Poem of the day

Painting on the junta's Qasr al-Aini wall, Cairo, via @GSquare86

Auden wrote this in 1945 after serving in occupied Germany. It’s a useful reminder for wall-builders and wall-destroyers alike.

From Memorial for the City (by W. H. Auden, 1907-1973)

Across the square,
Between the burnt-out Law Courts and Police Headquarters,
Past the Cathedral far too damaged to repair,
Around the Grand Hotel patched up to hold reporters,
Near huts of some Emergency Committee,
The barbed wire runs through the abolished City.

Across the plains,
Between two hills, two villages, two trees, two friends,
The barbed wire runs which neither argues nor explains
But where it likes a place, a path, a railroad ends,
The humour, the cuisine, the rites, the taste,
The pattern of the City, are erased.

Across our sleep
The barbed wire also runs: It trips us so we fall
And white ships sail without us though the others weep,
It makes our sorry fig-leaf at the Sneerers’ Ball,
It ties the smiler to the double bed,
It keeps on growing from the witch’s head.

Behind the wire
Which is behind the mirror, our Image is the same,
Awake or dreaming: It has no image to admire,
No age, no sex, no memory, no creed, no name,
It can be counted, multiplied, destroyed
In any place, at any time destroyed.

Is it our friend?
No: that is our hope; that we weep and It does not grieve;
That for it the wire and the ruins are not the end;
This is the flesh we are but never would believe,
The flesh we die but it is death to pity;
This is Adam waiting for his city.

Marshal Tantawi, tear down that wall!

Back in December, as a move to stop insistent demonstrations around Midan Tahrir, the ruling Egyptian junta tried to wall off access points to the square. Above, you can see them building a wall across Qasr al-Aini Street.

Shades of Berlin. Today, demonstrators are tearing down the wall. Here, from @GSquare86, are some pictures:

I love Egyptians when they get organized.

“I feel like a citizen”: Canada’s sex-work decision

Warmer indoors, but still cold on the streets: Sex workers' demonstration in Ottawa, January 2012

Partial but major victory today in Canada’s sex-work court case. The full decision is here, and a description of the case here. From the Globe and Mail on today’s ruling:

Ontario’s top court has legalized brothels and will allow prostitutes to have security and other staff that is specifically aimed at protecting prostitutes.

In a landmark decision Monday, the court said that prostitution is extremely dangerous work where inherent risks are multiplied by laws preventing prostitutes from working together under one roof or hiring security staff. As of April 25, they can engage bodyguards or security staff.

In addition to striking down the law against brothels, the court modified a law criminalizing pimping, so that “it will remain illegal to live off the avails of prostitution, but only ‘in circumstances of exploitation.’” But:

The court left intact just one of three key provisions that had been challenged by three current or former prostitutes. It said that communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution will remain illegal. Yet, even that provision narrowly escaped being struck down.

In the court’s only point of disagreement, Mr. Justice James MacPherson and Madam Justice Eleanore Cronk argued that the communication law is unacceptable because it forces street prostitutes to hurriedly negotiate with customers without first being able to size them up.

The refusal of the three other judges to strike down the communication law will likely go a long way to still the fears of politicians and residents who worried about an influx of prostitutes overtly propositioning prospective clients in the streets. …

Activists at a Toronto organization known as Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, said the judges seriously erred by leaving street prostitutes unprotected, eking out a highly-dangerous existence on the extreme margins of society.

“The vast majority of all prostitution arrests are under the communication law,” said Emily Van Der Muelen, an assistant professor in Ryerson University’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology. “The failure to strike down the communication law means that the most vulnerable sex workers will continue to face arrest, police harassment, prosecution and violence.” …

The three judges acknowledged that the law may prevent prostitutes from being able to size up potentially dangerous customers before jumping into their cars. However, they reasoned that, with indoor prostitution now being made legal, there will be strong incentives for outdoor prostitutes to move into homes or brothels.

The Court, ominously, did not altogether discard the idea that eliminating prostitution was a legitimate public purpose, noted Carissima Mathen, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.  The judges simply found that the existing laws were not a means to that end. They

rejected arguments that the prostitution laws were linked by a common goal of eradicating prostitution itself. .. [They] agreed today that the provisions under attack were not truly aimed by legislators at eradicating prostitution, as government lawyer[s] had argued in the appeal.

Rather, they said the purposes of the provisions were to eliminate some of the undesirable social consequences of sex work – neighbourhood disruptions and the exploitation of vulnerable women by pimps.

