Thursday, April 30, 2009

Larry Kramer and the folly of "gender studies"

Larry Kramer (born 1935) is an American playwright, author, public-health advocate, and gay activist. Kramer began his career rewriting scripts while working for Columbia Pictures, which led him to London, where he worked with United Artists, and wrote the screenplay for Women in Love in 1969. He was nominated for an Academy Award. A new confrontational style emerged with his 1978 novel "Faggots," portraying shallow, promiscuous gay relationships in the 1970s. Widely attacked at the time, the novel proved prescient--though in a very unfortunate way with the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis in 1981.

Rising vigorously to the occasion, Larry Kramer cofounded the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), which has become the largest private organization working to assist people living with AIDS in the world. GMHC ousted Kramer from the organization in 1983, as his preferred method of "in-your-face" communication was deemed too militant for the group. Undaunted, Kramer expressed his frustration with bureaucratic paralysis and the apathy of gay men to the AIDS crisis by writing a play “The Normal Heart“ in 1985. His political activism extended to the founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987.

He had enrolled at Yale University in 1953, but did not adjust well. Kramer was lonely and his grades were poorer than he was accustomed. He tried to kill himself by overdosing on aspirin because he thought he was the "only gay student on campus.” The experience left him determined to explore his sexuality and set him on the path to fighting "for gay people's worth.” The following semester, he blossomed in an affair with his German professor—his first requited romantic relationship with a man. Yale had been a family tradition: his father, older brother Arthur, and two uncles were alumni.

Over time, Kramer’s attitude to his alma mater mellowed. In 1997 he approached Yale to help realize a dream: he wanted to give them several million dollars to endow a permanent, tenured professorship in gay studies, and to build a gay and lesbian student center. At that time, academics were wary about gender, ethnic, and race-related studies. The then-Yale provost, Alison Richard, maintained that gay and lesbian studies were too narrow a specialty for a program that was to last in perpetuity. Kramer's rejected proposal read: "Yale is to use this money solely for 1) the study of and/or instruction in gay male literature, by which I mean courses to study gay male writers throughout history or the teaching to gay male students of writing about their heritage and their experience. To ensure for the continuity of courses in either or both of these areas tenured positions should be established; and/or 2) the establishment of a gay student center at Yale. . . ."

In 2001 both sides agreed to a five-year trial with seed money of $1 million, a sum Arthur Kramer (Larry’s lawyer brother) generously allocated to Yale to finance the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies. The money would pay visiting professors and a program coordinator for conferences, guest speakers, and other events. Larry Kramer agreed to leave his literary papers and those chronicling the AIDS movement and his founding of GMHC and ACT-UP to Yale's famed Beinecke Library. (Arthur Kramer retired from the law firm in 1996 and died of a stroke in 2008.)

In the sequel Yale University has behaved badly. Unfortunately, this outcome is not unique. Major universities, including Cornell and Harvard, have a sorry record of receiving large bequests for gay studies, only to commandeer ruthlessly the money for other purposes. I will let Larry Kramer, one of the great humanitarians and activists of our times, explain the matter himself--as he did just a few days ago when Yale’s Gay and Lesbian Association invited him back to campus to receive its first Lifetime Achievement Award. The following are his remarks, slightly shortened, from the full publication at

“I have come here to apologize to you.

“It took a long time for Yale to accept Kramer money. After a number of years of trying to get Yale to accept mine for gay professorships or to let me raise funds for a gay student center, (both offers declined), my extraordinary straight brother Arthur offered Yale $1 million to set up the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies and Yale accepted it. My good friend and a member of the Yale Corporation, Calvin Trillin, managed to convince President Levin that I was a pussycat. The year was 2001.

“Five years later, in 2006, Yale closed down LKI, as it had come to be called. Yale removed its director, Jonathan David Katz. All references to LKI were expunged from Web sites and answering machines and directories and syllabuses. One day LKI was just no longer here.

“When this happened I thought my heart would break.

“I wanted gay history to be taught. I wanted gay history to be about who we are, and who we were, by name, and from the beginning of our history, which is the same as the beginning of everyone else’s history.

“By chance, just as we opened for business, Jonathan Ned Katz, our first visiting scholar, and Jonathan David Katz discovered that John William Sterling, Yale’s first really major benefactor, who died in 1918, had been gay and lived with one man only, James O. Bloss, all their adult lives. We released this information to the world, with great pride and excitement. What a way to launch ourselves! In no time flat I received a phone call from a classmate who is a partner in Shearman & Sterling, the giant law firm John Sterling founded, telling me that this information had not gone down well there and indicating that Yale would hear about it.

“Jonathan David Katz, who is an art historian, put on an exhibition of the relationship of Robert Rauschenberg and his gay lover and how it affected his art. This, too, did not sit well. Jonathan David Katz’s courses were taken away from him. He was told he could no longer teach.


“When I set LKI up I didn’t know that gay studies included all kinds of other things and these other things ruled the roost: gender studies, queer studies, queer theory. And that then-Provost Alison Richard, who immediately left to run Cambridge University, my attorney, Bill Zabel, and I were ignorant of the great semantic differences lurking in the words “studies” and “history.” Thus I was not able as I might have been when initial negotiations were transpiring, to insist that my brother’s money be funneled via the history department rather than leave it up to Yale, which plunked LKI just where it should not have been, in the women’s and gender studies department. The various queer and gender theories I came to quickly realize [are] relatively useless for a people looking to learn about our real history; [they] drowned us out completely. Month after month, over these five years, as I was sent constant email announcements of lectures and courses and activities that reflected as much about real history as a comic book, I slowly began to go nuts. I made pleas everywhere I could, in the Yale Daily News, to then-Dean Peter Salovey and then history chair, Paul Freedman. Please put us in the History Department, I begged. I made a public plea to another provost, Emily Bakemeier, at a Berkeley Master’s Tea. I brought letters to Provosts Long and Bakemeier; from George Chauncey, then at Chicago and now, in no small part because of me, here at Yale; and from Martin Duberman, whom I had put on LKI’s advisory board, two of our most distinguished gay historians. Martin stated in no uncertain terms, and George concurred with him, then: “Yale is doing it wrong. You do not teach gay history via gender studies, via queer theory. You are making the same mistake every other gay program makes.”

“Yes, I came to see this and this big deal activist came to see that he was powerless. I apologize to you. I bore witness to all this. I bore witness to the fact that the university was ridding itself of a teacher, Jonathan David Katz, who was exceptionally loved and admired. The kids stood up and cheered him nonstop with tears in their eyes. “He is the best teacher I have ever had for anything, period,” is a direct quote from one young man. On his last day at Yale, Jonathan somehow managed to get the Yale Art Gallery to remove from storage, for this one day, work by the following artists: Homer, Eakins, Sargent, Bellows, Demuth, Hartley, O’Keefe, Rauschenberg, Johns, Twombley, Nevelson, Martin, Indiana, Morris, and Warhol. Jonathan lectured in the Art Gallery to a packed house about why he considers each of these great American artists gay and how this is reflected in their work. I had brought one of the heads of the Phillips Collection in Washington. “What a brilliant piece of scholarship,” she said. This event, also, did not go down well somewhere in the murky invisible inner sanctums of Yale’s Soviet-style bureaucracy. Yale was getting rid of the only faculty member teaching the kind of gay history that I longed for and I was powerless to help rectify this great mistake. Yes, this famous big deal loudmouth activist apologizes to you, and to Jonathan. My lover, David, says I did not sit on the nest enough. I did not become enough of the Larry Kramer they were afraid of.

