Shameless

John Kerry is guilty—of having underestimated the persistence in America of fear and hatred of homosexuality. There is no shame in being openly lesbian and no shame in speaking about it. There is certainly no shame in praising a father for failing to sell his openly lesbian daughter down the river.

I can’t think when I last read something as enraging in its bigotry and obtuseness as William Safire’s column this morning about the Mary Cheney brouhaha. Safire writes that until Kerry named Mary Cheney in the third debate, “only political junkies knew that a member of the Cheney family serving on the campaign staff was homosexual.” News flash to Safire: another group in America has been aware of her sexuality for years: gays and lesbians. This isn’t because of some dark grapevine of gossip. Although Safire does not mention it, Cheney worked for years as the Coors Brewing Company’s liaison to the lesbian and gay community. She’s out, and she’s been paid to be out. When lesbians and gays watch the machinations of the Bush-Cheney administration on gay issues, we can’t help but wonder about her and her silence. Love is what psychologists call experience-near. You feel it to be a part of yourself, immediate and sometimes overwhelming. I don’t know Mary Cheney’s political opinions about homosexuality, but those of the Republican party are quite clear. In supporting a vindictive amendment to the Constitution, the party has made it a campaign strategy to rally voters by appealing to their fear and hatred of homosexuals. Whatever her politics, and whether or not she realizes it, Mary Cheney has placed herself where she cannot both stand by her love for her partner and her love for her father without inconsistency. It must be excruciating.

I suspect it’s only possible for her to sustain it because her father has openly demurred from the party’s hysteria about gay marriage and has recognized her love for her partner by, for example, allowing the lesbian couple to greet him onstage after his debate with John Edwards. Either Dick Cheney’s concessions to his daughter on this issue mean something, or they do not. If they mean something, he should not be ashamed of them, and he should not object to having attention paid to them. If they mean nothing—if he is deceiving his daughter with hollow gestures—then they should be exposed. My sense is that they do mean something. And one of those meanings is that one of the men on the Bush-Cheney ticket wishes he were not complicit with cynical fear-mongering.

Kerry referred to Mary Cheney in order to rebut an insinuation by Bush. The moderator had asked Bush whether he thought homosexuality was a choice. “I don’t know,” the president answered. Well, I do, and I’m happy to tell him. It is a choice exactly as much as heterosexuality is, and no further. Everyone, gay or straight, may choose to be celibate, but that’s not what’s at stake here. No one chooses their orientation; no one chooses whether they find men or women attractive. And to deny someone the richness of an intimate, romantic relationship with another adult is wrong. By feigning ignorance about the nature of sexual orientation, Bush was telegraphing to his base that he would deny that richness to gays and lesbians, if he should ever find the legal means to do so. He was referencing a well-known split hair of the fundamentalist right, whereby they profess to love homosexuals as people and merely regret that they act on their homosexual desires.

Against such messages, Kerry pointed out that homosexuals, such as Mary Cheney, almost universally say they have not chosen their orientation. And he suggested that true love for homosexual people is not compatible with a wish to deny them the experience of an adult romantic relationship, as the Cheney’s own support for their daughter attests. It is impossible to think this was hurtful unless you think it is shameful to be gay or to love people who are.

Taking out all the jokes

I own the DVD and the CD of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. So I’m crushed that Team America: World Police is not funny. But it isn’t. In an interview for Salon.com, Trey Parker claims to have told Matt Stone, “Dude, we’ve gotta take all the jokes out of this movie.” On this they followed through.

The premise of the film is that it is an action movie, starring marionettes and satirizing American foreign policy. Except it doesn’t satirize American foreign policy. It rationalizes it. The dirty secret about parodies is that they always borrow the emotions of the genre they’re sending up and share more with their victims than is easily apparent. This movie’s dirty secret is somewhat worse. About fifteen minutes in (it’s not too soon to leave), you start to suspect that if there is any joke to this movie, it is the pleasureless, meta sort of joke that gives the viewer nowhere to stand—no character to identify with, no foxhole to hide in. The joke seems to be in the fidelity to cliche and the fact of the marionettes. There’s nothing playfully random. When two of the puppet characters fall for each other, they do it extra-syrupy and omit not one of the actorly “beats” canonical to such scenes. It’s endless.

