Saturday, May 31, 2008

My college years

[This piece is the second installment of my reflections on my formative years. It will be helpful to read “Hapless in High School” (below) first.]

I will now address my UCLA years (1952-56). These were more congenial to me than the high school triennium, in large measure because most of the rowdies elected not to go to college, leaving the more serious students as my classmates. These in turn were reinforced by older people on GI bill scholarships, strongly committed to making something of the gift of their college years, together with other students from out of state.

Having abandoned my earlier interest in the natural sciences, I shifted to the humanities, with the aim (ultimately achieved) of earning my living by becoming a professor in that realm. I first thought of majoring in classics, then in history. Only in my third year did I settle on art history, a field previously unknown to me. This major appealed to me not as an artist (here I was only a dabbler), but because of the vistas it revealed that were broadly interdisciplinary. At first I was strongly drawn to Chinese art (and still am), but I ended up becoming a medievalist, a choice responding to a certain muffled spirituality in my make-up.

Apart from my formal studies I learned a good deal through conversations with advanced students in the social sciences, especially sociology and anthropology. Ultimately, I found sociology uncongenial because of its tendency to regard human beings as simply mirrors reflecting contents projected on them by society. In this way, human agency disappeared, and agency was important to me because I wished to transcend Southern California and even the US by my own efforts, however strenuous they might have to be. Of course, with such works as "The Lonely Crowd" by David Riesman et al., sociology enjoyed much more prestige then that it does now.

The anthropology connection led to my reading of a paper by Claude Levi-Strauss, then quite obscure. The French scholar has proved one of my lifelong guides. Now I am reading him once again. As regards anthropology I was struck by its ambition to provide a comprehensive description of an entire society. Having previously been an enthusiast for Arnold Toynbee, I was drawn to such portrayals. Yet I wanted them to address high cultures. Europe beckoned.

By way of outreach, I continued to assuage my culture-vulture penchants by forming a college humanities club, called “Investigations.” Meetings were not popular, and I had to dragoon attendees. Such was the work of culture mongering--hard, but somebody had to do it.

Be that as it may, I’ll skip over these scholastic details, which are not exactly riveting. Instead, I turn to my sexual and social development. I will approach this matter indirectly.

Some years ago David Halperin, a gay professor of classics at the University of Michigan, proposed a course on “How to Be Gay.” This announcement provoked consternation, leading to a hostile discussion in the state legislature. What I think Professor Halperin had in mind was to explore the fact that becoming gay is inevitably a process. One does not achieve this orientation all of a sudden, as it were, freshly minted. The aha! moment simply does not occur, either at the point where one acknowledges one’s orientation to oneself, through introspection, or at the point of declaring oneself (coming out). Instead, there is a complex process of negotiation, extending over some years, in which one gradually adjusts one’s expectations to social and psychic realities. Much as we would like to, we cannot make our own situation, but must accommodate to what presents itself to us. I will illustrate this situation by discussing two gay circles, one of which became known to me after the fact, the other being one I participated in.

I have already alluded to the clandestine gay circle in LA High in my earlier piece, “Hapless in High School.” Only when I got to college did I learn from my friend Chuck McC of the true nature of this group. As it formed a contrast to the group that I actually joined at UCLA, I will now say something more about this earlier group, as it formed (retrospectively) a benchmark for my later experiences.

Chuck’s high school circle was essentially democratic. The boys either took part in group sex (generally jerking off) or made themselves available to others, if you will, as fuck buddies. While some members of the group were more prominent than others, there was no clear leader.

Above all, the binary differentiation between confirmed gays (queens) and “trade” (men available for gay sex, but not stereotypical) had not taken place. Some members of the circle probably assumed that they would “turn straight” one day (as Chuck ultimately did). The boys probably felt that, with their ready access to fulfilling type of sex that responded to their raging hormones, they were better off that most of their heterosexual peers, who had to be content with petting. The situation combined hedonism with flexibility.

How did the pattern that prevailed in this group originate? Was it like that Nicaraguan village of deaf mutes who invented their own sign language? Probably not, in that some of the boys had probably previously engaged in sex play with younger boys in circle jerks and similar gatherings.

I turn now to the main theme of this piece, the gay circle I joined at UCLA. The fluidity of identity characterizing the high school circle (which had of course disbanded) yielded to a fixed personality type, that of the queen. For many the new guise proved a lasting one. By and large, the individuals who had come together in the UCLA circle continued to see one another regularly after graduation, evolving into a social group they called “the Loved Ones” (an ironic reference to the Evelyn Waugh novel). I was a sometime member of the group, but once I moved away in 1956, had no further relations with it.

At UCLA the daily gatherings of the circle were charged with powerful underlying currents of cynicism and acerbity. These corrosive solvents surely reflected internalized homophobia, a condition difficult to escape in those years of conformity. Turned inwardly, the negativity served to consolidate the norms of the group. And in fact much of the dishing was of each other, and of other gays who did not conform to the circle’s "standards."   

Internally, a hierarchy was generally recognized. What was this hierarchy based upon? First, it depended on looks and “endowment." They were all size queens. While most didn't have much to offer in that department, this deficiency did not prevent them from making catty comments about the "meat" of men they saw. So looks mattered most. Grotesquely, this criterion was called "standards." The group had only the faintest idea what might actually constitute standards.

Only with great difficulty could a homely person occupy one of the higher spots in the pecking order. Under exceptional circumstances this status could be achieved by marshaling the resources of the second and ultimately decisive quality. That was the ability to dish and give attitude. We did not use the term at the time, but attitude was indeed the key. It emerged in the verbal sallies that qualified (dubiously) as wit, and in the hauteur of a challenging gaze that ostensibly summed up the confrontational stance of the group. "She for he" put downs were common.

Under circumstances less benign than the college setting, group members would have been repeatedly beaten up. Their bravado was hollow--but as it was never put to the test, they could continue to nourish their illusions. And of course to keep “camping up a storm,” the latter-day gay version of the venerable bohemian practice of “épater le bourgeois.”

The solidarity of the group, such as it was, was reinforced by a pervasive scorn and belittling of outsiders. Sometimes these targeted individuals were the subject of “reading” in which their pretensions to heterosexual normality were supposedly exposed as a sham; they were gay, but just not willing to acknowledge it. In reality this process of reading was counterproductive, because in applying it an otherwise desirable male would be removed from the “trade” pool. Thus tarnished, he could no longer serve as a sexual object. We did not want to sleep with people like ourselves. By the way, such ascriptions were not always inaccurate. I remember scoffing when I heard that Rock Hudson was gay. I should not have.

By now it will be clear that the group could not boast many positive features. Puffed up and preening because of their sense of being special, the members had little incentive to change their ways. Yet the group showed one remarkable distinction, one that would have been less likely before and after: it was salt-and-pepper--that is, it consisted of about ten black member and ten white members. In that era of Brown v. Board of Education and the rise of the civil rights movement, the times were achangin.’ Even in liberal Southern California, though, there were many who remained uneasy about “race mixing.” We played on this uneasiness. It was another way of skating close to the edge.

A serpent was loose in this Eden (if so it may be termed) in the form of the Vice Squad of the Los Angeles Police Department. By and large, this insidious organization did not operate on the UCLA campus. But when members ventured out into the city for sex, they were eventually going to be arrested. I do not know of any of these men who were not. Their smugness and attitude availed them naught when they were entrapped in this way. Evidently, the cops were particularly hard on black guys who were found with white partners. As I noted, racial animosity lurked just beneath the surface in the LA of those days. Probably it still does.

