Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Least of These

Today a friend and I had dinner at a local restaurant.  Since it's semester break and between holidays, the town is quiet, and there weren't many other people present, so I noticed a group of people sitting nearby.  They were two men and two women, all in their late 20s, and a baby about a year old. The adults were college types, possibly young professionals.  I noticed that the men were holding and playing with the baby, and I supposed they were two heterosexual couples out for the evening.

But gradually I noticed that the men never handed the baby to the women: they handed him back and forth between them, bouncing him and cuddling him, and though I couldn't make out most of what they were saying, they were both talking about him and his crotchets in a familiar manner. The women commented occasionally but didn't seem to be contributing stories of their own about his sleeping habits, diaper usage, how often he ate, or the like.  Gradually it dawned on me that while they were two couples, they weren't heterosexual couples: rather, they were a gay male and a gay female couple, and the baby was the son (adopted, I presume) of the two men.  When they finished their meal and got up to leave, the baby stayed with the men; the women didn't even hold him for a moment.  The men carried him out to their car, strapped him into his car seat, and drove away.  The women went off to their own car.

This wasn't the first time I've seen gay parents in the field, so to speak, but it's still a relative novelty in Bloomington.  It inspired a complex mix of feelings, but I think foremost in my mind was protectiveness.

I think one reason I've been so inactive lately is that I've been trying to decide whether or not to write about the fuss over the Duck Dynasty "patriarch" Phil Robertson.  I imagine most of my American readers know the background by now, but I do get some traffic from overseas, and it's possible that those readers might not have heard.  The controversy was summed ably by the blogger Ampersand at Alas, a Blog:
Phil Robertson, a long-bearded dude from a hugely successful A&E reality show makes racist and homophobic comments during a GQ interview, leading to objections from various lefties and lefty organizations, which A&E responded to by “suspending” Robertson (although the suspension may be “just for show“), which led to various right-wingers objecting to left-wing totalitarianism and blah blah blah you get the gist of it.
Ampersand went on to sum up the issues involved quite well, saying most of what I thought about the "kerfluffle" (the word I'd have used for it), so I'll just refer interested readers to that post.  Or to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote two excellent posts focusing mostly on Robertson's warped perspective on American race history, without slighting what he had to say about homos.  And, as Americans who pay attention to things also probably know, A&E lifted the suspension on Friday, which can hardly have surprised anyone.

I think the main reason I couldn't bring myself to write about all this was that I was horribly depressed by the Floodgates of Stupid opening once again.  On most sides.  Rod Dreher began grinding out warnings that Christians were being persecuted by Teh Gey, just as he had so often predicted; I stopped reading after the first two or three.  I would not have minded so much the gibbering of the Christian Right, complaining that Robertson was being persecuted just for bearing witness to the teachings of the Bible.  I had some fun pointing out that Robertson and his supporters are clearly Cafeteria Christians who ignore Biblical teachings that don't interest them, such as the apostle Paul's declaration that long hair on a man is shameful.  The Robertson men are walking, talking, embodiments of shame, going against nature according to Paul, who spoke with divine authority.  The conservative Christians I mentioned this to ignored it, thus showing how devoted they are to Scripture.  No surprise there.

The responses of most liberals, gay and straight, were just as dispiriting.  Many of them spoke piously of the sanctity of contract: Robertson had entered into a solemn binding agreement with A&E, and he'd broken it by saying things they didn't like, so he had no right to complain.  Such people didn't have much to say when I asked them if this meant that they were okay with employers controlling every aspect of employees' lives?  The First Amendment protects citizens' free speech from government interference, however inadequately, but big corporations are at least as big a threat to civil liberties as big government.  Did these people think it was okay for MSNBC to fire Phil Donohue for being too skeptical of the Bush Administration's rush to war in Iraq?  I mean, he was an employee too.  Again, there wasn't much response to this question.  As usual, the reaction was mainly partisan: only people on Our Side, whichever side that happened to be, have the right to say controversial or offensive things.

