Monday, March 31, 2014

Higgledy Piggledy, Oral Tradition

Last week I read a new book by Rafael Rodríguez, Oral Tradition and the New Testament (Bloomsbury, 2014), which I'd found when it was recommended and discussed recently by a blogger I found when I was writing about Morton Smith a few years ago.  From time to time I look in to see what she's writing about, and this new book sounded worth following up.  The university library had just gotten it in, and it turned out to be interesting and useful.  It brought me up to date on a topic I hadn't looked at much lately, and pointed me to some other books I'll want to read.  (Just what I need.)  It's concise, under 150 pages including references, and readable.  I can recommend it to anyone who's interested in this subject, especially if they've read about it or heard about it before.  But, of course, I have a quibble.

Here's the context.  It's virtually a cliche in New Testament scholarship that before the gospels were written, information about Jesus and his teachings was preserved by "oral tradition."  How this oral tradition worked, what forms it took, has always been disputed, though.  Before the historical study of the Bible began at the end of the eighteenth century, though, the (more or less) official position of the church was that the gospels were written either by Jesus' original followers (Matthew and John) or by people who'd worked with them (Mark, supposedly written by an associate of Simon Peter) or by an associate of Paul (Luke and Acts), though Paul didn't become a Christian until a few years after Jesus' death.  Since the authors of the gospels were either eyewitnesses or had accesses to eyewitnesses, they didn't really need "oral tradition": they worked from memory or from the reported memories of the apostles.  I hope to write more about this before long, so I won't go into too much detail here.

In the twentieth century, scholars came to agree that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, indeed not by the men who traditionally had been claimed as their authors.  For a while in the 1800s, very late dates for the gospels became fashionable in some circles, though the fashion reversed itself in the 1900s.  So how was the gospel material preserved and transmitted from those who'd known Jesus until it was eventually written down?  "Oral tradition" was the answer.  After the 1920s, the dominant approach in European and American scholarship was form criticism, developed by German scholars and widely adopted by their colleagues.  Form criticism attempted to understand how stories and sayings were affected by transmission -- how they changed, how they stayed the same -- and how they were used by the early churches.  Naturally there were many scholars who rejected this approach, because they saw no reason to abandon longstanding church tradition, but others were skeptical of the method itself.  When I was reading a lot of New Testament scholarship in the 1980s, I read some of the classics of form criticism and some of the later attacks on and defenses of it.  Some of the opponents seemed to believe that if they could demolish form criticism, the field could return to traditional approaches, but that's like believing that if you can demolish Darwinism, the creation myths of Genesis will be vindicated. One reason form criticism was invented was that traditional understandings of the gospels had failed: few scholars believed, for reasons having nothing to do with form criticism, that the gospels were direct eyewitness accounts of Jesus' career by his followers and their converts.  Yet "form criticism" remains a bugbear of biblical reactionaries to this day, a sort of symbol of everything they reject in modern approaches to the study of the Bible.

When I read Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2008) a few years ago, it was the first serious scholarly book I'd read on this subject in quite a while.  Reading Bauckham's critique, it occurred to me that form criticism would have been based on outdated and largely discredited anthropological theories of pre-literate cultures anyway, and that it could surely be criticized because of that.  But although Bauckham made some valid points, he still accepted most of the historical-critical approach to the Bible, including many of its conclusions.  I wondered if some of the people who'd welcomed his book noticed, for example, that he didn't think the gospel of Matthew was written by an eyewitness. Whatever the failings of form criticism, abandoning it would not be much help to a conservative-fundamentalist case for the validity or reliability of the gospels.

So Rodríguez' book looked like a good way to begin bringing myself up to speed on whatever advances had been made in the study of oral tradition since the 1980s, and it is that.  I plan to read some of the writings he cites.  But the main advance seems to have been the development of what Rodríguez calls "media criticism" of the New Testament writings, which appears to have more to do with the use of those writings for worship and devotion rather than a better understanding of their history and composition.  As Rodríguez says, we have no access to the oral tradition that predated the writing of the gospels: attempts to reconstruct it as a source have not worked.  Scholars can do a bit more with written sources, but not very much since those written sources are mostly lost; the only exception is the gospel of Mark, which most New Testament scholars believe was used as a source by the authors of Matthew and Luke, who rewrote it, cut, and added to it to produce their gospels.  Mark still exists as a separate work; other hypothetical sources like Q do not.

All this goes, I hope, to set the stage for the following passage from Oral Tradition and the New Testament, which baffles me for reasons I'll explain shortly.
A logical place to begin the history of contemporary media criticism is with Swedish scholar Birger Gerhardsson.  His dissertation, Memory and Manuscript (1961), was published at the zenith of form criticism’s influence, when the academic community was not ready to take seriously Gerhardsson’s critical challenges to form criticism.  Gerhardsson’s work would not be granted adequate consideration for at least two decades, and perhaps closer to four.  Perhaps most (in)famously, Morton Smith wrote an influential and dismissive review essay that described Gerhardsson’s thesis as a whole as “impossible to conceive” (1963: 176). Two decades later, Werner Kelber (1983) would take Gerhardsson seriously, and 15 years after that, in 1998, Gerhardsson’s book would be republished, along with his follow-up essay, Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (1964), and a penitent foreword by no less than esteemed Rabbinics scholar (and Morton Smith’s former student) Jacob Neusner.  Finally, in 2009, an edited volume of interdisciplinary essays would reassess the original significance of Gerhardsson’s work (Kelber and Byrskog 2009).  Today, Gerhardsson is widely recognized as a seminal figure in the history of research in early Christian oral tradition, a man literally decades ahead of his time [34].
I never got around to reading Memory and Manuscript, though I think I remember looking at Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity to see Gerhardsson's reply to Smith's criticism.  If I remember right, it was not an effective rebuttal, so I didn't feel it important to follow up by reading the books in their entirety.  I did hear about Neusner's recantation in the wake of the controversy over Smith and the longer gospel of Mark, and the blogger who alerted me to Rodríguez mentioned the republication of Gerhardsson's book and Neusner's "penitent foreword."  I did some digging and learned about the messy, bitter break between Neusner and Smith, which led to Neusner's repudiating most of his own earlier scholarship along with his teacher's.

What I didn't find was any refutation of Smith's critical review of Memory and Manuscript.  It originally appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature, volume 82 (1963), 169-176, and was reprinted in a posthumous collection of Smith's articles.  It doesn't seem to be readily available online unless you have access to an academic library's resources.  Maybe there's something in the edited volume of interdisciplinary essays on Gerhardsson that Rodríguez mentions; it's in the university library here, but it's checked out so it may be a while before I can look at it.

