Excellent Reads

I’m about a week behind on my New Yorker reading, and am currently breezing through the Nov. 12th issue. It is a really good issue! A few highlights:

Alex Ross, usually the New Yorker’s classical music correspondent, on the gay community’s political progress
. He goes through the McCarthy-era targeting of gay government employees, the laughing-at-AIDS (and then ignoring AIDS) Reagan era, through Will & Grace and Joe Biden. He even looks at gay life hundreds of years ago, and how each “creaking open of the closet led to a colossal shove of repression.” The whole thing is great, but one of the more interesting parts is Ross’s look at what he calls “the fall of gay culture” — Judy Garland and Mildred Pierce, musical theater or Ross’s own early obsession with classical music. Summarizing the views of David Halperin, Ross notes that while many gay kids have interests typical to other kids of their age and gender, many other gay kids show signs of homosexuality early in an affection for non-traditional interests, clothing or hobbies. Ross writes:

Of course, a love for Golden Age movies or interior design is not necessarily a telltale sign. Plenty of straight kids flee from the locker room to the Drama Club, and plenty of gay kids thrive at sports. Yet the anecdotal evidence for the early onset of gay taste is vast. In retrospect, my mania for Beethoven may have been a way of forestalling a reckoning with my sexuality: rather than commit myself, I disappeared into a fleshless realm. Halperin sees another dimension to this kind of engagement—a willful resistance to the male-adolescent herd, a form of quasi-political dissidence. It’s a heady idea to attribute political motives to gay children, but Halperin is on to something. The fanatical twelve-year-old aesthete displays something like cultural disobedience.

His treatment of some old-timey feminist objections to things like drag is similarly thoughtful:

The trickiest component of gay-male culture is the role of women in its midst. Feminist critics have long detected misogynist mockery in drag acts and in gay men’s howling response to melodramatic scenes that were not intended to be funny, such as Joan Crawford’s verbal annihilation of her aloof, ingrate daughter in “Mildred Pierce.” Halperin, like many before him, sees a more complex identification at work. Crawford maintains a flawlessly high pitch as she gyrates between “feminine glamour” and “feminine abjection,” and the typical gay male viewer may feel at home at both extremes: so many gay kids work at presenting a perfected surface to the world, and so many are hounded by the fear that some grotesque exposure will tear it down.

At the same time, the plunge into abjection can be liberating—“the politics of emotion,” Halperin calls it, of “losing it,” of “righteous, triumphant fury.” (That young man at the Jack in the Box, despite his frat-boy affect, had a Joan Crawford quality.) Furthermore, as the feminist theorist Judith Butler has argued, these extravagant diva turns, and, more particularly, the drag acts that perpetuate them, reveal the artificiality of conventional gender roles, the “hyperbolic status of the norm itself.” As Halperin puts it, “every identity is a role or an act.” It’s just that straight-male performance is granted instant authenticity. Super Bowl Sunday, seen from a certain angle, is a pageant as intricate and contrived as the annual invasion of the drag queens on Fire Island.

He also examines the fact that throughout most of human history, there hasn’t been a bright line between “gay” and “straight.” Sexuality is fluid, to a point, and it is culturally influenced — which doesn’t mean gay men and lesbians weren’t “born that way,” but it does mean that sexuality isn’t as simple as gay people on one side and straight people on the other forever and ever amen. Ross writes:

Yet most gay historians resist any depiction of homosexuality as a fixed category transcending time. Ever since Michel Foucault published the first volume of his “History of Sexuality,” in 1976, sexual identity has often been portrayed as a “social construction,” as the jargon goes. David Halperin made his name as a Foucauldian; his 1990 book, “One Hundred Years of Homosexuality,” shows in ripe detail how the mores of ancient Greece differed from our own. Same-sex acts were considered normal within set bounds: an adult male could impose himself on boys, foreigners, or slaves, but to submit to another of equal status was shameful. It appears that countless Greeks indulged in such behavior not because they were genetically distinct but because so many others were doing it. Aspects of that old regime persist in prisons, in same-sex schools, and in societies where women are segregated from men. In Kandahar, for example, Pashtun men make a cult of teen-age boys. Even if genetics predict certain desires, social forces can transform them.

His look at gayness in Christianity is similarly fascinating. Unsurprisingly, much of the historic hostility is aimed at gay men, and the problem isn’t homosexuality itself — it’s men acting like women.

St. John Chrysostom reached the dire conclusion that sodomy was worse than murder: “The murderer dissevers the soul from the body, but [the sodomite] ruins the soul with the body. . . . For I should not only say that thou hast become a woman, but that thou hast lost thy manhood.” The problem with gay sex, in other words, is that it undermines the dominance of the male. Ironically, the Greeks and the Romans followed the same logic in censuring effeminate males. The pagan and Christian worlds had more in common than the church fathers might have liked to admit—especially when you look at the persistence of pedophilia in the priesthood. Jesus Christ did not speak the same hierarchical language. Why did Mosaic law allow men to divorce their wives while women could not divorce their husbands? “Because of the hardness of your hearts.”

The whole piece is worth a read.

In that same issue is a great piece on what the revolution has meant for Egyptian women (answer: unclear). In some ways, women may be worse off — the Muslim Brotherhood is unclear about it’s positions on women’s rights, and avoids answering tough questions. Egypt is a more conservative place when it comes to women then it was a few decades ago. And harassment and assault on the street is commonplace. The piece is unfortunately behind a subscription wall, but if you have a New Yorker subscription, check it out. And if you don’t, consider subscribing. Not to get too high on this soapbox, but thoughtful, in-depth journalism costs money to produce. Writers need to be paid, travel budgets need to be allotted, magazines need to be printed. With the internet, many of us expect all of our news to come for free. And while I like that idea in theory, I also like having journalists and writers who are paid for their work — because it is work, and it is a service. So if you can afford to support amazing publications like the New Yorker, consider a subscription.

And to end on a humorous note: Republicans consider welcoming people who believe in math and science.

6 comments for “Excellent Reads

  1. November 13, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    And to end on a humorous note: Republicans consider welcoming people who believe in math and science.

    To clarify: is that coming from a satirical source? I know the New Yorker is legit, but I’m under the impression that the Borowitz Report is satire.

    Stupid Poe’s Law, but I honestly can never tell anymore.

    • November 13, 2012 at 3:29 pm

      Yes, the Borowitz Report is satire. It’s part of the New Yorker’s humor content.

  2. DonnaL
    November 13, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    The Alex Ross piece was interesting, but I don’t see any insights that haven’t been said a hundred times before.

    • DouglasG
      November 14, 2012 at 10:53 am

      Ah, yes, about as original as a “new” defense of Richard III.

  3. z
    November 13, 2012 at 7:26 pm

    Anything interesting worth my time about gay women in the piece?

  4. DonnaL
    November 13, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    Anything interesting worth my time about gay women in the piece?

    No, I don’t think so. When he talks about gay culture, and gay kids, he really means, for the most part, gay boys, as in this one example:

    So long live camp, and all the other cultural pursuits that gay people have traditionally embraced. Perhaps the historic devotion to theatre, opera, high fashion, and other venerable disciplines will wither away, but it seems likely that many gay kids will still feel the trauma of difference and go on seeking refuge in artier spheres.

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