Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Israel out of control

Reports indicate that yesterday (July 25, 2006)Israel assassinated four UN observers in southern Lebanon. According to Kofi Annan the attacks began in the early morning and continued until seven PM, despite repeated appeals by the UN for the assault to stop. The UN observers took refuge in a bomb shelter, where they died. This appears to be another “targeted assassination.” Since the Israeli practice, recalling the US Phoenix program in Vietnan, is well attested for Palestinians, the term is appropriate here also.

Since the attack went on for many hours, Israeli denials have no credibility. They are promising an “investigation.” In the meantime the observers are dead, and a chilling message has been sent. Israel does not want any independent expert accounts of its excessive use of force in Lebanon.

Some of us old-timers will recall a similar horrendous occurrence in the case of the US observer ship, The Liberty. The following is a slightly edited text of an excellent recent account by Eric S. Margolis.

“On the fourth day of the 1967 Arab Israeli War, the intelligence ship USS Liberty was steaming slowly in international waters, 14 miles off the Sinai Peninsula. Israeli armored forces were racing deep into Sinai in hot pursuit of the retreating Egyptian army.

“Liberty,” a World War II freighter, had been converted into an intelligence vessel by the US National Security Agency, and packed with the latest signaling and electronic interception equipment. The Liberty had been sent to Sinai to monitor communications of the belligerents in the Third Arab Israeli War: Israel and her foes, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

"At 0800 hrs, on June 8, 1967, eight Israeli reconnaissance flights flew over Liberty, which was flying a large American flag. At 1400 hrs, waves of low-flying Israeli Mystere and Mirage-III fighter-bombers repeatedly attacked the American vessel with rockets, napalm, and cannon. The air attacks lasted 20 minutes, concentrating on the ship's electronic antennas and dishes. The Liberty was left afire, listing sharply. Eight of her crew lay dead, a hundred seriously wounded, including the captain, Commander William McGonagle.

"At 1424 hrs, three Israeli torpedo boats attacked, raking the burning 'Liberty' with 20mm and 40mm shells. At 1431hrs an Israeli torpedo hit the Liberty midship, precisely where the signals intelligence systems were located. Twenty-five more Americans died.

"Israeli gunboats circled the wounded American vessel, firing at crewmen trying to fight the fires. At 1515, the crew were ordered to abandon ship. The Israeli warships closed and poured machine gun fire into the crowded life rafts, sinking two. As American sailors were being massacred in cold blood, a rescue mission by US Sixth Fleet carrier aircraft was mysteriously aborted on orders from the White House.

"The Israeli attacks killed 34 US seamen and wounded 171 out of a crew of 297, the worst loss of American naval personnel from hostile action since World War II.

"Less than an hour after the attack, Israel told Washington its forces had committed a “tragic error.” Later, Israel claimed it had mistaken the Liberty for an ancient Egyptian horse transport. US Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, and Joint Chiefs of Staff head, Admiral Thomas Moorer, insisted the Israeli attack was deliberate and designed to sink the American ship. So did three CIA reports; one asserted Israel's Defense Minister, Gen. Moshe Dayan, had personally ordered the attack.

"The savaging of the Liberty was quickly hushed up by President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The White House and Congress immediately accepted Israel's explanation and let the matter drop. Israel later paid a token reparation of US $6 million.

"Surviving Liberty crew members would not be silenced. They kept demanding an open inquiry and tried to tell their story of deliberate attack to the media. Israel's government worked behind the scenes to thwart these efforts, going so far as having American pro-Israel groups accuse the Liberty's survivors of being “anti-Semites” and “Israel-haters.” Major TV networks cancelled interviews with the crew.

"The attack on Liberty was fading into obscurity until last week, when intelligence expert James Bamford came out with Body of Secrets, his latest book about the National Security Agency. In a stunning revelation, Bamford writes that unknown to Israel, a US Navy EC-121 intelligence aircraft was flying high overhead the Liberty, electronically recorded the attack. The US aircraft crew provides evidence that the Israeli pilots knew full well that they were attacking a US Navy ship flying the American flag.

"Why did Israel try to sink a naval vessel of its benefactor and ally? Most likely because the Liberty's intercepts flatly contradicted Israel's claim, made at the war's beginning on 5 June, that Egypt had attacked Israel, and that Israel's massive air assault on three Arab nations was in retaliation. In fact, Israel began the war by a devastating, Pearl-Harbor style surprise attack that caught the Arabs in bed and destroyed their entire air forces.