I also recall seeing Gerhardsson's work cited favorably by numerous conservative academics and apologists I read, so I'm not sure how seriously to take Rodríguez' suggestion that Smith's "(in)famous" and "influential" review shut down consideration of Gerhardsson's thesis.  Maybe the review was influential because it made valid criticisms?  I'm especially inclined to think so because of what Rodríguez himself has to say about Gerhardsson's work.

Briefly, Smith argued that Gerhardsson based his argument on dubious assumptions: that Jesus made his disciples memorize his teachings as any rabbi of his day would have done according to the Talmud, and that the early church functioned like a rabbinical school.  Smith countered that the New Testament writings do not look anything like the rabbinical material, and that there is no evidence in the New Testament or early Christian history of such methods of preservation and transmission among the early Christians.
Even if we were to suppose the apostles witnesses to Jesus' legal teaching, there is no evidence of a class of memorizers to preserve their witness as the professional "repeaters" of rabbinic Judaism preserved the oral Torah.  And there is no appeal to chains of tradition.  Paul never says "Peter says that Jesus said," nor "I heard from James who heard from John who heard from Jesus."  Indeed, Paul is notorious for the rarity with which he even refers to Jesus' teaching [175].
Remember Rodríguez' claim that Smith "described Gerhardsson’s thesis as a whole as 'impossible to conceive'"?   It's in the final sentence of the review.  Here's the context:
In one of the few places where Paul does appeal to tradition, he lists, as the evidence on which his gospel was based, six stories of resurrection appearances (1 Cor 15.3ff).  One of these was Christ's appearance to him, the other five he seems to say he had "received."  Presumably they constituted the evidence for the primitive Christian kerygma as he knew it -- one might say, the most important part of the earliest known preaching of Christianity.  Yet of these five appearances, two or three have disappeared from the canonical tradition, except for passing references.  A second example, and even less explicable by Gerhardsson's postulates, is the loss of any reliable record of Jesus' attitude toward the Law.  How a careful, rabbinic tradition should have produced, about this central rabbinical concern, the mess of contradictory scraps of evidence which the gospels preserve, it is impossible to conceive [176].
It seems to me that Rodríguez misrepresented Smith's statement.  It was not Gerhardsson's "thesis as a whole," that he called "impossible to conceive," but the failure of early Christian tradition to preserve a "reliable record of Jesus' attitude toward the Law."

Even more significant, Rodríguez himself is quite critical of Gerhardsson's thesis.  For example:
However, Gerhardsson goes too far when he argues, on the basis of both the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters, that the disciples -- specifically, The Twelve – formed a collegium, or authoritative school, that was responsible for forming, preserving, and transmitting the Jesus tradition (1961:244, 245-61)...

All of this rests on a highly speculative reading of a handful of texts, especially Acts 15 (see 249-61).  For example, he calls Acts 15.5ff “a description of a regular early Christian general session” (251, emphasis added), though nothing in Acts 15 (or elsewhere) suggests that it describes a regular or recurring kind of meeting.  Instead, Acts 15 seems to describe a special, ad hoc gathering of the Jerusalem church to settle a significant, persistent problem that was not typical for the early Christians.  Moreover, Paul’s letters provide authoritative doctrinal and pragmatic pronouncements to their audiences from Paul himself and not from Jerusalem.  This fact alone suggests that authority among the earliest Christians was not concentrated in a small group located in Jerusalem...

Gerhardsson’s conception of the oral Jesus tradition, then, is too rigid and inflexible, especially in that he assumes a fixed oral tradition that was more stable and unchanging than even the written Jesus tradition!  To be sure, Gerhardsson leaves room for the adaptation and creative application of the fixed Jesus tradition in earliest Christianity.  But the Jesus tradition as Gerhardsson has imagined it is nevertheless unreasonably and impractically stable, fixed, and memorized [35-6].
This is pretty close to Smith's critique, in my opinion, though it's framed differently.  It's easy to imagine a Gerhardsson partisan (Neusner, say) attacking Rodríguez for an infamous dismissal of the great scholar's work.  That wouldn't be entirely inaccurate, since Rodriguez does reject his "thesis as a whole," which assumes Jesus' early followers as a rabbinical academy.  Given Rodríguez' careless reading -- to put it as charitably as I can -- of Smith's conclusion, and the lack of any real refutation of Smith's criticisms, I'd say that Smith's review still has to be answered, or even seriously confronted.  (Smith's remarks about the resurrection tradition in 1 Corinthians were especially "influential" for me, and deserve more attention than they have received; if any serious scholar is in danger of being undervalued in New Testament studies, it's Morton Smith.)

This is not to dismiss the whole of Oral Tradition and the New Testament: there's a lot in it that seems good to me.  But the part I've discussed here is seriously weak, and casts a shadow over the rest.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Another Lifestyle Choice

I heard the soundtrack from this Coast Guard recruiting commercial on the radio as I was driving north today.

At least, I think it was the same commercial: I could swear I heard the narrator say "I was born this way" at one point, but it's not in this video version.  Probably I misheard.  But "born ready" is just about as funny.  Especially from a narrator who runs into traffic, endangering herself and others, just to show how tough and independent she is.  (There's also a male version, a shot-for-shot duplicate except for the sex of the narrator, and a Spanish-language version featuring the female actor.)  I'm not sure I'd trust someone who wasn't born to look both ways before crossing the street to defend my country.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sorting It Out

I think I've finally figured out how to express a point I've been fussing about for some time, namely the definition of "homosexuality."  For example, the anthropologist Sabine Lang wrote that "In Western culture, a homosexual relationship is defined as being between ... two individuals who are of the same sex and the same gender."  There are many things wrong with that definition, which I've spelled out before, but I think I've now pinned down my key objection.

Similarly, Serena Nanda wrote of "a (postmodern) gay ideology, in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation."  I've spelled out some of the many things wrong with this formulation too, but I don't think I quite got at the core of it until now.

Likewise, Graeme Reid wrote: "In the classic contemporary Western model of homosexuality both partners in a same-sex relationship would automatically be classified as homosexual, based on sexual object choice."  Would they really?  Wouldn't it be necessary to make at least a dutiful nod to sexual fluidity and the Kinsey continuum before automatically classifying both partners as homosexual?

