Sunday, March 27, 2011

Four Men Who Will Save the World (Part 1)

Whenever I despair over the state of the planet Earth, I recall that I am old and dying, and that this is a very good thing.

No, I don't mean that I look forward to death as an escape from the disappearance of Bangladesh, the desertification of Beijing, the nuking of Jerusalem, or the inauguration of President Gingrich. Rather, I figure that if I am dying, so are my age-mates. And not a moment too soon.

The Tunguska Impactor didn't kill anyone--or threaten to.

Here's a key statistic: most Americans over the age of 50 are opposed to legal- izing same-sex marriage, whereas most of those under the age of 30 are in favor. This simple factoid reveals something very profound about America, about its future, and about the future of the species. For I believe that an indi- vidual's attitudes toward homosexuality hint at that individual's basic attitudes toward a broad range of issues--issues that must be confronted, attitudes that will make or break the civilization of the 21st century.

From a strictly legal standpoint, gay marriage is a no-brainer. The 14th Amend- ment to the US Constitution clearly and firmly guarantees equal protection under the law, and that equality cannot be denied without due process. A century's worth of Supreme Court decisions have established that dividing people into categories and treating the members of each category differently--that is, creating "differen- tial standards of treatment"--is only permitted within narrowly defined limits. In par- ticular, a differential standard must serve a definite and necessary social purpose, and it must not be "arbitrary and capricious."

The legal drinking age is a good example of a properly established differential standard. Setting the legal minimum for consumption of alcohol at 21 means that all human beings are divided into two categories (those above and those below the limit) and that members of one category are treated differently from those of the other (those above 21 may drink legally, those below may not). Twenty-one is certainly an arbitrary number---it could as easily be 20, or 37---but it is not capri- cious, because society has a clearly rational need to discourage people from drinking before their brains have finished maturing. The boundary has to be set somewhere, and 21 is a traditional and convenient number. (Teenagers may disagree, whereas on scientific grounds the legal age should be 25.)

Yes, this law is frequently broken--but that does not make it irrational. Law is not just about coercion or punishment: law also serves to embody society's values: in this case the value that society places on the health of its young people. Society can't hold anyone to a standard unless that standard is set up somewhere where people can see it, and in America that somewhere is the law.

Barack Obama is personally opposed to same-sex marriage on religious grounds. Yet he's also a scholar of constitutional law--it's what he taught at the University of Chicago--and he has instructed the Justice Department not to defend DOMA, the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" forced through Congress by Newt Gingrich, and which forbids the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Obama knows that DOMA won't hold up in the courts, and he sensibly wishes to save the taxpayers time and money be refusing to defend an indefensible law.

Social conservatives such as the members of the Tea Party claim they wish to "restore the Constitution" and to "return to the values of the Founding Fathers." So why do they continue to oppose same-sex marriage? Their arguments amount to calling for a differential standard of treatment under the 14th Amendment. Mind you, those in favor of same-sex marriage need prove nothing--the onus is entirely on the tea-baggers and their ilk. To succeed in court they must prove that such a differential--treating homosexuals as different from and inferior to hets--is neces- sary to the proper functioning of society in the same way that setting the minimum drinking age at 21 is necessary. And they must also prove that such a standard is neither arbitrary (what about bisexuals? transgendered people? masturbators?) nor capricious (i.e., based on personal prejudices).

What kids really need--tiger moms take note.
Yet the anti-gay-marriage forces can mus- ter no such arguments. In fact, they don't even try. Instead, they focus entirely on gay sexuality per se, as if sex were all that gay people did, leaving them no time to raise families, care for sick partners, join the army, or any other myriad other things my gay friends, neighbors, and co-workers do. By claiming gay sex is wrong conserva- tives claim that gay marriage is wrong, as if sex and marriage were the same thing--which, in the eyes of the law, they are not. (The eyes of various churches are another matter.) When not claiming that the Bible forbids gay sex (which it does not, and I can prove it), social conservatives claim it's "unnatural" (so is underwear--do you see any other animal wearing any?), or that "the union of a man and a woman is the foundation of society" (which it certainly isn't, and here's a summary of the evidence). These three claims--from the Bible, from nature, and from social structure--simply don't hold water legally, logically, or morally. So why do so many of my fellow elders continue to make them?

