I. I want in this post to clarify some muddy thoughts I have about infection, hedonism, and public health. I’ll start with HIV, why not. You may have seen the by now iconic front page of the NY Times listing just some of the names and bio data of the nearly 100,000 people killed by SARS-CoV-2:
Compare that cover to the same paper’s coverage of the milestone hit, in 1991, of 100,000 deaths from AIDS in the U.S.:
If you can’t see, that’s page 18 of the front section. Also, the Times didn’t bother to write or report its own story, deciding instead to run an AP wire report—the journalistic equivalent of a retweet.
If you’re a Times editor, or the sort of person who likes to win arguments so’s to stop feeling uncomfortable, you might point out that 100,000 deaths in three months is much more alarming, frontpage-style news than 100,000 deaths over the course of eleven years. You might even make the more dangerous argument that CoV-2 affects everyone, whereas HIV, at least in 1991, affected mostly gay men, a small minority of the (newspaper-buying) population.
I’m going to return to that second argument. All I have to say for the first is that what broke this weekend (and in 1991) was not news, but hearts. That 100,000 (almost) have died is data anyone can access at any time. The point of the litany of names on the cover was to mark an occasion, to send a message, to highlight some severities regarding this virus that seem to have been overshadowed in the recent weeks. It’s a memorial, and the Times was so proud of the good job they did they even published a piece about how they came up with it.
Which means that 100,000 AIDS deaths weren’t worth memorializing in the paper.
II. I might try to answer the question of why. Homophobia seems an obvious answer, and so does a fear of sex. That HIV is (mostly) transmitted through sexual contact makes it a virus some want to moralize about. If you hate sex and hear about someone’s infection, it’s extremely easy to think Well, that’s what you get. Which might be why the Times felt 100,000 AIDS deaths was merely reprintable news, and not “incalculable loss.”
Which is to say the loss we feel has something to do with innocence, and with this virus’s lack of discrimination in who it infects. Those 100,000 appear as victims of some unfortunate event. But it’s important to remember that no virus discriminates.
Also worth pointing out is that CoV-2 has become no less moralizable a virus than HIV, with lots of public debate about what’s healthy/unhealthy behavior, and thus good/bad behavior, and thus who among us gets the label of good/bad pandemic citizen. We’ve all seen mask-shaming posts about people in parks, and we’ve seen “No Masks Allowed” signs posted at brazenly re-opened business. Maybe you saw that pool party at the Lake of the Ozarks on Memorial Day weekend, and maybe that image made you feel something very strong and impassioned.
We are a nation judging each other over our behavior. The virus has put us in moral positions. My grandmother is not expendable, etc. Being on the right side of a moral debate feels very good, much better than, say, a policy debate, because you know that you’re on the side of humanity, the very goodness within all of our hearts. And in the loneliness of staying home, what could be more necessary than feeling righteous with each other?
I feel within my good heart that moralizing any virus is a no-win position, and I hope by the end of this to solidify why.
III. Let’s go back to the argument that AIDS is a “niche” disease. Another one used to be syphilis, and I find the connections Leo Bersani finds between the discourse around these viruses especially useful in thinking about the moralism of our current viral moment. 19th-century Victorians villainized sex workers (and not so much the men who hired them) for spreading syphilis, and Bersani points to how much of that villainy lay in the apparent vice of gluttony: “Prostitutes publicize (indeed, sell) the inherent aptitude of women for uninterrupted sex.”
Victorians contrasted this to (presumed) satisfied procreative marriage sex, while Bersani likens this to the potential in gay anal sex for multiple orgasms with multiple partners, and the ready role-switchings of insertor to insertee. In short, amid all the Puritanical restrictions on sex we seem to have one involving number of sex partners per day. (The question is whether this restriction would be in place within an STI-free universe, and given the primacy that pregancy/procreation holds in our sex discourse I have a hard time believing it wouldn’t.)
So promiscuity is the problem, in this mindset, not any virus:
The realities of syphilis in the nineteenth century and of AIDS today “legitimate” a fantasy of female sexuality as intrinsically diseased; and promiscuity in this fantasy, far from merely increasing the risk of infection, is the sign of infection. Women and gay men spread their legs with an unquenchable appetite for destruction. This is an image with extraordinary power.
Like the image of a packed pool party on a pandemic weekend. We presume those people are going to infect, and kill, others from their selfish behavior. We even presume that a number of them are carriers, currently infected, and we feel safe in this presumption because CoV-2’s infectiousness without symptoms was one of the first things we learned about it. The virus is what we accept, it’s the carriers’ behavior that’s unacceptable.
IV. What I’m getting is how it’s easier (because it feels good morally) to attack the character and behavior of a person carrying a virus than it is to figure out how to live with a virus. And as a gay man who has watched his fellow gays get maligned globally for promiscuous behavior (especially during this pandemic), I’ve been reluctant to jump on the StayAtHome righteous bandwagon.
I think this is because I refuse to act politically in a public health crisis—and as I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, pushing to “Reopen America” before StayAtHome’s work is done is acting politically in a public health crisis. I’m staying at home. I’m wearing masks indoors. I’ve canceled my vacation travel. I don’t believe that humans have the right to shop or fill sports arenas during a public-health emergency, but I do believe they have a right to be near other humans: to fuck or party or tailgate or gossip or cuddle or play or drink or pray or whatever humans can’t happily do alone.
Gay activists demanded two things early in the spread of HIV: better research, and better health care. What kinds of sex can we more safely have and what kinds of sex are too risky? What does HIV do to the body and does it affect each host the same way? When we get sick, what can we expect? Where are treatment medications? Where is a cure or vaccine? How will you stop us from dying from this?
