Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Iron Law of Oligarchy revisited

I have long been impressed by a group of three sociologists, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Robert Michels. Reflecting on his experience in Italy, Mosca (as early as 1893) posited that all societies, whatever their constitutions and outward forms, are controlled by an elite political class. This dynamic acknowledges only two social categories: the rulers and the ruled. Mosca’s ideas, and those of his contemporaries Pareto and Michels, differ from those of Marx in that the ruling group is composite, rather than unitary, and therefore not a class in the strict sense. (Marx’s idea of the ruling class was more traditional, in that he envisaged a kinship-group modeled on, though not the same as, the traditional nobility.)

Conventional wisdom assigns Mosca, Pareto, and Michels to the Right. However, a similar point was made by Sidney Webb, the Fabian who, together with his wife Beatrice Webb, was one of the founders of the British Labor Party. Sidney noted, [n]othing in England is done without the consent of a small intellectual yet practical class in London, not 2,000 in number." Edwardian England was both centralized and close-knit, and probably one has to assume a larger, more diffuse elite in other countries.

At all events, in a large modern society such as America the ruling elite comprises the following: 1) the bureaucratic "permanent government" in Washington DC and in the state capitals; 2) elected officials above a certain level; 3) the super-rich insofar as they take an interest in politics; 4) heads of corporations and a few union bosses; 5) heads of think tanks, foundations, and "pressure groups"; 6) fancy lawyers and jurists; 7) the upper echelons of journalism and the media; and 8) a motley crew of popular-culture figures, scientists, academics, and independent intellectuals.

With very little effort one could draw up a comprehensive roster of these A-list individuals. In this country I would estimate that they number no more than 20,000, probably less. To all intents and purposes, the rest of us simply do not count. Still, it is in the interest of the ruling elite to convince us that we do, by commending dutiful, unflagging attention to the trivia dispensed by the news media, volunteering for political canvassing, engaging in voting, and so forth. Sadly, as recent developments have shown, these are e m p t y r i t u a l s.

How can I say that voting is an empty ritual in our country? Of course it isn’t rigged as in some other places. Yet the degree to which voting matters has been gradually whittled down. It is said that, because of gerrymandering, only about fifteen congressional districts (out of 435) are competitive. Whoever one votes for among the main body of 420, the incumbent will be invariably be returned to office. During the presidential campaign I kept asking Kerry supporters how their candidate differed from president Bush in any major policy area. The most they could come up with was that he would be able to get on better with European leaders. Even if true, that would be a matter of style, not substance. A sizeable portion of the population favored early withdrawal from Iraq, yet they were only given a marginal candidate, Dennis Kucinich. Cynical though this sounds, the fix was in.

Not so long ago the Democrats constituted the party of big government, the Republicans the party of not-so-big government. No longer. Now they compete to see who can waste more money. Half a century ago sociologists identified this phenomenon as "marginal differentiation." There are differences, but tiny ones having to do more with style than anything else.

For some who retain their faith, as I do not, in the mirage of attaining Good Government through mass participation, the result is perpetual, increasing frustration. One is led down the primrose path of consummate political junkiedom, accumulating ever more baggage in the form of details of the political process--only to find oneself shut out from any meaningful participation. Dressed to the nines in Yankee-Doodle garb, one has nowhere to go. To be sure, one can toil over letters to major publications, which are occasionally actually printed. Even so, few notice them. It is easier to get onto the radio call-in shows—-where one’s ephemeral voice quickly sinks into the enveloping miasma of rant and bloviation.

It doesn’t matter whether one is liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, the gestalt remains the same. The perfect symbol--in a way the patron saints--of this dumb show is the power-couple James Carville and Mary Matalin. These two eminentos are only ostensibly concerned with advancing the interests of their respective political parties. Their real aim is the consolidation of the Iron Law of Oligarchy, the perpetuation of the political class to which they both so fervently subscribe. Many years ago I was impressed by a stage performance of Jean Genet’s play "The Blacks" (a kind of modern version of Plato’s myth of the cave). At the end of the play one learned that the exciting conflicts displayed on stage were meaningless, for the real event was taking place off stage. There the analogy ends. Genet envisaged an off-stage revolution. What we actually have is the reverse: off-stage tyranny, with rich rewards for those who play along.