"Israel was also preparing to attack Syria to seize its strategic Golan Heights. Washington warned Israel not to invade Syria, which had remained inactive while Israel fought Egypt. Bamford says Israel's offensive against Syria was abruptly postponed when the Liberty appeared off Sinai, then launched once it was knocked out of action. Israel's claim that Syria had attacked it could have been disproved by information gleaned from the Liberty. Most significant, Liberty's intercepts may have shown that Israel seized upon sharply rising Arab-Israeli tensions in May-June 1967 to launch a long-planned war to invade and annex the West Bank, Jerusalem, Golan and Sinai.

"Far more shocking was Washington's response. Writes Bamford: 'Despite the overwhelming evidence that Israel attacked the ship and killed American servicemen deliberately, the Johnson Administration and Congress covered up the entire incident. Why?

"Domestic politics. Johnson, a man never noted for high moral values, preferred to cover up the attack rather than anger a key constituency and major financial backer of the Democratic Party. Congress was even less eager to touch this “third rail” issue.

"The US government's long, disgraceful cover-up of the premeditated attack on the Liberty has now burst into the open and demands full-scale investigation. After 34 years, the voices of the Liberty's dead and wounded seamen must finally be heard.”

Eric S. Margolis’ excellent account, summarized above, dates from May 2, 2001.

I have no great affection for the Palestinians. Even if the Jews were to leave Israel tomorrow, the Palestinians would be unable to govern themselves satisfactorily. No Arab country has yet managed this, and the Palestinians are more hapless and quarrelsome than most. Their vicious homophobia puts them beyond the pale for me. I have even less respect for Hexbollah.

During the Vietnam War some held that if we couldn’t support the South Vietnamese government, corrupt and incompetent as it was, we must support the North. In fact neither deserved our support. The same is true in the Middle East today.

The Israelis seem to have learned nothing from our debacle in Iraq, and are seeking to have their way with pure military force. This will not work, and Hezbollah will emerge stronger than other.

I have just returned from Europe where the press reports of the Israeli attack and invasion are factual and, as far as possible, nonjudgmental. In the US the only debate seems to be how much fervor to summon in issuing a blank check to the Israeli excesses.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Phil Ochs lives

The other day I took a deep breath and ventured down an overgrown section of Memory Lane. I bought a CD of the music of Phil Ochs.

Who is Phil Ochs? The short answer is that he was a folkie protest singer of the Vietnam era. However, that label doesn't begin to cover it. Unlike his gravel-voiced confreres, he had a beautiful clear tenor voice inflected with the twang of Ohio where he grew up. In his best songs the marriage of form and content is almost unbearably intense.

I went back to Phil Ochs in part because he is topical. Hie anthem "I Ain't a Marching Anymore" ofters advice that should be heeded. Ochs also wrote nonpolitical songs. My favorite is "Changes," a gentle ballad about the pacific ending of a relationship.

Ochs had a short career, ca. 1967-75. In those remote days some thought that a revolution was immminent int he US. I did not, but I saw that the tight controls the Establishment had forged at the height of the Cold War were crumbling, and a new era of freedom was dawning--if only we could seize the time. Ochs signed on for the Full Montie. Cops were killers and the Black Panthers heroes. Most of the people in jail were placed there wrongly. And so forth. As it became clear that his hopes were not going to be realized soon, he became despondent. Phil Ochs committed suicide in 1977.

In Ochs' time I joined the gay movement. Stonewall in 1969 was a thrilling event, but it was clear that we must stay focused for the long haul. And what a long haul it has been. It was only after a new century dawned that we finally got rid of the medieval sodomy laws in this country.

Unlike most political verbiage, Phil Ochs' music is alive. Despite his mistaken hopes, he can still move me to tears. Ave atque vale, Phil.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


What is an intellectual? In the broadest sense an intellectual is a “symbolic analyst,” a brainworker as distinct from an ordinary white- or blue-collar employee. In everyday parlance, however, an intellectual (more precisely a “public intellectual”) is a thinking person who has acquired a certain celebrity, relying on this status to access a broad audience. The audience need not be large in the media sense, but it must include a significant number of influential individuals.

Oftentimes, the intellectual par excellence is someone who translates well-established expertise in some specific field of endeavor to a more general currency. The archetypal example is the French novelist Emile Zola who, after completing his gigantic Rougon-Macquart (1871-93) series, published his famous article “J’Accuse” in a Parisian daily (1898). The subject was the miscarriage of justice in the Dreyfus case. As this instance shows, public intellectuals are often oppositional, seeking to speak truth to power. Cynics would say that this impulse itself stems from power hunger.

