Is There a Democratic Potential of Cruising?

Jack Parlett seems to think so, given his piece in Boston Review on the topic. I do, too—or at least I tried to make the argument in the far fewer words I had in my 2021 piece for the Guardian. In this post, I want to do a few things:

  1. Summarize Parlett’s argument (and my erstwhile one)
  2. Point out its key limitations and shortcomings, bringing in some counterarguments
  3. Address those counterarguments and see about cruising’s role in a healthy democracy.

It’s gonna be a long one.

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1.
Cruising is shorthand for having sex in public with strangers. It happens most often in parks and restrooms. I should say men’s rooms, because most cruising (and most writing about it) is among men who have sex with men (MSM). Cruising among WSW must exist, but I know little of it. Cruising among heterosexuals is common as couples; they like to call it swinging, especially in clubs and parties organized around it, and the Brits call it dogging (a term I’ve always loved) when couples fuck in parks for an audience.

What does this have to do with a healthy democracy? If you don’t have time to go read Parlett’s piece, here’s a hasty summary. Cruising—among men in cities—has a long history of people extolling it, going back at least to Whitman. This history, Parlett writes, shows how cruising’s ‘not only, or even primarily, about hooking up, but about the communal power of eroticized looking, flashes of affinity that may not lead directly to sexual consummation, but are an important way of situating yourself within a shared community.’

So it’s about being out and being seen—not as an enemy, or even just another burden, but as a desirable object. That’s one key thing with cruising: the eroticization of being among others. Which leads to one key problem: not everyone on the streets gets looked at erotically. Flashes of affinity are not equally distributed.

Parlett does what anyone writing about sex in public (esp. in cities) is obligated to do: cite Samuel Delany’s watershed text Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which covers his years cruising porn theaters in the 70s and 80s, and the kinds of encounters and engagements he had with the men who did the same. The central argument in TSRTSB is that infrastructure affects superstructure (i.e., our settings/environments dictate not just how we behave there but our overall values), and that gentrification hurts democracy by promoting networking over contact.

Here’s how I summed it up in the Guardian:

Business and politics as usual promote networking, which is exclusionary and consolidates power within groups, whereas sex and the places we have it – not just bedrooms and sofas, but porn theaters, public toilets, cruising areas – promote contact, which fosters encounters across classes and groups, the writer Samuel R Delany points out. ‘Given the mode of capitalism under which we live,’ Delaney writes, ‘life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of goodwill.’

And what better will than wanting to help somebody come?

They cut that last sentence. They also cut an illustrative bit about my body wanting lots of sex with Dean Cain, an anti-gay conservative who stumps often enough for the NRA that my brain finds him pretty loathsome. But when he shows up in another Hallmark Christmas movie, my body again wants what my mind thinks it shouldn’t have.

This is the heart of the Cruising = Healthy Democracy argument: if we can openly acknowledge our erotic desires for one another, we can create the kind of communal bonds that can counter the divisiveness that online, politicized interactions promote. Or, in Parlett’s words:

[I]mplicit in even the most cursory cruising encounter is, in my experience, the shared admission of a vulnerability, and of loneliness, perhaps, an unspoken basis of the desire to come together. To cruise is, in its most basic sense, to tap into a community whose only logic is desire itself, even if this improvised grouping is far from homogenous, and rarely even harmonious. Like Delany, I have met people cruising whom I’m unlikely to have met otherwise.

Like Parlett, I have done the same. And I have been struck by it long afterward, how I just spent some very intimate time with a person whose politics I’m certain I’d abhor. As an abstraction—a ‘red state’ voter—I felt repelled from them, but as a man physically near me whose desire reflected my own, we two came together.

It’s beautiful, really. But it may not be the cure-all we writers are making it out to be.

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2.
One question is whether coming together (in both senses, but mostly the sexual one) can form the basis for a shared politics, which is similar enough to my third topic in the list at the start of this post that I’ll address it in Section 3. The other major question is whether cruising really is equally available to all.

Much of my thinking about this question came from a Substack post by the queer writer Brandon Taylor, where he writes about some recent essays decrying the popularity of gay novels that tend toward the sad and tragic, that tell stories which seem to twin queerness to loneliness. Taylor’s argument—i.e., these essayists are jealous of their targets’ successes—is witless and not worth reading. And coming as it does from such a titan in the literary world (Taylor interviewed George Saunders at an event in Brooklyn on the latter’s recent book tour, e.g.), the post reads like a lot of punching down. (Taylor’s also friends with Garth Greenwell, another literary titan whose work is often a subject of the essays at hand, which provides some context for why he’s writing.)

At one point, Taylor claims that these critics are writing from some unspoken white privilege:

I sometimes wonder what to make of these critiques from both the so-called TenderQueer squishy gays and the…I don’t know what to call them, but you know, the ones who read Marx and tweet memes online and listen to podcasts. Those ones. I wonder what to make of their alternating charges of too much sex, too little sex, too much drugs, not enough, etc. Particularly because the platonic homosexual experience over which they are scrapping in the representational field is ultimately a white, cis, and abled homosexual experience, no? Like, the mean internet homosexual socialists and the tenderqueer Heartstopper Tumblr goblins are ostensibly arguing over how the cis white gay male should be represented in narrative.