To maintain their grip, the national ruling groups communicate intercontinentally. Heaven forfend, but a powerful, well-placed bomb at the next Davos jamboree would liquidate many of them—though probably not enough to assure change. Like a prudent power couple, these superapparatchiks arrange to be in different places at different times so that some survivors will always be around to secure the fortunes of the Company. Individuals die or drop away, but the ruling elite is immortal.

As Vilfredo Pareto emphasized, the pool of the ruling elite are being constantly and continually transformed, as new members find access. Yet the absolute number of these is small. This changing configuration, shifting by minute adjustments, helps to maintain the Participatory Illusion that would-be players cherish. "If Henry Kissinger could make it to the pinnacle of power, then maybe I can too." Alas, this outcome is very unlikely.

Robert Michels aptly summarized this situation as the Iron Law of Oligarchy. This law applies to all kinds of societies, whether they be nominally democracies, monarchies, or authoritarian states. Moreover, size matters. The bigger the society is the more necessary—or at least convenient—it is that this ruling elite control matters.

In the old USSR this situation came out into the open (after a fashion) in the concept of the Nomenklatura. The term derives from a formal list (always hard to access) of privileged Party members who make all significant decisions. Oddly enough, in that respect the old Soviet Union was more transparent than the US today. As we have seen, however, the social mechanism is generally applicable-—above all to societies like our own, where regrettably its workings are obscured as much as possible.

Does this reality mean that individuals such as ourselves (who do not belong to the ruling elite) can expect to have no influence at all over policy decisions? On the whole that is just what it does mean, though there are some marginal exceptions. If they are wise, elite members in good standing will occasionally consult friends who stand outside the magic circle. However, if these seemingly consultative players seek, as a result, to implement a policy that goes counter to the collective wishes of their comrades, they will be instantly overruled. If it is something that the group has already decided to undertake, the advice of the kibitzer is superfluous. At the end of the day, then, the actual influence the outsiders can bring to bear through this channel is minimal.

It is said that non-elite individuals can make a difference by joining together to form pressure groups. In union there is strength. Even here, though, the influence of non-elitists is slight. The officers of pressure groups are usually themselves members of the elite, whose bidding they are more likely to do than that of their members. Let me give an example. Like millions of other older Americans I belong to the AARP. I opposed their position on prescription drugs, while I support them on preserving social security. In neither case does it matter, for the AARP honchos will do what they wish, not what other people, members of the organization or I may happen to want.

In democratic countries pressure groups often act to shift public opinion. As in the case of the Loving decision (which put an end to unreasonable bans on interracial marriage) the Roe (which ended bans on abortion), it takes time for these changes to set in. We may be witnessing such a sea change in the matter of gay marriages. Ever prudent, the elites realize that it is not prudent to get very far ahead of the consensus opinion on such matters. This mechanism serves, generally though not always, as a check on elite arbitrariness.

Occasionally there are popular upheavals, as in the massive opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet when it came to deposing president Nixon, that change was deftly managed by a few key players among the elite, who had made sure that one of their more pliable colleagues, the dimwitted Gerald Ford, would take the place of his disgraced predecessor. The king is dead, long live the king!

I do in fact see a glimmer of hope in the rise of the blogosphere. A few of the bloggers are very widely read and quoted. Most though are not. The Iron Law of Oligarchy, it seems, governs even the blogosphere. But at least the blogs hasten the process of the circulation of elites. Andrew Sullivan is in; William Safire is out. Fresh faces may mean better policies. Or so we may hope.