Unlike the high school circle, there was no intragroup sex, as all the members of the band were “sisters.” To have sex with each other would be incestuous.

Functioning as a kind of pseudo-family, the group carefully controlled admission, and those who did not measure up were either relegated to a suppliant position on the fringe, or excluded altogether. I was one of those men assigned a marginal status.

My polar opposite was Victor S., an überqueen, who affected long hair, heavy make-up, and gender-ambiguous clothing. He majored in French, naturally. Victor’s high-pitched shrieks were a startling ostinato punctuating the gatherings of the group, which regularly occurred in one of the school’s cafeterias. Eventually, the college authorities forced Victor to clean up his act. In retrospect it seems that he was ahead of his time, a prefiguration of current trends in advanced gender bending. But that is not the way he was received in those days. This strange creature was basically antisexual rather than gay. All the same, he expended a lot of energy putting down other gays as being less human than he was for not being proud and open, and failing to conform to his peculiar criteria. In short he was a scold. Nonetheless, Victor served the group as something between an idol and a mascot. He symbolized our defiance.

With all the negativity infesting this UCLA group, why would anyone want to join? Well, it was the only game in town, or so it seemed at the time. Otherwise, one was condemned to a desert of loneliness in which one had only straight acquaintances with whom one could not really discuss one’s feelings. All the same, the apprenticeship this group provided to an emerging gay person was seriously damaging.

To what extent was the UCLA queens group typical? At the time I did not know any other such circles, so that I cannot judge from personal experience. However, John Grube, a Canadian scholar, has interviewed a good many older men of this period. His research indicates that such circles--replete with hierarchy, rule enforcement, and constant bitchiness--were common, probably the norm.

Above, I said that the UCLA queens group was the only game in town. Maybe that was so for our college campus, but it was not true for the larger world of the city in which we lived. In 1950 Los Angeles gave birth to the first successful US gay rights group, the Mattachine Society. To be sure, these folks had some issues of their own: they were much too respectful of the views of psychiatrists, for example. Still, the Mattachine Society signaled the rise of a new type of homosexual assertion, one based on pride and not marinated in self-pity and internalized homophobia as the UCLA group regrettably was.

I did not participate in the rise of Mattachine in those days, because ignorant UCLA queens warned me to stay away from it. But no matter, for later I was to become friends with the heroic band who started the movement that redeemed gay people--with Dorr Legg, Don Slater, Jim Kepner, and Harry Hay. I would not have missed this company for the world. And their cause was destined ultimately to triumph, putting the self-hating faggots our of business. A very good thing.


Friday, May 23, 2008

The retreat of American Catholicism

The recent visit of Benedict XVI to these shores served in no way to disguise the fact that the Catholic church in America has been losing ground for decades. Long ago the Legion of Decency and its sisters in Comstockery lost their ability to deter the faithful from attending certain movies. As for the Index of Prohibited Books, does it even exist? If it does, it would best serve as a list of good reading along the lines of the Chicago Great Books.

Most significantly a large segment of American Catholics have become protestants to all intents and purposes. They no longer pay attention to the hierarchy when it comes to such matters as contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. The recent attempts by some clerical neanderthals to deny communion to John Kerry because of his independence on these issues were widely derided.

And one mustn’t forget the clerical pederasty scandals. The problem was not simply the abuse itself but the coverup by the church authorities. My own view is that these hypocrites should be prosecuted under the RICO statute.

Things were very different in the fifties when it almost seemed as if the country was turning Catholic. Today it is hard to imagine the appeal of this trend, which seems a kind of last ditch attempt to stop modernity in its tracks. By the beginning of the 1950s it was clear that we were to be locked in a prolonged conflict with the Communist powers (the Cold War). Many saw the Marxist ideology, in some respects comparable to a religion, as a great source of strength for the other side. How could we respond? The usual answer was democracy, but this seemed too diffuse, and anyway the Communist states claimed to be “peoples democracies.” For some, only a return to Christianity could arm us sufficiently to wage this war of ideas. And it must be maximum strength Christianity, that is Catholicism. Too be sure, anti-Catholicism lingered in some parts of the country, especially in the South. If one could see beyond this, it appeared that Neo-Thomism, the official philosophy of the Roman church, offered a coherent world view--in fact the only form of Christianity that could stand up to godless Marxism. Among the neo-Thomists Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson had a significant following among the intellectuals, while Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen purveyed Catholicism for the masses in the new medium of television.

The roots of the modern Catholic revival go back to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. At that point Europe’s resurgent traditionalists seized the opportunity to restore the alliance of throne and altar.

There were significant cultural consequences, seen above all in the cult of the Middle Ages. The Gothic Revival generated buildings throughout Europe, and not just churches, as the parliament buildings in London and Budapest attest. Writers like Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, Walter Scott and Alfred Lord Tennyson profited from the new enthusiasm for the Middle Ages. Thinkers in various parts of Europe championed a revival of Scholasticism. To all intents and purpose, by the end of the century Thomas Aquinas had become the official philosopher of the Catholic church.

These indications were not exclusively Catholic, since in Germany and England some protestants joined in. However, the center of gravity lay in the Catholic church. Accordingly, when Pius IX issued his antimodernist Syllabus of Errors in 1864 a new tone set in. This led to what has been termed the Reactionary Revolution of the late nineteenth century in which writers like Léon Bloy and Joris-Karl Huysmans openly espoused anti-modernism.

Gradually, this first Catholic revival ran out of steam, although Charles Maurras (a proto-fascist) and Jacques Maritain (a political liberal) gave it some new impetus in France in the 1920s.

After World War II a new trend emerged. The five years of the domination of the European continent by National Socialism (1940-45) had left a void. Many felt that this void could only be filled by a revival of the human spirit, specifically in the form of Catholicism. It was no accident that the three politicians who emerged to craft a new Europe--Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gaspari, and Robert Schuman--were all believing Catholics. In the cultural realm the new trend shed its reactionary tradiionalism, as the chapels of Ronchamp and Vence showed. Le Corbusier and Henri Matisse, the creators of these impressive structures, were not believing Catholics, but that fact only underscored the power of the new orientation. In music Olivier Messiaen created an impressive, if eclectic modernism with mystical overtones. In the English-speaking world the novelists Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh explored Catholic themes. Among the intellectuals, T. S. Eliot and Arnold J. Toynbee exercised a vast sway. The last two were nominally protestants, but they went a long way in the direction of embracing the Roman faith.

As I have noted, the Catholic revival after 1945 was intended to replace the despair and spiritual emptiness left in the wake of Nazism with real content. It also served as a bulwark against Communism. It was this aspect that struck a chord in America, where many felt that we needed a “strong” ideology to oppose the enemy. As the so-called loss of China in 1949 showed, Communism was on the march, massively so.

In Cold War America the importance of Catholicism was demonstrated by an impressive roster of converts, including Mortimer Adler, editor of the Great Books series; the playwright Claire Booth Luce; the musician Dave Brubeck; Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement; the mathematician John von Neumann; the novelist Walker Percy; and (even) John Wayne, the actor.

