Friday, October 15, 2004

MaryGate: The smear takes hold

In case you didn't know by now, gentle readers, Edwards and Kerry have managed to make one point clear over the past three debates: Mary Cheney, the vice-president's thirty-five year old daughter, is a Lesbian.

Got that? Good.

The morning after the vice-presidential debate, I claimed that Edwards's mention of Mary's sexual orientation might not be an attempt to expose the GOP's secret tolerance of sexual deviants. The attack ran much deeper than that, calling into question Dick Cheney's love for his daughter. I still believe that Kerry's remarks during the final presidential debate skirted this issue, since they were directed at Bush, not Cheney. But Kerry's attempt to speak on Mary's behalf must have been galling, especially since Ms. Cheney has proven time and again that she can stand up for herself and her partner quite effectively.

After a week and a half, Lynne and Dick Cheney have finally sensed that all this talk about their daughter's sexuality is, in fact, a Democratic ploy to use their family as a wedge issue. They're not happy. Lynne stated, "Now, you know, I did have a chance to assess John Kerry once more and now the only thing I could conclude: This is not a good man. Of course, I am speaking as a mom, and a pretty indignant mom. ... What a cheap and tawdry political trick." Dick Cheney took the same tack: "'You saw a man who will do and say anything to get elected. And I am not just speaking as a father here, although I am a pretty angry father.''

Naturally, it fell to Lizzie Edwards -- possibly our next Second Lady -- to repeat the vicious slur that her husband introduced obliquely during the vice-presidential debate. If anyone doubted for a moment that Edwards and Kerry intended to disparage the Cheneys' relationship with their daughter, Lizzie provided unshakable proof. "I think that it indicates a certain degree of shame with respect to her daughter's sexual preferences," said the trial lawyer's wife. "It makes me really sad that that's Lynne's response." Unlike her husband, Lizzie is not adept at saying one thing and insinuating another. Instead of using the Edwards qualifier "I think" to undermine an apparently positive statement, as John did last week, Lizzie uses it to build a little personal courage before advancing the main attack. What she lacked in style, she made up for in bluntness. She has presented the basic issue of "MaryGate" in language plain as day: Lynne Cheney is "ashamed" of her daughter, therefore a bad mother. (Which also makes Dick Cheney a bad father, and taints the GOP ticket with the toxin of failed parenthood.)

Now Lynne Cheney has a few things in her life to be ashamed of -- for example, her godawful 1981 novel Sisters, about two Lesbians in the Old West who fall in love and make a home in the wilderness. Mary must have been eleven or twelve years old as Lynne wrote it, precisely the age at which sensitive, understanding parents of Gay children begin to notice something out of the ordinary. Might this book have been Lynne's attempt, unsuccessful at the time, to come to terms with Mary's sexuality? Could the two loving, nurturing women in the novel represent a mother's hope that her Lesbian daughter will find happiness, contentment and stability? Whatever Sisters represents for Lynne Cheney personally, it doesn't seem to connote any lingering shame over Lesbian sexuality. If anything, it feels like an attempt to justify that sexuality to herself and to her readers.

But even without Sisters, I'm inclined to doubt the Kerry-Edwards smear against the Cheneys. After all, Mary herself provides abundant evidence against it. She is successful; she's in a stable, long-term relationship; she appears with her partner at GOP events (and, one presumes, more private family get-togethers); she seems focused, centered, confident and well-grounded. She seems to prefer behind-the-scenes activity to actual public speaking, but there's certainly no harm in that: Not everyone wants to take center stage. (Certainly her father doesn't, if his public demeanor is any indication.) For my part, I can testify that I've met thousands of Gays and Lesbians from coast to coast, and know far too many children whose parents were ashamed and angry at them. When parents are ashamed of their children, the children don't turn out like Mary Cheney.

But then there's the nagging question: If the Cheney's aren't ashamed of Mary's sexual orientation, why do they object to John Kerry bringing it up? This, I think, is largely a cultural matter. Dick Cheney hails from Wyoming, where privacy is paramount, and family matters are usually considered off-limits. Even if the neighbors don't approve of Gay people in their midst (as they usually don't), it's considered bad form for them to bring up the matter in public. This profoundly libertarian attitude toward personal relationships means that when it comes to hate-crimes legislation or same-sex marriage, Gays and Lesbians in the Great Plains don't share the views of the bicoastal, urban Gay-rights establishment. Instead, they view these matters much as Dick Cheney does: Their life or lifestyle, whatever it may be, is nobody's G.D. business but their own.

