise in the blogosphere because the trailer has been re-edited to eliminate gay content. (Apparently the same was done with the trailer for Brokeback Mountain.) I'm not going to say anything here that I haven't seen in published articles about the movie, but if you want to see it or read the book without knowing anything about it, you should stop reading here.

What prompted me to reread the book just now was that some reviews said that the protagonist, George, was planning to commit suicide. I was pretty sure that wasn't in the book, but it had been awhile since I'd read it, so I got it out of the library and settled down to read.

Nope, there's nothing in the novel about suicide. That's director/writer Ford's touch. According to this fawning interview at The Advocate,
Ford’s imprint on A Single Man includes his decision to have George walking through his day planning to commit suicide at the end of it; the revolver he removes from a drawer is almost fetishized throughout the film.
Ford also decided to make George six years younger than he was in the novel, dropping his age from 58 to 52, a lot closer not only to Ford's age (forty-eight) but that of the actor, Colin Firth, who plays George. This is understandable, though it changes the situation of the story drastically. In the novel, George is on the verge of old age and he knows it; his future at 58 is markedly less hopeful than it would be at fifty-two, let alone forty-eight -- which also happens to be the age at which Christopher Isherwood met his partner Don Bachardy, whom he shared the rest of his long life with. It's not unheard of to remarry at George's age or older, of course, and maybe it's just because I'm 58 myself that I think it's a bit whiny to feel that your life is over at 52. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that I'd chosen to reread A Single Man at just the age of its protagonist; but then, as Ford says in the interview, he identifies with George too.

Which is why, apparently, he decided to make George's house more chic than the cramped rabbit warren of the novel (and judging from the photo in the article, also the house of George's fellow expat Charlotte, played by Julianne Moore). He decided the same for George himself. (And -- a minor detail -- to give George a last name for the film, the same surname as Ford's first serious boyfriend.) Well, it's the Hollywood mentality. Have you ever seen the atrocious gowns and accessories plastered onto the actresses of the studio system's golden age? Of course you have. And Ford is a fashion designer after all; as he says in the interview, "If I were working in a different period, I would have been working at MGM." I think the introduction of a drama-queen plan for suicide is a much more telling detail than the production design.

In the novel, George is a 58-year-old expatriate Englishman who teaches at a small college north of Los Angeles in 1962. Since I haven't yet seen the movie, I kept comparing George to Isherwood, a 58-year-old expatriate Englishman who also taught at a small college during at this time. George was a sort of smaller version of his creator, who was also a world-famous novelist who'd lived and worked in Hollywood. A number of readers have speculated that the novel was a thought-experiment for Isherwood: what if I were single again at my age? It struck me, not for the first time, that killing off the lover instead of having him leave was a (subconsciously?) hostile move on Isherwood's part. As Don Bachardy said in this joint interview from 1985:
I always suspected he was imagining what it would be like if we split up because I remember that period was a very rough time for us, and I was making a lot of waves. I was being very difficult and very tiresome ... Just by being very dissatisfied. I was approaching thirty, and thirty for me was the toughest age of all. I started suffering from it around twenty-eight, and I didn't really get over it until about thirty-two.
A Single Man's Jim is not Don Bachardy, though: he's older, for one thing. George and Jim met in 1946, when Jim was just being mustered out of the military at the end of World War II; Isherwood and Bachardy, who never served in the military as far as I know, met in 1953 on the beach near Isherwood's home, and Isherwood had previously dated Bachardy's older brother. (Bachardy was twelve years old in 1946, so Jim is at least ten years older.)

Making George a widower also heightens the reader's sympathy for him. He chooses not to tell any of his straight neighbors (except Charlotte) or coworkers that Jim has died, rather that he chose to stay in Ohio while visiting his family there. At the same time George is prickly, not always likable; as much because of Isherwood's religious faith, I suspect, as because of his novelist's instincts, he refused to make George a suffering saint. And this is a very religious novel, not merely "spiritual": Isherwood's Vedantic beliefs are often explicit, though unnamed, in the text.