An outstanding contemporary example of the Janus type, one who complements his original professional role with a new one of public exhortation, is Albert Einstein, who enjoyed universal respect for his ethical and political insights. More controversial—-indeed infuriating to some--is Noam Chomsky of MIT. After achieving eminence as a linguist, Chomsky began volubly to address political issues during the closing years of the Vietnam War. He still does so.

Still, such a migration from the home field to the new public one is not essential. Francis Fukuyama, a conservative intellectual who is now having second thoughts, has always been a professor in the realm of public policy.

Moreover, some attempts to transfer expertise are not successful. When William Shockley, who shared a Nobel Prize for his work on the transistor, sought an audience for his Neanderthal views on race, polite opinion rebuffed him. In a different way, Hollywood stars, such as Barbara Streisand and Sean Penn, do not generally command credit for their views about politics.

Indeed, the link between the original expertise and the new one should always be regarded as problematic. This is so because psychological studies have rejected the idea that success in one field equates with proficiency in another. Still, there is a difference between a mere pundit, a journalist (no matter how insightful), and a true public intellectual, especially when the latter can back up credible observations about public policy with demonstrated excellence in his chosen field.

What are the origins of this social type? Two opposed schools stem from France. Michel Winock, who has published widely on the subject, believes that as a type the true intellectual begins only a little over a hundred years ago with Emile Zola. Such individuals addressed contemporary social problems in an incisive manner. Why not then Victor Hugo, who devoted much of his energies for almost twenty years attacking the autocracy of Napoleon III? Or for that matter, one can go back such Enlightenment figures as Diderot and Voltaire.

Another French contribution stems from the distinguished medievalist Jacques Le Goff. A half century ago he published a little book on the Intellectuals in the Middle Ages that has proved to have enduring value. In Le Goff’s perspective it is hard, for example, to deny the label of intellectual to such figures as Abelard and St. Bernard. The tradition of political intervention began with the Libelli de lite, pamphlets created by ecclesiastics to support or counter the revolutionary reforms of Pope Gregory VII (ca. 1020-85). Apparently, Le Goff is unaquainted with this German production. Le Goff is right, however, to stress the role of universities, that characteristic invention of the High Middle Ages. Previously solely birth or wealth governed status. The universities were in principle open to all, introducing the novel idea of classification by examination. For those permitted to teach in them, these institutions provided a safe haven for innovation, some of it openly subversive, though skirting outright heresy. At the same time universities were training grounds for a literate elite who would enforce the norms of the establishment. This tension continues today.

While it is occasionally found earlier, the term “intellectual” became common in English only towards the end of the 19th century. Beginning in 1907, apparently, it was reinforced by the imported Russian term intelligentsia, the intellectuals as a group. Interestingly, this idea had been anticipated by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge a hundred years before in his idea of the “clerisy.” His contemporary P. B. Shelley spoke of poets as the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.

A hat tip is due to the creator of the gayspecies blog, whose piece on this subject got me going. Gayspecies cites a book by Paul Johnson, which presents a series of generally negative portraits of such contemporary intellectuals as Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell. Lively and perceptive as it is, Johnson’s volume has two flaws. The first stems from a characteristic Anglo-Saxon distrust of the pursuit of abstract ideas, thought to hinder the better sort of social knowledge that stems from experience. To be sure many influential intellectuals, even in English-speaking countries have come from abroad. These include such figures as Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse and many others. Lately, there has been an influx of influential intellectuals from Third World Countries. These include Edward Said and Amartya Sen. Moreover, Johnson implies that intellectuals are mainly on the left. Many prominent figures have had this coloration. However, the list of conservative intellectuals is a long one, including Oswald Spengler, Ernst Jünger, Charles Maurras, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and Michael Oakeshott. Arguably the most influential body of intellectuals in America today are the conservative Straussians. This is so, despite a convincing case that Leo Strauss was not himself conservative.

Judge Richard J. Posner made his reputation by applying economic models to social phenomena. He has written some good books, but Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (2001) is not among them. Posner provides a seemingly scientific list of 100 ranked individuals. This in turn depends upon a larger gathering of 546 persons, a cohort, which is unfortunately arbitrary. Judge Posner attributes the low standards he perceives among the tribe as due to the absence of quality controls. Paradoxically, this trait derives both from the market and its absence. The media demand that one “must be entertaining” encourages grandstanding and dumbing down. By the same token, tenure in academia guarantees these individuals a livelihood, no matter how they may indulge themselves.

