Friday, March 16, 2007

General Pace and Immorality

In the various versions of my Homolexis (see now the site I attempted to chart the vast continent of anti-homosexual invective. While this task is a daunting one, it is necessary, because the same faulty arguments keep coming up over and over again. Sometimes we are told that same-sex conduct is so unnatural that "even animals don’t do it." Then, when the speaker is reminded that several hundred species of animals have been documented engaging in homosexual behavior, the opposite response comes: "These acts reduce a human being to an animal!"

General Pace’s remark that homosexuality is "immoral" has been widely condemned—and rightly so. Still, it is a little disconcerting that even Senators Clinton and Obama, who have staked out claims to be friends of gays, cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that homosexual conduct is moral.

At all events, the incident served to remind me that I did not treat immorality in my Homolexis. The reason was, I suppose, that conduct pertaining to this expression is not restricted to homosexuality. In principle, immorality covers the widest possible range of improper behavior, any behavior that (as the dictionary tells us) "conflicts with generally held moral principles." Just so, I suppose. Yet we do not usually label as immoral an act like that of the man who assaulted a 101-year old woman on the streets of New York a few days ago. That was a criminal act. Immoral behavior can comprise, and often comprises things that are not against the law, but are inappropriate nonetheless. Still, a man whose gambling addiction seems out of control is not generally called immoral. Similarly, alcoholics. In both these cases, the disease model seems now to prevail.

Without anyone decreeing any formal limitation, the label immoral, uttered without any qualifier, now seems to connote sexual misbehavior, be it fornication, adultery, or homosexuality. This narrowing recalls that of the concept of sin. According to the standard medieval analysis there are seven Deadly Sins. Lust is only one of them. If we hear, though, that someone is a “sinner” we do not usually think of gluttony or anger, but of sexual transgression.

We tend to look to the Greeks and Roman for guidance on ethical matters. Yet their views seem to have been very different regarding the contrast of morality vs. immorality. The ancient Greeks recognized a dichotomy between physis and nomos. Physis is the world of nature, which goes on its way without any regard for human affairs. The contrasting term nomos, meaning custom or convention, refers exclusively to the human sphere.

The latter concept also informs the Latin mos, mores, custom(s). Customs may be good or bad (recall Cicero’s famous lament: “O tempora, o mores”) However, the classical Latin language does not record a word “immoralis.” The reason is that mores are what one doesn’t depart from. One can deface or pervert one or another aspect of the realm of mos, but one never leaves that world.

Interestingly, the word immoral appeared in the same year (1660) in French and English. The motive seems to be to find some secular equivalent of the concepts of sin or vice. The French language has preserved a version of the original core word, in moeurs, so that there can be an "offence des moeurs," meriting legal sanction. There are also some curious expressions for homosexuality: moeurs arabes, moeurs levantins, etc. All these words are ethnophaulism, that is, they suggest that “those people” adhere to their customs. Fortunately, they are not our customs, or should not be.

One might say that those who are immoral do not depart from the realm of morals, but only adopt bad morals. In that case, the proper word would be “dysmoral.” However, the rhetoric that suggests that the immoral person sets himself completely against the world of morals is all too tempting. In that respect the word recalls another bugbear, unnatural.

At the end of the nineteenth century Friedrich Nietzsche figured as the arch opponent of morality—as the immoralist par excellence. Not only did Nietzsche challenge the existing moral structure, he proposed an “Umwertung aller Werte,” an inversion of all values. (More than anyone else, Nietzsche is probably responsible for the current vogue of the expression “values.”)

At all events when André Gide published his novel L’Immoraliste in 1902, no one was in any doubt that the hero was falling into sexual immorality. Of what sort, Gide did not specify. Given the circumstances of the writer's own life, however, one is inclined to read homosexuality into the equation.

