Friday, September 17, 2004

Why I Am Not A Libertarian

Lately, some people have accused me of becoming a "single-issue voter." If I were such a fellow, I think my issue would be the fate of same-sex marriage under the Federal Marriage Amendment. This particular debate involves questions of federalism, the role of government, the meaning of "equal protection under the law," and the centuries-old conflict between autocratic religion and individual liberty. For anyone interested in the future of our country -- and whether it will be republican or totalitarian -- these questions demand close attention.

George W. Bush wants to expand the size and role of government, even in my own bedroom. John Kerry is no better: He doesn't want to ban same-sex marriage, but he doesn't believe Gays and Lesbians should enjoy equal protection under the law, either. The advantage of electing Kerry as President would be that any tax increase or social programhe might propose would be rejected out of hand by a Republican Congress. But that's small comfort at best.

The only candidate on Virginia's presidential ballot who supports full legal recognition and equality for same-sex couples, as well as basic economic freedom for everybody, is the Libertarian Party nominee, Michael Badnarik. I can't vote for him, either.

Badnarik has been in Charlottesville for much of the week, and spoke Tuesday night at the University of Virginia. The first thing I noticed about the candidate is that he doesn't seem like presidential material. The material, and the delivery, remind me of a city councillor, or a state legislator, rather than a candidate for national office. Still, his soundbites are pretty good, as these things go:

"Anywhere I happen to be standing is a free-speech zone."
"A gun permit is just as ludicrous as a church permit -- and I don't need no stinking permits."
"[The Transportation Security Administration] is not security, it is a passenger-inconvenience plan."
"We need to get the government out of the economy."
"Anytime you want to decrease the cost of a service and increase the quality, you need to privatize it."

All of which are true, or at least true enough. But Badnarik simply falls apart on the topic of foreign policy, a fault common to hard-core libertarians. These people believe the government doesn't have the constitutional authority to print dollar bills, for heaven's sake, so naturally something like a standing army would be beyond the pale. (Since the Constitution makes no mention of an Air Force -- airplanes not having been invented in the time of the Framers -- one wonders what Badnarik would do with our F-15s.) Of course, when the Constitution was written, we were the only European-style "nation" on two American continents. We didn't offer much provision for a "common defense," because with the Atlantic Ocean on one side, and a howling wilderness on the other, we figured we had all the defense we'd ever need. My, how things have changed over the centuries.

Badnarik seems to have no grasp whatsoever of terrorism, the most basic international issue for this election year. His approach to fighting terrorism is "not to stir any more up." How he could achieve this, short of converting America into an Islamist theocracy, is unclear: Many terrorists are so incensed at the thought that a nation like America even exists, that nothing short of our complete destruction could satisfy them. Still, Badnarik has proposed a few intermediate steps. He promises that as president, he will pull American troops out of Iraq not in four years, as Kerry claims, but in a few months. It would be an instant and complete withdrawal, just like Bill Clinton's speedy pullout from Somalia. History reminds us that once we abandoned Mogadishu, the al-Qaida terrorist network felt free to attack American targets worldwide for nearly a decade, culminating with the horrific WTC and Pentagon attacks of 2001. Badnarik can't explain why a sudden withdrawal from Iraq won't inspire half a dozen other terrorist groups to do exactly what al Qaida did.

Badnarik's analysis of the conflict in Iraq boils down to a single sentence: "We are addicted to oil." His theories about The War could have come straight out of Fahrenheit 9/11, and his rhetoric is strikingly similar to the "No Blood for Oil" crowd. He rehashes discredited theories on Afghani gas pipelines, industry subsidies, and oil acquisition, all of which have been pretty thoroughly discredited. Badnarik, a professor at University of Texas at Austin, still believes this stuff, and small wonder: In Austin as in Charlottesville, the anti-war movement isn't a bunch of kooks, communists, and burned-out hippies; they're the majority. College towns are leftist enclaves in red-state America. Which explains why people who live in college towns, like Badnarik (or like myself, if I didn't travel fairly often), have a deeply distorted sense of the American political mainstream.