N.B.: They asked these of public health professionals. Reagan took years to even say the word AIDS. Politicians are not useful people to turn to in a pandemic. What this pandemic has shown us is that all the people who saw this coming and knew how best to handle it don’t worry about getting reelected.
Is why I’ve been happy to see newspapers run stories about what we might call Safer Socializing practices. Meeting couple-friends outside with masks? Sure, low risk. Indoor masked dance party with one shared bathroom? Big, big risk. Being the best bottom slut at the bathhouse? Big, big risk. Hooking up with a semi-regular fuckbud to relieve some stress. Less risk.
But how much risk?
V. I don’t know how much risk. I don’t have any semi-regular fuckbuds. But I want to trust that those who do are doing the work of weighing their risks. I know this is naive. I know it’s hard to imagine that people filling Missouri pools or Florida beaches (or Los Angeles beaches, for that matter) are doing that work.
But I also know that people in different cultures have different cultural needs than I do. If this were a longer post, I could get into the reasons why closing public and private sex venues is an act of gay oppression that should be as illegal as closing every Baptist church, but instead I’ll end with a quick story.
Two weeks ago, on our weekly Madden-family FaceTime session, Mom appeared on the screen and immediately my sister noticed something different. “Did you get your hair done?” she asked, and Mom said “Yes” in the sheepish way where she doesn’t quite look at you (/the camera) and wishes immediately to change the subject. My sister shook her head. I’m sure I did too. Mom mentioned how her hairdresser wore a mask, and she sanitized everything, and overall she felt the risks were minimal.
“You don’t understand,” she said, “it’s about depression more than anything else.” Or maybe she said “self-esteem.” Whatever it was, the idea was that getting her hair done made her feel better during a time she hadn’t been feeling great, because who among us has? Mom gets her hair done every two weeks, and it had been two months. This is her culture. She’s also in her 70s and not in the best health, and I fear for what would happen if she got infected.
It’s very easy for me to shake my head and roll my eyes that Some People Put Vanity Over Their Own Health. But what do I know of other people? Better, I believe, to go with what the Times put on that iconic cover: “They were not simply names on a list. They were us.”
But last week I watched the first half of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin broadcast by the Met, and noted in the subtitles this line, sung by the mezzo to the baritone about the soprano: “She is beautiful without the arrogance of beauty, noble without the arrogance of nobility, pious without the arrogance of piety.”
I liked it because the virtues (whether the 4 cardinal or 7 holy ones) have always seemed like obnoxious impossibilities. It’s like when I first started talking again to Jesus and reading about his deeds and ideas. I’m supposed to live as he did? Who can possibly compete?
The living as turns out to be key. Here, the mezzo (a) points to how the virtues become more virtuous and useful when we see them as ways for acting, guidelines for one’s behavior and comportment, while (b) simultaneously warning us against exemplifying or being characterized in full as any one of them.
In other words, make the virtues adverbs, not nouns.[*]
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
You might want to point out that the mezzo extols the soprano’s virtues with adjectives. She “is beautiful” and “is pious”, but I’m reading those as effects of verbal actions. Or better: how is her generally being-a-person? Oh she does-be’s beautifully. She is-acts nobly.↵
While searching last week for the origins of the archaic term bedswerver,[a] I found this pic:
You might recognize the composition from the image behind the “distracted boyfriend” meme from 2017:
Being who I am, I thought it was interesting that the latter photo became the viral hit and not the former photo, and I wanted to know why. After all, few if any of the memes relied on gender, the distracted boyfriend standing in for “people”. So why not let a girlfriend stand in for “people”? I had my suspicions, but I took it to the court of public opinion that is Twitter:
You can click on the comments to read along if you’d like (unless it’s past 30 days and the tweet’s been autodeleted), but the general consensus was that the girlfriend in this pic isn’t distracted/horny, she’s offended/angry. Only in the context of the original, boyfriend-centered pic, goes the argument, would we ever think this girlfriend was aroused.
I’m curious about this because physiognomically these two are doing the same things: furrowing their brows and pursing their lips. Also: we can see what this woman looks like when she’s offended/angry, because you’ve probably noticed by now that the model also plays The Girlfriend in the viral pic. Her angry expression looks like dropped-jaw, widened eyes.
So what makes Distracted Girlfriend “look mad”? A few things come to mind here, not necessarily as means of answering that question. One is what certain facial expressions connote, specifically furrow (from the OAD: “tighten and lower in anxiety, concentration, or disapproval”) and purse (“pucker or contract, typically to express disapproval or irritation”). Individually, each seems connected with disapproval, but together they somehow broadcast arousal.
The other thing to note is that Distracted Boyfriend’s got a slight upturn at the center of his brow—which often expresses a kind of pathetic feeling, and is often a component of one’s “O-face”—whereas hers are turned down at the center, perhaps villainously. A subtle furrowing distinction that might make all the difference.
Another commenter wrote, “Women are never that obvious,” which indicates that we’re looking at an unusual image here, whereas the viral pic is more familiar (another common explanation for why it went viral: we’re used to seeing images of lecherous men, not women). And I wondered why it’s unusual, why women aren’t as obvious about this as men.
Because no single thing is inherent in every woman’s nature (see my gender essentialism complaint below), it’s incorrect to claim that women aren’t as lecherous or hornily aroused by passersby as men are. So either they choose to be more subtle about gawking, or they have to be, and I’m curious about why, and I think both options have the same reason why.