Ford is, I think, totally wrong when he says,
If you said name 10 things that define me, being gay wouldn’t make the list. I think Isherwood was like that too. There are many gay characters in his works because his work is so autobiographical, but their gayness isn’t the focus. The one thing I liked about Isherwood’s work—especially when I was younger and grappling with my sexuality—is that there was no issue about it in his writing. That was quite a modern concept back during the time when he was writing. Quite honestly, I just don’t think about my sexuality. But maybe this has to do with being a part of the first generation to benefit from all the struggles of the gay men and lesbians that came before us.
I'll give him credit for that last admission, though, which I think is more correct. Isherwood talked in later years about the constraints he faced as a writer, not just from publishers but from readers. In his Berlin Stories, which ultimately inspired the musical Cabaret, he didn't make the narrator queer partly because he knew that it would make him more prominent than the impersonal, almost invisible "camera" Isherwood wanted him to be. There seems to have been more openness to gay characters and narratives in Europe and Britain than in the US in those days, and it's important to remember that much of the inexplicitness of American gay writing before Stonewall was due to necessity, including government censorship of 'immoral' representations.

In that context, A Single Man stands out for me because it strains against those limits. George muses on his straight neighbors:
Mr. Strunk, George supposes, tries to nail him down with a word. Queer, he doubtless growls. But, since this is after all the year 1962, even he may be expected to add, I don't give a damn what he does just as long as he stays away from me. Even psychologists disagree as to the conclusions which may be reached about the Mr. Strunks of the world, on the basis of such a remark. The fact remains that Mr. Strunk himself, to judge from a photograph of him taken in football uniform in college, used to be what many would call a living doll.

But Mrs. Strunk, George feels sure, takes leave to differ greatly from her husband; for she is trained in the new tolerance, the technique of annihilation by blandness. Out comes her psychology book -- bell and candle are no longer necessary. Reading from it she proceeds to exorcise the unspeakable out of George. No reason for disgust, she intones, no cause for condemnation. Nothing here that is willfully vicious. All is due to heredity, early environment (Shame on those possessive mothers, those sex-segregated British schools!), arrested development at puberty, and-or glands. Here we have a misfit, debarred forever from the best things of life, to be pitied, not blamed. Some cases, caught young enough, may respond to therapy. ...

But your book is wrong, Mrs. Strunk, says George, when it tells you that Jim is the substitute I found for a real son, a real kid brother, a real husband, a real wife. Jim wasn't a substitute for anything. And there is no substitute for Jim, if you'll forgive my saying so, anywhere. [from the 1987 Farrar Straus Giroux trade paperback edition, 27-29]
Even better, as George drives along the freeway to his teaching job, he begins to fantasize about organizing a terrorist campaign against antigay bigots and crusaders.
No. Amusing is not the word. These people are not amusing. They should never be dealt with amusingly. They understand only one language: brute force.

Therefore we must launch a campaign of systematic terror. In order to be effective, this will require an organization of at least five hundred highly skilled killers and torturers, all dedicated individuals. The head of the organization will draw up a list of clearly defined, simple objectives, such as the removal of that apartment building, the suppression of that newspaper, the retirement of that senator. They will then be dealt with in order, regardless of the time taken or the number of casualties. In each case, the principal criminal will first receive a polite note, signed "Uncle George," explaining exactly what he must do before a certain deadline if he wants to stay alive. It will also be explained to him that Uncle George operates on the theory of guilt by association. [page 38-39]
I remember enjoying this fantasy when I first read it, oh, thirty-five years ago. It's remarkably ahead of its time, and I still enjoy it. (There's some interesting comment on this passage in the Paris Review interview from 1974, pages 18ff., and on the gay movement and homosexuality in literature.) I also enjoy Isherwood/George's disdain for psychobabble, which as A Single Man shows is not a new development but was well-established in the early 1960s. But I think it belies Ford's reading: Isherwood, like any reasonably mature adult, was more than his sexuality (though how many heterosexuals, especially men, recognize that about themselves?), but he had a sophisticated understanding of the situation of people who love their own sex in American society. He saw bigotry and condescending contempt as the problem, not homosexuality, and this is still a pretty advanced view even today. Reading A Single Man reminded me, as it should remind everyone, that such understandings didn't arise out of nowhere during the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