“There were and are 22 courses offered in the Pink Book of LGBT studies for this year. Only one of them, the course George Chauncey teaches entitled “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History,” is a gay history course. Here are the others:

•Gender and Sexuality in Popular Music
•Critical Ethnography: Methods, Ethics, Poetics
•Cross-Cultural Narratives of Desire
•Gender Transgression
•Sex and Romance in Adolescence
•Biology of Gender and Sexuality
•Anthropology of Sex and Sexualities
•Beauty, Fashion, and Self-styling
•Gendering Musical Performance
•Gender Images: A Psychological Perspective
•Gender, Nation, and Sexuality in Modern Latin America
•Queer Ethnographies
•Music and Queer Identities

“The word “queer” also embellishes [sic] most of the activities and lectures and fellowships and appointments announced in those various emails. It seems as if everything is queer this and queer that.

“Just as a point of information, I would like to proclaim with great pride: I am not queer! And neither are you. When will we stop using this adolescent and demeaning word to identify ourselves? Like our history that is not taught, using this word will continue to guarantee that we are not taken seriously in the world.


“Why can’t we accept that homosexuality has been pretty much the same since the beginning of human history, whether it was called homosexuality, sodomy, buggery, hushmarkedry [what’s that?--WRD], or hundreds of other things, or had no name at all? What we do now they pretty much did then. Period. Men have always had cocks and men have pretty much always known what to do with them. It is just stupidity and elite presumption of the highest and most preposterous order to theorize, in these regards, that then was different from now.

“Do you know that men loving men does not require the sexual act to qualify them as homosexuals? My American Heritage unabridged dictionary lists two definitions for homosexuality: the first: “sexual orientation to persons of the same sex; and the second: “sexual activity with another of the same sex.” In other words, it is not necessary, nor should it be, to have had sex with another of the same sex, to maintain that a person is homosexual. Why, then, do academics, indeed everyone, insist on this second definition over the first? This theory makes it all but impossible in many cases to claim a person as one of us.

“Is Yale actually afraid to teach any of this? To actually name names out loud from Abe Lincoln to John Sterling to Robert Rauschenberg? And why is the History Department allowing history to be hijacked by the queer theorists just as the English Department allowed Paul DeMan [a Nazi sympathizer during World War II] and Jacques Derrida to highjack literature for the deconstructionists? That travesty found safe haven here at Yale too.

“History is about people events more than it is about theory. We need to know specifically who our brothers and sisters, our ancestors, our own people, are and were!


“Gays must have this! We must. We must if we are to endure.

“I asked Peter Salovey recently why he thought LKI was closed down. Who was behind it? What was behind it? His answer was: “We’ll never know.”

"In a recent Yale Daily News article, a gay staff reporter, sophomore Raymond Carlson, wrote that The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students lists Yale as among the bottom of the heap in terms of institutional support and administrative services for its gay students and gay studies.

“For those of you here celebrating Yale’s acceptance of us, I am here to tell you that there is not quite so much to celebrate yet. Yes, it is a long way from my freshman year in 1953 when I tried to kill myself. But like so much that continues to happen to us, there is still too much invisible shit blocking the acceptance that we need and we are due.

“So I receive GALA’s award with a certain bittersweet acceptance. As I hope I have made clear, I feel very alienated from this university which took my brother’s money and my dream and slammed the door in both our faces.

“In closing, once again I apologize to you for failing you. And for failing my brother, who died last year. And for failing myself. I wanted so very very much for the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay History at Yale to succeed for you and for all our people.

“But, yes, thank you. We are all fellow warriors and I salute you.”

CONCLUSION. On reflection it seems to me that Larry Kramer's remarks appropriately address two main issues. The first is the arbitrary mishandling of funds intended for the teaching and study of gay history. The second has to do with the viability--or not--of the gender-studies approach to the study of same-sex love, and sexual orientation more generally.

Both topics deserve separate postings; and I hope to do this in due time.

Let me turn to the first, very briefly. A wealthy man named David Goodstein was the publisher of The Advocate, a popular gay magazine that is still thriving in Los Angeles. Foreseeing his early death, Goodstein left behind a considerable sum (a million dollars, as I recall) to establish a gay studies center at Cornell. Bruce Voeller, who was supposed to raise another million in matching funds, failed to do so. Nonetheless, Cornell went ahead with the center, except that is was now "pansexual," with very little gay content. This misdirection of the funds amounts to fraud.

Here is another instance. Doug Roby was a friend of mine, who for a time was active in the Gay Academic Union. On his demise, Doug left two million dollars to his alma mater Harvard University to buy gay books. For the most part the books that are being bought with the proceeds of this grant are not gay. Harvard has simply commadeered the money. Sadly, Doug, who died in 2000, is not around to object. Thank goodness Larry Kramer is still with us.

A more complex situation has occurred at USC in Los Angeles, where a promising center, originally known as ONE-IGLA, had been established thanks to the heroic efforts of another friend, Professor Walter Williams. There has been some hanky panky here also, but the matter is too complex to go into at this point. I will have more to say on this matter later.

As to the second issue, there have been a number of funny things that have happened on the way to the supposed Valhalla of Gender Studies--perhaps more aptly named, with a bow to Aristophanes, as Cloudcuculand. This unfortunate errand into the wilderness started in the 1980s, with the Social Construction fad, which alleged that, without exception, the historical formations of gender and sexual orientation were radically different and incommensurable. "Modern homosexuality," which ostensibly debuted in 1869. has nothing to do with earlier forms of same-sex love. Larry Kramer has rightly hightlighted the absurdity of this claim. Eventually, this fashion melded with postmodernism.

The more specific term was "queer theory," a barbarous concoction that found shelter under the umbrella of "gender studies." Decked out in pretentious and often incomprehensible academic jargon, this pseudodiscipline was championed by the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Michael Warner, and others. As Larry Kramer suggests, queer theoty has had its day, and now must be called to account. It will be found wanting. Mene mene, tekel tekel.

Some have registered their displeasure at Kramer's insightful designation of "queer" as adolescent. It will take a while for this fad too to disappear. The queer fetish is primarily an aberration of academia, eliciting the scorn and indifference it deserves from most gay and lesbian people.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

The appalling "Sacred Trinity" of American foreign policy

“Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same, so goes the venerable French proverb.

These days that sobering principle seems best to characterize American foreign policy in the age of Obama. Below I quote the key paragraphs from an incisive piece, “Obama’s Sins of Omission, by Andrew Bacevich in today’s Boston Globe. Together with Glenn Greenwald, Bacevich belongs to a rare breed of political commentators who consistently expose the herd-like bleetings of the Washington-based MSM. Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, is the author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.” Here is Andrew Bacevich:

“The history of American liberalism is one of promoting substantively modest if superficially radical reforms in order to refurbish and sustain the status quo. From Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to Bill Clinton's New Covenant, liberals have specialized in jettisoning the redundant to preserve what they see as essential. In this sense, modern liberalism's great achievement has been to deflect or neutralize calls for more fundamental change - a judgment that applies to President Obama, especially on national security.