During the ‘fifties the prestige of Catholicism was pervasive enough to become seductive, even among those who ought to have known better. Of course, there were personal factors as well. My own circumstances were somewhat unusual. As members of a far-left sect, my parents were atheists and they raised me to be one too. Except for the occasion of my grandmother’s funeral, I was never taken to a house of worship. When I finally read the Bible at the age of twenty I had the usual reaction of such late-comers: “aren’t there a lot of quotations?”

During my atheist phase I sent for some literature from an old-line organization founded by Colonel Ingersoll. Going through this packet of material, I was struck by how impoverished the arguments were. The simplistic mantras of the atheist propagandists seemed simply to reflect the dogmatism of Christian apologists in a kind of mirror reversal. Another thing that struck me was the fact that so many intelligent people could be believers. I remember reading Dante’s Divine Comedy and thinking, “wow this guy is so smart, surely he must have written the book as a satire.” Christianity with its cathedrals and sung masses (not to mention old Dante) has been immensely fertile culturally; atheism has not been. It is an arid creed. The writings of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are sometimes eloquent and sometimes persuasive. But reading them has not altered my view that there is not much to this stuff.

Still, these conclusions were not enough to induce positive belief. Not very originally, perhaps, I came up with the following formulation. There is no certainty that Christianity is true. By the same token, there is no certainty that it is false. We can therefore accept Christianity in a tentative way, because it COULD be true.

So I found my way to a respect, at the very least, for Christianity. In college I majored in art history where a knowledge of the Bible narrative and of the saints is essential for understanding many works of art.

But why Catholicism? I think my idea was that if you are drawn to a particular ideology, you should adopt the full-strength version. I may have been unconsciously influenced by my parents’ who scorned “wishy washy” social democracy which they held could not compare in rigor with true Marxism. Rigor, that was the thing. Similarly, many who have taken up psychiatry insist on the Freudian version, rather than some watered down “humanistic” nostrum.

Some of my Christian friends were reading Kierkegaard. I tried a little of it, but found that the Danish thinker usually worked best for those who were already protestants. I did not want to become a protestant. Had I discovered the penetrating texts of Karl Barth at that time, I suppose protestant neo-Orthodoxy might have won me over. Sometimes I think that Barth, unlike puny Maritain and Gilson, had the answer to everything. Sorry Sam and Christopher. At all events, that was a road not taken.

Despite my view about the superiority of the Roman church, I never converted. And that is just as well, because later would have come, almost certainly, the complex process of “divorce.” I did influence my best friend Chuck M. to convert, though doubtless he did this of his own volition. One of our friends, a scientist, became a monk.

Did my hesitation to convert reflect the fact that formal adoption of the religion would get in the way of my being a practicing homosexual? I don’t think so, for this was a kind of cognitive dissonance I didn’t confront. Religion I saw as mainly an intellectual affair, a matter of the head. Sexuality was a matter of the heart.

At all events, I took evasive action. For me matters took an aesthetic turn, and I became a specialist in medieval art. Together with many others, I detected formal similarities between medieval and modern art, in that both tended to disregard the naturalism of the Renaissance tradition. In this way my medievalism, I believed, transcended historical nostalgia.

As a friend points out, the Catholic decline is very obvious in France. Sixty years ago, the intellectual and dultural life of French Catholicism was rich, as such names as Mauriac, Bernanos, Claudel, Marcel, Maritain, Gilson, Danielou, and Du Lubac remind us. Today, it is hard to think of a single French writer or thinker of their stature who is Catholic. The decline is pervasive in Europe. Recently the NY Times reported that the whole of Ireland ordained just nine priests last year, with only one ordination in the archdiocese of Dublin. The Church's future, such as it will be, seems clearly to belong to the Third World. This relocation, as it were, will in all likelihood cause even further alienation in the advanced, Western world. Perhaps China, where religion is reviving, will achieve a synthesis of a sort. Maybe the the Jesuits who sought to evangelize the country beginning in the sixteenth century will finally get their due. Or perhaps not.

Be that as it may, what was the main reason for the decline of Catholicism in America since its brief high-water mark in the ‘fifties? To some extent it reflects the process of cultural fading. In a society perpetually questing for something new, Catholicism came to seem old hat. To be sure, with the vernacular mass and other reforms the religion took on a new face in the wake of Vatican II. But not enough to compete effectively with other trends of the era.

The principle reason, I believe for the retreat of Catholicism in North America lay in a momentous change in American culture that undergirded the shift from the ‘fifties to the ‘sixties. Put in its most basic terms, this was the change from the culture of conformity to the culture of expressivity. Only to a limited extent could Catholicism address the fever for “doing one’s own thing.” It decidedly did not endorse the idea of “different strokes for different folks.” While not strictly incompatible, Catholicism was not really in synch with LSD. It was done in by the availability of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Such at least was the experience of Jack Kerouac, who abandoned Catholicism for home-brew Buddhism. Few would endorse the song lyrics “Shakespeare’s a hack; we read Kerouac.” All the same, the author of “On the Road” beats Maritain every time.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hapless in high school

By chance the other day I discovered a curious item, a kind of sub-Proustian madeleine, bound in plastic and teeming with little black-and-white photos. It was my 1952 yearbook from Los Angeles High School. Instead of consigning it to pile in the urban equivalent of a garage sale, where it probably belongs, I let the book trigger some memories.

First let me step back a bit. In the ninth grade, at Mount Vernon Junior High, I had experienced a Peyrefittian episode of attraction to a cherub two years younger. This amounted to no more than puppy love, and it didn’t worry me very much.

What happened in high school was another matter. First, of course, was the overall setting that simply teemed with healthy, energetic, even radiant boys. In those days, such paragons of young virility were untouched by drugs or alcohol, vices that intruded in the following generation. As one could freely ascertain in gym classes, the boys had naturally splendid physiques, in no way resembling the shaved, pumped-up icons of today’s popular entertainment. Throughout the building, it seemed, their hyperactive pheromones diffused an aroma of subtle intoxication. Anyone who had the slightest bit of gayness in him would have to be really dull not to be drawn to this all-environing pulchritude. Looking back, I wonder how I could have gotten through the day without a continuous hard-on. Of course, the situation called for restraint, and substantial penalties awaited those who could not or would not manage a proper display of indifference. So, at least, it seemed in that age of conformity.

In this way I experienced a general seduction in which the male form was imprinted on my being. Yet there was a more specific agency. In the tenth grade I fell head-over-heels in love with one Larry Smith, a boy I scarcely knew well enough to speak to. What vagabond Merlin could have snared me with this enchantment?

Later, examining the matter soberly from a photograph taken at the time, I noted that Larry had fairly conventional Waspish good looks, with a clear complexion and a square jaw. His grades were, I reckon, little better than average. He could do sports, but did not excel in any of them. These things didn’t matter to me, though, for above all Larry was comfortable in his skin--as I, fretful and anxious, was not. He was not striving to be something, he just was. In him, being triumphed over becoming.

In several of his short stories Thomas Mann has analyzed the lure posed to the outsider boy by happy youths like Larry, Even though I did not know it at the time, there was a certain typicality in my fascination.