According to Mathen, “The Court also said that [the objective of eliminating prostitution] could be valid; it just wasn’t borne out by the evidence here … This leaves some room for Parliament to come back with a new law that does have that purpose.”

Nonetheless, Valerie Scott, legal coordinator of Sex Professionals of Canada, told reporters: “I feel like a debutante. I feel like a citizen.”

Poem of the day

Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889

Late Ripeness (by Czeslaw Miłosz, 1911-2004) 

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget  — I kept saying — that we are all children of the King.

For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago –
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.

A who’s who of the Iranian firewall

A friend from Iran sent me this link tonight; it’s amusing, in a disturbed and disturbing sort of way.   The “Iran Firewall Test” allows you to “use the Internet in Iran in real time” to explore what people in the country can access or not through ordinary Web means. What’s blocked, and what’s not? Enter your favorite website, and see.

There are already mysteries I’ve stumbled on in five minutes of playing with it. Why is Salon blocked while Slate isn’t?  Why does the New Republic lie afoul of the firewall but not — get this — Commentary? Barack Obama’s reelection effort isn’t censored; the White House is. Mitt Romney’s campaign site is open to any Iranian to view; perhaps the ultimate step in his political evolution is to succeed Ahmadinejad. So, too, World Net Daily, the rabid right-wing Christian page (“American’s Independent News Network”) can be perused by the most militant of Teheranis. But you can’t get Wonkette.  Iranians will never learn the true meaning of Santorum.” Dan Savage’s column is blocked, and so is Dr. Ruth, and so is Rex Wockner’s blog. But neither COYOTE in LA nor SWEAT in South Africa — both of them sex workers’ advocacy organizations — is. You can get to the Ford Foundation but not the Soros Foundation. You can get the Colbert Report and the Daily Show, but not Saturday Night Live.

This little blog is unblocked, at the moment, a dubious honor; if you want anything read in Iran, just let me know and I’ll facilitate it.  One feels like reciting Brecht’s poem:

When the Regime commanded that books with harmful knowledge
Should be publicly burned and on all sides
Oxen were forced to drag cartloads of books
To the bonfires, a banished
Writer, one of the best, scanning the list of the burned, was shocked to find that his
Books had been passed over. He rushed to his desk
On wings of wrath, and wrote a letter to those in power ,
Burn me! he wrote with flying pen, burn me! Haven’t my books
Always reported the truth ? And here you are
Treating me like a liar! I command you:
Burn me!

The talented Mr. Romney

Mitt Romney's passport Jason BourneThe Economist wonders what’s the cinematic model for Mitt Romney’s shifting, unstable selfhood. Is his campaign really a subtle work of art beneath the sales pitches, “a meditation on the nature of identity and memory”?

Is the man like Jason Bourne: waking with amnesia to find that somebody else has decided who he is, and he’s on the lam from the sinister identity imposed on him?  Did the CIA train Mitt Romney as a cold, superefficient liberal assassin, and is he just trying to fight his way back to the nice, normal, Midwestern Tea Partier he was before they got their claws in him?

Or is he like Leonard Shelby in Memento, his long-term memory completely shot, no continuity in his life beyond the ten-minute mark, forced to tattoo reminders on his body of  who he actually is and what he’s striving for? How many people have ever seen Mitt without his shirt on?

Or is he like those guys in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, who willingly erase their own memories of pain or loss to start over, like an Etch-a-Sketch, with a blank slate? Did Mitt press the buttons for his own eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap?

Whatever the solution, the British magazine finds something quintessential to these shores in Mitt’s constant recalibration of his soul. It’s as if he’s an avatar of

the American equation of freedom with the possibility of reinventing oneself. These big, chiselled men with their blue suits, asserting their right to invent themselves as exactly whoever the public wants them to be right now: where have we seen them before? They’ve been with us since the birth of the modern American moment. Jay GatsbyRoger O. Thornhill. (Eva Marie-Saint: “What’s the O stand for?” Cary Grant: “Nothing. I made it up.”) Most recently, of course, Don Draper.

I can buy that. But there’s one movie precedent they left out: another Matt Damon role, the talented Mr. Ripley, a bounder who knows perfectly well who he is, but wills, and kills, to turn into something else. I can easily see Romney inviting Pat Robertson out for a boat ride in the sunny bay, then shoving him overboard and taking on his identity to preach the Sunday sermon, if Mitt thought it would help him get the God vote. Maybe it’s already happened — heard from Pat lately? They even look alike.