“... [H]owever much Obama may differ from Bush on particulars, he appears intent on sustaining the essentials on which the Bush policies were grounded. Put simply, Obama's pragmatism poses no threat to the reigning national security consensus. Consistent with the tradition of American liberalism, he appears intent on salvaging that consensus.

“For decades now, that consensus has centered on what we might call the Sacred Trinity of global power projection, global military presence, and global activism - the concrete expression of what politicians commonly refer to as "American global leadership." The United States configures its armed forces not for defense but for overseas "contingencies." To facilitate the deployment of these forces it maintains a vast network of foreign bases, complemented by various access and overflight agreements. Capabilities and bases mesh with and foster a penchant for meddling in the affairs of others, sometimes revealed to the public, but often concealed.

"Bush did not invent the Sacred Trinity. He merely inherited it and then abused it, thereby reviving the conviction entertained by critics of American globalism, progressives and conservatives alike, that the principles underlying this trinity are pernicious and should be scrapped. Most of these progressives and at least some conservatives voted for Obama with expectations that, if elected, he would do just that. Based on what he has said and done over the past three months, however, the president appears intent instead on shielding the Sacred Trinity from serious scrutiny. . . .

“Obama's revised approach to the so-called Long War, formerly known as the Global War on Terror, should hearten neoconservative and neoliberal exponents of American globalism: Now in its eighth year, this war continues with no end in sight. Those who actually expected Obama to "change the way Washington works" just might feel disappointed. Far than abrogating the Sacred Trinity, the president appears intent on investing it with new life.”

One critic claims that Bacevich offers no alternative. That is not true, for elsewhere he has argued for a policy of “containment” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In my view, even that goes too far. We must withdraw from Islamic countries, and all others which we are mistakenly trying to restructure according to our own image.

Doubtless, we will not cease meddling in the Middle East. We won’t stop because Israel doesn’t want us to. That of course is another story, but it is one whose outlines are getting clearer with each passing day.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Koranic correlations

Just concluded at the University of Notre Dame is an international conference on the “Qur’an in Its Historical Context” (see the abstracts at: For some decades a number of revisionist interpretations of the origins of Islam and the Qur'an have been in circulation. Individually and collectively, these contributions present fundamental challenges to received Muslim views--and likewise to those of many credulous Western scholars.

At first sight, it would appear, the Notre Dame Conference accepts the historical-critical approach (the “higher criticism” ) that has long prevailed in serious studies of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The work of John Wansbrough (1928-2002) represented a key step in adopting this approach. He caused a furor in the 1970s when his research on early Islamic manuscripts, including the analysis of the repeated use of monotheistic Judeo-Christian imagery found in the Qur'an, led him to conclude that Islam arose as a mutation of what was originally a Judeo-Christian sect seeking to spread in Arab lands. As time evolved, the Judeo-Christian scriptures were adapted to an Arab perspective, mutating into what became the Qur'an, a collection developed over centuries by combining contributions from various Arab tribal sources. Wansbrough's iconoclastic research suggests that a great deal of the traditional history of Islam was a fabrication devised by later generations in search of a distinctive religious identity. In this context, the character of Muhammad "the prophet" could be seen as a manufactured simulacrum created to supply the Arab tribes with their own version of the Judeo-Christian worthies.

A preliminary study of the abstracts suggests that views of this kind, which are anathema in today’s Islamic world. are only partially addressed at the conference. I suspect that the organizers pulled their punches in order to avoid what they may have feared was a “Satanic Verses” backlash. At all events, the attention of most of the papers is confined to particular passages or motifs--minutiae in short.

Still, to judge by the abstracts, some general considerations appeared. One of these is this: to what extent does the worldview of the Koran continue that of Jewish and Christian sources, especially as expressed in the Syriac (or Aramaic) language? In a recent book Christoph Luxenberg (pseud.) forcefully argues this point. Luxenberg holds that the language of the early compositions found in the Qur'an was not exclusively Arabic, as asserted by the classical commentators, but rather is rooted in the Syro-Aramaic dialect of the seventh-century Meccan Quraysh tribe. Luxenberg’s premise is that the Aramaic tongue--a lingua franca prevalent throughout the Middle East in Late Antiquity and during the early period of Islam--was the language of culture and of the Christian liturgy. As such, it had a profound influence on the scriptural composition and meaning of the contents of the Koran. Luxenberg, who is thought to be Lebanese, has chosen his pseudonym “for safety.” A paper contributed by this scholar was read at the conference.

A second question concerns the unity of the text. To be sure, a scrappy impression must inevitably emerge from perusing the received text, as the Suras are arranged by length. Yet even if the texts are rearranged, as by presumed order of composition for example, the sense of disunity persists. One speaker at the conference argued that each Sura is to be taken as a separate discourse. Following this line of thought, it is vain to try to rule on any matter based on the meme “the Qur’an says.” This approach reinforces the conclusion of recent critical scholars that the Qur’an was put together with scissors and paste, so to speak, and not delivered by the angel Gabriel in accordance with some predetermined unity.

An example of how one can be diverted by trivia is the one thing that most people interested in the question know about the research of Christoph Luxenberg. He has suggested that the gathering of the “houri” (white ones) promised to martyrs when they reach Heaven doesn’t actually refer to “virgins.” He argues that instead it means “grapes,” perhaps a metonymic evocation of the bounteousness of Paradise.

The conference was the subject of an oped piece in the New York Times. Nicholas Kristof writes:

“One of the scholars at the Notre Dame conference whom I particularly admire is Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, an Egyptian Muslim who argues eloquently that if the Koran is interpreted sensibly in context then it carries a strong message of social justice and women’s rights.

“Dr. Abu Zayd’s own career [Kristof continues] underscores the challenges that scholars face in the Muslim world. When he declared that keeping slave girls and taxing non-Muslims were contrary to Islam, he infuriated conservative judges. An Egyptian court declared that he couldn’t be a real Muslim and thus divorced him from his wife (who, as a Muslim woman, was not eligible to be married to a non-Muslim). The couple fled to Europe. . .

“’The Islamic reformation started as early as the 19th century,’ notes Dr. Abu Zayd, and, of course, it has even earlier roots as well. One important school of Koranic scholarship, Mutazilism, held 1,000 years ago that the Koran need not be interpreted literally, and even today Iranian scholars are surprisingly open to critical scholarship and interpretations.

“If the Islamic world is going to enjoy a revival, if fundamentalists are to be tamed, if women are to be employed more productively, then moderate interpretations of the Koran will have to gain ascendancy. There are signs of that, including a brand of ‘feminist Islam’ that cites verses and traditions suggesting that the Prophet Muhammad favored women’s rights.”

Thus Kristof.

Abu Zayd’s fate shows the perils of embarking on any criticism of Islam and the Qur’an from within the Islamic world. After noting that point, Kristof veers into Polyanna-land. Feminist Islam? Lots of luck.

The conference itself demonstrates the overaraching problem: one can go some ways in this direction, but prudence urges caution. At Notre Dame some critical points were made, but they were drenched in a dense cloud of minutiae. The persistence of such cautionary camouflage is something that must be noted.

