It's common for college applications to have optional questions in which would-be students may indicate their race or ethnicity. In what experts believe to be a first, Elmhurst College has released a new undergraduate application that includes an optional question about sexual orientation and gender identity status.
Admitted students who indicate when applying that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered will be eligible for a diversity scholarship worth one-third of tuition.
Three years ago,The Harvard Crimson broke a story about a troubling series of events that had occurred on campus ... more than 80 years earlier. After months of effort, student reporters had received access to a set of documents cataloged in the university archives under the intriguingly vague heading "Secret Court Files, 1920." The dossier was massive and, even after so many years, shocking. It contained 500 pages of correspondence and memoranda from an inquiry conducted to investigate a gay social circle based in a dormitory.
The panel of five Harvard administrators -- including the president, A. Lawrence Lowell -- did its work with a kind of vindictive glee. Seven undergraduates were expelled. One instructor had been forced to resign and to end his doctoral work. Another Harvard graduate who worked as a tutor had to sever any ties to the university.
At least one of the men later died in circumstances suggesting suicide, as William Wright recounts in Harvard's Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals, published next month by St. Martin's. Most of the others went on to lives that were blighted by the event. Administrators were not content to drive them from campus. In case a future employer inquired about the circumstances -- or should the students try to enroll in any other university -- Harvard was prepared to explain just exactly why their education had been interrupted.
Wright, a journalist and the author of several books, has picked up where The Crimson left off. He has reconstructed not just the proceedings of the secret court itself, but the circumstances leading up to it and the decades-long aftermath. The material itself is fascinating and troubling enough to hold one's attention in spite of the author's penchant for repetition, overstatement, and editorializing. (A few too many pages are written in a tone of "To think it happened at Harvard! At Harvard, I tell you!") The book is not long, yet seems padded, even so.
A good overview of how the Secret Court came into being is available in the original series published by the Crimson, and still available online. Wright has added to the story -- and, frankly, made the Harvard administration of 80 years ago look more vicious -- by digging out additional documentation beyond the records of the original hearings.
The hearings themselves sound like a cross between Franz Kafka and David Lynch. They were reportedly conducted in a darkened room. Those called before the inquest had no representation. They sat in front of the five administrators, who asked them, among other things, whether they had read the work of Sigmund Freud or Havelock Ellis. An affirmative answer was evidence, not of scholarship, but of probable deviancy. The panel then moved on to more personal matters, including questions about whether or not the subject masturbated. (Given that most of those called in were guys in their teens and early 20s, this must have produced a wealth of information.) All information about the students' sexual activity, of whatever kind, was recorded in detail that would have made Alfred Kinsey proud.
Of course, the old expression in loco parentis effectively put college administrators in the position of the superego on a daily basis. But this was acting it out with an almost perverse flair. Wright notes that one of the faculty members who helped get the inquest underway, an anthropologist named Earnest Albert Hooton, later published a book called Young Man, You Are Normal, which summed up (in his words) "a four year study of Harvard undergraduates ... to find out what 'well' men were like." In all, it seems as if defining "the normal" were a focus of exceptionally intense anxiety for some of the nation's presumed best and brightest.
The accounts of the later lives of the expelled students make for somewhat melancholy reading: Wright has unearthed the files containing the letters many of them sent trying to gain readmission or the clearing of their record, seldom with any success.
One of them, Keith Smerage, eventually quit playing nice and, in anger, began confronting the administrators with what must have been their worst fear. "Mother said she was warned never to send me to Harvard, but no specific reason was given," he wrote. "Now we know! Harvard has a reputation for this sort of thing that is nationwide. I have heard a most uncomplimentary song Princeton sings of Harvard along this theme."
The files for another student contain a letter from the dean of Brown University that Wright might have done well to ponder. Thanking his colleague at Harvard for information on why the student had been "requested" to leave the university, the Brown administrator sighs, "How frequently we uncover messes of this sort, and how disagreeable it is to deal with such matters!"
What are the implications of this comment? For one, it shifts the emphasis away from the particular scene of the event by reminding us that such investigations were, once upon a time, a normal if unwelcome fact of university life. The significant thing about the files of the Secret Court is not that the inquest was held at Harvard. Rather, what makes them important is that they survived. Other boxes of memoranda must have accumulated at other universities. Doubtless, most of them were eventually destroyed -- whether from a belated sense of respect for individual privacy, or just to make room.
And while digging out whatever traces remain of such hearings might be a worthy enterprise for scholars, the phenomenon itself isn't quite history. At religious and military schools, they continue -- a point made by the Equality Ride. On the Web site of this group of gay-rights activists, you can find anonymous statements from gay students at colleges that would expel them if their sexuality became known -- and of students who were expelled not so very long ago at all.
Springtime in higher education heralds the faculty search extravaganza. As a newly minted Ph.D., I dove head first into the overflowing candidate pool. I was engaged with some short-term work at my graduate institution and had a strong desire to remain there. It is located in my home state, close to family and friends, and is a highly regarded national university. I also had a strong personal affinity for the institution and had developed strong personal and professional relationships, which I valued a great deal. I navigated my way through the process of creating a dissertation-length CV, the nerve-racking experience of being interviewed by my speakerphone (i.e. the dreaded first-round phone interview) and the endurance test of 8 to 10 hours of interviews and meals with people in positions I never knew existed.
I was fortunate to have reached the “I can taste the job it’s so close,” campus-visit stage in two searches at my institution. I felt fairly confident that I would emerge from this process with at least one offer. What I did not foresee was that my experience would force me to reflect on the role of trust in higher education. My first foray, as a “full member,” into the academic universe would be a “teachable moment.”
During one of my campus visits, I knew that an intimate knowledge of and appreciation for diversity would be a trait required of the position. So in 3 different sessions with 12 different individuals, I chose to share that I am gay as a means to illustrate my ability to empathize with students, professors, and staff of diverse backgrounds. It was a strategic decision, which, after researching institutional policy, I believed would unfold in the context of a confidential faculty search.
Heretofore, I had not been open about my sexual orientation in my professional or educational life (while being so to family and close friends). My reasons are many and my own; yet, in my view, not terribly relevant to this particular situation. The decision to “be out,” in this part of my life, was mine alone to make.
Nineteen days after my interview, a colleague and personal friend, unaware of my sexual preference, called me at home that evening. She wanted to let me know that late in the day she had been approached by a colleague, uninvolved with the search, who stated “There is a rumor going around that Jim ‘came out’ during his interview.” My friend, never a gossip, asked the colleague how he had heard information revealed during a confidential search. My friend, feeling duty bound, contacted the chair of the search committee, 1 of the 12, to inform him that information from a candidate interview was being shared outside the search process.
