Thursday, August 02, 2012

Two wrongs

My Facebook feed is split at the moment between Gore Vidal appreciations and contrarian take-downs.  A brilliant writer and last of the greats! Or, a reactionary with all kinds of offensive stances that we're sugarcoating because he just died!

I wasn't sure where to begin with Vidal, so I took J. Bryan Lowder's advice and went with the 1981 essay, "Some Jews & The Gays." In doing so, I learned a bit of the history behind defenses of gay rights that feel the need to insult Jews in the process.

The argument, in brief, is that Jews, who are/were a hated bunch, are hypocrites or fools to embrace 'family-values' social conservatism. A handful of what would now be called neoconservative Jewish writers - we really only learn of two, and hear primarily about Midge Decter, but more are alluded to - were evidently writing homophobic articles in the pre-to-early Reagan era. Vidal argues against homophobia, which, in this breaded-chicken age, makes this topic timely. Fair enough. The problem is how he goes about making it.

While the title, with its "some," lets on that maybe other Jews exist with a different ideology, you'd never guess that Jews tend to lean left, that the social conservatism of the Commentary crowd makes them outcasts among Jews, even if this set has whichever ties to current leadership. (See: the GWB years.) I suspect this was true even in 1981, and find it difficult to believe - as Vidal evidently did - that Jews were disproportionately homophobic for the time. Today, Jews disproportionately support same-sex marriage. Vidal offers no evidence that the typical American Jew was not in fact less homophobic than the typical American in 1981. He simply finds it unacceptable that any Jews would ally with the reactionary right.

And that premise - that Others must stick together - is its own form of well-meaning bigotry. While it's great if your experience of marginalization makes you a better person, you owe nothing particular to any cause above-and-beyond what a non-Other does. Why should homophobic Jews - who of course existed in 1981 and continue to exist today - be any more baffling than anti-Semitic gays? Isn't it this line of thinking that leads people to think/say, 'I can't be homophobic, I'm Jewish!', or, 'I can't be anti-Semitic, I'm gay!' But again, it seems a bit beside the point. If Jews weren't especially homophobic at the time, it's unclear what the point was of highlighting the Jewish background of certain homophobic writers.

The cringe-inducing rhetorical device Vidal uses throughout is to remind that all the reasons certain Jewish writers give for there being no place for gays are ones that have been and still are given for there being no place for Jews. He responds to the homophobia of a Jewish writer with point-by-point rebuttals in the form of anti-Semitism. Gay men are hairless? Jewish men are hairy. Gays are privileged? No, Jews are privileged. Gays are snobby coastal fashion-hounds? No, Jews are snobs who think Manhattan's the center of the universe.

It's all under the guise of pointing out to homophobic Jews that the very same arguments they're making against homosexuality have long been made against Judaism. But the readiness with which he comes up with nasty things to say about Jews, New York Jews especially, is unmistakable. He's arguing for an alliance between Others, but takes such delight in the fact that Jews are and were hated, at least as hated as gays. He at many points appears to be arguing, from more than a makes-ya-think position, that homosexual desire is normal and consistent with American values, while Jewishness is foreign and objectionable, and not that both are normal and consistent with American values. Virile, natural, versus wimpy, materialistic, so tackily nouveau. His aesthetic revulsion at the very idea of new-money conservatives - and women don't come across so great, either - ends up overpowering the essay.

Oh, and the women thing. Underlying the essay is a kind of old-timey (well, this was a while ago) misogyny-as-gay-pride, aided by the fact that the homophobic essay he's responding to was written by a woman. So we get bits like this: "Most men—homo or hetero—given the opportunity to have sex with 500 different people would do so, gladly; but most men are not going to be given the opportunity by a society that wants them safely married so that they will be docile workers and loyal consumers." What about, because the consequences for women of sex with men have historically been somewhat greater? Never mind that.

In response to Decter's offensive extrapolations about gay male lack of body hair at a vacation locale she spent some time at, Vidal offers this:

Here Decter betrays her essential modesty and lack of experience. In the no doubt privileged environment of her Midwestern youth, she could not have seen very many gentile males without their clothes on. If she had, she would have discovered that gentile men tend to be less hairy than Jews except, of course, when they are not. Because the Jews killed our Lord, they are forever marked with hair on their shoulders—something that no gentile man has on his shoulders except for John Travolta and a handful of other Italian-Americans from the Englewood, New Jersey, area.
Is this witty? Clever? Empowering? It's countering homophobia with anti-Semitism, yes, but also bringing in some jibes at female sexuality. He's announcing that he knows the "essential" of this woman's sexual experience, not to mention beach experience. He's trotting out the JAP stereotype - thus "privilege" and prudishness - and for what, exactly? Doesn't Decter's homophobia speak for itself? Can't it be condemned without stooping to her level?

