“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.
Our long national nightmare is over ... at least until next time. The trial of Michael Jackson has now moved into the phase of "post-production," as they call it in Hollywood. Now work is under way on the voice-overs and flashbacks -- and the crews are getting ready to start broadcasting the next celebrity legal circus.
On Monday -- just a day before the verdict was announced -- Elaine Showalter published a short essay in the Los Angeles Times comparing Jackson's trial to the legal ordeal of Oscar Wilde in 1895. "Wilde too was a celebrity, as a writer and as a performer," she wrote. "Like Jackson, Wilde was seemingly brought down by self-destructive acts." In each case, "accusations of homosexual pedophilia have struck a deep chord of moral outrage."
"Wilde," according to Showalter, "was convicted of what the Victorians, with their gifts for euphemism, called 'gross indecency.' Despite the specific charges against him, gross indecency also seems to be the underlying accusation in the Jackson trial."
It's by no means clear that the term "gross indecency" could be regarded as euphemistic, even in the Victorian context. By contrast, Wilde's reference during the trial to "the love that dare not speak its name" was a memorable case of euphemism yielding eloquence.
The problem with Showalter's essay turns on more than semantics, however. Sure, there are points of similarity between the trial, but even a brief comparison of them shows that the differences are huge. Some currents in American culture might be dubbed Victorian -- if only through an abuse of analogy. The real connection between Wilde and Jackson is a little less obvious, though, and perhaps more worrisome.
Now, to be honest, I did not follow the recent trial very closely. The nature of this kind of spectacle is that, unless you make every effort to remove yourself from the "flow" of current media, a certain amount of information imposes itself on your awareness, come what may.
The Wilde trial fascinated its public because it was the revelation (a momentary glimpse) of something ordinarily hidden. The Jackson trial, by contrast, was an instance of what Jean Baudrillard has dubbed "the obscene" in the postmodern sense -- a mode in which nothing is concealed, in which every sign or bit of information manages to circulate. ("Obscenity begins," as Baudrillard puts it, "when all becomes transparence and immediate visibility, when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication.")
Reading the transcripts of Oscar Wilde's trials (there were three of them), one thing you soon notice is that his creative work and his vision of the world were under just as much scrutiny as his private life. If anything, his aesthetic sensibility (in particular, his insistence that art and morality had nothing to do with one another) was slightly more horrifying to the authorities than his sexual tastes. The power of Wilde's art to corrupt the minds of the young incensed the Victorians even more than what he did with any given teenage male prostitute.
The standoff between the attorney Edward Carson's high-minded outrage and Wilde's defense of art-for-art's-sake makes for a transcript that reads like an excerpt from one of Wilde's plays.
Carson: A perverted novel might make for a good book?
Wilde: I don't know what you mean by a "perverted" novel.
Carson: Then I will suggest Dorian Gray as open to the interpretation of being such a novel?
Wilde: That could only be to brutes and illiterates. The views of Philistines on art are incalculably stupid.
Carson: An illiterate person reading Dorian Gray might consider it such a novel?
Wilde: The views of illiterates on art are unaccountable. I am concerned only with my view of art. I don't care twopence what other people think of it.
Carson: The majority of persons would come under your definition of Philistines and illiterates?
Wilde: I have found wonderful exceptions.
Carson: Do you think that the majority of people live up to the position you are giving us?
Wilde: I am afraid they are not cultivated enough.
Carson: Not cultivated enough to draw the distinction between a good book and a bad book?
Wilde: Certainly not.
Carson: The affection and love of the artist of Dorian Gray might lead an ordinary individual to believe that it might have a certain tendency?
Wilde: I have no knowledge of the views of ordinary individuals.
Carson: You did not prevent the ordinary individual from buying your book?
Wilde: I have never discouraged him.
Were sparks this brilliant ever struck during the past few months? Did the relationship between Jackson's art (or entertainment, rather) and his life ever come up for questioning?
Who can doubt that, were Jackson to announce his intention to take up residency in Massachusetts so as to marry a longtime boyfriend of suitable age, the response of most fans would be to send a card expressing best wishes?
Let's not pretend that nothing has changed in 110 years. I bet Hallmark has the design all worked out.
Wilde was accused and convicted of defying the norms of his day. That was the source of the case's resonance, at the time. And Wilde himself embraced (in however complex and ironic a manner) the idea that he had violated the established code. Later, when asked how he survived prison, he responded: "I was buoyed up with a sense of guilt."