“Man [sic] behave this way more than women do,” one commenter wrote, but this is a just-so story, very likely a self-fulfilling prophecy, but its believability may have something to do with why “distracted boyfriend” became the meme. I think that we expect men to be horny for women and we expect women to be angry at men, to that point where even when a stock-image photographer deliberately sets up a scenario where a woman is acting horny for a man, the majority of people see her as angry, or too unnaturally obvious in her expression.
She’s not playing an expected role, Distracted Girlfriend, which is what I suspected from the start. And this isn’t a failure of the model to act well, or the photographer to realistically set up a scenario, it’s a failure of the role itself, the roles we all expect each other to play.
There’s something darker at work in the image that’s worth pointing out. One commenter ventured that the reason “distracted girlfriend” didn’t become a meme is that distracted boyfriends are funnier because of lower/safer consequences: “[I]f a guy cheats on a girl, he might be dumped or get his car keyed or she might smash his TV. If a girl cheats on a guy though he’ll beat the shit out of her or just kill her, so not as many people know women who might cheat, because they usually die.”
Usually makes this an unuseful idea, and their lumping together distraction with cheating is even more useless,[b] but it’s hard to argue that the threat for the distracted girlfriend isn’t potentially greater. Note the grip Distracted Girlfriend’s boyfriend has on her, the way he’s pulling her away with his whole body. Obviously, we’re not looking at the right territory for jokey memes about how quickly people change their interests.
Which is to say whether the girlfriend is broadcasting horniness or not on her face doesn’t matter. The image shows her being held back, almost as if her safety were in danger. Is it because she’s about to start a fight with the guy she’s looking at, as one commenter suggested? Is it because she wants to run off with him, as I’ve been trying to feministly suggest remains a possibility?
It doesn’t matter. Look at her body in the frame compared to Distracted Boyfriend’s body in the viral pic. Look at both their partners’ bodies and reactions. Their faces, Distracted Boyfriend’s and Girlfriend’s, are in charge of broadcasting their arousal, but the faces and bodies of their partners are in charge of broadcasting how we should feel about their arousal.
Distracted Boyfriend’s girlfriend looks more easy to abandon than Distracted Girlfriend’s boyfriend, and that this is all in body language, in the way men and women can hold each other bodies differently, creeps me out the more I look at it.
We’ve been watching a lot of Dynasty at home these days, Neal and I, and I’ve been surprised at how surprised/shocked/disgusted I’ve been at all the moments a man will just clench a woman by the upper arm and move her through a room. And not always in menace! It seems there was a time (and I’m not naive, I know we’re still in it), when husbands felt it was natural to maneuver their wives around the way they might a tool or piece of furniture.
That the wives never lash out in anger or violence—Get your fucking hands off me!—tells me so much about what the culture allows women, and the nature of the threats/needs for subtlety mentioned above.
This is a change in my position. Used to be I understood that fantasies are separate from reality and do not indicate anything about a person’s behavior or ethical beliefs. So I’ve refused to judge people into Nazi porn, or, say, Daddy-Dom / Little-Boy fetishists who dress the latter up in diapers and give them the former’s dick to suck. I don’t judge incest fantasies or rape fantasies. I don’t judge race play, even though it can make my stomach curdle.
This isn’t a radical position. This is sexology 101.
Yesterday I found a fantasy that I’m judging the hell out of, and I want to figure out why.
This is from Jack Morin’s The Erotic Mind, which is a self-help-adjacent book about the roles that fantasies play in developing one’s individual eroticism. Morin surveyed around 350 people about their peak erotic experiences and longtime sexual fantasies to gather the data from which he’s formed his ideas. “Judy” is one such survey respondent (note very 1995 language):
Ever since I was about fifteen I’ve fantasized about being a prostitute. I was always supposed to be “good,” but prostitutes claim the right to be blatantly sexual. As a hooker, I relish my seductive walk, whorish clothes, and dirty talk. I imagine a man slowing down for a look at me. If I like what I see, I ask if he’s in the mood for action. Sometimes I’m a streetwalker and we do it in his car or a fleabag hotel. Other times I’m a sophisticated call girl catering to rich businessmen. But I’m always in control, totally sexual, and I don’t give a damn about what anyone thinks.
Perfectly good sexual fantasy. Common as hell, I imagine. But in Morin’s drive to understand the emotions behind our fantasies, he asks people to think about them, and where they came from or what makes them so charged, and Judy has a revealing answer:
As a kid I felt concerned about my fascination with whores. Maybe I really wanted to be one—a horrifying thought. Recently I became involved with others in my community to drive the street hookers out of our neighborhood. I feel very strongly about this issue since a couple of kids found used condoms and needles in the park. More than once I went home from one of these meetings and masturbated in the bathtub (my favorite spot). And what did I fantasize about? Prostitutes, of course! I felt like a terrible hypocrite. But then I realized that my thoughts are my own business and totally unrelated to the real world. I still feel a certain uneasiness about my fantasies, but I think I like it.
So Judy’s desire to be a sex worker disturbed her, which makes sense given the messages we grow up with about sex workers. And that’s also common as hell: our erotic minds sometimes take us places our rational minds would never go. Judy seems to have picked this up (“my thoughts are my own business and totally unrelated to the real world”), but what she doesn’t understand is how the disturbance she’s felt about her fantasy (which, while understandable, is her own problem), has led to her antagonize the very source of that fantasy.
In other words, she’s hurting the people who turn her on because she’s uneasy about how they turn her on.[†]
Here’s where it gets really bad. Morin, in trying to understand how this fantasy is working for Judy’s eroticism, calls it a necessary paradox. (Morin’s all about the looking into how obstacles/disturbances fit into our arousal.)
