Monday, October 30, 2006

Up from Communism

In his second major work, The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville held that in undertaking their Revolution the French had not changed as much as they thought they had. The pre-Revolutionary decades anticipated what was to come after, while the years following 1789 were often eerily reminiscent of what had preceded the great upheaval. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Well, perhaps not so completely as the adage suggests, for there were differences as well.

In the life of individuals continuity tends to prevail also. Take the realm of religion. Many adherents have left the strict evangelical churches in which they have been brought up. But the early conditioning persists, so that backsliding is always possible. I understand that there are several support groups for ex-evangelicals who might be tempted to go back to their earlier status.

As far as I know, there are no such support groups for those who have abandoned Communism. They are not at risk of reversion. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kulakowski has astringently remarked: “That skull will never smile again.”

Maybe not, but ex-Communists retain more of their earlier formation than they are willing to admit.

Here I must go into confessional mode. Sometimes, of late, I speak of having been reared in a “far-Left sect.” That sect, I must avow was the Communist Party USA. Like many American intellectuals in the Depression years of the 1930s, my stepfather had become a convinced Marxist who joined the Party. He converted my mother after their marriage in 1939 and, willy-nilly, I was brought up in that faith—as that was what it was. In former years my father had read some of the foundational texts of Marx and Engels, yet I never remember seeing any in our home. My mother used to speak of reading them, but as far as I know she never did. We relied upon the vulgate dished out by the People’s Daily World, a Stalinist paper through and through.

At the age of sixteen I became disillusioned by the Party line, the occasion being Tito’s break with Stalin. I wrote a long letter to the editors of the People’s Daily World asking them to explain this schism. They never replied. No, as one friend claimed, I did not become a Titoist then either. With the aid of Arthur Koestler and George Orwell I deprogrammed myself, becoming an ex-Communist.

During the 1970s I was active in several movements for social change as they were swept by a wave of neo-Marxism. Such latter-day European thinkers as Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, and Perry Anderson were the guiding lights of this trend. I dutifully read these writers, and also some of the Marxist classics. This reading failed to bring me back into the fold. In fact it had the opposite effect. When Marxism essentially disappeared following the collapse of the Soviet Union. I could only cheer. Curiously, some die-hards thought the fall of the USSR was a good thing, as it would allow “genuine Marxism” to reappear, untrammeled by the “distortions” of the Soviet Experiment. Alas, Soviet Marxism was genuine Marxism.

I have repeatedly had the experience of finding myself disdained, even shunned when I mention my Communist past. I suppose that those who are “progressive” expect that I should remain true to the Enlightenment heritage—shared by both Marxists and democratic socialists—so as to favor big government, multiculturalism, and speech codes in the name of civility. These people accepted that I could be an apostate, but I was only to disavow the authoritarian side of the progressive heritage.

Both Communists and left-leaning liberals make much of their disagreements, which can be quite bitter. I remember in my distant days as a true believer how scornful some Communists were of Franklin Roosevelt who, in their view, had used legerdemain and chicanery to save a capitalist system that would otherwise have been doomed. Still there remain major commonalties, and one is bound to ask whether the conflict between the authoritarian socialists and the democratic socialists is not a version of the narcissism of minor differences.

So progressives are annoyed at me because I went too far in their view. By the same token my avowals of being an ex-Communist who saw the light do not get much applause from the conservative side, even though some of their guiding lights in the neo-conservative camp had been Trotskyists in their youth.

One of my conservative friends said that my youthful Communism was a “deep moral stain.” I replied that I’d always wanted one of those, but I didn’t think that being a teenage Commie qualified me.

Perhaps my conservative friend had a point, though, and the heritage of those early years is still with me. To Ignatius of Loyola is sometimes attributed the following precept. “Give me a child until the age of seven; then you may do with him what you will.” I think that the imprinting takes more than seven years. The mid-teens is a more likely cutoff date. That though was when I defected.

I like to think that those early years (and my subsequent reimmersion in the seventies) were not all wasted, and that I may have retained some useful lessons from the experiences.

One aspect has to do with international affairs, where I have worked out a world-systems approach. Most pay little attention to foreign affairs. Those who do are selective. Once Vietnam called for urgent attention. Now it is the Middle East and Islam. I have had a long interest in China; and more recently in Latin America. The focus is not just the importance of these major regions, but the ways in which they interact with others.

Then there is the lesson of looking for underlying economic motives when high-minded reasons are proffered. This must be done selectively and critically. We were not in Vietnam because of the oil, as some leftists claimed. But sometimes we are. Two weeks ago Bush finally admitted that one reason we are in Iraq because of the oil. The idea of spreading Democracy in that part of the world was always window dressing. And now there is no more talk of it. A stable, if authoritarian regime in Iraq is all that is hoped for. Even that goal is unrealistic—though that’s another story.

Then there is the principle, well expressed in another context by Frank Lloyd Wright, of “truth against the world.” To be a Communist was to stand up against the group think dispensed by the capitalist press and the pundits in Washington. Such skepticism is warranted for non-Stalinist reasons. And it applies across the board. For a decade a belonged to a group that was totally smitten by the cause of gay marriage. It would lead almost to nirvana. While I favor gay marriage, I was glad that I stood up against the extravagant claims. Now they are being withdrawn. As the messenger with unpleasant news, I get no credit for my foresight. It figures.

Some other aspects of the heritage were less benign. As the Cold War became more intense and my stepfather feared losing his job with the US Postal Service, my parents instructed me to secrecy about our views. I was a closet Communist. Later on, this tendency reinforced my being a closeted gay. I escaped from that benighted status, but only in my thirties.

Somewhat paradoxically, along with concealment went contentiousness. It might not have been wise to wrangle with my teachers and other authority figures, but one could always participate in the disputes among the various little leftist sects. Here Marxism had left a rich but baneful heritage of invective. Even in the fifties one had to try to thwart the “Kautskyist renegades” and the “Trotskyist wreckers.” Comrade Tito, of course, had turned into a social fascist.

Today I oppose the term Islamofascist because I remember how tendentiously the accusation of fascism was hurled in those days.