After the program, I asked Badnarik if he could tell me how much of America's oil came from Iraq, percentage-wise. He told me that he couldn't, which surprised me not at all. Most people who claim that the Iraq war was about oil don't know how little of our oil actually comes from there. Since you, gentle reader, deserve to be better informed than a mere presidential candidate, I'll offer the following historical tidbit as a public service: In 2002, Iraq provided less than three percent of the oil used in the US. Principal buyers of Iraqi oil prior to the conflict included France, Germany, China and Russia -- all of whom opposed the current conflict. But as far as world markets are concerned, Iraq isn't much of a player. France may need Iraqi oil, but America doesn't.

I consider myself a "limited-government conservative" rather than a "libertarian." Unlike most conservatives nowadays, I value individual liberty and smaller government. Unlike many libertarians and almost all left-liberals, I also value national security, and would rather fight global terrorism than appease it. There are no candidates in this presidential election who reflect this position in even a broad, ballpark sense. Neither major party possesses a shred of fiscal responsibility, let alone a belief in less intrusive government. One candidate wishes to crush American citizens (including Gays and Lesbians) under the iron heel of a borderline-theocratic police state, while the other would bankrupt us with ever-increasing entitlements and exponentially higher taxes.

So when Badnarik claims that "If you vote for the Democrats or Republicans, you are committing political suicide," he's absolutely correct. But a vote for Badnarik would also be "political suicide," because his strategy of appeasement would almost certainly lead to massive terrorist attacks. So when it comes to this year's Presidential election, my choice will have to be a write-in: "None of the above." I figure if it was good enough for Chile, it's good enough for me.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


Coming out to my parents was probably the biggest mistake of my life.

I did it so badly, in fact, that I had to do it three times. The first time was a trial run over the phone with my mother, which I stopped when I heard how distressed she was. I must have been twenty-two or twenty-three then. The second time occurred a few years later, when I had moved into my own place. My mother and father pretended to be nonchalant over the matter, but they were physically ill for a few weeks afterward. The third time -- well, the reaction was about as bad as it could get, and it kicked off the worst six months of my life (to date). I can still remember every word they said, as they described the length, width and depth of their disappointment. Someday I may be able to write about it.

During that awful time, I was becoming a bush-league Gay activist, which is about the loneliest, worst-paid, most depressing occupation a human being can undertake. I edited, wrote, and solicited ads for an eight-page monthly newsletter, and from September 1998 to August 1999, it was the only news-oriented GLBT publication in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I was hoping this paper would become a full-fledged nonprofit organization, supported with local ad revenue and staffed by volunteers. A few people joined up and helped out from time to time; still, a former boyfriend and I ended up doing most of the regular work.

Actually, "regular" might be the wrong word to describe this work. Although we wanted to be a monthly newsletter, it would occasionally take us a month and a half before we could put an issue together. (I think we managed to publish twelve issues over eighteen months.) During this time, I had no personal life -- I didn't feel I had the right to it while so many were suffering. And believe me, I saw plenty of human suffering: While editing the newsletter, I covered three sex stings, a disheartening session of the Virginia General Assembly, and a campaign of Lesbian-bashing at a local women's college.

I didn't report most of what I saw. There was one Gay man who had been kicked in the head with a steel-toed boot until his skull caved in. (His body was left near a dumpster, until someone realized he was still breathing and called an ambulance.) When I met this guy, it had been three years since he was attacked: He had some brain damage and a steel plate in his head, but his attackers were all free and clear. A sweet-natured, diminutive Lesbian cowered in fear, the right side of her face swollen and purple, because one of her fellow students had thrown a rock and hit her. But most of the casualties I met were self-inflicted. You'd be amazed to find out just how many Gay people in the Bible Belt slit their wrists, shoot themselves in the head, or take a swan dive from the local parking garage. I know, because I've seen their scars.