It has been five weeks since that evening telephone call and I have not heard anymore of it. I am not quite sure what, if anything, I should expect to hear. As I reflect on my experience, I circuitously analyze the issues it raises. It undoubtedly raises issues of professionalism. A case can be made that it raises ethical considerations. Perhaps, it crosses into the legal realm, but I leave that to the lawyers among you. That is of little interest to me.
It is the ethical implications that keep my mind stirring late past my bedtime. They are what keep sending me back to my computer to read, over and over, the institution’s policy on confidentiality in the search process. As I have already said, there were many reasons I chose not to “be out” in my professional life. However, after completing my Ph.D. and embarking on a new chapter in life, I was now prepared to travel down that road. Revealing my identity during a confidential search process, to a limited audience, was the first of many destinations on that journey.
I keep returning to two primary considerations. The first relates to diversity. My institution professes a strong commitment to and appreciation for diversity, almost to the point of overkill. Perhaps that is why it was that much more difficult to swallow that the information I shared was deemed, by an individual involved with the search, fodder for the rumor mill.
The far more salient issue to me is that of confidentiality, and more specifically trust. Institutional policy dictates confidentiality in the search process. Common decency demands it. The search process is an opportunity for the committee and potential colleagues to gain an intimate understanding of the candidate in a relatively brief period of time. To effectively evaluate what strengths and challenges a candidate would bring to the institution, he/she must be willing and permitted to be utterly candid and acutely honest.
At the same time, candidates should be able to have confidence that information shared during the interview process is privileged and confidential. Whether such information be a medical condition, unique family situation, special accommodation, or sexual orientation, it should be treated as internal knowledge to those involved in the search. When speaking of confidentiality in the selection process, Joan Rennekamp, a national commentator on personnel issues, states: "It is sometimes helpful to think of information as you would think of a material object that has an owner.... No other employee has the right to communicate it to someone else unless some overriding concern arises, or unless the owner gives permission to do so."
Yes, Rennekamp is a lawyer (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but even lawyers have sage advice at times.
Trust, leadership, and moral conduct are professed institutional values at my college. Of course, as an educational institution, those values are most strongly inculcated in students. However, as educators, we have a responsibility to model proper, responsible, and ethical behavior to our students. If we fail to lead by example, then we fail to lead at all. If we are unable to maintain trust among colleagues, how can we develop trust with students, or teach them to develop trust in each other.
Lest I seem to be presenting myself as some type of moral elite, I must admit that I am all too experienced in losing the trust of those close to me. I will never forget the utter look of devastation on my mother’s face when she discovered I had lied to her as a teenager. More recently, I lost the trust of a supervisor who felt I had betrayed our professional relationship. Yet, in each of those instances I was able to make an honest, open, and sincere apology to the wronged individual. I have a strange feeling that no such apology will be forthcoming in my situation.
I suppose I never realized how important those three simple words -- I am sorry -- are to my value system. The fact that my sexual orientation is now part of the public domain is not what makes me continue to brood over my experience. The issue that forces my mind to wander is that one or more of those 12 individuals felt it their prerogative to decide how I “rolled out” my sexual identity to my professional colleagues. There were unique aspects of my own experience that I felt could be educational to faculty, staff, and students. For better or for worse, I am an educator. I had a “lesson plan” for sharing my experience with members of the campus community. That “lesson plan” was my own to execute.
Yet beyond my own experience, what do such actions say about trust among members of the campus community. Higher education is, admittedly, a gossip factory on overdrive. How often have each of us heard information that was not intended for anyone but those involved with the search process? How often have the personal issues or misfortunes of our colleagues been whispered throughout the classrooms, laboratories, and conference rooms of academe? How desensitized have we become to the whirlwind of rumor and innuendo? Knowing the character of the collegiate workplace, I perhaps should have known better. Yet, based on an explicit, written statement of confidentiality, I chose to begin this particular personal journey during the search process. In hindsight, it was a poor choice.
As in any situation, I look for the lessons learned. For good to emerge from a bad experience, I always look for the “take away.” In no particular order, and limited to the clarity of my thinking on this issue, are some thoughts for institutions, candidates, and myself.
For the institution:
What is the institutional policy on confidentiality? Is it a policy that is iterated not only to search committee members, but also to other faculty, staff, and students whothat may interview a candidate? Does the institution also communicate the seriousness of the policy and that it exists for reasons other than mere formality? Are processes in place to handle a breach of confidentiality?
Do attempts to include a breadth of constituencies in the selection process sacrifice the integrity of the process? I wrote 26 “Thank You” notes for the campus visit alone. Can confidentiality be maintained in such an open and inclusive environment? Should only the search committee interview be subject to confidentiality? Should an explicit notice of when confidentiality applies be provided to candidates?
Are there implications for student confidentiality when candidate confidentiality cannot be maintained? Do professionals with access to student records have a sufficient understanding of federal and state privacy laws? Are professionals required to undergo training on legally protected data and information? Are we modeling professional, ethical, and legal behavior for our students when it comes to matters of trust and proper conduct?
For the candidate:
Be clear about institutional policy concerning confidentiality. Research the policy with human resources and/or the equal opportunity office. At a minimum, be aware of the written policy. Be confident that information shared is privileged information. As Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.”
Be even clearer about your expectations should you choose to share a personal or private experience. For example, during the interview process, you may choose to share information about a current or former supervisor, co-worker, or subordinate. If such information reflects a negative experience, you should preface the information by asking that such information remain internal to the search process. Some candidates may want to share information about a medical condition -- and should be very clear about expectations.
For internal candidates, be aware that professional responsibility and personal friendship make strange bedfellows. Knowing the actors in a particular search makes the issue of trust and confidentiality that much more critical. Should irregularities arise in the search process, the actors have a professional responsibility to the institution. That responsibility will, more often than not, take precedence over duty to personal friends.
I do my best to approach my experience as a professional, letting reason guide my analysis. But, emotions do enter the scene. Hurt, anger, and disappointment inevitably play a role. While it is difficult to lose respect for and trust in the colleague who divulged the information, it has been far more difficult to question the status of personal friendships I have developed with others involved in the search process and hiring department. Their lack of communication leaves me to assume indifference to the issue.
I would like to say I have not become a less trusting person. But, I would be lying. However, with no one from whom to hear those three magic words, I am left to lose a little bit of trust in the institution as a whole. That is a very hard pill to swallow when you have a passion for your institutionschool. I am still processing that aspect of this whole experience.