This is not the argument these critics are making, and you can tell because Taylor doesn’t take the time to cite any of them making such an argument. And anyway to believe that writing about joyful sex, queer happiness, queer communality, and so on depicts a cis-white ableist experience belies an ignoring (if not an ignorance) of the work and lived experiences of Delany, José Esteban Muñoz, Alex Espinoza, Brontez Purnell, and other queer writers of color.

While Taylor’s argument is a poor one, I cite it at length because his concerns of representation attend in how we talk about (joyful, affirming, empowering) cruising. ‘Cruising is often, though not exclusively, urban and gay,’ Parlett writes, but cruising can’t just be great for urban gay men for cruising to be great. For it to pave the road to a democratic Eden, it has to be equally available and beneficial to everyone. And for those of us writing about its potential, we need to keep in mind that only 27 percent of Americans describe their neighborhood as urban, meaning the majority of the public lives in rural and suburban areas. How does cruising work there, or how can it, given the different relationships rural and suburban folks have to public spaces, public transit, cultural diversity, etc.?

That’s one question—the question of geography—I’d like to see cruising utopians address more directly.

The other question is Taylor’s question of biology, of bodies. While plenty of writers have shown cruising’s not just for white men, to what extent is it available to fat men, or disabled men, or skinny men who don’t go to the gym, or older men? The kinds of bodies you don’t see in underwear ads.

Let’s call that the Capitalist Body, the kind of body engineered to spark arousal (I want that) and fear (What if I can’t have that?), an uneasy mix that itself is made to get you to buy something as a way to quell the unease. Any writing on cruising that focuses on being open to looks and glances will only alienate those non-CB folks whose bodies the cruising public is not looking at, and even actively turning from.

So desire is not meted out equally. But there’s a complication here with the CB. While CBs are popularly desirable, not all desirable bodies are CBs. I’m talking about there being many fish in the sea. I’m talking about whatever floats your boat. If you don’t find yourself with a Capitalist Body, you may have to look harder for that desiring glance from a stranger, but—the theory goes—in time, you’ll find it.

How, though? Short answer = trust. To explore that in more detail, we need to look more closely at the dynamics of a cruising moment, which brings us to part 3.

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3.
The cruising moment has a setting in place and time. Place = the Ramble, Buena Vista Park, what we back in Lincoln called ‘the Fruit Loop’, a stretch of 15th Street south of the Capitol that had a median, where MSM would circle in their cars looking for other interested car-circlers. Every cruising place was made for something other than cruising, but contains certain traits that turn it into a place for cruising. Remoteness. Lack of parents with kids around. A noisy door around the bend of a little hallway that alerts everyone in the restroom that someone is coming in.

Apps and websites may have made cruising places proliferate (you can now just look up where the active ones are in your town), but most of the cruising sites were activated before the Internet, and it’s noteworthy how they’ve persisted. You can’t advertise a cruising site. You can’t market it, or promote it. In this way, cruising sites belong to the commons. We cruisers have formed them together.

Cruising time = now. It’s stating the obvious but it’s important to our discussion. When you are in the cruising site, you’re looking for sex right now. You’re not looking to meet someone for coffee beforehand, or set something up for Friday afternoon when you have a half-day at work. Even when you cruise someone on the sidewalk, the idea is usually to go find a place right now.

There’s, thus, an urgency to the time setting. The cops might show up. Parents might enter this part of the park with their kids, or straight people might come walking their dogs, and start a campaign that’ll land you on the sex offender registry. We need to do this now.

That urgency often comes with a side of serendipity. Cruisers are patient. If you’re hanging out in a Home Depot men’s room stall, surreptitiously tapping your foot every time someone enters the stall next to yours, it could be an hour or two before that toe-tap gets returned. How many semis does the lot lizard loop around before finding one that opens its passenger door? It’s time-consuming, and so when your cruising signal gets returned, it feels a little like winning the lottery. We need to do this now because if we don’t, who knows how long it’ll be before another person shows interest?

Where I’m going with all this is that cruising place + cruising time affect desirability in ways very different from the commercial moment. What’s ‘a commercial moment’? Well, contrast public cruising with the bathhouse or hookup apps. These are (real, virtual) spaces that have been created (by the market) specifically for strangers to fuck each other, and so what you find in those spaces is the ongoing practice of consumerist choice. Which wear and wash of jean is right for your ideal image of yourself? In bathhouses and on the apps, the CB has a great time, and non-CBs have something else.

Indeed, bathhouses and apps re-engineer what its denizens value. When everyone is willing, willingness is no longer sexy. Shared feeling isn’t sexy. Whereas in public cruising, ‘hot’ is less about the visual package of the body in front of you and more about its willingness, its receptiveness to what you’re putting out there. In this way, the pleasure in cruising is often less sexual than … performative? If sex is about engaging with another body (or two or more), playing at being both subject and object during the encounter, then cruising is about engaging with the practice of cruising.