In arguing vigorously with other people’s ideas, I can be psychologically obtuse, for I fail to recognize that they may take my critique personally. I think that I am talking solely about some general principle, but they understand the matter in ad hominem terms. Recently, on another site I equated psychoanalysis with quackery. One rather decent chap (who happens to be a practicing clinician in that field) took it personally. Who can blame him?

Perhaps these last failings are more personal traits than the residue of ideology. At this stage of life the best I can do is to attenuate them, as they are unlikely to disappear completely.

I have emphasized the authoritarianism as the main disadvantage of orthodox Marxism. There are other temptations. One is that form of scientism that seeks to apply laws to history. In difference between poor countries and rich countries today Marxists speak of the "law of separate and combined development." Alas, there is no such law and the formula just restates what we already know without offering any real explanation of the condition. A friend who is also an ex-Marxist says that he is unwilling to give up the dialectic. I have concluded that this Hegelian relict is simply another way of saying that some matters are complex.

If we are astute we learn to harvest something from all major experiences along life’s way. Yet the content of the harvest varies.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Coast of Utopia

The other night I attended one of the preview performances of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia: Voyage” in its New York production. In fact this is the first installment of a huge three-part sequence. It is about six men who become friends in the Russia of the 1830s. Appropriately, the production at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center is lavish, with a revolving stage, backlighted curtains, and a cast of almost 100. In performance the play turns out to be a kind of duel between Ethan Hawke, who plays Michael Bakunin, and Billy Crudup, who impersonates Vissarion Belinsky. Both actors are matinee idols of a sort. Mr. Hawke is monotonously strident, so the palm goes to Mr. Crudup, who is engaging in a puppy-dog way, just this side of cuteness.

The six men are fascinated by the latest developments in German philosophy, going from Kant to Schelling and Fichte, and ending up with G.W.F. Hegel. There are long, somewhat didactic speeches attempting to put these philosophical developments into a nutshell and to show how they interact with the temperaments and personal lives of the young men. Towards the end, Bakunin achieves his aim-—to go to Berlin to study philosophy.

I gather that the succeeding two parts revolve mainly around Alexander Herzen, a rara avis in Russian intellectual life, as he was neither a reactionary nor a revolutionary but a democrat. Stoppard follows Isaiah Berlin’s interpretation, and for Berlin Herzen was a personal hero. Like Bakunin, Herzen lived in exile in the West, making his appearance in “tamizdat,” periodicals and broadsides that were smuggled back into Russia to evade the censorship. These exiles mounted a process of seeking political and social change from the outside. More recently their efforts have been emulated, with varying success by Cuban, Chilean, and Iranian exiles—together with many others.

For me, however, Bakunis is the more interesting figure. Abandoning his aim of becoming a professor of philosophy he threw himself into the revolutionary struggles that convulsed Europe in the middle decades of the 19th century.

Bakunin’s political orientation emerged when he went with the Russian army to suppress the Polish uprising. His revulsion at this enterprise led to his commitment to achieve the emancipation of the captive Slavic nations, a goal that has only been finally achieved with the fall of the Soviet Union. In this way he placed his ideals above his country. In fact, Bakunin was truly a citizen of cosmopolis, the world city.

After many wrangles with his father, Bakunin went to Berlin in 1840. His stated plan at the time was still to become a university professor (a “priest of truth,” as he and his friends imagined it), but he soon joined radical students of the so-called “Hegelian Left.”

In his 1842 essay “Reaction in Germany,” he argued (in a Hegelian mode) in favor of the revolutionary role of negation. “Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternally creative source of life. The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.” Had he known something of Hinduism, Bakunin might have been a devotee of the goddess Kali.

After three semesters in Berlin Bakunin went to Dresden where he became friends with Arnold Ruge. He abandoned his interest in an academic career, devoting more and more of his time to promoting revolution. The Russian government, taking note of his radicalism, ordered him to return to Russia. On his refusal his property was confiscated. Instead he went with the German poet Georg Herwegh to Zurich.

During his six month stay in the Swiss city, he became closely associated with German communist Wilhelm Weitling. Until 1848 he remained on friendly terms with the German communists. He moved to Geneva in western Switzerland shortly before Weitling's arrest. Then he went to Brussels, where he met many leading Polish nationalists, such as Joachim Lelewel. Yet he clashed with them over their demand for a historic Poland based on the borders of 1776 as he defended the right of autonomy for the non-Polish peoples in these territories.

In 1844 Bakunin went to Paris, then a kind of clearing house for European radicalism. He established contacts with Karl Marx and the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who greatly impressed him and with whom he formed a personal bond.

As the revolutionary movement of 1848 broke out, Bakunin was ecstatic, despite his disappointment that little was happening in Russia. He left for Germany, traveling through Baden to Frankfurt and other German cities. In Prague he participated in the First Pan-Slavic Congress-—which unfortunately was a failure. Nonetheless, Bakunin published his “Appeal to the Slavs” in the fall of 1848, in which he urged that Slav revolutionaries unite with Hungarian, Italian, and German revolutionaries to overthrow the three major European autocracies, the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Kingdom of Prussia.

Bakunin played a leading role in the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849, helping to organize the defense of the barricades against Prussian troops with the composer Richard Wagner. He was captured in Chemnitz and held for thirteen months before being condemned to death by the government of Saxony. As the governments of Russia and Austria were also after him, his sentence was commuted to life. In June 1850 he was handed over to the Austrian authorities. Eleven months later he received a further death sentence, but this too was commuted to life imprisonment. Finally, in May 1851, Bakunin was relinquished to the Russian authorities.

Bakunin was taken to the notorious Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. At the beginning of his captivity, Count Orlov, an emissary of the Tsar, visited Bakunin and told him that the Tsar requested a written confession hoping that the confession would place Bakunin spiritually as well as physically in the power of the Russian state. Since all his acts were known, he had no secrets to reveal, and so he decided to write to the Tsar. “You want my confession; but you must know that a penitent sinner is not obliged to implicate or reveal the misdeeds of others. I have only the honor and the conscience that I have never betrayed anyone who has confided in me, and this is why I will not give you any names.”