And for those interested, I was not offered this particular position. I accepted another position at the same institution, which has greater responsibility, offers a higher salary, and is a new field for me within higher education. Had I been offered the position in question, my adverse experience during the search process and the subsequent administrative silence would have been a rocky start, to say the least. So, I am optimistic about what lies ahead, yet uncertain as to how I feel about the personal and professional relationships I leave not so far behind.
As for my “lesson plan,” I guess that is on hold for now. I need to retool it given new realities on the ground. Of more immediate concern is the 500-pound gorilla in the room. More specifically, the great majority of individuals who are aware of my sexual orientation are also aware of how the information came to be shared (and most of them did not learn of it during the search process). It is a uniquely interesting experience to be meeting or dining with a colleague and have the proverbial “family secret” lurking under the table. In two days, I have a meeting with the individual who mistakenly gossiped to my friend and started this chain of events. We have not seen each other since this whole episode started. For some odd reason, I chuckle to myself when I think about the encounter.
My hope is that after writing this piece, I will feel a sense of closure. Since I am not privy as to whether there has been any administrative action on the issue, I cannot gain the satisfaction that some good or value came out of my experience. For myself, I suppose the good comes in that I think far more about what is and what is not appropriate information to share. I think far more about trust. I am more cognizant of my own behavior and how it positively and/or negatively affects others.
We all receive an enormous amount of information each and every day. Being able to differentiate between routine, need-to-know, and confidential information is a critical skill, and more importantly personal and professional value, for administrators, faculty, staff, and students. Trust is the foundation on which any vibrant community, academic or otherwise, is built. No community can survive without it.
Democritus said, “Do not trust all men, but trust men of worth; the former course is silly, the latter a mark of prudence.” I honestly do not know how I feel about that statement. I have always been an openly trusting person. What I do know is that I have a newfound appreciation for those individuals who I trust implicitly and who have not given me reason to doubt that trust after many years of friendship. I have a new respect for those closest to me who are “men [and women] of worth.”
James Pierpont is the pseudonym an administrator at a research university.
As a teacher of rhetorical studies, I've been trained to think about the differences between audiences and how to adapt one's messages to address those differences. Of course, having earned one's credentials in "the art of persuasion" and (presumably) possessing the intellectual tools of audience adaptation doesn't necessarily mean one can do it well, and last fall I really stepped in it. What have I learned? Sometimes it is permissible to retreat from a more straightforward -- if not radical -- introduction to queer theory to a classic, liberal politics of toleration or humanism when teaching undergraduates because we no longer live in an environment that protects academic freedom. Although Kurt Cobain did once sing, "what else should I say/everyone is gay," sometimes students are not ready to interrogate what that means, and they'll make their parents call deans and chairs attempting to get you fired if you try to teach them.
Here's the set-up: For three years I worked as an assistant professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Having moved there from the University of Minnesota (where I did my graduate work), adapting to Louisiana students took some time, and the culture shock I experienced was intense. Gradually I acclimated to the sight of public, drunken nudity and that charming, Southern hostility toward my so-called Midwestern political correctness. My experiences in Louisiana taught me that although the students claimed a conservative, religious politics, they were quite familiar and accepting of "alternative lifestyles," and I often had to resort to pretty wild examples in the classroom to keep their attention and to get them to engage queer theory beyond the level of "whatever!" and "so what?"
Friends and colleagues were often surprised when I told them that my students took to "controversial" theoretical perspectives, such as the critical work of Judith Butler on gender and sexual identity, quite well. One semester -- as I was teaching the Kinsey scale to supplement Laura Mulvey's theory of cinematic pleasure - -I just asked my students: "Y'all don't seem too bothered by this material; why is that?" One of my repeat-students said in a sardonic tone, "Dude: Mardi Gras?" My Louisiana students had "seen it all," and probably from a very young age many of them learned how to hang up their hetero-hang-ups, at least for a week or two before Ash Wednesday and Lent so that they could properly enjoy all the parades and street parties.
Obviously, I had a lot of adapting to do when I took my second job, at the University of Texas at Austin. I still do not have a good "feel" for the students at my new university, but I think in general it is fair to describe the students here as more right-leaning politically and more conservative in their thinking about lifestyle. Regardless, to my delight and horror, as I began teaching the queer theory unit of my Rhetoric and Popular Music course I heard the same wild examples exiting my mouth in seemingly automatic fits of charismatic teach-o-mania. I still assigned readings like Cynthia Fuchs' fabulous essay on queercore, "If I Had a Dick: Queers, Punks, and Alternative Acts." But I quickly learned that when one combines reading material that attempts to unravel binaries and my own ambiguously (and strategically) queer teaching persona in a "Bush Country" classroom, one should expect a little hostility. I expected it, really I did. I simply did not expect to catch hell from a parent.
The day after I lectured on heterosexist norms in heavy metal music videos, I was summoned to the principal's office to get a talking to. Apparently a student's mother was among the sea of faces in my large lecture class that day, and was expressly appalled at my queer "agenda." In an email that my chair shared with me, the mom said that it was obvious I was attracted to both men and women and therefore "no one is safe." For the class I developed a field trip ethnography project at a well-known, Austin 18-and-up punk club. This parent said that I forced my students to go to a "gay bar." Ultimately, I was characterized as unprofessional, as teaching filth, and as trying to recruit students for the "gay cause."
Needless to say, my meeting with the chair was painful and I was fearful, although one couldn't blame him. He did the best "you have academic freedom, but" talk I've yet to hear. Even so, I was told the story about "that professor" who was fired from such and such a department for "creating a hostile classroom environment." I was told to de-personalize my teaching and reminded that I did not have tenure yet and that teaching evaluations were very important to the tenure review process.
Since that meeting I have changed my teaching a bit and am more mindful of the power of students and parents have to take out an assistant professor whom they do not like, especially under the aegis of sexual harassment. Us juniors should also remember that many of our deans are (necessarily) insulated from the classroom and by force of situation are often more sympathetic to students and parents in our age of the "cultural wars" and "zero tolerance."
Immediately after the incident, I was worried about protecting my teaching assistants. One of them was slated to deliver a lecture on the interchangeability of sex organs in the music and art of Peaches, a controversial and polyamorous figure who had an underground dance hit with "Shake Yer Dix (Shake Yer Tits)." Although I knew I was a bit oversensitive after the talking-to with my chair, I decided to send a preemptive e-mail message to the 130-student class in an effort to spare us more grief. Here is the text of that message, edited to protect the innocent and please the legal eagles:
Your resident instructor here with some background commentary on your readings for Tuesday, as they directly challenge cultural assumptions of “normalcy.” We will be discussing the field of “queer theory,” which grew out of the heated discussions of feminism in the 1980s and 1990s regarding sexual desire and the relationship between social identity and biology. We’ll spend some time discussing the term “queer” itself -- which is confusing--but for the moment let us simplify a lot of the concern of queer theory to a series of questions: to what extent does biology and genetics form a materialist basis for gender and sexual identity? In other words, are we born gay, straight, or somewhere between those two poles? Where do the chemicals and biological predispositions end and where does culture begin? Why is sexual identity such an obsession in the United States (e.g., what’s the big deal about the proposed Texas amendment to ban gay marriage)? Finally, why are we so interested as a culture in these questions?