So: A more accurate account of a Western definition of "a homosexual relationship" (or more likely, "a homosexual act") is that it involves two individuals of the same sex, whether or not they are of the same gender or sexual orientation.  The difficulty here, I think, is the risk Lang, Nanda, and I all run of ignoring who is doing the defining.  I recognize that many or most people who use these terms assume an inversion / gender variant model of homosexuality, which is also "Western" but assumes that any sexual act or relationship must be gendered: you have your queer and your real man, or your bulldyke and your femme, and only the gender variant in the pair is "the homosexual."

I'm skeptical, in fact, about claims that this or that researcher said that both partners in a homosexual act are homosexual, because most researchers in the twentieth century have used the inversion model.  I suspect that in most if not all cases, they referred to "homosexual activity" and some piece of trade's delicate sense of manhood was outraged, even though the researcher had not said or meant that both men in the encounter were inverts.

Sorting this out is complicated by the fact that even Alfred Kinsey and others who tried to avoid thinking in essentialist terms found it difficult not to speak of homosexual persons.  But even a homosexual person can be viewed (as Kinsey would have done) as someone who interacts erotically with persons of his or her own sex, without assuming that he or she is an invert.  Analogously, the language one speaks doesn't tell us anything about one's nature, though historically people have often believed otherwise: I speak English because I grew up in an English-speaking environment, and learned other languages by choice, not because I was a Spanish-speaking or French-speaking soul trapped in the body of an Anglophone.  It has often occurred to me, when I looked at statements about homosexuality from the Kinsey team, that they were overlooking questions of gender, copulatory role, and the like -- but that was exactly the idea; the trouble was that when Kinsey reported (say) that 37 percent of his male sample had at least one experience with another male to orgasm between the ages of 16 and 55, most readers jumped to the assumption that they were all inverts, homosexuals, etc.  This is interesting when I consider that many if not most Americans in those days surely subscribed to a version of the queer/trade model, in which the penetrator ("trade") officially was Not Homosexual.  But that might explain it: given that assumption, what else could they think when they heard that 37 percent of males had "homosexual" experience, but that all those men were queers?

Remember the young Dominican woman I've quoted before, who, when she learned that her boyfriend was being kept by a maricón, accused him of being a maricón himself, to his great indignation.  "And she said 'What do you mean you’re not a maricón, if you live with a man?!' And I said they weren’t the same thing. 'What do you mean?' And I said, 'No, because he’s the one who receives, and I’m the one who gives.'"  Even in a society where the trade/queer model is dominant, not everyone goes along with it, and with reason.  As Annick Prieur (one of the few writers who is able to think about these matters with some clarity) put it in Mema's House (Chicago, 1998), "Gender is a question of discourses, of signs, of presentations and representations, of gestures, speech, garments and clothes, but it is also a question of naked bodies.  And when two persons with the same male sexual organs are naked, the construction of one of the partners as a not-homosexual man and of the other one as a not-male person is difficult to upkeep" (274).  It takes a lot of sociocultural work to maintain the trade/queer distinction.

What I propose, then, is that in discussing a homosexual act or relationship, there is no need to make assumptions about the gender or the sexual orientation of either partner.  A homosexual act involves two people with the same genitalia, regardless of their sexual identity or orientation or gender -- or their religion or political affiliation or height or weight or eye color.  This all seems so obvious as I write it, but from what I've read on the subject over the past few years I have to conclude that it's not obvious to many people at all.  Indeed the evidence is that it's really very difficult for many or most people to grasp.

Many people who cite the Kinsey continuum misunderstand it, and it's instructive to consider why that is.  It was supposed to help people visualize a non-essentialist model of homosexuality (though Kinsey wouldn't have used the word "essentialist," which wasn't in vogue then), by pointing out that many people have varying amounts of homosexual and heterosexual experience during their adult lives.  Yet many people, including academic and clinical thinkers, take the scale as a metric of "sexual orientation," even though there is no way to measure or quantify sexual orientation.  Arguably you can use it however you wish, as long as you're aware you're not using it as it was meant to be used, but it doesn't appear that such people are aware.  They equate sexual behavior with sexual orientation and even identity (though they also tend to confuse sexual orientation with sexual identity), even as they appeal to a device that was meant to uncouple the two, at least analytically.

One might ask at what point on the scale a person becomes "homosexual" or "heterosexual."  The answer would depend largely on what is meant by "a homosexual person."  It can mean a person with a homosexual essence, which stays the same whether a person has any overt sexual experience at all, and even when "a homosexual person" has considerable quantities of heterosexual experience (and vice versa).  Or it can mean that a person has considerable homosexual experience and decides to label oneself on that basis.  It needn't imply anything about one's biological (or spirit)* nature.  As the writer Marge Piercy put it, "There's no reason I shouldn't be a lesbian if I fell in love with a woman again" -- a lesbian, in this quite reasonable and idiomatic sense, is a woman who's "in love" with a woman at the moment, regardless of her experience with men at other times.  By contrast, the writer Kelley Eskridge wrote that "I don't even call myself a lesbian," despite her relationship of twenty-plus years with the writer Nicola Griffith.  But those who want to stress the "fluidity" of sexuality, to reject "binaries," and to trumpet their rejection of essentialism, should recognize that a label like "homosexual" or even "gay" doesn't tell us anything about a person's nature.

*I mention "spirit" here because the two-spirit model, for example, is thoroughly essentialist: it assumes that there are precultural male and female natures that drive people's behavior, but they are spiritual (whatever that means) rather than biological (whatever that means).  It seems to me that there's no real difference between "spirit" and "biology" in these conceptions.  In both cases, an inner woman is postulated though not defined or explained, who drives the male body she inhabits to seek penetration by other males.  This kind of idea is generally dismissed by scientists as 'mysticism' when the inner woman is a spirit, but not when she's a biological essence -- a concept that is no more rational as far as I can tell.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Is He a Euphemism-Friend, or Just a Friend?

The kind of erotic teleology I criticized in Susan Sontag turns up elsewhere in other forms, of course.  For example, in William Benemann's Male-Male Intimacy in Early America (Harrington Park Press, 2006), Benemann declares, "Male friendship may content itself with handshakes and backslaps, but male love yearns to be eternal" (19).

To begin with, this is a false antithesis, between "friendship" and "love."  Part of the problem of course is the ambiguity of the word "love."  One would expect someone writing an ostensibly scholarly work of history to be more careful using a word that is applied to such a wide range of feelings and relationships.  On one hand, "love" has often been used between same-sex friends, in ways that confuse moderns but also confused and upset their contemporaries.  Benemann knows this, as he shows when he asks why, "If this discourse was common for the era … why did [Alexander] Hamilton’s literary editor irretrievably obliterate part of [Hamilton’s] letters to [John] Laurens?" (xii).