At all events, the Bloggernaut is rolling down the pike, for better or worse. The legacy media are right in its path. Pressed also by cable, the old-line TV news services of ABC, CBS, and NBC are on the ropes, losing both viewers and credibility. Seemingly impregnable, the fortress-like New York Times, the ostensibly infallible oracle of bien-pensant liberals everywhere, has been losing altitude, after a scandal forced the insufferable Howell Raines out. Recently, the Times did the unthinkable: it appointed an ombudsman, whose columns appear on Sundays in The Week in Review. Some years back the New York Times began to blur the distinction between the editorial and the news pages; now it is paying the price. After its orgy of sanctimonious Bill Moyers programs (since ceased), PBS now has its back to the wall. Maybe it shouldn’t, but that is what is happening. Whistle blowers are everywhere on the 'Net. As someone who has suffered from the attentions of these folks, I must say that the process of vetting, though not pleasant, is a necessary one.

Until recently it has seemed that the more "news" we citizens absorbed, the more we became aware of our powerlessness. It has not always been that way. When a quick look at the newspaper and half an hour of CBS evening news sufficed, we didn’t much notice our exclusion from decision-making. But now, for those who succumb to the temptation, there are hours and hours of the stuff. We consume it relentlessly, like an obese person with a bottomless bag of chocolate-chip cookies.

The news-making machine is a vast from-to enterprise. They churn the stuff out; we absorb it-—not infrequently in frustration and anger. One of the purposes of this essay is to analyze the source of that growing anger. Perhaps the participatory dimensions of the Internet will relieve the situation. At least it makes bloggers like me happy that some folks (rather than one’s long-suffering significant other, that audience of one) is paying attention to our rants. Yet as I say, the outcome is uncertain. In the past the elites have proven most adroit at one thing—-preserving their hegemony.

In closing, two objections to the above sketch may be noted. First, the analysis seems unduly pessimistic. I would rather say that it is realistic. Besides, it is possible to imagine societies much worse than the managed one we have now. Examples are the kleptocracies that dominate much of the Third World and the anarchy of Somalia. Pareto would have agreed with Churchill that elitist democracy is the worst system in the world—except for every other. Still, it makes sense to go about the world with our eyes open.

The second objection is that mine is a conspiracy theory. Along these lines, there have been attempts to pinpoint the loci of the elite conspiracy—the Club of Rome, the trilateral commission, and the Bohemian Grove clique. My theory is unlike any of these, for it posits a set of arrangements that are looser and pretty much out in the open, if one will simply look to see. There is no need to leave the living room. Watching C-Span on a regular basis shows the ruling-elite folks doing what they do best, talking to each other. One can observe this spectacle, but is not allowed to have any influence.

In this short piece I have presented an ideal type only. What would be needed to put flesh on these bones would be a series of case studies. One might begin with certain think tanks, such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Rand Corporation. Doubtless such studies exist; the task would be to correlate them.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Gates in Central Park

The elaborate installation of Christo and Jeanne-Claude in New York’s Central Park has drawn an extraordinary response. In joyous throngs New Yorkers happily mingle with out-of-towners and visitors from overseas. On Sunday February 20 so many people flocked to the site that traffic in the surrounding streets almost came to a halt. Despite this minor inconvenience, it is wonderful to see such a diversity of people coming together in celebration—in this very troubled world we live in. And of course unlike some other fabled pleasures of the Gotham the experience is totally free. It is truly democratic. At the same time visiting the Gates is a kind of secular pilgrimage in which one kinetically reenacts a dromos, a primordial rite. So, once upon a time, did anonymous, but immortal Amerindians tread the paths of Nazca in Peru.

Despite the popularity of the Gates, many still ask what the work means. Not to worry, say Christo and Jeanne-Claude, it is simply an aesthetic statement. There is no meaning. Fahgeddaboudit.

Still the human urge to find significance in forms—the gestalt principle—cannot be denied. And it may be that the statement of the artists was designed not to forbid interpretations, but simply to avoid closure, so as to permit a variety of them.

At all events here are some reflections.

Although the monument is inscribed on a vast landscape and one can walk through it, the Gates is an abstract work. There is a vein of discourse of modern criticism that insists that abstract art is about nothing. I believe that this view is mistaken, but there is no doubt that it is out there.