The latter question may resonate somewhat. To put it like my own granny does, “who gives a d*&! what you do in the privacy of your own home?” Or to reduce it to a question I received some years ago from a student, “who cares?”The answer to the last question is this: if you identify as traditionally masculine or feminine or “straight,” for whatever the reason, you have a much easier time in our society that if you do not. Sometimes having someone broadcast their sexual identity in your face gets tiresome. My point, though, is this: If you were deemed socially “abnormal,” it hurts, and it can be empowering to say, unabashedly and unashamedly, “this is me!”
Indeed, not being “normal” in any respect first leads to torment (think back to your own experiences in middle school, hey?), and then ridicule and rejection. The big problem is that being different can get you killed (e.g., Matthew Sheppard, Tina Brandon, hundreds of thousands of folks without white skin, Jews ... Jesus, alas, we are not wont for examples in history). So the answer to the question “who cares?” is “those folks who are more likely to suffer," as well as the people who love them. Although you might think you are pained reading this stuff, feminism and queer theory are really about ending human suffering. That’s really what it comes down to folks: people suffer and die because they are “different.” If there is a tacit ethical teaching to this literature, it is the lesson of tolerance.
Feminism and queer theory concern thinking about ways to keep people from getting hurt because they are not what society deems “normal” in regard to their gender and their sexual desire. Millions of folks live realities that are fraught with pain and hardship, and only because they harbor a preference for someone of the same gender or sex (or of a different race, and so on). As we saw with heavy metal, popular music practices are a central way in which these issues are expressed and negotiated in our culture. For reasons we discussed with Attali and Adorno (the irreducible humanness of music, that “noise” factor), as a powerful form of human expression, music can be used to create a kind of force field for expressing, deconstructing, constructing, and establishing a gamut of identities. Music, in other words, can unsettle our gendered and sexual identities (e.g., glam rock; queercore) as much as it cam reestablish or reinforce them (e.g., Enya; Nas).
As we tread into this territory I need to underscore a few things about the ultimate purpose for assigning this material. Although it may appear at times your goodly instructor is endorsing or promoting this or that approach, requiring readings and lecturing on queer theory is not to be taken as an ENDORSEMENT or propaganda for joining the some sort of Gay Borg or ominous Lesbo Deathstar (nor does lecturing on materialism entreat you become a socialist). Exposing you to this material, or any discussion of non-straight sexual identity, is not designed to “convert” you; it’s not, in other words, sermonic. Rather, it’s functionally informative AND designed to challenge settled, “normal” beliefs about what is and isn’t appropriate in our society (indeed, what is or is not appropriate to discuss in the classroom!). You can think about it this way: the classroom should be the opposite of the church, synagogue, or mosque. In class, we challenge our settled ideas about normalcy and look beyond deity or the physical sciences for alternative explanations for social practices. In the house of God, we reaffirm and reestablish our settled ideas and beliefs. And in some ways, you cannot have the latter without the former.
Finally, I recognize this message is crafted for a “straight” audience, so let me give a shout-out to those among you who are forced to switch codes in the classroom (which, as you well know, is also almost always oriented to the “hetero” world): if you do not identify as “normal,” welcome. I hope the readings and lectures on identity -- sex, gender, and sexual orientation -- are affirming and that classroom is a safe space in which you see your reality represented.
Now, mindful of the audience of Inside Higher Ed, I needn't detail at any length why this e-mail makes me cringe. It represents my frame of mind, worried about student hostility toward my assistants and (however unrealistically) worried about losing my job. I shared my e-mail message with colleagues, and my friend Ken Rufo detailed the teaching pickle it created better than I can:
Here’s a philosophy-of-pedagogy question, one that I confront quite a bit, and am always unsure about negotiating. The letter . . . indicates the problems with difference from a fairly conventional, liberal perspective. But this conceptualization of difference isn’t exactly simpatico with a lot of [the theory you teach and publish].... you’ve invested a lot of time and effort making a case for [the value of psychoanalytic theory] to rhetorical studies, and so I wonder how you negotiate the complexities of a certain worldview with the necessities of teaching, or if you feel any tension there at all?
What my e-mail does, in other words, is reestablish the same liberal-humanist politics of toleration that a lot of queer theory tries to challenge and dismantle: What if there is no common humanness to us? What if this binary logic of same and different is a causal factor in homophobic violence? Aren't these sorts of questions the kind posed by the thinkers we are reading for class?
After I posted the email to the class and talked to my friends about it, I decided I would simply address the issue directly in class, turning the e-mail into a teaching exemplar. Before I could lecture about the e-mail, however, my teaching assistant lectured on Peaches, and she received a standing ovation when she finished. That reaction told me that perhaps the e-mail had a positive effect. On the following teaching day, I asked the students to bring a copy of my e-mail message to class, and we went through it together and we discussed why it was a problematic message, locating binaries and troublesome assumptions. In my mind, this was the best way to "recover" an important teaching of queer theory while, at the same time, eating my cake too.
I cannot say that going over the e-mail helped most of my students understand the problem with liberal humanist approaches to identity. Some of them understood what I meant when I confessed that I "retreated to humanism," while others clung tightly to their notions of a universal equality rooted in phallogocentrism. Nevertheless, I'm coming to the position that I should send variations of this e-mail to my class every time I teach queer theory. I feel slightly dirty doing it because the move represents a bait-and-switch pedagogy, but it may be the best way for me to adapt to my Texan classroom while retaining my tendency to personalize theory. I guess, then, I'm not radical enough. But I want to keep my job.
I'll admit as well that deep down there is a part of me that cannot let go of the notion that liberal humanism keeps some people alive -- a faith I'd like to think has some affinity to Spivak's notion of momentary solidarity in "strategic essentialism" for social and political action. I say I'd like to think it has an affinity, but perhaps I'm more sheepish and cowardly than I'd like to admit? Nevertheless, institutional pressures, the increasing erosion of academic freedom and the decay of tenure protections, the general, cultural hostility toward the professoriate, parental and alumni demands and the PTA-ification of the college and university, and the consumerist drive-thru window attitude about teaching that some students harbor, these trends collectively suggest that the teach-it-and-then-deconstruct-it approach may be the baby bear's porridge pedagogy of our time.