So the Kerry-Edwards campaign has used the Cheney family to score a few political points, without the Cheneys' implied or expressed consent. The Cheneys, in turn, have defended their right to keep private matters private, and haven't breathed so much as a word of anti-Gay rhetoric about their daughter. The advantage, once again, goes to Dick Cheney. Busybody politics might be acceptable in the world of presidential politics, but I get the sense it might not fare so well among Wyoming's heavily armed, unfailingly polite society. On the whole, the "Equality State" might be a pretty good place for Gay people to live.

Update: Andrew Sullivan can't see this issue in the same light. He's right to note the strong undercurrent of heterosexism working in Dick Cheney's favor. He's also right to note that too many Americans see the Cheneys' Lesbian daughter as a family tragedy -- like a dead son or an ailing mother-in-law. Cheney hasn't said anything to encourage this particular reaction, though he hasn't exactly discouraged it, either. That said, Sullivan has projected homophobic motives onto Cheney that the evidence simply can't support. I suspect the primal, resonating theme of "MaryGate" -- namely, that parents often fail to love their Gay children -- may have led him to replay a grudge or two against his own kin.

Many GLBT activists, myself included, fall into this trap all the time.

A moment, then, for reflection: Gay politics, as it stands now, seems little more than a psychological struggle played out in the political arena, and the results are pretty disastrous for everyone. Our efforts seem to focus on the psychological need for governmental recognition as a "protected class," rather than on the basic Constitutional principle of "equal access" to civil institutions like marriage and military service. I don't see a hope for our political efforts to move beyond mere psychodrama in the foreseeable future, especially since the terms of that drama have been too firmly fixed in our consciousness. Today's GOP has assumed the role of "Bad Parent" all too well, with its often-successful attempts to strip Gays and Lesbians of our rightful place within the American Family. But the "Abusive Husbands" of the Democratic Party conceal nasty tempers beneath their come-hither smile. Having been battered under Clinton, Gay voters might want to think twice before running to Kerry.

One reason there may not be a simple political solution to this problem, is that the problem may not be political in nature. Of late, I've begun to think of federal, state and local governments not as partners or parents, but as negligent parties in an ongoing contract dispute. It's pretty clear to anyone who's looked at the issue that they have failed to meet contractual (i.e., constitutional) obligations toward Gay and Lesbian citizens -- particularly with regard to that pesky clause in the Fourteenth Amendment about "equal protection under the law." America's theocrats may claim that governments should not honor this contract with Gay and Lesbian citizens because the Bible would frown on it. More secular social conservatives might claim that Gay and Lesbian citizens are mentally or physically disabled, in a manner which releases government from its contractual obligations toward them, or that the government would place itself in peril if it were to fulfill said obligations. Legally, these secular objections would be legitimate, if they could be proven. But since social conservatives have produced no reliable evidence to support them, neither the Bible, the Qu'ran, nor any religious, political or polemical text, save the fundamental contract that our government has made to every citizen, can have any further part in this debate. Under the rule of law, a contract is a contract is a contract, and a king is no less bound to his agreement than the lowest serf would be to hers. This may explain why almost every meaningful civil-rights victory for GLBT people has occurred through the judiciary, rather than through legislators or chief executives: A judge can hold even a government to its contractual bond.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Dead Shall Rise and Walk the Earth

On October 10, John Edwards informed a group of Iowa voters:

Well, if we can do the work that we can do in this country -- the work we will do when John Kerry is president -- people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk. Get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.

By the time Edwards made his comment, Reeve was either comatose or dead, so walking away from his hospital bed -- or coffin -- would have been one hell of a trick.

Unfortunately, a Kerry-Edwards administration looks more plausible than a George Romero-style zombie uprising. But as you may have guessed, gentle readers, the two have one important thing in common.

In honor of Edwards's little gaffe, and to mobilize the horror-geek vote, I propose a new Team Bush slogan: When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will run for President.

Hat tip: Lileks.

Debate #3: Say hello to "President Kerry"

Kerry's hand was weakest in this third debate: His campaign has not focused on domestic policy in a substantial way. Yet he clearly won this debate, just as he did the first two. We may well be saying hello to President-Elect Kerry in a few weeks. If he wins, the various Islamist terrorist networks in Iraq will doubtless credit themselves with the outcome -- and they won't be altogether wrong. By attacking American interests just enough for us to feel pain, yet not enough to rile us to action or anger, they've validated Kerry's criticisms of Bush's foreign policy.

But ultimately, the tide turned in Kerry's favor with the presidential and vice-presidential debates -- and especially with last night's debate. Kerry seemed to surf on his own momentum, as he did during the Democratic primary season, while Bush was clearly swimming against a nasty riptide. The dominant issue working against the president seems to be his own fiscal irresponsibility, and last night, this issue was where Kerry finally scored the knockout blow he so desperately needed against the president. His success (and Bush's collapse), oddly enough, affirmed the legacy of Ronald Reagan: Those who stray from limited-government conservatism will pay dearly for it in the long run. Kerry will learn this lesson as Clinton did, when he tries to pass a massive socialized-medicine plan.

