3/30/2005

Instead of opting for a living language, I took Latin and Classical Greek in high school. It was a choice I still can’t say I really understand why I made, but there was some wisdom in it, somehow. The teachers, first of all, who taught classical languages were real eccentrics. They inhabited a world so different from the contemporary one, they might as well have been from the moon. In retrospect that's what was so valuable about the experience for me. They knew nothing or next to nothing about pop culture, the detritus of which threatens daily to bury us alive. By clearing away the rubbish of a throwaway society, the mental clutter, they opened up vistas of thought.

My Classical Greek teacher, Mr. Feldman, was a dead ringer for Sean Connery. He was well-respected, even revered by that segment of the student body that was in the know. He was that rare cool teacher who was cool precisely because, well, he wasn’t. Reverse-hip. In those days it was novel. Nowadays, of course, you can’t be cool unless you’re not. It’s a given.

And what was so cool about Mr. Feldman was that he confronted you, challenged you. In high school you know it all, but here was someone who knew more. But he wasn't exactly giving it away. He made you work for it.

Aside from classical Greek and etymology, he also taught an elective called “Critical Thinking”. When you entered his classroom, it was like crossing the border into a different country, where the currency was ideas, and it mattered how you expressed them. Discussions were wide-ranging and lively, never pedantic. Mr. Feldman was there to set it all in motion, and occasionally to interject a provocative question.

One favorite and oft-repeated question was Cicero’s “cui bono?”: "Who benefits by it?" He encouraged us to ask it, particular in regard to politics, and it has, in the years since he introduced me to it, become my political litmus test.

3/27/2005

Ah, Spring, when a young man's fancy turns to porn!

A copy of the premiere issue of BU's new vanilla porn rag boink has shown up on my desk. Don't worry, I never pay for drugs or porn. They are not in short supply. Boink is the poorer cousin of Harvard’s artier H-Bomb, which premiered last year, and featured photo spreads of (gasp!) nude undergraduates. As a magazine it’s not anywhere near as naughty as it would like to be, but as a cultural bellwether it’s somehow interesting: the next logical step in the (yawn) sexual revolution. It’s the further, final commodity of the flesh. Used to be poor white trash, drug-addled ex-convicts, and so on were forced into whoring for the middle class, now middle class kids, bored watching others having all the fun, are doing it themselves, and making it ever so respectable in the process. This is not exactly new. It's been some years since it became chic to do porn and prostitute yourself. But prostitution is still too private, and porn flicks are somehow too serious (the ironic bent of boink is easier to accomplish in print). These magazines, appearing at the heart of the bourgeois right of passage (and you thought going to college was about getting an education of a different sort), bring it all fully mainstream.

There are two things going on here. One is that private parts are becoming increasingly public. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, although it may have unforeseeable consequences down the road. I guarantee that within fifteen years we will be hearing both male and female politicians disavowing their pornographic pasts with lines like, "yes, I sucked, but I didn't swallow."

I do think that the hysteria brought on by Janet Jackson’s nipple was a bit OTT in a constantly sexualized culture, but keeping it covered at all cost also keeps it taboo, and keeping it taboo keeps it titillating. If you’ve been to a nude beach you know that it doesn’t take but three seconds before any excitement wears off. If you've ever been to an orgy, you can understand why people have to do drugs to keep it interesting.

I think it’s a good thing when nakedness becomes somewhat passe, but college smut magazines are not about nakedness, they're about nudity, to use John Berger’s definition: sexualized nakedness. It’s porn. That’s what we expect. Unfortunately, even sexualized nakedness can be and often is boring. That's the problem with these magazines. The conceit, the angle, what's supposed to be titillating is the assumed incongruity of being a college student (in the case of H-Bomb, a hoity-toity ivy league college student) and a porn star at the same time. Oh, how scandalous!

But there is a problem with the obvious intention to provoke when the material is passe. Boink is as boring as Mormon sex. What does a culture awash with porn find provocative? Mere nudity is not enough. Almost inexorably once that barrier has been breached we start to ‘clothe’ nudes once again by fetishizing them. And inevitably, you have the kind of flip-flopping of what’s considered transgressive that Slavoj Zizek wrote about in his essay some years ago for LRB, "You May!"