After three years in the underground dungeons of the notorious Fortress of St Peter and St Paul, he spent another four years in the castle of Schlüsselburg. Because of the appalling diet, he experienced scurvy and all his teeth fell out. After the death of Nicholas I, the new tsar Alexander II personally struck his name off the amnesty list. However in February 1857 his mother's pleas to the Tsar finally succeeded and he was allowed to go into permanent exile in the western Siberian city of Tomsk.

Within a year of arriving in Tomsk, Bakunin married Antonia Kwiatkowska, the daughter of a Polish merchant. In August of 1858 Bakunin received a visit from his second cousin, General Count Nikolai Muravyov-Amursky, who had been Governor of Eastern Siberia for ten years. Muravyov helped Bakunin obtain a job in the Amur Development Agency which enabled him to move with his wife to Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia.

Bakunin joined a circle that advanced a separatist proposal for a United States of Siberia, independent of Russia and federated into a new United States of Siberia and America (Alaska), following the example of the United States of America.

On June 5, 1861, Bakunin left Irkutsk under cover of company business. In the port of Olga, Bakunin managed to persuade the American captain of the SS Vickery to take him on board. By August 6 he had reached Hakodate in the Japanese island of Hokkaido and was soon in Yokohama. In Japan Bakunin met by chance Wilhelm Heine, one of his comrades-in arms from Dresden. Despite these experiences in Japan, Bakunin remained resolutely Eurocentric.

He left Japan on the SS Carrington, arriving in San Francisco on October 15. By way of Panama he traveled to London, where he immediately went to see Herzen.

Back in Europe, Bakunin immersed himself in the revolutionary movement. In 1863 he joined a revolutionary expedition to aid a Polish insurrection against the Czar, but the revolt failed and Bakunin ended up in Sweden. In 1864 he traveled to Italy, where he first began to develop his anarchist ideas. He conceived the plan of forming a secret organization of revolutionaries to carry on propaganda work and prepare for direct action. He recruited Italians, Frenchmen, Scandinavians, and Slavs into the International Brotherhood, also called the Alliance of Revolutionary Socialists.

In 1868 Bakunin joined the Geneva section of the First International, in which he remained very active until he was expelled from the International by Karl Marx and his followers at the Hague Congress in 1872. Although Bakunin accepted Marx’s class analysis and economic theories regarding capitalism, acknowledging “Marx’s genius,” he thought Marx was arrogant, and that his methods would compromise the social revolution. More importantly, Bakunin criticized “authoritarian socialism” (Marxism) and the concept of dictatorship of the proletariat which he adamantly rejected. “If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Czar himself.”

In 1870 Bakunin led a failed uprising in Lyon on the principles later exemplified by the Paris Commune, calling for a general uprising in response to the collapse of the French government during the Franco-Prussian War, seeking to transform an imperialist conflict into social revolution.

Bakunin retired to Lugano in 1873 and died in Bern on June 13, 1876.

Bakunin’s political beliefs rejected governing systems in every name and shape, from the idea of God downwards, and every form of external authority, whether emanating from the will of a sovereign or from universal suffrage. In a nutshell Bakunin's political beliefs advanced several interrelated concepts: (1) liberty; (2) socialism; (3) federalism; (4) anti-theism; and (5) materialism. He also developed a prescient critique of Marxism, predicting that if the Marxists were successful in seizing power, they would create a party dictatorship "all the more dangerous because it appears as a sham expression of the people's will."

The above account, which makes no claim to originality, shows that Bakunin’s colorful life—completely devoted to his cause—and his eloquent writings entitle him to a whole play by itself. I confess that I have always admired Bakunin.

Through his courageous example and insightful writings Michael Bakunin left an invaluable legacy for both anarchism and libertarianism.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Back to the past

My parents raised me in a far-left sect. At the age of sixteen, with the aid of books by George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, I broke free. These experiences inoculated from the utopian enthusiasms of the sixties.

More sensible than the far leftists and the utopians were the progressive Democrats (of non-Southern variety). They had two Big Ideas. The first was a seemingly endless series of “programs” of the Great Society type, intended to provide permanent fixes for out social problems. The jibe that these undertakings were merely throwing dollars at problems seemed all too apt. Unfortunately, the progressives failed to solve the one social problem where an adequate program was essential, national health care. For their part the conservatives, who blocked our achieving something that every other advanced industrial country enjoys as a matter of course, are now hoist.with their own petard. Out industries can’t compete with their foreign counterparts, because our team is burdened with this albatross—one that the general public assumes elsewhere.

The other Big Idea of the progressives was multiculturalism. All too often this was patronizing, self-congratulatory, and superficial. It did serve to dissolve the bonds of national unity, so painfully developed over the decades. “Ex uno plures” out of one many, became our new national motto. Even now, though, the progressives--in alliance with the Wall Street Journal and its perpetual allegiance to corporate welfare—favor looking the other way when it comes to our southern border. Anything that dilutes whiteness, that “cancer of the human race” as Susan Sontag once termed it, is good.

Thanks to the corruption, profligate spending, and spectacular bungling of the Iraq War, we are poised to throw the bums out. But will this make a difference? Let me quote from that notorious Republican apologist (sic), Frank Rich. “The tough question is not whether the Democrats can win, but what will happen if they do win. The party’s message in this campaign has offered no vision beyond bashing Mr. Bush and pledging to revisit the scandals and the disastrous legislation that went down on his watch.” Rich goes on to speak of the Democrats’ embrace of “golden oldies—raising the minimum wage, enacting lobbying reform, cutting Medicare costs, etc.”

Currently there are at least four Bush-bashing plays on offer in Manhattan, each more sophomoric than the next. I am bracing myself for the inevitable. In office the Democrats will fail. Guided by the likes of Amy Goodman and Michael Moore the progressives will retreat to their redoubts, the People’s Republics of Berkeley, Santa Monica, Madison, and-—of course-—Manhattan where I live. The dinner parties grind on and on, always with the same smug platitudes. “Bush bad, we good” is but one of the mantras that they chant, the repetition dispensing with the need for any real thinking. They still believe that the farcical, moribund United Nations is the answer to world problems. The rest of the country, which does not belong to the Arugula Nation, isn't listening. But our bien pensants in Berkeley and Manhattan don't care; they create their own reality.