Still, the conference may be a promising start--even though it draws upon research that has been available for decades. As for further developments, we will have to wait and see.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Shifting stigmas

During the latter part of June, we here in New York will be celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. Often described, this event needs no further rehearsal at this time. This summer, after the festivities have concluded, I may have more to say.

For those who experienced them, the twelve years between Stonewall and the inception of the HIV/AIDS crisis in 1981 were a golden age of sexual freedom. With sodomy still against the law in many states, much remained to be done. Yet clearly we gay people were on our way

With the momentum of liberation up and running, many looked around for new frontiers. What would be the next wave in the ongoing tide of sexual freedom? Bridging both the straight and gay communities, S/M seemed an obvious choice. S/M is best understood as a kind of erotic theater, and not as infliction of pain, as many falsely believe. These activities were OK as long as they were consensual--but sometimes consent was hard to define. Also, certain practices, such as fisting, were inherently dangerous. In the last analysis, the boundaries of S/M are unclear, for nowadays mild varieties are incorporated in the scripts of “normal” sexual encounters.

Then there was incest, another possible new frontier. But incest rarely caused complaint, except in exceptional instances, as in the two Austrian cases where fathers forced their daughters to bear their children.

In some ways prostitution best fulfilled the requirement of a successor cause in the realm of sex. When performed consensually, prostitution seemed clearly to fit the definition of a victimless crime--that is, something that is not a crime at all. However, ancillary issues began to intrude. Wrongly perhaps, prostitutes were blamed for spreading HIV/AIDS. New issues of trafficking came to the fore. Showing a trend to second thoughts, even formerly tolerant countries like The Netherlands and Germany have begun to reassess their policies regarding prostitution.

There was one more candidate for a successor cause. For some, intergenerational sex was the next Big Thing, a belief symbolized by the founding of NAMBLA. For a variety of reasons this expectation did not pan out, and those with a sexual interest in children and adolescents figure among the most stigmatized persons in America today.

By contrast, thirty years ago there was almost universal condemnation of transvestites and transsexuals. The official line, strongly urged by radical feminists, was that such individuals were engaged in mockery of women. This was thought to be undeniably true of males who assumed women’s dress. Even more so the postop M2Fs, who offered deplorable models of the "constructed woman." Yet blame could also attach to the F2Ms, who were seemingly deserting the women's cause.

A seemingly similar phenomenon was represented by small groups of men who affected "gender-fuck" fashions, sporting, say, a beard and mustache, while wearing a skirt, makeup, and a lumberjack shirt. Yet unlike the more usual type of cross-dressers, these men did not attempt a convincing simulation of women. Indeed, in their mockery of masculinity they could be regarded as allies of the feminists.

With some reservations, then, pedophilia, pederasty, and ephebophilia were UP a generation ago; transpeople were DOWN. These days that situation is hard to imagine, so much have the two groups changed in the eyes of the public. The relationship has been turned upside down.

How did this historic shift occur? I can only offer a few elements of a more comprehensive answer.

Some hold, that compared with the seventies, the country has fallen into an antisexual mode. It is true that the "anything goes" attitude of of former days wilted with the inception of the HIV/AIDS crisis. My own view is that people are being more careful about sex, but are still in the aggregate having about the same amount. During former decades college coeds were notoriously prim and unavailable. Now these young women talk happily of forming "hookups." People still get married, but typically they cohabit before. So the sexual revolution has reached heterosexuals, the majority.

Another thing thas happened is that sex that is thought to be sleazy is no longer in fashion. One can see this with the decline of the sex shops, which seem more and more seedy and repellent. Those who are drawn to sleaze--or just can't get a date on Saturday night--continue to lurk in such venues, but these folk seem to be a dwindling minority. For others, there is a profusion of makeout bars of all kinds.

Of course not all groups are participating equally in this sexual bazaar. It may be that transpeople have less sex, but I think that their ascendency in the pecking order has other causes.

With the passage of time, transpeople have tended to benefit from the postmodern emphasis on fluidity and transitional states--on avoiding fixed “essences.” Some would invoke the concept of liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold") defined as a state of being on the "threshold" of or between two different existential planes. The liminal state is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One's sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. People, places, or things may not complete a transition, or a transition between two states may not be fully possible. Those who remain in the territory between two states may become permanently liminal.

Liminality may capture some of the interest, even enthusiasm that some outsiders feel for transpeople. However, it does not accord with the experience of many who are committed to the “trans” status. In particular, those who complete the full schedule of surgical intervention believe that they have attained the sex that “they were meant to be.” For them, there is no ambiguity. Likewise, many transexuals in the full sense reject the gay label; as they perceive the matter, they love those of the opposite sex. Some others pursue their own sex--that is, the sex of arrival--or regard themselves as bi.

One current practice does fit the concept of liminality. These are individuals, born female, who do the top only, without interfering with their genitals. This phenomenon accounts for the recent TV publicity about a "man who gave birth." Anatomically, the individual was a man only in the upper half.

Many who are accepting of “trannies” tend to side with libertarian arguments about control over one’s body. Over the last few decades, dress codes have been greatly relaxed for various reasons, making cross-dressers less conspicuous--and sometimes even chic. Call it the RuPaul effect. Moreover, the idea that one could alter one’s body configuration through plastic surgery has become widely accepted. In this light sex-change operations can be regarded as simply an extension of “aesthetic” plastic surgery. Of course, transsexuals do not view the operations in that way, but we are seeking to explore the reasons why the majority have come to tolerate them, and not the beliefs of those who undertake these arduous programs of somatic self-definition.

At all events, trannies--of whatever variety--are seen as taking steps that affect themselves only. In this way their modus operandi accords with the dominant ideology of expressive individualism. One could even say that they are contributing to consumerism by their increased purchase of clothing, beauty products, and elective surgery.

Very different has been the fate of those who seek to practice intergenerational sex. They now routinely evoke horror.

In keeping with feminist theories, many have come to accept the idea that sexual relations must be between those who are equal or nearly equal. Intergenerational sex is viewed as violating this norm, because the adult is more powerful than his or her younger partner. The activity comes under the rubric of exploitation.

Most parents, especially if they are middle class, are strongly opposed to their children forming an “inappropriate” sexual connection. Gradually, our society has extended the notion of childhood, so that it encompasses the teenage years, sometimes going beyond. Parents who have a large monetary and emotional investment in their offspring during this period believe that they have the right to supervise and control the behavior of their charges.

“Kiddie porn” evokes particular scorn. As modern technology has made the spread of such images easier, so too have the methods of detection become more elaborate. Internet solicitation can be monitored. An example of this procedure is the television series “To Catch a Predator,” which most apparently watch with satisfaction, even though it relies upon entrapment techniques of dubious legality, to say the least.

One can only proceed a certain distance in an effort to understand the way in which trannies and intergenerationalists have exchanged places in the pecking order. However, the overall pattern of marginalization of sexual minorities lends itself to an analysis derived from the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim held that in modern societies crime could never be eliminated, or perhaps even reduced. The relegation of certain groups of people to the criminal class serves the function of affirming the values of society’s “respectable” core. In this way there is a symbiosis between “decent, normal people,” the bearers and beneficiaries of the dominant ethos, and those who are banished to the fringe. Each depends on the other.