There's another feature of A Single Man that was common in its time and hasn't died out yet. When Isherwood taught at Los Angeles State College, he may have been relatively isolated from gay friends and social life, as George is. The only other gay character in A Single Man is a young student in his lecture class. (Though George met Jim at a gay bar on the beach, we're told discreetly.) But Isherwood had many gay (and straight) friends, among them fellow writers W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Tennessee Williams. His relationship with Don Bachardy, though controversial because of their thirty-year age difference, was known to everyone, and if Bachardy had been killed in an accident, Isherwood would not have mourned alone as George does. (I should say "nearly alone" there, since George's fellow expatriate, the heterosexual Charlotte, knows about the relationship and Jim's fate.) To this day, though, it's relatively rare in gay fiction and films to show gay men in gay society, let alone gay community. Those who read A Single Man nowadays should remember that George's comparative isolation has a dramatic function in the novel, and wasn't the universal condition of gay men then or now.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Poetry Friday - Performance Anxiety

performance anxiety

How could you call me gloomy, funny boy?
How little, then, you knew me; but I knew
how little you would let yourself enjoy.
I gladly would have been a clown for you,
I gladly would have taken off my mask --
for just as clowns are often sullen men,
we moody ones you hardly need to ask,
we long so eagerly to entertain.
And you, behind your smooth reflective face,
did you wish you could somersault and dance?
I could have shown you how. You had a place
in my act, but you wouldn't take the chance.
Instead I end in tears upon my knees,
before the audience I cannot please.

Again, late 70s or early 80s. Image credit.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Christmas Nuts Are Already Falling from the Trees

I was going to write about something else tonight, but then this came up. It shouldn't surprise anyone who remembers the "War on Christmas" hysteria ginned up a few years ago by Fox News and the right-wing blogosphere. And Obama hadn't even been elected yet! That's right, the headquarters of the War on Christmas was the Bush White House, whose Satan-worshiping denizens mandated secular ornaments for their holiday tree.

Tonight I found that a Facebook friend from my high school had issued a challenge to the rest of us FBers:
Let's see how many people on fb aren't ashamed to show their love for God and admit that Jesus is their Savior... We need to get God back in America... If you're not ashamed, copy and paste this in your status...
I responded, of course, by proudly declaring my atheism and my support for our godless Constitution, the First Amendment, and the Wall of Separation between Religion and Government for which they stand.

Then I went to her main page to see the context for her challenge. There I found a link to "the President Obama says that they will have a Holiday Tree this year instead of a Christmas Tree. Do you agree with this? Poll!" My fellow FBer had, of course, responded with a ringing "No!" I'm familiar with this sort of stuff from way back, at least to the days when good honest Christians were spreading the word that the godless atheist, Madalyn Murray O'Hair (a name which sounds suspiciously like O'Bama, doesn't it?), had submitted a petition to the Federal Communications Commission, demanding that all religious broadcasting be banned from the airwaves!!!! And the FCC declares that they need a million postcards, or the Word of God will like totally be banned from radio and television!!!!!!! Think of the children!!!!!!

It was a fabrication, of course, but despite numerous debunkings and corrections the FCC was deluged for decades with postcards urging them not to ban religious broadcasting. They may still be, for all I know. The Obama Holiday Tree is cut from similar cloth. I left a comment on my friend's page, asking her to support the claim she's broadcasting; I wonder if she'll respond. After all, a good Christian who is not ashamed to acknowledge Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior should keep the commandments, which include not bearing false witness against her neighbor. (Though they do, don't they, over and over and over.) The clip from Blazing Saddles, above, is just a reminder that Mel Brooks is a prophet.

