Friday, August 30, 2013

Send in the Drones -- Don't Bother, They're Here

Where O where has the week gone?  I was going to write this post by Tuesday at the latest, and now it's Friday.  If only I were as good at other things as I am at procrastination.

Anyway, I begin with something I meant to include in Sunday's post about moderates.  I've been reading Stuart Biegel's book The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America's Public Schools (Minnesota, 2011), which included this information:
Dr. Karen Franklin’s groundbreaking research, for example, sampled the attitudes and experiences of approximately five hundred young adults in the late 1990s and identified four distinct motivations for anti-LGBT aggression: perceived self-defense, enforcement of gender norms, peer dynamics, and thrill seeking ...

This research goes a long way toward illuminating the complexity of anti-LGBT animus and identifying reasons why it persists in so many places. A key conclusion of the Franklin study is that anti-gay aggression – whether in the form of physical attacks, verbal assaults, failure to intervene when in a position of power, or even silent complicity – "can be seen primarily as an extreme manifestation of pervasive cultural norms rather than as a manifestation of individual hatred …. [P]eople who have assaulted homosexuals typically do not recognize themselves in the stereotyped image of the hate-filled extremist" [xviii; emphasis added]
(The article Biegel cites is excerpted here.)  On one hand, it's nice that someone did empirical research into the attitudes of queer-bashers.  On the other, I couldn't have asked for a clearer expression of the intellectual and moral dishonesty surrounding extremism and moderation that I've written about so often.

There are several problems here.  One is the word "stereotype."  Stereotyping is always a bad idea, of course.  But who's doing it?  It seems to me "the stereotyped image of the hate-filled extremist" is most often invoked by apologists for bigotry, like Michael Kinsley defending Ben Carson.  Sure, Kinsley protested, Carson engaged in some intemperate antigay rhetoric, but he's not a monster.  On the whole, I believe, this move attacks an imaginary opponent, which I might describe as the stereotype of the Politically Correct Extremist, who sees monsters every time some upstanding citizens beat a fag to death, or blow up a Birmingham church with four young girls inside, or protect sexually predatory clergy from accountability.  Sensible, moderate people know that the real monsters are those who call for the impeachment of presidents for starting illegal wars, or who defend servicemen who reveal classified information about military or government misconduct to the press, or who objected to Ben Carson's addressing graduation ceremonies at Johns Hopkins.

Oddly enough, there's another side to this liberal defense of bigotry.  As Franklin says, bigoted violence "can be seen primarily as an extreme manifestation of pervasive cultural norms rather than as a manifestation of individual hatred."  Politically Correct Extremists have been pointing this out for a long time.  When school administrators and faculty not only avert their gazes but justify and even actively participate when a student is being beaten up in a classroom, it becomes absurd to speak of "individual hatred."  (Biegel, for the most part, prefers to speak of "individual hatred" anyway, throughout the book, ignoring the cultural norms that underpin the attitudes of individuals.  It's one of the major weaknesses of The Right to Be Out.)  When the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy not only refused to discipline sexually abusive clergy but protected them by moving them to new dioceses, the problem ceased to be deviant individuals and became a corrupt institution.  When the military refuses to punish rape of its personnel by other personnel, the problem is not individual rapists but a systematic Rape Culture.  But recognizing the institutional forces that drive, perpetuate, and protect bigotry and violence is also a very serious no-no, a major thoughtcrime of Politically Correct Extremists who would have you believe, for example, that racism is endemic in American culture, rather than the personal flaw of aberrant individuals.

But let's accept for the sake of argument that queerbashers are not "hate-filled extremists."  Fine.  What shall we do about them, then?  It's hard to see the point of this move.  Kinsley, for example, accused Ben Carson's critics of wanting to send "in the drones to take him out", instead of merely laughing off his "nutty remarks."  No one, as far as Kinsley showed, had advocated killing Carson with drones; but that was, according to Kinsley, the only alternative to laughing him off.  But is a person who makes "nutty remarks" a desirable commencement speaker?  If so, why not invite nutty old Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at commencement?  Just laugh off anything he says about the Jews.