Once again, the question about same-sex marriage elicited some fascinating responses. Kerry seems to have been for Gay marriage before he was against it, or against it before he was for it. Now he's pretty much against it, but he wants the government to provide some "protected" status for the Gay and Lesbian persons in our midst. His talk about leaving the issue of marriage to the states (shades of Reagan's "New Federalism," again) must have reassured the vast majority of Americans who grow weary of this whole "Federal Marriage Amendment" business.

Most Gay and Lesbian voters must have been heartened at the thought of second-class citizenship under Kerry instead of outright persecution under Bush, though I still remain less than convinced of Kerry's good intentions. Kerry supports several state constitutional amendments that would not only ban marriage, but also deny same-sex couples the basic right to form private contracts. To my knowledge, Kerry has never spoken out against measures like Virginia's "Marriage Protection Act," which has already been used to invalidate contracts between same-sex partners. Indeed, his statement that "they're proving today, every state, that they can manage [marriage law] adequately" could be viewed as a tacit endorsement of this measure. Again, Dick Cheney's basic insight that a contract between two individuals is nobody's business but their own lies beyond Kerry's ken.

Bush's own answer was superficially coherent but deeply dishonest, invoking "tolerance and respect and dignity" as a figleaf for the most extreme social-conservative legislation imaginable. First, he stated that "in a free society, people -- consenting adults -- can live the way they want to live, and that's to be honored." (By this standard, the Commonwealth of Virginia can no longer be called a "free society." Gay and Lesbian Virginians live under the twilight shroud of authoritarian oppression, and the president seems to have no problem with that.) Then Bush claimed that an amendment to the US Constitution "[allows] citizens to participate in the process." Thus he fobbed off the ultimate big-government fiat -- a Constitutional amendment designed to regulate individuals' most private relationships -- as a limited-government, federalist measure against the judiciary. Bush has a name for this tactic: "Bait and switch." In this case, it's more like Gay-bait and switch.

Under these circumstances, Kerry's mention of Mary Cheney's sexual orientation seemed more relevant than Edwards's sleazy attempt to raise the issue during the vice-presidential debate. Though Kerry's attempt to ventriloquize for Ms. Cheney ("And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as") revealed little more than his own hauteur and condescension, at least it didn't come with an underhanded slur against the vice-president's paternal affection. Alas, Kerry saved his clumsy salvo for the last thirty seconds, and lost an opportunity to make the president squirm. I, for one, would like to have heard Bush's answer to the Cheney conundrum.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Hey, Nonny, Derrida

And the name died before the man. -- A.E. Housman

The title of this post comes from a Lingua Franca article nearly a decade ago. Even in the early '90s, though other French philosophers were still in vogue within the American academy, Derrida had already become something of a joke. His tragic fall occurred in 1987, when a biographer of fellow deconstructionist Paul De Man (then recently deceased) learned that De Man had written anti-Semitic pamphlets for the Nazis during World War II. This was not necessarily a damnable offense in itself: During the Nazi years, plenty of Germans were forced to do things they weren't proud of. But De Man's refusal during his lifetime to apologize for his conduct did raise unsettling questions about his scholarship. Could his embrace of deconstructionism have simply been an attempt to evade responsibility?

Derrida, with true intellectual hubris, set out to defend his colleague, using the interpretive strategy he pioneered. To explain his method, I'll use an analogy. Think of human civilization as a sweater. It seems to exist, it even seems to have a purpose: You can pull it over your head and wear it to keep warm in the winter. Now, when Derrida looks at this sweater, he looks at it very closely, so that instead of a sweater he sees a woven fabric with a few loose threads here and there. Focusing on those thread, he pulls and pulls on them until eventually the sweater is unraveled into a mass of yarn. Now we can't say that the sweater has been "destroyed," since all the materials for that sweater are still conserved. If we wanted to, we could reknit all those threads into the same sweater we had before -- or we could make them into an afghan, a pair of tube socks, or a dishrag. Or, for that matter, we could just leave the threads as they are.

These loose threads are language, which in Derrida's universe can be unraveled from its present, apparent order, then rearranged into ... well, any configuration, or none. And since De Man's anti-Semitic pamphlets were written -- and therefore made of language -- the same desconstructionist interpretive trick could apply. So Derrida would proceed to unravel the anti-Semitism in De Man's old Nazi tracts, thus proving they were not anti-Semitic. (Lawyers for the LAPD would try the same tactic years later with the infamous Rodney King video, moving through the document frame by frame to prove that a racist beating was neither racist nor a beating.) The strategy was pure genius.