Stefan Collini’s Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, a book I have not seen, has garnered excellent reviews. He addresses the purported absence of intellectuals in Britain, and the reasons for this stereotype. Part of the problem seems to be the conviction that England is definitely not France. Since France is the homeland of the intellectuals they must not flourish across the channel.

Finally, two non-European parallels are relevant. The Ulema is a collective name for religious experts in Islam countries. Jurists are prominent among them, but other professions are represented as well. The Ulema are required to maintain established traditions of orthodoxy.

For centuries the body of Confucian intellectuals sometimes known as the Mandarinate governed imperial China. Successful entry into this privileged class was determined by examination. Generally speaking the Confucians were pillars of the establishment; their wealth and prestige depended on it. Occasionally, as at the beginning of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty, Chinese intellectuals became subversive—favoring, as many did in those days, the previous Ming dynasty. Perhaps their tradition survives today in the opponents of the present government of the People’s Republic.

Love is all you need?

A friend, an Anglican minister, holds that love is the guiding principle of any truly ethical life. Perhaps, but what about those medieval Inquisitors who held that they were expressing their love for the souls of heretics by casting out demons through the most horrible tortures? Possibly as a result of the ambiguities inherent in the word itself, the love criterion does not admit of easy application.

The hippie "love children" of my youth believed in expressing affection, including sexual love, but they excluded violence. Eventually, their commitment came up against hard economic realities, from those who would exploit them, and from their own unwise choices regarding drugs and group living.

Moreover, in using massive violence to stop Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, were we not expressing love for the millions who were suffering under their regimes?

In one of those notorious college bull sessions, most of them best forgotten, one of my peers advanced the claim that "love is a penis." This slogan seemed crass, but I couldn't think of an immediate answer. In retrospect it is too bad an open lesbian was not present. For them, love is definitely not a penis.

The whole question of the sexual component is vexatious. Clearly there are many kinds of sex, even consensual and conjugal, that involve no love at all. The traditional answer is that loving sex is only permissible within marriage. Nowadays many amend this to "within a longterm relationship." But is this fair? One scholar of sex told me that he had interviewed a man who had been very repressed. Once, however, at a gay dance he was moved to enter the dance floor and fellate one of the dancers. In retrospect the man viewed this act as almost sacramental. For him it was a truly loving moment.

Forty years ago an answer to these questions was provided in a widely read book, Situation Ethics by the theologian Joseph Fletcher. Fletcher advocates the love criterion, but only in its agape form. The distinction between eros, sensual love, and agape, spiritual love is ostensibly traced to the New Testament, as discussed in a famous book by Anders Nygren. Subsequently, scholars have shown that the bright line that is supposed to separate the two--well, it wasn't. Augustine, for example, employs three different Latin words, amor, caritas, and dilectio. While many hold that Augustine must logically condemn amor (as the equivalent of the carnal eros), he did not, using the words synonymously.

One of the practical examples Fletcher discusses is abortion. At first glance it would seem that the agape principle would require one to love both the mother and the unborn child (at least in cases where there is no physical danger to the mother). This would double the love. But no, Fletcher invokes the assumption of "complexity" to justify approval of abortion. In the matter of abortion of course this is the bien pensant--if you will the PC--solution showing that Professor Fletcher was like all of us, when all is said and done, a child of his times.

Situation ethics is widely misunderstood as a convenient form of relativism. It is not. However, the theory involves two additional assumptions that are debatable: the eros-agape distinction and complexity. In a theologian sense it is hardly a discovery in Christian ethics to argue that complexity, even deviousness, may be appropriate under some circumstances. These arguments became acute during the Reformation, when both Protestants and Catholics were faced with threats to their lives if they did not employ dissimulation. By contrast, Jehovah's Witnesses were easy prey for their Nazi persecutors because they could not lie.

Without invoking any iffy concept of complexity, one has to say that the love criterion is a murky one. On the whole, it is better to have some love than none. But beyond that tentative affirmataion I don't see where to proceed.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Mood Indie-gay

It has been a long time since I could claim to be a movie buff. The height of my involvement occurred in the ‘sixties, when I became hooked on such art-house faves as Bergman, Fellini, Pasolini, and Truffaut. Their aesthetic is long outdated. More’s the pity, but that’s how it is.