(image credit)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Poetry Friday - gripes

gripes; or, by their fruits shall ye know them

Because you dangle just beyond my reach
I try the harder to deserve you, darling.
There'd be no need to promise or beseech
like this were I an ant or fly or starling.
How tantalizing is your distance! Grind
my teeth and tear my hair out though I may,
I know if you fell in my lap I'd find
I didn't really want you anyway.
But then you're just the same: if I decide
to let you hang, you're always first to crack.
I don't know why. Perhaps it hurts your pride?
But when I turn away, you call me back.
And like a fool, I jump, for hour on hour;
but one day it'll be me who turns sour.

Sometime around 1980.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Just a Piece of Parchment

I happened on this amusing cartoon yesterday. I am not sure whose link directed me to it; it was originally posted at the right-wing blog Get Liberty, which bills itself as favoring limited government. As far as I can tell from its archives, Get Liberty only became concerned about unlimited government in March 2009; before that, though some of their material criticizes former President Bush for abandoning free-market principles, they don't seem to care if their critique of big government is accessible to readers. (P.S. Well, no wonder!) Articles like this turn up in a search, but they're still warnings of what Obama will do to those who dare to criticize him, with convenient amnesia about the Bush Administration; or this one, begging President Bush to call Congress back into session, if it please you Sir, if you're not playing eleven-dimensional chess to ensure "success this November." There's a marvelous cognitive dissonance in seeing Get Liberty urge Bush, of all Presidents, "to make that abundantly clear to the rollicking, frolicking House leadership that has put their fun in the sun above the nation’s energy needs." They even admit gloomily, "Whether flying off to the China Olympics or holing up with Vladimir Putin, the President surely doesn’t seem to be" listening to the People. Bear in mind that they're talking about a President notorious not only for his own long vacations, but for his inattention and absence during national emergencies. These guys are as pious in their hopes as liberal Democrats who hope that President Obama will at any moment drop the mask and reveal himself as a fighting progressive. You can't stuff money into the pockets of the rich (which Bush always made clear was his purpose in life) with a small government, dummies! Hell, even with a big government, Bush wasn't able to spend all the TARP funds he wanted on welfare for the suffering, deserving wealthy.

I also enjoyed this cartoon, which sees Rush Limbaugh's failed bid for a football team as a victim of McCarthyism, another odd call for the Right, which has been trying to rehabilitate the late Senator from Wisconsin for half a century, but remains ever-vigilant about New McCarthyisms. Unfortunately, Get Liberty are unable to avoid New McCarthyisms of their own: they denounced Sotomayor as a "self-declared racist termagant." (They also don't seem to know what "self-declared" means. Making statements which others construe as racist does not constitute declaring oneself a racist, or Limbaugh would also be a "self-declared racist.")

It does seem to be true that Sotomayor wasn't questioned adequately by the Senate; but the failure was bipartisan. Avedon at the Sideshow mentioned a right-winger who was "whining about how hard it is to pronounce 'Sotomayor' - which I thought was pretty rich coming from an Armenian." Later she linked to a Frank Rich column that provided an overview of the Republican political clown show, which was unconcerned about the Constitution but very concerned about putting a Latina, even a conservative one, on the Supreme Court. FAIR did some stories too.

As always in cases like this, I have to wonder when Get Liberty began worrying about the Constitution. Certainly not during the Bush administration, when their President was quoted (and three witnesses concurred) telling Republican leaders in 2005 that he could do whatever he wanted. It was one of Bush's own aides, presumably a loyal Republican, who warned him that there was "a valid case that the provisions in [the Patriot Act] violate the Constitution."
"Stop throwing the Constitution in my face," Bush screamed back. "It's just a goddamned piece of paper!"
[The Bush quotation appears to be bogus.]  And, of course, the last thing the gang at Get Liberty wants is a new President who takes the Constitution seriously, unless they want to see most of the Bush administration in the dock for multiple high crimes. And I don't think they do.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

I'm Not a Queer, But My Buddy Is

It occurred to me today that in many cases it might be better to substitute the term "common sense" for "essentialism" in many discussions of gender and sexuality. That's partly because I don't much respect common sense, of course, and much of what Everybody Knows about men and women, queers and normal folks, doesn't deserve much respect. It seems to me that if you pay attention you must very soon start to notice all the gaping holes in what Everybody Knows, and I've found that most people, if you get them alone, will admit this. But it's also Common Sense that you don't point out those gaping holes in public. I have to remember what happened to the kid who pointed out that the Emperor didn't really have anything on: she was dragged away by Security, who tortured her for days until she named her communist terrorist accomplices, and then she and her whole family were executed, publicly and slowly.