Without boundaries to push against, there is no joy in naughtiness. If hookers roaming the streets were as meaningless to Judy as newspaper boys, they could no longer serve her as symbols of wanton lust.
So from this point of view, Judy isn’t just subconsciously hurting people who turn her on, she’s actively and consciously hurting them so they can continue to give her something to masturbate to.
This is fucked up. It’s fucked up and I want Judy to be arrested.
I imagine if any sex workers actually read my blog they might roll their eyes at my naivete here. It might be the unspoken job in a sexually unhealthy world for sex workers to receive hostility from the very people who need them.
It’s naive for Morin and Judy to think that she has to do anything in her own active faculties to naughtify, if you will, sex workers so they remain sexy for her—the entirety of human history has done this. People who flat-out hate sex work and (at least claim to) find no erotic charge from it (e.g., SWERFS) will always do Judy’s dubious job for her. In fact, it’s this very already marginalized status that forms the source of their power for her, the way sex workers upend the “good” Judy claims she “was always supposed to be.”
Maybe someday sex workers will have the same status in the neighborhood as paperboys, but that utopia won’t be happening in Judy’s lifetime I promise you. Her neighborhood activism, then, isn’t protecting her erotic fantasy life (and even if it were, your fantasies shouldn’t take priority over marginalized people’s survival). At best it’s probably warding off the judgement she fears from her neighbors.
What if Judy, what if we all, let our erotic desires tell us something about what we value, instead of letting our (or our community’s) values dictate how we should feel about our fantasies—and what we do about them? I’m not saying if you’re into Nazi porn you should find a white supremacist group to join. I (and the majority of sex therapists) don’t think fantasies work this literally.
But if something turns you on, that something has a power over you. You can reject this power, or feel that any power must by nature be cruel and punishing. Or you can accept the power, you can maybe almost see it as a virtue, and then steer your life by trying to accept and even admire that virtue in others.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
No one ever argues with me on this blog, but if you want to argue that sex workers can find another place to work, I don’t want to argue with you, not really knowing the situation of Judy’s neighborhood. But if you want to argue that Judy was right, regardless of her fantasies, to remove sex workers from places where kids come across needles and condoms in the park, I’d argue you are incorrect. One, parks are public spaces all kinds of diverse people have to share. Two, there are ways to help mitigate unwanted debris and litter in parks that don’t require “driving” people “out of the neighborhood.” Three, a diverse society is better served by you teaching your kids what to do when they come across needles and condoms on the ground than it is by you banding together with your fellow scaredycats.↵
Two quick thoughts on the push to reopen stores and beaches and things while states are still seeing an increase in covid-19 cases. The obvious thought is that undereducated people are being convinced that fighting The Rich Man’s War to Resume Making Money is a virtue, a form of patriotism, in much the same way the U.S. military works to convince young people of limited means that dying for oil barons in endless wars might make them a hero.
The less obvious thought is that undereducated people are being convinced that Deciding For Yourself When To Get A Haircut is a form of civil disobedience, which has a grand history in the U.S., and which feels very good to take part in, with the long-term added benefit for our current administration of becoming the obvious scapegoat if a second-wave of virus deaths happens this summer.
In other words: it won’t be Trump’s fault that so many Americans have died. It’ll be all these disobedient people, who in turn will be happy to take the blame away from their deadbeat dad.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. In California, there’s a (semi-) detailed plan for reopening what’s been closed since March. Right now, retail stores have reopened with curbside pickup only. The next phase is to open “personal care” businesses like salons and gyms. The final phase is to reopen concert and sports venues.
It’s odd that California’s plan doesn’t mention bars and restaurants (my guess is they’re somewhere in the late-2 / early-3 stage, at least smaller-capacity ones). But it’s all I and my friends here talk about. Nobody’s yearning to drive to a curb to pick up a pair of shoes they bought online. Everybody wants to be able to hang out together.
That reopening shops and businesses is our focus has something to do with public health but a lot to do with money-making always taking a priority over people’s well-being.
I love bars and restaurants. I feel very happy and content inside them. But I’ve realized that as much as I want to go drink with friends again, re-opening bars is a lower priority for me than reopening two kinds of places I don’t hear much talk about: libraries and churches.
California’s plan does mention in-person church services happening by the end of Phase 3, but I’m not talking about services exactly. I’m talking about church spaces. Many churches (in San Francisco at least) are small, no larger than the retail shops who get to re-open this week, so there could be distancing problems with reopening them. But many churches are large and airy—if not larger than grocery stores then at least far less crowded.
The church I usually go to most mornings is one of the biggest in town. There’s never more than four or five people there in the morning, none of them closer than 20 feet away from me. Also: nobody works at the church, or at least nobody is visibly working. The church is open for people to come and sit—maybe they pray (which is what I do) or maybe they just sit.
I really need to be able to go sit in church and pray again. And I’d totally do it in a mask and gloves if California would let me.
Likewise, I really need the services of my campus and local libraries. I don’t need to go in there and sit and read. (I read at home; why I don’t pray at home I should get into more in a bit here.) But I want access to books, and while I personally can afford to buy any book I might want to read, it might be good to start thinking about giving people in a pandemic access to free books ASAP.
I understand that libraries circulate shared materials, and sharing anything in a pandemic makes everyone very nervous—for good reason. But I can imagine a curbside pickup system that could limit damages the way restaurants and stores currently do.
But I’m not looking in this post to talk about how this could happen, I want to focus more on why it should. Or at least, why I need it. I thought what I needed was bars so that I could be social again and feel like a person out in the world, but I’ve realized that bars are useful in this regard as a distraction from one’s day-to-day.