In those days one had to reckon basically with American, French, and Italian cinema (with a few token British and Polish items thrown in). But since then we have become aware of important movies from Africa, Russia, China, India, Iran and many other countries. Moreover, mainstream Hollywood products cannot be ignored, if only because they are the basis of so much popular culture. And there is the massive flood of the Indie movies.

Today, in order to be a true film expert, one would have to watch at least three items a day—easy enough with Netflix and other services. Yet I have too many other things to do to submit myself to this discipline—or slef-indulgence. So from time to time, I attempt to chase away the clouds of ignorance, sector by sector.

The latest sector addressed is recent low-budge gay movies. There are five I would recommend.


The most unassuming (and presumably the cheapest to make) of the crop is the best. “Latter Days” is an unusual coming-out story. In West Hollywood a group of Mormon missionaries takes an apartment across the hall from the pad of a gay party boy, Christian. Among the missionaries is shy Aaron Davis, who harbors repressed gay feelings. Christian falls hard for the innocent, cornfed Aaron. They kiss passionately and are discovered. Aaron is then sent back home to Idaho for excommunication and a heavy “ex-gay” reprogramming. He escapes from the facility and joins Christian in LA. One can imagine the sequel as stormy, because Aaron will try to cling to his social-conservative values, and the party boy will find it hard to adjust. No sequel is needed: the film is perfect as it is. Special credit goes to Steve Sandvoss (a straight actor) who sensitively portrays the confusion—and strength—of the emergently gay Aaron.

An ex-Mormon friend who gathered information about homosexuality among LDSers held that gayness was especially common among them, as the effort at repression has backfired. All in all this is a superb little movie, approaching the “Brokeback Mountain” category.


In a small town in Northern California two boys bond at the age of eleven. Some sex play is involved. Buck stays behind to care for his ailing mother, while Chuck, who turns into Charlie, becomes a handsome and sophisticated record producer in LA.

After the mother dies, Buck moves to LA in hopes of getting back what they had. He is homely, socially maladroit, and too aggressive. In due course Charlie manages to drive him off. Still, all is not lost. The seemingly hapless Buck makes two new friends--a hardboiled, but shrewd middle-aged woman, who knows the ins and outs of the theater world; and an untalented actor, who is nonetheless a loyal friend. The moral—a good one, I think—is this. Go for your dream. You may not get exactly what you wanted, but you will improve yourself.

Mike White, impersonating the creepy Buck, conceived this movie. White wrote and appeared in “The Good Girl” with Jennifer Anniston. He is the son of Mel White, a fundamentalist filmmaker who came out, and is now a thorn in the side of Jerry Fallwell.


This is a collective portrait of a gaggle of A-list young men in LA who belong to a softball team. Having attained various stages in their sexual careers, most are nonetheless afflicted with a sense of the meaninglessness of a succession of relationships. Honest! The newbie guy has trouble adjusting to the prevailing cynicism, one of the regulars gets dumped and attempts suicide, and so forth. Still Dean Cain (still Superman in my book) is wonderful and it’s a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.


This zany musical, created by John Cameron Mitchell who stars, is impossible to describe. The plot (if that is what it is) concerns an East Berlin transsexual, who must cope with a botched sex-change operation. The music is continuously engaging.


This is a new version of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.” In London a crotchety English novelist takes the afternoon off to see an improving E. M. Forster film. At the multiplex he inadvertently blunders into another screening room, featuring a horrible teenflick called “Hotpants College II.” Giles De’Ath, the writer (played by John Hurt), is about to leave when his gaze falls on the mesmerizing figure of a young American actor, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestly). Apparently unaware of the use of the Internet for this purpose, Giles assembles a scrapbook on his idol from trashy movie magazines. He learns that the guy lives on Long Island, where he goes and tracks him down. Giles applies the old Dale Carnegie technique of outrageous flattery. Ronnie is taken in, but not so the girlfriend, who arranges to take the young actor away. After propositioning Ronnie in vain, Giles departs, sending a self-righteous fax to the actor. Evidently, the old gent has learned nothing from the experience. Jason Priestly tries his best, but it is hard to see how he could inspire a durable passion. That, I suppose, is the point: love is truly blind.

[Btw, I continue to be amused by the faux improvements-—Schlimmbesserungen, see previous posting—-that Spell Check produces. For Fallwell, it suggests “falafel.” Indeed.]

