Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Gays and Human Accomplishment:

I think this California Bill requiring "schools to buy textbooks 'accurately' portraying 'the sexual diversity of our society'" is a bit silly. I'm not entirely against "gay studies" -- but 1) it shouldn't be mandatory in public schools, and 2) more interestingly, most of the new ______________ studies (fill in the PC blank) programs seem to me to be a demand for "equal time" against the disproportionately European male human accomplishers most responsible for what we know of as "the Western Canon." And as I will argue, given that gays appear to be disproportionately responsible for that Canon, gays clearly don't need such "special time." Indeed, given the relatively small percentage of gays in the population, "equal time" would only shrink the coverage we give to the great gay minds and talent of the past.

Not that there aren't brilliant female and non-Western European artists and thinkers; there are and they shouldn't be given short-shrift (and the injustices -- sexism and institutional homemaking -- which prevented such "on par" achievement should be also duly noted). But "greatness," not "equal time" or "diversity" should be the standard. The equal time standard, by its very nature, gives more time to works that, while they may be good, don't belong in the Canon next to Shakespeare, Milton or Proust.

For instance, we can't give "equal time" to female classical composers because, for whatever variety of reasons, 50% of the great composers have not been female (although let me point out that at 16, my classical guitar teacher rightly told me that the greatest living classical guitarist was a female, Sharon Isbin, who also happens to be a lesbian and first cousin of the late great gay libertarian radio talk show host David Brudnoy).

See this classic article by Bruce Bawer on the matter, where he writes:

It's also confining, for there's no part of the cultural landscape without a gay element. Even if gays constitute as much as fifteen percent of the population, the gay contribution to Western art, architecture, music, and literature far exceeds what it should be statistically. If you accept the right-wing claim that only one in a hundred people is gay, then the gay contribution is truly extraordinary. Think about it: A group comprising one percent of the population producing Erasmus, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Marlowe, Bacon, Hölderlin, Hans Christian Andersen, Tchaikovsky, Proust ... the list goes on and on to include three of the four major nineteenth-century American novelists, one (perhaps both) of the two great nineteenth-century American poets, and two of the three most noted mid-twentieth-century American dramatists.

Or as Richard Posner writes in Sex and Reason:

A person who knows that James I, Francis Bacon, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky, George Santayana, T.E. Lawrence, Alan Turing, and Ludwig Wittgenstein were homosexuals, and that Sophocles, Socrates, Plato, Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Richard the Lion-Hearted may have been, is not so likely to believe that homosexuality is merely a ghastly blight. p. 141.

I'm all for honestly discussing the homosexuality of these great figures. But clearly, gays don't need any "special attention" in terms of historical artistic and intellectual achievements.

A more interesting question might be, why it is that gays seem to have over accomplished? An honest answer would be "got me?". Gay men have been "stereotyped" as having "female" psychology. However, it's historically been men and not women who have been the greatest artists and achievers, and disproportionately gay men. In some ways, like the need for sexual release, gay male psychology is stereotypically male, not female (perhaps because of their male biology and the testosterone that goes with it).

Camille Paglia has an interesting theory. In Vamps & Tramps, she writes:

For me, civilization is art, and art is the highest record of humanity. One day, when we represent ourselves to inhabitants of distant galaxies, it will be by our art that we will want to be known. Therefore, anything that contributes to art must be nurtured and preserved. What seems irrefutable from my studies is that male homosexuality is intricately intertwined with art, for reasons we have yet to determine. p. 22.

She then gives what the reason could be:

It is possible that gay men are caught midway between the male and female brains and therefore share the best of both. Talent in the visual arts may be related to a sensory or perceptual openness, detectable (as responsiveness to light and color) in early childhood and perhaps related to autism, where the flux of sensations is cognitively uncontrolled. The gay male brain seems to me permanently switched "on." p. 75

I remember once being involved in an email exchange with a prominent anti-gay sociobiologist/conservative columnist (I think you can guess), who once wrote of the day when we could test for homosexuality in the womb and "correct it." And if, as Paglia argues, "civilization is art, and art is the highest record of humanity" and "anything that contributes to art must be nurtured and preserved" and "[w]hat seems that male homosexuality is intricately intertwined with art," it might not be such a good idea for humanity to "wipe" homosexuality from human nature.

Perhaps because I came on a little too strong, he dismissed the premise as "homopropaganda." I think I initially gave him some cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, he was a homophobe. On the other, he championed the extremely controversial idea that certain social groups have accomplished more civilization than others and that IQ scores reflect those differences. I even noted to him that some studies demonstrate that gays have higher incomes, possess more wealth and are better educated. And the social science which he lauds connects higher rates of wealth, income and education with higher IQ. (And indeed, look at the typical real estate values of the neighborhoods where gays congregate.) Thus, it was likely that gays have higher IQs.

Of course, given the closet and the ultimate uncertainly as to who really is and was gay or bisexual, there will always be room for reasonably doubting these group differences. You do have to do a little "dot connecting" to arrive at the assertion that gays are greater Human Accomplishers.

Though, I have to note, a few months after my email exchange, it was with delicious irony that I read this article by him lauding Charles Murray's book Human Accomplishment while he picked out one figure whom he thought best represented human accomplishment of the 20th Century. And he picked...Cole Porter, a gay man (duly noted in the article).


David Swindle said...

Nice entry, Jonathan.

The Gay Species said...


