Thursday, January 19, 2012

Penetrating Rhetoric

Some readers may think I harp too much on this, but I don't think so. I think it's important to point out how often it turns up in casual everyday use, as a substitute for thought where thought is what's called for.

Glenn Greenwald has a good post today on a smear campaign being waged by some adherents of the Israel lobby against some critics of Israel, labeling them anti-Semitic. He provides some damning quotations, which shows these petty journalistic thugs declaring that it's anti-Semitic to express any doubts about the reality of Iran's (non-existent) nuclear program. Since the campaign's targets are some commentators at two organizations with strong links to the Democratic Party, it's a safe bet that the intent is to put more pressure on the Obama administration to lie about Iran and support Israeli terrorism against Iran, if not upgrade US terrorism. And that's ironic when you consider Obama's longstanding and uncritical support for Israel, and his equally longstanding campaign against Iran.

But what I'm writing about now is the very first comment on Greenwald's article, by someone with the screenname "charleythecat." Here's the comment in its entirety:
Bottom line: Anyone who does not (rhetorically) bend-over and take it up the ass for Israeli interests is an anti-Semite.
I might not have bothered to point it out if this line had occurred in the context of an extended, reasoned discussion; but as I said, that is all that charleythecat had to say on the subject. He evidently thought he could forestall criticism with "rhetorically," but since so many people use "literally" to mean "figuratively," it's not the most effective defense. The "rhetorical" figure itself comes from homophobic and misogynist discourse anyway, which sees literal (by which I mean literal, not figurative) penetration as debasing, humiliating, and polluting, so the rhetorical use depends on the literal one.

(As I've noticed before, butts and buttsex play a very large role in boy culture and its games of one-upmanship. Even I couldn't resist asking charleythecat if "Bottom line" was meant to be part of the joke. Many words and idioms in English, to say nothing of other languages, can be used to allude to, imply, and joke about buttsex.)

Notice too that while charleythecat suggests coercion, it's not very strong coercion: take it up the ass, or you'll be called an anti-Semite! Your money, or be called an anti-Semite! Give me liberty, or give me your ass! Anyone who can't stand up to name-calling probably deserves to be debased. Of course, what is at stake in the smear campaign Greenwald wrote about is more important than mere verbal debasement: one target writer has already left the Center for American Progress (CAP) for another job, and destroying the target organizations by cutting off their funding and access would no doubt please the perpetrators, if it made criticism of Israel even more difficult to publish than it already is.

The last time I wrote about this subject, you may recall, it involved a commenter at alicublog who rewrote the gospel parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus to put the poor suffering Lazarus in hell, where he was "fucked by demons in every orifice." The commenter tried to defend himself by insisting that he was writing about "demon-nostril-rape", not anal sex, a half-hearted defense belied by the fact that he hadn't used the word "rape" and had written of "every orifice," not just the nostrils. (He may also have responded derisively as an assertion of straight-male privilege.) His defense inadvertently showed that for him, "fuck" means "rape," underscoring the way so many straight men have trouble distinguishing between the two.

The distinction doesn't really matter, though, because the power and meaning of rape is that it humiliates, debases and pollutes the victim by virtue of penetrating him or her; consent is irrelevant, though forcing the pollution on another elevates the rapist even higher in his own mind. Consent is also irrelevant because a woman who consents to be penetrated outside of marriage (that is, by anyone but the male who owns her), is still polluted, a whore and a slut. See again the passages, in the biblical book of Ezekiel, in which Yahweh denounces Jerusalem as a "harlot," a loose woman who welcomes and enjoys the embrace of other gods / nations -- "whore" in the biblical context is also "rhetorical," meaning any polluted woman, not just a woman who sells sexual service. As punishment, Yahweh (who's insecure about his, um, manhood) threatens to uncover Jerusalem's nakedness in front of all her lovers, another scenario of sexual debasement and humiliation. The entire chapter of Ezekiel 23 is pornographic, in the strict etymological sense.

And, of course, a man who freely and willingly consents to be penetrated is a faggot. Reversed, calling a man a faggot regardless of his sexual practices is meant to debase him by implying that he's so low, such a "fucking weak ass ... loos[er]", that he's no different from men who are literally penetrated and therefore polluted.

It's true, though unimportant, that women and gay men also speak of penetration as degrading. I presume that the women who do so enjoy imagining themselves as participating in masculine power and authority. Some gay men do so because they personally enjoy being degraded, or enjoy consensual sexual scenarios involving degradation. Or nonconsensual ones. (Which doesn't mean that the false equivalence the writer of that article posits between Savage and Santorum isn't repulsively dishonest.) Others, because they want to identify with homophobic straight men. That's not, presumably, what charleythecat had in mind (though who knows?). I've also suggested before that many gay men fall back on the claim that they were born gay because they feel bad about being gay, about being penetrated, and want to exculpate themselves by blaming it on their genes. That's what's known as internalized homophobia, and it's sad, but it won't be healed by perpetuating the belief that sex inherently involves the humiliation of one partner by the other, and using that belief to power rhetoric perpetuates it.

I might not digress too far if I mention Gandhi's 1929 letter to W. E. B. DuBois, in which he wrote: "Let not the 12 million Negroes be ashamed of the fact that they are the grandchildren of slaves. There is no dishonour in being slaves. There is dishonour in being slave-owners." (The letter is available online, but I first read the quotation in Vijay Prahad's The Karma of Brown Folk [Minnesota, 2000], page 176.) Analogously, there's no dishonor in being penetrated, whether willingly or unwillingly. (It's one of the core indictments of patriarchy that it casts the victim of rape -- female or male -- as polluted, and better off dead.) The dishonor lies in using sex, whether literal or rhetorical, to humiliate others.

Still, that's the key: the first thing that popped into charleythecat's head when he considered a smear campaign against critics of Israel was a fag joke. And he boiled down Greenwald's complex argument to nothing more than a claim that Israel is trying to make America its bitch. While I don't doubt that boy-dominance games get played in the mostly-male corridors of power, there really is more involved than that.