Larry was in one of my classes, and getting through the academic year was torture. Finally, the spring term was over. I would not see Larry for a full three months! Surely, I thought, the grip of the enslaving passion would loosen, and I could at last be free. But it did not, for I continued to be tormented by Larry’s remembered visage all through the summer. I would lie and writhe on the grass, in a vague Whitmanian hope that this would help to cure me. No such luck. In the fall I saw Larry again, and the passion flamed up even higher, prompted by the immediate visual stimulus of his revered form. I was doomed

Ultimately, the enchantment began to fade, though I still had feelings for Larry. I was not alone in my response, for my homophile buddy Richard W. noted Larry’s good looks in a remark to me.

My inability to shake this passion made clear to me, once and for all, that my nature was homosexual. (I did not know the word “gay” at the time.) The connection sealed my fate in another way: I would henceforth be attracted mainly to straight men like Larry. This was a recipe for unhappiness. Up to a point, the arrangement could work, as it later did with Neal and Chaz, if there was an element of gayness in the other person’s otherwise primarily heterosexual nature. Neal was probably two thirds straight (quite intensely so) and one third gay. Chaz never really quite found himself--not surprisingly, I suppose, considering his seemingly inevitable downward glide path.

I was spared one possible consequence of the Larry entanglement. I was not destined to be caught up in a fixation on 15- or 16-year old boys (his age at the time). I was not to be a boy lover, thank goodness. In due course, I could move on to somewhat older types.

Another set of high school episodes highlights the difficulty that an incipient gay boy would, almost inevitably, experience in those Dark Ages of conformity and ignorance. In ROTC, a sullen boy, trading comments with a confederate, insulted me with a sexual epithet. (He called me a penis; a complement, I suppose.) In this embarrassing situation--there were others present--I didn’t know what to do.

Some weeks later I was sitting in the Assembly balcony. I had gone early to attend some event, and the vast hall was practically empty. What should happen, though, but that Mr. Sullen (I can’t now recall his name) should come up and sit right next to me. Almost fawningly, he made it clear that he had no hostility but wanted to be friendly. He did not apologize for the previous incident and, still repulsed, I did my best to shun him.

Some years later Chuck McC., who had belonged to a surreptitious circle of gay boys at LA High, told me that this sullen youth was homosexual. No doubt the boy was struggling with conflicting feelings. His initial verbal attack reflected internalized homophobia. And then maybe he was trying to get my attention, and didn’t know how to do it otherwise. Clearly, he craved some kind of relationship; hence his approach to me in the Assembly. Dumb though that strange boy may have been, he had figured me out better than I had figured out myself.

Had I been able to suspend my aversion to the kid (who was OK looking, but nothing special), our prospects would have been inauspicious. For I too was struggling with conflicted feelings. In contrast with heterosexual adolescent courtship, our milieu provided no models for two men to link up as “more than just friends.” Any relationship of that kind was perilous, because gossip would ensue, followed by ostracism. To the best of my knowledge, McC.’s circle of five or six youths did not include any couples--they were all just friends together, it seemed. A male couple, on the other hand, would elicit hostile attention. So it is just as well that I didn’t go any farther with Mr. Sullen.

As I bade good-bye in the summer of 1952 to the halls of “Rome” (as we grandly called our high school), I was but dimly aware of the daunting challenges that awaited me. Somehow I must make contact with established homosexuals, a little older than me, who could offer counsel. In so doing I must defend myself, as best I could, from the cynicism and negativity that so pervaded the gay world at that time. So far I had had hardly any sex. I would have to learn how to find partners, and also to learn which modes suited me. How did one perform gay sex? Mutual masturbation was about as far as my imagination extended in those days. Put a cock in my mouth? How very unsanitary. Apart from this prudishness, I had somehow to avoid the danger of public labeling--what we now term outing--for as a person with very little in the way of personal or family resources, the ensuing obloquy would have been very hard to sustain.

And yet, I did manage.

In retrospect, I have concluded that what I learned from LA High was that I could survive (after a fashion), even as a contrarian.  How was I a contrarian? First, just being a “four eyes” (I wore thick glasses) barred me from any hope of joining the “in” crowd. They didn’t have contact lenses in those days.

I also did things that set me apart. I opposed the dominant pop trends by seeking to promote high culture, especially classical music. Yet opera--or so I was told--was “stuffy.” (The expression “it sucks” was unknown then.) My culture-mongering did not stop with classical music, though Mozart was my god. (Later I became almost physically ill when I read a mediocre British novelist’s dismissive comment about “filthy old Mozart.”) I was big on modern poetry and modern art, especially Picasso. Their hermetic qualities made them opaque to most people, which was just fine with me. On my own, I consulted works of explication at the public library, and with the aids I was able to hold forth on the symbolism and formal values that distinguished these highbrow productions. I liked to go to the movies, but shunned the latest Hollywood products in favor of classics of the silent era.

My parents couldn’t afford a TV, or so they claimed. A critic might say that in pushing high culture I was making a virtue of necessity. I didn’t have access to the fare on the idiot box, harmless rubbish that provided common themes for chatting in the cafeteria and during recess klatsches. By way of compensation, I became the apostle of something so very, very much superior!

In the late ‘forties an enterprising small publisher secured the rights to a formerly lost manuscript by Ezra Pound, “Patria Mia.” In the ad, above a fierce photo of the bearded poet ran the caption “the most antisocial writer of our time.” Whee! That guy was for me. Almost feverishly, I started reading Pound, who quickly replaced Friedrich Nietzsche in my affections, My interest in Pound was partly sparked by my ambition to become an avant-garde poet. In fact I was a kind of proto-beatnik, but fortunately I pulled back, because I couldn’t face the life of poverty such a career path would entail. (I wonder what became of the poems, mostly pastiches, that I produced during my high school years?)

When I showed my copy of “The Cantos” to one of my teachers, she remarked: “well, er, isn’t he p r e j u d i c e d?” As I noted, that was an age of verbal circumspection.

I did not share Pound’s anti-Semitism or his admiration of Mussolini. Later on, when I lived in Italy, I came across old-timers who still revered the Duce, but I was never able to make much of this enthusiasm.

Our high school was about 30% Jewish and these students were my natural allies, because, as a rule, they respected culture and learning. By definition the rednecks did not. Still, the Jewish students strove to fit in--to do OK at sports and to avoid the role of missionary culture-vulture, which was my thing.

With a few exceptions, I did not find the Jewish boys sexually compelling. As a sociologist might say, there was “not enough distance.” That is, being similar, we were not complementary enough. With the redneck guys it was different. They might not have much upstairs, but we could always live downstairs--or so I fancied. If only I could just shut up about Mozart and Picasso. But I just couldn’t.

Still, as long as I wasn’t too aggressive about it, being a culture-vulture was fairly safe; not so, sexual unorthodoxy. In high school there were definite limits, and coming out as a proud homosexual would be way, way out of bounds. In fact it was inconceivable. I suppose a Freudian would say that my culture-vulture engagements were a form of sublimation in response to my sexual frustration. Of course, in those pre-pill days most het boys and girls felt sexually frustrated too. For the most part they restricted their encounters to petting. Because of their deprivation, the boys were reputed to suffer from time to from attacks of the dreaded “blue balls.” During an attack almost any mouth would do that might offer the necessary relief. I never got a chance to test this hypothesis, though.

Sublimated or not, I found nonconformity welcome, even alluring.

All the same, from my parents' far-left orientation I also learned that concealment and guile (being in the closet, if you will) were sometimes advisable. As a postal worker, my stepfather could have lost his job in the anti-Communist atmosphere of the era.  Guided by my reading of Arthur Koestler, I came to reject my parents' politics, but the lesson of caution remained.