Pat and Mitt: Separated at birth conception

“A war against me, inside and outside”: Security forces, denials, and emos in Iraq

Graphic picture of murdered emo Iraq

From a video allegedly showing a murdered emo youth hanged from a bridge in Iraq

In the Iraqi media, Sawt al-Iraq and Al-Mada both reported on Friday, March 23, that “security sources” are suggesting there will be a lull in attacks on emos until the Arab League Summit in Baghdad, scheduled for this week, ends. The sources also said, though, that girls will be targeted when the attacks resume:

Informed sources warned that the coming days will see the targeting of girls under the pretext of belonging to emo, indicating that the militant groups that carry out these actions are waiting for the end of the Arab Summit to be held in Baghdad in order to resume their activities.

A security source said early yesterday that  “the militant groups reduced their operations against emo youth in this period in conjunction with the proximity of the Arab summit in Baghdad at the end of this month,” emphasizing that they are “waiting for the completion of the summit and then they will launch a new campaign.” … The source did not rule out  “the involvement of some elements of security operations in targeting emo,” expected “to begin a new campaign in the coming month of May.”

If the delay is true, it’s presumably not because the killers want to spare Iraq embarrassment during the summit, but because security measures imposed since last week’s massive bombings have the capital on lockdown, with checkpoints and traffic jams slowing traffic to a standstill.

The papers noted, though, that in official statements “security authorities played down the significance” of civil society groups’ claims that up to 100 may be dead, “denying the existence of cases of killings.”

Kamil Amin: Nothing to see here, move along

Al-Shaafaq spoke last week to Kamil Amin, director general for monitoring and protection in the Ministry of Human Rights. He reiterated the official denials.  “There are no cases of murder. This was confirmed by the Ministry of the Interior”:

“Today if an emo young man or teenager in Iraq is killed, real information will be available about his death. The situation has been confused. A story circulated in Sadr City of a young man who was accused of being a homosexual or effeminate man and kidnapped and  killed there; the work of the Ministry of Interior has proved the case was criminal.”

The last reference is presumably to Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, a 20-year-old murdered in Sadr City on February 17. It’s not quite clear what the final comment means; but it seems Amin is trying to distinguish between killings for emo “identity” and killings for suspected homosexual conduct. Of course, as many Iraqis have pointed out, the two blend into one another as linked forms of “deviance” in the popular mind. Amin admitted, on the other hand, that names — along with death threats — had been posted on walls in Baghdad neighborhoods. “I don’t deny that thing, this talk; banners were circulating, it is easy, there are computers and printers everywhere, and you can easily write up names and existing lists. The issue came up because of ideological extremist groups.”

Graphic picture of emo death in iraq

Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi

Asked what the Human Rights Ministry was doing about the situation, Amin temporized and called on the shrinks for aid:

“I think the Council of Ministers offered assurances that personal freedoms are protected, and that there was no spread of the phenomenon of emo in Iraq, only individual cases most of which don’t go beyond a matter of fashion, which is not aggressive.  On the contrary, we found that a lot of emo have talent — for example, poetry or drawing. Some of them are superior people and they imitate emo only in terms of dress and  accessories …

“Emo is a phenomenon between the ages of 12-17 years. If it continues with the teenager after this age, it is a medical condition, and the parents should send their children to doctors and psychologists to stop it.”

Meanwhile, according to Al-Mada, the chair of the parliamentary committee on displaced persons, Abdul Khaliq Zangana, accused security forces of “arresting and intimidating young people under the pretext of the emo phenomenon”:

“Restoring security has become a pretext and an excuse for the security services to arrest young people, who are supposed  to be the future of Iraq … Some young people who had agreed to return to Iraq through the parliamentary committee have expressed sorrow that they returned to suffer from these arrests and intimidation, under the pretext of establishing security.”

This long and horrible video has been circulating inside Iraq and out; it claims to show an executed emo hanging from the railing of a bridge. I cannot vouch for what it claims to be: any number of what are, in effect, snuff videos or close to it emerge from Iraq regularly, spoor of the regularity of death there. US soldiers used to pick them up on Bluetooth (or, where their relationship to the atrocities was nearer, film them themselves) and bring or send them back home, like trophies.

Finally, what follows is a long letter I received from a gay-identified man in Baghdad. It describes both the immediate fears caused by the killing campaign, and a longer and deeper burden of anxiety. I have edited it slightly for continuity and to eliminate all identifying references.

