Open Letter

This Storm Is What We Call Progress

An Open Letter to Sam Smith, Editor of Progressive Reviews / Undernews

by Scott Tucker


This is an argument among friends, though an argument in earnest. Generally, I like Undernews. But sometimes your readers, and even Sam Smith, can trivialize the human rights of women, and the human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

Recently, you published a letter from a reader identified as "An Increasingly Disillusioned Undernews Reader." Here is an excerpt-- an awkward run on sentence, but all the more telling unedited and uncensored:

"This is how a story by a bishop who is splitting the Episcopal Church in the USA and the entire Anglican Communion worldwide (guess those Africans and Asians aren't civilized enough to realize how starvation, war and exploitation are truly minor issues compared to Bishop Gene's right to be openly gay) gets turned into another tiresome exercise in Catholic-bashing, and yet more wish-fulfillment on how any second now, the Catholic Church, Voltaire's 'infamous thing', will collapse, heralding an age of world peace, free love, ecological harmony, and that secular Utopia that has worked out so amazingly well in several instances in the 20th Century."

This much is true: some church reactionaries never forgave women for becoming priests and bishops. Now they will never forgive gay people for the same sins. I was a singer and student in The Choir School of St Thomas Church in New York City, so I know a bit about Episcopalians and the wider Anglican Communion. I had early misgivings about such an expensively groomed club, especially when the pews were jammed and the organ roared every Christmas and Easter. But the music was Byrd, Bach and Mozart, so I fell under a certain spell. When my voice changed and I could no longer sing in the choir, I was assigned to be an acolyte during services and at the altar during communion. Entirely to the credit of the teachers and clergy, I was allowed to stop taking communion when I expressed doubts about the faith. Perfect freedom of faith and conscience was respected. I later became active with the anti-war movement, and returned to St Thomas at the age of eighteen to hold a protest at the church when a choir of Annapolis cadets was visiting. Years later, after some persuasion, the alumni magazine of the school included a short notice of my relationship with another man, of my book The Queer Question: Essays on Desire and Democracy, and of my (small d) democratic socialist politics. What sort of relation do I keep with that faith and church today? Neither marriage nor divorce. The Bible remains an open book for me, no more, no less.

"Disillusioned" is entirely mistaken about a gay bishop "splitting the Episcopal Church in the USA and the entire Anglican Communion worldwide." Anti-gay bigotry and the long after-effects of colonialism are splitting this particular church.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa knows plenty about opposition to racist regimes, and he has been outspoken in his defense of gay rights as well. Why does this African Anglican not join many other clerics in a crusade against queers? Because he thinks justice is more important than the comfort of racists and bigots, that's why. He has often said so himself. "Disillusioned" will have to take the public witness of Desmond Tutu into account. Tutu does not speak for the majority of clergy in the Anglican Communion, but so what? He speaks for himself and he argues that injustice towards gay people remains injustice. In fact, he sees no contradiction in defending gay rights while opposing "starvation, war and exploitation."

Blaming gay people for splitting churches when the live issue is precisely the crusade against queers is like blaming slaves for splitting the Union when the live issue was slavery and white racism. There are many kinds of bigotry, of course. There is active and vindictive bigotry which spares no effort in demeaning and dominating others. And then there is the more genteel and collusionist bigotry which your reader expresses. He or she-- though I suspect he-- ranks abortion, gay rights, and animal rights among the "easy" issues which give comfort to white liberals. Again, a quote:

"Those two issues (along with animal rights) are easy, comfort-zone issues. They allow upper-class white people to get a buzz from standing up to 'The Man' (who The Man is is usually not fully explained) and for those poor, oppressed female lawyers, fabulous hairdressers, and cute baby seals. Note the common pattern - none of the people mentioned above are likely to talk back to their Great White Hope. None are likely to call them 'honky'. None are likely to make them uncomfortable in any way."

This kind of "analysis" is both incoherent and well within the comfort zone of the old left. To be more precise, such tropes and polemics have a long tradition in the ranks of the reactionary left. By the reactionary left I do not mean merely hard core Stalinists. No, that addresses only the outright totalitarians on the left. I mean precisely the "progressive" reactionaries who have always resented serious claims for justice made by women and by gay people. I will not cite these reactionaries in depth and detail here-- I have done so elsewhere in my book The Queer Question.