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Going to war

Recently, I have experienced some convergence of views with a friend, a noted journalist who is generally accounted a conservative. My friend is now having some second thoughts, embodied in a book. Well, you might as well know: his name is Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan now concedes that he was too trusting in accepting the Bush administration's case for the Iraq war. To his great credit, he is one of the leaders in the campaign to stop torture at the behest of our government.

I think that Andrew and I agree that we are not isolationists, and that our country should not sit idly by while an aggressor makes plans to attack us. But when is military action justified on our part? There seems to be no clear answer. Just-war theories only apply within a specific philosophical framework, neo-Thomism or some version of Natural Law. As these overarching philosophies do not command universal assent, and indeed have been waning for a considerable period, this approach does not seem to work. Besides, just-war criteria are usually invoked after the fact. What we need is a theory that will offer guidance before we act.

So far I have seen only versions of the medieval adage "Si non caste, tamen caute"--if not chastely, at least cautiously. This, at any rate, seems to be the advice proffered by Francis Fukuyama in his latest. We should go to war--but not too frequently. This doesn't seem to work at all. Should one engage in gambling or prostitution--or for that matter acts of charity--but "not too frequently"?

I suppose that we are necessarily in a period in which the proverbial dust is settling. Some dust--as the Iraq adventure looks to end up costing us nearly a trillion dollars, not to mention those killed, maimed and otherwise injured in an unnecessary and unwise war.

Still, going to war is in fact justified under some circumstances. I am one of those who believe that Pearl Harbor was to some extent the product of a manipulation on the part of Franklin Roosevelt. Nonetheless, it was imperative that we take on imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The Korean War also seems to have been a necessity. Beyond those examples, though, the matter becomes moot.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Conservative leanings

Who among us has not experienced a conservative twinge from time to time?

In high school in the fifties I felt lonely and isolated. I was suffering from what I later identified as “alienation,” a major concern of the period. The answer I thought lay in recovering some sort of organic community that would integrate me into it. Under various names, the organic community was a centerpiece of the arguments of Edmund Burke and his followers, who believed that the French Revolution, and the atomistic individualism it fostered, had destroyed the fragile networks that sustained that community. Or in the words of a German sociologist, Ferdinand Tönnies, the warm embrace of Gemeinschaft had yielded to cold steel of Gesellschaft.

In the way of youth-—always seeking guidance from a mentor who seems to have all the answers—-these longings found reinforcement in the work of the grand panjandrum of the time. Today it is hard to understand the ascendancy that T.S. Eliot exercised over the intellectual world of mid-century Anglo-America. Not only did Eliot’s modernist practice provide a model for many dubious experiments in poetry, his essays offered firm instruction as to what one must approve in earlier work. Forget about Milton and Shelley: John Donne’s the thing. So I duly plowed into Donne, but it was only after I found a book-length explication by a Professor Unger (I think) that I could say that I understood what I had been reading.

T.S. Eliot believed strongly in tradition, and this held true for society as well as poetry. Of course, I could not endorse Eliot’s royalism, which was meaningless in America, and I was uneasy about his anti-Semitic barbs, which respectable opinion tended to gloss over in those days. But I became convinced that there was some sort of fit between respect for culture (including art history, my eventual professional choice) and the quest for the good society.

I went to college and the Eliot wave subsided—-in me and in the country in general. The overall climate among thinking young people in those days was overwhelmingly liberal. Lionel Trilling held that liberalism was the universal horizon of thought in modern America. David Suskind, producer of the leading TV discussion program, said that he could not find articulate conservatives to appear on the show. This was a slight exaggeration, but the few who did exist, such as Peter Viereck and Russell Kirk, seemed more like zoo exhibits—-weird survivors from some previous stage of evolution--than any harbinger of the future. The media relentlessly pilloried Ayn Rand (and indeed subsequent revelations about her personal life have brought out some unsavory details).

In those days it was easy to fall under the sway of liberal triumphalism and intolerance. I remember catching my roommate reading The Wall Street Journal. It was as if he had curled up with Mein Kampf! In retrospect, detecting this intolerance in my former self helped me to identify it later in others-—especially among those who piously intone that liberalism is always the very soul of generosity, compassion, and tolerance. Such folk reserve special scorn for renegades. Woe betide anyone who strays from the liberal plantation.