Today Wilde looks heroic. What to his contemporaries would have seemed like incorrigibility, we now honor as fidelity to his own nature.
Freud wrote of a neverending struggle between the pleasure principle (the ruling passion of the infant's world) and the reality principle (which obliges us to sustain a certain amount of repression, since the world is not particularly friendly to our immediate urges).
Wilde was the most eloquent defender that the pleasure principle ever had: His aesthetic doctrine held that we ought to transform daily life into a kind of art, and so regain a kind of childlike wonder and creativity, free from pedestrian distractions.
Like all such utopian visions, this one tends to founder on the problem that someone will, after all, need to clean up. The drama of Michael Jackson's trial came from its proof that -- even with millions of dollars and a staff of housekeepers to keep it at bay -- the reality principle does have a way of reasserting itself.
And now that the trial is over, perhaps it's appropriate to recall the paradoxical question Wilde once asked someone about a mutual friend: "When you are alone with him, does he take off his face and reveal his mask?"
I came across the story of University of Hawaii football coach Greg McMackin’s bad behavior a little late, which in this era of the 24-hour news cycle was approximately one day. This meant I was reading editorials rather than breaking news stories. What struck me most -- initially -- about the coverage of the incident was that I could not actually find the details of the incident itself. It took me quite a long time -- at least 10 minutes, which, in high-speed internet time, is a lengthy period -- to find out exactly what McMackin said. I saw phrases like “gay slur,” “term offensive to gay people,” “derogatory term used against gay people.” But what was it? What had he said? I couldn’t even find the context of his statement right away.
But after several Google searches, I ended up on a sports blog not known for mincing words -- theirs or McMackin’s. It was the f-word -- the other one -- used in reference to the chant the University of Notre Dame football team does before games, in particular before their bowl game last year when they beat the University of Hawaii. Laughter erupted during the press conference when McMackin called the ritual a “faggot dance.” Oh, wait, am I not supposed to use the word? McMackin used it three times seemingly knowing each time he said it that he was digging himself deeper. (A recording may be found here.)
It is, as Wikipedia will tell you, a “highly pejorative term.” But what kind of understanding are we creating when we cannot even talk about the situation without using abstractions? The laughter from the reporters in the press conference and the subsequent erasure of the word and the details by most media outlets suggests that most know there is something wrong with the word. But what exactly it is remains more ambiguous. I hear people asking how “faggot” compares with other derogatory words -- most notably the “n-word.” This is not the most productive discussion, either. Hierarchizing oppression and the history of oppressed peoples does not often create awareness or engender social change.
Some might argue that punishing McMackin by suspending him and cutting his $1 million+ salary will not either. But McMackin is being punished -- and rightly so -- because he is a university employee and his employer has a code of conduct. But no one should be shocked that a university employee would utter such a word. Or rather, we should not be surprised that McMackin uttered it. This is not a personal attack -- I don’t know him. But, as the football coach, he is not really part of university culture in the way that, for example, an economics professor or residence hall director is. McMackin is part of football culture. And in football culture, even football culture that exists within a university setting, homophobic comments are commonplace -- and accepted, even today, and even as most know that "faggot" is a derogatory term. And that is part of the reason for the laughter: an awkward collision of cultures.
In high school I played tennis on courts adjacent to the football team’s practice field. And thus I and my teammates were privy to all the anti-gay terms (allegedly used for encouragement) offered by the head coach, who was also a physical education teacher at the school. No one said anything. Not even the coaches of my team -- also school employees. That was over a decade ago. But I doubt the situation has improved much. The mistake McMackin made was saying faggot in public and directing it toward an opposing team. But it is likely that he has used it before in less public settings. A press conference is not the first place one tries out a word like that. But even if he has not, he has heard someone say it; and so have all his players. And so have the players for Notre Dame. In fact, it would be difficult to find a football player or a coach who has not at least heard the word faggot used during games or practices or locker room talk.
McMackin will undergo some form of sensitivity training as part of his punishment. It is unfortunate that learning about hateful language and diversity and tolerance is couched as punishment these days -- that colleges and schools bring in the diversity trainers to athletic departments when someone behaves badly. This cultural divide that exists within university settings between athletic departments and everybody else is not productive.