Sexism and anti-gay bigotry go well beyond the usual right wing suspects. "Poor, oppressed female lawyers, fabulous hairdressers, and cute baby seals" is a cheap phrase entirely consonant with a refusal to think seriously about the humanity of women and gay people (or indeed about cruelty toward animals.) Whether "Disillusioned" knows it or not, abortion was never a simple reflexive issue for thoughtful socialists and feminists. That is one reason a distinct socialist-feminist current emerged on the democratic left. From such a perspective, abortion is indeed "a woman's choice" but not a purely personal matter.

Abortion inevitably raises questions of sexual autonomy, of social bonds, and of social obligations. For anti-abortion campaigners, the official gospel may be love but the political program is punitive. For socialist-feminists, abortion has never been an unqualified good. The argument was and is different: abortion belongs in the spectrum of personal choice, of social solidarity, and indeed of health care for women. Sex gets most people in some kind of trouble at some point in our lives. We might say sex gets every person quite literally into a world of trouble-- in the sense that every child is all too human and all too mortal. Should women and gay people be burdened with special penalties for our common sexual humanity? Though the question is not posed so plainly by fundamentalists, their fundamental answer has been plain enough.

Socialist-feminists have been critical of state control over women's sexuality and health-- and this critique has not spared "actually existing socialism" under Communist and Social Democratic governments. State policies of enforced natalism (for example, in Romania at one period) and of enforced abortions (for example, in China at present) are not simply "opposite" points along a political spectrum. Both policies are unenforceable without a managerial class. Most (but not all) of those managers have been and still are men. If sexual divisions are edited from the history of class divisions, we are telling a simpler story but nothing near the truth. A "progressive" view of Economic Man which overlooks the lives of women and of gay people will be a very partisan and partial view of life.

Making abortion "safe, legal and rare"-- to use a phrase favored by the Clintons and the DLC "centrists"-- seems a fair enough goal. But the phrase is also a managerial slogan and an evasive maneuver, as any clear close look at our class system will demonstrate. The Democratic Party cannot be trusted to defend or deliver a basic minimum program of social democracy. Under "actually existing capitalism," therefore, why be surprised if abortion is often only marginally legal, too often unsafe, and hardly rare?

Life is a continuum which cannot begin only "at the moment of conception." This may be a religious dogma, but it comes close to being a heresy if measured even against ancient orthodox faiths. We create ourselves only to a limited degree. Life streams through creatures and through time in a manner which can be studied by scientists but which also retains an element of mystery. The most "objective" scientist has not yet been able to search out the ground of being. Even at the moment of conception, the whole course of evolution and the whole inheritance of life among all creatures must be considered. In such a continuum, the moment of conception is indeed only one moment-- a crucial moment but not easily isolated from life before and after. Otherwise we cannot easily conceive why nutrition or radiation can have far reaching effects beyond a particular couple or one particular generation. To say abortion is a "comfort zone" issue is to deny continuing evident discomfort not only with abortion, but also with the volition of women.

Even female lawyers may be black-- and may have have begun life poor. I have known hairdressers of all sexual persuasions, and most have been working class. Such qualifications can be glibly granted-- "Well, of course!" Yet glib and false divisions continue rolling off the tongues and springing from the keyboards of people who claim political primacy for race and class. This proves only the perennial insecurity of certain "progressives"-- often straight white guys, and sometimes comfortable members of the academy. (I name them and cite their works in The Queer Question. Mere quotation is sometimes sufficient demolition.)

Any "progressive" who thinks class can be addressed without addressing women and gay people of all races and classes is a creature of the old left. Any ideology can become a bundle of reflexes and anxieties. In this way an idea that was once a compass for justice can become rusted by weather and encrusted by bilge and barnacles.

Why should anyone be surprised that social justice movements develop their own elites and upper crusts over time? Why should we surprised if class and racial divisions appear and reemerge in movements for social change? This has happened within the civil rights movement, within the women's movement, within the gay movement. The labor movement has also suffered such sea changes. Therefore the labor movement will also be reinvented by working people and their allies-- of all races, of all ethnic backgrounds, men and women, gay and straight. If "Disillusioned" has grown weary of human history, so have we all. But there is no way forward except working with the materials at hand: our own humanity and damnably difficult circumstances.