Joshua Gunn is assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
I can’t say I was surprised that some of the inquiries and interviews that followed my appointment in 2005 as the fifth president of Hampshire College, in Massachusetts, had to do with the fact that I arrived at the president’s house not with a wife, and certainly not alone, but with my partner of now 27 years. Of our nation’s several thousand college and university presidents and chancellors, an exceedingly small number are known to be gay or lesbian. Word was that I might just be the first gay male president of a residential college, and certainly among the first few, of any institution, who have not been closeted.
Throughout my career in academic administration I’ve been keenly aware of this particular (if rarely mentioned) “glass ceiling,” but I’ve tended to regard being gay as ultimately tangential to my roles as professor, dean, and now college president. Of course, I knew that not every college or university searching for a new leader would look at it that way. I was fortunate enough in my last post to be able to take the position that I was uninterested in any institution that wouldn’t in practice apply to its top spot the non-discrimination language inclusive of sexual orientation now quite common in the academic world. I’m proud that Hampshire was entirely welcoming of my partner and me from the first interview with the search committee through discussions with trustees and our on-campus visit.
But perhaps my being gay is not so tangential as I thought. Among those who interviewed me during my first few months was Kirk Snyder, a lecturer for the Center for Management Communication at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, who was completing a book on gay leaders at the time. Snyder began his project with a survey several years back that revealed that employees of gay managers were substantially more satisfied in their jobs than the average, and he went on from there. The resulting book, The G Quotient: Why Gay Executives are Excelling as Leaders …and What Every Manager Needs to Know was published late in 2006, and I ended up as one of the featured “executives.”
My purpose is not to give the book a “puff” -- I note that Harvard Business Review put it on its “2006 Reading List” -- much less get you to read about me. (But do check out pp. 24-26 if you want to know what I said about “creativity.”) A scholar of classics and comparative literature by trade, I’m used to reading rather different things, but I certainly learned a good deal from the book, in which, I hasten to add, Snyder makes clear that the good managerial practices and styles he identifies are easily adopted, indeed, are already practiced by managers of both genders and without respect to sexual orientation.
Perhaps it’s not so tangential in other ways, and Hampshire’s own “welcoming and affirming” stance (to adopt language used by a number of religious congregations) models institutional behavior that unlocks unrealized human potential in many different ways. The passage from The G Quotient that sticks in my mind – “haunts me” would not be too strong -- concerns a work situation that does not support inclusion and equality. The words belong to an active-duty U.S. soldier who exchanged e-mails with Snyder about his workplace -- the battlefield. “Primarily,” Snyder writes, “he talked about how it felt to be expected to put his life on the line every day for an employer that didn’t value him enough as a human being to let him be who he is in the world.” In the soldier’s own words, “Even though the people I work with think I’m part of their group, I’m not.... [T]he respect they show me … [i]sn’t real because they won’t let me be real.”
And maybe it’s less tangential than I thought to my being the best president of Hampshire I possibly can be, where “it” is now not so much that I happen to be gay but rather that I have always been open and honest about that fact, even in a world that is still sometimes hostile. For it seems to me that openness and honesty especially in the face of risks are values we should look for in the presidents and chancellors of institutions of higher education, and perhaps all leaders.
Indeed, over the past 18 months, I’ve been surprised myself by the number of times that I’ve drawn on my own experiences and perspectives as a gay man and spoken with the license of one who has never hidden this major fact of his life. For example, in the convocation remarks I addressed to new and returning students in September, I spoke about what I called “habits of mind,” some bad, some better. Among the former was the indifference, callousness, even irresponsibility that hides behind the all-too-common dismissive “whatever.”
Given the realities of my own life, there was special meaning to my also placing in this category “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which I critiqued less as a current governmental policy than as an epistemology of willed ignorance and active deception. In the context of a college convocation, a president would naturally contrast the willingness to accept half-truths and the encouragement of deception, on the one hand, and the cherished goals of education and intellectual ideals, on the other. And, believe me, I did. I also made the argument that these and other “bad habits of mind” were deeply corrosive of our national culture and, most dangerously, of our democracy. But here let me maintain my focus on college and university, not national, leadership.
I believe that students on our campuses really do look to their teachers and their presidents to be individuals of integrity and courage, willing to speak their minds honestly and openly even when it involves taking controversial or unpopular stances. Of course, there are some students, at times the most vocal ones, whose approval depends solely on the particular position defended or attacked, but this itself is a bad “habit of mind,” unworthy of the highest ideals of education.
Naturally, I do not exempt the faculty and presidents who speak their minds from the responsibility to defend their positions. No one can evade responsibility for his or her views. Certainly, if we have any hope of convincing the public, not to mention our students and their parents, that higher education promotes character, which for me at rock bottom is synonymous with integrity, readiness to take responsibility, and the courage of one’s convictions -- and having some convictions to start with -- then college and university presidents must model what it means to have character.
One does have to pick one’s battles carefully, and not every silence betokens character deficiency. There is or should be a legitimate sphere of privacy around the lives of one’s own family members, and for obvious reasons presidents and other college officials must be circumspect when asked about personnel cases, grievances, or disciplinary actions at their home institution. There remain topics aplenty that can be discussed, and should be, by a college or university president. The long list might begin with issues directly impacting higher education but would include -- and these are but a few examples -- the environment and energy policy; corporate and governmental ethics and responsibility; the criminal justice system and our rates of incarceration and execution compared to those of nations we usually consider our peers; unequal access to opportunities of all sorts, at home and abroad; and democracy itself.
I even have the sense -- call it crazy if you will -- that a broader spectrum of society-at-large, certainly broader than the blogosphere or much of talk radio might lead us to believe, is ready to applaud college and university presidents for courageous championing of principled positions well argued and well articulated. Again, there are plenty of individuals, and not just off-campus, who approach certain issues with their minds made up, but this simply presents us an opportunity to broaden the argument, to model rationality, and to raise the general level of discourse.
If my optimism seems naïve, let me draw on another lesson I’ve learned from 35 years of being “out.” You may, indeed, you likely will run into negativity, whether it is homophobia in the narrower case or disputes and arguments of the nastiest sort in the broader sphere, but run the risk. Be out there, and you can at least console yourself that every bit of resistance you smack up against is the real thing. None of it is of your own imagining. You didn’t put those walls there by projecting your fears and practicing avoidance tactics.
