A couple of days ago, I quoted Bruce Bawer on engagement. Since then, his words have rolled about in my head. This long spring, I started reconnecting with old gay friends; I’ve been struck by how many of them have become politicized, beset by BDS. In the sixties and seventies they were apolitical – as, most of the time, I was. Occasionally, I’d have a boyfriend who’d talk about politics, but then I’d retreat to my friends whose arguments were over the fictional and aesthetic.
Bush’s stance on gay marriage may irritate, but, frankly, this is the first White House in which a gay couple stood on the nominating platform with the presidential candidate, when the First Lady when asked if she would allow a gay couple in the White House answered, quite calmly, said she was sure many such couples had stayed there. But I must acknowledge my friends have a point. They feel something they know should be acknowledged: partnership, affection, duty. Besides, marriage has been tattered and torn. Some confuse weddings with marriage, rights with duties, conjugal responsibilities with conjugal visits, buying houses with raising children, keeping the core institution of society strong with being a social “couple.” But, then, so do a lot of heterosexuals.
The long history of marriage is of an institution that raises the next generation and transmits the community’s values. Arranged marriages, loveless marriages – those were marriages. But, now, this transmission is less important; indeed, in most western culture the replacement rate has dropped well below 2.1; on the other hand, surrogate mothers and test tube babies, in vitro fertilization and sperm donors – the babies we do have seem less connected to those old definitions of marriage. That many gays don’t see this as remarkable & ahistorical means they don’t really understand marriage, but, we all tend to see the world through the prism of our own time. And if what passes for marriage among heterosexuals is held up as definition, we can hardly blame homosexuals for making some of the arguments they do. I don’t expect homosexuals to feel it, but I suspect the defense of marriage is less inspired by antipathy for them than a sense it is the last of a series of bewildering changes. Having lost our anchor in the biological, we fear the swift currents tugging at our fragile boats.
Of course, some is antipathy – we fear the unknown. And some have led remarkably segregated lives: for some, the gay life is radically different; for some gays, the traditional family is. Listening to some “focus on the family” types or watching a few well-reviewed movies or art exhibition may make us suspect these two groups don’t live on the same planet. Both feel threatened – and that stokes fear. These thoughts have been brought on by one of those chance confluences: a letter from an old friend and a newer friend’s loan of Bruce Bawer’s book, While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within.
The letter arrived from a friend from freshman English, forty-four years ago; he was my closest confidante through a series of disastrous love affairs but also because we could discuss literature and character and the ethical questions Henry James posed until dawn lightened the windows. He remarked in a letter as we slowly reach out to one another after so many years apart, that he, as a gay man, can only find acceptance in an anarchic socialist world, but of course, he says, I’ve become conservative, matronly, a suburban wife and mother. He isn’t critical but rather accepts that we’ve become different people than we were. I pause at his remark and recognize its truth. On the one hand, I understand that some & some customs of the world through which I move would make him uneasy, make him feel an outsider. Still, he enjoys his quiet life, having mated and stayed with his “significant other” for well over forty years, buying a house on a quiet street. I can’t, of course, imagine him finding peace in a world that is truly anarchic; certainly, he could not find the peace he has found in American capitalism in the practices that the Muslim minorities practice (and encourage) in socialist Europe. His partner’s success has been important and conventional. His triumphs are public.
So, when my friend asks, how could I become a neo-con, I think, how could I not? It is because of you and your partner, because of my daughters, because of a world I see threatening to you and those like you. Where you see socialist acceptance, I see a phony peace. At the hinge of the 70’s, I took a “homophile” course and spent a semester on Isherwood. I keep remembering his work of the late thirties: facile and shifting and blinking at what was going on. And I think of Beirut and the Cole and all the years between. And I think, well, I’ve wakened – have you?
I’ve come to appreciate the conventional and to distrust the dramatic gesture, but I know that the foundation of our rights & laws protects him in his house across the country as it does me in mine. I feel less that I’ve compromised than found a place where the values I always held can be expressed. (Actually even in those days I would say that was what I wanted, but few thought I’d achieve it, laughing at my protestations.) But some of those are values he, too, counts on. The universal still ties us – a respect for a western tradition, rights, liberties, individualism. We speak to each other with some difficulty; in some ways we have grown apart, but our vocabulary is not that different. Of course, I suspect, from his tone, that he, too, while still a bit entertained by his friends’ drama, relishes his domestic tranquility. He and his partner have worked hard to offer an oasis, a safe place for those tired of the drama.