Any serious socialist today must acknowledge two facts: Unions which once fought management develop their own managerial elites, and so the class struggle is likely to be permanent. (In this respect, I incline more toward the views of Simone Weil than toward the views of Karl Marx.) We can expect immense class struggles in China over the next century as insurgent unions organize against the Communist Party-- unless the Party succeeds in maintaining a semi-fascist regime of corporatism, militarism, and nationalism. One way to discipline people divided by classes is to appeal to "the masses," both in times of peace and of war. Why be surprised this late in human history by new forms of reactionary populism? Bush and Cheney also claim to speak for "We, the People." Taking refuge in reactionary and puritanical forms of populism serves no one but the ruling classes, their hired politicians, and their busy police.

"Disillusioned" is a disgruntled conformist. His defence of the old time religion and of the old left Economic Man is as mechanical, as nostalgic, as tuneful as a Bavarian cuckoo-clock. I prefer Oscar Wilde, who once wrote: "Socialism will be of value simply because it will lead to individualism." That was his hope, but he also gave a warning: "If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have industrial tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first."

Now I will quote Sam Smith's response to "Disillusioned":

"We don't invent the news, we just report it. If churches, the Democratic Party, the Greens, and assorted liberals are more interested in gay rights than universal health care or pensions, there isn't much I can do about it. I try to space my complaints about such matters so I won't bore the reader. Besides, how many progressive publications will you find scolding gays for telling the editor how he should dress?"

You don't invent the news? To some degree, we all invent the news. Even in that brief paragraph, your version of the news is a familiar fiction. I, too, try to space my complaints about such matters-- but this time round I want to take a closer look, the way one might turn a familiar old beach pebble with new fascination.

Sam, scolding gays in general because you did not like "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" was silly then and now. You overestimate the safe arrival of queers in politics and in popular culture. On that score, plenty of parvenu queers are living in a world of illusions, much as the luckier Jews in Europe once lived among genteel anti-Semites and the less murderous Gentiles. An analogy of that sort is risky, of course, but it remains an analogy-- not a simple historical equation. I do not mean Jews, Gypsies, Reds and queers will share death camps again anytime soon. To imagine all reaction only in the old frame of fascism is oddly comforting to some people, but not to me. For better and for worse, we can expect surprises.

"If churches, the Democratic Party, the Greens, and assorted liberals are more interested in gay rights than universal health care or pensions, there isn't much I can do about it." Oh, but there is-- or why do you bother writing and publishing at all? Presumably you wrote those words to put public issues in their proper rank and moral order. Have you failed to notice that many church leaders are conducting crusades against queers? No, you have not-- after all, you sometimes publish that kind of news. Either that sentence was a rhetorical reflex unworthy of Sam Smith, or you believed what you wrote-- and could not be more mistaken. And I'll tell you why, beginning with the churches and finishing with the political parties.

The Vatican is now conducting a purge of gays from seminaries, as if this can compensate for all the fall-out from the sexual abuse scandals and from the rules of a celibate male club. The Methodist Church just defrocked a lesbian minister. The Anglican clergy of Africa and Asia are not presently following the lead of Archbishop Tutu in great numbers-- no, they are following the lead of the new Inquisitors and the new heresy hunters. Your "Disillusioned" reader is full of illusions on this subject. He cannot face unpleasant facts, including the complex power struggles between branches of the Anglican Church. How does "Disillusioned" explain the fact that certain congregations of wealthy and quite white Episcopalians are choosing to affiliate themselves with anti-gay black bishops in Africa and Asia? Have such WASPS suddenly discovered a "color blind" internationalism, or a gospel which truly transcends all boundaries of class? I know that church too well to believe in such a miracle.

Whether "Disillusioned" likes it or not, we are witnessing a kind of Darwinian devolution in church politics, as we have witnessed something similar in ordinary partisan politics. Thus American Episcopalians devoted to Bush can "rise above" race and class to join international and ecumenical crusades against queers. Lily-white flocks of such American sheep are now nominally within the fold of certain African "Good Shepherds", otherwise known as bishops and archbishops. Many clerics in Africa, Asia and Latin America happen to be harking back to the official Victorian morality of the British ruling class. That, too, must be taken into account in any history of the fall-out of colonialism. Official gospels and morals of that kind are compatible with much sexual hypocrisy and class cruelty. Religious reaction and corporate reaction was not pretty in the previous century, and it may get uglier in the twenty-first. "Disillusioned" has barely gotten all the bad news.