Since I retired a year and a half ago I have been on my way to becoming a recluse. Well, I’d better get used to it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Getting medieval

New York City is currently enjoying a series of events celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the International Center of Medieval Art (ICMA), housed at The Cloisters. A two-day symposium, packed with new ideas and approaches, has just concluded at The Metropolitan Museum. The related exhibition, “Set In Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture,” continues until February 19, 2007. If you are coming to New York this time of year, be sure not to catch it. (At the same time, the Frick Collection nearby is hosting a small show of Cimabue, a rarely-seen Italian medieval artist.)

This institutional anniversary coincides with the beginning of my graduate work at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University. There I concentrated on medieval art, writing my doctoral dissertation on a Belgian illuminated manuscript of the eleventh century. Since that time “medievalist” has been my habitual academic moniker-—even though my allegiance has sometimes wavered. Like many others I have experienced brownout from time to time. A generation ago I turned away from the whole field of art history to become one of the founders, or so I thought, of gay studies. I prefer this term to “gender studies” and the horrendous “queer theory.” This discord gives some idea of why my contributions, it is fair to say, have not received full recognition. I am confident that in time this neglect will be corrected. (See my related site,

Be that as it may, what did the choice of medieval art as my field entail? Before turning to that let me clear away some purported obstacles. Since the era of vilification that culminated in the 18th-century Enlightenment, the Middle Ages have been viewed—-and still are in some quarters-—as coextensive with the “Dark Ages.” In this denigrating perspective the era had the unique distinction of being a time of unrelieved tyranny, barbarism, and horror. In this din of iniquity, no culture of any sort, including art, could emerge. For that one must await the glorious dawn of the Renaissance. Viewed in comparative terms, the first claim is flatly ridiculous. As the historian Niall Ferguson and others have rightly observed, the twentieth century, the time of Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, has surpassed all previous centuries in terms of the horror that has been inflicted on countless millions of human beings. Nor does the purported consequence hold up, for the allegation that the era had “no culture” is easily refuted by visiting the cathedrals and the various museums of medieval art, and by reading the troubadours. Arthurian legends, Dante, and Chaucer.

Another allegation has not been, for me, so easily set aside. It was the Middle Ages, with considerable help from the Bible, that institutionalized homophobia. In this country we only got rid of the sodomy laws at the beginning of the present century, thanks to the Lawrence decision of the Supreme Court. I am aware, of course, of the efforts of John Boswell to deny that the medieval centuries (or most of them) were antihomosexual. However, as I have shown in a critique written with two colleagues, now available on the Internet, Boswell was mistaken.

In retrospect I think that the stops and starts of my commitment to the Middle Ages reflect my awareness of this gross flaw in its make-up. Perhaps that is as it should be, for one should not seek to ignore this kind of inhumanity. To be sure, heretics and Jews suffered grievously under medieval Christian persecution, but the attitude to homosexuality is the aspect that has stuck most in my craw. The Roman Catholic Church has made up with the Jews, or at least made an attempt. In the Christian world heretics are no longer persecuted. But, according to the present pope (who probably knows more about the matter than he is letting on) same-sex behavior is “intrinsically disordered.”

Let me turn now to some reasons for the attraction to the Middle Ages.

The first is curiosity. The Middle Ages has been compared to a remote country that it might be stimulating to visit. We go to it because it’s there. Unlike most others I had a particularly large blind spot. My parents raised me as an atheist, leaving me with an abiding interest in learning what religion is all about. (No, I don’t think I got into the field to spite my parents.)

If the Middle Ages appeal because they are exotic, paradoxically they also attract because they are, in very significant ways, the start of “us.” The Middle Ages represent the beginning of the West. To be sure, one can start even earlier, with Greece and Rome, but there is a sense in which the Middle Ages, with its parliaments, common law, rhymed verse, and musical polyphony is unique. Even if we begin earlier, we can’t just hit the fast forward button when we reach late antiquity, zooming on to the glorious Renaissance. The latter era, by the way, is no longer so glorious, as some historians have banned the term, preferring “early modern period.” Since I am among other things I am an amateur Sinologist, I have no wish to praise Western civilization exclusively. I am not a Westocentrist (a neologism I learned only yesterday). But we cannot deny who we are.

One of the appeals of studying medieval art is that one can’t just limit oneself to the art. Meaningful art history in this era involves study of theology and philosophy, of political theory and poetry (without getting into sigillography, paleography, and other arcane disciplines). This need to adopt a broad, comparative approach is something that other fields of art history are just catching on to. Medieval art has always had it.

Then there is that ineffable factor I call “romance,” for want of a better term. We see this appeal in popular tournaments and reenactments in various places. More ambitiously, some trudge along the Pilgrimage Road all the way to Compostela in Spain to reenact that aspect of medieval life. There is also an armchair dimension, as reading offers many pleasures. The troubadour lyrics stand at the origin of modern lyric poetry, while the Arthurian romances, almost unbelievably copious in their variety, deal with archetypal themes of quest, love, loyalty, and betrayal. Among the Germanic texts, the Nibelungenlied is intensely gripping from beginning to end.

Finally, there is the affinity with modern art. This connection was forged during the nineteenth-century Gothic revival, when theorists and artists began to turn away from the naturalism of the Renaissance tradition, in favor of flatness, pure color, and geometrical design. Even when not directly influenced by medieval sources, as with Paul Gauguin and the German Expressionists, this affinity is present. To be sure, postmodernism shows less connection with medieval art, but the achievements of Van Gogh, Picasso, and Matisse will always have a place in our hearts. It is hard to appreciate this art, while at the same time rejecting parallel work from medieval times. It is true that some, like the modernist Robert Rosenblum, have contrived to do so, but that is because (I think) they have not given medieval art a proper chance. I did and do—-despite my more than occasional infidelity.