By the time I quit Gay activism -- only a year and a half after I started -- I was nearly ready to join them for a long dirt nap. GLBT news in Virginia was always bad back then, and it's even worse today. True, the state's sodomy law has been ruled unconstitutional, but it's still on the books ("as a statement," lawmakers claim), and a few renegade police departments continue to enforce it. And this year, Virginia enacted the most restrictive anti-Gay law in the nation, denying same-sex couples their constitutional right to private contract. What galls me most about all of this, I think, is our lawmakers' callous assumption that Gays and Lesbians haven't suffered enough with their friends, families, schools and society: The government itself must also step in, to throw a few more stones and ensure that we're attacked from absolutely every side. Thanks to them, more Gay and Lesbian people will die -- whether by another's hand or by their own.

Recently I spent a week with parents and extended family. I haven't come out to my aunts, uncles or cousins, and I doubt I ever will. Our loving clan, suspicious as they are of any man who hasn't married by the age of twenty-five, let alone thirty-two, contrive to voice their disapproval of homosexuality at every family event. I figure that if I were to come out to some of these people, my particular branch of the family tree might find itself unceremoniously hewn away: A Gay son makes an adequate pariah when nothing better can be found. The change might not affect me so much, but it would devastate my parents.

All the same, during a recent visit with my aunt Sarah, my dad did something I would never have expected. Sarah has a lovely baby daughter, who will never so much as lay eyes on Barney the Dinosaur if her mother can help it. My aunt explained, "I heard about how Barney was leading this 'pride parade' in Boston and saying that it's okay for kids to have two mommies or two daddies, and I just decided that Barney can go burn in Hell, because that's what all them fags are going to do." She had probably confused the purple dinosaur with another "Barney" from Boston. To my knowledge, no Gay Pride event has ever featured a children's television mascot.

"I don't know about that," my dad said hesitantly, almost mumbling. "The Bible says, Judge not, lest ye be not judged [sic]. The Lord's going to decide that, not you or me." There was a brief, tense pause: Dad had snipped the green wire, and just when my mother and I thought everything was ready to go BOOM ... nothing happened. "I guess you're right," Sarah said. My mother gave me a deeply wounded look, as if to say, This is all your fault. Do you see what you're doing to us?

From what I could tell, I hadn't managed to do much at all. Jesus, the old saying goes, will have you hot or cold. My dad's response, however, struck me as lukewarm, condescending, even insulting. It was better than my own stunned silence, but only by default. His words advocated tolerance, without the slightest shred of love, acceptance or understanding, and I was deeply discouraged to find that after all these years, he was seemingly so little altered. Still, after some reflection, I realized that this was the first time I had ever heard my father speak a not-unkind word in my presence about Gay people -- and therefore, about me as a Gay man. I suppose that made it a watershed moment, of a sort.

Frankly, I haven't thanked my dad for defusing the bomb in our midst, and it might not be a good idea if I did. Given what he thinks of me and my sexuality, a gesture of gratitude might touch off another angry tirade, like the last time I came out. But I should probably thank him anyway, for my own sake if no one else's.

Even though coming out to my parents may have been the biggest mistake of my life, I probably would do it again if I had to. I can't say the same for my GLBT activism, though from time to time I wonder whether my own work might have helped another Gay man to talk with his family, as I've tried to talk with mine. If so, I hope his coming out went better than mine did -- and yet, with all those times I failed to reach my own kith and kin, perhaps I managed to plant some seed of acceptance within them, too.

That seed, if it exists, must be small as a grain of mustard -- though I'm told that under the right conditions, a grain of mustard can be powerful as faith. Tiny seeds have been known to sprout in unexpected places. Perhaps, one day, a few of those seeds may even take root in Virginia.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Huked on Fonix

In today's National Review Online, retired newspaperman Sidney Goldberg levels a harsh new complaint against the New York Times: Apparently, our national "paper of record" doesn't know how to spell simple words, like "lectern" and "effect."