"Love" is very often the word used for erotic desire and for copulation in popular culture.  In the Doors' song "Love Me Two Times," "love" can't really mean anything but "fuck."  Even granting that it's partly euphemistic -- a song with the title "Fuck Me Two Times" would never have been released on a major label in the 1960s -- it also reflects common usage.  But at the same time, "love" in common usage also refers to feelings that have no erotic component, from loving ice cream to loving one's child to loving one's country.  Everyone knows this, I think, but everyone can be amazingly obtuse when parsing other people's use of the word "love," refusing to consider the possibility that those others could have loved someone without wanting to bone them.  And here I'm just talking about contemporary use of the word "love," not its use in centuries past, when (arguably) different expressions of love were permissible and conventional.

On the other hand, "friend" has been used, sometimes but not always as a euphemism, to refer to erotically involved same-sex partners.  For example, the American gay writer Paul Monette wrote in the late 1980s:
I always hesitate over the marriage word.  It's inexact and exactly right at the same time, but of course I don't have a legal leg to stand on.  The deed to the house on Kings Road says a single man after each of our names.  So much for the lies of the law.  There used to be gay marriages in the ancient world, even in the early Christian church, before the Paulist hate began to spew [sic] the boundaries of love.  And yet I never felt quite comfortable calling Rog my lover.  To me it smacked too much of the ephemeral, with a beaded sixties topspin.  Friend always seemed more intimate to me, more flush with feeling.  Ten years after we met, there would still be occasions when we'd find ourselves among strangers of the straight persuasion, and one of us would say, "This is my friend."  It never failed to quicken my heart, to say it or overhear it.  Little friend was the diminutive form we used in private, the phrase that is fired in bronze beneath his name on the hill [Borrowed Time, 24-25].
More relevant to Benemann's work, friendship has often been a passionately imagined and sought ideal, far from his trivializing caricature.  Many men have dreamed of finding an idealized male friend.  Friendship isn't something that just happens by itself, it's an ancient cultural phenomenon celebrated in literature and history.  In Alan Bray's The Friend (Chicago, 2003), he quotes a sixteenth-century English writer, William Cornwallis, who in an essay "On Loue" wrote:
I laugh, and wonder, at the straunge occasions that men take now a dayes to say they love: If they meete with a fellowe at a Feaste, or in a Potte, If their Delightes bee enye thing a kinne, or theyr Faces anye thing alike; If their Countries be one, or their lands neare adioyning; if they be both rich, or both poore, or indeed if their new-fangled inuentions can finde out any occasion, they are sworn brothers, they will liue and die together: but they scarce sleep in this mind, the one comes to make vse of the other; and that spoyles all; he entered this league not to impaire, but to profite himselfe [quoted by Bray, 122].
Bray's discussion of this passage goes off onto some odd tangents, but he does supply the useful information that Cornwallis, however "hostile" he is to friendship, is writing about something real:
The two officials in Chaucer’s Freres Tale swear brotherhood as spontaneously as in Cornwallis’s characterization (or as the future king Edward II and Piers Gaveston are said to have done) and the peasant farmers in Chaucer’s Pardoners Tale swear brotherhood in a tavern.  As Cornwallis implies, sworn brotherhood was indeed used to reinforce bonds of local friendship between men who were neighbors, and his description that “they will liue and die together” is an accurate account of the form that they vow of two sworn brothers recognizably took [123]. 
Bray was concerned to counter the notion that men entered into friendship and/or sworn brotherhood merely for material advantage. That seems an unlikely motive anyway, if both men were poor, but I don't think that Cornwallis was saying that all male friendship involved a desire to "profite himselfe."  What I took away from Cornwallis's animadversions is that some men were so eager to find a soul mate that they'd pledge eternal brotherhood simply because they had some trivial trait in common, led on by literary depictions of friendship at first sight.  Cornwallis comes across like the forerunner of a twentieth-century advice columnist, warning girls not to give their hearts too freely or quickly, because boys will just play with their feelings in hopes of getting laid.  Or the evangelical writer quoted in James Barr's Fundamentalism (Westminster, 1977, page 331), "To share a common interest in Sunday School work is not, in itself, a decisive indicator that you should get married."  But the warning that some smooth talker will play on your feelings for his own profit assumes that your feelings are involved.

If late-twentieth century American males of my and Benemann's generation were intimidated by the threat of fag-baiting from expressing deep passionate friendship with more than a "handshake," they were outliers historically and cross-culturally.  The popularity of male-bonding stories in the notoriously homopohobic American midcentury indicates to me that many men at least fantasized about finding an Ideal Friend.  Of course one way to get around that fact is to interpret all the literature of friendship as covertly erotic, and that's as big a mistake as assuming that none of it is.

Consider, for instance, the letters Benemann mentions from Alexander Hamilton to John Laurens.  They're fairly famous among people interested in the subject ever since Jonathan Ned Katz published three pages of excerpts in his Gay American History (Thomas Y. Crowell) in 1976, with extended commentary on them.  (Notice that publication date.  I'm a bit baffled by Benemann's claim to an interviewer that "Most people have assumed that therefore it’s almost impossible to do research on early gay American history ... I just decided that probably was not the case."  Maybe "most people" assume that, but not queer historians -- a fair amount has been published on the subject, and Katz's book was a breakthrough thirty years before the publication of Male-Male Intimacy in Early America.  On Hamilton and Laurens, if not elsewhere, Benemann is retracing trails blazed by Katz.)  Katz wrote that Hamilton (yes, the Alexander Hamilton) and Laurens were "part of that close male circle surrounding General Washington -- his 'family,' as the general called them (453).  In April 1779 the twenty-two-year-old Hamilton wrote to the twenty-five-year-old Laurens:
Cold in my professions, warm in [my] friendships, I wish, my Dear Laurens, it m[ight] be in my power, by action rather than words, [to] convince you that I love you.  I shall only tell you that 'till you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you.  Indeed, my friend, it was not well done.  You know the opinion I entertain of mankind, and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments, and to keep my happiness independent of the caprice of others.  You sh[ould] not have taken advantage of my sensibility to ste[al] into my affections without my consent.  But as you have done it and we are generally indulgent to those we love, I shall not scruple to pardon the fraud you have committed, on condition that for my sake, if not for your own, you will always continue to merit the partiality, which you have so artfully instilled into [me] [quoted by Katz, 453-454].
As Benemann says, if Hamilton's effusiveness was conventional in its day, why did his literary editor obliterate parts of his letters to Laurens?  But on the other hand, what the editor published is unsettling to readers two centuries later; so maybe it was conventional after all.  I'm becoming suspicious of the word "conventional" in this kind of context, though: it usually seems to be used to dismiss the possibility of personal connection and emotion on the writer's part: Oh, he didn't really mean it, he was just saying that.  But why?  Convention is as likely to provide a way of expressing feelings where one might otherwise be inarticulate.  It also plays a role in situations governed by unequal status, as in petitions or declarations of fealty to those more powerful than we are.  It's one thing to close a letter with assurances that the writer is the recipient's humble and obedient servant, and another to run on and on as Hamilton did in these letters.