All things considered, LA High was a hostile, or at least indifferent environment for me.  In 1952 I breathed a big sigh of relief when I got to UCLA --so much more congenial to my love of high culture. The college days must wait for another installment of these reminiscences.

Perhaps it is not too much of an oversimplification to say that subsequently my life has unfolded between two poles.  In my academic career as an art historian, I largely adhered to the cooperative (UCLA) mode.  That was prudent.  However, when it came to the turbulent gay movement I reverted to being a contrarian, my high school stance.  As a result I was virtually hounded out of that movement--not unlike the fate of Don Slater, I suppose. Unfortunately, I lacked his infectious charm.

On my blog, I am free to be as contrarian as I wish--maybe not such a good thing, but hey! I am retired.


Thursday, May 15, 2008


Most non-Jews would regard it as presumptuous to advise Jews as to how to interpret the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, and how to conduct their worship and prayer observances. After all, this is America, and religion, we believe, is not a matter of public policy. (I observe, parenthetically, that secularist tend to suspend this rule of tolerance when it comes to protestant Fundamentalists. The Fundies abundantly return the favor.)

In addition, most of us feel that the Jews have gone through so much, especially in the terrible twentieth century, that they deserve to be left in peace now. Even those who oppose the Israel Lobby and its influence over our foreign policy do not, to my knowledge, offer any criticisms of the Jewish religion.

To be sure, such tolerance is not necessarily a complement, because benign neglect is still neglect. Occasionally, when one delves more deeply, as with the matter of circumcision, the result are disturbing. Better then, not to delve deeply

That said, there is a good reason to suspend the benign-neglect principle when it comes to the Hebrew Bible. The reason is that that vast compilation of texts is foundational for Christianity--and to a large extent for Islam as well. Christians and Muslims have a stake in the interpretation of those texts. Their way of reading may be misguided, especially from a Jewish point of view--but that is the way their faith traditions have approached the texts.

Moreover, those without any religious affiliation, and scholars in general, have an interest in the meaning of ancient texts and what they might tell us about what happened in earlier times. Individuals with this interest will wish to disregard (when necessary, and chances are it is necessary) the traditional reading, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, in favor of one in keeping with the findings of modern scholarship.

Still, the idea persists that today's Jewish readings are authoritative, as they stem from the people who created the texts. In other postings in this blog I have sought to show why we cannot take that assertion of authority at face value.

Modern Judaism is quite varied. Most of us are aware that, in North America at least, there are four main strands: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. To one extent or another, though, all these varieties reflect a historic passage through the gates of the Mishnah and the two Talmuds.

Marking the inception of Rabbinic Judaism (a.k.a. Normative Judaism or neo-Judaism), the Mishnah or Mishna (“repetition”) was redacted about 200 CE, ostensibly by Judah haNasi. It offers many brief citations from earlier sages, known as the Tannaim, stemming from the period 70-200 CE. For this reason it is sometimes thought to be an authentic record of the period immediately after the fall of the Second Temple, and perhaps even of the immediately preceding era. All the same, this florilegium is a selection, determined by the views of the redactor or redactors. We have know way of knowing what has been filtered out.

Purportedly, the Mishnah is not the development of new laws, but simply the gathering of existing traditions. This last claim is the start of the persistent error that there is a seemless web between original Judaism (if the faith of the Tanakh is so to be described) and neo-Judaism. Yet even a small sampling the tractates included in the Mishnah shows that, by comparison with the Hebrew Bible, they are entirely different in tone, atmosphere, detail, and doctrine.

The Mishnah quickly attained the status of an indispensable book. Commentaries created over the next three centuries in its wake are generically termed the Gemara. Most of this material was marshaled into the two Talmuds.

The Jerusalem Talmud, also known as the Palestinian Talmud, is a compilation of teachings of the schools of Tiberias, Sepphoris, and Caesarea. This Talmud reflects the expansion and analysis of the Mishnah that was developed over the course of nearly 200 years by the Academies in Palestine. Traditionally, this Talmud was thought to have been redacted in about the year 350 CE by Rav Muna and Rav Yossi. Nonetheless, further additions and editorial work were performed, and the final date of closure cannot be fixed with assurance. Some think that it was complete by 425 CE when the Christian emperor Theodosius II tried to put an end to formal Jewish scholarship. Nonetheless, some surreptitious work probably continued afterwards, perhaps until about 600 CE.

The Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) was transmitted orally for several centuries prior to its compilation by Jewish scholars in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) in the fifth century CE. Since the Exile to Babylonia in 586 BCE, there had been Jewish communities living in Mesopotamia as well as in Judea, as many of the captives never returned home. Incorporating the Mishnah, the Babylonian Talmud draws upon the Babylonian Gemara, the bearer of the analysis that had flourished orally in the Babylonian Academies. Tradition ascribes the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud in its present form to two Mesopotamian sages, Rav Ashi and Ravina, Accordingly, traditionalists argue that Ravina’s death in 499 CE is the latest possible date for the completion of the redaction of the Talmud. Clearly, though, it incorporates some later material. Some modern scholars have concluded that it did not reach its final form until about 700.

Whatever the exact date, many authorities would say that the closing of this second Talmud marks the conclusion of the unfolding of the Oral Torah. Others hold that more was to come, so that the medieval contributions of Rashi and Maimonides, for example, also belong to the Oral Torah.

Whether one takes a narrower or broader view of the vehicular scope of the Oral Torah, one thing is clear. This material is in no way comparable to the commentaries that classical scholars have made on Homer and Plato. Nor does it resemble the Biblical expositions of Christian Patristic writers, such as Origen and Augustine. These last, while highly prized by mainstream Christians, cannot aspire to the exalted status of the Oral Torah. The latter, no mere commentary, is sui generis, because it is not subordinate to the Written Torah: it enjoys an equal status. It is this dyarchy, if you will the coregency of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, that lends Rabbic Judaism--what I prefer to call neo-Judaism--its distinctive character. This character must not be conflated with the Judaism of the Second Temple period, when the concept and substance of the Oral Torah were unknown (setting aside, of course, the obvious fable of its purpoted Mosaic origin).

It is my belief that the beliefs and practices codified in the Mishnah and the two Talmuds constitute an essentially new religion, not to be identified with the religion that is documented in the Hebrew Bible--though it derives from it. By any standard this neo-Judaism is truly a remarkable intellectual creation. This great effort came about, as Jacob Neusner has emphasized, in response to two catastrophes. The first was the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The second was the need to respond to the rise of Christianity as promulgated by the emperor Constantine in the early fourth century. (Because of the claim that the Oral Torah went back to Moses, any Christian influence would seem to be completely ruled out. Since, as we have seen, these redactions occurred after the formation of the Christian Church, some seepage, as it were, from Christianity cannot be excluded. There are also classical strands, including methods of argument stemming from Roman law.)

A less resilient group of people would have accepted the two great setbacks, the destruction of the Temple and the triumph of Christianity, as definitive, meekly conforming to the new norms (which were indeed imposed in an imperious and intolerant way). Accordingly, as part of a vast and ingenious survival kit, they created the elaborate contrivance known as the Oral Torah, ascribing its origins (in an easily detectable falsehood) to Moses himself. It is because this new Oral Torah proved so powerfully intrusive that it needs to be distinguished--for scholarly purposes, at least--from its companion, the Written Torah. For it is indisputable that the latter, the Hebrew Bible, came first. For this reason, these texts, whether they are called the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, or the Old Testament, deserve to be treated as an independent, stand-alone corpus.