And I think of how that gay couple would be viewed, how my daughters would be viewed in the future Bawer fears. The thought is not a happy one. Of course, I also wonder what drives a society to imprison, untutored and beaten, half its population, to kill another 5%. Of course, it fetters the minds of that remaining 45%, arguing death is preferable to life. To us, this seems immoral. I suspect it is also impractical (as Americans we also share an affection for the pragmatic – and we recognize that Sharia law isn’t that). In our society, all can be productive and vigorous and creative. In general, the oft-repeated argument that that society prefers death and we don’t doesn’t seem to me to make spiritual sense or moral sense; less important, perhaps, is that it doesn’t make material or economic sense. It is one of many reasons I can’t but believe in any coming contest, the society that uses (and respects) all its members is likely to be more successful.
Understanding what we’ve gained, I have become conservative. What we’ve gained, in part, is a greater openness about homosexuality. My neo-con sentiments arose in part from their importance in my life and that of our society. Some of my best employees were gay, ones who made the early years of my business fun as well as endurable. Two of my husband’s closest friends, waiting until their late forties, acknowledged what we’d assumed all along. For these people, we wanted the best – and the best, as we understood it and perhaps as they did, too – was a meaningful relationship, someone with whom they could walk through life (in that wonderful explication of fairy stories by Bettelheim, who seemed to truly understand our human nature).
So, the memory of these men, my affection for them and the importance they held in my life has been one of the reasons that, since 9/11, I’ve become so conservative. Of course, my affection for America and for American literature has sharpened a feeling that is, I guess, patriotism; it is inspired by the passion of and respect for the works I teach. And, of course, the nearer I come to being a grandmother the more I want those children to be brought up in a world in which they can stride joyfully down the street, feeling none of the restraint of Sharia law. The more I want music and tolerance and dancing to be a part of their lives; the more I want books and speculative thought and wit to be expressed in a daily and natural way. And, frankly, the less interest I have in speculative sympathies for the kind of rigidity of radical Islam. I want my daughters and my granddaughters to enjoy sex; I want my grandsons to see it as a mutual joy, not a bitter and sadistic pleasure. Of course, my heterosexuality, my connection by blood to those generations, has led me to a stronger and more conservative stance.
I certainly want for my children a maturity, an imagination, a freedom from obsession that they would be hard pressed to find in a society that encourages the immaturity and willfulness Bruce Bawer describes. One of the least violent but most evocative passages is the one in which he describes “a catalog of refusals” by Muslim students reported by the French Ministry of Education.
Increasingly, Muslim students were refusing to sing, dance, participate in sports, draw a face, or play an instrument (all of which have been permitted by Islam in the past, but not by the fundamentalists now dominant in Europe). They refused to eat school cafeteria food that isn’t halal (that is, prepared according to sharia law) and refused to draw a right angle in math class because it looks like part of the Christian cross. They refused to swim because they didn’t want to be polluted by “infidels’ water.” They refused to read Enlightenment authors such as Voltaire and Rousseau because they’re antireligion, Cyrano de Bergerac because it’s too racy, Madame Bovary because it promotes women’s rights, and Chrétien de Troyes because, it’s, well Chrétien. They refused to accept basic facts of Christian and Jewish history and they rejected outright the existence of pre-Islamic religions in Egypt. Many refused to learn English because it’s “the vehicle of imperialism” (an opinion one can imagine many of their teachers sharing). (209)
The report, Bawer says “noted the powerful influence on pupils of young Muslim intellectuals whom they look up to as “big brothers” and who teach them to think of themselves solely as Muslims, not French.” But we recognize in so much of this the fear of – and obsessive temptation by – anything that might distract the mind. Surely, the effect, like such radical Muslim’s attitude toward sex & fully hidden women, must be not unlike being told never to think of an arctic bear while sitting in a straight-backed chair before a white wall for an hour. Most of us, brought up in a Christian society, would seldom think of right angles in terms of the Christian cross.
It is easier to believe others tempt us than within us are desires we must (and with difficulty) control. To many, the shift from the Old Testament to the New may be theologically one of grace, but is also from the tribal to the universal, from the external to the internal. Whether this is the lesson of the Bible or of the slowly modernizing world, it is clearly one that restrains us in ways that those who see temptation in a right angle can not understand and leads to quite different understandings of guilt. The man’s lust, we believe, not the woman’s clothing, causes rape. This and so much else is the mark of a value system internalized and assumed universal. We think it is right. Sure this assumption of a certain universality may impose upon others, but it is more practical than narrow: it is also the only way that people with varying beliefs can easily live beside one another.