Libraries and church—okay so for whatever reason I’ve made a habit in my spiritual life of being in church to pray, so that while I can pray at home it feels like I’m not fully committing to God whenever I do, which is silly, and something I can get over in time, and so in the end, sure, I admit that I don’t need churches to reopen but I’d really like to be inside mine again—instead help me focus on my life. They’re absorptive in the way bars are distracting.
In short, they help me think and feel. And it would be great to live in a state that saw its citizens’ thinking and feeling as an essential resource and would work hard to quickly restore access to the venues in which we best perform this resource.[*] Putting what’s happening in those terms, it sounds like we need to reopen businesses ASAP.
But we don’t. This pandemic has taught us to rethink what we’ve thought was essential.
Here’s a claim for libraries and churches (or call them meditation centers if it helps). Let us think and feel before you put us back to the task of money-making and -spending, and maybe the future we need can come more quickly.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Funny that I don’t consider universities to be part of the venues where people do good work thinking and feeling, but (a) universities require groups/crowds, and (b) I’m still on sabbatical and I’m not about to waste it.↵
I’ve been trying to think about strength lately, and in looking for ways to access the concept that don’t have anything to do with, like, how much you can bench, I was led to Geoffrey Scarre’s On Courage, a kind of moral-philosophical primer on the idea.
Scarre at one point tells the story of the Archbishop Cranmer, burned at the stake by Queen Mary for heresy against the church and state. His final last-words speech was a repudiation of the penance he had earlier written and signed his name to, as a way to plead for his life. He ultimately realized that this penance betrayed his true beliefs, and in this speech recanted it all. They took him to the pyre, and right as the flames grew, Cranmer held out his right hand so that it would burn first, to punish that synecdochic part of himself that wrote the true heresy.
I read this and imagined the scene, the crowd around the burning stake, and I saw a person, probably a gay man, or maybe a woman (I see them for whatever reason as a Mark McKinney character in a wig), and turning, in the moment the hand begins to burn, to a friend or companion saying, “Oh my god can you believe that?” with a very arch and campy tone. Almost like what was happening was a joke or some silliness, something outrageous they could disbelievingly laugh at together, like when you hear a person call another person fat to their face.
Ooohhh my goooooood…. Kristin Wiig does the voice in her character who spoils surprise parties. And indeed, I think of this scene as a comedy sketch, perhaps the only place where such a thing can happen. But it’s worth pointing out this this reaction—from the POV of someone outside the scene, watching at home, say—would most likely be funny and cause laughter.
But no laughter, it’s key, from the crowd. Indeed, its opposite.
Anyway, as soon as I imagined this person, I wanted to know what their virtue was, or where their moral value lay. Not asking “Good god man where are your values?” in reproach, but instead presuming from the start that all people have virtues, and thus trying analytically to locate and identify the queer’s (as I’m going to call this figure).
Cranmer is a paragon of courage, even after his initial cowardice of signing the false-belief statement the queen wanted to hear. And not only does he contain courage as a virtue, he performs a public courageous act by burning his own hand first.
The queer does not, it seems, have courage, but nor, I want to argue, do they display courage’s opposite: cowardice. This queer is akin to the figure Roxane Gay, in Bad Feminist, does such a poor job of understanding—i.e, the kid in class who makes a joke after the Challenger explodes—but they’re not quite the same person. They feel similar feelings within a charged moment, but I think they discharge those feelings in separate directions.
It might help us in our searching for the queer’s virtue to look at another form of disbelief in this scene, one coming from those in the crowd who feel themselves to be virtuous, or who at least regard the seriousness of this public burning with the appropriate solemnity. As soon as the queer turns and speaks—even as soon as they put the ironized disbelieving look on their face—the solemn crowd feels its own disbelief: We cannot believe you are acting this way in this moment. From the perspective of the crowd, the queer has transgressed or broken some collective ethos or tacitly agreed-upon decorum. The crowdspeople’s virtue here is probably prudence, the wisdom to know how to act.
It’s worth also noting that brave Cranmer has done the same thing as the queer in this moment. He’s transgressed, crossed a line of decorum and normative behavior. Indeed, Cranmer’s transgression is the source of the queer’s joking disbelief. Can you believe he is being so boldly brave and virtuous? Can you believe he’s acting like some kind of superhero? Perhaps everyone in the crowd is asking these questions, but the queer seems to be asking it outside of any feelings of awe or reverence. That irreverence is a good part of what makes the queer judged and reviled by the others in the crowd.
All the same, the self-punishing burning man is on some level acting uncivilly, antisocially. He’s exhibiting values the community claims, at least, to try to live up to, but righteous wanting is not the same as actively doing and publicly showing. Cranmer steps outside the comfortable norm when he wills his hand to burn first. He becomes extra-ordinary. Whatever discomfort the crowd might feel in that moment comes from how the impossibly brave act shines a light on them in their non-bravery, in their not needing—at this moment, at least—to be brave. Which is the say the brave are rude, and that rudeness comes from how they unwittingly expose our shortcomings.
(Okay, immediately I doubt a lot of the above. It feels a lot like thoughts I’ve had recently that the beautiful, as a class, are unpleasant to behold, and selfish in their actions, because of how they expose the ugliness of the rest of us, and after thinking about beauty that way I came away feeling it was 100 percent emblematic of my low self-esteem, and of shame in general, the narcissistic way shame sees everything as some affront on and exposure of the lesser self. Whether or not I genuinely felt I was beautiful, I know that without shame and with a decent amount of self-esteem I could enjoy being in the presence of beauty without it feeling like abuse. Likewise here, I might be projecting my own self-esteem issues and doubt about my own courage—the doubts that have led me to read up on the subject—onto the crowd of people, imagining that their reverence of this unbelievably brave act must be also making them feel like cowards, whereas one thing Scarre has covered so far in the book is how courage is only courage when it’s applied at appropriate times, and thus the courageous person, the person who exhibits and lives this virtue, can understandably not be doing anything courageous by watching an act of courage, and still come away feeling like they are, also, when they need to be, courageous.)