Some years ago there was, according to report, a small protestant congregation in Queens whose members reflected seriously on the fact that Jesus and the Disciples were all Jews. That is certainly true. Yet they drew consequences that were not warranted, for they held that in order to be faithful followers of Jesus they must follow the observances of modern Orthodox Jews. They adopted Hasidic dress and hair styles; they carefully separated the milk and meat dishes in their kitchens; more generally they sought to adhere to the 613 mitzvot; and they placed mezuzahs beside their doors. Well, I’m not sure about the mezuzahs, but the point is clear. These protestants created their own version of “Jews for Jesus.” Yet their premises were not sustainable.

These earnest Christians were not getting closer to the world of Jesus through such observances. In fact, the Savior and his Disciples would have been bewildered by their behavior. For none of these practices were characteristic of classic Judaism, or even of its Hellenistic extension that formed the immediate background of the Jesus movement.

These observances and most of the rest make up the devotional complex that modern Jews call Halacha. Halacha is often rendered as "Jewish Law," though a more literal translation might be "the path" or "the way of walking." Halacha guides not only religious practices and beliefs, but numerous aspects of day-to-day life. While these practices have been endowed with some form of Scriptural pedigree in the form of proof texts, most of them are later inventions, or fantastic elaborations of much more restricted commandments. An example of the latter is the separation of milk and meat dishes, supposedly enjoined by the admonition “thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” (Ex. 23:19, 34:26; Deut. 14:21). As such, these observances are characteristic of neo-Judaism, an essentially new faith that began to emerge about 200 years after the death of Jesus. To be sure, neo-Judaism is an authentic faith of long standing. Doubtless it is the repository of much wisdom, which it would take me years just to begin to assimilate--were it not for time’s winged chariot, which does not permit me that luxury.

Still, in order to understand the world of the Bible, the Tanakh, we need to separate it from this host of additions that neo-Judaism has spun forth in its name. This subsequent body of beliefs and observances was assembled much later, under different auspices and conditions.

In conclusion, let me put the matter in the vernacular. Do you need to see the movie “Judaism I” before seeing “Judaism II”? No, but it helps. And above all, don’t conflate the two pics, even if they happen to be shown back to back.

Continuing in this mode, I remark parenthetically that if the Judaizing protestants of Queens had wanted truly to recapture the world of the Hebrew Bible, they would have adopted polygamy. But maybe it is not necessary to go that far, though Joseph Smith thought otherwise.


Jamie Walters: Immortality, 2008 style

This fall will witness a revival of the TV show “Beverly Hills 90210.” During the ‘nineties, when I told my Hunter College students that I faithfully watched that evening soap opera for teeny boppers, they responded with incredulity--and pity. How could an educated, grown man stoop to such a thing?

I lamely explained that my devotion to the show represented an effort to keep up with young people. And, truth to tell, it addressed some remaining smidgeon of LA nostalgia. Yet these excuses were phony, for the decisive factor in the appeal was the sex appeal of the two main male stars, Jason Priestly and Luke Perry. (Jason Priestly? Gad, what was I thinking?) In my eyes, however, they were briefly eclipsed by Jamie Walters, who was there for only over a little over a year, when he was banished for being an abuser of the ineffable Tori Spelling (the character being the abuser, that is, not Mr. Walters). Never mess with the producer’s daughter!

I recently caught an episode of BH 90210 with Jamie Walters and my heart was aflutter again. So I did a little research on the internet. Walters was also, for a time, a successful rock musician. About six years ago his career, both in music and acting, seemed to come to a halt. Undaunted Jamie Walters (now 38) trained to be a paramedic with the LA Fire Department, a post he is fulfilling with distinction today. I think that is wholly admirable. Just the opposite of the trashy character Ray Pruit that he was required to play on TV, Jamie is truly a caring person.

One can triumph over stereotypes. As he notes, he could have gone on to be another David Cassidy. But he didn’t do that either. He was determined to be his own creation.

You can download some of his songs on the Internet. Three albums are available. Jamie is also still receiving fan letters from all over the world. This material he has generated is copious enough that it will last--probably forever. Jamie Walters is immortal. And who deserves it better than this fine musician, actor, and humanitarian?

At all events, you can see a six-minute clip from last November of JIm Walters in his new roles as family man and paramedic at

Charles Baudelaire wrote of the "heroism of everyday life." I am hereby inaugurating my own annual Heroism of Everyday Life Award. Jim Walters is the first recipient.


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Name switching

A story, possibly apocryphal, stems from the Hollywood of yore, which carefully adhered to a code that banned any open discussion of homosexuality, and indeed any form of sex deemed improper. One day, so the story goes, a trusted aide approached the producer Sam Goldwyn with what he said was a wonderful script. “Let’s do it then,” Goldwyn impulsively interjected. “Well, there is one difficulty,” comes the reply. “The two women in the picture are lesbians.” “What’s the problem?” says Goldwyn. “We can always call them Bulgarians.”

By the standards of those days, of course, the script would still not be viable. It was the conduct, not the name, that made it radioactive.

So too with many other instances of name switching, Burma is a poor third-world country sandwiched between Bangla Desh and Thailand. Its desperate situation has been made worse by a tyrannical and corrupt government. When that government insists that we call it Myanmar none of these elements go away.

Such changes are familiar in the world of politics, so that Bombay has become Mumbai, Saigon is Ho Chi Minh City and so forth. However, the Congo, once Zaire, is now the Congo once more. None of these changes in nomenclature affects the actual situation of the place in question. We are cajoled into adopting the new term by various specious reasonings, such as the claim that the old names reflect imperialism or that the people themselves desire the change.

There are similar gambits in name switching where religion is concerned. Until the recent protests, it seemed fairly certain that the traditional greeting “Merry Christmas” would be replaced by “Happy Holidays.” Of course, people can say the latter if they wish. I sometimes do so myself. Yet the pivotal event of that season is the Christian festival of the Nativity, commemorated for many centuries on December 25. Relatively speaking, Hanukkah and Kwanza are Johnny-come-latelies that have attached themselves to the original core. The latter two observances are, as it were, calques that flourish at that time of year primarily as competition for Christmas. We say “Merry Christmas” because that commemoration is the essential feature of the season.

In recent years historians have tended to replace the chronological markers BC and AD with BCE and CE. The first are thought to be Christian (as they are), while the latter are considered more broadly acceptable. However, this switch obscures the fact that the BC/AD contrast was devised some 1500 years ago by a Scythian monk, Dionysius Exiguus, who based it on the pivot of the Incarnation of Jesus. It is a revolution in the conception of time because no previous chronology--Egyptian, Greek, Roman or whatever--had combined positive with minus numbers. All of the earlier chronologies consist of a single numerical sequence that starts from the earliest date ascertainable. In these schemes there is no equivalent of BC dates. BCE dates are simply a reflection of the innovative minus-number concept, and as such will always retain the evidence of their origin. Whatever the initials of choice may happen to be, the system itself still commemorates a Christian event. Name switching does not alter that fact.