When people are being grossly illogical there's usually a perfectly logical reason for it. That reason is emotion. Emotions don't just pop up at random: they are caused by certain experiences. Experiences that link regularly to emotions are commonly called "triggers"; when someone has a powerful emotional reaction to a seemingly innocuous trigger, we suspect an illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes the relation between trigger and emotion is evident--a smiling baby makes us happy, a Simpson's rerun makes us laugh, the brilliant acting talent of Rondo Hatton inspires a feeling of awe.

But the relation of trigger to response can also be buried in the unconscious, and here is where things can get tricky. And dangerous--it can be all too easy to blame the trigger for the severity of the response. We've all heard of cases in which a war veteran cannot tolerate exploding fireworks because they remind him (or her) of bombs. However, I know of no veterans who consciously think fireworks are bombs, or who think that July 4th celebrations are sponsored by Al Qaeda. A diagnosis of PTSD, oddly enough, may help protect the veteran from making the mistake that conservatives make in reacting to homosexuality--reading into the trigger stimulus something that isn't there.

No gay person I've ever met is any more dangerous, offensive, immoral, or annoy- ing than any straight person I've known, and I have no reason to believe my ex- periences with human beings are fundamentally different from those of most people. If the majority of my conservative age-mates find gay people more dan- gerous, offensive, immoral, or annoying than they find straights, I am forced to conclude that my age-mates are reacting to a trigger in much the same way that veterans with PTSD may react to loud noises. That is: by venting their spleens at queers, they reveal themselves to be reacting to something not in their triggers, but in themselves. Like shell-shocked veterans they have a mental disorder: one captured as well as may be by the term "homophobia."

If homophobia were merely a garden-variety irrational fear like arachnophobia or claustrophobia, we as a society might sympathize with it or offer its sufferers some kind of thearpy. But since homophobia is a fear of a particular kind of people, it is potentially damaging to those who are feared (because they are likely to be targets of violence--think Matthew Shepard), and thus damaging to the society of which they are members. And it seems that, like PTSD, homophobia is positively correlated with a wide variety of other anti-social behaviors, so that a homophobe is likely to be several other brands of bigot

Chicxulub--Yucatec Maya for, "Bye-bye dinosaurs."
The tendency of illnesses to appear together--e.g., PTSD and alcoholism--is called "co-morbidity." Co-morbidity explains why the same people who would make the lives of gay people miserable would also do nothing about global warming (or make it worse); would interfere with women's ability to control their own bodies; would sabotage Obama's presidency because he's smart, good-looking, and Black; would do nothing to rein-in the reign of the rich; would let the poor and downtrodden die painful, preventable deaths; and would cheat the rest of us out of our only opportunity to obtain health care. Homophobia, in other words, is co-morbid with racism, sexism, climate denial, class warfare, and mindless worship of the Invisible Hand. Homophobia is just one part of a complex of attitudes and behaviors--fears, resentments, greeds, hates-- that has made the Republican Party and its astroturf offshoot the greatest threat to the health and well-being of this planet since the Chicxulub Impactor.

And the GOP's core constituency is old people. My age-mates are trying to kill the planet. And they're succeeding.

But the youngsters . . . there's more to being a progressive than being in favor of same-sex marriage, and I daresay the under 30s have their fair share of fears, resentments, greeds, and hates. Yet from my observations I would say that those in favor of same-sex marriage are also more likely to want us to get below 350 ppm, to advocate for the rights of women, workers, minorities, the poor, and children, more likely just to be aware. They may not know just what actions to take, but they want to do something, and they care about the future. They are going to be living there, after all, as I and my fellow elders are not.

And so we return to this mother of all generation gaps, the profound differences in attitude and outlook between the over-50s and the under-30s, the gap I am sum- ming up in shorthand terms by dis/approval of same-sex marriage. Why the big diff? What can anyone do about it? Should anyone even bother?

And what does it have to do with the four men who will save the world?

to be continued

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Request to the Reader, or, The Ghost of Humphrey Bogart

#18 in the series, "J.R.R. Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"


As of this writing I've completed 17 blogs on the subject of sex in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. I've had a blast writing them, and from what I'm hearing on the cyber-street at least a few people have been having fun reading them. But now I'm stuck. Try as I might, I can't get a handle on what to write next about everyone's fun couple, Galadriel and Gimli. And I don't think it's writer's block. It's something more . . . sinister.

