Minos and Daedalus.
Politically, I can't do much more to speak my own mind other than shouting in the streets (which I have also done and will no doubt do again). My pamphlet, Fighting Words: An Open Letter to Queers and Radicals, is selling well and is already reaching working-class, activist, and gay readers. I've been asked: isn't it wiser to address the "general public" and, thus, a wider audience? Or, if not the public in general, then better educated and morally sensitive citizens? Avowed humanists, for example, presumably wield a cultural influence greater than their relatively small numbers.
In fact, I've been willing to speak on television shows and publish opinion pieces in newspapers whenever I was permitted to go beyond the usual pieties and sensationalism. And obviously I've been willing to address an explicitly humanist audience in recent years. The mass media, however, have always practiced an unofficial form of censorship and have grown even chillier toward my kind of free speech. And a recent Internet message from a reader of The Humanist was kindly passed along to me, which I've carefully considered. I believe this reader doesn't speak only for himself but for a fairly broad spectrum of humanist opinion.
He begins by praising my prose style but wonders about the substance of my work. Specifically, "what knowledge have I gained about this `queer world' from a humanist's perspective?" Though my columns have ranged freely over sexuality, economics, and culture, he expresses a special interest "as a humanist" in "the controversy over choice versus biological conditions set from birth ... the very things that appear to be so poorly grasped by the religious right."
I'm not at all sure that I'm a Humanist with a capital H--no more than I'm a Socialist with a capital S--so I probably can't answer his question to his satisfaction. I believe a humanist perspective--no less and no more than my own--is evident in every line of prose and poetry I've ever written in my life. If that's not good enough, I am tempted to shrug the whole matter off. But there are several serious issues here, including the common confusion between humanism and a naive faith that science is the surest revelation of humanity to itself and, therefore, our surest guide in making political choices as well.
I refer readers to an excellent op-ed entitled "The Mystique of the Gay Gene" by Philip L. Bereano, published on February 25, 1996, in the Seattle Times. Bereano quotes James Watson, the biologist who received the Nobel Prize for his collaborative discovery of the double helical structure of DNA, but was foolish enough to proclaim, "At last we will know what it truly means to be human." I question the humanism of any humanist who does not understand why any Mayan peasant or Manhattan drag queen knows just as much about "what it truly means to be human" as any scientist--or, indeed, any humanist. I would not willingly give up antibiotics and electricity, but civilizations have flourished without either; likewise, science and humanism can coexist with capitalism and barbarism.
What special guidance do humanists seek from science in this matter of sexuality and democracy? Are you so easily convinced that evidence of biological immutability is the best argument for the democratic rights of gay people? Would we find such arguments reasonable in the case of women, blacks, or Jews? And how many humanists would agree with the following words: "Homosexuality is a disability and if people wish to have it eliminated before they have children--because they wish to have grandchildren or for other reasons--I do not see any moral objection to using genetic engineering to limit this particular trend. It would be like correcting many other conditions, such as infertility or multiple sclerosis." As Bereano noted, "These are not the words of some neo-Nazi propagandist or mad scientist but the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jacobovits, in 1993."
Rather than allow the religious right to confuse these matters further, humanists might point out that only bigots find equality for gay people controversial. No matter what the origins of sexuality may be--yours, mine, or anyone's--these origins are strictly irrelevant when we decide to secure democratic rights for all citizens. Even if we were able to choose our erotic temperaments the way we choose the color of our clothes, this would hardly make a good democratic argument against freedom of choice. Religious conservatives claim that the real perversity of gay people consists in acting against nature by our own free will. Plainly many humanists are no less squeamish about gay sexuality but hope that science will prove we just can't help ourselves.
When gay people refuse to speak in the terms of this dehumanizing debate, we are likely to go unheard. That is one reason why even the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force often tries to make science do the work of politics. Yet the Council for Responsible Genetics remains agnostic about scientific studies of sexual orientation and has taken the position that arguments for civic equality must be made independently. I fully agree, and I wonder how much company I have among humanists. It's important to note that the mass media gave sensational coverage to a genetic study of homosexuality by Dean Hamer at the National Institutes of Health in 1993. But how many of you know that the federal Office of Research Integrity is investigating the same study because one of Hamer's colleagues has charged that the research team suppressed data and distorted results? If the first story was so important, why isn't the second?
Just as there are limits to the guidance science can give us in moral and political matters, so there are limits to the kind of "universal" humanism that can be so easily translated into a Unitarian sermon. Like socialism and democracy and a thousand other useful words, humanism has no magic or virtue in itself, with or without capitals. Loud proclamations of faith in universal humanity are now being used to deny the very humanity of workers, women, black people, and queers. Rather than repeat the mind-numbing banality that gay people deserve human rights--which I assume humanists take for granted--I have insisted that human rights become "universal" only through specific social struggles. Humanity in general is an abstraction that loses all humanity.
