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Lessons on-line: the Internet has turned the tables, technologically, on the religious right.

For a while there -- Ellen notwithstanding -- it looked as though technology was on their side. In the 1940s the most popular radio broadcast in America was not The Jack Benny Show but something called The Old Fashioned Revival Hour, whose fundamentalist-preacher host, Charles Fuller, responded to the networks' refusal to air his show by inventing syndication -- thus setting the stage for both Jimmy Swaggart and Ricki Lake. Soon other Bible-thumpers were buying time, amassing followers, and raking in cash. TV proved an even more fundy-friendly environment. "TV ministries" proliferated; Pat Robertson, not content with a mere show, turned a small TV station into a media empire -- and in the process forged conservative Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and fundamentalism into a social and political force of amazing magnitude. If not for TV, Robertson's brand of religion wouldn't have anywhere near as many adherents -- or exert as much power -- as it does today.

This shouldn't be surprising, because TV is perfectly suited to fundamentalist religion. Both require passivity: Fundamentalism demands that you check your mind at the door, listen to the preacher, and obey him; TV asks that you sit down, shut up, and watch. TV's strong suit is the close-up, and this suits fundamentalism, which is less about communal worship than about the preacher and his pronouncements. By contrast, there's little place for the boob tube in the kind of religion in which the focus is on worship in community, for TV doesn't create real communities -- it creates only illusions thereof (The PTL Club, The 700 Club).

The Internet is a very different kettle of fish -- so different that its advent has turned the tables, technologically, on those in the religious right. They're panicked -- and with good reason. Why? Not simply because some kids might see a few dirty pictures but because the Internet fosters education, welcomes creativity and fresh ideas, and makes possible the establishment of tight and loyal (yet diverse) communities that traverse oceans and continents. TV may have turned the whole world into couch potatoes, but the Internet truly bids to make the world One -- and the dream of One World is, in American Protestant fundamentalist thinking, of the devil's making. Thanks to the Internet, countless gay kids have been saved from isolation, ignorance, self-hatred, and perhaps even suicide. Thanks to the Internet gay adults in authoritarian countries have learned much more than they used to know about gay life in places like Denmark and the Netherlands (and even Austin, Tex.) -- and, stunned by the freedom there, have been motivated to agitate for change in their own countries. To an authoritarian, the access to knowledge and community -- and the sheer liberty -- proffered by the Internet is deeply threatening.

It's in the nature of liberty, of course, to foster a multiplicity of behaviors. Going on-line is wonderful for those who seek deeply meaningful contacts -- and also for those who are out to avoid such contacts. Gay chat rooms can be either a hunting ground for That One Special Someone, a means to 1970s-style fastlane promiscuity (but with 1990s-style efficiency), or a venue for that most distinctive '90s phenomenon of all, cybersex. Gay chat rooms can bring out the worldclass fabricator in a person who never thought he was capable of deceit, yet also allow some people to tell their own deepest truths for the very first time. Indeed, with their wide-ranging coverage of sexual fetishes, chat rooms have made it possible for many people to discover deep truths about themselves. Meanwhile, the plenitude and popularity of chat rooms with names like "str8 but curious" has bolstered suspicions that the percentage of people whose essential orientation is homosexual is not under but over 10%.

For me, the most extraordinary thing about the Internet these days is Internet Relay Chat, which makes it easy and inexpensive to converse daily (and even fall in love) with people almost anywhere. One wonders: Can two countries make war when their soldiers have spent their adolescence conversing with one another on-line? What such phenomena remind us is how crucial talking -- just talking -- can be in overcoming difference, ignorance, prejudice.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm aware of the online world's downside. But I know too that when they write our movement's definitive history, they'll have to devote a lot of space to the Internet's role in liberating gay people. It's a remarkable story -- one whose most fascinating chapters have yet to be written.
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Article Details
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Author:Bawer, Bruce
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Feb 3, 1998
Words:735
Previous Article:Gia.
Next Article:1997: the year in review.
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