There is an assumption that all non-athletic department university employees are enlightened and those within athletic departments are uneducated and small-minded. Neither assumption is true, but to the extent that colleges and universities care about the cultures of all their departments with regard to basic tolerance, they shouldn’t be looking the other way at what goes on regularly, without being recorded at a press conference. In short, universities are not necessarily doing the best job talking about these issues either. Again, there is a “we know it’s wrong, but we’re not quite sure why” kind of mentality that actually impedes productive discourse about discrimination generally and homophobia specifically.
This is not to say that the University of Hawaii, or any other university that has experienced something similar, has done the wrong thing in mandating diversity training after such an incident. Rather, I mention it as my own little attempt to eradicate the “us versus them" mentality that is at the core of this and other instances of discrimination and hate speech.
My hope is that McMackin is able to take something from the learning experience he is being presented with rather than resent the way it has arisen. But he must also pass on what he learns to his players, to his assistant coaches, to his recruits -- heck, he might even teach those reporters in the room with him something by the time he is done. He, like all coaches, must be a leader. And he, like other members of the university community of which he is a part, must adhere to, as well as set, a standard for behavior.
Kristine Newhall is a Ph.D. candidate in women’s studies at the University of Iowa and one of the authors of Title IX Blog.
In the weeks leading up to the National Equality March -- held in Washington this past Sunday -- I found myself in the awkward position, for a straight person, of defending same-sex marriage rights to gay people who hated the whole idea with a passion.
Half the pleasure of being gay, explained my irritated interlocutors, is running wild. Maybe more than half.
Now in fact I do not doubt this. As a teenager circa 1980, I went through a countercultural initiation that involved listening to Patti Smith’s version of “Gloria” (treating it as a song about lesbian cruising) while reading William S. Burroughs, whose experimental fiction tended to include sadomasochistic orgies between young male street hustlers and extraterrestrials. A somewhat less literary(if not necessarily less exotic) exposure to to gay folkways has gone with living in Dupont Circle in Washington for a couple of decades. My own life is almost comically straight and narrow and monogamously domesticated. But that hardly precludes the ability to acknowledge and affirm other possible arrangements.
Besides, marriage isn't for everybody, and there are statistics to prove it.
Anyway, my argument with the fierce anti-matrimonialists boiled down to a fairly simple point: The right to marry is not an obligation to marry. I doubt this persuaded anyone. The assumption seemed to be that I was practicing cultural genocide through heteronormativity. I sure hope not. Committing cultural genocide would be bad.
In any case, something like 150,000 people turned out on Sunday to march past the White House on their way to the Capitol. The demand of the protest was simple: full equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people (LGBT) in all matters covered by civil law.
It was a spirited crowd. But on consideration, it might have been more than that.
Early this summer, I devoted a column to gathering the thoughts of various scholars on what developments they expected might emerge within LGBT studies over the next decade. At that point, planning for the march was at its most grass-rootsy. Now, a few months later, I suspect that a new wave of research and reflection will be necessary to deal with something not previously anticipated, let alone theorized. For we seem to be witnessing the emergence of a civil rights movement in which the struggle for recognition and equality goes beyond “identity politics” (in which each subset of an oppressed group insisted on the incommensurable specificity of its own experience and struggle).
Something new is coming forward. It is not purely a matter of sexual identity, let alone of political activism. I think it involves something much deeper, drawing on bonds of solidarity that extend across divisions in sexual orientation. Forty years after Stonewall, a generation or two has grown used to the idea of feeling mutual respect, affection, and everyday concern with people who belong to a different erotic cohort (if that is how to put it).
Beyond a certain point, such ties cease to be merely personal. They create a new sense of justice. You feel protective. If my friends who were married in one state cannot see one another in the hospital when in another state, then their anger is my anger. An injury to one is an injury to all. This does not mean that homophobia disappears from society. Far from it. But it means there is a counterforce.
A less sanguine view comes across in Sarah Schulman's Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, a recent title from the New Press. The author is a novelist and playwright who is professor of English at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island. It is a short and angry book. Unlike many another volume of social criticism by an academic, it does not mediate or diffuse that anger through carefully rehearsed stagings of the author’s theoretical affiliations. She just gets right down to it.