This brings us back to General Pace. If homosexual conduct is immoral, especially in the military, what about heterosexual fornication? Should not that transgression be punished by exclusion from the service? Pace mentions adultery--he's against it. But how many heterosexual adulterers in the military have actually been drummed out of the service? Alas, such a policy would probably cause us to lose three-quarters of our military personnel. So why then does "homosexual immorality." when detected,merit automatic disqualifation from service?

It seems then that "immorality" does have a special connotation with homosexuality. Other forms of immorality in the military usually spell only a letter in one's file. Once disclosed same-sex behavior merits dismissal. Unless of course soldiers are needed to risk their lives, as is happening in Iraq. We have not just a double standard but a triple one. There are three categories: 1) the behavior is deplorable but requires no action; 2) the behavior normally merits severance, but the authorities will look the other way in wartime: 3) the behavior, once disclosed, disqualifies the individual from military service. Another trifecta comes to mind,

In my early days in the ROTC, I was told that there are three ways of doing things: the right way, the wrong way, and the army way. General Pace is a marine, but I would not limit instances of his approach to the military.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Robert Moses

When I arrived in NYC fifty years ago there was evidence all around of great projects successfully realized in recent years: bridges and highways, parks and playgrounds. Those in the know recognized that these projects were, most of them, orchestrated by a public official, Robert Moses (1886-1981), the “master builder.” Moses certainly knew how to get things done. Yet he died a defeated man. Urban renewal, which he had relentlessly utilized to condemn the space for many of his creations, was discredited. New York City had entered into a period of financial crisis that took many years to solve. And Moses had to endure the publication of an enormous muckraking biography by his nemesis, the historian Robert Caro,
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974.

When I read Caro’s monumental biography I realized that he painted everything in dark tones. There was a real possibility of "spin." In Caro's telling the accomplishments of Moses virtually disappeared, lost in a sea of prosecutorial zeal. It almost seemed as if the giant Caro had nullified the giant Moses.

A comprehensive reexamination of Caro’s demonization of Moses has long been needed. That is now under way. With consummate flair, Professor Hilary Ballon of Columbia University has orchestrated a suite of three exhibitions displaying Moses’s achievement. In addition there was a Symposium ("Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder," March 2-3, with no less than twenty-one different contributors. Pointedly, Robert Caro was not invited. The following remarks reflect gleanings from the Symposium, as well as viewing of the exhibitions.

Fairness requires proper recognition of what Moses did accomplish. His parkways enhanced and preserved New York City’s green belt. With his playgrounds, swimming pools, and construction of Jones’ Beach he vastly enhanced the recreational capacities of the city and the region. It is hard to imagine how New York City could function without Moses’s crown jewel, The Triboro Bridge. More generally, Moses was admired for getting things done. He completed the Henry Hudson Parkway in only four years. It has been longer than that and we still have only a hole in the ground at the World Trade Center site.

Yet the later Moses reveals a different side. He became notorious because of the ruthless evictions of ordinary people. These expulsions were done under color of the legal principle of immanent domain, a procedure that remains controversial. He is also reviled because of his obsession with slicing expressways through the city—the equivalent of the interstate highways elsewhere. Fortunately, his two truly vile expressway projects--the Mid-Manhattan and Lower Manhattan schemes-—were thwarted. They have nonetheless become symbols of the arrogance of power and the evils of urban renewal in general. To support these schemes Moses ordered the construction of elaborate models, which are on display at the Museum of the City of New York.

Why did Robert Moses switch (or so it seems) from being a public benefactor to a public menace? The drug of power explains a good deal. Moreover, Moses functioned in an elite environment that was all-too-favorable to his megalomania. For much of the twentieth century New York State was more an oligarchy than a democracy. For decades Moses usually got his way through his cultivation of powerful individuals in Albany. The wonder is not his downfall, which came in the 1960s, but why he was able to get away with it for so long. There is a larger issue. Follow the money trail, the slogan goes—and that trail leads to Washington DC. The housing act of 1949 and the highway act of 1956 provided vast federal subsidies to state and local authorities. Moses found these incentives hard to resist, but in many ways they proved deleterious to the basic character of New York City.