Maintaining the faith was sometimes difficult. From time to time there were unexpected changes in the Party Line. These were just as sudden and absolute as those decreed by the Kremlin, but it was hard to determine their source. As a teenager I used to carry about a paperback by Marquis Childs called “Sweden: The Middle Way.” I took from this book a highly favorable view of public ownership--of housing, for example. Yet when I came to New York in the mid-fifties I met social activists who decried the housing projects, which I revered as symbols of commitment to social responsibility. I found this demotion incomprehensible. (Later Jane Jacobs would explain it all for me.) The most startling changes fell within the orbit of civil rights. At first desegregation and absolute equality were the unquestioned goals. But then the Party Line shifted. Segregation was OK if chosen by blacks themselves. And we had to become color conscious again in order to secure the goals of Affirmative Action. For a time Martin Luther King’s Gandhian nonviolence was the rule-—until the coming of Black Power and the Panthers.

During the same period it was becoming increasingly clear that many Great Society programs were not working. In some cases they were making things worse. The juggernaut of urban renewal blighted our center cities. And welfare had perverse incentives that broke families apart, while creating permanent bonds of dependency.

Under the Carter administration the forward march of liberalism came to a halt. I remember Donna Shalala (in her youth a second-order member of that administration) telling me that the president had asked her to devise a new social program, one that would require no money. There was the rub, for liberal programs always required throwing vast quantities of taxpayer money at problems. I forget the details of Shalala’s scheme, but whatever it was it failed. Unfunded liberal programs were a contradiction in terms.

Eventually the Democrats hunkered down to defending what they already had. In this way they came to be perceived as the captive of sectors of society—-labor unions, women, blacks, gays and lesbians (even though all these groups had plenty of legitimate complaints about the way the Great White Father was treating them). Paradoxically, the Democrats now seemed to be the conservatives, while the Reagan Republicans were the innovators.

During the summer of 1973, while recovering from a serious illness, I had the pleasure of staying in a friend’s apartment in San Francisco while she was away in Europe. Her shelves were crammed with libertarian literature! I dipped into these forbidden volumes with all the guilty pleasure of a Southern Baptist discovering pornography. As Dante would say, I read no more on that trip, but after I got home I asked Lili for a recommended list. Thus encouraged, I bought and studied many libertarian classics and manifestos. The ideal of limited government seemed in keeping with the approach followed by the Founders of this nation (all, that is, except for Alexander Hamilton, a portent of things to come). It was easy for me to sign on to the social aspects—getting government out of the bedroom and ending the insane war on drugs. Then too, libertarians rightly seemed to look askance at the foreign adventurism that led us to interfere, often by force, in the affairs of other nations. (I note parenthetically that libertarian opposition to the current Iraq war was initially not very vigorous.)

As someone who had been vaccinated by Marquis Childs, at first I felt queasy about privatization. Subsequent experience has shown that it can work, especially in Third World countries hobbled by corruption and overregulation. Still, I cannot be an orthodox libertarian, as I do not favor privatizing parks and highways, nor do I think that resort to the courts, after the damage has been done, is the answer to the ravages of industrial pollution. And we simply must have national health care, if only because its absence is completing the devastation of our major industries, which must compete with foreign companies that do not have to provide this assistance.

These caveats aside, though, libertarianism provided a general standard which one could accept or reject as far as it applied to each individual item. This principled approach is sadly lacking in standard-issue liberalism. Rudderless opportunism is the reason for the sudden changes of front in the areas of housing and civil rights I noted above.

Try this culinary comparison. Liberalism offers a changing menu, and why it changes no one is quite sure. An item strongly recommended one day will disappear the next. The libertarian menu is lean, but consistent.

You are supposed to stick to the menu, but I don’t. When all is said and done I am only a “jack libertarian,” because I do not go along with everything. But the encounter has made me think on these matters on a case by case basis, instead of just relying on a few shibboleths, as the stereotype that business people are always heartless, greedy bastards, while members of ethnic minorities are always noble, suffering victims. (In my youth a “jack Mormon,” was one who drank coffee and alcohol.)

In principle libertarianism is equidistant from both liberalism and conservatism. And yet the approach seems to consort more easily with conservative views. Only in dipping into the new tome American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (ISI Books, 2006) did I come to understand the nature of this link. It is the doctrine of fusion, as advocated by the later Frank Meyer. As the Editors remark in the Introduction: “Frank Meyer’s well known ‘fusionism’ served for decades as a kind of justification for conservatism as a political coalition. Through ‘fusionism,’ Meyer and those who followed him argued that the great goals of life are freedom and virtue, and that in order for virtue, the special concern of traditionalists, to be authentic, it must be attained in a context of maximal individual freedom, the special concern of libertarians. In turn, argued Meyer, freedom may only claim our moral allegiance insofar as its ultimate purpose is to allow men and women to attain virtue. Thought of in this way, libertarians and traditionalists could be understood to pursue much the same practical ends for human beings.”