Monday, October 16, 2006

"The Other"

Currently a colleague at the City University of New York is giving a course on Islamic architecture in Europe. The premise of the course is that Islam is not (as commonly assumed) The Other. Presumably the reference is to one of the senses of “other” recognized by Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “one considered by members of a dominant group as alien, exotic, threatening, or inferior (as because of different racial sexual, or cultural characteristics.”

The professor giving the course is a good scholar and a truly kind and thoughtful person. I will not cite her name here, as I am concerned with a general tendency, and not critiquing a particular individual. Nonetheless, in view of the tensions that have emerged in the last few years in the Islamic diaspora in Western Europe, efforts to erase this form of perceived otherness may be out of date. They seem idealistic, even Pollyannaish. There may have been a time when RodneyKingism (“can’t we all just get along?”) might have worked, but we seem way past that point now.

Of course scholars in the field cultivated by my colleague can point to several significant factors that indicate continuity rather than division. Both Islamic civilization and Christian civilization arose out of late-Roman society. That was a Mediterranean society, and so were, in the first instance, its two successors. Both honor such figures as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Both are “religions of the book.” Still, unless some healing occurs that we cannot now envision, we are on our way to a full Clash of Civilizations. This is something that hardly anyone wants, but such disasters have occurred in history before.

Let us look a little more closely at that fashionable expression “the Other.” It seems un-English, for one wants to ask “the other what?” That is to say, the word “other” is an adjective, and is normally followed by a noun: other people, other considerations, and so forth.

In fact the origin of the concept seems to be French. It stems specifically from the thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre in the ‘forties and ‘fifties. The existentialist thinker oscillated between two versions. The first commendably held that we must confront and acknowledge our perception of otherness so as to overcome stereotypes and injustice. More pessimistically, though, Sartre sometimes suggested that perception of otherhood is an enduring, and perhaps inescapable part of the process of group-identity formation. “We” define ourselves as distinct from “them.”

Many years before, Arthur Rimbaud exploded the whole concept with his gnomic remark “je est un autre,” by which he meant to say, I think, that there are lodged even within ourselves alien elements, things that we shudder to contemplate. Indeed, as Buddhists sometimes assert, perhaps there is no such thing as the self, but only a loosely formed congeries of island-like elements that are always strange and never add up into a coherent whole. Be that as it may, such alternative views have gained no real leverage in our discourse. Most of those who accept the idea of the Other perceive it as the dialectical opponent of the observing subject. It is “out there.”

By a curious irony the twin of the concept of the Other is the idea of Diversity. If otherness involves stigmatizing and belittling others, then diversity is a healthy recognition of difference—or so we are told. At root, though, these two concepts come down to the same idea. Our common humanity is less important than our differences.

Returning to Islam, a very influential book about Western stereotypes of the Islamic world has been the late Edward Said’s Orientalism, first published almost thirty years ago. The many errors made by Said have now been corrected in a splendid book by Robert Irwin, For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (Penguin, 2006). Yet even Irwin regards Islamic culture as something out there, not to be assimilated to our own norms.

It seems that we may expel the concept of the Other--with a pitchfork if necessary--but it keeps coming back.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Dubious psychiatry

When it comes to disorders affecting human physiology we all understand what a clinical entity is. It can be a disorder adhering to Koch's criteria, such as tuberculosis, where the agent is a bacillus, or it can be a response to the environment, as in hyperthemia.

Psychiatry has often claimed to be a medical discipline, and indeed psychiatrists (unlike psychologists) are usually MDs. However, we need to look critically at their tranfer of medical concepts to their discipline.

Until 1973 the American Psychiatric Association regarded homosexuality as a disorder. Then, after a vote was taken, the category was replaced--or rather modified, since for a time "ego-dystonic homosexuality" continued to rank as a disorder. Yet who ever heard of taking a vote to decide whether tuberculosis or cancer are disorders? Needless to say, I am glad that the denigration of same-sex behavior was modified, and later eliminated. Yet the way in which is was done seems strange. The fact that changes can be made so cavalierly, as it were, ought to elicit suspicion about the claims of the psychiatric establishment.

The results of this change and others were incorporated in the official APA volume, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). It was widely recognized that this compilation left a good deal to be desired, and a further revision was undertaken. Dr. Robert Spitzer labored intensely for seven years to make the work more comprehensive and precise. The result is known as DSM-IV (sometimes accompanied with other sufficxes to indicate the particular state).

Despite this effort many observers note that the DSM definitions are still lacking in transparency. That is to say, a patient who may be diagnosed by one clinician as bipolar may not be so regarded by another. As a rule such problems do not occur with disorders that are physiologically sited.

My learned friend on the Adriatic has said that ethnic self-hatred is a clinical entity. As I have shown, however, the category was invented by Theodor Lessing in 1930 and has since undergone various vicissitudes. It will not do simply to label ethnic self-hatred and gay self-hatred clinical entities without further discussion. By whose definition and under what criteria?

I do not doubt that there are some African Americans, for example, who suffer from a crippling sense of racial inadequacy. But is "self-hatred" the best way to characterize this condition? When one gets right down to it, how can one hate oneself in any fundamental fundamental sense? If one does, how can one stop? Yes, I am acquainted with the Freudian concept that depression is internalized aggression, and other such notions. But not one distinctively Freudian idea has survived the powerful acids of criticism that have been applied in the last few decades.

May I suggest that another way of addressing the matter of group low esteem in individuals who have this problem is the idea of false consciousness. In this concept, which arose in Marxist circles in the 1920s, the individual is seen as having come to entertain a distorted idea of his or her actual social situation owing to having assimilated ideas diffused by the power structure. These ideas have precisely the function of disabling those subaltern individuals who have accepted them. The remedy is to encourage the victim to acquire a more adequate understanding of his or her actual situation, setting aside the false beliefs that serve the interests of an alien authority, disempowering those who have been suborned to adopt them.