The centerpiece of Caro’s indictment is the Cross-Bronx Expressway, a segment of I-95. Ostensibly, this highway destroyed a thriving community in the Bronx and led to the subsequent catastrophic decline of that borough. However, the historian Ray Bromley showed that that that highway was not nearly as destructive as Caro claimed. In fact, the Cross-Bronx Expressway had long figured on master plans in just the location in which it actually appeared. Furthermore, the decline of the Bronx was part of an urban decline that affected many cities in the nation.

In retrospect it is clear that Moses’s downfall began with a seemingly minor matter. In 1952 the master planner proposed to extend Fifth Avenue as a two-lane highway right through Washington Square in the heart of Greenwich Village. A group of mothers, seemingly powerless, emerged to contest the scheme. The Village Voice, then just emerging as a counterculture weekly, gave publicity to their efforts. Six years later the Battle of Washington Square was over. Moses lost. And that was not the end of the matter, for out of the conflict came Jane Jacobs’ remarkable book, The Death and Life of the Great American Cities (1961). Among other things, Jacobs’s polemic was a clarion call for revolt against urban renewal throughout the nation.

Of course Moses had never been omnipotent as the myth had it. Some of his other projects were shelved. Staten Island was able to achieve an almost complete nullification. But it was the Battle of Washington Square that turned the tide. The reign of New York’s czar of construction was over.

To be sure, Moses is sometimes blamed for things he had little influence over. For the most part he was not responsible for the high rises (the "projects") built by the NYC Housing Authority. As the contributors to the symposium indicated there were other influential actors at the time, especially Austin Tobin, head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the planner Edward J. Logue. These figures sometimes abetted Moses and sometimes served to check his ambitions.

Moses’s ideas were not as original as they might seem. Many of them were in fact anticipated in the 1929 Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs. Still, it was Moses, with his energy and ruthlessness, who got these things done.

The power broker did not hesitate to put his case before the public in the form of pamphlets and letters to newspapers. His no-holds-bared resort to pungent language is a refreshing change from the scripted mush of most contemporary politicians. Moses’s favorite adjective was “preposterous.”

Looking back over the two days of the Symposium, the variety of the talks is an indication of the groundswell of research—microhistory if you will—on this subject. As a number of the speakers showed, the various NYC agencies keep treasure troves of revealing documents. By the same token, though, this scholarly effort is a little parochial. Perhaps not entirely, for some of the presentations showed awareness of the problematics of urban renewal, and the overall crisis of the cities that became apparent in the sixties.

Adequate foreign comparisons were lacking. For example, Lincoln Center is best compared not with Venice but with sites in the city of Rome. For instance, there is the Campidoglio with its three palaces regularized by Michelangelo. The first design by Wallace Harrison evoked Bernini’s colonnade in St. Peter’s Square. Yet the most telling comparison in the city of Rome may be with Mussolini’s E.U.R, the pompous collection of structures erected for the 1942 Olympics, which never occurred. Harrison’s pallid neoclassicism, complete with travertine textures, would have fit in perfectly with Mussolini’s monumentality.

Links with Paris are telling. Without Baron Haussmann, who reconstructed Paris under Louis Napoleon, there would have been no Moses. Famous for his boulevards, Haussmann did much more, including aqueducts, sewers, markets and parks. The ruling metaphor of the Parisian power broker was the syndesmos, the implication that the city as a giant human being, with ingress, egress, lungs (parks), and circulation. What was the ruling metaphor of Moses? Paris also affords a contemporary comparison. As the era of great projects was coming to a close in NYC, it was starting in Paris, beginning with the Centre Pompidou. Lincoln Center is a series of gestures to the past; the Centre Pompidou looked to the future. Indeed, it still does.