This analysis assumes two parties, traditionalists and libertarians, who enjoy a complementary relationship. However, as another article points out, “[t]he Right now includes not only traditionalists and libertarians, but also neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, ‘nativists,’ antiabortionists, and the religious right, among other groups. It is unlikely that any future philosophical alliance will be as successful as the earlier fusionist movement in reconciling the differences between these groups.” In short, there are now too many guests sitting at the table.

The Democrats have their own problems. For some time they have been viewed as having simply hunkered down into a defensive posture, ostensibly acting at the bidding of their constituent client groups, but betraying them at will—as in the support for NAFTA, which labor unions fought. In addition, differences over the Iraq war are tearing the Democrats apart.

Currently the focal point of that dispute is the appalling Joseph Lieberman. He has given new meaning to the old adolescent term “kissie.” Unlike another Senatorial hawk, John McCain, he hasn’t even ventured to criticize Rumsfeld’s blatant mismanagement of the war. In his current thrashings and vituperation, the Senator from Connecticutt seems only to confirm a sad truth about most politicians—-that they will do anything to retain power.

The remedy is another libertarian prescription, limited government. If only it could be--for that aspiration is well-nigh utopian these days.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Vern Bullough, 1928-2006

On June 21 the distinguished historian of sex Vern L. Bullough died in Los Angeles after a short illness. The importance of this milestone has gone generally unnoticed in the mainstream media. In fact Bullough is the only American scholar of sex who may be fittingly spoken of in the same sentence as Alfred C. Kinsey. Both men were driven by a sense of urgency. In part this commitment reflected personal traits of ambition, perhaps even of vanity. Both men were alert to the many pitfalls that must attend the forthright and thorough exploration of a subject only recently regarded as beyond the pale. Kinsey, the older man, bore these threats directly, Bullough in a more scattered, but still tangible form.

In fact the achievement of the two men was complementary. Kinsey, trained as a natural scientist, assembled an incomparable database of the sex lives of men and women. As backup he assembled a formidable library of printed texts at the University of Indiana, affording comparisons with other times and climes. In the end, however, his findings are valid only for men and women who came to maturity in America in the first half of the twentieth century. And not even for all of those, for the two Reports omit the material that Kinsey’s associates had gathered for African-Americans. Even extending this perspective a century earlier, as Kinsey’s disciple C. A. Tripp attempted in his book on Abraham Lincoln, turned out to be a hazardous undertaking.

Trained as a medievalist, Bullough was always attentive to variations in sexual behavior as conditioned by historical situations and by culture in the broad sense. Thus a pattern that might be true of Baghdad in the tenth century, would not be true of the historic Chinese capital of Xi’an in the same period—-nor would it probably be true of Baghdad in the nineteenth or twentieth century.

Vern published at least fifty books, some in collaboration with his wife Bonnie, a scholar in her own right. Bullough’s masterpiece Sexual Variance in Society and History (1976) sets out many of these variables, showing a remarkable surefootedness in dealing with the several historical eras. The disparate materials are interpreted in terms of a basic dichotomy between sex positive and sex negative societies. Medieval Islam ranks as sex positive, while Christian Europe at the same time was sex negative. This contrast, while useful as an organizing principle, may be overdrawn.

The concept of sex negativity was in fact highly relevant to the American society in which Vern Bullough had grown up. He resolved to fight this narrowness with the weapon he wielded best: knowledge. As far as I could detect from knowing him over the years Vern Bullough (unlike Kinsey) had no personal homosexual component. Once after a stay at a gay archive in which the employees had the reputation of being aggressive in their sexual solicitations, he lamented that he had never been propositioned. Not that he would have accepted, but he thought that it would be nice to be asked. This lack (if that is what it is) only seemed to spur him further in detailed and objective efforts to understand same-sex love.

For many years Vern Bullough was an active member of the American Civil Liberties Union. To his sorrow the ACLU refused to take up homosexual cases, regarding us as simple criminals. In the early 1960, together with several lawyers, Vern pressured the California chapters to change their policies. They did this, and their approach became the national policy of the organization.

I am grateful to Vern for his ongoing support. This help became particularly salient some years ago, when I was forced to abandon work on a project to record the lives of the gay and lesbian pioneers who were active before 1969. Vern took the project over and completed it splendidly in 2002 as Before Stonewall (Harrington Park Press).