The fact that gay figures (real or fictional) are now often routinely shown in the media is not, she points out, “progressive” as such: “They often portray the gay person as pathological, lesser than, a side-kick in the Tonto role, or there to provide an emotional catharsis or to make the straight protagonist or viewer a ‘better’ person. What current cultural representations rarely present are complex human beings with authority and sexuality, who are affected by homophobia in addition to their other human experiences, human beings who are protagonists. That type of depth and primacy would force audiences to universalize gay people, which is part of the equality process. It would also force an acknowledgment of heterosexual cruelty as a constant and daily part of American life.”
One of the most devastating and persistent forms of such cruelty, in Schulman’s assessment, is the experience of shunning or forthright attack by family members – reinforced by the silence of other relatives who may not be actively homophobic, but whose passivity makes them complicit. The effect is what she calls “homophobic trauma,” which tends to go unidentified and unnamed.
"For the most part,” she writes, “victimized gay people are expected to grin and bear it. They are expected to be made better and stronger by the cruelty they face instead of being diminished and destabilized.”
Over the weekend (not long before heading off to march, actually) I exchanged e-mails with the author, and asked if there some influence on her thinking that might not be evident from reading her book The answer came as a surprise: Edward Said’s Orientalism, where Schulman found “the acknowledgment that there are unnamed structures which heavily determine the behavior and experience of perpetrators and recipients, but which are considered to be neutral or natural or simply not happening.”
That connection did not jump out at me while reading Ties That Bind, and I may have to think about it for a while longer before it seems clear. But Schulman pressed the point. “Once you identify the structure, name it, and come to an understanding of how it works, what it does to people and what it relies on,” she continued, “then entirely new worlds of recognition are possible.”
In her book, Schulman offers a strategy for dealing with homophobic trauma: Homophobia should be identified as a sickness, with families court-ordered into treatment programs. This is more like Foucault’s Discipline and Punish by way of Madness and Civilization. The cure sounds as bad as the disease -- and in any case ineffectual, unless the next step is electroshock for knuckleheads.
It left me thinking of a comment by Bayard Rustin, an African-American activist who helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. He also happened to be gay. If memory serves, he was drawing a connection between his sense of the history of each movement's struggles when he wrote about the limitations of what you can expect from the state.
The law, he said, defines permissible action but not the content of anyone’s heart. A court can never oblige you to love your neighbors. But it has the right to place you in custody if you burn their house down.
Full equality for LGBT people is not a matter of eventually forcing bigots into group therapy for good. Besides, who want to wait that long? The cure for homophobic trauma can be found in the slogan that caught on after Stonewall: “Dare to snuggle, dare to win!” In other words, just traumatize 'em right back.
There probably weren’t any Supreme Court justices marching in the pride marches of recent weeks. But they did give gay people a nod last Monday. In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Supreme Court upheld a University of California Hastings College of Law rule prohibiting registered student organizations from excluding anyone, in this case, lesbians and gays. The Christian Legals contended that their religion forbade them to associate with people who engaged in “unrepentant homosexual conduct,” and that the law school rule violated their religious freedom in demanding open membership.
The opinion, by Justice Ginsburg, is hardly a paean to gay rights – it carefully notes that the world of registered student organizations is a “limited access public forum,” not a full public forum like a town square. A limited public forum, which carries with it benefits, is treated somewhat more like the public funding cases. People may have rights, as the Christian Legal Society claimed, not to associate, which would protect them, for example, from a law forcing them to take gay members, but they do not have rights not to associate and to still claim money and recognition from the University of California. Certainly nothing in the opinion indicates that gays and lesbians are a specially protected class such that an organization funded by the state university excluding them particularly would violate the 14th Amendment. All this opinion does is turn back the claim that religious beliefs trump all other legal claims, including the university’s rules of inclusiveness.
The opinion is noteworthy not just for what it says about public colleges and their student organizations, but also for what it may suggest about Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the constitutional challenge to California’s Prop 8, rejecting gay marriage, as it ever so slowly wends its way to the Supreme arbiters. First, the 5-4 decisions in the Hastings case was that rarest of birds, a collection of the Court’s four liberals plus the gays’ best hope: Justice Anthony Kennedy. If the case against Prop 8 has any chance in the Supreme Court as likely configured, it rests in Justice Kennedy, who wrote the opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 case striking down the sodomy laws as unconstitutional.