You can’t imagine my delight when I received the message you sent me on [a gay website]. I was so happy I started crying because there are others in this world who sympathize with our suffering and the dark life we’re living here in Iraq. …  I’ve almost lost any hope for living the free and fulfilling life I aspire to and I remain confined to my home…

I live near Al-Sadr city [Baghdad’s huge Shi’ite slum] … I was born just over 30 years ago and from early in my life, I started feeling that my sexual leaning is different from that of other members of my sex. I started discovering that I’m attracted to men- yes, I started discovering that I was homosexual  (mithly al-jens) or a sexual deviant (shaz jenseyan). At this point my torment started in the conflict with my family and the society I live in on one hand, and with myself on the other. There was a conflict between me as a man and my sexual desire. I kept repressed inside me that feeling which tormented me all my life, especially at the beginning of my youth. I was supposed to be enjoying the best years of my life like others, but I was far from this. …

My problem now is that someone has photographed me having sex. That person blackmailed me and when I refused to pay him, he published the photos online. I’m in constant fear that one of my relatives or co-workers might find out about these photos, at which point they will have no mercy on me and might even kill me. I was threatened that the photos will be sent to everyone that knows me and to my family and relatives. I’m always afraid when I go down the street to buy bread, for example, or when the door bell rings. I fear that someone came to assault me. That feeling of fear dominates my life almost daily.

I’ve encountered many horrors that I was saved from almost miraculously. I was once walking on Palestine Street, when a car stopped beside me. There were three scary looking men in the car and one of them got off the car and approached me. He asked me why I had insulted his friend, because the way I was walking would attract attention in the street. The three started attacking me, so I said let’s go to the police. They were nearby. As I walked before them, they left me and went back to their car. I ran away to the side streets but they were chasing me with their car. I was running while crying and was scared to death they might catch me again. The concrete blocks  in the middle of the road saved me however, because they were not able to go through these with their car.

Concrete barriers being installed on a Baghdad street as an anti-car-bomb measure

I was assaulted and robbed of my wallet many times when I went out at night. I can’t describe the fear I feel whenever leaving my house, which makes me stop going out most of the time. One day I was at al-Zawra’a Gardens [the biggest park in central Baghdad] with a friend of mine when a policeman noticed us and then came over to arrest us. They took us to the police center where we met a[nother] police officer. The policeman who brought us said that we were “practicing sodomy” in the park, which was not true. They interrogated me and my friend separately and said they would put us in jail. We had to pay them for our release.

I was raped many times by policemen under the threat of their guns. They also threatened to surrender me to extremist groups if I refused. For me, the previous era was a golden era, because homosexuality was tolerated. I’m scared now because I expect death or beheading at any moment. Islam considers homosexuality to be a sin and the Shi’ite authority Ayatollah Al-Sistani published on his website a call to kill homosexuals. …

We as gays do not exist in this country and we have nobody to represent us. We’re vulnerable prey for whoever wants to attack us and nobody will protect us or stand by our side. We’re excluded by most people, including our own families. One day when I was at work, my sister looked into my stuff and found a CD that had a gay porn movie on it. She knew about me, especially because she used to try to listen to my conversations on the phone with friends. She told my parents about what she found and they turned on me with hate and disgust. They  began seriously thinking about forcing me to marry a female cousin to prevent any possible scandal. They pressured me and even threatened to kick me out of the house and expose me to others if I didn’t marry her.

Worse than all this is that a few days ago I received a phone call from someone who said he knew where I live and [where I work]. He said he has a film of me having sex and threatened to send it to my workplace and to my family if I didn’t agree to what he was asking. He wanted me to give him the names of my emo friends so they can target them. Now in Baghdad young people who wear black tight clothes and have pics of skulls and let their hair grow long are called emo female “wannabes.” These people are being killed by gangs called “Asa’ib” [presumably Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the “League of the Righteous,” a Shi’ite militia whom some blame for the current attacks] and by the Iraqi police. To these gangs emos and gays are two faces of one coin. Photos of their victims were published online and a lot of dead bodies were found in different areas of Baghdad.

ubiquitous mobiles in Iraq

I refused to give any names to that caller who threatened me, and I blocked his number. However, I still receive threats through other numbers that I don’t recognize. I’m scared to death that these criminals might find out about my full name and my address through my account with the phone company I receive service from. Because if you know somebody that works at the phone company, you can very easily obtain more information about any number you have. This has happened to me once when I talked with someone on the internet and we exchanged numbers. It was only a few days before that person called and told me my full name and address. He obtained that information through my my mobile number.