Why are we having the Moses reexamination now? It has been suggested that Caro’s 1974 book was timely as NYC entered into its time of troubles. Bankruptcy loomed and urban unrest continued to rage. It was natural to ask if some of these problems might find their origin in the social engineering that previous decades had so confidently embraced. Now the city is on the upswing again. There is more money and one would hope that we are ready to undertake big projects again (except that rebuilding of the ground-zero site has come a cropper.) Another theory is that the exhibition and the conference simply harvest a crop of scholarship that had been thriving for some time. Now is the time for a number of gifted researchers were eager to present their findings. It was the insight—and the energy—of Professor Hilary Ballon that artfully wove these strands together at this time.

Without taking anything away from the achievement of the Master Organizer, one should examine her credentials. Ballon is a professor at Columbia University, and the unversity is now pondering its own big project. This is intended as a major expansion across 125th Street into Harlem. As with many of Moses’s projects anguished grassroots opposition comes from "little people," owners of small businesses and renter of apartments, who do not want to move. Even though Columbia is a private institution it is threatening the big stick of immanent domain. All this is reminiscent of Robert Moses’s time. It is also ominously reminiscent of 1968, when an earlier Columbia attempt to expand produced riots. When asked about this matter, Ballon offered only an evasive defense. This issue called for sensitivity, but this was lacking.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Demography rules, or does it?

I am now in the seventy-third year of my unnatural life. For almost half of this time I was sexually repressed. Yet what a change the 1970s meant! When I got over the astonishment I realized that I was truly in my element. I welcomed free access to pornography, together with the new sex shops. I eagerly embraced sexual freedom in all (or almost all) of the many venues where it was on offer. It seemed that it was only a question of time—until the old fogies died out—to the realization of that happy world when these things would be standard features of our society. Henceforth, in all its many-splendored forms sexual freedom would enjoy universal approval as part of our inherent right to self-realization.

Of course things did not quite work out that way. For one thing, HIV/AIDS came along. Some of the other sexual-freedom components, such as pornography and sex shops, have come to seem shopworn, almost pathetic. “Intergenerational sex,” as it was coyly termed, is now thoroughly reviled, and special sting operations are thriving (if that is the word) in several states.

Yes, things are better now. But it is not the case that all the barriers have fallen. Compromise seems to be the American way

Hope has broken out on another front. Now we are told that it is just a matter of time—until the old fogies die out—that we are blessed with same-sex marriage (SSM). In every American state this advance will be fully integrated into the institution of marriage.

Some support for this belief stems from a recent survey of college students. I owe the following information to Paul Varnell, the astute columnist who keeps track of these things. In a recent piece he states:

“More than six out of 10 college freshmen say they support the concept of ‘legal marital status’ for gays and lesbians, according to a newly-released survey of freshmen conducted each fall by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“The freshmen's support for ‘legal marital status’ for same-sex couples rose in 2006 to an all time high of 61.2 percent, a 3.3 percentage point increase over fall 2005 when support stood at 57.9 percent. The increase continues a relatively steady upward trend since the question was first asked in 1997 when support stood at 50.9 percent.

“The survey was based on responses from more than 271,000 freshmen at 393 colleges and universities, statistically adjusted to reflect responses of 1.3 million freshmen in 2006.”

Several comments seem appropriate. College students get involved in some things that later they renounce. The word “fickle” comes to mind. One aspect of such temporary allegiances finds recognition in the current acronyms BUG (bisexual until graduation) and LUG (lesbian until graduation).

But let’s assume that all these pro-gay-marriage students polled in the survey keep the views they have now. Will this mean the automatic triumph of same-sex marriage? That would be wonderful, but the optimistic forecast remains moot. That is so for this reason. Most of these college graduates will end up settling in the blue states, especially such populous ones as Massachusetts, New York, and California, where same-sex marriage, or something similar to it, is either legal or in the cards. Not too many collegians will settle in the heartland, the “flyover territory” familiarly derided by bicoastal sophisticates. Attitudes in the heartland may well remain what they are now—hostile to same-sex marriage.