The ubiquity of porn is one reason sex ed in schools is so important, and needs to go well beyond the Bush administration’s ‘just say no,’ policy. There was this factoid in the latest Harper’s Index: ‘estimated number of young Christians in 1995 who had pledged to wait until marriage for sex: 2,500,000. Estimated percentage who waited: 12.’ It’s ridiculous to bombard children with sex and violence in a sex-and-violence saturated culture, and expect them to refrain from sex and violence. But adults compartmentalize. We have jobs and relationships and lives. We forget sometimes that childhood is full of these great expanses of undefined time. This is how it should be. But where adult influence is weak, and it very often is just as children are reaching sexual consciousness (partly because we don’t want to deal with their sexuality, because it’s too icky). Boredom, curiosity, and sexuality combine in adolescence, and it's only natural they'll experiment with sex (and violence, and sometimes a combination of the two).

I don’t think parents fully understand that no amount of supervision will prevent their children from seeing hardcore porn. The porn industry is bigger than Hollywood, bigger than professional sports. It has supplanted culture in our culture. But in a society where everything is essentially permitted where does the titillation come from? It takes a lot of effort to keep it taboo when it has been so relentlessly mainstreamed. Kids are having sex as a matter of course. For recreation. As sport. I don't suppose it's a bad thing, except that it curdles them a bit. Boink is sagacious and cynical in tone. Sex shouldn't be either of those things. When you turn sex itself into a public act you transform The Thing Itself, the ultimate I-Thou into mere spectacle, theater.

C. was just telling me that he’d recently seen a T-shirt with the slogan ‘gay is the new black,’ which he thought was clever. It reminded me of my recent conversation with J. over beefsteak sandwiches after supercharged sex. J. had told me gay marriage was a cause he could fight for. He’s so butch, it surprised me a little, but his earnestness about it was refreshing. He’s twenty-six, and said the whole time he was growing up bisexuality was beamed into his head from every conceivable angle. His generation (and it is definitely distinct from mine though there's only ten years separating us) was sold sex 24-7. Homosexuality was a marketing ploy. And his generation bought it. But then it comes to the point where maybe it would become more to him than just an ironic little fuck-you fashion statement, maybe some people—like J.—would come to take it more seriously, discover that it wasn’t just sex, that you could have an actual relationship with another man. At that point, the tables turn, and the joke’s on you. You took what was just a ploy to titillate, to get you to buy our booze or our shoes or our underwear and cologne—you took it to heart, you silly, stupid sod. And society’s not ready for that. J. said they’ll use it to sell you shit, they’ll encourage you to carve out this identity, but then all the sudden they’re like, sorry, you’re a second-class citizen.

Of course, the problem here is, who the hell are They? Is it the same They selling you a sexual identity and then refusing to recognize it as valid? Probably not. It’s ‘society,’ but society is made up of factions with their own sometimes converging interests. Sometimes you have a Pete Coors, who embodies two at once, but mostly the Theys inhabit different spheres and have different motivations. So it doesn’t make much sense to blame one for the crimes of the other.

He is right, though, that it’s confusing. In boink you’ve got two full-page ads, one on the inside back cover, for a website, straightcollegemen.com. The ad asks, ‘Think you know what straight men won't do?’ And cautions: ‘Think again.’ You’ve also got an article about ‘straight girls who like to sleep with chicks.’ Straight ain’t what it used to be, that’s for sure. It’s all very decadent and makes complete sense if you take as the overriding bourgeois philosophy of the day: ‘Have Your Cake and Eat it Too.’ I thinkit’s demonstrably true that in Western Culture since the birth of Christianity at least, the greater the degree of material wealth and the intensity of the ennui that attends it, the kinkier the sex. It’s all very Sadean.

Straightcollegemen.com has ostensibly straight college men—or straight-identifying, in gender studies terms—stripping down in pairs and groups, bathing each other, masturbating each other, making out, and presumably going all the way. There is a running commentary with each set of stills, and the videos all start with an interview. The prevailing theme seems to be, how far straight guys will go for cash. Like baitbus.com. So apparently—I mean, the assumption is it’s perfectly ‘straight’ to make out and have oral and anal sex with another man, so long as you do it for money. How’s them for values?

What is offensive about it on some level is precisely its leveling banality. Gays should be thrilled with these new developments, but the truth is it’s vexing, if only because straight guys still refuse to have sex with gay guys. They’ll only do it with other straight guys. If straight men can do everything with their straight male friends that gays do with their gay male friends, and not have to be gay to do it, then what’s the point of being gay in the first place? There are problems with being straight and having sex with other straight men, of course. How do you know you’re not gay, for instance? Or, more importantly, how do you know he’s not gay? Or that one of the two of you aren’t going to turn gay all the sudden and spoil both your fun?