In other words, it’s not so much about I get to be with this person as it is I get to be doing this public-sex thing.

But if that’s the case, how on earth can that be the basis for a shared political understanding?

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4.
I didn’t expect to have a part 4, and I feel my argument is running away from me a little. So let me recap:

  • When cruising is framed as charged glances between (city) people, it’s hard to call it democratic.
  • When cruising is situated in non-urban spaces—i.e., truckstops, parks/trails, Kohl’s mensrooms—the practice becomes if not disinterested in CBs, then at least much more accommodating to other kinds of bodies and people.
  • Cruising’s settings retool desire in a way that makes the practice often impersonal, which is a difficult practice to form as the basis for political solidarity.

Public cruising values eagerness, readiness, willingness. It values the shared desire and luck of finding each other over the way each other looks. In this way, good (maybe we can even call it democratic) cruising practice calls on us to broadcast our availability. Cruising does the opposite of what this T-shirt does:

Cruising is a style or mode of moving through the world and engaging with it. It’s distinct from flirting, or being flirtatious, which carry more active notions of seduction and impressing oneself on others. Cruising puts one in a constant passive mode of open receptivity (it’s so queer/feminist!). In this formulation, you can cruise for anything, not just sex. You can cruise for conversation. You can cruise for help moving that armoire upstairs. Hitchhikers cruise for a ride.

Those forms of cruising involve looking to see what strangers can do for you. Cruising for sex is no different, except you’re also doing something for a stranger. Here’s Delany again, this time from his memoir The Motion of Light on Water, on what struck him the first time we beheld an orgy at the baths:

Whether male, female, working or middle class, the first direct sense of political power comes from the apprehension of massed bodies. That I’d felt it and was frightened by it means that others had felt it too. The myth said we, as isolated perverts, were only beings of desire…. But what this experience said was that there was a population … not of hundreds, not of thousands, but rather of millions of gay men, and that history had, actively and already, created for us whole galleries of institutions, good and bad, to accommodate our sex.

There are more of us than we individually thought. The theory goes that this recognition is the beginning of shared politics. And more so: This thing I find essential in me, I also share with that stranger.

Now: heterosexuals move through the world assuming both of those statements are true. Heterosexuals know they outnumber everyone else. And they presume, barring overt signs to the contrary, that any member of ‘the opposite sex’ is likewise interested in hetero sex.

The only way I can see cruising being of use, then, to heteros is in countering the proud identitarian ways we try to form our desire around our politics: i.e., I’d never fuck a man who voted for D. Trump and so on. This of course is a lie. There are plenty of such voters out there that, without knowing their voting history, you’d want to have sex with.

It was the writer Conner Habib who first calibrated my thinking on this dichotomy, in a tweet years ago I can’t find. To paraphrase: Forming your sexual desires based on your partisan politics is a dead end; instead, form your politics from your desire and you’ll live a happier and more authentic life.

There are some problems with this formulation it’ll take another post to get into. (In brief: What happens when you’re aroused by authoritarian/domination imagery? What if your kink is race play? Desire and politics don’t sit on such a one-way street.) But it does intersect with the argument for the democratic potential for cruising.

Your sexual desire impels you toward people your mind might prefer to keep you away from. The sex-positive way to see this is to listen to and honor what the body wants. You don’t always have to obey the body, but I want to give my body equal if not more attention than I give my mind. The mind is a factor of so many influences and variables—shame is a big one. Is the body free from such influences?

Likely that’s another another post. But if we want a democracy from the bottom-up, We the people, then engaging with one another on terms—sexual or otherwise—we’ve come to on our own seems like the right first step on making that happen.

You Can’t Sexualize Children

In sixth grade, I read Where the Red Fern Grows, which is about a young boy in the Ozarks with two dogs. In the story, he gets in a fight with a neighbor, who falls on an axe and is killed on the spot. Later he watches a mountain lion kill one of his dogs. The other dog dies of grief. I remember WTRFG as being a Good and Important book, and I think I felt this because it was one of the first books that led me through grim deaths and how it felt to grieve somebody.

It was also the first violent book I remember reading. I was 11 years old, the sort of kid who avoided any fight I saw coming on the horizon. You could say, then, that WTRFG violentized me—if, that is, we had a word for such a process. But we don’t, because we don’t believe such a process exists, because we understand that since Cain slew Abel, the capacity for violence lives in every human body.

We don’t believe the same about sex, and children are worse off for it.

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As you may know, I’m on Substack now. The platform has an app for reading-on-the-go-toilet, and in looking for good Substackers I browsed last night around the Faith & Spirituality category, because I wanted some new ideas and there’s only so much I can read about books and literature. There, I found ‘Unashamed with Phil Robertson’, with a pic of one of the guys very carefully groomed a decade ago to make a lot of money on TV as part of the ‘Duck Dynasty’ franchise.