Which isn't to say that Hamilton was necessarily hoping to get into Laurens's breeches.  Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't; I can't tell from what he wrote, and I don't think anyone else can.  The passages blacked out by Hamilton's editor might settle the question, or they might not.  But Hamilton also told Laurens repeatedly that their fellow officers ("the lads"), including Washington, sent him their "love" (Katz, 455, 456).  It's fun to fantasize about orgies in the General's tent, but I see no reason to believe they happened.  On the other hand, if Hamilton wanted to be merely conventional, he could have written something other than "love" there.  "Their respects," maybe; or "their best regards."  There were surely warm personal bonds of affection, not just duty, between these men, as is common among men who've served together in wartime.  "Love" is, as I said, an ambiguous word, and a person will use it in different senses in rapid succession.  That's what makes it so difficult to tease out the times when erotic "love" is meant.

It now seems to me that we will never know for sure which declarations of same-sex love spoke for erotic desire and which didn't, except in those rare cases where the eroticism is explicit.  Benemann reluctantly acknowledges this, but I think he still hopes that someone someday will find a key that unlocks the hidden copulations, so that we can know who was having sex and who wasn't.  To say this is not to say that there weren't some people who were homosexual in the sense of desiring, loving, and copulating with persons of their own sex, and uninterested erotically in persons of the other sex.  But we're unlikely ever to know who they were.  To recognize this fact is not to refute Benemann's largely straw-man accusation (and category mistake) against social constructionists, but it doesn't help him much either.  All he succeeded in doing in this book was dredging up archival material about male friendship and, in a number of cases, some rather "flamboyant" types who were suspected (or taunted with suspicions) of sodomitical conduct in their own day, whether or not the suspicions were justified.  In most cases we can't even be sure they were, since fag-baiting was on Benemann's showing as popular a political and cultural pastime in the 18th and 19th centuries as it is now, and fag-baiters often don't even care if the men they attack are really queer or not.  (Sometimes, then as now, fag-baiters hope to distract attention from their own proclivities.) 

Incidentally, this might be the place to recall that Benemann began his book with the declaration that
I believe that men loving men in the early years of this country were aware of the concept we now label as "queer space," and that they took active steps to separate themselves from the heterosexual majority in order to join their brothers in an underground community based on a shared sexual response [xv].
When I first wrote about Male-Male Intimacy in Early America, I declared my skepticism about this passage.  Now that I've finished the book, I can say that he didn't make a case for it -- indeed, he seems to have forgotten about it.  He was making a profession of faith here, a credo, not drawing a defensible (let alone defended)  historical conclusion.  Which is okay, we all have convictions that matter to us despite a lack of evidence to back them up.  But it doesn't inspire confidence in Benemann's historical judgment.

So what can we do, we who are interested in our queer forerunners?  I think that the ongoing search for suggestive material in the archives is worthwhile and should continue (of course no one needs my permission or approval to do it); one thing that bothered me about Male-Male Intimacy is how much of Benemann's material is, like the Hamilton letters, quite old hat to anyone who's followed the gay historical quest, and Benemann doesn't seem to acknowledge this.  It may be, in fact it's likely, that previously unknown material will be uncovered.  But there's no reason to believe that great troves of accounts of explicitly erotic material will surface; mostly it will be more ambiguous romantic effusions, at least until the twentieth century or so.  Instead of (or in addition to) lamenting this, we should think about what it means and what it might mean to us.

I've been looking for a passage I remember from Katz's Gay American History (and if I find it I'll add it to this post), in which he argued that we should recognize the passionate male-male and female-female friendships as gay (or proto-gay, or gayish), even when we don't know whether they involved genital stimulation.  Sex is good, and important to acknowledge when we can document it, but I think we should stress the presence of love in these relationships, love that was intensely expressed enough to make many heterosexuals uncomfortable.  It should also be remembered that even when we do know that people in the past, or in non-Western societies, were engaged in same-sex copulation, the homophobic and heterosexual-supremacist response has been to deny its reality or significance.  Because of that it may be a waste of time to try to prove that Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens were doin' it; since both of them married, apologists for heterosexual supremacy will deny that any copulation they enjoyed with each other 'counted.'  So let's insist that Hamilton's love for Laurens, and all the other same-sex loves we know about, counted.  It may not have been "homosexuality as we know it today," but it sure wasn't heterosexuality as we know it today either.  These letters and all the other great love literature between males and between females are part of gay and lesbian and bisexual history, which is part of human history.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Take It to the Limit

I happened on Jonathan Cott's 1978 Rolling Stone interview with Susan Sontag, which was published in its entirety by Yale University Press last year.  I have my differences with Sontag, but I always enjoyed reading her essays, even when I disagreed with her.  I'd recommend this long interview to anyone interested in Sontag, in what it means to be an intellectual, in mortality, or in many other issues.  "Mortality" is a big issue here, because at the time of the interview Sontag was just coming off a regime of therapy for cancer, which was reasonably successful (she lived for another quarter-century), but she'd come close to dying and she knew it.

Still, there's something in the interview that bugged me, and if I remember right it is something that had bugged me before: Sontag's view of the "demonic" side of human sexuality.  I should probably reread her early essay on pornography, and I don't assume that her view of sexuality didn't change over time, but here I just want to comment on what she said to Cott in 1978.  It feels familiar to me from having read her before, and I think it's a view she shared with a good many other people, intellectuals or not.

Sontag begins by saying that she thinks the renegade Freudian Wilhelm Reich "really didn’t understand the demonic in human nature and that he had a picture of sexuality only as something wonderful.  And of course it can be, but it’s also a very dark place and a theater of the demonic" (41).  I don't necessarily disagree with this, though I'm not sure what Sontag meant by "demonic" that isn't merely tautologous, and I find it ironic since elsewhere in the interview she talks about her distrust of metaphors.  I don't suppose she believed literally in demons, so that metaphor needs to be unpacked a little, and she doesn't do that.