And thanks to Jewish psychologists, we began to find words for this internalization, as well as a dawning sense of the barely conscious nature of our desires and fears. This is the secret of stream-of-consciousness narratives – a character thinks around and around and around until finally, at the story’s climax, we realize what hasn’t been spoken but has always been at the obsessive center. But we, too, blink. We sense the fragility, the temporary nature of civilization. But, we don’t want to face that fact; it is much easier to project on Bush the cause of our unease.
The fear is greater in Europe because they must fear – how can they not – that the violence lurking beneath (not so far beneath of course) the burning of the cars in Paris is the burning of Paris. Their dark past is not so long ago, after all, and their present chaos not so far away. And what lurks within those rampaging youths lurks within them as well. Much that Bawer describes is of a barely contained violence, a violence of words, of symbolic actions, and sometimes of quite terribly real ones – the knife through van Gogh’s chest holding the note, Pim Fortuyn’s assassination. Reality is scary and reactions irrational if we begin with that list of “refusals” and view it as we do, in terms of the internalized. How does the Parisian deal with the craziness of the Muslim – how does the Muslim deal with modernity when his leaders speak of a seventh century utopia? What doesn’t each want to know about himself?
Living in Scandinavia, this danger is not lost on Bawer. Few are as philosophical as Lee Harris, but Bawer writes clearly and his tone is remarkably reasonable; he comes off as a thoughtful, interesting & companionable person who appreciates Europe far more and far more thoughtfully than most – but he sees that the virtues he appreciates nurtured a passivity he finds less attractive. As page after page piles on examples, the reader is struck by the horrible quantity and reductive similarity of reactions – ones seldom heartening. He divides the book into three chapters (though the division is not always neat): “Before 9/11: Europe in Denial”; “9/11 and After: Blaming the Jews”; and “Europe’s Weimar Moment: The Liberal Resistance and Its Prospects.” Weimar does not, of course, indicate optimism.
He begins with the murder of Theodore van Gogh, returning to it again and again. Although he has settled into Norway, he first moved to the Netherlands; his joy at a slow mastery of Dutch and a delight in Amsterdam are palpable. Within a few pages, he tells us why he cares about what Holland can become – what he sees as lost by passivity and accommodation. He describes the quiet pleasures of life in this quite different culture in which he, already apparently a quite mature man, immersed himself.
Amsterdam seemed to me the leading edge of a world that has moved beyond bigotry. It was the one place I’d ever been where homophobia really seemed to have disappeared. When groups of straight teenage boys walked by the open door of a gay bar, they didn’t yell “faggot”; they didn’t elbow one anther and point and make nervous jokes, they didn’t show any discomfort or anger at all. They just walked by. It was remarkable. (8)
But it wasn’t merely Amsterdam’s sexual openness, much about the culture was attractive:
Then there was gezelligheid, a cherished value in the Netherlands, as it is, under different names, in much of northern Europe. Ask a Dutchman what gezellig means and he’ll tell you proudly that it’s untranslatable – it describes a concept so essentially Dutch that it can’t be rendered into English. The dictionary offers these equivalents: “enjoyable,” “pleasant,” “companionable,” “social.” . . . . The Dutch [unlike Americans] are more appreciative of and satisfied with everyday pleasures; they aren’t reaching for the unattainable; nor do they feel compelled to claim more for a person or experience than it merits. (9)
He describes the Dutch who “attend to the present moment and its small rewards.” This, of course, comes closer to the rewards of domesticity that I – and to some extent my old gay friend – found as we reached middle age. But where that is sometimes expressed in fairly conventional religious loyalties, in Scandinavian countries it is bound to a Dutch secularism. Bawer welcomes this, coming directly from research for his earlier work, Stealing Jesus. He tells us
this project had obliged me to immerse myself in American fundamentalism, and I hadn’t quite gotten over it – the claustrophobic narrowness of its conception of the divine, its adherents’ breathtaking combination of historical ignorance and theological certitude, and its dispiriting view of religion as a means not of engaging life’s mysteries but of denying and dispelling them through a ludicrously literal-mined reading of scripture (9).