The post I tapped on had an irresistible title: ‘There’s Nothing Progressive About Sexualizing Children’. Phil talks about a public school teacher fired for showing her students ways to access books online which had been banned by their school district:

[F]rom what I’ve been able to determine, some of the e-books she made available for her high school kids to read were far from harmless. For example, a book entitled Gender Queer graphically depicts a character performing oral sex on what I will politely call a prosthetic male sex organ. […] Truthfully, I’m not shocked that we’re talking about some public-school teachers encouraging our kids to fill their pliable minds with moral filth. But I am saddened by it. I can’t think of a single good thing that could come out of hypersexualizing people who are only just beginning to blindly navigate their own sexuality.

My emphasis there. Gender Queer is a memoir-in-comics about a nonbinary adolescent. Phil is correct about there being a scene of a teenager going down on another’s strap-on dildo. What’s fun about the Gender Queer controversy is that it began in my home county of Fairfax County Public Schools, which initially banned the book after one mother got enraged in a meeting, but then reinstated it after reviewing the book’s contents.

To break down Phil’s argument, children are born asexual, and then in adolescence they begin—blindly, note—to become sexual (like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis I guess is the metaphor). This is a ‘natural’ process that happens booklessly, on their own. If a child reads a book that depicts other children ‘navigating their own sexuality’, that book has somehow adulterated this natural process of a child finding their own sexuality. The book has, thus, ‘sexualized’ what was not yet (ready to be) sexual.

Of course the argument can’t stand on its own, specious at every point. But the counterargument I need to stress here is that when Phil imagines children blindly navigating their own sexuality, he’s only imagining cis-hetero kids. Those kids are never blind to what has surrounded them: a culture of stories that repeat and affirm cis-hetero sexuality.

When Cinderella or Star Wars or Genesis fail to tell you stories about who you are, when even the story of your family is false to your lived experience, you grow up feeling shitty, wrong, and suicidal. Phil and the millions of parents caught in these false moral crusades have no fucking clue what this kind of adolescence feels like. If you can survive that adolescence, and if you’re a creative person, you feel impelled to make art that might fill the void you grew up in and help others feel less shitty, wrong, and suicidal.

That’s the progressive identitarian argument for queer books in schools. But I’m here to write about ‘hypersexualization’. You can’t sexualize a child anymore than you can sterilize rubbing alcohol. It’s already done.

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Not by porn, that is. A counterargument you hear often is that porn / the internet are sexualizing children far earlier than library books can. It’s (a) not necessarily the case with all kids and (b) just providing additional fodder for Puritans on censorship crusades. And it leads me to want to make a distinction between two notions of ‘sexualization’:

Sexualizing1 = turning a child into a sexual object legible as such by an adult
Sexualizing2 = initiating in a child a desire for sexual activity (i.e., ‘turning them into’ a sexual subject)

S1 is what right-wing folks are talking about when they use the word ‘grooming’—though as many have pointed out, what is posing as a warning about pedophilia and child trafficking is actually just old-fashioned anti-queer hate.[1] I’d argue that more grooming goes on in the apparel industry with the advent of the child-size bikini, or in the fashion photography industry. Shutterstock.com has 14,917 photos of ‘young child bikini royalty free images’ you would not want to be caught scrolling through at work.

S2 is what, I imagine, Phil et al. believe happens ‘naturally’ around the time that children start to discover masturbating to orgasm. Or maybe it’s even as specific as when cis-male children start to want to put their penises inside vaginas. Or likely it’s more innocent, as when cis-children want to hold hands and go on a date and maybe kiss a child of the ‘opposite’ sex.

S2 is hormonal and biological, goes I think the argument and the fact. But two things happen when we take a narrow view of what constitutes ‘sexual activity’:

  1. We fuck up the health and well-being of queer and trans kids.
  2. We blind ourselves to sex enough to create the ‘blind navigation’ Phil et al. understand.

If that’s what ‘sexualizing’ means, then what does ‘hypersexualizing’ mean? It means queer sex practices. That’s all. Queer sex in the duck-dynastic imagination is not another form of sex—with its own values, shapes, procedures, and paraphernalia—but something beyond sex, something outside it. A perversion. ‘Hypersexualizing’ is anti-gay bigotry as old as the fucking hills.

Which brings me back to violentizing kids. It becomes a foolish concept the moment you see a 2-year-old push another kid out of the way to get what they want. We can see that violence as being not just different in degree from shooting an AR-15 into a crowd, but different in kind and still categorize it as violence. Violence inheres in us, and we do our best to teach its proper place and time.

Sex inheres in us exactly the same way. When I played doctor with little girls, or dared boys to show their wieners, or rubbed the cup of my athletic supporter for a while before pulling up my baseball pants, or humped my dick on the mattress, or put little objects up my butthole and pulled them back out again—all before the age of 13—I was doing things with my body solely to make my body feel good, while also making my heart feel good about how my body felt good.

That’s being sexual. Your kids are doing it the way you did it. The fear of sexualizing kids is a Puritan ignorance of what sex is. If we don’t want our kids to enter adulthood blindly, learning what sex is from porn, let them have the tools they need to see.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. For further understanding of how conservatives stoke pedophilia fears to persecute gay men, read my series of posts on the Active Pedophile phantasy.