More to the point, while I can agree that sexuality "is also a very dark place and a theater of the demonic" (for some value of "demonic"), the same can be said of just about every other human endeavor, from food to art to religion to science to being a parent to being an intellectual.  So why single out sexuality?

Cott then quotes Sontag to herself on S&M from her essay "Fascinating Fascism": "The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death."  Ooooh, child!  That's just a bit simplistic.  One well-known aspect of sadomasochism is its reenactment of scenarios of abasement and control from childhood, but Mom doesn't usually wear black leather when she's warming your bottom.  (At least mine didn't.  I mustn't overgeneralize from my own experience.)  Everything I've read indicates that S&M works best as erotic theater: you kiss your Mistress's boots and then arise refreshed to resume running the corporation from the executive suite. It's not "real," it's playing with fantasies.  Perhaps, as with many fantasies -- including art -- S&M works as a way of managing and controlling painful feelings.  (Is that its essence?  No.  Again, I don't think human sexuality has an essence.)  It seems to me, again, that Sontag was overreliant on metaphor in that passage.  Its ritualistic use of repetition also makes me a bit skeptical of Sontag's disavowal in her answer to Cott:
I don’t deeply understand it because it’s not me, but I guess I understand it more than you in the sense that I know it’s for real, and know that the reason people can continue to have an idea of sexuality simply as pleasure – in the most desirable sense as contact, love, and sensuality – is that they don’t go to the end of what sexuality is … and they probably shouldn’t, of course, because is one is playing with fire.  And if one goes to the end, I think it’s a much bigger and more anarchic thing than one imagines, and that’s why throughout human history it’s been the subject of so much regulation.  I don’t think people understand why there’s been this problem of repression.  I’d sort of turn it around and say that the reason most societies have been, to a considerable extent, repressive about sexuality is that people have understood that it can get out of control and be completely destructive [41-2].
Again, I can agree with this to a point, but it seems to me that Sontag is equivocating.  I think she'd have denied that the true nature or core of human sexuality is demonic, but she still seems to be saying not only that cruelty and domination are part of human sexuality as we have constructed it (which I think is obviously true), but that they are "the end of what sexuality is," and that anyone whose sex life doesn't include some cruelty isn't being honest, isn't "going to the end" of human sexuality (which I think is obviously false).

I don't believe that human sexuality has an essence or an end, which perhaps puts me in the uncomfortable position of conceding that for some people cruelty and destruction may be authentically part of their sexuality, while for others they are not.  I don't see this as a real problem, though, because I'd say that cruelty and destruction are authentically part of human nature too.  Authenticity, however, is not validity.

Cott then quotes William Blake, from his big poem Jerusalem, on "Sexual Organization", and Sontag continues:
Yes, there’s something wrong with human sexuality [laughing].  You see, we’re not animals.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with animal sexuality, but at the same time it is kind of awful because it’s so purely physical and for the most part is so extremely disagreeable to the female.  With the exception of some species like wolves, for instance, who have something more like a family life and tend to be monogamous, it’s generally this crazy kind of disconnected, dissociated act that, as I said, is very unfavorable for the female and really does seem to be the reproductive urge and nothing more.  Human sexuality, however, is something entirely different, but it didn’t quite work out – in fact, I once described the human sexual capacity as being incorrectly designed.  I mean, to move sexuality onto another plane whereby it becomes a psychological and emotional thing doesn’t quite work – it only works when it’s controlled or inhibited in some way.  Did you see that movie by Nagisa Oshima called In the Realm of the Senses

I did, and I’m afraid that I’m never going to forget it.  There’s no way you can forget the ending of that film when the woman strangles the man while they’re making love and then cuts off his penis and writes the words “The Two of Us Forever” on her chest in blood.
You know, I think Oshima’s right.  I think that’s an authentic experience.  Luckily it’s given to very few people.  But this is a perfect illustration of what happens when you don’t have any breaks anymore.  They went to the end, and the end is death [42-3].
Here Sontag says it explicitly: the end of human sexuality is death.  Well, in the long run we are all dead, but conceiving death as the telos -- the completion in the sense of fulfillment, the goal -- of life is a mistake.

The complexity of human sexuality, even as Sontag theorized it here, isn't a matter of "incorrect design," since organisms aren't designed (another unfortunate metaphor that Sontag should have known better than to use).  I view it as a consequence of the human capacity for symbolism -- for language, for abstract thought, for constructing stories about our experience -- overlaid on our biological functioning, because in Darwinian evolution there is no reason why human sexuality (or anything else) should be correctly "designed."  Darwinian evolution is often a mess, because it isn't directed by a designer or toward any goal.  What matters is whether a trait more or less works overall, and doesn't screw the species up to the point that it can't sustain reproduction at all.

In the Realm of the Senses is not very helpful for Sontag's discussion.  As Cott says, it's the story of a man and woman who have an obsessive sexual affair, which culminates in the woman strangling the man while they copulated, and (after he was dead) cutting off his penis and testicles.  As Hollywood marketers would say, it's Based on Real Events, though the film was made by a maverick, bad-boy Japanese director outside even the workings of the Japanese film industry: in 1936 a woman named Sada Abe did just that to her lover Kichizo Ishida.  She carried the severed parts with her until she turned herself in to the police a few days later; she was tried, convicted, imprisoned, and released in 1941, five years after the murder; she lived until sometime in the 1970s.

Oshima Kagisa's 1976 film was neither the first nor last to be made about her, but it was the most notorious because of its onscreen depiction of genitals and penetration.  Whether Oshima was "right" about Sada Abe is open to question, since he was of course creating a story of his own, imposing his understanding of the events for his own purpose, but it seems clear enough that Sontag wants him to be right, and to agree with her interpretation of the case, that Abe and Ishida "went to the end, and the end is death."  But what's the big deal?  One could say the same thing, just as accurately, of a monogamous married couple who vow to stay together "till death do us part" and do so, even if neither one kills or mutilates the other along the way.  But that's not transgressive, not "edgy."  If Sontag exalts Abe and Ishida's "end" over the more prosaic kind, it must be for other reasons than logical necessity.