The notion that the Democratic Party has been at all consistent on gay rights is nonsense. Anti-gay bigots, fundamentalists, rabid Republicans, and even certain gay apparatchiks in the Democratic Party may even believe such nonsense. They have their reasons and their interests. In reality, however, anything gay people gained from the Democratic Party was gained against much opposition. A Democratic president, Bill Clinton, signed one of the most vindictive pieces of federal legislation in decades: The Defense of Marriage ACT (DOMA). With such a looming precedent, the far right easily campaigned for more "mini-DOMAs" state by state. Just as the Jim Crow laws made "miscegenation" illegal, likewise the DOMA-styled laws make kinship and marriage a well-defended bunker restricted to "one man and one woman." Such sexual and marital restrictions are regular features of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

If heterosexuals think marriage is too trivial to be regarded as a human right, then by all means step forward and renounce your own claims to that institution. But be truly consistent, and renounce all the legal, social and economic privileges which are bundled together in state sanctioned marriages and in heterosexual civil unions.

A radical argument can be made against giving married couples any special privileges whatsoever, and against making nuclear households the foundation of a fair economy and culture. Some feminists, anarchists, and socialists have made just such an argument. But more limited arguments for justice are also legitimate. Basic social democracy cannot be the private property of straight people, of married people, or of nuclear families. We deserve health care, education, housing and human rights by virtue of being born human. The Democratic Party has been the dancing partner of the Republican Party for decades, and by abandoning the terrain of justice it has advanced the rule of the rich and brutal. If "assorted liberals" include the editors of The Nation, then they proved to be very unreliable allies for queers during bipartisan bouts of queer-baiting and during the AIDS epidemic.

In 1959, Hannah Arendt-- who had been a refugee from Nazi Germany-- had to explain to certain members of the American "left" why laws restricting marriage and kinship to "first class" citizens are detestable. She argued that laws forbidding marriage between blacks and whites had to be abolished. Why was it necessary for her to make this argument? Because even some "progressives" feared to venture into the minefield of "miscegenation." Arendt was addressing Sidney Hook, but she could well be addressing the cowardly and complacent "progressives" of 2005: "By calling abrogation of racial legislation 'the equality of the bedroom' (I did not believe my eyes), he reveals very clearly how little he understands of human dignity, however much he may be concerned with social opportunity." In case anyone should still miss her point-- so plain and so painful to a Jewish woman whose husband was not a Jew, so plain and so painful to a person who understood Nazi laws restricting marriage and kinship all too well-- then her own words may offer further clarification:

"The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which 'the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one's skin color or race' are minor indeed. Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs."

"Progressives" who trivialize the issue of gay marriage reveal how far beyond their own "comfort zone" these basic human rights have fallen. They reveal indeed how little they understand human dignity-- however much they may be concerned with social opportunity. Just as the issue of slavery split churches and divided a nation during the Civil War, so this issue of gay marriage will split and divide Americans today. Let the division be sharp, let the struggle be honest and in earnest. There can be no neutrals in this struggle: either we grow nostalgic for rotten alliances, or we grow determined to abolish an injustice.

By itself, marriage is one crucial stepping stone toward equality of kinship-- by no means the final goal, and by no means the horizon of social democracy. A principled refusal to marry ought to command respect. That choice will only be truly free for all people when the state ceases to reward or punish us by the choices we make in love and in kinship. Religious arguments against gay marriage should be binding only on people who choose to follow dogmatic faiths. A religious dogma has no special dignity as such, nor does the mere antiquity of a doctrine demonstrate any higher morality. Those who believe otherwise may believe so sincerely, but if they attempt to govern non-believers they deserve sharp warnings and steady resistance.