If the point of the essay was to invite undecided or otherwise-inclined Jews to join the fight for gay rights, this was an odd way of going about it. And while I certainly don't rule out writers who weren't fond of Jews and/or women - I'm a grad student in 19th C French literature, for crying out loud! - the non-cleverness of this essay that thought itself so very clever is not making me rush to check out this particular oeuvre.


Andrew Stevens said...

Not a defense of Vidal (who was loony, though also a terrifically clever writer), but the New York Times had refused to review his books for years after The City and the Pillar had included a homosexual love affair. The reviewer in question, Orville Prescott, was not Jewish, but Times ownership could have done something about it and did not. There is no question that this badly hurt Vidal's book sales; the New York Times was crucial to book sales in those days.

As I said, this is no defense. The fact that some leftist, and probably not anti-homosexual, Jews refused to come to his business's defense for their own business reasons is no excuse for tarring the whole group with the same brush. I do think it explains how a mind which was obviously prone to rather diseased conspiracy theories anyway happened to arrive at that one.

The funny thing about Vidal is that the appreciations and the take-downs you were reading on Facebook are probably both 100% correct. He was a brilliant man who happened to be a terrible thinker.

Phoebe said...

Didn't Wagner also have something like this - a grudge against a Jewish musician that was the pretext for his what-have-you? I guess this kind of information can be interesting, esp. to someone studying the person, but if a bad experience with someone from Group X inspires you to become a bigot against Group X, a) you probably already weren't too fond of Group X, and this interaction confirmed your negative stereotypes, and b) like you say, it's no excuse. The vast vast vast majority of Jews have nothing to do with what gets published in the NYT.

As to this particular essay, it's what I believe they call intellectual dishonesty to imply that Jews are especially homophobic without backing that up, and when the liberal leanings of American Jews since near-forever suggest that this probably was not the case. Like I said, I'm aware enough of literary history to get that if you rule out writers who might offend women and/or Jews, you're left with basically nothing to read. But this just seemed lacking in, well, smarts. The basis of the argument wasn't sound.

Andrew Stevens said...

As I said - brilliant man, terrible thinker. He never has a sound basis for any of his arguments, but the arguments are always beautifully crafted.

I'm not sure anybody knows what the foundation of Wagner's grudge against Meyerbeer was. Meyerbeer was a huge supporter and patron of Wagner when Wagner was young, but for some reason Wagner just came to hate the man. However, Wagner's antisemitism was far more malignant than Vidal's and I doubt Meyerbeer was the sole cause. No, I don't believe Wagner was responsible for the Third Reich, but he would have happily deported all the Jews and that's quite bad enough. Even leaving aside the antisemitism, Wagner was monstrous, fond of seducing his friends' wives and cheating his friends of their money, pathologically conceited, convinced the world owed him a living, etc. Wagner was also, of course, a far more brilliant artist than Vidal, easily the greatest operatist who ever lived. There may be a correlation between genius and virtue, but if so, it's not very high.

I would argue, as devil's advocate, that it may have been true in Vidal's lifetime (probably not by 1981, though) that American Jews might have been more likely to be vocally anti-homosexual than other Americans. If so, it was likely a way to show pro-traditional morality bona fides from a group trying to fit into the dominant culture and avoid persecution. If that's true (and I'm not saying it is, but that seems to be Vidal's impression), Vidal's rage is more understandable, if still misplaced.

Phoebe said...

Hmm. I don't think this is as you said, because Vidal's particular argument in this essay, at least, was both lousy and poorly-constructed. In the post, I take apart both the argument and the manner-of-argument with ease, and I'm no genius. It's not all that clever to match up anti-gay attacks with corresponding anti-Jewish ones. If beautiful language is stuff like pointing out that Jews, but also Italians, are hairy, I guess I'm missing something.