Cott protests, talking about Reich's account of repression and "healthy" ways of being sexual.  Sontag replies:
But I believe that’s true, too. I know people who have very pleasurable, sensuous, nondestructive, non-S&M sexual lives.  Not for a minute am I saying that that’s not possible.  In fact, not only is it possible, it’s desirable.  I just think the people who can do that don’t take it to the limit, and, as I said before, they shouldn’t.  But I don’t agree with Reich that fascism primarily comes out of sexual repression, though I do think it has a very powerful sexual rhetoric that was appealing to people [44].
Here again, Sontag says that people who don't kill and mutilate each other "don't take it to the limit," covering her ass with "as I said before, they shouldn't."  But she doesn't sound very convinced.  I agree with her that fascism doesn't primarily come out of sexual repression (largely because I doubt that fascism is "primarily" anything), but I disagree that violence is "the limit" of human sexuality (or of sexuality in other animal species, for that matter), and I don't think Sontag gave any reason for supposing that it is.  It sounds as if she wanted it to be, and considered that reason enough to suppose.

Which isn't to suggest that Sontag was a secret sex killer. I suppose she was excited by the fantasy, and tried to rationalize the fantasy by basing her interpretation in human nature, which indicates to me that she confused metaphor and reality here.  Compare the way that some writers have tried to identify the S&M classic The Story of O with the true nature of human sexuality or love, and the fantasies it depicts with the true desires and practices of the woman who wrote it.  As the author of that book said, "There is no reality here. Nobody could stand to be treated like that. It's entirely fantastic."  Analogously, millions of people have been thrilled by the indestructibility of John McClane, walking barefoot for hundreds of yards on broken glass, scorched by flame, beaten up repeatedly.  But "Nobody could stand to be treated like that" in real life, and it's not even an ideal to be worked for.  It's a fantasy that stands for something else.

So let me try some analogies.  Is there a similar limit to food consumption?  Are the lucky few who eat until they explode going to gastronomical limits that the rest of us unimaginative souls just lack the guts to explore?  What would be the limit of masturbation?  Or spanking your child?  Isn't that kind of ... vanilla?  Or accumulating lots and lots and lots of money?  Or writing a novel?

I think Sontag overlooked that our bodies have limits, and they're mostly fairly modest.  Most love affairs simply burn themselves out, and those that last for any length of time coexist with other human activities.  Abe and Ishida apparently found it difficult to stop copulating: they often spent days in bed at a time.  Abe wanted to kill Ishida because she was afraid she'd lose him to another woman, and she wanted to have him entirely to himself.  (Another example of the kind of "limit" Sontag evidently had in mind is obsessive jealousy, wanting to own another person.  That presumably originates in the jealousy of infants who don't want to share Mommy with anybody else.  It may be "authentic," but should it be indulged to the limit?)  But most sexual partners lose that initial craving to spend all their time glued together: the obsession wears off, turns into satiation, indifference, even repulsion.  Satiation is a limit just as authentic as stuffing yourself until you burst.  Once the body is satiated, it usually shuts down: the man can't produce an erection let alone an ejaculation, the woman gets sore or exhausted.  Sometimes it doesn't happen, but that's a sign that something has gone wrong.

The mind, on the other hand, has no limits.  (Money, as opposed to real material wealth, is similar: money is an abstraction, without inherent limits.)  We can imagine impossible things: copulating with the same person for decades without doing anything else, owning everything in the world, being the supreme King or Queen, eating your own weight in ice cream, living forever, etc.  They aren't therefore "authentic": the opposite, if anything.  It should be remembered that this notion is a point of agreement between Sontag and many religious conservatives: they believe that one (the?) function of marriage is to control sexuality, and without such control it will spill over into rape and other kinds of excess.  This is open to doubt for various reasons, for example that rape occurs in marriage too.  That Sontag and religious nuts agree on something doesn't prove it's wrong, but I'd say it ought to give one pause before one accepts it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Thinking President, Like Western Civilization, Would Be a Good Idea

A Facebook friend posted the above meme from The Rachel Maddow Fan Page.  The stupidity it displays boggles my mind, though goodness knows I shouldn't be surprised any more.  The comments under the Maddow post are even more repulsively fawning, but there too I shouldn't be surprised.

I'd be pleased to have a President -- for that matter, public officials at all levels -- who can wrestle with complex problems, who thinks first and sends in the tanks as a last resort.  Unfortunately we don't have one.  Instead we have a President who constantly threatens and often wages war, who consistently supports dictatorships over democracy, and who kills civilians by remote control and then jokes about it.  Instead we have a President who tramples on civil liberties, ruthlessly suppresses whistleblowers, and supports violent repression against peaceful protesters at home.  (Not just against the Occupy Movement, but against protesters at the NATO conference in Chicago in May 2012.)  And let's not forget how Obama loyalists slobbered over their guy after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

And that's just Obama.  Bill Clinton, the Rhodes Scholar, was also touted as a great mind by his partisans, but he was also a bloodthirsty thug who killed many innocent people while in office.  He and his wife, later to be the US Secretary of State, get along well with dictators, whom they regard as members of their family.  For that matter, Rachel Maddow herself is a militarist who would probably have joined the American Armed Forces if not for the ban on gays and lesbians in the military.  In general, Democrats have not distinguished themselves either as intellectuals or as peacemakers.

Which doesn't mean, of course, that the Republicans are any better; it only means that Democratic loyalists are in no position to cast the first stone.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Freedom for Me, Burning Effigies for Thee
My reading continues to educate me historically.  Recently I learned about the American Revolution's use of young boys as shock troops against Loyalists, which led to the martyrdom of at least one ten-year-old  Now I'm reading John Fea's Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (Westminster John Knox, 2011).   Fea's an Associate Professor of American History at Messiah College, a Christian college in Pennsylvania.  Judging from his remarks in the book, I gather that Fea is an evangelical Christian, probably fairly conservative, but he is a good historian, and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? is an accessible discussion of that question for non-historians.

My attention was snagged by part of Fea's discussion of George Washington's personal religion.  Washington was surely a Christian, but he was an intensely private man and didn't wave his faith around in public.  In one step "designed to end religious persecution and enhance religious freedom":
While the Continental Army was engaged in Boston in 1775 Washington banned his soldiers from participating in Pope’s Day, a popular anti-Catholic holiday in New England that featured, among other things, burning effigies of the Pope [189].
Why had I never heard of this grand old American Protestant tradition before?  The things that get left out of the history books!  It turns out that Pope's Day, or Pope Day, was what Guy Fawkes Night became in the American colonies, and it died out after the Revolution.  Washington's prohibition of his soldiers' participation in the festivities speaks well for his commitment to religious tolerance Or should I call it "Political Correctness"? the PC problem is obviously much older than I'd realized).  The existence of this holiday is also a reminder that "papists" were widely considered beyond the pale where religious toleration was concerned in the colonies and early America.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

They Don't Make Bigots Like They Used To

I tend to get Ross Douthat mixed up with Rod Dreher, but I think that's understandable because they're often grinding out the same stuff, so much alike that it seems to be written by the same person but published under different names.