The Iraqi government stands with the criminals by denying the brutal murders which take place now in Iraq and which they cover up. Gays have always been the easy victims who can’t resort to anyone to protect them — because everyone in this society excludes and ostrasizes gays. As I’m writing, my tears are pouring, because I know I might die for being gay. I wish I’d never been like this, to a degree that makes me want to die and think about suicide constantly. Sometimes I meet a close friend of mine and we hug each other and cry for how miserable our lives are. I’m a human being and we have a right to live with dignity. Why do they kill and slaughter us in the most brutal ways?!  …

Iraq today is governed by people of religion who do not tolerate any dissent and kill people with no mercy. I have friends in many places who were killed in the most brutal ways and in public for being gay. The number of people killed in the latest wave has risen to more than twenty people. Until recently I had some hope that my country’s conditions might improve and that the human will be respected in Iraq. But after what’s been happening recently I’ve lost all hope and realized that my country is heading towards the unknown…. I’m scared that I might be exposed at time at work or that my family might find out about me. I’m threatened with death because of the  murders that target emos, because society here believes that gays are emos and that they’re responsible for such lifestyles. I can’t leave home without trying to hide. It’s a war against me, inside my home and outside.

(Thanks to Samir, an Egyptian activist, for translating this. Be sure to read his own remarkable blog, on secularism, sexuality, democracy, and other cogent issues, here.)

Poem of the day

The Midnight Skaters (by Edmund Blunden,1896-1974)

The hop-poles stand in cones,
The icy pond lurks under,
The pole-tops steeple to the thrones
Of stars, sound gulfs of wonder;
But not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
What wants he but to catch
Earth’s heedless sons and daughters?
With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

Then on, blood shouts, on, on,
Twirl, wheel and whip above him,
Dance on this ball-floor thin and wan,
Use him as though you love him;
Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

What would a leftist history of sodomy laws look like?

Time Magazine cover, July 14, 1986

On June 30, 1986, the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, a case about sodomy laws.  For the majority, Justice Byron White (known since college, obscurely, as “Whizzer”) held that nothing in the Constitution endowed “a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy.”

That was a Monday. Days later, the nation headed into the Fourth of July holiday, celebrating independence and all that.  A big hootenanny around the hundredth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty intensified the revels. It was “Liberty Weekend,” with whizzing fireworks vaulting the huddling Hudson and patriotic paeans to immigrants and tired and poor; Ronald Reagan — whose paralytic rictus hung above the whole era like a gargoyle grinning over a depleted Paris — intoned, unveiling the renovated statue, that “our work can never be truly done until every man, woman, and child shares in our gift, in our hope, and stands with us in the light of liberty.” (He promptly bestowed a Medal of Liberty on Henry Kissinger beneath the Lady’s torch, a reminder that those who don’t share our freedom can be freely bombed until dead.) I couldn’t stand the ironies. A gay friend and I spent the weekend getting massively drunk in a Cambridge apartment, throwing things at the TV screen whenever Reagan’s red-death mask appeared. (The president, mind you, had refused even to mention the AIDS epidemic until the year before.)  I remember large brown blotches from spilled vodka-and-coke staining the white carpet; if I saw them now, I’d scream “Santorum“!  It was a terrible time in a terrible year in a terrible decade, and how little one can forget.

Just under seventeen years later, the Supreme Court overruled itself. That evening I went down to Sheridan Square, the site of Stonewall, where queers had gathered in small numbers for the congratulatory festivities. The celebrations were more muted than the mourning had been a generation earlier. Perhaps too many had died. Or perhaps gays and lesbians had learned in the interim what so many have learned from necessity before: that it is possible, after all, to live without your country loving you. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Still, Lawrence v Texas, which struck down Bowers, deserves much more than such a sigh. It’s one of the court’s historic decisions, and “one of the great success stories of public interest law,” as David Cole calls it. It now has, fittingly, a history of its own: Dale Carpenter’s Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v Texas has gotten stellar reviews this year, from the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times. That so many praises come from New York must confirm what all righteous Texans suppose: that the whole thing was a conspiracy by my perverse, miscegenating, Jew-infested metropolis, which envied Lone Star purity and was just waiting to pounce. Carpenter, I hasten to add, teaches in Minnesota.

I haven’t read Carpenter’s book yet. I will. I have read what is more or less a companion volume: William Eskridge’s Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003. It’s an estimable book. Here, though, is what strikes me: both Carpenter’s and Eskridge’s politics are well known. They’re both conservative libertarians. (Indeed, Eskridge’s volume grew partly from an amicus brief he drafted for the libertarian Cato Institute in Lawrence v Texas.) So the two arguably most influential US histories of sodomy laws have been written from the libertarian right. I have no interest in condemning them for their politics here; if I only read books by authors I wholeheartedly agree with, my shelves would be much less full. It is, however, interesting. What’s going on here?

