aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Saturday, December 16, 2006
How lame is that?
LATER: Jon Stewart, “why us?”
Funny anti-gay slurs?
In “The Little Dog Laughed,” Douglas Carter Beane’s Hollywood satire at the Cort Theater, the central character, a ruthless female agent played with verve by Julie White, uses the following terms, among others, to refer to her client, a closeted gay movie actor: “that pansy,” “Mary” and “Miss Nancy,” “little fairy Tinkerbell” and “little fruit.Ã¢â‚¬Â� Coining her own variation on derogation, she calls another character “St. Francis of the Sissies.”
At the performance I recently attended, virtually every one of those lines got a laugh. As they were meant to. For the character’s noxious vocabulary isn’t meant to mark her as a bigot. The epithets, generally employed in acerbic monologues addressed to the audience, are meant to establish her as a funny gal, if maybe a little soulless. It seems for most people they do.
Little notice has been taken of Mr. Beane’s comic exploitation of what is, in other contexts, called hate speech. But he seems to be aware that he is treading on tender turf: how else to explain the agent’s opening announcement that she’s a lesbian? Her sexuality then disappears until a passing reference in the last scene. But it’s enough to inoculate her (and perhaps him) against accusations of homophobia: she’s on the team, so she’s allowed, and we’re allowed to chuckle. (For the record, Mr. Beane is an openly gay man.) [...]
Because he knows his audience is overwhelmingly made up of the gay and the gay-friended, Mr. Beane can safely use words that in other contexts would still call down opprobrium. But it doesn’t make the humor any smarter, and as the snipes kept coming and I stopped counting, the barking of those words in viperish tones began to push a few of my buttons. (Let’s just say that, as a gay man, I don’t look back on my suburban junior high school years with unalloyed fondness.)
Nor me mine (and I was just home to revisit them). Still, I look forward to the play and hope to chortle my way through it.
On a Greenwich Village elevator
Should you be so inclined, you can get one here.
The limits of tolerance
Later, at a lower Fifth Avenue dinner party, I tried out my argument that, contrary to Schaller’s advice, big ‘D’ Democrats should redouble their efforts in the South to make up for their complicity in its racist heritage.
I can’t say that it was immediately understood or ever bought into; some suggested I had become a Blue Dog Democrat at best or a Red State Republican at worst. I tried, defensively, to trot out my liberal bona fides.
Earlier we discussed The Island at the Center of the World and marveled at how tolerant New York has always been. The founding principles of NY were rooted in commerce rather than New England’s religious freedom so, I suggested, New York’s tolerance was then, as it remains today, a self-interested one.
And in that context I revisited this morning Stanley Fish’s Chronicle review of Wendy Brown’s new book on tolerance:
Locke declared (in A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689) that “every Church is orthodox to itself” and concluded that, in the absence of an independent mechanism for determining which among competing orthodoxies is the true one, toleration is the only rational policy. Locke then asked, What about the churches and orthodoxies that value tolerance less than they do the truth and political supremacy of the faiths they espouse? Do we tolerate them? The answer he gave is still being given today by the guardians of Enlightenment liberalism: “No opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated.”
But the question of which opinions are “contrary to human society” does not answer itself, for if it did, if there were universal agreement on what views were simply beyond the pale, tolerance would be unnecessary. The category of interdicted opinions must be established by an act of authority and power, an act Locke performed later in the tract when he made his own list. He thus made it clear that in the liberal tradition he initiated, tolerance, rather than being a wholly benevolent and inclusive practice, is an engine of exclusion and a technology of regulation.
The triumph of toleration as the central liberal value, and the attendant inability of liberals to see the dark side of their favorite virtue, is the subject of Wendy Brown’s insightful and illuminating new book, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton University Press). Brown sets out to understand “how tolerance has come to be such an important justice discourse in our time.” The “conventional story,” she reports, goes this way: “[T]he combined effects of globalization, the aftermath of the cold war, and the aftermath of colonialism have led to the world’s erupting in a hundred scenes of local and internecine conflict, roughly rooted in identity clashes, and tolerance is an appropriate balm for soothing those conflicts.” In a world where difference seems intractable and irreconcilable, parties are always poised for conflict (Brown notes the Hobbesian antecedents of this picture), tolerance appears to be a “natural and benign remedy”; natural because, given what men and women are (irremediably) like, it seems the only way to go, and benign because while it reins in differences, it accords those difference a space in the private sector. You know the commonplace aphorisms and slogans: Live and let live, different strokes for different folks, can’t we all just get along?
Sounds good, but Brown isn’t having any. Her critique of tolerance challenges the common assumption that the differences the sharp edges of which tolerance is supposed to blunt “took their shape prior to the discourse called on to broker them.” No, she insists, those differences are produced by a regime of tolerance that at the same time produces a status quo politics built on the assumption that difference cannot be negotiated but can only be managed. When difference is naturalized, she explains, it becomes the mark not of an ideological or political divide (in relation to which one might have an argument), but of a cultural divide (in relation to which each party says of the other, “See, that’s just the way they are"). If people do the things they do not because of what they believe, but because they are Jews, Muslims, blacks, or gays, it is no use asking them to see the error of their ways, because it is through those same ways - naturally theirs - that they see at all. When President Bush reminds us of ‘“the nature of our enemy,”’ he is, in effect, saying there’s no dealing with these people; they are immune to rational appeals; the only language they understand is the language of force.
“This reduction of political motivations and causes to essentialized culture,” Brown says, “is mobilized to explain everything from suicide bombers to Osama bin Laden’s world designs, mass death in Rwanda and Sudan, and the failure of democracy to take hold in the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.”
And, she adds, it does more than that: It legitimizes, and even demands, the exercise of intolerance, when the objects of intolerance are persons who, because of their overattachment to culture, are deemed incapable of being tolerant. Live and let live won’t work, we are often told, if the other guy is determined to kill you because he believes that his religion or his ethnic history commands him to. Liberal citizens, Brown explains, will be tolerant of any group so long as its members subordinate their cultural commitments to the universal dictates of reason, as defined by liberalism. But once a group has rejected tolerance as a guiding principle and opted instead for the cultural imperatives of the church or the tribe, it becomes a candidate for intolerance that will be performed in the name of tolerance; and at that moment any action against it - however violent - is justified. Tolerance, then, is a virtue that liberal citizens or those who are willing to act as liberal citizens are capable of exercising; and those who refuse to exercise it cannot, by this logic, be its beneficiary.
LATER: My commenter points out that my stream of consciousness was confusing. I edited some for clarity. I’ll try to make the connection clearer in the future.