After an hour or so, however (and by this point, it is too late to leave, because you feel compelled to see exactly how and how bloodily the train is going to be wrecked), you revise your impression: The movie’s joke isn’t meta at all. That was just your own resistance speaking, your own unwillingness to believe that the people who made South Park—a movie which invited you to believe that potty-mouthed children could rise up and overthrow a regime of adults so hysterical that they demonized Canada—could have made this. This movie’s joke, you realize, reluctantly, is simple. It’s on people who think that Bush’s hasty militarism and unilateral action is not the best foreign policy in a post-9/11 world. Such people—liberals in the media elite—might think that Bush’s foreign policy resembles an action movie, fought by puppets. Don’t you think they would pay $9.50 apiece to see a movie, if they thought it made that point for them? What if we made a movie that pretends to, but instead preaches about manhood and collateral damage?

To this interpretation, defenders of Team America will object that the sermon at the end of the movie is too obscene to be taken seriously. I would really like to agree. The sermon involves a theory of the world that might have been ripped untimely from the unconscious of 1950s Norman Mailer: murder cures evil, violence is strength, women don’t understand, and homosexuality is creeping in on us from all sides, including the inside. As I said, I’d really like to believe that these “ideas” are being lampooned, but it didn’t seem to me to have the texture of a lampoon. It felt, rather, as if Parker and Stone were in the grip of something they couldn’t fight their way free of, as if their senses of humor had been taken hostage by a compromise they didn’t understand. The coal mine, I’m afraid, has claimed another two canaries.

Antinomianism rebuked

The simpleminded generalization is that Protestants not Catholics quote Scripture. But it didn’t hold up tonight. It was Kerry who had James 2:14 and 2:26 at the tip of his tongue:

What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds? Faith without works is dead.

[In the RSV: What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? . . . As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.]

These are heavily freighted verses. Between Catholics and Protestants, faith versus works is a crucial theological issue, probably the most crucial. The simpleminded generalization is that Catholics put more emphasis on works, Protestants on faith. But even the strictest Protestants don’t believe that a person may be so confident of his salvation that his works don’t matter. The idea that a saved soul may act lawlessly is, in fact, a heresy—antinomianism.

This is far from an accidental choice of verses on Kerry’s part. These are probably the aptest lines in the Bible to prove what he said about his opponent in the first debate: “It’s one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong.”

Trippings of Tom Pepper studies

This blog is named for a line in Charles F. Briggs’s novel The Trippings of Tom Pepper, and over at his new blog, LeavesofGrass, independent scholar Mitch Gould has identified the real-life person who may have been Briggs’s model for the character Friend Goodwill. Gould also has a fascinating
interview with scholar Olive Hoogenboom
, who speculates that two Unitarian businessmen who took the same last name and lived together in Brooklyn in the early 19th century may have been a gay couple. One of the two, Augustus Graham, founded an apprentices’ library that evolved into today’s Brooklyn Museum.

Candor and gay marriage

During the primaries, I thought that the Republicans’ gay-baiting would force the Democrats to take a principled stand on gay marriage. I was wrong. I reckoned without Dick Cheney.

In last night’s debate, Cheney appeared most humane and most honest when he stood by his gay daughter and conceded that he would have preferred it if Bush had not embraced a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Edwards, on this one issue, seemed to be merely politicking. Edwards’s reassurance to the audience that the proposed amendment would be “unnecessary” to gay marriage opponents is meaningless. If the amendment would make no difference, why do gay groups so bitterly oppose it? In fact, it might make a difference. Without such an amendment, a judge in North Carolina (or elsewhere) could decide that the full faith and credit clause of the constitution requires his state to recognize a Massachusetts gay marriage. After all, what precedents would a judge cite if he chose not to recognize it? Century-old refusals to recognize mixed-race marriages from out of state? And Edwards was less than forthcoming when he suggested that domestic partnerships would do the job of protecting gay couples as well as marriage would.

The Democratic candidates should be thankful that Cheney’s principles have given them coverage on this issue. But I don’t want to be misunderstood: Cheney may have enough moral stamina to voice a reservation, but he is nonetheless the vice presidential candidate of a party that is deliberately gay-baiting in order to galvanize the voters in its base. There are an astonishing number of ballot measures and pieces of legislation this year that would outlaw gay marriage. Many are in swing states, which is no accident. According to the Human Rights Campaign, gay marriage has been outlawed this year in Louisiana and Missouri, and the question is pending in another dozen or so states. The Democrats may have chosen to be strategic and soft-pedal this issue, but the Republicans are exploiting fear, ignorance, and bigotry for partisan advantage.