To say the Green Party has shown more interest in gay rights than in universal health care, pensions, and economic justice is flatly and demonstrably false. In fact, a sad percentage of Greens are as reluctant to fight anti-gay bigotry as was Nader in his first run as a Green presidential candidate. Nader and the Green Party-- now there was a marriage of convenience! Nader is indeed a model citizen-- if the citizen is reduced to a model Economic Man. His comment regarding "gonadal politics" was only another version of the old left gospel, only another high-minded dismissal of "equality of the bedroom." His words were not casual but conscientious: he meant what he said. I never trusted Nader though I did vote for him once.

Why am I a registered member of the Green Party? Because politics is more than the art of compromise. If there is no end to compromise, then we might as well vote for Clinton clones till kingdom come. One reason I give time, money and votes to the Green Party is because a good percentage of Greens understand that gay rights are human rights. In other words, that human beings of all sexual persuasions are entitled to universal health care and economic justice.

I am not romantic about the Green Party, nor partisan politics of any kind. I observe that the anti-gay bigots in the Green Party-- yes, there are some-- do not speak in the language of religious fundamentalism. Oh no, they speak in the language of the old left. Under cover of a "higher cause," they can indulge in the usual queer baiting. Like Condoleeza Rice, though with other motives, some Greens even go as far as conjuring mushroom clouds-- the better to blow away any facts they find inconvenient. The far right regards anti-feminist politics as politics, and they get political results. The far right regards anti-gay politics as politics, and they get political results. Whereas many "progressives" will acknowledge that women and queers deserve to be mentioned somewhere in the last third of a Twenty-One Point Program. And thus the left is left behind.

If we are speaking of the working class, a good half of them will be women. A smaller number will be gay-- though the exact number will likely remain elusive. Straight people fuck queers into existence very reliably, generation after generation. Queers are also very good at the sexual and social recreation of queer culture, generation after generation. Here are social and sexual facts worth attention.

The right has always paid attention to sex-- quite rightly. The left, begrudgingly and belatedly, has begun paying attention. (To say that the American "New Left" broke away from all puritanical ideologies makes a simple story, all too simple.) The notion that the left pays "too much attention to sex" is shared by sexual hypocrites spanning the political spectrum from right to left. In this respect, "disillusioned" progressives are cultural dinosaurs. If they are the crowning product of evolution, then a well aimed comet or a new ice age would be a mercy...

Wilhelm Reich wrote his best books on just these subjects. By the early 1930s he had earned honorable expulsions from both Freudian and Marxist circles because he kept talking about sex and class in the same breath. To dismiss Reich simply as a crazy man, even in his early years and especially in his later years, is very comforting to some people. At least three of his books-- The Sexual Revolution, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, and The Function of the Orgasm-- belong in every radical's library. All his writings are worth unprejudiced reading. Even when he was fantastical-- as fantastical as Freud, for example, in The Interpretation of Dreams-- he was writing classics. Orgone boxes got Reich in trouble with the U.S. government, and he died of a heart attack in a federal prison. But what a lovely writer, and in his best years what a lovely man! Even as his world began narrowing down to a prison cell, even as he grew well and truly disillusioned with all party politics, even then his vision of cosmic energy was developing along lyrical lines. Reich claimed he was a pioneer in biology and in a form of non-mechanistic science. He was sometimes a poet in prose. What he called cosmic energy was not so far different from what Dante called, in the last line of The Divine Comedy, "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle"-- the love which moves the sun and the other stars.

Progressive? Are we progressing toward such love? War after war, brigades of social engineers, red hot fundamentalism, flash frozen ideologies, the hypnotic box in the living room, the carnage on superhighways, the bargain basement architecture creeping over every continent-- yes, and electric lights, and modern plumbing, and ten thousand kinds of therapy-- "this storm," as Walter Benjamin wrote in the last century, "is what we call progress." But Benjamin had the right idea: to abandon optimism for the sake of hope, even if hope failed him. Only in this last respect do I share any sympathy with the world-view of your "Disillusioned" reader, and yet he seems to think all illusions ended with the optimistic ideologies of the last century. In that case, he has not advanced even to the outer courts of the ancient pessimists... Even in a Christian church-- a church holding out a last great promise-- I remember singing these lines as a boy:

Time like an ever rolling-stream
Bears all its sons away:
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Just so, and still we have our daily life and work, and the time given us on earth. We must give democracy another try.