In the gay-liberation circles of the 1970s we formed many consciousness-raising groups. They functioned effectively, I believe, in throwing light on these disabling mechanisms--mechanisms that had been implanted in us in one way or another by the host society. We had not come, by some mysterious process to hate ourselves, but had been induced by various forms of propaganda and social cueing to embrace an inferior status. Through careful study the malign influence of such motifs can be exorcized. However, a diagnosis of self-hatred may persist, beyond hope of permanent cure. For if one has mysteriously fallen into such a state it may be that one can never get out of it. Or it may recur.

Self-hating gays?

Theodor Lessing was a distinguished German-Jewish philosopher of the Weimar era. A careful stylist, he was capable of making very cutting remarks. In a critique of the senile militarist Paul von Hindenburg, who became Germany's president, he said that some might be supporters of the general because it is "better to have a zero, than a Nero." However, as Lessing remarked, one can have a zero who turns into a Nero. He was very close to the mark, for it was Hindenburg who appointed Hitler chancelor. He was worse than Nero by far.

At any rate, for speaking his mind, Lessing was assassinated by a Nazi in Czechoslovakia in 1933. Three years before he had published one of his most important books, an analysis of the concept of Jewish self-hatred. His starting point was a very significant one. Otto Weininger was a precocious Viennese scholar who published a once-influential monograph called Sex and Character. Of Jewish origin, Weininger was both a misogynist and an anti-Semite. He killed himself in 1903 because he had detected substantial elements of the feminine in his makeup.

Since Lessing's time the concept has been extended to other ethnic groups and to gay and lesbian people. Shelby Steele and other African American conservatives are widely regarded as self-hating. In Steele's case, this accusation seems little more than an epithet, designed to shut him up. Since Steele issued his pioneering books his criticisms have been echoed by Bill Cosby and Juan Williams. Fair-minded observers now recognize that all three have made valid points about the need for African American self-examination. Had the critics forced Steele to shut up a chilling effect would have been created. Instead, by fostering such discussions we come closer, asymptotically, to the truth.

In a similar fashion some gay activists are tempted to declare gay conservatives like Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, and Dale Carpenter self-hating. Clearly the concept has become so semantically iridescent that it has become virtually useless. Like the allegation of "fascist," it serves to designate almost any position one doesn't like. A comment on this blog suggests that the criterion is "working against gay interests." Since most of us agree that there is no Gay Agenda it is uncertain what gay interests actually are.

A view that I definitely do not share is the idea that gay men are hopelessly promiscuous as we are and must be herded into marriage for our own good. Among others, Jonathan Rauch has maintained a version of this view. Some would say he is self-hating. Fiddlesticks. Jonathan is one of the sanest individuals I have ever encountered. He and I just have different views about what is good for gay men.

A truly remarkable document of how such claims can be divisive can be found at the site There one will find a list of almost 8000 individuals under the category of Self-Hating and/or Israel-Threatening List (commonly known as the Sh*t List). Among the names are Woody Allen, Noam Chomsky, and Amos Oz.

Currently the distinguished historian Tony Judt, who is Jewish and who heads the Remaque Institute at HYU, is being victimized by such allegations. Judt, a former kibbutznik, is being vilified for opinions that he has published in Israel with no repercussions. Professor Judt favors a binational solution and has been critical of the Israel lobby in the United States. In accordance with a suppression campaign, two venues were recently closed to him in New York City.

As two recent incidents at Columbia University have shown, Manhattan is scarcely the island of free speech that many claim. I doubt that it ever has been. But that is another story.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Gay conservatives at the crossroads

The Foley affair leads in many directions. In my previous posting I chose to focus on only a few of them.

Many find the attachment of some gay men and lesbians to the Republican Party-—and to conservatism in general-—anomalous and counterintuitive. On reflection there seem to me to be two sources of the Pink Elephant phenomenon.

1) The grass roots. Exit polling suggests that the Republicans can command somewhere between a quarter and a third of the gay-lesbian vote. This means that several million people are not voting “as they should.” Given the hiddenness of this cohort we can only speculate on the reasons. With some individuals family ties may be the deciding factor. That is the case with Mary Cheney, though she is scarcely typical. The attachment may also develop from experiences in adult life. The small business enterprises in which many gays are engaged engender a natural distrust of big government. These are the people shudder when someone appears with a clipboard, saying: “Hi, I’m with the government. I’m here to help.” Marxists often used to point out a principle they themselves rarely exemplified. That is, that lessons learned in daily life often trump the supposed certainties of theory. Speaking of the left, some of the gay conservatives are of the Tammy Bruce type--people who have been there, and have moved in the other direction.

2) Gay conservatism as theory. Practical politics suggests an ideal of balance: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. There are plenty of gays and lesbians in the Democratic Party to keep them honest-—or so we hope. Prudence suggests that some presence in the Republican Party would be useful. Then there is a broader consideration. We are citizens first and gays second, not the other way around. There are various ways of interpreting the national interest. For some a winning combination is limited government but a strong defense. The hope (since cruelly dissipated) was that the libertarian component would be a major element. In fact the writings of leading gay conservatives, such as Andrew Sullivan and Dale Carpenter, are informed by careful reading of such theorists as Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott, and Friedrich Hayek. It is tempting to regard gay conservatism as simply a mistake. Sometimes we are told that the gay conservatives are self-hating. These shallow responses are intellectually lazy. They will do nothing to pry the gaycons away from their allegiances.

Why are gays and lesbians drawn to public service, especially in Washington? The glass ceiling may help account for the place that these individuals end up. Running for office would risk exposing them. By being staffers they can enjoy a share of power by serving as éminences grises.

As to the Pink Elephants in general, probably they start out in category one, without much theory. Then they may read some books, follow Log Cabin, and so forth, thus developing a certain veneer of theory.

As I have shown the hopes of gay conservatives were not altogether irrational. Many rallied to their cause because theirs was a serious analysis. All the same, given the magnitude of the Republican betrayal of hopes, one should now expect massive defections. This should happen, but it may not. The answer probably lies in the motivation of the grass-roots types, who will remain loyal no matter what. Their stance curiously mirrors the stalwarts of the Christian Right, who are sticking with the Republicans no matter what.