There is, of course, a powerful purely libertarian case against sodomy laws. “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” a young Pierre Trudeau famously said, in scrapping Canada’s comparable legislation. Such a sentence could be every libertarian’s screensaver — although they have long lists of other areas where the state should not snoop; just look at any of Ron Paul’s campaign literature. Three major national court decisions about sodomy laws have had wide influence in the last fifteen years: South Africa’s in 1998, Lawrence in 2003, and India’s in 2009.  All three cited privacy, and its confluence with liberty, as a core principle contravened by the laws and rendering them odious. All three, though, drew upon other principles as well: equality and dignity are explicit grounds in the South African decision, and in different terms run through Justice Kennedy’s Lawrence language as well as Justice Shah’s in Delhi. These are values less easy to constrain within a libertarian mold. Equality notoriously demands active government intervention in a range of situations; dignity is tied to the state’s power to accord or withhold legal recognition and substantive rights. The exclusively libertarian account of why sodomy laws are wrong only gets at part of the normative case against them. Yet it seems to be bidding for hegemony here in the US.

Private dictionaries: My libertarianism is freer than your libertarianism

Libertarianism, naturally, shares with most other terms in politics a tendency to mean different things in different private dictionaries. Libertarian rhetoric  — broadly, exalting the value of personal autonomy against government interference — has a protean appeal, and is increasingly heard everywhere. It’s enjoyed a renaissance on the US left since 2001, against the security-inspired swelling of the surveillance state. It has revived on the right in the last four years, with growing conservative unease about the (first Bush, then Obama) bailouts, spending, and market interventions brought to bear against the financial crisis. Sales of sexy propagandist Ayn Rand, that Zhdanovite in a pageboy haircut, doubled from 2008-2010. “We are witnessing a conservative libertarian comeback,” one pundit informs us.

It’s an oppositional advance, a response to all manners of active-state liberalism  …  It’s a pervasive feeling of invasiveness. It’s an enduring conclusion among many voters–independent and conservative, working and middle class alike–that big government costs in taxes significantly more than it offers them personally.

Just the atmosphere for a libertarian approach to sex to flourish, you might think. But the pundit adds: “There is no wide-ranging call for government to withdraw from social issues however. A rebirth of traditional libertarianism this is not. It’s a more limited libertarianism that it is on the march.” Back in your closets, camp followers!

Eskridge’s book is, I think,  in part an effort to push at the envelope of this “limited libertarianism” and get sexuality under its cover: to prod conservatives into taking the logic of their acquired passion for pure liberty seriously.  In his version, this means, perhaps primarily, prodding gays themselves. He writes that “Lawrence should also be understood as a challenge for gay people. Recalling  an old-fashioned conception of citizenship as entailing obligations as well as freedoms, Lawrence should stir LGBT people to commit themselves to families, communities, and institutions (including religious ones) from which they have been alienated.”

This is a grand non sequitur, on the face of it.  Goodbye, frying pan, hello fire! There is no reason why lifting one form of repression should rouse you to reaffiliate yourself with institutions that have, been, for most LGBT people, the source of other forms. Changing those institutions might be a plausible program, but that doesn’t necessarily oblige you to join them. Sodomy laws weren’t brought down from inside the prison cell. Yet Eskridge’s reasoning is worth following. “Philosophical liberals, such as John Rawls and Richard Posner,” he says, “have tended to underestimate the importance of family and community values to the government’s role in structuring legal rights and responsibilities.” OK, so in unlibertarian fashion we grant the government such a role. But:

[A] new generation of gay or gay-friendly thinkers — such as the law professors Carlos Ball and Chai Feldblum, the philosophers Stephen Macedo and Michael Sandel, the anthropologist Kath Winton, and journalists like Bruce Bawer and Jonathan Rauch — maintain that gay people ought to understand themselves as family members and actors interacting with communities. This is strategically important. To the extent that gay people are perceived this way by mainstream Americans, they will be less vulnerable to the politics of disgust and contagion. But it also normatively important. … [K]ey liberal thinkers have argued that sexual freedom and gender equality require community … Theirs was a different kind of community from that envisioned by traditionalists (husband-wife marriages with children), and that is the challenge Lawrence and the same-sex marriage movement pose to LGBT Americans: What kind of community, what understanding of family, do you stand for? (pp. 382-83)