Your devil's-advocate position is certainly generous to Vidal, but strikes me as incredibly unlikely. Jews were often active in radical movements, were associated with feminism and attacks on the traditional family, etc. Given how much various forms of Christianity disapprove of homosexuality, and given how many Jews, by Vidal's lifetime, were atheists or close, and finally, given how many Jews lived in cities where they would be more likely to meet those living openly as gay, it just doesn't strike me as plausible that Jews were more homophobic than average.

I'm sure there were always some Jews who felt the best way to lay low was to adopt social conservatism full-on. But I highly suspect that this sort has always been in the minority of the minority, certainly in the era before the "new conservatives" emerged.

Andrew Stevens said...

Well, I wouldn't point to this essay as his best work, certainly, or even close to it. But the line about the hairiness of Jews and John Travolta was meant to be funny. I'm not saying that you're wrong to find it offensive as well and obviously that's going to lower its humor value for you, but I confess I did find that to be a witty and clever paragraph. Part of the joke is that he is miming antisemitism. Whatever Vidal believed about Jews, he certainly did not believe that they "killed our Lord."

You may well be right about Jews and homosexuals. It's mostly before my time and I honestly have no sense of the history. I would say, though, that I don't think homosexuals were really on many people's radar screens, not even progressives prior to 1969 or so (only twelve years before Vidal's essay). It was perfectly socially acceptable in almost all circles in the United States to be anti-homosexual prior to that and urban gays were much more in the closet than they are now. Gays have made truly astonishing strides in the last fifty or sixty years.

But, yes, Vidal's antisemitism mostly springs from his belief that the "Jewish literary establishment" was denying him his deserved fame and fortune because of his sexual orientation and there's a good chance that Vidal was suffering from confirmation bias and that Jews were not any more likely to be anti-homosexual than anybody else.

Phoebe said...

The Travolta line wasn't funny in part because offensive humor is only ever funny if it comes from a place either of goodwill, or of approximately equal bad will to all. Also because "gentile" simply means "not Jewish," i.e. the near-entirety of the world population, and not just WASPs. So the hairiness line didn't even make sense. I found that distracting.

I mean, I see how, if you are neither Jewish nor Italian, you might catch that this was intended as humor (which I certainly also caught) and chuckle in the way one does unthinkingly in response to that-which-is-intended-as-humorous. It was in that tone of "witty and clever," but was utterly weak. The entire piece is pretending to mock anti-Semitism while engaging in it, so I guess it's a case of laugh along at one's peril.

Andrew Stevens said...

I certainly understand where you're coming from and perhaps this essay was not the best introduction to Vidal. I would say that Vidal usually does have approximately equal bad will to all.

It is also quite possible that you wouldn't appreciate any of Vidal's wit - I have no idea.

"I was reading this snotty novel called ‘Burr,’ by Gore Vidal, and read how he mocked our Founding Fathers. And as a reasonable, decent, fair-minded person who happened to be a Democrat, I thought, ‘You know what? What he’s writing about, this mocking of people that I revere, and the country that I love, and that I would lay my life down to defend — just like every one of you in this room would, and as many of you in this room have when you wore the uniform of this great country — I knew that that was not representative of my country. And at that point I put the book down and I laughed. I was riding a train. I looked out the window and I said, ‘You know what? I think I must be a Republican. I don’t think I’m a Democrat.’" - Michelle Bachmann, who also didn't appreciate Mr. Vidal.

Phoebe said...

You know what? You're exactly right. My not appreciating this essay makes me just like Michelle Bachmann.

Are you serious with this? I've just gotten through explaining that I appreciate plenty of writing that's offensive to that-which-I-am (and you may extrapolate: that which I hold dear), or by writers with tainted pasts, or what have you. I've just gotten through explaining Vidal's essay and its structure. It hasn't gone over my head, and I perfectly well saw where he was going for wit. If you're going to tell me this makes me Bachmannesque, I might borrow Vidal's own technique and give you examples of people you'd sit alongside if you find unfunny humor at the expense of Jews and Italians terribly clever. But I won't!

I will say that it's entirely possible I'd appreciate some other wit from Vidal. But life is short, to-read lists already long, and the weakness of this essay - not its offensiveness! its poor construction and poor argumentation - makes me less inclined to keep going at the moment with this author.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe, I really wasn't comparing you to Michelle Bachmann. I just remembered the quote and remembered that it amused me and we happened to be talking about Gore Vidal so I posted it at the end there. It really wasn't anything more than that. I will shut up now since the fact that you took it that way means I've obviously been way too negative lately, for which I apologize.