The Gates will only be visible for sixteen days. After that, it will exist only in films, photographs, posters, and descriptions. Little noticed in the response is that there is a long history of temporary works. These range from Renaissance joyous entries (marking the visit of a sovereign to a city) and funerary catafalques to fireworks displays. Contemporary examples are the Rose Parade floats in Pasadena and the Burning Man event held each September in Nevada. There is a large book in this set of topics for someone to write.

Some observers have suggested that maybe the real meaning of the Gates consists in the complex negotiations, over two decades, that were required to finally have it approved.

Why orange? Originally, when it was thought that the event would be held in autumn, the hanging cloths were to be white. As to hues, Christo and Jeanne Claude seem to have a preference for “strong” colors, primary and secondary ones, rather than off shades. Again this has been a preoccupation of hard-edge abstraction and of modern art in general. Use the pure unmixed colors as they come from the tube, said many. Perhaps it should be remembered that New York was originally New Amsterdam, founded under the auspices of the House of Orange.

On the night of February 20 the color white appeared—in the form of snow. The palette changed. A fine blanket of white overlay the Park’s normal wintery Brueghelesque base of gray and brown.

It seems to be tacitly acknowledged that the rectangular shape created by the stanchions and the cross-poles is an hommage to the outline of Central Park and the oblong shape of the typical Manhattan block in general.

The length of the Gates trajectories is estimated at 26 miles. That is the length of the Marathon race. Fortunately, the Gates are walked, not run. At least one person I know has walked the entire course.

The Gates are, of course, not really gates in the sense of installations that can regulate traffic, keeping people out if necessary. It is too easy to go around them. Perhaps the best precedent for such notional gates is the Roman triumphal arch, which seems to be a portal, but one that one can easily go around. In fact, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris there is so much traffic that it is hard to walk through—better just to stroll around the perimeter of the Etoile. At any rate, the collective unconscious yields an ancient sense of liminality, of crossing barriers. Traversing the paths reawakens this sense, over and over.

Not all the comparanda stem from history. A clear contemporary parallel is with earth art in the broad sense, such as the signature Spiral Jetty in Utah (Robert Smithson), and some important works by Andrea Blum and Robert Morris, my distinguished colleagues at Hunter College. Yet most earth artists strive to leave a permanent mark on the ground, recalling the prehistoric megalithic monuments that inspire them. The Gates, though, will be dismantled, without even so much as pole marks to show that they were there.

But for the pictorial records, it will all be as a dream. Be that as it may, many of us will retain this fabulous monument in fond memory.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Sexual variance in Shakespeare

The other day I reread "The Merchant of Venice" for the first time in many years. I recalled that two decades ago the gay scholar Seymour Kleinberg had published an article arguing that the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio was homoerotic. Reading the play this didn’t seem to be the case. Yet when I saw the current film everything changed, for once real performers fleshed out the bloodless characters of the printed page the relationship became clear to me. This effect was all the more noteworthy because the theme was not especially emphasized by the production.

At the beginning of the play Antonio is suffering from a motiveless melancholy, and there is nothing his friends can do to relieve it. The friends leave and the likely cause of the depression emerges: Bassanio, Antonio’s bosom buddy is planning to get married. In the film Jeremy Irons, 57, plays Antonio, a shipping magnate who specializes in risky ventures. Apart from business, he seems to have no life, except for doting on Bassanio, a dashing but profligate young man who needs money. Despite the enmity between them, Antonio raises it from the Jewish usurer Shylock, using his own body as surety (the famous "pound of flesh" agreement).

At 3.4 Portia flatly says that Antonio is Bassanio’s "bosom lover." That they are more than just friends is demonstrated by the climactic scene in which Antonio prepares to lay down his life for his friend, while the friend says that he values his male beloved more than his wife.