My Right-Wing Acquaintance Number One did not disappoint: he was furiously indignant about Robertson's suspension.  Like numerous rightwingers, he thought that Robertson shouldn't be penalized (or, apparently, even criticized) for saying what many sincere people believe about homosexuality, and after all, that's what the church teaches.  Another of his Facebook friends asked him what he thought about Robertson's comments about contented darkies in old Looziana, and he admitted he hadn't read that far.  After checking, he answered sullenly that not many churches support racism anymore, which was a charming non sequitur.  True, even Bob Jones University has fallen from its former fierce Bible-based defense of racial separation, but a good many American whites still subscribe to the belief that Jim Crow wasn't that bad, that Southern whites viewed their black servants as family, and that now that Those People have their rights, racism just isn't a problem anymore.  Robertson was surely talking for about as many people in his remarks on race as he was in his hysterical condemnation of buttsex.  I didn't think to ask how many churches have to teach a particular doctrine before it becomes exempt from public criticism; I wish I had.  RWA1 went on to link to a post in defense of Robertson's bigotry by Camille Paglia, whom he called a "righteous broad", and he claimed that the attack on Robertson's statements was motivated by an outbreak of class hatred.  This from a man who declares that American culture is going down the toilet because of commercial culture, which would surely include Duck Dynasty's white trash aesthetic!  It's also instructive to compare RWA1's reaction to Robertson to his condemnation of the Westboro Baptist Church; as I've pointed out before, WBC mainly functions as an extreme, compared to which other bigots can declare themselves moderate.  And though RWA1 defended the right-wing doctor Ben Carson, who said similarly stupid and bigoted things about homosexuality, he was silent when the liberal actor Alec Baldwin got into trouble for using homophobic epithets.  As I said, partisanship is obviously the deciding factor.

All this confirms my general sense of the inadequacy of American political / cultural discourse, which is nothing new but is still depressing when my nose gets rubbed in it.  (I reached a similar point a little over a year ago, during the 2012 election campaign, for the same reason.)  I don't think this is anything new, as I've said before, but I still believe that it can and must change.  I kept thinking I should write about it, but it seemed like too big a subject, and yet for just that reason I couldn't seem to motivate myself to write about anything else.  For one thing, I often have the feeling that I'm repeating myself, taking on the same cluster of topics over and over again, just because they become prominent, over and over again, in what passes for the national conversation.  Or maybe just the parts of the national conversation that I see.  I haven't started yet another post on The Modern Concept Of Sexual Orientation and Gender Binary for the same reason: I've written plenty about it before, and don't really have anything new to add.

But seeing those two dads and their son in the restaurant made me think of something else, which makes me think I should call this post "Why We Fight."  In the last analysis I'm not all that offended by Robertson's remarks about queers; they're predictable and tired, and they don't, by themselves, do me any harm.  And I've often griped about liberals' overwrought reaction to offensive speech -- Oh, how can you say such awful things!? -- which I see as self-stroking, self-displaying, self-righteous outrage not very different from that of the bigots.  It certainly does nothing to foster dialogue or debate with those who differ from us; but as I've also observed, most people anywhere on the political spectrum aren't really interested in debate or dialogue.  It can't be because they've tried it and they're tired of it: those I observe have never engaged in dialogue or debate that I know of.  I've done it much more than most people, for all the good it does.

What has concerned me since the 1960s, when I first began delving into these issues -- the Civil Rights and antiwar movements at first, then the gay movement and feminism -- is that other people should not be hurt.  I don't want to be hurt either, but I've suffered relatively little.  And once I could speak up, it seemed important to do so, so that other people could be emboldened and feel less alone.  Just standing together isn't enough -- I think of Stephen Vizinczey's remark about the anti-Semite who "wouldn’t look for a Jew to fight, only for a Jew to mob" (The Rules of Chaos [McCall, 1970], 208).  Alas, most liberals aren't looking for fundamentalists or bigots to fight, only for one they can mob.  Even in a controlled, structured situation, they can't carry on a discussion.  This doesn't distinguish them from their right-wing counterparts, of course; that's the trouble.  Both groups can throw up prefabricated, predigested opinions on their Facebook timelines, but if they're challenged about the content or the ideas they can only retreat to abuse and self-pity.

And yet I can't withdraw from the struggle.  There are plenty of people who would feel fully justified in taking that little boy away from his fathers.  Such things have happened before.  They will happen again.  I don't know where Phil Robertson would stand on an issue like that.  Instead of throwing hissyfits about how awful he is, someone should ask him, in public.  If he wants to be grossed out by the idea of two men having sex, that's his right, but I want to know what he proposes to advocate about public policy.  The same goes for opponents of same-sex marriage when they pretend that they don't object to gay couples, they just want to reserve the sacrament of marriage for one man and one woman.  The same thing goes for someone like Pope Francis, who talks a nice non-judgmental line about gays, but I want to know what that means in practice.  Would a male or female couple with a child be welcome in his Church, or its facilities?  I don't think this is that hard; finding out that it apparently is too difficult for the reality-based to handle is what depresses me.