Invoking the straw man of the monstrous "hate-filled extremist" is pretty clearly an attempt to prevent rational discussion, not to advance it.  It's also meant to forestall any action against physical bullying and violence against people our culture regards as acceptable targets.  Jamie Nabozny, a gay youth who was verbally harassed and physically attacked almost daily for five years in his Wisconsin public school district.  As Biegel writes,
In addition to reporting these occurrences to faculty and staff as soon as they happened, Nabozny and his parents met formally with school-site administrators on six or seven occasions over time.  At these meetings, the officials always promised to do something, yet no discipline of any consequence appears to have been administered.  Instead, the message from these educational leaders was that “boys will be boys,” and that Nabozny should expect this sort of thing because he was gay.  Not only did there appear to be no remorse on the part of school officials, but the record indicates active complicity by faculty and administration in the pattern of mistreatment.  Teachers themselves called Nabozny a fag, and on numerous instances over time – in both private and public settings – the administrators in charge blamed Nabozny for bringing all this on himself by being out [11].
Nabozny's experience was not unique; Biegel reports some other similar cases, and others have documented pervasive adult permission of antigay violence in schools.  As an adult Nabozny sued his school for failing to protect him.  The first federal court to look at the case rejected his suit, but that judgment was overturned, and eventually a jury found the school officials liable for failing to protect him.  "Before [the] jury returns to determine amount of damages," according to Lambda Legal, "officials offer to settle with an award of nearly $1 million."  (Notice the "boys will be boys" line: those who complain that schools nowadays are hostile to boys' just being themselves like that phrase, and moves to rein in boys' aggression toward girls and other boys is one of their bogeys.  They will deny that they endorse such violence, but they regard any constraints on it as emasculating for boys.)

What should be done about people like Ben Carson, then?  He hasn't, it's true, engaged in antigay violence; he's merely expressed some stupidly bigoted opinions about gay people, nothing all that unusual in American culture, though of course it's considered bad form to be caught saying such things publicly.  Genteel bigotry is the standard. I think that bigots should always be called out and criticized, preferably publicly and on the spot.  (This isn't limited to antigay bigotry; I feel the same about racism, misogyny, and other "pervasive cultural norms.")  Even verbal reproof of bigotry is generally unacceptable to moderates, though, except when they feel like indulging in it themselves.

I just did some searching to see what I could find about the critic Brendan Gill's claims that his late friend Joseph Campbell was a virulent anti-Semite, racist, sexist bigot.  Those claims first surfaced in the New York Review of Books in 1989, and I remember the controversy vividly.  It was fascinating how even anti-racist, feminist friends of mine were reluctant to take the allegations as seriously as they would about someone who they didn't admire for other reasons.  If his bigotry didn't affect his work, they said, it shouldn't matter to their appreciation of his work.  I can agree with that, but I'd never found Campbell's work worthwhile in its own right.  (Nor am I alone: see this critique, for example.)  I managed to watch just one episode of his popular PBS program The Power of Myth before giving up in disgust at his vacuousness.  It looks like the fuss eventually died down, thanks largely to the indignant and often vacuous denials by his advocates that Campbell could have been a bad man; after all, he inspired Star Wars!

The most interesting defense of Campbell I found turned up in several places, including his Wikipedia page (which itself obscures the substance of Gill's article):
Stephen and Robin Larsen, authors of the biography Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind (1991) and members of the founding board of advisors of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, argued against what they referred to as "the so-called anti-Semitic charge". They state: "For the record, Campbell did not belong to any organization that condoned racial or social bias, nor do we know of any other way in which he endorsed such viewpoints. During his lifetime, there was no record of such accusations of public bigotry".
The Larsens' defense is irrelevant.  Brendan Gill did not, as it happens, claim that Campbell did belong to "any organization that condoned racial or social bias"; his accusations of racism were based on things he said in private conversations.  Quite a few people backed Gill up, including the director of a university press who reported Campbell's "vexation" over the admission of black students to Sarah Lawrence College, where Campbell taught.  It would be difficult to come up with clear examples of such statements, though more and more of them were reported after Gill's article appeared.  But enough statements were reported that I don't think they can be dismissed out of hand.

On the other hand, such statements were probably common among old-guard faculty at good colleges, and even not-so-good ones.  Remember that Ivy League schools in Campbell's youth had maximum quotas for Jews, and probably for other groups as well; this reflected the "pervasive social norm" of American racism in the first half of the twentieth century.  When the norm began to change, many faculty men of Campbell's generation were unhappy about it, but even then they knew well enough to use code in public.  (See the passage about Carl Bridenbaugh addressing the American Historical Association in 1962, which I quoted here.)  Privately-made racist statements like those attributed to Joseph Campbell would hardly have been noticed by his peers, who would also have wanted to protect his reputation, even after he was dead.  Besides, the term "racist" brought to mind "the stereotype of the hate-filled extremist"; "anti-Semite" meant jackbooted Nazis; Campbell was a gentleman, and didn't "belong to any organization that condoned racial or social bias."  The Larsens say that during Campbell's lifetime there were no accusations of "public bigotry."  Again, Gill didn't say that there were: the bigotry was private.  I wonder if the Larsens were consciously trying to mislead by that wording, or if they were just sloppy.  But their defense of Campbell falls into a familiar pattern.