What It’s Like to Have Celebrity Politicians Representing You

Since I’ve lived here, my governor (who doesn’t in theory represent me, but as we’ll see has begun starting to) has been Gavin Newsom. [UPDATE: This is untrue; he’s only been governor for 4 of the 19 years I’ve lived here, and I’m struck by what it means that I so fully wiped Jerry Brown from my memory.] My U.S. representative is Nancy Pelosi. My senator, for a smidgen of years after Barbara Boxer (who once starred in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm) stepped out was Kamala Harris. Likely you’ve not only heard of these people, but you can pick their faces out of a lineup.

I don’t think I could pick out the faces of Florida’s or Texas’s governor if there was a prize involved.

Anyway? It blows.

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I’ve been thinking about representative democracy a lot this weekend, after reading first this L.A. Times article on my governor going on Twitter to tell another governor his own fans that the two should debate. ‘[C]learly you’re struggling, distracted, and busy playing politics with people’s lives. Since you have only one overriding need — attention — let’s take this up & debate,’ Newsom wrote, a pot calling the kettle smutty (as Montaigne once put it).

People in different parts of the country tell me they like my governor. Why don’t I? And why I don’t I like my representative in Congress? When I try to think clearly about it, I run again into my lifelong contrarianism, my distrust of quickly beloved people and things. I spent ten years in Nebraska and Alabama feeling not once represented by the officials my fellow citizens elected. Why can’t I just let myself be happy now?

Let’s table those questions and look at the other thing I read: Adam Gopnik’s review of some recent books on democracy in the New Yorker—headline: ‘Can’t We Come Up With Something Better Than Liberal Democracy?’ (Short answer: not really.) Gopnik is unmoved by the belief these authors hold that we can have a better republic once we improve our democracy’s workings. Here, for me, was the operative ¶ (mind the wacky Oz analogy, which refers to points made earlier):

The perennial temptation of leftist politics is to suppose that opposition to its policies among the rank and file must be rooted in plutocratic manipulation, and therefore curable by the reassertion of the popular will. The evidence suggests, alas, that very often what looks like plutocratic manipulation really is the popular will. Many Munchkins like the witch, or at least work for the witch out of dislike for some other ascendant group of Munchkins…. The awkward truth is that Thatcher and Reagan were free to give the plutocrats what they wanted because they were giving the people what they wanted: in one case, release from what had come to seem a stifling, union-heavy statist system; in the other, a spirit of national, call it tribal, self-affirmation. One can deplore these positions, but to deny that they were popular is to pretend that a two-decade Tory reign, in many ways not yet completed, and a forty-nine-state sweep in 1984 were mass delusions. Although pro-witch Munchkins may be called collaborators after their liberation, they persist in their ways, and resent their liberators quite as much as they ever feared the witch. ‘Of course, I never liked all those scary messages she wrote in the sky with her broom,’ they whisper among themselves. ‘But at least she got things done. Look at this place now. The bricks are all turning yellow.’

I’m a leftist tempted perennially by this line of thinking. I Know In My Heart that we can have a better world if social media was outlawed and everyone in this country got a quality education in how to think critically. It took a while after November 2016 for me to accept that D. Trump had won the election fair and square (well, as fairly and squarely as anyone wins elections post–Citizens United). Even if the majority of voters didn’t vote for him, there were 62 million people who heard what he said and saw what he did and said, Yes. Please be our leader. And in 2020, there were 74 million people who wanted to keep going.

D. Trump is a fascist the way I’m a native Virginian. It’s in everything he says and does. I know this because I’ve read about fascism, and I also know that no fascist government has ever taken power by force. Fascists get voted in. They give people what they want. It boggles my mind how many people—and how many different kinds of people—deeply and passionately want authoritarian men to rule discompassionately.

But they’re my fellow Americans. Gopnik’s conclusion is that human variation will always make democracy a mess, and it’s the job of politicians (and all of us) to manage the stresses of living in a mess without the bridge between us crumbling to bits.

*

I like messes. I find myself most content when I accept and even enjoy that life is chaos, and as I’ve written about before, I distrust any thinker pundit who claims to ‘make order from the chaos’:

[I]f you can’t handle chaos you can’t handle the everyday mess of life on a globe of difference. And if you look for leaders, charismatic or otherwise, who promise to lead you away from this discomfort, they’re going to need to make that messy world smaller, and more sterile. They’re going to point you to a future where that seems possible. And the only way that’s truly possible is by controlling people until they make sense, or eradicating those who don’t from the face of the planet until the planet makes sense.

I’m far off my train of thought now, so let me steer us back. I’m talking about accepting two things: chaos and the (to me awful) desires of the right. I’m not talking about centrism, about ‘meeting those people halfway.’ I’m talking about recognizing sameness across differences while holding on to our differences.

Let’s go back to the Gopnik ¶. Typing it out, it hits me what a shame it is that these good ideas are so inaccessible to the people who may need them—i.e., who may not already agree with them. I’ve complained about activist language before, but I feel I’m in need of activist language that crisply and forcefully demands greater nuance in our thinking.

