On an open marriage

 homosexuality, horrible old man, politics  Comments Off on On an open marriage
Jan 232012
 

This past weekend, Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Republican primary by a considerable margin over the putative front-runner Mitt Romney. The victory was due in no small part to Gingrich’s impressive performance in the debate mediated by CNN’s John King, where he made a fiery attack on the moderator for opening the debate with a reference to recent stories in which one of Gingrich’s ex-wives asserted that he had asked her for an open marriage, presumably because he already had a mistress.

In calling King’s effort to broach the subject “despicable”, Gingrich was able to play to the crowd’s distrust of the “liberal media” and brush the issue aside, at least temporarily. King, obviously cowed, tried to walk back the question, which put Gingrich in control of the situation and allowed him to play the victim. Gingrich may be right that King’s bringing up the question was despicable, but he has no right to get offended or to go on the attack. Gingrich owes us an explanation of this open marriage, not because his married life is our business, but because he proposes to make our married lives his business.

There is also a general sense in which Gingrich’s marriages matter to a voter, because it speaks to a larger issue of integrity. Of course an individual relationship has many differences from a government office. Nonetheless, an oath is an oath, and if a man can’t hold to his vows to a single person, how will he handle his obligation to an entire nation? Yet, this does not justify any particularly close examination of marital details. Gingrich’s divorce habit and ethics reprimand tell us all that we need to know about his character. In this regard, the open marriage story adds nothing but shock value.

There it would stay, but for one thing. Like the vast majority of his Republican compatriots, Newt Gingrich opposes gay marriage. Indeed, he opposes it so vehemently that he has stated he would support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman if the “Defense of Marriage Act” were found to be unconstitutional. He even made a video to support California’s odious Proposition 8. Gingrich believes that he should have the right to define marriage for everyone in the country. He therefore owes the people a clear understanding of what marriage means to him, not only as he describes it in prepared speeches and soundbites, but also as he practices it in his life.

Does a man who cannot even commit to the woman he has presently married and not yet divorced have any right to tell a gay couple that their commitment means less than his? I submit that he does not. So, having opened this door, having asserted that he possesses the virtue to tell other people what to do in their lives and relationships, Gingrich has invited us to examine his own affairs. For him to then object when that moment of public examination arrives shows him to be a coward and a first-order hypocrite.

I, however, can object for him, because I do not propose to become America’s marriage-judger-in-chief. The open marriage story is prurient and worthless, intended to increase the stench of Gingrich’s long history of failed marriages without providing any special insight into the man. This attack is beneath us. It is even beneath Newt Gingrich, and considering what a despicable little worm he is, that’s saying something.

Jan 102008
 
The two or three of you that have perused my link section have probably come across the oddly-named Ray Bradbury’s Love-Camel, Eric’s teamblog about pop culture. In a moment of insanity, he invited me to cross-post my own economy-priced cultural musings, and I’ve decided to do so until the comments get too mean or he returns to his senses.

As it turns out, my first post for rblc is actually inspired by Eric’s post yesterday about Blankets, which reminded me of one of my favorite graphic novels, and so even though it was a little early for me to hit it on the decadal rotation I went home last night and re-read Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse. Although it’s a work of fiction, Cruse admits that it is heavily influenced by his time in Birmingham in the sixties, and this shows through in much of the plot and also in some of the characters. The inspiration for Sutton Chopper, for instance, will be immediately obvious to anyone who remembers any part of their Black History Month lessons. But Stuck Rubber Baby is not about the Civil Rights Movement, except to the degree that the characters’ reactions to it help define their relationships with each other. This story is about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality in an extraordinary and difficult time, and the mistakes he and others make in the course of that effort.

This isn’t a subject that everyone wants to read about, and I’ll forgive you if it turns you off, while warning you that you are missing out on a wonderful story. On the other hand, both civil rights and gay coming-of-age are hardly topics lightly served by literature; it’s tempting to dismiss this book (if you haven’t read it) as a retread of overdone themes. Yet Cruse manages to avoid the all-too-easy trap of populating this kind of story with saints and sinners. Despite the enormous cast, almost every character who appears on more than one page comes across as realistically mixed. You will find something to criticize in every protagonist (especially the main character), and also something to like, or at least a basis for forgiveness, in the villains. The saintly black preacher unleashes a sarcastic, acid tongue, and the obese bigot who commits one of the book’s worst acts comes across as genuinely remorseful and ashamed at the end.

The black-and-white art reflects this sensibility. The characters are highly detailed, and the lines used to draw them are very curvy. This style allows Cruse to create very expressive faces, and yet at the same time it seems to highlight physical imperfections. These characters are not supermen, nor are they ostentatiously ugly. They simply seem real—not in the trivial way one associates with photorealistic artwork, but rather the deeper reality of memory and emotion. Even the sexual content works, a rare example of art avoiding pitfalls I have mentioned before.

Who knows how much of this tale is drawn from Cruse’s experience and how much is entirely made up? The strength of Stuck Rubber Baby is that you simply can’t tell. This story, though it is fiction, feels real, almost frighteningly so. It has no perfect heroes, no perfect villains, and the last page holds no happy ending… only the impression that someone else’s memories, with all their joy and sorrow, have been made your own.