A secondary theme of sexual variance is the fact that no less than three characters undergo double disguise. As we all know, but are rarely permitted to experience, an authentic performance of an Elizabethan play would cast boys in the female roles. Sometimes Shakespeare transforms these (boy)girls back into boys. A familiar example is Rosalind in "As You Like It." At any rate in "The Merchant of Venice" Jessica first disguises herself as a boy in order to elope. Her boyfriend Lorenzo speaks of Jessica’s “lovely garnish of a boy (2.6), (Interestingly, the Oxford editor Jay L. Halio sees fit to change lovely to "lowly," without any good textual grounds.) Then in the court scene both Portia and her servant Nerissa appear disguised as young men.

By the by, there are a series of interesting triads: three double-disguise figures, three caskets, three marriages, and three rings. Antonio, the aging loner, stands outside the orbit of all of these.

There is no doubt that the issues presented by the character of Shylock are deeply problematic in Shakespeare’s play. But these may have obscured the issues of gender ambivalence.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Changing life patterns

A century ago the poet Rainer Maria Rilke had a disturbing encounter in the Louvre museum. As he was staring at a severe archaic kouros, somewhat lasciviously it seems, the statue spoke to him: "You must change your life." Yes, but how? For surely something more is meant than being more resolute and efficient in the pursuit of a course already chosen. No, one must select an altogether new option.

Ancient Greece, the culture that produced the statue, produced an influential triad of options. Attributed to the mysterious Pythagoras, this triad probably originated among the followers of Plato in the Academy. We must imagine the visitors to the games, whether the Olympic ones or some others. The attendees would go out of one of three motives. One could (1) participate as an athletic competitor, seeking to defeat ones’ rivals. Or (2) one could take advantage of the crowds to buy and sell things. Finally, and best of all 3), one could go as a spectator. In fact, the motives are arranged in a hierarchy, with spectatorship, the contemplative life, at the top. The middle choice, competition, stands as a model of political activism. Finally, business represents the lowest option.

Other Greeks recognized a variety of life choices, without attempting to prioritize them. In what is sometimes termed the priamel approach, the poet Sappho said, "some think that the most beautiful thing on earth is a troop of cavalry, or foot-soldiers or ships; but for me it is to obtain the object of desire."

Yet others took a frankly subjective approach: "I don’t care what others like--I prefer what is good for me."

From these considerations it is evident that changing one’s life presumes a hierarchy of choices. Once one recognizes such normative differences one can resolve to pass from a less desirable option to a better one.

In his “Either/Or” of 1843 Kierkegaard reduced the choice to a dichotomy: the aesthetic vs. the ethical. While both approaches are discussed at great length, it is clear that the Danish thinker preferred the second. Ironically, many readers get bogged down in the first part, which is less desirable, never progressing to the second.

Turning to the century just passed, the social upheavals of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies produced several kinds of self-help books. In one category, plain Johns and Janes could make themselves over by becoming hippies or radical revolutionaries. More recently this genre was parodied in an article “The Wino Lifestyle--Is It For You?”

Just now Harvard University Press has issued the most ambitious attempt of all, John W. O.Malley’s "Four Cultures in the West." The blurb reads as follows:

The cultures considered here originated in the ancient world, took on Christian form, and manifest themselves today in more secular ways. These are … the prophetic culture that proclaims the need for radical change in the structures of society (represented by, for example, Jeremiah, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, Jr.): he academic culture that seeks instead to understand these structures (Aristotle, Aquinas, the modern university); the humanistic culture that addresses fundamental human issues and works for the common good of society (Cicero, Erasmus, and Eleanor Roosevelt); and the culture of art and performance the celebrates the mystery of the human condition (Phidias, Michelangelo, Balanchine).”

A concluding thought is this. Some say that one must make one’s choice in adolescence. Be that as it may, the contrasting templates still serve as a way of measuring what one has accomplished.

