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March 11, 2014

WWPD: What Would Putin Do?

Putin  reacts to a man who kisses his hand

We could attribute this to surprise or even to a democratic instinct except for the adorable “I’m gonna punch you so hard” fist Putin starts to make at the very end.


And on a lighter note, here’s Pres. Obama on Between Two Ferns.


February 13, 2014

Wearing our tormentor’s mask

A small anecdote in a “Talk of the Town” article by Michael Schulman in this week’s New Yorker (Feb. 17 & 24, p. 36) struck me harder than I would have thought. The article — “Get me rewrite” — tells of the controversy when a private middle school decided to perform the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” The co-author of the script, Dick Scanlan, defended a scene as a satire of the Chinese stereotyping in the 1967 movie version, a point that was perhaps just a tad too subtle for middle school, and perhaps just too subtle.

What got to me, though, was what Scanlan, 53, told the student cast about “how he dealt with getting ‘brutally teased’ for being gay as a kid in Maryland”:

I would go home and imitate the imitation of me in the mirror — “Hi, my name is Dick Ssssscanlan and I’m soooo excited — and I would think, That can’t be the way I’m behaving, because I can imitate that and it doesn’t feel like me.

This simple story hit me at a couple of levels.

I’m 63 and graduated high school in 1968. Some of our crowd were obviously gay, but we had an informal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell social policy. (It was sometimes ok to tell, too: my girlfriend came out to me on the night of the senior prom. Long story.) We didn’t call our gay friends names or mockingly imitate them behind their backs, but we also didn’t know how to talk about it, and public displays of affection just were not in our vocabulary. And, I’m not sure how we phrased it, but we assumed (along with the rest of America) that something had gone wrong to make them that way. It was a syndrome, maybe caused by a domineering mother. So, at Herricks High in middle class Long Island, it could have been a whole lot worse. But it could have been a whole lot better.

So, when I hear Dick Scanlan talk about standing in front of a mirror to see if he was truly like his tormentors’ image of him, a bit of my heart breaks. I can too easily imagine my friends doing that. Having to try on the clothes the bully hands you has to be so unsettling, even if you are wise enough to come to the conclusion that Dick did.

The anecdote hit me hard also because I know I’ve done the same thing for the weaknesses I think others perceive in me. In these cases I’m internalizing my own bully, so it’s by no means as serious as what Dick and many of my gay friends went through. But I think I understand it.

I know I’ve talked about this topic before, and I expect I will again. When a change this deep and liberating occurs so quickly — we’ve come so far albeit not far enough — and when it’s a change not only in your culture but in your own attitudes, and when you don’t have the luxury of thinking that the old attitudes were held only by other people who you can write off as bigots, then what can you do but dwell on it and try to understand how wrong things could have seemed so right and how then so quickly have gotten better.

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June 27, 2013

Relevant differences unresolved

After yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions, I’m just so happy about the progress we’re making.

It seems like progress to me because of the narrative line I have for the stretch of history I happen to have lived through since my birth in 1950: We keep widening the circle of sympathy, acceptance, and rights so that our social systems more closely approximate the truly relevant distinctions among us. I’ve seen the default position on the rights of African Americans switch, then the default position on the rights of women, and now the default position on sexual “preferences.” I of course know that none of these social changes is complete, but to base a judgment on race, gender, or sexuality now requires special arguments, whereas sixty years ago, those factors were assumed to be obviously relevant to virtually all of life.

According to this narrative, it’s instructive to remember that the Supreme Court overruled state laws banning racial intermarriage only in 1967. That’s amazing to me. When I was 17, outlawing “miscegeny” seemed to some segment of the population to be not just reasonable but required. It was still a debatable issue. Holy cow! How can you remember that and not think that we’re going to struggle to explain to the next generation that in 2013 there were people who actually thought banning same sex marriage was not just defensible but required?

So, I imagine a conversation (and, yes, I know I’m making it up) with someone angry about yesterday’s decisions. Arguing over which differences are relevant is often a productive way to proceed. You say that women’s upper body strength is less than men’s, so women shouldn’t be firefighters, but we can agree that if a woman can pass the strength tests, then she should be hired. Or maybe we argue about how important upper body strength is for that particular role. You say that women are too timid, and I say that we can find that out by hiring some, but at least we agree that firefighters need to be courageous. A lot of our moral arguments about social issues are like that. They are about what are the relevant differences.

But in this case it’s really really hard. I say that gender is irrelevant to love, and all that matters to a marriage is love. You say same sex marriage is unnatural, that it’s forbidden by God, and that lust is a temptation to be resisted no matter what its object. Behind these ideas (at least in this reconstruction of an imaginary argument) is an assumption that physical differences created by God must entail different potentials which in turn entail different moral obligations. Why else would God have created those physical distinctions? The relevance of the distinctions are etched in stone. Thus the argument over relevant differences can’t get anywhere. We don’t even agree about the characteristics of the role (e.g., upper body strength and courage count for firefighters) so that we can then discuss what differences are relevant to those characteristics. We don’t have enough agreement to be able to disagree fruitfully.

I therefore feel bad for those who see yesterday’s rulings as one more step toward a permissive, depraved society. I wish I could explain why my joy feels based on acceptance, not permissiveness, and not on depravity but on love.

By the way, my spellchecker flags “miscegeny” as a misspelled word, a real sign of progress.

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March 27, 2013

Why homosexuality looks like a decision

Note that in the following, I’m figuring out something that is probably obvious to everyone except me.

The other day I found myself expostulating, “How can anyone think people choose which sex they’re attracted to???” (Yes, with three question marks. I was expostulating.) I followed this with the well-worn, “If they think homosexuality is a choice, then they must also think that heterosexuality is. But at what point in their lives did they really make a choice between finding boys or girls hot? Never!!!”

My argument is not a good one. For at least some anti-gay folks, it poses a false equivalence. I think.

Thinking that gays choose their sexual “preference” but straights do not appears to be a contradiction until you factor in some assumptions about nature and temptation. So: God set it up so that humans naturally are drawn to the opposite sex. But we can be tempted toward all sorts of sins: We can lust after a neighbor’s spouse. We can be drawn toward liquor. We can be tempted to shoplift. We all face many different temptations of varying degrees of badness. Good people resist temptations as firmly as they can. Homosexuals give in to their temptations, and even flaunt them.

Thus, the proper equivalence isn’t between heterosexuals and homosexuals deciding which gender they’ll desire. It’s between homosexuals giving in to their temptation (same-sex sex) and heterosexuals giving in to their temptation (adultery, promiscuity, or some such). The equivalence isn’t in the choice of temptations but in the reaction to those temptations.

I’m not agreeing, of course. I fly my rainbow flag high. But this helps me to understand what otherwise looks like an argument so incoherent that it’s incomprehensible how anyone could actually hold it. It’s not incoherent, given a certain set of premises. It’s coherent…but wrong.