THINK FROM YOURSELF might be the sign I’d most like to hang in my street-facing window.

If I can be allowed to simplify Gopnik’s somewhat brainy language, I start to see something interesting come through his ideas. Something instructive:

Leftists believe time and again that the reason their ideas aren’t more widely popular is that rich people keep lying about them. The solution: remind the public that we outnumber the rich, and remove those liars from power. Except: history has shown, time and again, that the public often wants exactly what rich people want.

Okay, so I’ve removed some of the nuances to the ideas, but not to the main argument. What I like about looking at it this way is that when you swap ‘Trumpists’ for ‘leftists’ and ‘politicians’ for ‘rich people’ you get the ideology behind Drain the Swamp.

That Gopnik’s idea applies, through transformation, to a different voting bloc helps me see how much I have in common with them, and how my political imagination—though aimed at different ends—is made up of much similar stuff than I’d otherwise like to admit.

This sounds like Trumpist ‘both sides’ rhetoric, but it’s not. Both-sides centrism reduces or denies difference between groups—even when done in a positive light, as with the current president’s message of UNITY. UNITY is such a shitty message because it implies that one group ought to conform to another, or that we ‘need to set aside our differences’ to come together as one, an impossible proposition that’s never once occurred in the history of this country.

The better slogan, though it would look worse on a placard, is basically this post’s whole thesis: PLURALITY. Or the weird phrase on all our money: E pluribus unum. The ‘one’ that we are as a nation is ‘out of the many.’

I feel like a happier person, and a more contented U.S. citizen, whenever I try to fathom the manyness of that many.

*

When I tailgate somebody going 10 miles less than the speed limit (not everybody on the road can play defense), three things happen: they speed up, or they move out of my lane, or they do nothing. Maybe they don’t notice me, or maybe they don’t care to correct their behavior.

But sometimes a fourth thing happens: they slow down even more.

It’s a power move, wielded in a moment I imagine the person in the car in front of me feels that power has been taken away from them. It baffles me. I’m just trying to get off the road as quickly as possible. But it’s this drive, fully nonpartisan, that I’m getting at: I don’t like what that person is doing, I don’t share their values, so their values are wrong to me, and so I’ll either hurt them in this small way, or feel better when I see they’ve been hurt.

Why it blows to be represented by celebrities is that they too often play to this desire, having as they do more fans than constituents. What benefit is it to California for our governor to debate another one? And rather than tell me how she plans to serve the needs of San Franciscans in the next congress, what does it say that the Pelosi’s campaign website offers me this sticker to buy:

I’m likely in the minority by feeling ashamed or embarrassed when my representatives dunk on conservatives. I wish this wasn’t as much a drive on the left as it seems to be on the right. As I argued in my previous post, letting politicians go on TV to ‘debate’ each other benefits nobody except the people on TV, because they’ve been given more time to be, again, on TV. Nobody’s debating anything about policy. They can’t afford to take that much time away from their image.

*

Back in Pittsburgh, when I was young and online so much that I felt very connected to this 2-sides, dunk-on-the-GOP mentality, I remember loving Michael Moore—not so much for his films but for his position. They’ve got awful Rush Limbaugh, and he’s our version of that, I remember telling a friend.

‘But why do we want our version of awful?’ he asked.

I was liking Moore the way many people outside California like Newsom and Pelosi, the way many gays I imagine bought this terrible hat. I wanted a version of This Conservative Thing Getting Lots Of Attention which instead affirmed my values, forgetting, as Audre Lorde reminds us, that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

The high road, if it ever existed, was bulldozed decades ago. Another myth I’m tempted perennially to believe in.

How to Not Be a Conservative

I’m going to start by making two lists. 1: Things that were better in the past than they are in the present. And 2: Things I’m passionately and proudly conservative about. I’m doing this against the old adage[1] that everyone gets more conservative as they get older.

Things That Were Better In The Past

  • To get the obvious ones out of the way: air travel, MTV, public funding of schools, being middle class, union membership, the social safety net in general, access to fetal abortion procedures
  • Food ones: Coke before high fructose corn syrup; Honeycomb cereal, which used to made from oats and now, of course, it’s mostly corn; and McDonald’s pies, which used to be fried (like their French fries) in beef tallow, but after the fat/cholesterol scare of the early 90s the fries are fried in vegetable oil (arguably not better for you) and the pies are now um … baked.
  • Terrestrial radio
  • The rate of people having sex in their teen years
  • Ziploc Food Packaging: Have you noticed that food packaging now places its ziploc opening not at the top of the bag, making it perfect for pouring, but the front of it? Like this? [JPG] And they no longer go all the way across, so now whatever you try to pour out inevitably gets partially caught by the top of the bag, and good luck emptying it when you’re done.