In the interests of full disclosure, I'll confess that I'm not entirely innocent of orthographic errors myself. I tend to confuse the words "capitol" and "capital" (the former refers to a legislative building, the latter to everything else -- I think). Worse yet, I commit occasional typos, which I silently amend once some enterprising reader discovers them. But at least I've managed to grasp the profound difference between "affect" and "effect," as well as the increasingly arcane distinction between "ensure" and "insure."

I don't have 150 copy editors to pore over every inch of my prose, either. (Pouring them could be messy.)

Still, I'm not surprised that the Gray Lady (or is it Grey?) has had some difficulty minding her p's and q's, so to speak. Despite advances in computer technology -- spellcheckers, thesaurii, grammar-checkers -- the business of copy-editing must still be done by hand, preferably with hard copy and red pencil at the ready. And copy-editing is often done by folks who spend all day at the grindstone, with predictable results: After a few hours of painstaking labor, the eyes glaze over, the brain freezes up, and even the most glaring grammatical errors pass unnoticed and unchecked. This is why the nuts and bolts of prosework are dependably handed to an institution's bottom-feeders: Professors delegate Freshman Comp to lowly grad students; reporters fob off hastily scrawled copy to disgruntled underlings. Heat rises, the proverb tells us, but excrement rolls downhill.

Which is why I suspect -- without, alas, any hard evidence to back me up -- that much copy-editing at the NYT is performed by college students, or by fairly recent recent college graduates. Who else, I ask, would spell the word lectern with a U? Of course, if you think about it, "lecturn" makes a certain cockeyed sense: The second syllable is pronounced with a "schwa" -- the bane of my elementary school education, represented by an upside-down e, but sounding like a short U. So this particular misspelling is attributable to nothing more (or less) than simple phonics: Turn, Downturn, Lecturn. Surely some "inturn" must have been responsible for that.

Back when I was a writing teacher, I noticed that quite a few of my students couldn't spell. The problem wasn't that they were illiterate or unintelligent, or that they didn't pay sufficient attention to detail. Some of my worst spellers were solid thinkers and conscientious workers. But they had, at bottom, a mistaken impression of the English language. These students had been taught to read according to the Phonics (a.k.a Fonix) method, which gave them the impression that English "reads like it spells like it sounds."

Now if your object is teaching a child to read (particularly a child of five or six, who understands the concept of systematized knowledge), phonics instruction has one major advantage: Children tend to view language as a spoken event, and phonics makes an easy one-to-one comparison between the spoken word and the written one. Phonics stresses what children already know (or think they know) about language, and therefore makes an effective shortcut to basic literacy.

Yet when it comes to the activity of writing, phonics instruction puts English-speaking children at a distinct disadvantage, because English is not a phonetic language. Spanish is phonetic, and so are most Latinate languages: With a few exceptions, words are spelled according to the way they sound. But with English, phonetic exceptions frequently outnumber the rules, as Greek and Latinate roots combine with German grammar to produce an unsightly linguistic hybrid. The result is unstable, irregular and as prone to malfunctions as your average PC computer. I'm told that of all the languages in the world, only Mandarin Chinese is tougher to master than English -- which is why I doubt I'll visit China anytime soon.

True, phonics can teach children how to connect the written word to the spoken one. But it also implies that the process is reversible, which is where American children (and adults) always get into trouble. In the awful English language, "sounding the word out" is no guarantee of even approximate orthographic rectitude. Just try to spell "fuh-LAT-uh-lee" or "nee-MON-ic" without a working knowledge of Greek roots, and see how far you get. (The answers, in case you're wondering, are "philately" and "mnemonic," respectively.) When children have to connect spoken words to written ones, the advantages of whole-language instruction become more and more apparent: Children raised with "whole language" don't have to unlearn everything they've been taught about phonics in order to write and spell correctly.

Ironically, in our rush to help children become better readers, we may be raising a generation of chronic -- or as the Times might spell it, "kronik" -- misspellers. In this case, for once, the poor Gray Lady isn't to blame for its egregious errors. After all, it has only reaped what our schools have sown.

Or is it sewn?

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