Even more. It may well be that acting “as if,” assuming, that is, that courage and honesty will be met more often than not with fairness and generosity of spirit, might just in itself inspire the very appreciation college presidents deserve -- when, that is, they have the courage fully to embody their public duty as leaders and communicators.
Ralph J. Hexter
Ralph J. Hexter is president of Hampshire College. Previously, he taught classics and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Yale University, and served as executive dean of letters and science at Berkeley.
"There's a faggot over there! There's a faggot over there! Come look!" Brian, a senior at "River" High School yelled to a group of 10 year-old boys. The group of boys dashed after Brian as he ran down the hallway, towards the presumed "faggot." Peering down the hallway I saw Brian's friend, Dan, waiting for the boys. As the boys came into his view, Dan pursed his lips and began sashaying toward them. He swung his hips exaggeratedly and wildly waved his arms on the end of which his hands hung from limp wrists. To the boys Brian yelled, referring to Dan, "Look at the faggot! Watch out! He'll get you!" In response, the 10 year olds screamed in terror and raced back down the hallway.
I watched scenes like this play out daily while conducting research for my book Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. I saw and heard boys imitate presumed faggots and hurl the fag epithet so frequently at one another that I came to call it a "fag discourse." I use the term fag and not gay, advisedly. Boys at River High repeatedly differentiated fags from gay men. For these boys gay men could still be masculine, whereas a fag could never be masculine. Thus the term "gay" functioned as a generic insult meaning "stupid" or "lame" whereas "fag" invoked a very specific gendered slur, directed at other boys. For these boys a fag was a failed, feminine man who, in all likelihood, was also gay. Boys participated in a fag discourse to ensure that others saw them as masculine by renouncing any fag-like behavior or same-sex desire. They did this by imitating fags and calling other boys fags. Boys imitated fags by lisping, mincing and pretending to sexually desire men, drawing laughs from male audiences who howled at these imitations.
They frantically lobbed the fag epithet at one another, in a sort of compulsive name calling ritual. In the context of River High (the pseudonym of the school where I conducted this research) being called a fag had as much to do with failing at tasks of masculinity as it did with sexual desire. More often than not these fag-like behaviors were those associated with femininity. Exhibiting stupidity, emotions, or incompetence, caring too much about clothing, touching another guy, or dancing were all things which could render a boy vulnerable to the fag epithet. In this sense what I call a fag discourse is not just about homophobia, it is about a particularly gendered homophobia as these renouncements of the fag are as much about repudiating femininity as they are about denying same-sex desire.
After listening to my tales about adolescent masculinity at River High people often ask me if this is a phase peculiar to high school, one that boys leave behind as they enter young adulthood and college. While the intensity of the fag discourse may decline with age, observations of and discussions with college students indicate that the gendered rituals central to adolescent masculinity do not disappear as youth leave high school and move to college. While college classrooms are often constructed as non-homophobic and gender equitable spaces and while many colleges have anti-bias policies that cover gay people, students enter the classroom having been steeped in the fag discourse during their former school experiences. Additionally, some college students spend some of their non-class time (after all, courses are only a part of the college experience) engaging in masculinity rituals reminiscent of those I saw at River High.
Two years ago a student reminded me about the way in which the fag discourse might color students' understandings of what they learn in college classrooms. During my senior seminar entitled "Masculinities," Bradley, a former Marine and football player, continually sat back of the classroom arms folded defiantly, sneering at students' attempts at sociological analyses of inequality. As a result, I found my self surprised when he visited my office hours. Apparently inspired by a piece on the social construction of gender in childhood, Bradley poked his head in to my office asking, “You got a sec, teach?” I said “Sure,” taken aback that after his angry outbursts in class he wanted to speak with me.
As he folded himself in to what now seemed a ridiculously small chair he asked, “Teach, now, I have no problem raising a girl to be tough, but what am I gonna do if my son wants to play with Barbie dolls?” I couldn’t answer before he began to tell a story of childhood gender socialization. “You see,” he told me, “when I was little I loved playing with Barbies. My sister, she always told me to put ‘em away. One day she got so fed up she dragged me outside and shoved Barbies in all my pockets and made me stand there while my friends laughed at me.” We spent the next hour discussing a sociological analysis of his experience, how boys have to deny femininity and weakness or suffer teasing and harassment. Bradley, in this instance, serves as a classic example of the legacy of the fag discourse, the way in which some young men might come to class shaped by negative memories of gendered norms. Like some other young men in my classes, Bradley learned early in life to renounce femininity and stereotypically feminine interests or suffer ridicule.
These sorts of classroom experiences to which faculty are privy are only a small part of the college experience for many students. Students play sports, go to parties, organize clubs and pledge fraternities and sororities. In my book I note that the fag discourse runs particularly rampant in primarily male spaces. In auto-shop or the weight-room at River High, boys constantly insinuated that other boys were having sex with one another, that the friend sitting next to them on a weight bench was a fag or that their buddy across the room "loves the cock." Similarly, on college campuses primarily male organizations such as fraternities are particularly fertile ground for the fag discourse. Fraternity members have told me that their pledging rituals are filled with references to femininity and faggots. In these stories fraternity brothers humiliate pledges by teasing them for being feminine or gay. One fraternity member showed me a picture of his fraternity's relatively mild hazing rituals in which four pledges stood against the kitchen wall. Each boy's face sported lipstick, blush and eye shadow. One pledge's hair stuck out from his head in pony tails and another in braids. Other fraternity brothers reported to me that they had to describe themselves as "cum coveting," "cock craving" "faggot magnets," while fraternity brothers laughed at them.
A look at other fraternities indicates that the rituals described to me by these fraternity members were not isolated ones. Last year, for instance, at the University of Vermont fraternity members were accused of forcing pledges to wear cowboy gear while listening to homophobic insults, an activity seemingly inspired by the movie Brokeback Mountain. Not long ago a fraternity member at the University of Texas was found dead after a night of partying, with homophobic epithets such as "fag" scrawled across his torso and legs. Sometimes fraternities do hold their members accountable for engaging in this type of gendered homophobia. For instance, a member of a Dartmouth College fraternity called a passerby a "fag," inspiring his fraternity brothers to hold a panel on inclusivity entitled, "Don’t yell fag from the porch."