Common sense is very powerful stuff. The common-sense notion of the Queer as wrongly sexed -- the she-male, the girlyman, the he-she, the diesel dyke -- was taken over by nineteenth-century doctors and christened the Invert, the Third Sex, the Homosexual, and this notion still underlies most "scientific" discourse today. It leads to hopeless contradictions, but these are ignored.

Social construction theories have their own contradictions, but the reason they inspire so much fury among such a wide range of people is that they go against Common Sense. What everyone can plainly see is not always true; often people see plainly what isn't there at all. This bothers those people who, in Clifford Geertz's words, are "afraid reality is going to go away unless we believe really hard in it" -- if I don't believe everything you believe, then obviously I don't believe in anything. That's just common sense.

Anyway. One of the more revelatory examples of the trouble with Common Sense was Brokeback Mountain, whose success inspired a great deal of fussing over the story, Universality, whether the characters were gay, whether the characters were cowboys, and so on. The best writing on I saw on the subject at the time was Larry Gross's piece "Year of the Queer: Hollywood and Homosexuality", especially page 3 and after, though Alan Vanneman's snark-laden piece for Bright Lights Film Journal also sticks in my mind, notably for its takedown of the film's tagline "Love Is a Force of Nature": "We humans stopped doing 'Nature' 50,000 years ago, when we learned to talk good and paint pretty pictures on a wall."

Myself, being an anti-platonist, a social constructionist, a relativist, virtually a nihilist, I saw the movie twice without wondering whether Jack and Ennis were gay. If you'd asked me at the time I'd probably have said it was because I am gay and had no investment in denying that two men who had passionate sex with each other over a twenty-year period were gay; but also that if two men could have passionate sex with each other for twenty-years without being gay, that would be a fine poke in the eye of Common Sense too, so it was a win-win situation.

So imagine my surprise when I found Stephen O. Murray's review of the film at I have a lot of respect for Murray, who's a controversial figure in the field of whatever-you-want-to-call-it: he was working before Queer Theory and kept on going throughout Queer Theory's hegemony; he's as cranky, crusty and curmudgeonly as I aspire to be; he's ferociously learned, with a merciless Bullshit Detector. I've read most of his books, at least those published since 1990 or so. But on Brokeback Mountain he bogged down in the question of whether Jack and Ennis were gay, and (In My Hubristic Opinion) he came down wrong on just about every point. After reading his review I wrote a rejoinder, which I then sat on for a year or so before I got an Epinions account and finally posted it there. I'm now posting it here, with a few very minor changes, as a sort of prologue or overture to the big Social Constructionist question.
Are they gay? Who knows? It's amazing how much doublethink turns up even in gay reviewers, though. Sociologist Stephen O. Murray, for instance, agrees with Heath Ledger that Ennis is "not gay", as if Heath Ledger were an expert in such matters. Ennis says, "I ain't no queer" -- that's a noun, not an adjective -- and Jack says, "Me neither." Murray of all people should know better. He's the guy who's famous for writing that he has "been told by young Latinos with semen inside their rectums that they `never get fucked.'" Denials of this kind are not always false; but they can't be taken as always true either. Why sure, if they say they aren't queers, they must not be! Neither was Rock Hudson, or Kevin Spacey, or Nathan Lane until he changed his mind and said he was! And Richard Nixon wasn't a crook -- he said so!

Ennis refers to "this thing, it grabs hold of us". Does this prove that they have been possessed by a spirit that forces them to have sex together? In other writings Murray jeers at Foucauldians who indulge in what he calls "discourse creationism," but that is what he's doing here. What a (fictional!) character says is always true, to be taken at face value. If you don't say you're gay or think of yourself as gay, you're not -- until you say you are, and then, presto change-O!