Things I’m Passionately Conservative About

  • Chex-Mix recipes: leave your onion powders and bagel chips in the pantry
  • Cocktail recipes: no fun ‘martinis’ please
  • Neighborhood development / new construction: I’m no NIMBY, but I am anxious about the Castro Theater
  • News media: we should all perma-subscribe to home delivery of local print newspapers written and edited by well paid journalists
  • The ‘FA’ in the MFA degree: that is, I’ve only by demand, and reluctantly, brought more and more practical / professional matters into my artsy-fartsy teaching
  • Slang and idioms: always happy to say ‘that’s awesome’ over ‘that slaps’ or whatever, and don’t get me started on the phrase ‘hits different‘.

*

It’s hard to see the news every day and not feel that things are getting worse. I want to remain honest and vigilant about what’s happening in this country to the rights of people, and to democracy in general, but I also acknowledge that Things were better before is one of the seeds of fascism. The trick is figuring out (a) whether that’s true (or whether it’s being used to justify hate / genocide toward the disenfranchised), and (b) what steps to take to make things better in the future.

That seems to be the urgent drive: if things are getting worse, how do we stop the worse from getting even worse? Here’s Lauren Berlant:

[T]he present moment increasingly imposes itself on consciousness as a moment in extended crisis, with one happening piling on another. The genre of crisis is itself a heightening interpretive genre, rhetorically turning an ongoing condition into an intensified situation in which extensive threats to survival are said to dominate the reproduction of life.

Key phrase = ‘ongoing condition’. The nonlinear movements of progress and decline are part of our permanent history. For Berlant, the crisis of the moment is a matter of perspective, and the narratives we choose to interpret our moment in history. To see this in example, let me tell you a quick story from college.

On any random night in the apartment I shared with friends, my pal Mark asked me and Casey one of those What ifs: If you could have grown up during any decade in the 20th century, which would you choose? I don’t recall what Casey said, but having recently watched The Ice Storm I likely said the 1970s, enchanted by a country fully disillusioned by the corruption of a GOP president.

Mark said the 1950s. His reasons are lost to memory, but we had a nice friendly bickering about it. Everything was so white bread and awful! (Had I recently watched Pleasantville?) I didn’t see it at the time, but in looking back on this memory, I accept that the 1950s could have been a perfectly blissful decade—for a certain demographic.

The 1950s were a nightmare for queers. It was a time when abortions were illegal and women, when allowed into the workplace, were treated mostly as furniture. Jim Crow laws were solidly on the books. Straight white men probably had a lovely time.

When I think about things that were better before, I try to ask (a) if it was better for everyone, all demographics, and (b) if its being better required the exclusion of one or more of those demographics. Airline travel used to be luxurious, yes, but also way too expensive for most people. College used to be cheaper, and while much of the criminal costs of college have come from a bloat of overpaid administrators, those positions have also been created by demand. The demographics of college campuses have become far more diverse than they were in the 70s and 80s, especially now that the U.S. has decided every ‘good’ job requires a college degree, which has created a need for psychological services, disability services, career placement centers, study skills training, campus life coordinators, and any other number of associate vice provosts trained in these things which academics—who used to run colleges—are not.

If colleges mostly served prep school graduates and other already-well-off students, they’d be smaller and cheaper. This can’t be what we want to conserve.

*

Somewhere recently, I came across the feed of something called ‘The Cultural Tutor’, which had some viral tweets about the death of detail and color in contemporary design:

The examples provided make a convincing case that ‘we’ have given up, or lost something that used to make our world better, or at least more interesting to look at. The nostalgist in me was quickly won over by the argument, if The Cultural Tutor had an argument (they didn’t exactly have a cause, or a narrative on what has happened over time). Then I got to this part:

Consider some reframings:

‘Default minimalist desig[n] strips all identity away from things.’ >>> ‘Default minimalist design maximizes the identities that can engage with it.’

‘Somebody might not like a detail (read: character) so there can be no details.’ >>> ‘Somebody’s use of an object might be impaired by a detail (read: aestheticism) so details should come under scrutiny for utility.’

To be fair, not all of the examples in the thread involve civic spaces or public utilities (and to be sure, it’s hard to see how ornament on a bollard threatens ADA accessibility needs), but I was struck by this comment to the thread:

There’s a not very good story by Vonnegut titled ‘Harrison Bergeron’[2], which presents a dystopia where every form of excellence in humans beyond the norm is forcedly hindered by the state. So like folks who are fast runners get, like, weights on their ankles or something. I forget the specifics, but even as a teenager I recall realizing this was some Ayn Rand–style alarmist bullshit.

It’s a partisanly conservative complaint that any work we might do to make this world more accessible to others, or to generally benefit more of us, will lead only to the death of innovation and crushed human spirits or whatever. Or, as Colleen has it above, nothing will be unique or exceptional if we try to give everyone equal treatment.

How to not be a conservative? Avoid seeing the less equal as a necessary sacrifice to your understanding of greatness.[3]

*

But how to not be a piner for the past, is what I mostly wanted to write about here. Another college story, set in the same apartment: A group of us was trying to figure out what to do on a weeknight, and someone suggested we go see a movie. Me, the film major, was up for it, and in trying to figure out what we might go see, I asked the group, ‘Is there anything new and good?’—something recently released that was getting good reviews, I meant.