Moreover, true same-sex marriage requires access to more than 1000 federal benefits. By definition, these are not available in Massachusetts, which has full same-sex marriage in name only. As a friend points out, it is possible to secure the federal benefits by changes in federal laws—a great many, I suspect would have to be handled individually. This would mean that states with Massachusetts-type same-sex marriage would enjoy full marriage. But states in the obdurate red zone would remain unreformed.

Then there is the matter of portability. The recalcitrant states are unlikely to give recognition to the SSM ones.

Yes, our population as a whole may be on the way to becoming more enlightened in this matter. But that advance won’t translate automatically into same-sex marriage as a nationally recognized institution. That happy outcome would require either a consensus in all the states or a favorable Supreme Court decision. For the foreseeable future, neither seems likely.

Some proponents of gay marriage extol federalism. By this they mean that individual states—in this instance, Massachusetts—can serve as laboratories for new social arrangements. In this way, the local implementation of same-sex marriage will provide a positive example that will calm fears elsewhere. To some extent, this is happening with regard to the Massachusetts experiment. But the favorable effect has not been felt everywhere, witness the fact that in the most recent general election six out of seven initiatives to ban gay marriage were adopted.

The implicit understanding on the part of the same-sex marriage supporters of federalism is that it is transitional. One day, not too far in the future, gay marriage will prevail in all of the fifty states. Would that this were so.

Abortion remains controversial in the United States. Its legality is guaranteed by a US Supreme Court decision. Consider what might be the case, though, if Roe v. Wade had not been stipulated. Or if it is overturned. Contrary to the dire visions of many pro-choice persons, abortion would continue to be legal in our most populous states, which trend towards liberalism. The resulting patchwork would pose an inconvenience, and perhaps more than that for those who live in states that cling to older views on this matter. Still, the states that keep abortion would not be affected.

That is not the case with same-sex marriage. It must be secured in every state; otherwise only a truncated version will prevail in those states that nominally adopt it. Like it or not—and I don’t welcome the prospect—we may in the end have to accept a “house divided” on this matter.

A bitter pill? Perhaps. When all is said and done, though, realism is preferable to comforting illusions.


While I am skeptical of too much extrapolation from the college survey cited by Varnell, a variety of polls indicate that support for SSM is increasing. Let us look, though, a little more closely at this groundswell. It consists of hard and soft support. The hard support comes mainly from the GLBT community, now solidly behind marriage expansion. Fifteen years ago, that was not so, as many (especially in the leadership cadres) considered other priorities more significant. Nowadays most informed gay men and lesbians consider SSM as simply an entitlement—a must-have.

Amongst the mass of the people, however—the heterosexual majority--support is different. In these majoritarian circles acquiescence is the rule, not fervor. This passive support means that these folks will not go to bat for the change. But if it is done, they will go along—depending on how the change is accomplished.

This contrast between fervor and acquiescence creates a paradox. For advocates of SSM now seems the time to press forward, using any means available. However aggressive tactics risk alienating the mass of soft support. These people are turned off by what they view as coercion, securing of gay marriage by judicial fiat. That, after all is what is what happened in Massachusetts.

So success will depend on the appropriate combination of diligence with caution. Most supporters of SSM now realize this. But can they control the enthusiasts who are still devoted to judicial activism?

A friend with legal training holds that the problem of securing federal benefits for those states that have legal marriage would be solved by repealing DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. The act is cleverly titled and repealing it may be harder than it seems. Moreover, things being as they are, a number of states will probably go the way of New Jersey, with all the (state) benefits of marriage, but not the name. This absence may prove a stumbling block in securing the federal benefits, even sans DOMA.

In short the matter is maddeningly complex. For the foreseeable future it promises much frustration for those who believe that gay marriage is an entitlement—something that equality simply requires. Alas, nothing is guaranteed on that basis.