So: if everyone in the scene is feeling some level of disbelief, I would assume that most in the crowd are in awe of Cranmer’s unbelievable act. What they’re witnessing is rare, very rare, and it strikes awe and reverence. The queer, on the other hand, acts irreverently. And what’s more important in our project to locate their virtue is to figure out the emotion in place before they act, before they express their disbelief out loud to their neighbor.
An identity-politics / activist way to see it is that the queer, before they act, is unconsciously refusing to respond with awe to yet another instance of heteronormative masculine performance or virtue. Manly courage. The queer innately acknowledges that the virtues are patriarchal, they value daring action in men and quiet compliance in women, and thus any awe felt toward Cranmer’s brave macho act would be yet another instance of being told to live under the rules of a society that always already under- or de-values queers.
As much as I like this idea, however, I distrust that it captures the emotion or feeling occurring in the queer at the moment they see the hand start to burn. It feels instead like an interpretation after the fact. A “reading” of the queer. But then again, Scarre’s book is full of examples of people who do very courageous acts (jumping into a rushing river to save a life) without self-identifying as brave or courageous. Likewise here, the queer need not have been conscious of their desire to repudiate the patriarchy for us to read their act as such. Maybe they “just did the right thing,” they say, but this need not prevent us from reading them as courageous.
A less generous take (let’s call it Gay’s take), is that the queer does indeed feel awe (if not precisely the same awe as the crowd’s) in the presence of the burning hand, but an awe that feels too awful to stand. An awe that brings pain, which may be the pain of low self-esteem or witnessing evidence of your own shortcomings and lesserness. To assuage that pain, a reflex kicks in and the queer neutralizes their fear with comedy. (I see it almost like a chemical the queer sprays into the air.) It’s harder to fear this awe-ful scene when the queer can focus more on what’s funny about it (and here I’m intentionally blurring the boundaries between funny-haha and funny-strange). If bravery is accepting your fear and acting in the face of it, then we can see that the queer is, in the end, exhibiting cowardice. That’s the emotion in place before they turn and say, “Oh my god can you believe that?”
There are other possibilities. The queer feels some disturbance in the communal goodwill (the community is currently destroying one of its own after all), and what they feel is a desire to bring that community back together, and a performative campy disbelief happens to be what everyone has come to expect of the queer in any moment. The queer stabilizes disequilibrium by being very empathically and expectedly themselves, already outside the group (which is to say they’re acting ethically and even prudently).
Or they’re acting ignorantly. Because while I clearly identify with the queer in this scene (I’ve been this queer many times), and while I want in general as a fellow queer to isolate some indestructible or inarguable form of virtue in their behavior, whenever I put myself in this specific queer’s shoes or try to see them clearly, I keep returning to the fact that they clearly do not feel what the group feels is the proper emotion. Whether this is a disability or a stubborn refusal bears returning to, but for now it’s worth pointing out that what the queer says might not be as transgressive as that the queer speaks. What this moment calls for is silence, and if not silence then nonverbal forms of emoting. Wailing and tears. Cries of anguish. But because bravery lies at the heart of this public shame (and shaming), that bravery overshadows the shame, and such bravery amid death seems to call for silence.
The queer’s speaking into what should be silence: where does it come from and what virtue (if any) does it exhibit?
If it’s a willed refusal to speak, then we can locate some bravery in the queer, perhaps. That is, the queer has surely received over the years the messages and lessons of the group—i.e., “in the face of bravery, let’s all do awed silence”—and thus must feel some drive to conform to the community’s values. And then, in the thick of this communal feeling, the queer decides to overcome that wrong-feeling drive and act against the values of the group. Some reserve of feeling or spirit, or some sense of what might either be right (that is, just and prudent) or feel right (that is personally fulfilling or important to the queer), takes over and leads the queer to act. The crowd, in turn, would read this as selfish, narcissistic, but we can easily see the queer reading it as courage.
Now I’m seeing two emotions, or two locales to explore: the motivation or decision about whether to do something, and then the decision about what to do. If the group’s communal righteous response is to do nothing and say nothing, the queer decides both to do something, and then decides what to do. The first decision exhibits courage: the bravery of going against the grain. (And please believe me that this takes [and is] courage, not just contrarianism; I have a lifetime of moments of wanting to speak into a silence—whether to joke or make an unheard point—but not being able to handle the shaming or disgust I rapidly imagine on the people around me, and therefore staying safe(r) by complying with the expected silence.)
The second decision—okay now what to say?—exhibits something else. Because the queer could say anything: “What a guy!” “This is a tragedy!” “Somebody save him!” If the proper communal response to execution and courage is silence, saying any of these would be transgressions, regardless of how apt to the occasion they may feel. The queer transgresses a second time, or as an additional layer, by speaking aloud the group’s silent disbelief in such a tone that the courage act gets painted as rash, or silly. The queer’s tone diminishes (or at least threatens to) Cranmer’s bravery to a stunt, something not to awe but more to gawk at.