In any event, the process of separating oneself from a deeply held political faith is typically long and arduous. One of the best accounts of this process of self-deprogramming comes from Arthur Koestler (1905-1983), the Hungarian Stalinist who became an anti-Communist. Koestler said that to travel from the first inkling that he must leave the Party to the final separation took seven years. One reason for the delay is that one’s friendship network consists mainly of fellow believers. To abandon the faith means to set forth on a lonely path, seeking new associates who may be suspicious because of one’s former allegiance. A recent example, close to home, is that of Mel White. For a good many years White, an evangelical and closeted gay man, served the interests of Jerry Falwell and Oliver North. Then he came out, and formed Soulforce, an organization dedicated to opposing the homophobia of the Christian right

A few years ago when gay liberals and leftists finally deigned to notice the existence of the gay conservatives they did not apply much brainpower to the endeavor. This intellectual deficit is evident in the exposé books of Richard Goldstein and Paul Robinson. Their claim that such individuals are self-hating simply does not hold up. Those I have met are fine human beings. In their view the gay-conservative project was worth trying. . For most, recovery from Pink Elephantism will not be speedy. Doctrinaire liberals chanting “I told you so” will not induce a rush to the exit doors. These individuals have no real understanding of how gay conservatives became conservative.

Still, when all is said and done the experiment has failed. What may have been worth trying in 1996 is not viable in 2006. It is time for all thinking gays and lesbians to get out of the Republican Party. However they cannot be ordered to do so. Real change comes from within.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Foley and the Pink Elephants

The Foley affair is about nothing-—and about everything.

First the nothing. Despite all the brouhaha it has not been demonstrated that Ex-Rep. Foley violated any laws. Sex with 16-year olds is legal in the District of Columbia. But did Foley actually have sexual relations with any of the pages? Well, we are told, he had “Internet Sex.” That is not sex at all, since there is no physical contact. While the messages were suggestive, none indicate that the representative was actually demanding sexual relations. His wording skates close to the edge, but does not cross it.

Some maintain that the gravamen of the matter has been workplace sexual harassment. But was it? So far none of the pages has come forward to charge sexual harassment. The pages serve for only one year and could easily wait their suitor out. All apparently did so. Foley had much more to lose than they did, and any excessive pressure on his part could lead to his downfall. Downfall indeed occurred, but not because of any explicit complaint of targeted sexual harassment.

To be sure, Foley continued to communicate suggestively with the young men after they had left their jobs in DC, but that is certainly not workplace harassment. For many years I made it a rule never to proposition or have sexual relations with any of my students at the college where I taught. On one occasion, though, I had sex with a person who requested it-—years after the individual had graduated. Again, though, Foley does not seem to have had any sex with the pages. He seems to have “gotten off” with naughty remarks. Is naughtiness enough to account for all the turmoil we have been experiencing?

Since the pages were not children when the verbal contact began, we would not be dealing with pedophilia, even if the relations had been consummated. In fact, Foley is an ephebophile, a person who chooses sex objects in their late teens or early twenties.

For the moment the worst thing about the Foley scandal is that it is a distraction from important business. After two sycophantic books, Bob Woodward finally got up enough courage to expose the Administration’s distortions and deviousness about Iraq. (For some reason he cannot bring himself to use the word "lie.") Much of the discussion that should have ensued about this supremely vital matter was blunted. In the short run, at least, it is not the Democrats who benefited from the Foley hysteria, but Republicans, because it shifted the subject away from their greatest vulnerability.

All that being said, rumbles coming from public perception are ominous. For some time now parents have been worried about their offspring being approached by sexual predators on My Space and other Internet venues. On weekends MSNBC offers a sensational "reality" program in which older men are lured to private homes in the expectation of having sex with teenagers. This practice strikes me as entrapment for profit, but the public seems to be eating it up.

The bottom line, though, is that technology has raised new fears on the part of parents. These purported dangers play into a poorly articulated but deeply held anxiety. Of long standing, that anxiety goes as follows. “My Jimmy (or Emily) is at an impressionable age at which sexual orientation is still amorphous. If he (or she) is exposed to the temptations of gay sex now, it will forever ruin his (or her) life.”

Esee est percipi. Perception, so the saying goes, is reality. We can insist as long as we want that what Foley and others like him do is not pedophilia, not even inchoate pedophilia, but such assertions will not remove the anxiety on the part of adults. That fearful narrative has circulated for too long with little challenge.

One way for parents to deal with this matter is to have a frank discussion with their children. Then steps could be taken, including the offering of condoms, to encourage them to engage in “healthy’ heterosexual behavior. It seems, though, that most parents will not do this. They want their teenagers to be prevented from having sex of any sort. In view of the widespread propensity for teenage rebellion, such prohibitions may actually increase the chances for “forbidden” contacts of any sort. So the parents are hoist by their own petard. But they will not admit this.

The affair also lifts the lid on a hitherto largely hidden subculture. This is the little world of closeted Republicans who are working in Washington. This world may not be so little, as apparently government service has special attraction for gays and lesbians. And anywhere between a quarter and a third of them are Republicans. Many readers will rub their eyes in disbelief. Given the amount of demonizing Republicans have indulged in, it will seem hard to understand how any self-respecting gay person could conset to the role of a Republican operative.

Having had some contact with gay Republicans over the past decade let me address the origins of that apparent anomaly. These folks start from a theoretically sound position. We are, all of us, citizens first and foremost, and secondarily persons of a particular sexual orientation. As citizens we may properly oppose what have come to be regarded as Democratic excesses, including massive spending to buy votes and the balkanization that identity politics is bringing. Or so it seemed in the run-up to the contested election of 2000.

Then was then and now is now. The claim that Republicans were properly addressing such issues of national concern has long since evaporated. The Bush administration has increased government spending and government surveillance far more than any predecessor that any of us can recall. It has done these two things in order to buy votes and frighten people. Of central importance, the Iraq folly has made us less, not more secure. So the argument that the greater public interest overrides the bad Republican record on gay rights is not viable-—if it ever was. I gather that Andrew Sullivan’s new book, out on Monday, forcefully addresses these issues.