So Douthat has an op-ed in the New York Times, "The Terms of Our Surrender" (via), in which he declares that before long the Supreme Court will "redefine marriage to include gay couples in all 50 states."  That "redefine" is, of course, a signal of Douthat's bad faith: partly as a dog whistle insinuating that all marriage will then have to be same-sex (a patent falsehood), and partly because as Douthat knows very well, marriage has been "redefined" many times just in Christian history.  As another conservative writer noted, for example, "While same-sex marriage may be an absolute novelty, there have been pitched battles over the definition of marriage before, as when the Catholic Church told the barbarians who had overtaken the Roman Empire that they could not continue their practices of cousin marriage—a tradition from time immemorial—if they wished to be Christians."  (Even this writer, who gets a lot of things right while still opposing same-sex marriage, talks about marriage as if it were only a Christian institution -- as though other cultures and religions, which constitute most of the world and of human history, didn't exist.)

Douthat goes on to consider two possibilities.  One, which he sees as the better one, is that
this division will recede into the cultural background, with marriage joining the long list of topics on which Americans disagree without making a political issue out of it.
In this scenario, religious conservatives would essentially be left to promote their view of wedlock within their own institutions, as a kind of dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation, while the wider culture declares that love and commitment are enough to make a marriage. And where conflicts arise — in a case where, say, a Mormon caterer or a Catholic photographer objected to working at a same-sex wedding — gay rights supporters would heed the advice of gay marriage’s intellectual progenitor, Andrew Sullivan, and let the dissenters opt out “in the name of their freedom — and ours.”
("Gay marriage's intellectual progenitor, Andrew Sullivan"?  Erm, no.)  The other scenario Douthat envisions is one "in which the oft-invoked analogy between opposition to gay marriage and support for segregation in the 1960s South is pushed to its logical public-policy conclusion" and sincere believers are forced to take photographs at or bake cakes for gay weddings lest they "be treated like the proprietor of a segregated lunch counter, and face fines or lose his business."

This is also disingenuous, signaled by "without making a political issue out of it."  The religious opposition to same-sex marriage is already political.  But more important, this scenario is exactly what the "marriage equality" movement is aiming for, since it is about civil marriage not religious marriage. Just as they can now, "religious conservatives would essentially be left to promote their view of wedlock within their own institutions."  Churches don't have to recognize heterosexual marriages that don't conform to their norms: interfaith unions, remarriages by the divorced, interracial marriages, cousin marriages, and so on.  And what about atheists or agnostic or other people who belong to no religious sect?  We can marry, heterosexually, but our unions are no sacrament, and we don't care if they're recognized by churches; we just want recognition by the state.

Even this state of affairs presents problems for traditionalists, of course.  Should a Catholic-run school or hospital or other institution be required to recognize the heterosexual marriages of staff who aren't married in the Church for purposes of benefits?  (Pensions, health insurance, and the like.)  I presume that this isn't a problem, as it shouldn't be, but if the Church doesn't object to treating unmarried-by-Catholic-rules couples as married in these circumstances, they're already sliding down the slippery slope of complicity with Mammon.  And how many people would sympathize with them for withholding such recognition?  Not many, I speculate, even if that's partly because of the widespread popular confusion about the difference between civil and religious marriage.

One way to solve the problem would be to rename all civil marriage as "civil union," thereby leaving the word and concept of marriage to religion.  This could be done by a law which declared that every reference to "marriage" in the statutes would be replaced with "civil union."  (This is, as I understand it, normal practice in numerous European countries, even those with official state churches.)  Some opponents have said they'd be willing to extend all the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples under the rubric of civil unions, but they never seem to consider that for real equality, they would need to do the same for mixed couples.  That would at least show their good faith, but I don't think it ever occurs to them, and that's a sign of their bad faith.  I really doubt that many people would go along with this move, however, even among traditionalists.  Americans are just too used to thinking of civil unions as marriage.

It's interesting that Douthat doesn't seem to object to the demonization of Christian racial segregationists, though Christian faith was invoked as a foundation for segregation.  He doesn't give any reason why the two cases should be treated differently.  He seems to want to dissociate himself from Christian racism, as in his reference to "racist holdouts like Bob Jones University, losing access to public funds and seeing their tax-exempt status revoked."  This betrays a shocking lack of respect on Douthat's part for Christian traditionalists who objected to the redefinition of American life by atheist Communists and activist judges.  He's ready to throw such people under the bus, but not opponents of same-sex marriage.

For all that, Douthat concludes:
I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.
I agree with him there, but the issue goes way beyond same-sex marriage: it's a problem built in to the concept and policy of freedom of religion.  Freedom has its limits, as conservatives have always loved to point out except when it affects them, and one of the downsides of living in a pluralist society is that you have to live and interact with people very different from you, and it's not always clear in advance who will have compromise their principles, or how.  As I've pointed out before, it's a sign of how far even self-styled traditionalists have surrendered to the society they attack that none of them talk about recriminalizing sodomy; they're willing to let Sodomists and Sapphists have civil unions (which they think of as separate-but-equal, as I noted above), visit their partners in the hospital, and so on; even their defenses of heterosexual supremacy are phrased much more mildly than the bigotry of the past.  Someone like Benjamin Carson or Phil Robertson, who merely continues to use the antigay tropes of a generation ago, is an embarrassment to them.  They don't even seem to realize how much they've already surrendered -- not the larger society, but they themselves.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Don't You Love Rhetorical Questions?

Now that White History Year has resumed, here are a few words from the prophetic Alexander Cockburn thirty-one years ago:
"Why not a Martin Luther King Day?" the New York Times asked editorially last Friday, and answered, "Dr. King, a humble man, would have objected to giving that much importance to any individual.  Nor should he be given singular tribute if that demeans other historical black figures like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Dubois and Malcolm X ..."  Give one of them a holiday and they'll all be wanting one.  Muhammad Ali Day, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Day. Where would it end?  Better, the Times suggests, to give King a statue in the Capitol, presumably in white marble to blend in with the rest.
[Originally published in the Village Voice, December 21, 1982; reprinted in Cockburn's Corruptions of Empire (Verso, 1988), p. 301]