Second, Justice Kennedy’s separate opinion, concurring in the opinion of the Court, is a pretty stirring argument for the Prop 8 plaintiffs coming up from California. Justice Kennedy takes time to write separately, even though he explicitly says he only speaks to support the opinion of the Court, because he wants to say a word in defense of the special role of reason in a legal system:
“Law students come from many backgrounds and have but three years to meet each other and develop their skills. They do so by participating in a community that teaches them how to create arguments in a convincing, rational, and respectful manner.... As a condition to membership or participation in a group, students were required to avow particular personal beliefs or to disclose private, off-campus behavior ... were those sorts of requirements to become prevalent, it might undermine the principle that in a university community — and in a law school community specifically — speech is deemed persuasive based on its substance.... A school quite properly may conclude that allowing an oath or belief-affirming requirement, or an outside conduct requirement, could be ... inconsistent with the basic concept that a view’s validity should be tested through free and open discussion.”
By all reports, the strongest thing the plaintiffs in Perry have going for them, beside the obvious talents of their lawyers, David Boies and Ted Olson, is the power of rational argument. To be constitutional, legislation has to have some basis in reason. Since the defendants, cleverly or foolishly, chose to limit the presentation of evidence in Perry essentially to one dubious expert, they were forced, by closing argument, to contend, simply, that Prop 8 is constitutional, because the groundless fears of a majority of the referendum voters constitutes a rational basis for legislation. This position differs radically from the arguments that the Prop 8 proponents presented in the campaign for Prop 8, which included the damage to society by treating gay and lesbian people as normal and worthy. It even differs from the defendants’ original attempts, at trial, to present evidence that the option of same sex marriage actually harms heterosexual marriage. In essence, the Prop 8 defendants are arguing that they do not have to make a substantive, rational argument for their law.
By forcing them into a court of law, the plaintiffs challenged not so much the substance of Prop 8 as its metaphysics: What counts as reason? Inchoate fears may be the currency of political campaigns, sadly. But Justice Kennedy’s opinion reminds us that they are emphatically not the stuff of the American legal system, starting with the three years in which its practitioners learn their skills. If he means what he said, this rare bird may also be the first swallow.
Linda Hirshman is at work on a book on the gay revolution, "Victory! How a Despised and Marginalized Minority Came Out, Pushed Back, Faced Death, Found Love and Changed America for Everyone," to be published in 2011.
Joshua Wolff raises an array of issues regarding the place of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons in Christian higher education in his provocative article, "Where 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Remains." He raises the stakes for this discussion by calling for the weight of professional opinion to be combined with the fiduciary oversight of accreditation agencies to challenge the way religious institutions of higher education handle matters of sexuality.
Wolff gets a number of things right. The special needs of sexual minority individuals present a particular challenge for religiously conservative institutions. Such individuals have the right to expect that their needs will be handled with care, dignity, professionalism, sensitivity, and compassion. Without question, there have been glaring failures in handling such needs at these institutions, and there is considerable unevenness in the competence with which such issues are handled.
Wolff presents a narrative of fear in his article, "constant fear that I would be dismissed for having the courage to live my life with integrity and honesty as a gay man." He describes his fear that any disclosure or discussion of his emerging understanding of his sexuality would result in dismissal, given his college’s Student Code of Conduct.
Wheaton College in Illinois, where I serve as provost, has a moral code called the Community Covenant, one similar to that of Wolff’s alma mater. Our Covenant (and his college’s code) are based on and shaped by a traditional understanding of the comprehensive moral teachings of the Bible, including but not exclusively focused on the Bible's teaching on sexual morality. I know from personal conversations and relationships the fear of disclosure that some students experience, but also have had numerous conversations with sexual minority students without the feared ramifications that Wolff cites constraining the interaction. While there may be many narratives of fear and of being "driven into the closet" that emerge from religiously conservative settings, there also are many contrasting narratives that are not being heard in non-religious academe.
Wesley Hill has recently published his account of a process of self-discovery and exploration similar to that of Wolff while Hill was a student at Wheaton College in his bookWashed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. His narrative serves as an interesting contrast to Wolff’s. Hill understood the pastoral intent of our institution, and understood rightly that, with regard to homosexual conduct, there were two primary dimensions of our shared Community Covenant that were relevant to his situation: a) a conviction that the Christian Scriptures teach that homosexual conduct is not a moral option for the confessing Christian seeking to follow Christ wholeheartedly, and b) therefore that it needed to be his individual commitment to not engage in homosexual conduct as a member of our community during his time as a student.