Again, we’re back to seriousness and solemnity, and the queer’s refusal or ignorance about its being called for. And as much as I want to come to some resolution on whether the queer’s speaking is (a) a willed refusal of norms or (b) an ignorance (however possibly posed or performed) of them (what I’ve problematically called a disability above), I’ve just realized that what makes queers queer is how they’re always obscuring these kinds of distinctions. The queerness of the queer’s “Oh my god” is that we can never really know whether this is rebellion or stupidity, and so we can never firmly land on whether the queer is culpable or innocent.
The queer’s strategy for survival: if this society will not take me seriously I will turn that dismissal into a hall of mirrors where you will not find the stabilities you value. Interestingly, a hall of mirrors is always what being in shame feels like—your ugly self reflected to you everywhere you turn; the “true” self never singly identifiable.
So maybe queer courage takes the shame the queer receives from the crowd and, through comic obscurantism, makes a weapon out of it.
But there’s also this drive to blur or obscure, and to remind others of the constant presence of obscurities and uncertainties, right at the moment when most would demand clarity and stability. Not shying away from that urge, no matter how you might be regarded, that’s I think the nature of queer courage.
I want to be clear that I’m not looking at this courage as a kind available only to queers or gender-nonconforming folks—much less the only kind of courage we queers are capable of. (If Stonewall taught us anything it’s that queer folks can also hold their own hands to the fire when virtue calls for it.) I’m referring instead to a different, queer form of courage, one that doesn’t resemble the classic virtue. This queer courage is anybody’s for the taking.
Now that Joe Biden is the presumptive candidate running against the President, our battle to secure a more equitable and democratic future just got more uphill. In that spirit, I’m focusing on helping candidates committed to progressive policies—universal health care, social justice for all, and fighting income inequality, among others—get elected to Congress. This is the third in a series.
Zainab Mohsini is a first-generation Afghan American who came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2003. She’s a progressive Democrat running for the House of Representatives in Virginia’s 11th district, which happens to be where I grew up.
She’s got a tough battle ahead of her.
Mohsini is up against incumbent Gerry Connolly in the primary election happening (possibly) in June. Connolly is much loved in the district. He took 71% of the vote in 2018. Also: my best and longest friend worked for him when he was the chairman of the Board of Supervisors for our home county. It seems impossible that he’ll lose. So why put money behind Mohsini?
The problem is Centrism. Connolly is a Vice Chair of the New Democrat Coalition, which is a centrist caucus of “pro-business”, “fiscally-responsible” congresspeople. It’s the largest Democratic caucus, and it is, you can call it, the base of the party.
Pro-business means anti-worker. It means favoring profit/eers over the well being of the people. It means legislating for more economic growth, such that a proposed pipeline which will destroy the environment and nearby communities becomes a cost-benefit issue to be weighed.
Most people are centrists the way most people are average—it’s how those terms mean what they do. And a democracy is rule by the majority. The problem with centrism as an ideology is that it fails to achieve what the majority wants, given the constant presence of radicals.
Often we think that the “two sides” we see of polarized issues are equally polarized. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Take women’s rights and the ERA. One side says that women are equal to men. The other side says men are superior to women. If you’re a centrist or moderate Democrat on this issue, if you seek to find the middle ground between these positions, where does that leave women?
Politics—the workings of policy-making in government—requires compromise, and when you have a radical rightwing administration in power (fascism is a radical ideology), you do not enact change by taking a middle-of-the-road position. Being in the middle of the road gets you stuck once again in the gutter.
The gutter on the right, I mean, in this shabby metaphor.
If you believe these times are unusual, that having a racist president in the White House who seems fully incapable of caring about the 38,000 deaths (so far) caused by the coronavirus is unusual, we will not make a better future by playing politics as usual. It’s not just a matter of getting “more of us” in Congress, it’s a matter of getting the versions of us with a vision of something different.
So I’m giving my support to Zainab Mohsini. She is committed to the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. She’s in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. I haven’t found her position on Citizens United, that rotten decision, but her Twitter bio indicates she’s taking no corporate PAC money.
And I know I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating—anti-PAC progressives are immediately at a disadvantage in trying to win elections (thanks, in part, to the Citizens United decision). The game is rigged to handicap such candidates from the start. They need our support more than anybody.
UPDATE: In addition to the standard SFTU offer below, I’ll give away MS critiques to anyone who donates to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, the George Floyd Memorial Fund, or any other fund related to #BlackLivesMatter and stopping the ongoing police murder of black people. Same conditions apply as per below.
Some Background As the San Francisco Bay Area has, you probably know, the highest rent in the country, we continually see the swift removal of longtime residents and local communities whose jobs don’t pay them what tech workers’ jobs do. The coronavirus has made all this much worse.
The San Francisco Tenants Union has received a deluge of calls since shelter-in-place closed the city’s dining and entertainment venues. Many people aren’t earning money right now, and they’re worried about how they’ll pay rent. There are steps tenants can take to keep their apartments, but rather than go through it all, many are choosing to leave town, often giving up their rent control, and all but ensuring they won’t be able to afford to return.
For more than 50 years, the SFTU has fought unjust evictions, landlord greed, and the erasure of our communities. It advocates for tenants’ rights among city officials by building a broad coalition of renters, lawyers, and activists across the city.
They need donations to help with this work, and that’s where my work comes in.
The Offer To help raise funds, I’m offering a manuscript critique and consultation to anybody who makes a donation to the SFTU. You can do so here. It’s quick and easy.
Who I Am I’m the author of books in nonfiction and fiction. I’ve published more than a dozen essays and another dozen short stories in national journals and magazines. But what you really should know is that I’ve been reading MFA student manuscripts on a near-daily basis for 10 years now. I do a very careful job of meeting writers where they are with their work, and reading it closely to help them better reach their visions for a piece. My students regularly publish pieces I’ve helped them revise in journals and magazines. I like to think I’m easy to work with, though just as everyone does I have specific tastes and philosophies about writing. This blog should give you a sense of those; for more CV-type specifics, click on my bio.