In order to apply this perspective to the trannie v. intergenerational problem, we need to step back for a moment. Thirty years ago, when the movement to legitimize intergenerational sex seemed promising, it was common to frame it in a kind of Whig context. The meliorist theory associated with the Whig thinkers and historians maintains that humanity is engaged in a never-ending progressive endeavor, leading to a better life for all. As one problem is successfully addressed, a new one presents itself to be solved in turn. In other words, as adult-adult homosexuality became increasingly accepted, it seemed that it would be possible to benefit boy lovers and girl lovers in the same way. Of course it did not turn out that way. More than ever nowadays, boy lovers and girl lovers are “monsters,” fulfilling the Durkheimian function of defining and reassuring the majority.

Transpeople, however, do not seem to be needed for the purposes of demonization. They can be regarded as harmless eccentrics who express themselves by altering their appearance and/or bodies. Perhaps in this way they do fulfill a more benign version of the Durkheimian principle. They elicit pity on the part of some “normals,” but do not provoke reprisal.

PS. I find the label "erotophobia" misleading. From time to time, most of us experience some sort of aversion to sex, as when we feel that we have been manipulated into it, or are concentrating on other matters.

Some forty years ago there was a fashion among historians of sex to divide cultures into "sex negative" and "sex positive" ones. Medieval Islam was classified as sex positive--but for whom? After the relative freedom women seemed to have enjoyed in the early days of Muslim expansion, they found their options sharply narrowed, a situation that has its tragic analogues nowadays. And of course adult males attracted to other adult males generally encountered sharp disapproval (as distinct from pederasts). Rumi and Shams were exceptions. (In a useful article in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality Warren Johansson traced the idealization of "sex positive" cultures to eighteenth century Europe with its utopian notions of a paradise of sexual freedom in the South Seas. Ostensibly, but quite dubiously, the anthropologist Margaret Mean gathered evdence for this permissiveness in her work in Samoa. For his part Wilhelm Reich traced the neuroses of the modern West in large measure to erotophobia. In my view erotophobia is a cultural construct that is not helpful in understanding recent developments in sexual behavior.)

It is true that some in the gay marriage camp today do seem to want to take the sex out of "homosexual." I have argued with them at length about this. By the same token, though, there has been a vast enlargement of the scope of sex for young heterosexuals, and young people in general. Those who made the sexual revolution have, arguably, not been among the benefiaries. But others have.

PPS. I should have made clear that the Whig theory is not always wrong; it is just that it should not be applied indiscrimately. Together with others (including ex-governor McGreevey) my friend at Gayspecies has argued that gay marriage is an extension of the ideals of the Enlightenment. I am not entirely sure of the argument from equality, but assuredly gay marriage increases happiness for those who want it, without any harm to others. The harm that is perceived is imagiinary.

A learned friend, a specialist in 18th-century thought, informs me that the views ascribed to Whigs nowadays are a distortion. I accept this correction. Yet we still use terms like Gothic architecture (which had nothing to do with the Goths) and West Indies (which are not in India). The Whig term remains a useful label, and the beneficial historical process so described does sometimes occur--perhaps often even, but just not all the time.

Another way of conceiving the issue is in terms of the doctrine of progress. Today, with the damage that is being done to the environment by overproduction and sales of consumer goods, we have become more skeptical. Again, we should try to make descriminations. There has been progress in many spheres--every day I thank Ganymede for this computer--but there are unintended consequences as well.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tail wags dog

Stephen J. Sniegoski’s recent book “The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel” documents the campaign by the neocons, acting in the interest of the state of Israel, to involve the US in our disastrous Iraq War. In my blog posting “Proxy Wars” of August 7, 2006 I had earlier sketched the history of this undertaking, so damaging to our national interest. Therein I traced the inception of the trend to the “Clean Break” manifesto of 1996 I will shortly offer a review of the Sniegoski book, a great advance on the outlines that I and others had proffered.

One of my friends has demurred, saying that this subordinationist approach cannot be correct. In keeping with its sempiternal devotion to imperialist goals--so goes the general run of such thinking--the US must be acting mainly in its own perceived national interest in the Middle East. All else is secondary. The tail does not wag the dog, we are told.

I beg to differ. In this case it does.

For their part, the neocons insist that there is no problem, because the interests of the state of Israel and the US are always in perfect synch. There is no need for second thoughts. We can reliably assume that buttressing and abetting the aims of Israel, even as defined by the brute Netanyahu, is by definition in America’s national interest. This self-serving claim needs no further comment.

From the opposite camp stem the views advanced by some left-oriented observers who are reflexively inclined to blame America first. This tendency is also mistaken. The bad things that happen in the world do not always, or even principally originate in Washington, DC. Such a view of contemporary history is implausibly unipolar. It also disregards the immense capacity of third-world peoples to create their own mischief, as seen in Pakistan, India, the Congo, Sudan, and many other countries--not to mention the inclination of Moscow and Beijing to fish in trouble waters.

To return to the picturesque image, what about the tail wagging the dog with regard to our Middle East policy? This metaphor sidesteps some significant historical realities. In fact, there have been a number of efforts to bring about such seemingly unlikely subordinations, though none that have been nearly as successful as the one currently being conducted by our Israel-worshipping neocons--with the support of their not-so-silent Christianist partners.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Irish-Americans, incensed by British abuses in John Bull’s other island, sought to entice this country into conflict with Great Britain. Then, as World War I approached, some German-Americans, assisted by some clumsy support from Berlin, sought to achieve a similar object. A good example is the German-born American intellectual George Sylvester Viereck (1884-1962), He founded two publications, The International and The Fatherland, which argued the German cause during World War I. Later, Viereck became a well-known Nazi apologist, He was indicted for violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act and was imprisoned from 1942 to 1947.

During the 1930s and 40s, American sympathizers with the USSR sought to shackle us to that foreign power. This trend culminated in the tragicomic campaign of Henry Wallace for the presidency in 1948. Lightly disguised as ideological, the effort by American Communist Party members and the fellow travelers associated with them was simply an effort to shackle American interests to those of a foreign power--or at the very least to neutralize our capacities so that Stalin could have his way.

This pro-Soviet campaign offers perhaps the closest analogy to the powerful effort by today’s neocons. Significantly, the origins of the neocons lie in the Marxist leanings of their 1930s forebears--and in some cases actual parents (witness Irving and William Kristol).

Campaigning as a third-party candidate, Wallace never had the slightest chance of becoming president. Concededly, he would have been had Roosevelt not dumped him from the ticket in 1944 in favor of then-Senator Harry Truman. That is one thing FDR got right.

Profiting from these earlier efforts, the supporters of Israel proposed a different strategy. They would not have dalliance with any third party, but instead seek to infiltrate both the mainstream parties. They also understood that it was important not to have their cause identified with any particular segment of America’s citizenry--even though it clearly was.

How has this sleight of hand been accomplished? First, we are subjected to specious proclamations that Israel is a democracy. Given the discrimination and harassment Palestinians constantly face, this claim is dubious, to say the least. But even if we grant that Israel is in fact a democracy, this status would offer no assurance that the two nations would not experience conflicts of interest--just as we sometimes have differences with France and Germany, both democracies.

