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Tuesday, May 01, 2012  

A Time to Love, a Time to Hate
Elmhurst Diarist

On Sunday night I went to see Dan Savage speak about the It Gets Better Project at Elmhurst College's Hammerschmidt Chapel. The last time I saw him in person was 2003, if memory serves, in front of a crowd of perhaps one hundred at one of the downtown Borders locations. I went with my roommate, whose essay Dan was editing for The Stranger, and he took a break from promoting his new book Skipping Toward Gomorrah to refer his audience to the now-famous New Republic cover story "The Liberal Case for War" (against Iraq).

It was a good talk, funny and engaging, and it made a striking contrast with his Sunday appearance. The chapel was packed with well over a thousand people from all over the region and at least as far away as Champaign County. The heart of his talk was something much graver than his old book's subtitle ("The seven deadly sins and the pursuit of happiness in America"), though not, in fairness, graver than the matter of invading Iraq. It was about how he came to start, with his husband Terry, the viral-video campaign to reach out to hurting, bullied, and suicidal LGBT kids with the message that their adult lives will be worth living. The column in which he publicly launched the project, in response to the suicide and subsequent post-mortem cyberbullying of a child in Indiana who was perceived to be gay, still makes for very moving reading. By his own account, Savage expected maybe 100 videos to be added to the one he made with Terry, enough to cover the demographic and geographic waterfront of LGBT life. The response was much faster and broader than he anticipated, and now the Youtube channel hosts well over 50,000 videos from all around the world.

On the subject of bullying, despair, and hope, Savage speaks very beautifully. His rage at the bullies and the cultures that enable them is obviously genuine, and even when he slips into demagoguery--as he does often and seemingly without thought--he does so with something that seems very much like innocence. I believe him when he reports that the It Gets Better Project has touched an even saved many lives. Who, really, would doubt it? Adolescence is hard enough, socially and in every other way, without the stigma of sexual or gender non-conformity. The brilliance of the IGBP is demonstrated by its obviousness in retrospect. The technology to do this has been around for a long time (though it has, in fairness, accelerated in the last very few years). The need is hard to miss. Yet no one thought to do it until Dan and Terry, and as a consequence the full-time sex-advice writer and part-time gonzo journalist became a cultural figure of considerable stature.

But the event, which was suffused with good feelings at first, took what struck me as some dark turns as it went on. There was a digressive tirade on the Pope that badly mischaracterized--in what has become an authorized account--his words in January about the family and the threats to it. Every public utterance by the Pope is recorded and put online, so anyone with a modicum of curiosity can read both the statement at issue and the prior statement it refers to. Now that's not to say that Benedict doesn't deserve criticism for the role of anti-gay-marriage advocacy in his papacy, but the fact that he never mentions same-sex marriage in the statement, and indeed is primarily referring to the economic developments that assault family life, might be noted. Instead, Savage spiraled into a harangue about papal words and intentions that were largely of his own imagining. And the crowd, which congratulated itself (incessantly and irritatingly) on its own broad-mindedness, jeered right along. There was an additional harangue about the Bible and slavery, which was totally uninformed and tediously moralistic. And when, during the dreadful Q and A, a few foolhardly conservative Christians decided to ask Savage some questions that challenged both his views and his conduct, he did not respond as befits someone standing on a podium at the head of a rapturously sympathetic crowd. To his credit, he did thank the last evangelical questioner for engaging with him in what he knew would be a hostile environment. "This was the lion's den for you," be acknowledged, and I appreciated that at least. It's not a necessary acknowledgement, however, when a speaker maintains an atmosphere of respect rather than of self-celebration.

In fairness, this is a lot to ask. Savage is right, in a sense, to point out that there's something of a double standard at work when people take him to task for his santorum campaign or for his stern words about conservative Christianity: that some people are allowed to say anything at all about gay people, even the most appalling slander, while gay people themselves are expected to respond with restraint and decorum. And Savage himself is just a human like anyone else--in his case, a somewhat thin-skinned and defensive human who seeks only total victory and annihilation rather than assent and conversion when he engages with an opponent. But I don't think that people with liberal convictions (that is, a commitment to fairness of process that people like Stanley Fish think is stupid and weak) should be satisfied with this sort of display. It's fair enough to criticize the Pope for things he actually says; making things up--and reading into one's made-up words the secret motives of the man's heart--is really unnecessary and, to use an old-fashioned and pious word, uncharitable. And I can't think of a single good thing to say about Tony Perkins, but to say that he revels in the suicide of gay teens is, at the very least, unsupported by actual evidence and at worst the sort of slander that no one would credit when aimed at oneself or one's allies.

The principle of charity that I am invoking here is not just a matter of manners and tactics. The Pope might be wrong about gay marriage, but he (and his predecessor) were right about the Iraq War when Dan Savage (and I) were very badly wrong. It is a little surprising how quickly Savage has embraced this unearned sense of sanctimony, given that he discovered life-saving activism all of nineteen months ago. A little humility is in order, for him like everyone else. The Bible says plenty of things that we don't easily understand and that we quite rightly reject today (leaving aside the rhetorical trick whereby a law commanding the stoning of non-virgin brides is used to abrogate a law commanding the stoning of people engaged in same-sex intercourse, which also no one wishes to enforce). But what will our society look like to the future if humanity manages to endure another 2,000 years? What will people think of meat-eating or wage labor or our utterly extravagant levels of resource consumption? No one stands at the pinnacle of history (well, there was one guy, but he got crucified). No one fully escapes the sins they so readily diagnose in others. We are obligated to temper justice with mercy not just because mercy is a virtue, but because we all end up needing it some day.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 2:06 AM
I don't know what Savage said about the Papal address -- maybe he did say some silly things. That said, Benedict may not explicitly mention same-sex marriage in the linked article, but it's in there:

"In addition to a clear goal, that of leading young people to a full knowledge of reality and thus of truth, education needs settings. Among these, pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman. This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself."

I can't see any reason why Benedict should go out of his way to call hetero marriage "the fundamental cell of every society" if he's not getting a dig in at the gays. Indeed, I'd say that in an address that "doesn't address same-sex marriage at all and is primarily referring to the economic developments that assault family life" this dig is particularly telling. Its just tossed on in there, with no rhetorical support. The Pope is such a bigot/repressed closet case that even in a speech on economics he can't resist pointing a finger at the out gays.

Like Andrew Sullivan and Dan Savage, Pope Benedict seems to see the struggle against society's acceptance of homosexuality as central (central!) to Rome's mission. I mean, sure, we should try to keep ourselves humble, but it really is that bad. Benedict isn't our dotty old grandpa with an occasional non-pc outburst. He's got a ton of power and he's heavily invested in using it to oppress a far weaker minority. I'm not sure Jesus wants us to spend too-too much energy defending him.
Please. Click around on the Vatican's site for a few hours and tell me how many explicit references to homosexuality you find there. I've spent a lot of time reading this Pope's statements, and he doesn't mention it very often. Of course he considers the family to be based on the marriage of a man and a woman, but in the context both of that speech and the others he's made, there is no evidence that he's spending his time looking for homos under anyone's beds. The idea that we can all just peer into his soul and see his supposed closet-case projection in this is just repulsive.
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