Postscript. Did the statue speak to Rilke in German. Since many Germans regard ancient Greek as closely akin to modern German, that is possible. However, communication may have been imperfect. The poet heard the statue to say: "Du musst dein Leben aendern." But perhaps it actually said: "Du musst dein Leben enden"--you must end your life That would be another, conclusive, life change.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Shunned analogies

They say that a visit to a battery-hen facility or a slaughter house would be enough to cause a major change in one's dietary habits. I haven't made any such visits, but the reports alone are enough to make me seriously consider becoming a vegetarian. (If I do, though, I'll try not to rant about it in these pages.)

At all events animal rights is generally considered to be a left-wing cause, something "progressives" take up, while conservatives disdain it.

Let's now make a switch, one that current rules of the game, based on left-right polarities, forbid. What about abortion? Opposition to abortion is generally accounted a right-wing cause. Again, though, they say that hearing the amplified sound of a fetus in the third trimester or witnessing a partial-birth abortion would be enough to change the minds of most "pro-choice" persons.

Thus we tend to avoid both abattoirs and abortion providers. We tend also to avoid comparing the two. But should we? A critique of one seems to suggest a critique of the other. Or conversely, perhaps both can be defended.

In the area of personal disclosure, let me indicate that a couple of years after she gave birth to me, my mother had an abortion. Instead of being an only child, I could have had a sibling. Or the fetus aborted could have been me.

The personal element tends to affect one's judgment on these matters. But isn't that as it should be?

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Rationalism and its wily adversary

Deep down I have always been a rationalist. I hold that one must strive as much a possible to form clear and distinct ideas (not as easy as it sounds) and to pursue their consequences wherever they may lead (harder still).

In my late teens I flirted with idea of adopting a religion. But I couldn’t summon the necessary suspension of disbelief.

My art-history teachers in graduate school reinforced my rationalist inclinations. Representing the Transatlantic Migration that so enriched American intellectual life, they had been trained in the strict canons of evidence and exposition inculcated in them in Central Europe (Before the Fall—1933). The architectural historian Richard Krautheimer, for example, had studied the discipline of the Civil Law, with its Greek and Roman foundations.

The crown on this training was my encounter in the ‘sixties in London with Karl Popper, then teaching at the London School of Economics. His ideas instructed me in a more sophisticated, but I think durable, approach. Propositions must be carefully formulated, but their truth can never be established with finality, no matter how much "testing" is applied. Instead, though, the falsity of many of them can be demonstrated. In a poignant phrase, Popper said that we must be prepared for our ideas to die in our place. It follows that there is no complete demonstration of truth, we can only seek higher and higher grades, as it were, of "truth content."

Of course Popper had rivals. Although I learned something from Thomas Kuhn, author of the widely read "Structure of Scientific Revolutions," the "Dada philosophy of science" of Paul Feyerabend seemed a passing fad of the counterculture seventies. Late in life Kuhn came to regret the postmodernist relativism he had inadvertently inspired.

Yet a correction, or a contrast, came from another quarter, Dr. Frances Yates whose teaching at the Warburg Institute came at the same time as Popper’s LSE hegemony. In her work on Giordano Bruno and the hermetic tradition, Yates showed that mystical beliefs helped inspire modern science. It is commonly supposed that these hermetic elements stem from the intrusion of Christianity; however, Yates showed that a principal source was a group of pagan late-antique treatises ascribed to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus. The irrational aspects of early modern science found a more popular exponent in the writings of Stephen Toulmin. D. P. Walker, Yates’ disciple, showed that the Decline of Hell (in his book of that name) was not so much a matter of the disproof of the idea, but of its gradual exhaustion and abandonment.

In the field of ancient philology E. R. Dodds showed (revising and improving Nietzsche’s "Birth of Tragedy") that irrational ideas enjoyed much more currency among the ancient Greeks than most were prepared to credit. The frequent revivals of Euripides’ "Bacchae" (e.g., "Dionysus in 69"), served to reinforce this point.