Sexless, raceless, classless humanity, without distinction--that makes good religion and very bad politics. You will find just such "idealism" permeating bipartisan propaganda, as well as organs of opinion ranging from the New York Times to the New Republic. This kind of organized humanism is very much like organized religion. Indeed, the American Humanist Association cannot really compete in spreading this gospel, for it is already the established state religion. If this is humanism, I am an infidel.
On March 25, 1996, for example, I opened the Philadelphia Daily News to find this headline: "Dole: Merit is answer," with this subheading: "He lashes out at affirmative action." Indeed he does, and with great idealism: advancement through merit must replace affirmative action, for the playing fields of America are now declared green and level from the South Bronx to Big Sur. Dole's refrain, with a roaring bipartisan chorus, is quite simple: "We're one America. We're not black, we're not white, we're not Asian . . . we're one America." In a political market that is anything but free, of course presidential candidates pretend they rise through the ranks of a meritocracy. From that great height they drop the ax on welfare mothers and still proclaim devotion to humanity in general. What William Blake wrote about art and artists can be applied here to politics and politicians: "To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit."
When Martin Luther King urged Americans to value "the content of our characters and not the color of our skins," the words rang true coming from a black man fighting racism. The same words, echoed by Bill Clinton as he stood in King's own pulpit in Ebenezer Church, rang horribly hollow. Clinton and other Republicrats have used King's words as yet more ammunition in the general assault against affirmative action. Humanists, of all people, are surely not tone-deaf to the moral dissonance between the rhetoric of the 1960s and the 1990s, even when the words remain unchanged. The bitter truth is that King was put on a postage stamp the better to bury him.
In 1985, Newt Gingrich was a keynote speaker at a crucial organizing conference of the religious right, "How to Win an Election," and he stated: "AIDS will do more to direct America back to the cost of violating traditional values, and to make America aware of the dangers of certain behaviors, than anything we've seen. For us, it's a great rallying cry." Moving right along, on March 27, 1996, Gingrich stands in front of the AIDS Quilt at a Washington, D.C., breakfast to benefit the National AIDS Candlelight March, and his heart expands beyond our borders to embrace global humanity: "The tragedy of AIDS in the Third World and the rate at which it is spreading will, I think, be looked back upon by historians as one of the horrifying facts of the last 20 years of the twentieth century."
The careers of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Newt Gingrich must also count among those "horrifying facts." Gingrich's noble sentiment in no way contradicts his earlier "rallying cry" and costs him nothing but the breath it takes to deliver a funeral eulogy. But in this campaign season, Gingrich must show his humanitarian face to voters, which is why he used the same event to make a discretely coded appeal to gay Republicans. Gingrich well understands that he must give them and other moral imbeciles some reason--any reason at all--to vote Republican "with a clear conscience."
As long as I aim my fire at honest Republicans, my liberal friends cheer me on. But if I also criticize dishonest Republicans like Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council, my liberal friends get nervous. To be specific, here on my desk is a new campaign letter from a liberal Democratic politician: "It's been a long, cold Republican winter. But the Spring Thaw is coming. You can smell it in the air. The rebirth of the Democratic party is at hand." The mighty odor I detect here ain't spring. I have heckled this very politician when she sought votes from gays without daring to condemn her own party's leader, who has repeatedly encouraged Republican assaults on our rights by his own cowardice and endless concessions.
"You can divide the gay voting population into pragmatists and ideologues," said Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia, quoted in the March 18, 1996, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. Sabato added, "Clinton will never be acceptable to the ideologues because he's not that kind of person--he's not going to tie himself to a railroad track for any group." That's for sure. Clinton is the kind of person who ties other folks to a railroad track and then stands safely back while saying, "I feel your pain." Professors of government can then divide citizens into pragmatists--those who serve as sacrificial victims and even elect high priests to perform the bloody ceremony--and ideologues, namely those of us who refuse to help the trains run on time over our dead bodies. A simple survival instinct is surely a better guide through our political wilderness than a professor of government, for whom train schedules (so to speak) are holy scripture.
In March 1995, a memo circulated among White House staffers with this warning:
An alarming percentage of lesbians and gay men are giving up on President Clinton.... Like the average American voters who in 1994 held the president and the congressional Democrats responsible for their lack of "recovery," gay and lesbian voters hold this president responsible for their continued pain.... Unless this trend is turned around, it will be virtually impossible for us to energize the gay community with anywhere near the enthusiasm of the 1992 campaign.
Good news at last! I found this memo quoted in Out, a national gay magazine, alongside a full-page illustration of Clinton come a-courting, offering queer voters a diamond ring and a bunch of roses, with rubber gloves on his hands.