Neither of these convictions prevented honest discussion, community support, and exploration of his sexuality while at our institution. Hill selectively and judiciously disclosed his emerging sense of his sexuality to numerous faculty, administrators, and support staff. His experiences were not universally positive; he was witness to and hurt by instances of insensitive and callous reactions. Such experiences are ubiquitous for sexual minority individuals. Nevertheless, his predominant experience was one of support and care.
Hill found our community to be one in which he could honestly engage these issues, discuss their complexities, test the veracity of the traditional understanding of Scripture, and receive support as a fellow disciple of Christ. He is now finishing a Ph.D. in New Testament studies, and lives as a celibate gay Christian. He has emerged, as do many, from this time of engagement and examination supportive of the moral framework of the Scriptures and of our institution’s summary of them. We have, of course, other students who embark on similar trajectories of exploration, concluding later that they do not fully support our institution’s stance.
There is no lack of clarity to what Wolff believes are the lessons from his experience. He urges that institutional policies like ours be challenged and changed. He does so, quoting Wolff, on the putative basis that such policies a) force students to "lie about who they are," b) "discriminate" by sending "the message to prospective and current students that 'if you are gay, you do not belong here,' " c) "use religion to hide from accountability for policies and programs that can cause psychological harm," and d) use "religious freedoms" as a pretext to oppress or discriminate against GLBTQ persons.
These arguments can only be addressed after clarifying a number of foundational issues. First, many caricature institutions like ours as "forcing" individuals to sign creedal statements. This is far from the intent or reality of our institutions. Formed out of and sustained by the conviction that deep religious conviction is compatible with and felicitous toward academic and intellectual excellence, institutions like ours seek to be voluntary communities of like-minded individuals who, within the framework of our defining characteristics, have the academic freedom to teach and to pursue knowledge as communities of persons of shared religious conviction, as my former president, Duane Litfin, recently argued. The defining characteristics of such religious communities, particularly in the Christian tradition, are both theological and moral. The entire matrix of our faith demands a connection between creedal belief and the lived realities of our lives. Thus, to the bafflement of the non-religious community, we embrace as standards for our communities both theological and moral commitments congruent with our faith.
Many insist that the acceptance of GLBTQ persons entails the repudiation of moral censure of homosexual conduct and of many other sexual restrictions as well. This is of course an area of controversy and challenge today for all religious communities. Out of the ferment of these discussions over the last four decades, an interesting academic consensus has emerged. Contrary to popular understanding, the best scholars today — even many who don’t accept Scripture as authoritative for morality today — almost universally agree that the clear teaching of the Christian Scriptures is that intimate homosexual conduct is morally unacceptable. No less of a central figure in 20th century Christian systematic theology than Wolfhart Pannenberg stated that "The biblical assessments of homosexual practice are unambiguous in their rejection."
This has by no means settled the issue. Scholars and church leaders such as Luke Timothy Johnson have explicitly acknowledged that moral disapproval of homosexual conduct is the teaching of Scripture, and that therefore Scripture is wrong and must be bypassed for the sake of some higher good. Traditional Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, however, feel no such latitude to conclude that Scripture is wrong, but accept the teaching of Scripture as the highest standard and hence morally binding.
Based on this understanding of the morality of homosexual conduct, many religious traditionalists question the formulation of sexual identity implicit in Wolff's argument. On the one hand, we dissent from the presumption that one’s sexual attractions and identifications must be lived out in behavior to have meaning. Thus, an individual can both have a stable sense of same-sex attraction and a commitment to chastity based on choosing compliance to the moral teachings of Scripture. We have just, on this basis, welcomed back to campus our alumnus Wesley Hill to address our entire student body, who describes himself as "a nonpracticing but still-desiring homosexual Christian." Such individuals are not required to lie about themselves.
On the other hand, traditionalists also dissent from the inclination so common today to accept the anchoring of one's entire identity around sexual orientation. The very depiction in Wolff's article of GLBTQ individuals as a discrete class, as if their sexual inclinations and orientations were the linchpin of their very being, is made problematic in the context of religious commitments that demand higher allegiance.
Contemporary scientific research lends further credence to that hesitancy on this point. Despite the common presumption that sexual orientation is directly analogous to skin color or race, an analogy invoked frequently in the cause of advancing GLBTQ advocacy, and despite the presumption that sexual orientation is genetically caused, the reality is that we still know little about the origins and causes of sexual orientation.
