Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Misplaced priorities

Sullivan takes a cheap shot at the left regarding the email sent out by the Columbia Queer Alliance about Ahmadinejad's visit.

Ever since Michel Foucault's repulsive embrace of the Iranian revolution, the pomo gay left has had a soft spot for Islamo-fascists.
I'm hardly a fan of Foucault; for the most part, he gets his facts wrong, then reasons poorly from them. And queer studies is hardly the Foucault-worshipping monolith Sullivan implies. Especially since the email he cites begins by refuting his thesis:
"We condemn the human rights violations perpetrated by the Iranian government under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We admonish the policies that make same-sex practices punishable by torture and death, as well as those that restrict the freedoms and self-determination of women.
But the point isn't Sullivan's cheap shots, or illogic, of which this is only one example.

What is it that really has the CQA up in arms?
We cannot possibly claim to understand the multiple and diverse experiences of living with same-sex desires in Iran....The construction of sexual orientation as a social and political identity and all of the vocabulary therein is a Western cultural idiom. As such, scholars of sexuality in the Middle East generally use the terms "same-sex practices" and "same-sex desire" in recognition of the inadequacy of Western terminology. President Ahmadinejad's presence on campus has provided an impetus for us all to examine a number of issues, but most relevant to our concerns are the complexities of how sexual identity is constructed and understood in different parts of the world."

That's right. What they're really upset about is that we're using the word "gay," when the current conception of gayness is pretty much a Western concept and so doesn't necessarily apply to people in Iran.

Which is fine, up to a point. The modern conception of "gay" as an identity, referring to a roughly peer-equal affectionate/sexual relationship with someone of the same gender to the exclusion of such relationships with the opposite gender, is a phenomenon of 19th/20th Century Europe. It's certainly not what the ancient Greeks believed; they had strict taboos regarding who could do what with whom, based mostly on class and relative social standing. Likewise with the Romans, who legitimized certain practices but in the context of establishing/demonstrating/enforcing power relationships. (Fone's Homophobia: A History is a useful source here.) Up until at least the 50's or so, men could identify as heterosexual and still carry out certain same-sex acts without threatening their heterosexual identity. As long as they 'acted male,' as it were, there wasn't an issue of being anything other than a heterosexual man.

After kicking this around with a friend of mine (Hi, Harry!) via some emails this afternoon, it finally fell into place what annoys me about the CQA's email. They're right that the term "gay" as we understand it may not be entirely accurate in describing those in Iran (though I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say we have no possible basis for saying anything at all).

But why are we having this conversation now? People are being executed, and we're worried about what adjectives we're using in the newspaper? When the killings stop, I'll be willing to discuss the terminology question.

The phrasing of the letter comes too close for my comfort to the sort of facile moral equivalencing resulting in "Well, Stalin also accomplished a lot of good for Russia." There's an implied moral equivalency that simply isn't there. When there's 2 sentences denouncing public executions (with those executions having the obvious purpose of keeping others terrorized & silenced), followed by a long (and rather condescending) paragraph on how we need to use the academically-correct term, I start thinking someone's priorities are messed up.

People being killed is a more important question, and more important fact, than that the people being killed are being described with the wrong adjective in the media. If believing that marks me as a reactionary old technocrat, then I'll wear that label with pride.

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