Except it didn't work. Nazi rhetoric is pretty ugly, no matter how one may try to excuse it. Derrida's attempt to vindicate his colleague looked like an attempt to defend the indefensible, just as De Man's philosophy seemed like nothing but denials and evasions. The French philosopher's intellectual credibility unraveled, and from then on, save for the occasional cry of "Free Mumia!", his voice was seldom heard in the American academy.

Yet though his reputation was "deconstructed," his influence was far from destroyed. The lawyerly dissection of the Rodney King video, Bill Clinton's insistence that it all depended on the meaning of "is" -- these things attest to Derrida's importance. This man taught us how to unravel the most basic linguistic communication, and that a mass audience would gladly accept this never-ending interpretive legerdemain. As a final tribute, a few years ago the old philosopher became the subject of his own movie, the fawning French documentary, Derrida. (De Man never had anything like that.) Alas, once your philosophical life's work has been adapted into bourgeois arthouse fare, you know your glory days are gone for good.

Last Friday, Derrida died -- and a few days later, French president Jacques Chirac announced to a shocked and respectable world the news of his demise. Most of us, I suspect, were surprised to find that he hadn't expired months or years before. The name had died before the man.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Review: Woman, Thou Art Loosed

At the close of a three-day revival meeting in West Los Angeles, a well-dressed, young African-American woman pulls a gun from her purse and murders a man in cold blood. This scene opens one of the most relentlessly downbeat, yet weirdly compelling films of the year.

Billy Graham meets blaxploitation in Woman, Thou Art Loosed, the latest contribution to the multimedia juggernaut of Bishop T.D. Jakes. Jakes is pastor of “Potter’s House,” an urban megachurch based in Dallas, Texas, and his sermons are broadcast weekly on Black Entertainment Television and the Trinity Broadcasting Network. His reputation rests on Christian inspirational best-sellers, which makes this film’s unrelenting dreariness all the more baffling.

Woman tells the story of Michelle Jordan, a not-quite-survivor of childhood sexual abuse who spirals downward into drugs, prostitution, prison, and finally murder. The bulk of the film concentrates on a brief interval between her parole from prison (for unspecified crimes linked to drug abuse) and her final rampage. In that short time, she attempts to reconcile with her mother, rebuffs an ardent childhood suitor, and is beaten nearly to death. Jakes describes Jordan as a “composite” character, which must be a relief to those who wonder if all these things could happen to a single individual.

Yet as played by Kimberly Elise, best known for a minor role in the recent Manchurian Candidate, this downtrodden character emerges as a terrifying, primal force. She describes her childhood as a “black” one, “where you call your grandma ‘Mama,’ your mama by her first name, and your mama’s boyfriends ‘Uncle.’” She exploits her milquetoast boyfriend’s credulity; then, when he offers to forgive her for past misdeeds, attacks him (quite rightly) for his condescension.

Elise’s tour-de-force performance dominates the film, but it also short-circuits the intended message. Her razor-sharp dialogue eviscerates the Pollyanna piety and self-help silliness of Bishop Jakes, then serves up the quivering, bloody entrails on a silver platter. In her powerful hands, Woman becomes a film not about redemption, but about its failure, and perhaps even its impossibility.

A brief coda tries to correct this imbalance by suggesting, vaguely, that Christian love has finally won out over anger and vengeance. At this point, it’s too little, too late. As a gospel choir sings “His mercy endureth forever” over the end credits, one can almost hear Michelle Jordan’s pained whisper: Don’t you believe it. Pain and suffering are here in abundance, but the quality of mercy is noticeably missing.

Solid supporting performances come from Loretta Devine as a single mother with emotional problems of her own, and from Clifton Powell as her predatory boyfriend. Bishop Jakes, playing himself, even appears in a few scenes outside the pulpit, and acquits himself admirably (though he's clearly more adept with sermons than scripts).

Other aspects of the film don't fare so well. Stan Foster’s farrago of a screenplay is needlessly confusing, with multiple layers of flashbacks, documentary-style interviews (one, strangely enough, with a dead character), and plenty of shameless, badly incorporated plugs for Jakes’ weekly television broadcast. Director Michael Schultz -- of Cooley High and Krush Groove fame -- stages the action deftly and tastefully, though his crew can’t keep major characters in focus or in frame.

But none of the film's technical or budgetary shortcomings matter when Kimberly Elise appears, wraithlike and furious, to kick self-help Christianity to the proverbial curb. She's not so much "loosed" as unleashed, and she makes Woman worth seeing.

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