Second, the media bombard us with reiterations of the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe. These atrocities were not perpetrated by Americans, so why must we feel guilt about them? And why is there a Holocaust Museum in Washington DC? Such museums are appropriate--mandatory in fact--for Germany, France, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and other European nations that were complicit in the Final Solution. But why in the US?

Finally, the pro-Israel faction has forged a de facto alliance with American evangelical protestants. This connection surely illustrates the truism that politics makes strange bedfellows. Most ordinary members of evangelical congregations probably have little interest in Israel, but typically their pastors are fervent cheerleaders in the cause. This phenomenon gives the pro-Israeli faction cover so that they can assert that our commitment to the state of Israel is not “just for the Jews.” Yet it clearly is.

Unfortunately, the November election has at best blunted the power of the Israel-worshipping neocons. In some respects, one might argue that they are more powerful than ever, since they are now able to operate outside of the limelight. Through a powerful presence in the media and almost endless reserves of cash, the Israel Lobby and its allies remain omnipresent.

We can be sure, though, that things will not remain just as they are. In the Middle East the actions of the Israelis and their government have now made the two-state solution impossible. That is a reality that must be recognized. Yet the Israeli authorities will not be able to have their way forever. Instead, in the middle term we will find the the territories of Israel-Palestine must move to a one-state solution. The new state will resemble South Africa today. That is to say that, if the best case scenario is realized, the Jewish citizens will remain and their vibrant culture will help to inform the identity of the new nation. “Jewish brains” will assure the economic success of the new polity. Tourism will continue to flourish. However, the Jews will be in a minority, and must accept this status.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Books, books, books

A prominent feature in the intellectual landscape of my youth was the set of Great Books in 54 volumes, produced under the auspices of the University of Chicago. Ostensibly, the following three criteria determined eligibility for inclusion in this august company: “the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times; the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit; and the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.”

The origins of the project stemmed from the realization, during World War I, that many young Americans were entering college without any common culture. Further discussion among American academics and educators was launched by John Erskine of Columbia University, who advocated improving higher education system by returning it to the western liberal arts tradition of broad cross-disciplinary learning. Among these academics and educators were Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, and Alexander Meiklejohn. They held that the emphasis on narrow specialization in American colleges had lowered the quality of higher education by failing to expose students to the most salient monuments of Western civilization and thought. In this way these thinkers were at odds both with much of the existing educational establishment and with contemporary educational theory. Educational theorists like Sidney Hook and John Dewey challenged the crossover premise in education, which maintained that a study of philosophy, formal logic, and rhetoric could advance one’s understanding of, say, medicine and economics.

The Great Books started out as a roster of 100 essential texts held to constitute the Western Canon. Supposedly, this list was always intended to be tentative. Still, some skeptics considered it presumptuous, perhaps even laughable to prefer 100 Great Books to the exclusion of all others. This demarcation problem remains a serious issue with all such lists.

At all events, several colleges adopted the Great Books as the basis for their curriculum. A friend went to a college of this type, an experience he has continued to treasure in later life, but I was never tempted to do so. One of the drawbacks of this curriculum is that one was supposed to address the Great Books without consulting any commentary or notes. Yet many of the editions chosen reflected outmoded or even erroneous translations.

For a long time, the collection comprised only the notorious DWEMs (dead white European males); gradually a few African American and female authors gained access to the Elysian precincts. By definition, of course, Islamic and Asian classics were omitted. This deficiency has been supplied in some competing lists, but the foundations of the endeavor remain shaky, as the boundaries between the “classics” and the rest are necessarily fluid. Probably, they always will be. Still, this problem should not deter individuals from making up their own “lifetime reading plan.” At any rate, I have done so, and am very satisfied with the results--though I admit that housing all the books that make up my expanded canon is something of a strain in a smallish urban apartment

The context for the Great Books program in what might be termed Cold War America emerges in a recent book: “A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books” by Alex Beam I gather that this volume (I have only read the reviews) is something of a debunking.

At all events, before I had heard of the Great Books, I had come to understand, in junior high school, that to become a truly educated person, one had to master certain major works: Homer, Vergil, Dante, and Shakespeare above all. For a time, Goethe was a favorite. I had been bored by having to read prescribed works of the New England Renaissance, so I tended to gravitate to European classics.

At the same time, I began to create for myself an alternative canon. Rabelais, a favorite of my stepfather, was a crossover figure. Friedrich Nietzsche appealed to me as an archetypal rebel. Following the example of his hero Zarathustra I aspired to retire to a remore location where I could meditate as a hermit. I lasted about a week in a desolate mountain cabin. Back at home, I saw a magazine ad hailing Ezra Pound as “the most antisocial writer of our time.” That was for me--for sure!--but first I turned to Pound's Establishment acolyte, T. S. Eliot, then much in vogue. Later I visited Pound in his lair in an insane asylum in Washington DC--surely the epitome of the antiestablishment stance.

Together Pound and Eliot were emblematic of much modernist literature and painting. I had some commerce with Baudelaire and Rimbaud then; more later. In graduate school, I took time out from my rather conventional studies in art history to immerse myself in the works of the Beatnik triumvirate Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac. In this way the counterculture began to run in a parallel track to my more respectable culture-vulture interests (Homer, Dante, and the rest).

Related, indirectly at least, to the countercultural trend, were books about my “variant” sexuality. I tried Gide and Proust, but found that their highfalutin' stance did not address my situation very well. More modest guides were needed. In college I managed to locate, with some difficulty, two books that shaped my nascent gay consciousness. The first (I think) was a novel, “Quatrefoil,” by James Barr, about a liaison between two naval officers. The second was an nonfiction effort, quite comprehensive for its time, to survey the whole field: “The Homosexual in America” by Donald Webster Cory (Edward Sagarin). In later years I devoured literally thousands of books and articles on the subject: many of them are listed and profiled in my “Homosexuality: A Research Guide” (1987). I learned much from this vast harvests of works. All the same, a kind of “first-past-the-post” principle has prevailed. Those first two gay books, highly flawed though they were, had a formative influence over my thinking in these matters.

I became interested in the comparative study of languages through dabbling with Esperanto in high school. I soon learned that there were other auxiliary (or artificial) languages, some better in my view, but none with any real resonance. Among these competitive efforts was Interglossia, devised in the early forties by the English scientist and popularizer, Lancelot Hogben. Together with a man named Bodmer, Hogben wrote a kind of primer called “The Loom of Language,” which I devoured compulsively. From the German Neo-Grammarians I learned something of the mysteries of Indo-European. My favorite linguistic scholar, though, was the Dane Otto Jespersen, author of “The Growth and Structure of the English Language.” Today I try to keep up with reading in French, German, Italian, and Spanish. I find that writing in Internet sites in these languages is a great help. I am still struggling with Chinese. Arabic is a lost cause, I fear, though I have made some progress with Hebrew.

As a kid I seemed destined for a career in one of the natural sciences, following in the footsteps of my biological father, a physicist and (if you will) rocket scientist. Astronomy was my favorite, and much of my leisure reading was taken up with science-fiction pulps. Gradually, though, I reoriented to the humanities, first literature and then increasingly art history. Somehow I assimilated the either-or imperative: commitment to the humanities meant disparagement of the sciences. This dichotomy was later excoriated by C. P. Snow in his lecture (and broadside) on the Two Cultures. And rightly so.