“Committed,” Eskridge makes clear, is his answer. Gays need communities and families that ground them, bind them through fixed relationships to a lasting definition of the self. And you can see not so much Eskridge’s logic at work here, as his political agenda. Conservatives can be reconciled to recognizing gays’ rights as long as there is some other structure in place, on hand, to regulate the luftmenschen‘s lives. These structures are themselves exempt from state regulation in much the same way that striking down sodomy laws leaves the bedroom walls impermeable. “The state also cannot invade traditionalists’ private associations and clubs to impose gay-friendly policies,” Eskridge writes, approving of the Supreme Court’s decision (in Boy Scouts v Dale, 2000) that such a group may not be compelled “to accept members it does not desire.” But conversely, once gays do get in, they will be subject to, and their identities informed by, the internal strictures of the group: the luftmensch ballasted and brought to earth at last!


I bowl alone

Of course everyone has networks of affiliation and belonging, unless you happen to be Kaspar Hauser. What’s at stake is how much a person can choose and hence constitute these, or how much they are permitted to constitute her. Ultimately Eskridge suggests a vision that is far more fully conservative than libertarian. The state leaves the individual alone — that’s the main libertarian side of it. But the state does so in confidence that other forces can fill the gap. The state “structur[es] legal rights and responsibilities,” but only on the pattern adumbrated by those other forces. Indeed there is no gap, because a civil society where every space is taken up by closed groups, community structures, and families leaves little room to move; occupying the self like the air you breathe, it’s fully capable of shaping and restraining potential members so that they belong.

a jaundiced view

Clearly this is nothing new. It’s more or less the social policy that Reagan and Thatcher carried forward — and neither was exactly libertarian. Both understood that the capitalist market they unleashed with the right hand would corrode not just community values but all existing structures of belonging; everything solid would start melting into air. Hence it was vital, with the left hand, to strengthen family, community, and old-fashioned forms of social solidarity, not just in ideology but as as far as possible in law. They grasped rather better than Eskridge, though, that a hands-off policy by government — the libertarian ideal — wouldn’t be enough. Those values wouldn’t just maintain themselves. The closed groups would dissolve without state encouragement and support. Libertarian economics required authoritarian social enforcement.

In other words, Eskridge rather overestimates the libertarian, as opposed to traditionally conservative, implications of his argument. Still, his case has had its success. You can see the traces of Eskridge’s — and other gay conservatives’ — hopeful attempt at integration in the political causes that have been by far the most motivational among US gays.

Bruce Bawer, the gay journalist, is a dreadful fellow. Some years back he moved to Norway, and since then has devoted himself to high-strung, racist screeds against Muslims, Africans, and other inferior invaders of the Land of the Blond. (To his public embarrassment, mass-murderer Anders Brevik mentioned Bawer approvingly in one of his own private prologomena to morals.) Back when he was somewhat respectable, though, he published an anthology, “Beyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy.” Its pages laid out a program for gay conservatives, and from a distance of sixteen years, the consistency is amazing. The unifying call is for gays to attach themselves to conservative institutions, and to do so in a way that inhibits rather than expands the state’s involvement. Both strategies will make them a better brand of minority, more reliable, less whiny, more deserving of public trust. Thus Andrew Sullivan on don’t-ask-don’t-tell:

[I]nstead of seeking access, as other minorities have done, gays in the military are simply demanding recognition. They start not from the premise of suppliance, but of success, of proven ability and prowess in battle, of exemplary conduct and ability. This is a new kind of minority politics. It is less a matter of complaint than pride; less about subversion than about the desire to contribute equally. (p. 81)

But the showroom issue for this inclination is, of course, marriage. “For taming males, marriage is unmatched,” Jonathan Rauch writes in the book (p. 307).  Moreover, if — as Rauch contends — gays are not “an oppressed people seeking redemption through political action,” but “an ostracized people seeking redemption through personal action” (p. 126) marriage is a perfect way to prove oneself. It doesn’t need active government intervention, the kind that anti-discrimination laws mandate (most contributors seem deeply biased against those protections: they stand for the “victim model” that only bad minorities pursue).  It merely requires the state to stand back and let it be.   Again, recognition rather than action is what the good minorities demand.