Murray overlooks the scene late in the film where Ennis asks Jack if he ever gets the feeling that everybody is looking at him, and they know? Fit that question together with Ennis's childhood memory of being forced by his father (his hand firm on the back of the boy's neck) to look at the mutilated corpse of a queerbashed gay man, and it's significant that the word "fear" or its synonyms never appear in Murray's descriptions of Ennis's feelings. I thought it was obvious, for example, that among the emotions Ennis felt when his ex-wife confronted him about his relationship with Jack, was abject screaming terror. ""Panic" (as in "homosexual panic") also comes to mind. Maybe less obvious, but also explained by the memory, is Ennis's crawling into an alley to weep and retch and punch a wall as their first separation begins.

As Murray points out, the idea that he might be killed for loving another man was not at all paranoid or unrealistic. His unwillingness to leave Wyoming for somewhat safer climes -- there is, after all, plenty of horrific antigay violence in cities like New York and San Francisco, it is not limited to rural areas -- is interesting: Ennis is terrified, but (like a horse in a burning barn?) he won't leave. Murray writes, "Ennis believes that men cannot mate for life", but I don't see how the film supports this claim. I think Ennis knows men can mate for life -- the two "old guys" did just that -- but he's obsessed with the fear that their lives will be cut short by violence. His murderous jealousy also is evidence that he knows he is mated to Jack for life.

Murray takes for granted that Jack is the queer one, because he makes "the first (and second and various later) move"; Ennis is a straight guy who happens to fall in love with another man. (Why is "gay" an illicit descriptor, but "straight" isn't?) Yes, Jack makes the first move, but what he offers is not his ass but his cock. Ennis responds by penetrating him. Tradition has it, of course, that Penetrator equals Real Man equals Not Queer. But Ennis apparently didn't need any time to become erect himself; was he lying there hard the whole time? I wouldn't be surprised. In the original story, Proulx endowed Ennis with a mystic knowledge of what to do. Perhaps because he'd been thinking about doing it even before he met Jack? A straight guy isn't supposed to respond to another man's sexual offer by turning him over. Ennis's reluctance to share the tent in the first place is not proof that he hadn't noticed Jack erotically -- rather the opposite. As for the later moves, I'm not sure how Murray is counting them, but it is Ennis who comes to Jack in the tent to initiate their second night together. I think that's crucial, for it shows that Ennis is not just a guy who can't say no.

Murray says that "they are not cowboys. They ride horses in their line of work, but they are responsible for sheep, and anyone who has seen very many westerns knows that the cattle barons and the would-be sheep-raisers are recurrent foes. Jack, for a time, is a 'rodeo cowboy,' riding bulls." After Ennis's summer tending sheep with Jack, he works on ranches with cattle. I think that Murray is defining "cowboy" far too strictly here, and I really don't understand why some people work themselves into such a lather over whether this is a "gay cowboy" movie or not; is it because cowboys aren't universal enough, or their feelings don't matter? Or is it because cowboys are too universal, and they can't be gay or America will fall? I really don't get it.

As Murray also complains, "The word 'gay' is bandied about very loosely in regard to the movie"; but then, "gay" does not have a strict meaning. "Ennis and Jack have homosexual sex, but neither has a self-identification as gay (and, as I have explained at considerable length in American Gay, self-identification, at least intrapsychically, is the criterion of gay)." American Gay is a fine book, but while Murray can define "gay" strictly for his own writing purposes, he can't require other people to hew to his definition, and most don't.

He goes on say that Brokeback is not a "gay movie" because "The story was written by a straight woman, adapted for the screen by a straight couple, directed by a straight man, and stars straight movie stars". So, Of Human Bondage is a homosexual novel because, though it has no gay content, it was written by a homosexual? What constitutes a "gay novel" or "gay play" or "gay movie" has been much debated over the years. Gay playwright Robert Patrick playfully defined a gay play as a play that sleeps with other plays of the same sex. Murray's definition might work for him, but I think that for most people, a movie with central same-sex content is a "gay movie" regardless of the sexual orientation of the writers, directors, or stars, or second assistant grip.