Somebody—let’s call him Andy, because maybe that was his name, but he was a friend of a friend—repeated what I said with a laugh. Then at some point over the next week I saw an email he’d sent around, and he’d changed the quote in his signature: ‘Is there anything new and good? –Dave Madden’

In middle age now, I’m if anything being pushed farther left by the growing injustices of my time, but I’m trying to avoid becoming that guy I became when quoted out of context. In my 20s, I loved the new specifically for its sake of being new. I was also far less comfortable in my skin and had far less of an understanding of who I was separate from others, so as much as I felt like a nonconformist I happily adopted the forms of nonconformity my friends were taking on. Because that was what community meant.

Now I’m an older man who readily dismisses Taylor Swift and trap music and TikTok. And when I do that, I feel at a remove from ‘most people’, given the wild popularity of the above. Hating on the new, pining after the past, puts me in a form of isolation—it’s the negative inflection of the feeling of being self-aware, or -satisfied, or -sufficient.[4]

The difference, it seems, is community. How not to become a conservative as you get older seems vitally to involve staying part of as diverse a community as possible. It’s less about conforming to the Swifties you might find among you, it’s about having people in your life whose differing tastes you respect and allow.

Translate that to the political stage and we might stop pining for this long past of dunking on each other.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Which maybe only applied to the Boomer generation.
  2. Which I first learned of by watching the movie of the same name starring 100%-in-his-prime Sean Astin.
  3. Which reminds me of a better sci-fi story from Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, which posits that all prosperity and wealth requires someone else’s suffering.
  4. A colleague recently told me that I’m a Leo rising.

I Woke Up in Santa Monica Feeling Depressed

I woke up in Santa Monica feeing depressed because I read that my fellow San Franciscans elected to recall progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, after millions of dollars from fearful white conservatives told them to do so. Those of you who don’t live in the Bay Area who are reading this, when you hear a conservative lament ‘liberal San Francisco’ or however my city gets used to scare the base, they are trolling you.[*] San Francisco is to our conservative country what Mardi Gras is to shoring up the Catholic Church’s authority: a sanctioned, boundaried exception that proves the rule.[†]

Readers of this blog will likely be tired now of my complaints against recall elections. Twice this year, ultra-wealthy people bought recalls to remove progressive public officials the people of San Francisco elected. And twice now they’ve won. I fear a field day is going to commence; the same 60 percent of voters who recalled Boudin also refused to pass Proposition C, which would make undemocratic recall elections more difficult in the future.

San Francisco might be America’s brokenest city, and in true American fashion, most of us have been led to believe that the free market will fix things. And any time we try to vote in a progressive, the money will come storming in to remove them as swiftly as possible.

*

I’m now drinking my coffee and trying glad to be out of there. I don’t know how well Santa Monica works as a city. My assumption is that plenty of people who need to work here can’t also live here. Of the top 15 cities with a greatest income inequality gaps, California holds 7, which indicates we need to have broader conversations about the extent to which my state is a progressive one. We have some pretty good laws, mostly that protect liberties, but given the enormous numbers of rich people in this state, we’ve got a ton of laws that protect property and wealth. California can’t pass statewide rent control. We can’t pass single-payer healthcare. We struggle to maintain a ban on assault rifles. I’m proud that we openly present ourselves as a sanctuary—to migrants and refugees, to women in terrorism states seeking safe abortions—but what kind of haven can we offer such people once they’ve come here?

At any rate, I’m here for 3 weeks, and then for the Fourth I fly to Omaha (like its Rust Belt/Midwest neighbors, one of the least unequal cities in America), and between then and now I have a chapter of my book to finish. In a whole book that fills me with shame at every page, this chapter might be my shamefulest. It’s a time that calls for something of a retreat from the world, from the disappointments of my fellow voters, and from the (imagined, I know) chorus of judgemental, right-thinking upright literary citizens who will be disgusted and dismissive of this memoir I’m compelled to write. (Or worse: silent and uncaring.)

Today I put them all away. If you’re reading this blog, I imagine you might want to read another book from me, and I know you’re real and out there. This month, I’m writing to you, and I thank you for being there for me.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Kinda. San Francisco is as neo-liberal as they come, given the priority put on money, not taxing corporations, and maintaining the status quo. And let’s not forget this city is represented—still, for God’s sake still—by Nancy Pelosi.
  2. This idea is Lewis Hyde’s, from Trickster Makes This World: ‘The stock anthropological and literary understanding is that carnival celebrations, despite their actual bawdiness and filth, are profoundly conservative…. Mocking but not changing the order of things, ritual dirt-work [i.e. Folsom, ‘In This House’ signs, anti-Trump candidates, etc.] operates as a kind of safety valve, allowing internal conflicts and nagging anomalies to be expressed without serious consequence. If everyone secretly knows the Pope is not perfect the secret can harmlessly endure if once a year, for a limited time only, the people make a fool of the Pope.’ Whereas Mardi Gras is a temporal carnival, San Francisco is a spatial/cultural one that helps mask the country’s deep conservatism. Las Vegas (‘What happens there stays there’) does similar work on the notion of everyday greed and gluttony.