At all events, my disdain for science ebbed and finally evaporated when I settled in London as a grad student in the sixties. There I had plenty of time to read on my own, and focused, for one thing, on the contrast between Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper in the philosophy of science. In a nutshell, Kuhn held that science mostly puttered along and then suddenly changed when a revolutionary new paradigm appeared. Popper’s view was more gradualist. But he too rejected the idea that natural science was concerned with unveiling eternal truths. All truth is asymptotic: we approach closer to it, but can never be certain that we have reached THE truth. Influenced by Popper’s forceful speaking style--I attended some of his lectures at the London School of Economics--I took the side of the Austrian polymath.

In London I also returned to an old favorite: Arthur Koestler, whose “Darkness at Noon” had helped during my teens to wean me away from the preposterous Communist faith inculcated by my parents. Now I read Koestler’s masterpiece “The Act of Creation,” where he sought to show that scientific discovery often proceeds by accident and serindipity. This book put another stake in the heart of the conventional wisdom that scientific discovery is the product of an almost endless accumulation of tiny, painstaking observations. Instead, what usually happends is that we form hypotheses and try to substantiate them. This finding made the sciences seem closer to the humanities, bridging the gap detected by C. P. Snow.

In the peaceful precincts of the Warburg Institute in Woburn Square, where much of my London years passed, I got another insight into science. This derived from the work of a brilliant Warburgian, Frances Yates. Beginning with her book on Giordano Bruno, she showed how in the early modern period much scientific advance was tied up with the hermetic tradition. Not only could one not detect a bright line between science and the humanities, science also turned out to be allied with mysticism. In my own studies I began to see how the occult, especially as seen in H. P. Blavatsky’s Theosophy, played a maieutic role in much modernism--in Yeats, Eliot, and Pound in literature; and in Kandinsky and Mondrian in painting. Later I sought to integrate these insights into my teaching, attracting flak from colleagues at Hunter College who thought that I believed in this stuff. Of course I do not, but honesty compels me to acknowledge its historical influence. The paths of intellectual history are almost infinitely varied

My parents were atheists, who sought to exclude any religious influences from our home. Much to my disappointment, we rarely celebrated Christmas. Not surprisingly, this taboo incited my curiosity, and in high school I began to visit various churches and other houses of worship. Supported by the Henry Luce periodicals and the egregious Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen (a TV personality), a big Catholic revival was under way. It has since fortunately ebbed. But for a time Catholicism seemed the way to go. Go I did not, though I elected to focus on medieval art. I have never regretted this choice, because that field is truly interdisciplinary. Also, I have never ceased to be fascinated by the hundreds (really thousands) of important sites where these buildings survive in Western Europe. Some of these visits, many of which I took with my beloved ex, Neal, have been truly magical.

At all events, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, the faves for catholisants, did not make much impression in those early days. Later, in London, I read Henri-Irenée Marrou and Jean Daniélou, together with a lot of technical biblical commentary. Among the protestants, Barth and Bultmann were the star theologians, though I found the latter’s connection with Martin Heidegger troubling. This study provided useful background for my doctoral dissertation on the Stavelot Bible (a major illuminated manuscript in the British Library).

When I returned to this interest at the end of the twentieth century I found the situation entirely altered. I threw out most of the learned commentaries on individual books of the Bible that I had collected: they were hopelessly credulous and out of date. First, I tackled the productions of the Jesus Seminar. Their results, questioning the authenticity of much (or even most) of the received texts of the Gospels, were not really new as they were resuming Albert Schweitzer’s quest of a century ago.

Much more startling were the accomplishments of the Minimalist scholars regarding the Hebrew Bible. Not only were Noah and Abraham mythical--an obvious truism--but so were Moses, David, and Solomon. The Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan never took place. As we know it, the Hebrew Bible came into existence only during the Babylonian exile, or even later during the Hellenistic period. In this blog these studies formed the basis for my iconoclastic remarks on biblical “origins” and their mythical aftermath.

So I continue to read books that shape my thinking. I wonder what the next ones will be?


Monday, April 06, 2009

"Male love": a dissent

Using the rubric of The Androphile Project, an Internet site seeks to delineate the “world history of male love.” ( While I have not studied this site thoroughly, it seems that its creators understand “male love” as a straightforward synonym for male homosexuality. The term does have the advantage of handling the thorny problem of deciding whether strong male attachments--as those of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, or Orestes and Pylades--achieved genital expression. By the same token, however, the concept may foster the coopting of pair-bonding situations that are not homosexual. A good example is the “brother-making” (adelphopoesis) rituals of the Byzantine Empire that have been misleadingly acclaimed by John Boswell and others as forerunners of gay marriage.

Over the years, however, the most sustained inquirer into the concept of male love has been the distinguished gay scholar John Lauritsen, who is also my friend. Surely the best compliment one can pay to a thinker is to examine his ideas critically. At all events, I will used Lauritsens' concepts as my central focus here, though without relying on them exclusively because, as I have indicated, a few others have adopted the expression.

Here is Lauritsen’s succinct definition: “ [M]ale love . . . as I use it, comprises sex, love, and friendship: different aspects of one and the same phenomenon. The term goes back to Classical Antiquity.” (“The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein,” Dorchester, MA, 2007, p. 81; I refer to the review copy, which its author kindly sent me).

I have been thinking about this matter for some time. I have concluded that I cannot endorse this unified-field approach because it conflates three distinct elements--sex, love, and friendship--in a way that, with all due respect, is not conducive to clear thinking, though it may be emotionally satisfying.

This assessment may seem harsh, so let me unpack my arguments.

First, let us address the linguistic aspect. Was this term, “male love,” or its equivalent, common in Greek and Roman antiquity? It does not seem so.

It is best to begin the story begins with an early modern Francophone attempt to cope with a passage in Plutarch’s "Erotikos" (“On Love”). In this piece, Plutarch (ca. 46-120 CE) offers an extended comparison of heterosexual and (male) homosexual love. His use of the expression “love of males” is a rarity--in fact it may be unique (a hapax)--as the Greeks normally thought of homosexual love as the love of boys (paiderasteia). Contextually, Plutarch used “male” for the object of the love because of the gender contrast he was seeking to explore.

At all events, the passage might have passed with little notice were it not for Jacques Amyot’s influential translation of Plutarch. In his rendering of the “Erotikos” (1572), Amyot has the Greek author speaking of “l’amour des mâles.” As Claude Courouve has shown, an anonymous author of the early seventeenth century coined the more compact expression “amour masculin.” This innovation has lately enjoyed some popularity in France, as seen in the Michel Larivière’s anthology “Les amours masculines” (Paris, 1984), and in Courouve’s own “Tableau synoptique de references à l'amour masculin: auteurs grecs et latins” (Paris, 1986). However, the term does not have any real currency in other modern languages, including English.

At all events the antiquity of an expression, its linguistic pedigree, offers no guarantee of its cogency (cf. geocentrism, phlogiston).

Now I turn from the diachronic, or historical aspect of the expression, to the synchronic perspective, as exemplified by its semantic workings. The molecular expression “male love” combines an adjective with a noun. Let us look first at the way the adjective functions.

1) As an adjective “male” can signify some particular defining property of the male sex (male genitals, male plumage in birds), or something that is supposed to be found fairly generally among that sex (male aggression, male privilege).