The latest and most rigorous behavioral genetics identical twin study by Långström, Rahman, Carlström, and Lichtenstein confounds much of our presumed wisdom about the etiology of sexual orientation, with only 7 out of 71 male identical twin pairs from the enormous Swedish Twin Registry matching for homosexual orientation. This finding led the researchers to conclude that genetic influence on etiology is modest at best, and likely secondary to familial and environmental influences. This conclusion is at variance with some contemporary summaries of what we know about etiology, but as I have argued in the current issue of the American Psychological Association Division 1 newsletter, the problem here is that these summaries poorly reflect the state of scientific knowledge. We know little for certain, from a scientific perspective, about how sexual orientation establishes the "core" of a person.
As a final foundational issue, Wolff raises the legitimate question of harm to GLBTQ individuals engendered by stigma and negative responses. He offers his own anecdotes of pain and fear, but though such concerns must be taken with great seriousness, his analysis here, as well as his more extensive analysis in his companion co-authored study, suffers from a gap in the evidence. His study presents the widely acknowledged evidence of psychological distress and difficulty in GLBTQ populations, and then alleges but fails to establish a causal connection between these problems and the Christian higher education environment. The recent task force report of the American Psychological Association similarly attributed psychological distress and difficulty to contextual stigmatization without being able to demonstrate a causal connection, as I have recently argued.
With this background, we can return to examine Wolff's "recommendations for religious programs." Such religious programs do indeed differ from the status quo in higher education on these and other dimensions. When religious institutions have carefully and thoughtfully formulated their policies, and when they have enlisted the thoughtful participation of the entire religious community in a caring implementation of those policies, the result will not be that of forcing students to lie about who they are. Rather, the communities can be places where honest and caring engagement with the deepest questions of personal identity can be examined in light of the realities of our common brokenness and common humanity.
The thoughtful examination of religious tradition and authority in the context of an honest engagement with contemporary cultural issues may allow for the fullest examination possible of these complex issues. The unpacking of our deepest human obligations, however they are construed, can be fostered in the context of a caring community. Our religious institutions of higher learning can become places exemplary in their commitment to transparency about their religious commitments and their implications for sexual minority individuals.
The existence of moral boundaries, properly understood, challenges all of humanity and not just sexual minority individuals. Thus, far from projecting "if you are gay, you do not belong here," we can strive to properly understand and communicate about our communities as fellowships or communities of sojourners striving with the limitations and brokenness of our common humanity.
Religiously distinctive educational communities, once common in the Western world, are now a tiny minority, and the legitimacy of our very existence is questionable in the minds of some. Far from using religious freedoms as a pretext to oppress or discriminate against GLBTQ persons, after careful review and years of debate, many traditionalists have reaffirmed that moral concern about homosexual conduct and about all sexual intimacy outside of marriage is well grounded in the theological and moral core of Christian faith. Similar conclusions have been drawn in traditionalist Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist contexts as well.
The majority in academe may not share such views or find them reasonable; some find the very postulation of moral boundaries on sexual acts between consenting adults to be offensive. But to push aside institutions anchored in discrete religious traditions based on provocative anecdotes like Wolff's, or on any compilation of anecdotes, is a challenge to the religious liberty of these communities, a challenge to their fundamental right and capacity to self definition.
The protection of the religious freedoms of religious scholars, and of institutions that are voluntary communities composed of such scholars, is vital to the integrity of higher education itself if it fashions itself as truly valuing academic freedom, as a true marketplace of ideas. And it would be ironic in the extreme if, in the name of the inalienable right to self definition of individuals (GLBTQ persons) and of communities (of sexual minorities), the same inalienable rights of persons of religious faith to self definition were curtailed. As the respected Yale University philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff has argued, "It would be a violation of the very idea of a liberal democratic society if a movement arose to prevent or restrict the formation of religiously-based colleges and universities. To prevent or restrict their formation would violate freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly."
Wolff speaks as if all of academe is of one mind on these issues. It is not. Better that we foster reasoned discussion on the complexities of these unresolved matters than that we silence dissenting voices with accusations of prejudice, abuse, or oppression.
Stanton L. Jones
Stanton L. Jones, is provost and professor of psychology at Wheaton College in Illinois.