Again, prior to the 2000 election we were told that the “Republicans didn’t really mean it.” Besides, the Democrats had failed us also, with the vile don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy in the military, which has made things worse rather than better. And Clinton actually boasted of his support for the Defense of Marriage Act, intended to block same-sex marriage, an issue many gays and lesbians care a great deal about.

The last six years have changed that equation, because it is now crystal-clear that the Republicans are captives of the Christian right, which is implacably and unchangeably homophobic

In short the Republicans have absolutely nothing to offer. Log Cabin and other gay Republican enterprises must confront meltdown. If they aren’t experiencing this fate, they deserve to.

Abandon ship is the best advice I can give. Yet it is not see easy for the Republican staffers in Washington, the Pink Elephants, to be nonchalant. Like most of us, they need a job. The many closeted gay and lesbian Republicans who work on Capitol Hill and other government agencies live in a constant state of fear. In principle, at least, their Democratic counterparts can safely come out. The Republican staffers are faced with a constant barrage of homophobic comment, together with legislative proposals that do not serve the interests of their community. This pervasive atmosphere of negativity has a chilling effect. More and more they barricade themselves behind the walls of silence and denial. And people who are intimidated are easier to control, making this cohort useful to their heterosexist masters, despite the disapproval the “lifestyle” engenders. One should not take the word perversion lightly, but this abusive relationship seems to merit it.

On their other flank the closeted Republican staffers are fearful of being outed by liberal and leftist gay activists. Currently, it is said, a Pink Elephant compilation called The List is circulating in DC. The security of all those on this roster is now imperiled.

The gay activists contend that it is their duty to out gays who “are working against our interests.” But how is this purported antigay behavior defined? Someone who goes out of his way to help draft and promote antigay legislation is one thing. Yet some of the activists seem to think that just being a Republican makes one antigay. All are fair game.

Clearly this is a volatile and dangerous situation. Massive outings of gay Republicans in Washington may lead to a tit-for-tat series of outings of gay Democrats. Do we really want a situation like that of the 'fifties in which gay people shun employment opportunities in Washington because of fear?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Two elites

In recent years this country has been plagued by two elites, each pursuing its way with little reference to the rest of us "boobs." We boobs do not have the good fortune of living in either Hollywood or Washington, DC. To be sure the really prosperous movie people live in places like Beverly Hills and Malibu, while the DC crowd dwells in the superrich counties surrounding the District. Alas, some of the latter group live not far from me in Manhattan, which has become a suburb of Inside the Beltway, to all intents and purposes.

After the glory days of Barbra Streisand and Sean Penn the political pretensions of the Hollywood elite have been punctured. I suppose that they will still give pots of money to Hillary if she runs for president. But most of the leading figures seem to be engaged in innocuous, even worthwhile enterprises now, such as adopting African children. Mel Gibson's outbursts, while different in content, help to point up the unreality of the Hollywood worldview. Let the Hollywoodians continue to do good works, while sparing us the dubious benefit of their opinions.

Not so with the gang Inside the Beltway, Foley's disgrace notwithstanding. I was reminded of this permanent government of insider operatives by the spotlight that has been aimed on the Congressional pages. I do not care whether this institution survives or not. It is one of many training agencies for professional political junkies, all of whom are being readied for service as part of the army of unelected political operatives. The Kennedy School of Government, Columbia's SIPA and many others of that ilk come to mind.

Congress itself is correctly described as unelected. No matter how massive the Democratic landslide in November may prove to be, it is unlikely that more than 15-20 House seats will change hands. The rest are protected by gerrymandering, and the office holders will stay there just as long as they want. The voters have nothing to do with the matter.

I have long subscribed to the sobering idea that the United States is not a democracy but a republic. Now it isn't even a republic any more. Arguably it is an imperial kleptocracy.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


The hue and cry that has developed in the wake of the revelation of ex-Rep. Mark Foley's suggestive e-mails and IMs is extraordinary. This story even edged out Woodward's very serious allegations regarding the duplicity of the Bush administration vis-a-vis Iraq. We hear that the Foley matter is "easier to understand" than the Abramoff bribes and the Iraq War. What is hard to understand about those transgressions?

In fact a major shift in climate seems to have set in since the last congressional page scandal 23 years ago. At that time a Democratic congressman was found to have had sex with a male page, while a Republican performed similarly with a female page. The Democrat, Rep. Studds, went on to be elected for several more terms by his Massachusetts constituents.

One thing that has changed is a growing sensitivity to sexual harassment. But did Foley even engage in that? To judge from the examples we have seen, his messages were suggestive rather than "lewd" or "salacious" as has been claimed. There were no description of sexual acts or pictures of his penis. Moreover, the pages did not work directly for Rep. Foley, but for Congress as a whole. As far as I know, he did not threaten his correspondents with any penalty if they snubbed him.

Our society must be the first one in human history that continues to regard young people of 16 or 17 as children. If these young people had been raised in such an atmosphere of seclusion that they did not realize that one should be cautious about offers from older men, maybe they should not be in Washington. Yet, as far as we know, they all were cautious. No instance of actual sexual relations has been reported.

There is the matter of hypocrisy, as Foley had threatened that those guilty of such "sickness" would find the punishment that is meet. I think that this should be called the Rush Limbaugh Factor. A few years back, it should be recalled, Limbaugh had been found to be consuming huge quantities of the drug OxyContin, which he had mixed in a way not intended in order to obtain a high. He had previously opined that white men should be given especially high penalties for drug offenses.

It seems that we are living in an age of near-hysteria with regard to even a hint of intergenerational sex. Parents are horrified by even the thought of it, which I think is the real reason why there is so much noise about this case. In the minds of some, I suspect, there lingers that old idea that if "my child" were to be exposed to any hint of homosexuality, the effect would be so powerful that he--it is usually a he, for lesbianism does not evoke the same fears--will be ruined for life.

I do not know whether this hypothesis is correct. What does seem to be so is the perennial rule that one can do certain things--if one doesn't get caught. It is only the list of items that changes. A second point is that all electronic communications are vulnerable. Do not write anything if you do not want it to be generally circulated at some point.

Sometimes I feel that I have the opposite problem. N o b o d y is circulating my postings. But I should count my blessings.