It seems that the fag discourse, while particularly pervasive in the social pressure cooker that is high school, doesn't disappear once young men reach college. While my book documents the sort of gendered homophobic teasing that constitutes masculinity in adolescence, a similar sort of fag discourse is far from absent in a college setting. As with the 10 year-old boys at River High, college men are still watching out for the faggot who might get them, whether that faggot is part of their memory as with Bradley and his Barbies or a part of their social worlds in which they label each other fags as part of fraternity rituals. The official line of most universities, espoused by administrators, teaching assistants, and faculty members, is that the learning process should be non-homophobic and gender equitable. But, faculty, administrators and teaching assistants would do well to remember that the academic portion of college is only a small part of the student experience. Indeed, the world students inhabit and construct outside the walls of our classrooms and offices is a different one than the sheltered worlds within it.
C.J. Pascoe is a sociologist at the Digital Youth Project of the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California at Berkeley.
“HITS WITH THE APPROXIMATE FORCE AND EFFECT OF ELECTROSHOCK THERAPY” raved Roger Kimball’s review in The New York Times, as quoted on the paperback jacket of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a surprise best-seller in 1987 and the opening salvo in a ceaseless conservative war against the academic and cultural left. On the 20th anniversary of The Closing, and 15 years after Bloom’s death, the most salient issues concerning Bloom are his role in neoconservative Republican circles and his semi-closeted homosexuality, possibly culminating -- as in Saul Bellow’s thinly fictionalized account in Ravelstein -- in death from AIDS.
In Bloom's introductory chapter to his 1990 collection of essays Giants and Dwarfs, titled "Western Civ," previously published in Commentary, he responded to the reception of The Closing as a conservative tract by claiming that he was neither a conservative ("my teachers--Socrates, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Nietzsche -- could hardly be called conservatives") nor a liberal, "although the preservation of liberal society is of central concern to me." He saw himself, rather, as an impartial Socratic philosopher, above political engagement or "attachment to a party" and denying, against leftist theory, that "the mind itself must be dominated by the spirit of party."
A close re-reading of his books, however, confirms that they are lofty-sounding ideological rationalizations for the policies of the Republican Party from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.
Bloom rages against the movements of the 60s -- campus protest, black power, feminism, affirmative action, and the counterculture -- while glossing over every injustice in American society and foreign policy (he scarcely mentions the Vietnam War).
Bloom’s personal affiliations further belied his boast of being above “attachment to a party” and captivity to “the spirit of party.” Today these statements appear to go beyond coyness into the kind of hypocrisy that has become boilerplate for conservative scholars, journalists, and organizations like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni or National Association of Scholars, whose leaders vaunt their dedication to intellectual disinterestedness while acting as propagandists for the Republican Party and its satellite political foundations. The magazine in which Bloom made these boasts, Commentary, and its then-editor Norman Podhoretz, were prime examples of this hypocrisy. Podhoretz proclaimed in his 1979 book Breaking Ranks about Commentary, “I could say that the reason for our effectiveness [against the New Left’s alleged subordination of intellectual integrity to political partisanship] was a high literary standard.” But in the 80s he turned Commentary into a fan mag for President Reagan and in 1991 commissioned David Brock, in his self-confessed “right-wing hit man” days, to write an encomium to the intellectual gravitas of Vice President Dan Quayle.
For years, Bloom was co-director of the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy at the University of Chicago, which received millions from the John M. Olin Foundation. That foundation, whose president was William J. Simon, multimillionaire savings and loan tycoon and Secretary of the Treasury under President Ford, at its peak spent some $55 million a year on grants "intended to strengthen the economic, political, and cultural institutions upon which ... private enterprise is based.
William Kristol wrote a rave review of The Closing in The Wall Street Journal (where his father was on the editorial board), which is also quoted on the paperback jacket; he was at the time Vice President Quayle's chief of staff, and is now editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard. Kimball, the Times reviewer, was an editor of The New Criterion, and yet another Olin beneficiary. (So much for the Times’ fabled vetting of reviewers for conflicts of interest.) The supposedly liberal mainstream media have been complicit at worst, silent at best, in these conflicts of interest concerning Bloom and other conservative culture warriors, as in failing to consider how much the success of The Closing was attributable to Republican-front publicity channels. Yet conservatives have the chutzpah to accuse liberal academics and journalists of cronyism!
More significant for today is Bloom’s influence as mediator between the ideas of his mentor at the University of Chicago, Leo Strauss, and what has become known as the “neconservative cabal” of Straussians behind the Iraq War in the administration of George W. Bush. Paul Wolfowitz was Bloom’s student; Bellow’s Ravelstein says of Wolfowitz’s fictitious counterpart, “It’s only a matter of time before Phil Gorman has cabinet rank, and a damn good thing for the country.” Ravelstein depicts Ravelstein’s apartment as a high-tech communications center with a Wolfowitz-like disciple in Washington and other movers and shakers in international affairs during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, including the Gulf War -- in which Ravelstein and his protégés (few of whose real-life counterparts ever served in the military) privately condemn President Bush for a failure of nerve in not taking Baghdad and toppling Saddam Hussein.
Avowed Straussians invoke Strauss’s key ideas such as the defense of the manly, militaristic exercise of power by nation-states acting for virtuous ends, the running of government by a behind-the-scenes intellectual elite serving as advisors to the ostensible rulers, and the elite’s use of “noble lies” extolling patriotism, war, religion, and family values, to manipulate the ignorant masses into supporting pursuit of tough-minded realpolitik. My sense, however, is that Strauss’s, and Bloom’s, high-minded philosophical formulations of these ideas have just been vulgarized by Republicans as a pretext for unprincipled American imperialism, hypocritical manipulation of their conservative base’s faith in “moral values,” opportunism by would-be Machiallevian advisors-to-the-Prince, and the kind of tawdry autocracy, secretiveness, venality, and lying that came to mark George W. Bush’s administration. Bellow portrays Ravelstein reveling in the money, celebrity, and influence in Republican politics that ironically resulted from his best-selling book that decried such vulgar distractions from the life of the mind. He is thrilled at being feted by President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher, as Bloom was. The implicit moral is that intellectuals, whether of the left or right, who aspire to be the erudite power behind the throne typically end up groveling before it.
Even more anomalously, in the past decade or so, conservative attacks on liberal academics -- whom Bloom and others like Podhoretz earlier accused of betraying scholarly non-partisanship and intellectual standards -- have taken a turn toward ever-more-stridently populist, partisan derision of scholarship and intellect altogether. I made this point in an a column here last year with reference to David Horowitz inciting know-nothing Republican state legislators like Larry Mumper of Ohio and Stacey Campfield of Tennessee to government interference with academic freedom under the banner of The Academic Bill of Rights. (All of the bloviating conservative commentators on my column evaded the issue of conservative flip-flopping between elitist and ad populum lines of argument.)