Of course, as he comes to realize, this celebration of the domestic has its charm but its own claustrophobia. He continues, page after page, assembling compromises and toothless responses, hypocrisy and weakness as Western values are besieged by Islamic codes that we thought we’d moved beyond millennium ago. These fully intend to first marginalize and then destroy productive, useful lives. Resistance, truth-telling are important. So, again, when my friend asks, how could you become a neo-con, I ask, how can you not? The modern neo-con fights against those who would deprive the world of productivity and spirit, that would destroy you. Theirs would be a world without the expressive stride of a woman down the street; it would be a world without you.
And, so, this love of the small things, this love of peace may have been bought at too great a price, the diminution of these graceful moments leads to a diminution of the values they embody. Certainly Bawer sees that pattern. Europe values the comfortable, the amiable. We are more belligerent, more accustomed to confrontation. And we listen to the voice within and it is often willful and it is often rebellious. Quite often, of course, it is wrong. But we are accustomed to listening to it, to a rough and open marketplace. Really, our tradition is individualism and rebellion. We always think we know better – than our parents, our children, our society, our church, our government. Melville describes Hawthorne (and, perhaps more so, himself):
He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no, — why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unencumbered travelers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag, — that is to say, the Ego.
No one would have convinced Melville that the world Bawer saw as utopian was, indeed, ideal. But, then, of course, in the end Bawer doesn’t believe so, either.
Perhaps we are more comfortable with argument, since it is a long tradition here. And we weren’t marched over in the twentieth century. Or perhaps the devastation of our Civil War taught us a lesson. We are like an old married couple – well used to fighting but understanding that it needn’t lead to violence nor divorce.
But despite Bawer’s appreciation of the Dutch, his conclusion is ominous:
The irony was tragic: having protected themselves with nothing short of genius from the violence of the sea, having instituted a welfare system meant to safeguard every last one of them from so much as a moment’s financial insecurity, and having built up a culture of extraordinary freedom and tolerance that promised each of them a life of absolute dignity and perfect equality, postwar Dutch men and women had raised up their children into tall, strapping, healthy, multilingual young adults – veritable masters of the world for whom (they were confident) life would be safe, pleasant, and abundant in its rewards. They seemed to have brought Western civilization to its utmost pinnacle in terms of freedom and the pursuit of happiness, and the road ahead, very much like the actual roads in the Netherlands, seemed to stretch to the horizon, straight, flat, smooth, and with nary a bump.
And yet they’d turned a blind eye to the very peril that would destroy them. (237)
But rather than leaving this with his close, I’d like to go back a couple of pages to his “suggestions.” I quoted some in an earlier post, but we so seldom see an argument to do, they are worth repeating. Bawer observes:
A couple of suggestions may be in order. When visiting Europe, many Americans, to avoid discomfort and court easy praise, take every opportunity to put down their country in terms designed to gratify European sensibilities and reinforce European stereotypes. Those who do this are traitors – not to America, but to the truth, to themselves, and to their interlocutors – and should cut it out. All their lives, Europeans have been fed a severely distorted image of America that has poisoned their minds against the very values that might save them; every conversation between an American and a European is a precious opportunity to challenge that image and give Europeans something to think about, believe in, and act on.
It strikes me as perverse that current U.S. immigration policy penalizes Western Europeans. I know plenty of America-friendly Europeans who’d move to America in a heartbeat. The United States should let them in. Educated, law-abiding, ambitious, fluent in English and gung-ho about American values, they’d be a terrific asset to their new nation. (235)
He also would encourage more high-school exchanges. Certainly, the two young Germanic girls who lived with us have appeared to see America quite differently after a year of life in an often chaotic and not always charming suburban household. Indeed, the father of one appeared was disappointed his daughter returned with a certain pride in Texas and a sense that being a Texan, even one like George Bush, is not necessarily a terrible thing.
So, it is a bit my job in this life to do what he suggests – not to put letters aside, not to let remarks go by. A young narcissist, I moved between the guys I dated and my friends in a kind of perpetual self-absorption. I’m too old for that now. But I, too, prefer peace and quiet sociability. What my two worlds think they “know” is not always true. And I have become conservative because of my sense of universality, an extension that leads to sympathy for those threatened thousands of miles away. And, reading the examples Bawer piles up, listening to threats spoken and implied, I know that while the worst may not be realized in Europe nor here, the threats are real. They diminish the human spirit. We didn’t spend those long and bloody millennia not learning anything – we spent them learning to grow that spirit, to encourage it. And losing what we learned is something we shouldn’t blink at. It may not happen here – but it is happening elsewhere. And the threat is a truth we need to acknowledge, whatever amiability it may cost.