Similarly, we are now asked to stop using the “Old Testament,” replacing that expression with “Hebrew Bible” or “Tanakh.” I prefer the latter terms myself, since they encourage looking at the documents concerned as autonomous creations, and not as the groundwork for some later faith. Still, I don’t see any reason why Christians who believe that the earlier writing are preparatory to their faith should not keep the term “Old Testament.” The traditional term accords with what they believe.

So far these religiously motivated subsitutions have some rationale. Yet name changing has come to take on a life of its own. For example, a Jewish friend suggested that I stop writing about the “Pentateuch.” Instead, I should prefer the Hebrew term “Chumash,” which is ostensibly more authentic. In fact, this neologism is not good Hebrew; it is a misnomer. The word Chumash seems to be a misreading of chomesh, meaning "one-fifth", alluding to any one of the five books and not to the whole set. Another term, the “Five Books of Moses,” has a genuine historical pedigree. However, since we know that Moses, a person who probably never existed, didn’t write the books, that substitution is also unwise.

As this last example shows, name changing for its own sake should be avoided. First, it impedes communication. Most educated people have a pretty good idea what “Pentateuch” means. In keeping with the etymology, it refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. In all likelihood the word was invented by the Hellenized Jews of Alexandria. The term is widely used and should be kept. Second, by acceding to a name change of this kind one tacitly accepts that an advance in knowledge has been achieved--when in fact it has not. The object(s) described by the new term are the same as those designated by the old one. That is semantics 101.

Recently, in Jewish circles there has been a move to employ Hebrew as often as possible in relation to the Scriptures and religious practice. I have no problem with the terms that are preferred in the synagogue. If I did, it wouldn’t matter. Those choices are up to the members of the congregation. However, I do object to the obscurantist insistence that we all must adopt such terminology. It is an unarguable fact that the Bible--all of the books collected under that name--has had an immense, indeed momentous significance for Western civilization. It is hard enough to arrive at the truth about those ancient texts without having to adhere to a series of unnecessary changes in nomenclature. That amounts to kicking sand in the face of the investigator.

So let’s stop name switching and address the issues. So, I think, I have tried to do in my recent postings on religion.


Friday, May 09, 2008

Gaylaw and social change

During the course of the 1970s, the first ecstatic waves of gay liberation peaked and then began to subside. It became evident that the walls of oppression were not going magically to fall just because we were issuing, in the fashion of the day, some sort of “nonnegotiable demands.”

At that point I elected to join the National Committee for Sexual Civil Liberties, headed by the redoubtable Arthur Warner of Princeton. This group adopted an incremental approach to getting rid of the sodomy laws. This process of state-by-state decriminalization had begun with Illinois in 1961. After other, better financed organizations took over, the job was finally finished with a Supreme Court decision in the case of Lawrence v. Texas (2003).

Of course the job was not finished, because two big tasks remain: ending discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military, and securing same-sex-marriage as a national right.

With the additional hurdles noted still in prospect, this is basically a judges-only approach, based on the strategy of finding elite individuals who are highly placed in the legal system. Ultimately, these makers and shakers will strike down the bad laws, however reluctant public opinion at large may be.

In the last analysis, the approach rests upon a libertarian view of society as an alliance of autonomous citizens. In order to secure individual flourishing, what we must do, first and foremost, is to lift the burden of government intervention. Removing antigay laws does this.

Yet is this approach enough? Some while back, I came to realize that gays could not convert “virtually normal” (in Andrew Sullivan’s phrase) into “normal, period” without a great change in hearts and minds. Some of this advance could be achieved through reports, studies, and argumentation, following the example set by Alfred Kinsey in 1948. The other path was a grass-roots one, for as more and more gay and lesbian people come out to friends and relatives, the latter folks realize that this is a human situation, and not some set of statistics.

Still, there remains--even among some people who formally acquiesce in gay rights--a deep current of reservation. They are uneasy when it comes to the physical facts of gay and lesbian sex. They would just as soon that we didn’t hold hands or otherwise show affection in public. But why shouldn’t we? The answer lies in that word just used: acquiescence is not genuine acceptance.

Into this dialogue comes the powerful voice of William N. Eskridge, Jr. in his new book “Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003” (Viking). Eskridge is the John A. Garver Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School. Openly gay, he has published a series of law journal articles that reveal a remarkable capacity for precise research on the social context of America’s nefarious sodomy laws. In his earlier published books, which sought a more general audience, Eskridge had seemed to ally himself with the radical gay faction. Now, it seems, he has morphed into something like a social conservative.

Eskridge believes that gays are being held back by formidable reserves of disgust and fear of social pollution. These stark terms, for which he offers little documentation, seem to me to go too far. Still a mass of reservations, all the more persistent for not being (often) avowed, linger among the general public. As Eskridge puts it, many have not been able to bring themselves to acknowledge that homosexuality is a b e n i g n variation. Legally speaking, we may dot every i and cross every t, but in the end the best we can hope for is a kind of cold peace. The reservations that most straights feel towards us will persist.

There is, Eskridge believes, some possibility of mitigating these sentiments. The poster people for his book are a gay professional couple, Steven Lofton and Roger Croteau. In a stable relationships for some twenty years now, Lofton and Croteau, who are white, have adopted three black HIV children, providing them with a secure and loving home. The couple had to leave Florida because that state regards gay people as unsuitable foster parents. Lofton and Croteau are admirable individuals, but not everyone can follow in their footsteps. Nonetheless, Eskridge believes that all gay and lesbian people must somehow “pay their dues,” so that we can deflect the disapproval that straights continue to harbor against us.

In a pivotal sentence (p. 382) Eskridge makes the following point. “Lawrence [the 2003 Supreme Court decision] should . . . be understood as a challenge for gay people. Recalling an old-fashioned conception of citizenship as entailing obligations as well as freedoms, Lawrence should stir LGBT people to commit themselves to families, communities, and institutions (including religious ones) from which they have been alienated because of sodomy laws, social stigma, and other disabilities.”

I readily confess that I am one of those who has been so alienated. I don’t see why I should now have to commit myself to a family or a religious institution in order to secure my full civil rights. Still, I would agree that it would help if substantial numbers of gay and lesbian people did so.

But how much would it help? The disgust that homosexuality evokes is a product of several layers of experience and ideology. Ultimately, it is religiously based, since the Bible presents toleration of homosexual behavior as a danger to the body politic. (Yes, I know that John Boswell and others have sought to erase the sting of these texts. For most religious people, however, the sting persists.) Then a wave of psychotherapy crested fifty years ago. Even though most psychiatrists have changed their tune, the notion persists that same-sex behavior is somehow abnormal. Finally, there was the AIDS crisis. Drugs are helping a great many HIV people to lead productive and rewarding lives. And yet, allowing for some monocausal exaggeration, gay people are centrally implicated in this disease, and they will continue to be so perceived.

In short the likely scenario is that in the long term gay and lesbian people will experience a kind quasipariah status. The laws that have been holding us back will finally be abrogated. Vicious name calling, of the sort that prevailed until recently, will be unfashionable. But still, for the foreseeable future, “virtually normal” will be the best we can claim.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Scapegoating gays and lesbians

According to reliable reports, the Chicago church of Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright welcomes gay and lesbian parishioners. It is therefore somewhat unfortunate that Clyde Haberman in today's NY Times should link Wright's references to disaster to the notorious homophobic remarks of several rightwing pastors.