Horowitz, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh have presented themselves as champions of the rights of the ordinary people against the latté-sipping “cultural elitists” in university faculties, media, and politics itself -- as in the belittling of John Kerry in 2004 as French-looking, or the derision of Al Gore’s scholarly demeanor. Thus Bloom continues to be revered by conservatives, without their registering the bothersome fact that he advocated precisely the kind of cultural elitism that they now savage. (Never mind his atheism and preference for ancient Greek over Judeo-Christian culture, or his tidbits of gay lingo, as in his half-admiring description in The Closing of Mick Jagger, “male and female, heterosexual and homosexual ... tarting it up on the stage.”
All these contradictions in Bloom’s texts and life are an exemplary case of the long-running schizophrenia of American conservatism in what resembles the old Good Cop-Bad Cop routine -- Good Cop intellectuals who lay claim to aristocratic traditions and high moral or academic/intellectual standards, and Bad Cop philistines who are the public face of conservatism, in presidents from Coolidge to Reagan to Bush II, in vulgarian billionaires like Rupert Murdoch and Richard Mellon Scaife, along with the corporations and their executives whose pursuit of ever-increasing profits debases culture to the level of the lowest common denominator of taste. The baddest of the Bad Cops are rabble-rousing enforcers like Coulter, O’Reilly, Limbaugh, and Horowitz. It is the utter failure of Bloom and other conservative intellectuals to dissociate themselves from or even acknowledge the vulgar variety of conservatism, that ultimately exposes the hypocrisy of their lofty ideals and their selective indignation against every variety of liberal/leftist villains.
The same compartmentalized thinking that enables highbrow conservatives to champion Straussian-Bloomian elitism yet not speak out against philistine conservatism has enabled them to evade the issue of Bloom’s homosexuality, particularly in regard to Bellow’s Ravelstein. Bellow avowed that his Ravelstein was modeled on Bloom in virtually every detail. The novel’s narrator, a Bellow near-double and Ravelstein’s best friend, repeatedly insists that Ravelstein designated him as memorialist and instructed him to tell the unvarnished truth. That Bloom like Ravelstein was and notoriously misogynistic, is undisputed. In an article on Ravelstein in The New York Times Magazine, D.T. Max quoted Wolfowitz saying that in Bloom’s Chicago circle when he was alive, “‘It was sort of, Don’t ask, don’t tell.’” But whether Bloom had AIDS is disputed. Bellow’s narrator explicitly describes Ravelstein having the symptoms and medical treatment for HIV. After galley proofs circulated, Max reports that pressure was put on Bellow to revise, and he backed down to the extent of telling D.T. Max, “‘I don’t know that [Bloom] died of AIDS, really. It was just my impression that he may have.’” Yet Bellow subsequently made only minor revisions in the passages about HIV for the final book.
Furthermore, both Bloom and Ravelstein had a young, long-term male companion, whom they held in high regard and made their heir. In the galleys, they are said to be lovers, but in the published version Ravelstein “would sometimes lower his voice in speaking of Nikki, to say that there was no intimacy between them. ‘More father and son.’” Ravelstein also “disapproved of queer antics and of what he called ‘faggot behavior.’” Yet Bellow’s narrator also says Ravelstein “was doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways.” Ravelstein himself says, “I’m fatally polluted. I think a lot about those pretty boys in Paris. If they catch the disease, they go back to their mothers, who care for them.’’
A rather vague sequence in which the dying Ravelstein says he still obtains sexual relief from “kids,” and asks the narrator to write a check for an unidentified one, is apparently a censored version of a passage in the galleys that, according to Christopher Hitchens in The Nation, read as follows:
Even toward the end Ravelstein was still cruising. It turned out that he went to gay bars.
One day he said to me, “Chick, I need a check drawn. It’s not a lot. Five hundred bucks.”
“Why can’t you write it yourself?”
“I want to avoid trouble with Nikki. He’d see it on the check-stub.”
“All right. How do you want it drawn?”
“Make it out to Eulace Harms.”
“That’s how the kid spells it. Pronounced Ulysee.”
There was no need to ask Ravelstein to explain. Harms was a boy he had brought home one night. . . . Eulace was the handsome little boy who had wandered about his apartment in the nude, physically so elegant. “No older than sixteen. Very well built...."
I wanted to ask, what did the kid do or offer that was worth five hundred dollars....
James Atlas’s biography of Bellow confirms Hitchens’ account of the galleys and adds, “On one occasion [Ravelstein] recruits a black youth from the neighborhood to satisfy him, insisting that he practices ‘safe sex.’” The racial factor here is disturbing, especially since the passage immediately follows a scornful comment by Ravelstein about the South Chicago “ghetto.” It also highlights the absence of any mention in The Closing of the vast black “neighborhood” that surrounds Bloom’s idyllic University of Chicago.
Atlas’s Bellow biography, published shortly after Ravelstein in 2000, contains only a few pages about the novel tacked on at the end, which cite Max and Hitchens but add little to their accounts of Bloom, other than the above sentence and another saying, “A frequenter of the sex emporiums of North Clark Street, Bloom confessed to Edward Shils that he ‘couldn’t keep away from boys.’”
Now, both at the time of Bloom’s death, when the obituaries labeled his cause of death a combination of bleeding ulcers and liver failure, and subsequently, the issues of Bloom’s predatory homosexuality and AIDS have been evaded by Bloom’s allies. Bellow’s own accounts are quite confusing. After proclaiming that Ravelstein was a true-to-life homage to his great friend Bloom, it would seem malicious beyond belief for him to have fabricated out of whole-cloth a character “destroyed by his reckless sex habits,” whom he knew everyone would identify as Bloom -- especially if, as he later claimed in the Max interview, he really didn’t know the truth.
These questions might not be worth dwelling on if Bloom and his book had not been canonized by social conservatives and Straussians, both of whom anathematize homosexuality and sexual promiscuity of all kinds. If Bloom’s private life was indeed louche, doesn’t that render suspect the encomiums in The Closing to Platonic love, especially in The Symposium, and Bloom’s denunciation of modern sexual license? And might the stonewalling by Bloom’s allies be an instance of the Straussian “noble lie”? (In his Commentary review of Ravelstein, Podhoretz, who elsewhere rages against homosexual promiscuous “buggery” and pederasty, displayed his infallible double standard toward leftist adversaries versus rightist allies in ignoring the more tawdry details to give Bloom dispensation for keeping his homosexuality discreetly closeted, and in accepting at face value Bellow’s late disclaimer about Bloom having AIDS.) Indeed, the Bloom case might be paradigmatic of neoconservatives’ predisposition toward dissembling and covering up vices in their own ranks that belies their exacting of moral rectitude from everyone else.