3/26/2005

From the ever-annoying David Brooks, of The New York Slime:

"The core belief that social conservatives bring to cases like Terri Schiavo's is that the value of each individual life is intrinsic. The value of a life doesn't depend upon what a person can physically do, experience or achieve. The life of a comatose person or a fetus has the same dignity and worth as the life of a fully functioning adult.

"Social conservatives go on to say that if we make distinctions about the value of different lives, if we downgrade those who are physically alive but mentally incapacitated, if we say that some people can be more easily moved toward death than others, then the strong will prey upon the helpless, and the dignity of all our lives will be diminished.

"The true bright line is not between lives, they say, but between life and death. The proper rule, as Robert P. George of Princeton puts it, should be, 'Always to care, never to kill.'"

I think Brooks has been spending too much time smoking crack amongst his beloved Bobos. He's dead wrong in his assertion that the right grants equal value to each individual life. What you see very plainly in the Schiavo case is just the opposite. Schiavo's life is worth more. For the right, Terri represents the model citizen: a 98 lb brain-dead fetus. We should all aspire to emulate this worthy role-model. Wouldn't our civic life be more orderly if more of us did?

There is more than a hint of original sin in this. On the undeniable evidence of their hostility to social welfare of any kind, the right cares infinitely more about the unborn than it does for children once they have been expelled from the little Edens of their mothers' wombs. There is obviously good reason to protect the vulnerable in society, but the right very rarely advocates doing this in any real or practical way.

What they typically get up in arms about is any case in which they can demonize the individual. Abortion is not as much about the innocent in the womb as it is about the evil mothers and doctors who claim them as victims. According to their worldview evil must attach to someone, and that someone it attaches to is then evil, more or less through and through. Evil is, in this fairly unexamined view, indivisible, and in Terri Schiavo, so is good. Good is devoid of will, utterly incapable of committing evil. Terri cannot do anything at all.

The right sees good and evil as intrinsic in some. It's common for flaky fundamentalists to speak of angels, but where there are angels there must also be devils.

It is important for the religious right to have explicit targets in the form of evil-doers, rather than more dispersed and general influences like lack of adequate social services or economic opportunity (each of which is tied to the prevalence of abortion) which place a measure of responsibility on all of us for the welfare of the weakest of us.

I remember a conversation back home last year around this time. My mother, who had recently joined one of those charismatic megachurches with an auditorium the size of seven football fields brought up the issue of stem-cell research. Someone had told her that were it to be legalized women would be getting pregnant and lining up to sell their fetuses to mad doctors rubbing their hands together in glee at the thought of all manner of evil experiments they would be conducting on them.

Who were these women? I asked.

There are apparently hordes of evil-doers out there just waiting for the opportunity to do evil. And that is what the Schiavo case is about for the religious right.

As for Brooks' inane argument that without church- and state-sanctioned morality we are left with "do what thou wilt," it's hysteria. Common sense and proper socialization go a long way toward a just and prudent society in which free thought is an asset, not a threat. Dogma does nothing but make people vulnerable to demagoguery.

3/25/2005

God invented swallowing, didn't he?

I read that some nut tried to steal a gun from a gun shop so he could go rescue Terri Schiavo. He smashed two cases and when the shopkeeper pulled a gun on him he told him if he wasn’t on Terri’s side he wasn’t on God's side. Poor pathetic sod. Obviously needs attention. I mean, apparently he drove from Illinois. You’d think he could have arranged to get a gun more or less legally, if he’d planned ahead a bit, instead of causing a big scene, thus ruining his chances of success.

I’m not sure why people think God would keep Terri alive artificially. If He wanted her alive so bad, He could probably manage to keep her alive without the feeding tube, don’t you think? That’s why God invented swallowing.

I think it’s all very sad, but I don’t feel particularly sorry for Terri, since I’m pretty sure she has no earthly idea what’s going on. I feel sorry for her parents. It’s sad that in their quest to keep her corpse around indefinitely they've ruined their own peace. They'll always carry around the bitterness that they have created around her long, miserable death. And all to no purpose. All because they could not accept God’s will in the first place.