Admirers of modern avant-garde art have long portrayed it as the boon companion of modern science and enlightenment generally. Yet Sixten Ringbom and others revealed the prevalence of occultism, especially in abstraction. Both Kandinsky and Mondrian were involved with Elena Petrovna Blavatsky’s Theosophy. To this day there is much resistance to these findings. Early in his career the architect Le Corbusier responded to an occult work, "The Great Initiates," by a then-prominent Alsatian writer, Schurẻ. The hermetic commitment of Yeats and Strindberg, to name only two prominent writers, scarcely needs documenting.

So what is the upshot? My conclusion is this. Not infrequently, irrational concepts play a creative role in the generation of ideas. Yet it remains our duty to examine them critically, retaining what is useful, and press on to a greater synthesis.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Historical role models

We now have the monograph of Clarence Tripp, "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln," positing a major gay component in the life of our sixteenth president. I was a friend and admirer of Tripp, an independent scholar who deserves great credit for doggedly pursuing and completing this task during the closing years of his life. Later I may comment on the book and the degree to which it seems convincing. For the moment though, let me proceed on the premise that, as preliminary reviews and responses suggest, Tripp’s case remains moot.

Why would one want to write and publish such a volume—and why would the public want to read it? To be sure everything we can learn about Lincoln, arguably our greatest president, is of interest. However, there is a larger pattern of motivation. Many in the gay community find comfort in enlarging the stock of gay and lesbian figures known from history.

The pattern is not limited to that group. Let me illustrate this from James Joyce, who some eighty years ago detected this habit of conscripting heroes among the Irish. The Calypso chapter of "Ulysses" contains several parodic catalogues, adhering to the principle of chaotic enumeration identified by Leo Spitzer. In one of these catalogues Joyce recites an honor role of some eighty-eight notable Irish figures. Here we find the legendary heroes Cuchulain and Conn of hundred battles, but also such recent figures as Captain Boycott, Wolfe Tone, and Henry Joy McCracken. More surprising are Herodotus, Julius Caesar, Buddha, “Brian Confucius,” Paracelsus, Charlemagne, Benjamin Franklin, and Napoleon. We also encounter the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra.

That last name rings a bell. That Cleopatra was black has been recently been argued by a number of scholars, notably my late colleague at Hunter College: John Henrik Clarke. Today this ethnic identification is widely accepted among African Americans, while others, at least those who have pondered the issue, remain skeptical.

Then there is the curious case of Christopher Columbus. A good many years ago Salvador de Madariaga proposed that the admiral, whose background remains obscure, was actually a converso, a person of Jewish ancestry. Cecil Roth, a respected Jewish historian, endorsed that conclusion. Some Jewish scholars continue to support it today. Yet the widespread deprecation of Columbus on the occasion of the sesquicentennial in 1992 served to curb the enthusiasm. Nonetheless, the figure of Columbus was still attractive enough for a Norwegian scholar to propose that he had actually been born in Norway!

So the tendency of gays to assemble rosters of historical role models finds parallels in similar endeavors stemming from a number of ethnic groups, notably Irish, African Americans, and Jews. The general principle seems clear. Groups that have been historically discriminated against experience a need to reassure themselves, and the host society as well, of their worthiness. Compiling such lists of role models is one way of doing so.

Gays have plenty of heroes already, from Socrates and Alexander to Michelangelo, Frederick the Great, and Walt Whitman. Lesbians may refer, e.g., to Sappho, Queen Christina, Emily Dickinson, and Gertrude Stein. Why add another name to the list—namely Lincoln? Of course, if Tripp’s case is transparently evident, it is a simple matter of acknowledging the truth. But it does not seem so evident.

Thus far the only president thought to have been homosexual was James Buchanan, a dandy whose administration (1857-61) was undistinguished. (Yet I have doubts about Buchanan’s gayness too.) Adding a vigorous, manly president to the lavender roster would be an achievement. And it may be that over time independent observers will come to acknowledge Lincoln’s bisexuality (and this is really all that can be claimed).

Whatever the outcome of the controversy regarding our sixteenth president, the thought patterns that motivate the assembling of these categories of “ethnic conscripts” remain of interest.