Murray continues:
In rural Wyoming it seems plausible for someone who spends his waking hours outdoors not to know of the emergence of gay communities during the 1970s. It, however, seems more difficult to imagine that by the early 1980s Jack would not have learned that somewhere (in Texas, even) there were gay bars and gay circles and gay neighborhoods. Jack is less isolated (both in general and from media) than Ennis. Instead of crossing the Rio Grande at Ciudad Juarez, he could have tooled over to Houston... but he didn't, and continued to dream of splendid isolation a deux on a ranch with Ennis (who never left Wyoming). I'm definitely not saying that Jack wanted an urban gay lifestyle. What he did want was more conceivable and obtainable after "almost twenty years" (a specification that crops up at one of their brief reunions in the wilds).
That reminds me: how does Ennis know "what they got for boys like you in Mexico", if he's so ignorant and isolated and all? I suspect that Jack's self-limitation is best explained as a result of Proulx's naivete (in interviews she's made much of her personal ignorance, as an old straight woman), and perhaps her own wish to keep her characters uncontaminated by urban gay lifestyles. But I've also known gay men who, even though they lived in cities with gay resources, refused to use them, or even to admit that they were there, while dreaming that Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy would come knocking on their doors one night and take them away from all this. Murray should know that "gay" is still a stigmatized identity, and that closet cases often have intricate strategies to avoid applying it to themselves even "intrapsychically." There's a widespread tendency to treat them as sophisticated thinkers so soaked with integrity that they won't apply a label to themselves unless it truly fits, no matter how much they want to, when it really is the other way around. Think, by analogy, of the difficulty of the strategies people have for identifying themselves as alcoholics. Just because Jack is less paralyzed than Ennis, it doesn't mean he's ready to move to the Montrose in Houston. (Where he might also be queer-bashed.) But then, he was only 39 when he died. Murray must know, as I do, men who came out later in life than that.

Brokeback Mountain, Murray declares ex cathedra, "is a story of the tragic internalization of homo-hatred, not a movie about `gay cowboys.'" False antithesis. The movie is both, and more.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Poetry Friday - I ran two miles last night

I ran two miles last night, my first in months.
Too long I've let myself get flabby, knowing
I can build my speed back up at once.
But you, old tortoise, you kept right on going.

I might have been Achilles, trapped in space,
defeated by a piddling abstraction,
but that's another tale, another race.
This one I lose by much more than a fraction.

Come out, I know you're in there: I'm ahead,
you hear me? Miles and miles ahead of you.
Unclose your shell, put out your legs and head.
It's time you showed the world what you can do.

You, slow and steady, cross your finish line,
while I'm caught napping, years away from mine.

Sometime around 1980.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ennui and Anomie and Accidie, Oh My!

I think that one reason I haven't been able to write anything lately is that I'm grappling with a large problem, and my mind has been circling around it for more than a week. (Specifically, it's the problem of social construction theory, which in practice seems to intersect with "relativism" both in morals and in knowledge. One thing that makes it hard for me to concentrate is that I have both the Science Wars and the Gay Studies attacks on social construction on my mind. They're connected, of course, but together they make a big problem to sort through.) Combined with a long hard week at work, due to numerous of my coworkers off sick, the dread I feel at sitting down to write anything substantial has been greater than I can overcome. But part of it, I've begun to realize, is that I'm not yet ready to grapple with the issues I have in mind. So for now I'll just let them simmer, or marinade, or compost, or whatever they do in my mind.

But that's okay, it will pass, as it always does. Maybe writing about it here will help break the logjam. There was a time when I'd have worried about being blocked, or feared that I was depressed. I don't think so now. I wish I were more productive, but when I consider the fact of the 500 posts I've put on this weblog over the past couple of years, I see I'm more productive than I sometimes think. It'll be okay.

(image credit --this guy makes some remarkable images, and his work deserves your attention)