2) However, when “male” modifies “love” something more is involved, as love always implies directionality: we love someone or something, and don’t just love per se. So one must ask: does the word male have a nominative or an accusative function? That is to say, is it males who love (agency) or males who are loved (recipient status)? It seems that for Lauritsen both the nominative and accusative functions are present, and are indeed inseparable.

Yet a moment’s reflection will show that most men direct their love (in the nominative) to the opposite sex. Most “male love” is in fact “male-female love.” This truism, part of common sense, has been affirmed through a boundless store of cross-cultural studies. (I ignore fanciful efforts by some homophile apologists to show that most men “really” love other men.)

If the term male acts as an accusative, so that the male is the recipient of the love, then most lovers of men have been women. Here we are dealing with “female-male” love.

Strictly speaking, then, most male love--contrary to the innovative use of the expression under discussion--has been heterosexual.

It would not be hard to avoid this ambiguity. For example, one might adopt a version of the German expression mannmännliche Liebe, which is characteristically accurate. In English, that would be “male-male love.” Why, then, don’t the “male love” advocates employ that dual-adjective expression, which would be unequivocal? The answer seems to be that they think that there is something quintessentially m a l e about homosexual love.

So much for the tendentious use of the adjective “male.” Now we must turn to the larger issue: the purported inextricable union of the triad: sex, love, friendship.

Taking the last first, we must ask what is friendship? It is a little like Augustine’s concept of time: when no one asks me, I am sure that I know, but when they ask I am in a quandary.

We are all familiar with people who claim to have thousands of intimate friends. However, most would agree that true friendship can only involve a relatively few people who are bonded by disinterestedness and genuine concern for the other. True friendship is long-lasting, and is subject to testing by adversity.

At all events there are some classic works on friendship. Ancient studies of the theme, as by Aristotle and Cicero, exclude a sexual element. Why so? Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, VIII and IX) emphasizes that true friendship can exist only between two equals. It must be reciprocal. As D. S. Hutchinson remarks, “It is possible for there to be affection between people who are on different social levels, but in this case they are not really friends in the sense that interests Aristotle.” (J. Barnes, ed., “Cambridge Companion to Aristotle,” Cambridge, 1995, p. 228). From a modern standpoint, the consequences of this view are stark. A free man cannot be friends with a slave, with a child, even with his own wife. While this may strike us as going too far, there is a core of common sense in the view. Skepticism is appropriate when one hears that someone is close friends with his or her doorman or maid. At all events, in ancient Greece, where homosexual relations were typically age-asymmetrical, true friendship would have been excluded, as one party was clearly more powerful than the other. Paiderasteia was not “male love” tout court, a single citation from Plutarch notwithstanding.

In two learned works, John Boswell (“Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe,” New York, 1994) and Alan Bray (“The Friend,” Chicago, 2004) have investigated medieval and early-modern rituals of male bonding. While these may occasionally have had a sexual element, it is clear from the evidence adduced that they usually did not. After all, there are many situations, such as being a sailor or a working on an oil rig, that may on occasion facilitate some incidental involvement in male-male sex. Few, though, would maintain that it is central to these institutions to encourage same-sex conduct. (A possible exception is Winston Churchill, who is reputed to have quipped that the only traditions of the Royal Navy were rum, sodomy, and the lash.)

We turn now to the matter of love. From Ovid to Ficino, from Stendhal to Andrew Sullivan many authorities have sought to define the nature of love. Without attempting to survey this vast literature here, it is safe to hazard the following conclusion. Unless the word love is preceded by some limiting adjective--as in “divine love” or “Platonic love”--it is generally thought that its goal or telos is corporeal union. We long for the consummation of being joined with the beloved in the most intimate way. In this respect love stands over and against friendship which has no such goal. This contrast transpires in the expression “they were more than just friends,” which characteristically places sexual relations beyond the bounds of friendship as the term is usually understood. In short, male bonding is not equivalent to homosexuality,

In conclusion, I do not find it useful to adopt a unified-field theory of the triad of love, sex, and friendship. What then is the appeal of this amalgam? Hubert Kennedy is on the right track when he says that it “strike(s) a chord in the hearts of gay men.”

Through conversations with countless other gay men I have found that their sexual careers (for the most part--there is a significant cadre of exceptions) involve a series of one-night stands and brief encounters. Many revel in this pluralism. A considerable number of others, however, cherish the hope that eventually they will find “Mr. Right” (instead of “Mr. Right Now”). And a few lucky ones do. But most of these aspirants are left in a state of perpetual longing.

It is this sense of unfulfilled longing that creates the appetite for a psychic utopia, in the form of a harmonious combination of love, sex, and friendship. Alas, I find that cross-cultural and historical data--not to speak of the psycho-sociological norms of our own age--offer little reason to believe that such a synthesis has ever prevailed. Accordingly, proffering the term “male love” is more a matter of conjuration rather than consolidation.


Saturday, April 04, 2009

"Israel on Trial"

Today’s New York Times (April 4) contains an excellent op-ed piece “Israel on Trial” by George Bisharat, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law. Basing himself in part on the soldiers’ reports that have appeared in the pages of Haaretz, Professor Bisharat discusses Israeli culpability in Gaza under the following six heads:

--violating the duty to protect the civilian population of the Gaza strip.

--imposing collective punishment in the form of a blockade, in violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

--deliberate attacks on civilian targets.

--willful killing of civilians without military justification.

--deliberate employment of disproportionate force.

--illegal use of weapons, including white phosphorous.

Bisharat offers considerable evidence for these assertions. Much more is available. As far as I can see, his contentions are irrefutable.

As sure as night follows day, Professor Bisharat must brace himself for a flood of accusations of anti-Semitism. So be it. That is the fate of anyone who seeks to tell the truth about the misconduct of the Israeli government.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Cabaret review

[This performance review will be of interest to my New York City readers.]

Last night some savvy New Yorkers gathered for a special treasure in the city’s ever-varied cultural array. The event was the cabaret debut of Mr. Andrew Strachan at Uncle Charlie’s, a piano bar in Manhattan near Grand Central Station. Mr. Strachan is a young and multitalented Canadian actor-musician who is fast establishing himself in Gotham City.

Andrew Strachan is well traveled, so it was appropriate that the unspoken theme of his presentation was cosmopolitanism. Appropriately, he began with “I Happen to Like New York,” by Cole Porter, and then shifted to an international medley of Noel Coward pieces. For the French there was “La Vie en Rose,” for Latin America “Señorita Nina from Argentina,” and for the old West, “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have.”

The texture of the event was varied, with Mr. Strachan occasionally playing some of the several instruments he commands. Twice during the evening he changed places with his excellent accompanist James Greening-Valenzuela, who plays the violin as well as the piano.

Mr. Strachan acknowledges a wide variety of influences, including Noel Coward, Bobby Short, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone. He blends these varied strands into something uniquely his own, characterized by vocal power, strength of personality, and a suppleness that can modulate into meditative quietness.

Too bad you missed the event! Well, there is another chance because Andrew Strachan is doing an encore performance on Sunday April 5 at 9:00 PM. It will again be at Uncle Charlie’s at 165 E. 45th Street in Manhattan.