Pat Robertson remarked that 9/11 came about as a result of America's tolerance of "abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians." His remarks were echoed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who has since been called to his maker.

Rev. John C. Hagee is a controversial televangelist who regards the Catholic church as the "Great Whore of Babylon." These comments have caused John McCain, whom Hagee supports, some discomfort. Apparently, though, the Senator from Arizona is not having any trouble with Hagee's claim that God sent Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans to punish the city for hosting a thriving gay and lesbian culture.

To be sure this kind of scapegoating has been noted before. What all the commentators leave out, however, is the fact that the argument goes all the way back to the emperor Justinian (527-565), who held that tolerance of same-sex behavior caused God to visit earthquakes on his realm. Stop the behavior, he believed, and the earthquakes would cease.

In a general sense these views reflect the Biblical pattern of the Prophet Jonah, who was thrown overboard to avoid shipwreck. More specific to homosexuality are the repeated denunciations in the Hebrew Bible of the male sacred prostitution of the kedeshim, an activity that was thought to incur Yahweh's displeasure. (I am aware that a recent revisionist school claims that the kedeshim did not engage in sex; I find this assertion unconvincing.)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The rise and fall of Biblical Archaeology

A friend used to make his living partly by delivering talks on Bible animals to church groups. At the Anglican Cathedral of New York, near my home, there is a charming A garden displaying Biblical plants. Such efforts reveal a widely felt wish to visualize aspects of the Scriptures.

Since the fourth century Christians have been undertaking pilgrimages to the Holy Land in order to see the places where the Lord and others stood. Jews go them one better by actually immigrating to Israel. One of the motives is to witness in person the major sites of the Bible.

This practice responds to a sense that reading the texts, prayer, and religious ritual, while of great importance, were not enough. There must be. at some point, a tangible link with the revered figures and events. Ultimately, this meant visiting the loca sancta, the places where the revered figures actually walked and lived, in the Middle East. For Christians (who during the Middle Ages and afterwards could not easily make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, relics fulfilled a similar purpose.

As the Ottoman period drew to a close, visits became more practical. At the sites, one could obtain guidance from dragomans and cicerones, who would offer sometimes fantastical accounts. Naturally, the desire grew to learn more. This knowledge could be increased by the possibility of looking beneath the surface, through excavation if possible. Hence, the appearance of Biblical Archaeology.

In fact this approach had roots outside the Middle East. Towards the end of the sixteenth century the catacombs became accessible in the city of Rome. Under the patronage of the popes, much was done to recover objects that had been lost to view for a thousand years or more. This was done under the umbrella of Christian Archaeology. In some ways this was not an objective discipline, as it was conducted with the aim of documenting Catholic claims, especially those that pertained to the presumed apostolic foundation of the church.

Excavations in sites of Biblical and related interest began in the Middle East began in earnest in the nineteenth century. Sponsored by several types of institutions, these were not monopolized by an particular confessional allegiance, as the Roman ones were. Yet another subtext intruded, a political one. We know that the excavations of Sir Leonard Woolley and others in the Middle East were in part a vehicle for British imperial ambitions. With this background it is not surprising that subtexts should intrude in excavations that more specifically targeted Palestine.

In many ways the emergent discipline of Biblical Archaeology came to be personified by William Foxwell Albright (1891-1971), an energetic American protestant scholar. As editor of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research between 1931 and 1968, Albright exercised deep influence over both biblical scholarship and Palestinian archaeology, an influence greatly advanced by his prolific writing and publishing (over 1,100 books and articles). His lead was followed by his students George Ernest Wright, Frank Moore Cross, and David Noel Freedman. That the latter was Jewish seemed a happy augury that the Albrightian program would be a broad, objective one.

Alas, this impression is incorrect,and Albright’s concepts and conclusions, especially those relating to biblical archaeology, have been overturned by developments after his death. While Albright was not a Biblical literalist, in many ways his views seem naive today. He saw the archaeologist's task as being "to illuminate, to understand, and, in effect, to ‘prove’ the bible." In this Albright's American Evangelical upbringing--he was the son of two missionaries-- was clearly apparent. He insisted, for example, that "as a whole, the picture in Genesis is historical, and there is no reason to doubt the general accuracy of the biographical details" (that is, of figures such as Abraham and Melchizedek). Similarly he claimed that archaeology had proved the essential historicity of the book of Exodus, and the conquest of Canaan as described in the book of Joshua and the book of Judges. Nothing today is left of this approach amongst mainstream archaeologists. As one observer noted, "[h]is central theses have all been overturned, partly by further advances in Biblical criticism, but mostly by the continuing archaeological research of younger Americans and Israelis to whom he himself gave encouragement and momentum... The irony is that, in the long run, it will have been the newer "secular" archaeology that contributed the most to Biblical studies, not ‘Biblical archaeology’."

The Albrightian consensus collapsed in the 1970s. Fieldwork, notably Kathleen Kenyon's excavations at Jericho, had failed to support the conclusions the biblical archaeologists had drawn, with the result that central theories squaring the biblical narrative with archaeological finds, such as Albright's reconstruction of Abraham as an Amorite donkey caravaneer, faced rejection by the archaeological community. The challenge reached its climax with the publication of two major studies. In 1974 Thomas L. Thompson's The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives reexamined the record of biblical archaeology in relation to the Patriarchal narratives in Genesis and concluded that "not only has archaeology not proven a single event of the Patriarchal narratives to be historical, it has not shown any of the traditions to be likely." In 1975 John Van Seters' Abraham in History and Tradition reached a similar conclusion about the usefulness of tradition history: "A vague presupposition about the antiquity of the tradition based upon a consensus approval of such arguments should no longer be used as a warrant for proposing a history of the tradition related to early premonarchic times."

At the same time a new generation of archaeologists, notably William G. Dever, had begun to criticize the older generation for failing to take note of the revolution in archaeology known as processualism, which saw the discipline as a scientific one allied to anthropology, rather than a part of the corpus of the humanities linked to history and theology. Biblical archaeology, Dever said, remained "altogether too narrowly within a theological angle of vision.” He held that it must be abandoned, to be replaced by a regional Syro-Palestinian archaeology operating within a processual framework.

Dever was broadly successful. Arguably most archaeologists working in the world of the Bible today do so within a processual or post-processual framework, even though few explicitly so describe themselves. The reasons for the retention of the old nomenclature are complex, but are connected with the link between excavators (especially American ones) and the denominational institutions and benefactors who employ and support them. Repeatedly, the link between the Bible and archaeology has been shown to be tenuous at best, yet few seem willing to explicitly disavow it. Such frankness could be a career-destroying move.

In 1956 Albright and his associates launched the Anchor Bible Commentary Series. Although a range of views is presented, the center of gravity of the series is Albright’s views, as interpreted more recently by his disciple David Noel Freedman, the general editor. Now consisting of some 80 volumes, it is unfortunate that this series represents the most advanced scholarship in the eyes of the unsuspecting. (I gave away most of my volumes.)

Today the Biblical Archaeology Review conveys much useful information to the general public. The editors have not retained the outdated approach of Albright. Sometimes reading between the lines, we learn that archaeology has not “proved” that the Bible was right, but actively undermined its credibility. To their credit the BAR editors have given a place to the radically corrosive findings of the so-called minimalists, whose views are become increasingly mainstream.