Playing it safe

 books, homosexuality  Comments Off on Playing it safe
Oct 242007
 
Is it really such a big deal that Dumbledore was crushing on young Gellert back in the heady, free-loving days before the war? Does it really change anything about the books? Heck, does it even change anything about the fans’ perceptions of the books? Rowling commented, “God, the fanfiction,” but that just shows she’s never heard of rule 34. The body of fanfiction based on the Potter novels is so vast as to be beyond the comprehension of any sane man, and at least a quarter of it is probably porn. Rowling, imaginative as she may be, could not possibly conceive of anything that fanfic writers have not already turned into treacly, overwrought prose riddled with misspellings, atrocious grammar, and cell-phone language.

I don’t doubt that this will add more fuel to the fire of fundamentalists already out to burn the books for daring to mention witchcraft and to promote tolerance. And I have already been subjected to a diatribe accusing Rowling of using this to “drum up publicity” for the books, which is patently ridiculous. For one thing, Harry Potter has so thoroughly permeated popular culture that it is almost certainly impossible to publicize it further. For another, J.K. Rowling is already wealthier than the Queen of England. If your personal wealth overmasters that of a family that spent centuries sucking dry the marrow-bones of indigenous peoples then you hardly need the extra publicity a gay controversy will give you.

Even in the context of the books, this is a minor fact. It fills out the story of Dumbledore’s fascination with Gellert, but this is hardly necessary as the books themselves give a strong account of his feelings. It casts an interesting light on his relationships with Snape and Harry, but it doesn’t really make any more sense of them. While it might be interesting for the fans to know that Rowling thought of Dumbledore as gay, knowing this doesn’t really add much to the depth of the story.

I’ve even seen some comments saying that it was brave of Rowling to admit that Dumbledore was gay. Well, it fits her books’ themes of tolerance. But “brave”? For admitting that a secondary character was gay months after the final volume of her series wrung its billions from the best-seller list? Not a chance. “Brave” would apply if Harry had secretly crushed on Oliver Wood, gotten beaten up for glancing one too many times at the other blokes in the Quidditch showers, and shyly asked Ron to be his date at the Yule Ball. But Rowling never took such chances.

For all that can be praised about the Potter books, it’s important to realize that Rowling always played them perfectly safe. The teenage romance was chaste and hardly emotional. The abuses Harry suffered in his adoptive home were never of a kind that truly threatened his well-being. Neither Harry nor any of his friends was ever truly tempted by evil. She rarely played with ambiguity — with very few exceptions, Harry’s foes were completely unhinged monsters or obstinately ignorant to the point of irrationality (or, like Umbridge, both). Neither Harry nor the reader was ever remotely tempted to take their side. I’m not criticizing her for this — were I lucky enough to be in her position I might take the same approach. But let’s not make the Potter novels into something they’re not. And let’s not give Rowling’s pronouncements about them more than the momentary notice they’re due.

Aug 202007
 
Last night I rented and watched Taboo, or Gohatto if you use the original Japanese title. I don’t think I would have found it on my own, but the Netflix recommendation algorithm spat it out and I gave it a try. Taboo is a fascinating, well-acted gay samurai mystery art film, and you cannot be any more surprised by reading that than I was by writing it.

The conceit of the film is that an exceptionally pretty boy named Kano Sozaburo joins a samurai military unit towards the end of the Shogunate (the politics of this era play a minor, but substantive role in the story). Many of the men become infatuated with him, and their jealousy starts to tear the unit apart until a bloody episode that ends the film. Beat Takeshi stars as the unit’s second-in-command Hijikata Toshizo, who is the one that has to deal with the problems Kano creates. These are many, as Kano seems to catch absolutely everyone’s eye, including the commander, at least one lieutenant, and even perhaps Hijikata himself.

This is not the best movie I’ve ever seen by any standard. The plot seems to come and go at times, and the tension builds only unevenly towards the final confrontation. While the movie centers on Kano little is done to give the viewer a real handle on his character. He blows hot and cold, and Matsuda Ryuhei at times just doesn’t seem equal to his task. Takeshi does more with less; Hijikata is much easier to grasp, even though he has his own set of unresolved questions. In the end the viewer is left to resolve most of the movie’s central mysteries.

The directing is very interesting. Oshima Nagisa’s camera tries to let action speak for itself, which works splendidly in some scenes (Kano’s embarrassing kendo bout against his lover) and not so well in others (an extended entrance by a geisha). As is often the case, color features prominently in the film (Kano’s frequent wearing of white against the black of the militia’s livery), but it bears thinking about what the colors mean in the cultural context.

Some cultural context may also be needed for westerners watching the film. An American might find it strange that all these men are attracted to Kano, who seems by our standards pale and rather pinched. The seeming lack of romance in the love scenes (there is one sex scene, but barely anything is shown) may also seem a little odd. These aren’t flaws but rather important components of the historical and cultural setting, ultimately helping to build a fairly accurate picture of this world.

Taboo isn’t easy to understand and just isn’t for some people. I don’t mean this pejoratively; you aren’t a better person if it is for you. It’s the strangest case ever made against gays in the military — beware, all the straight men might become infatuated! And yet, though some of the plot seems totally alien, it works, even the slightly strained ending. Beat Takeshi is to be credited for this, as he grounds a film that could have easily flown off into space. Sakagami Jiro, Takeda Shinji, and a few others in the supporting cast also do great work, propping up (in my opinion) Matsuda, who just doesn’t seem to have quite enough poison in his eyes for this role. If you think a gay samurai mystery art film might be for you, then try to get your hands on it, at least for a rental.

I also watched Hot Fuzz; all you need to know about this film is that it is very funny and you should rent it.