Part of the joy of writing is that you're constantly discovering things. Your readers, your material, your own subconscious: they're all a strange far country seen in the distance, and you really want to get there. And to get there you have to stretch yourself, poke at the boundaries hemming your life in, crawl under the fence and run around in MacGregor's garden chomping carrots. To write today, you have to be someone slightly different from who you were yesterday--someone more. The "more" is hard to categorize, but it's there. Maybe it's more intelligent, more obser- vant, more creative . . . it doesn't matter. What matters is the far country. But it's hard to get to.

Which is why it's come to this. Simply stated, I'm out of my league. I suppose I know as much about sex as most mammals, and I also know (approximately) how to write about it in ways that respect its power without letting that power overwhelm reason and turn W2WW into just another porn-site. No, the naughty bits don't trouble me, and I hope they don't trouble you. What troubles me is the stuff that H. sapiens does that no other species can even imagine. Stuff I'm not sure I can imagine myself. Stuff I don't think I can write about. Stuff I don't think I want to. It's . .. ugh . . . dare I say it? . . . It's . . . romance.

I HATE ROMANCE! I can't stand the Valentine's Day bilge, the hearts and flowers, the soulful gazes and sundry symbolic gropings, the bridal registries and soft- focus photos and crappy poetry. And don't get me started on kissing! Whenever Aragorn and Arwen start pitching woo in Jackson's movies I just close my eyes, turn my head, and concentrate on parsing the Elvish. (David Salo's got 'em using too many datives for my taste. Liv Tyler does a fine job on the fricatives, though. But I digress.) Just thinking about the mushy stuff sets off a powerful knee-jerk reaction in my brain, a distaste bordering on revulsion.

I'm not quite sure why this is. I've got a long-standing debate about it going with an old buddy of mine. I say I have some kind of autism, some form of brain damage that prevents me from comprehending the subtleties of romantic expression. He says I just have an extremely low tolerance for bullshit. Maybe it's both. At any rate I have never married, never will, and don't understand why anyone bothers.

And how DARE anyone call all that romantic balderdash "love"?! I spent 33 years of my life watching my mother patiently slaughter herself taking care of my pro- foundly handicapped little sister. I saw her sacrifice friends, career, marriage, and finally her life for the sake of someone who couldn't so much as speak her name or say thank you. And mom though herself the luckiest human being on the planet for having such a person in her life. And she was. And so am I. THAT is what I dare to call "love." My little sis taught me everything I need to know or ever will on the subject. Lesser mortals have nothing to tell me.

Remember Wood Allen's Play It Again, Sam ? Lovelorn Woody-the-nebbish says to the ghost of Humphrey Bogart, "But all I want is a meaningful relationship!" To which Bogie replies--in words that should be carved on a mountain somewhere-- "Relationship?! What kinda woid is that? Sounds like something from one of your Madison Avenue shrinks." My sentiment exactly.

Hanta i Valar Galadriel and Gimli don't ever have a "relationship"! Yet they do have something. So what is it? What do I call it? How do I explain what I think Tolkien is trying to do? What IS the Master of Middle-earth spending so much time and effort trying to tell us? For it seems to me something is peeking out from behind the thicket of stately diction and sly innuendo, something that is more than sex, more than romance, but isn't "love" in either the hearts-and-flowers sense or the sense I'm used to. To me, love is a kind of work. Joyous work, yes, but still work. Yet to Tolkien it's almost as if "love" was a kind of poetry--an artform. Love as an artform? I'm truly out of my league here.

And so, as I sit in my office pouring over scripts from old Bogart and Bacall movies, I'm asking for your help. I'm not asking for clever ideas or brilliant insights--creativity is my responsibility here, one I took on when I first decided to enter the blogo- sphere. I guess I'm just looking for support. Maybe one of you have encountered a similar difficulty in navigating this aspect of reality and can let me know how you fared--and if it gets any better.

Because just seeking the far country is scary business, neighbors. I feel like a not-too-bright little kid walking down a dark alley and it's way past my bedtime. Any flashlights tossed my way will be more than welcome. And in the meantime I'll be trying to make sense of maps like this one:

Vivian (Lauren Bacall): Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they're front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole card is. What makes them run.

Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart): Find out mine?

to be continued