Cynicism can go no further without becoming outright nihilism--and even then it still shows vital signs of fighting spirit. In the April 1996 issue of Poz, a magazine covering health issues and AIDS, Kiki Mason writes:
When I was young, I used to imagine the arrival of fascism with tanks rolling down the streets and grim-faced men in brown or black shirts beating us up. I underestimated the cleverness of our enemies. I wish that there were tanks rolling down the streets. At least I could go out and throw a Molotov cocktail and die standing up, like a man, honey. But fascism in America is a more subtle thing. The iron first is sheathed not only in a velvet glove but in an evening gown and diamonds as well. No one says what they mean or means what they say. It is more like Chinese water torture, slow and monotonous, the drip, drip, drip of lies and deceit. Come, says the enemy, we just want to help you. If we protest, we are being irrational and unreasonable. This is a terminal illness, they tell us, not a political disease.
Like a man, honey--that's the queer key and tempo of the whole piece (or you'll miss the music), but the knowledge that AIDS is also "a political disease" is as serious as a heart attack. This person is endangered and therefore dangerous; this person plays with the idea of derailing the whole monstrous locomotive, so this is not one of the professor's "pragmatists." This person is at least not one of the Cinderellas of "centrism," those political whores who change costume for every dance; at least not one of those pimps of "pragmatism," those intellectuals who provide corporate criminals and even petty brutes with a good conscience. This person is not (yet) thinking like a socialist, but the heart of an anarchist is a beginning.
As a socialist myself, I must reconsider my work as an artist and activist. Without dwelling on personal details, I hope this little essay will also serve as fair warning to friends and friendly readers who worry on my behalf, or who find my words and company less pleasant nowadays. Thanks, but you offer the wrong kind of help and sympathy, and in matters of conscience even the best friends can be the worst enemies. I don't claim sanctity, and like anyone else I may blunder badly. But I am convinced that the political climate will grow worse before it grows better, no matter which clique of politicians serves an abiding ruling class. Nor do I have any faith that worse is better, in some higher dialectic of history. If political and even publishing options are restricted at present, at least I can speak my mind. Therefore, if you engage me in conversation on certain subjects, I am likely to be tenacious and ferocious. And I intend you to take it personally--even you, dear reader and stranger.
Hannah Arendt, interviewed on German television in 1964 about her exile in 1933, said:
The problem, the personal problem, was not what our enemies did but what our friends did. In the wave of Gleischaltung (co-ordination), which was relatively voluntary--in any case, not yet under the pressure of terror--it was as if an empty space formed around one. I lived in an intellectual milieu, but I also knew other people. And among intellectuals Gleischaltung was the rule, so to speak. But not among the others. And I never forgot that. I left Germany dominated by the idea (of course somewhat exaggerated): "Never again! I shall never again get involved in any kind of intellectual business. I want nothing to do with that lot."
I don't quote Arendt's words to equate her experience with my own; nor as an overture to operatic equations between Nazism and bipartisan barbarism. Analogies are not equations, and there are degrees of barbarism. Since nobody gets through life pure, we can also be sure we are marked by our society in ways which we may learn either late or never. My own life and work have been "co-ordinated" in ways I should take more care to resist. Over the years ahead, I want to try something both intimate and communal: I want to pick up the golden thread of thought that may lead back again out of the current maze of lies and crimes. To do so, I will practice poetry and music again as seriously as I once did in my youth. That is my belated New Year's resolution, and it may sound like a romantic program. But I have no more absolute faith in art than I do in science or any other human venture. The daily practice of art is one way of being human, and somewhere in the maze I lost that way.
If art and science are both ways out of the barbarous maze we make of the world, of course both are also ways of creating and losing ourselves in that same maze. There is a beautiful and disturbing passage from Book VIII of Ovid's Metamorphoses, all the more troubling because the very story being told is a tangled skein of ancient lies and imperial crimes. The myth of the maze and the Minotaur is already "classical" in Ovid's version, and the ancient Cretans left no script we can decipher. Here is the Miller prose translation in the Loeb Classicial Library edition, both an affirmation and a warning:
Minos duly paid his vows to Jove, a hundred bulls, when he disembarked upon the Cretan strand; and he hung up his spoils of war to adorn his palace. But now his family's disgrace had grown big, and the queen's foul adultery was revealed to all by her strange hybrid monster-child. Minos planned to remove this shame from his house and to hide it away in a labyrinthine enclosure with blind passages. Daedalus, a man famous for his skill in the builder's art, planned and performed the work. He confused the usual passages and deceived the eye by a conflicting maze of divers winding paths. Just as the watery Meander plays in the Phrygian fields, flows back and forth in doubtful course and, turning back on itself, beholds its own waves coming on their way, and sends its uncertain waters now towards their source and now towards the open sea; so Daedalus made those innumerable winding passages, and was himself scarce able to find his way back to the place of entry, so deceptive was the enclosure he had built.
In this labyrinth Minos shut up the monster of the bull-man form and twice fed him on Athenian blood; but the third tribute, demanded after each nine years, brought the creature's overthrow.
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|Title Annotation:||Our Queer World; gay columnist says goodbye|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1996|
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