What I’ll Do – read a finished draft of your essay, short story, or book chapter – mark it up (in pen) to document my reading process and reactions – type up a 1-page overall assessment, with suggestions for revision – email this assessment and a PDF of your marked-up MS back to you – optional: schedule a 20-minute one-on-one video conference with you to talk about your piece and answer any questions you might have (see below)
What It Costs The cost for all this is a donation to the SFTU in the amount of (at least) $2 per number of pages in your manuscript (minimum 10 pages). If you want to schedule the 20-minute consultation, it’s $3/page. So: somebody with a 17-page essay who wants a follow-up conference should plan to donate at least $51.
(Pretty good deal!)
What You Need to Do – donate the requisite amount directly to the SFTU (or a relevant #BlackLivesMatter fund) – save or print evidence of your donation – find a finished draft to format in 12-pt double-spaced Times with 1.25″ margins – email your donation evidence and a PDF of your formatted manuscript to firstname.lastname@example.org – maybe write a little note to tell me about yourself and where you are with the piece, or anything you think I need to know in advance of reading it
Some Fine Print Though I welcome your donating more than once, this offer is for one consultation per person. You don’t want me reading your poems, so please don’t send poems, but I’m familiar with and have published lyric essays. Again, there’s a 10-page minimum. Let’s call it a 40-page maximum, just in case. By “finished” I mean the thing should be a standalone piece with an ending (or a complete chapter), but not anything that you’ve already published. Please see above for formatting guidelines. I’ll do my best to get your manuscript returned to you within a week, but I have no idea how many people will sign up for this so I thank you in advance for your flexibility. I also reserve the right to end this offer if I get overwhelmed. I am, after all, on sabbatical. But if this post is still up without any language to the contrary, the offer still stands. If you have any additional questions, email me.
And thank you for your help. If you’d like to continue to help in the fight to keep people housed—especially if you live in another part of the country—visit Just Shelter.
I know I kind of wrote a whole book on this, but I find myself thinking about it again today, this ongoing way of finding insights into human nature by comparing our behavior to animals’. Often it’s wolves or dogs. There’s alphas and betas, these folks say. Putting aside the fact that alpha wolves don’t exist in nature (PDF link), there’s really no reason why we should believe that studying animal behavior can clue us into our own.
Actually, there are two reasons to do this:
Your understanding of (or faith in) evolutionary psychology is such that you believe our current behaviors are dictated, even unconsciously, by Darwinist notions (e.g., survival of the fittest, sexual selection, etc).
In looking at what’s natural in human behavior, you focus on the natural while equating animals with The Natural.
If you’re a #1 person I, an evolutionarily aberrant homosexual, don’t know what to tell you. If you’re a #2 person, I’ve got a guy for you to read: Thomas Nagel (another PDF link).
Okay I haven’t read him either, but I’m going to after having come across his ideas on sexual perversions in my research. Plaguing philosophers (among others) for centuries has been the question, What’s natural human sexuality look like? Most folks follow St. Thomas Aquinas in looking at the “natural” part of that construction. And most folks fall into his “animals = nature” trap.
So: because animals only have sex to procreate, natural human sexuality = procreative sex.
Again, lots is factually wrong about this, but Aquinas died almost 750 years ago so we can forgive his not knowing about dolphins or penguins or bonobos. But you can see how this idea (along with all kinds of religious dogma) has made it easy—indeed, made it “feel natural”—for people to hate / kill queers.
What Nagel does is say, Shouldn’t we focus on the human part of “natural human sexuality”? That is, what separates us from the animals and puts us in the category of Human? In that sense, what’s unnatural is only having procreative sex (again, in Aquinas’s ancient formulation). Or, more up-to-date, because animals seem not to take partners’ mutual pleasures into consideration, human sex that does the same is unnatural.
To Nagel, you’re a pervert if you refuse to recognize your sex partner(s) as mutually aroused and interested in sexual pleasure, and you’re a pervert when you disallow yourself to become your partner(‘)s(‘) sexual object.
More complicated? A little. But look at how Nagel refuses to let specific genital mash-ups or partner-numbers or any of those details get in the way of finding a path to moral evaluations of sexual behavior. I know this isn’t new, this idea (Nagel’s paper dates to ’69), but it’s new to me as a way to shut down animal behaviorist arguments.
“We are not animals, we are given them,” is how I resolved the question. Nagel’s seems more to my speed today.
Found this in an old journal I kept in grad school. Throughout it, I espouse some ideas (mostly about writing and sex, the bulk of the journal’s concerns) I now find myself often working hard to fight against. But looking through it in place, I get glimpses of the self I was becoming the self I am now. Like in this one from June 2009:
We’ve seen heterosexual men take bar napkins and roll them into rose-shapes to hand to women they’re trying right there to woo. Pretty sure movie scenes have happily depicted such. Last week, at a bar in Chelsea called Barracuda, I watched a homosexual man roll a bar towel into a stiff penis with a perfectly formed head. It got great laffs. Other men were charmed.
Here, one could argue, is the difference between straight men and gay men. One could also argue that it’s a shame, that we trend right to sex and hard-ons. We go directly to the literal while they make a stop at the metaphorical. The rose, though, is just another choice, just another shape, one with four or five thousand years of romantic love behind it—a set of values codified by straight men so thoroughly that today we cannot see a rose without thinking of men and women together.
They both wilt, eventually, but man grew erections long before he ever grew roses.