domestic violence

Tame that shrew

Now, historically, marriage has done rather more than tame males: think shrews. And of course, for centuries domestic violence, marital rape, and other offenses in the home went unnoticed and unpunished, because the law stood back and let them be; it presumed the sanctity of marriage to exclude its ministrations. Lawyers tend to say that Griswold v Connecticut — the 1965 case where the Supreme Court held that married couples could use contraception — established a “right to privacy” in American law, emanating outward from the marriage bed. No. A right to marital privacy enshrouded domestic violence for centuries, just as it protected sex with an unconsenting wife. Where the state acted was to complicate people getting out (or getting pleasure outside) of marriage: by criminalizing adultery and prostitution, for instance, or by restricting divorce. It’s doubtful that many LGBT people would want to be integrated into the marriage complex if it were still that “libertarian” nexus of internal control: a Hunger Games arena where participants were tamed while the state stood by. There has certainly been some shift in how the state regulates marriage — some displacement of the arbitrary personal regulation the institution once stood for, by the rule of external law. US police only rarely enforce bans on adultery, for instance, while domestic violence and marital rape are now, at least formally, crimes. Still, the history of “privacy” within marriage reminds one that the legal protection or restriction of relationships is an intricate and deceptive field, not terribly susceptible to libertarian simplifications.  A conservative history that tries to condemn sodomy laws while elevating marriage is likely to run into contradictions.

Which brings me back to the question I headlined: what would a leftist history of sodomy laws look like? The US advocacy to get rid of sodomy laws started, for the most part, on the left back in the 1950s and 1960s. If we reclaimed that history, how might it read?

I have some thoughts, but I leave the question open. Leftists and rightists are welcome to use the comments field below. (It’s underused here. I know you read this thing, from the site stats; now talk back.) The question’s an important one, because it has to do with who steers our collective narrative, and, on that basis, where it wends from here. So start thinking.

Poem of the day

Rick Santorum says the Obama administration is soft on smut. “Hard-core pornography is very damaging, particularly to young people,” he declared, just like contraception, gays, and man-on-dog action. “A wealth of research is now available demonstrating that pornography causes profound brain changes in both children and adults, resulting in widespread negative consequences.”

With Santorum teasing the effects of booby pictures out of your brainwaves, and with our possible first Mormon president meanwhile buying up inert convention delegates like so many rubber dildos, this might be the moment to remember Reed Smoot. Back in 1930 the Utah Republican — the first Mormon ever to serve in the US Senate — proposed severe new tariffs on imports. (The “Smoot-Hawley Tariff” bill, passed that year, strangled trade and deepened the Great Depression.) During debate, Smoot also urged giving customs officers powers to keep “obscene” literature from the US.  From behind a Senate desk heaped with exhibits of “beastly” books, including such foreign filth as the Kama Sutra, Rabelais, and the poems of Robert Burns, Smoot demanded a ban on whatever offended “the moral sense of the average person.”

This response appeared in the New Yorker. It includes a Hall of Fame of ephemeral national heroes, unimpeachably moral figures, Prohibition supporters, and diehard Republicans of the time. How little has changed.

Invocation (by Ogden Nash, 1902-1971)


Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.)
Is planning a ban on smut.
Oh rooti-ti-toot for Smoot of Ut.,
And his reverend occiput.
Smite, Smoot, smite for Ut.,
Grit your molars and do your dut.,
Gird up your l–ns,
Smite h-p and th-gh,
We’ll all be Kansas
By and by.

Smite, Smoot, for the Watch and Ward,
For Hiram Johnson and Henry Ford,
For Bishop Cannon and John D., Junior,
For ex-Gov. Pinchot of Pennsylvunia,
For John S. Sumner and Elder Hays
And possibly Edward L. Bernays,
For Orville Poland and Ella Boole,
For Mother Machree and the Shelton pool.
When smut’s to be smitten
Smoot will smite
For G-d, for country,
And Fahrenheit.

Senator Smoot is an institute
Not to be bribed with pelf;
He guards our homes from erotic tomes
By reading them all himself.
Smite, Smoot, smite for Ut.,
They’re smuggling smut from Balt. to Butte!
Strongest and sternest
Of your s-x
Scatter the scoundrels
From Can. to Mex!

Smite, Smoot, for Smedley Butler,
For any good man by the name of Cutler,
Smite for the W.C.T.U,
For Rockne‘s team and for Leader‘s crew,
For Florence Coolidge and Admiral Byrd,
For Billy Sunday and John D., Third,
For Grantland Rice and for Albie Booth,
For the Woman’s Auxiliary of Duluth,
Smite, Smoot,
Be rugged and rough,
Smut if smitten
Is front-page stuff.