Interesting, provocative, and thoughtful post. Perhaps tangental, I could not help wonder what it means to be "gay." After reading Louis Compton's excellent "Homosexuality and Civilization," it's apparent that the "gay" and "homosexual" appellations are of recent origin (19th C.) Even today, I'm still not sure what those appellations denote, but at least two features seem indisputable.

(1) Men (or women) who have sex with other men (or women). That much is obvious.

(2) But another characteristic seems ubiquitous, although I'm not sure I can articulate it. It concerns an individual's disposition or temperament. Gay men, despite our significant differences in about everything else, seem to have a distinctive temperament that only rarely occurs in straight men. Indeed, it's that distinctive temperament that often draws heterosexual women to gay men. I want to suggest "empathy," but it's something more. It's not necessarily "feminine" in character, although women seem to have this dispostion or temperament more often than most men, especially straight men. It's not particularly more romantic nor necessarily more sexual, it has something to do with connecting on a specific level of personality that most, but not all, gay men share. After thirty years, one would think I could be more articulate about this feature, or interpersonal dynamic, but I can't. I confess frustration at the inability to identify "it." Whatever it is, it's the only "other" characteristic that most gay men share in common. And, according to Compton, I'm not sure it's persisted through the ages. But it's definitely been a feature in the past 200 years, and continues in our own time.

At one time, especially as a resident of San Francisco, I, like many others, both straight and gay, assumed there was a "gay" hegemony. But as time progressed, I've discovered we have far more differences than similarities. But the two similarities we share are defining: (1) MSM is the obvious one. That has been true throughout history. (2) But this "other" dynamic, or disposition, or characteristic is much more elusive, even though it is no less tangible. It's not just the physical attraction that men have for other men, it's a particular level of connection that mostly gay men share. And, after my acquaintances with lesbians, I'm not sure that they are similarly disposed.

I'll probably go to my grave not "knowing" what this feature is, and in the final analysis, it isn't that important. I'm just curious to understand what that unusual feature is, and while almost all gay men "know" what I am claiming, they're also at a loss for words to identify it. It's not quite instinctual, but it's also not that far from it. But it's the "other" factor that draws us together.

What perplexes me most about these two features is why they bug the hell out of others? Yes, I understand the biological "disgust" factor and the heterosexual male's "affinity" which causes inversely male homophobia. Those factors have been rehearsed very well. But once one gets a grip on these two aspects of difference, why have so many people, especially straight men, become so hostile to gays? Ironically, most straight men enjoy lesbian sexuality, so it's not just the "contamination" or "unnatural" aspects that are operating.

And, no doubt, religious fundamentalists, who are notorious for getting the basics wrong, seem to alight on one verse in the Levitical Code of Holiness. But why have they spent over ten million dollars to "convert" gays into being ex-gays? Why is it that Pat Robertson, Lou Sheldon, James Dobson seem so preoccupied with a small difference in sexual orientation, that they are literally consumed by it? Yes, it's a cash cow for them. But, why? They don't get exercised when one wears clothing of two different fabrics, or go ballistic when someone eats shellfish, so why does one verse in that Code get them so riled up? Maybe, they should spend more time and money dealing with their own serial marriages, unwed pregnancies, mass fornicators, heterosexual pedophiles, etc., before aiming so much attention and money at 3% of the population.

After all, their Bible extols David and Jonathan's (not you) love, Jesus and his Beloved's, and Naomi and Ruth's. Once again, their inability to grasp genuine significance for their tangental preoccupations make them the hypocrites they are. While they're counting the days to Armageddon, people are starving, being flooded, and seeking real help. Meanwhile, they're praying for the world to be "born again," and for queers to become "es-queers," just like they have been. And if that weren't abberant in itself, they have the temerity to waste our time, money, and energy with Intelligent Design, the homosexuals' agendas, and God's wrath on New Orleans (for eating crawfish, I'm sure!).

So, whatever "it" is that has drawn Socrates, Shakespeare, Bacon, Wittgenstein, Kenyes, Proust, Wilde, and all the other homosexuals in world history to the forefront of attention, most of us just want to live "ordinary" lives of love, family, and friends. That an emormous campaign in most of the 50 States has been amassed to disposses us of our fundamental rights, we're wasting precious time with our signficant others defeating their hate and hostility. It's time they changed channels.

The Gay Species said...

My previous digression (supra.) didn't address your keen observations, which I think are very important.

First, without stating it this way, you've addressed the distinction between "multiculturalism" and "pluralism" and "dogmatism." Multiculturalism regards all cultures as essentially worthy and esteemible in their own context, and more, in "our" own context. Bull-pucky! Totalitarianism is not on par with democracy, any more than historical Christianity is on par with fundamentalist Christianity, any more than socialism is on par with capitalism. Humans have this wonderful capacity to distinguish between "better" and "worse," and the multiculturalists' objective is to deny us this capacity.

Dogmatists, on the other hand, have an apriori conception of what the ideal "should" be, and anything less is not only unacceptable, but intolerable. That intolerance is itself intolerable.

When two or more ideas, concepts, expressions, principles, etc. are set in juxtaposition, some are clearly superior to others. Call me an Elightenment snob, but medieval Europe is not on par with Industrialist Europe, much less on par with Moorish Spain versus contemporary Spain. Ovid, the Latin poet, may be similar to Shakespeare, but Lawrence Ferlinghetti is by no means Shakespeare. Gertrude Stein may have her merits, but compared to her contemporary Faulkner, there is no comparison. Humans are a "discriminating" animal, and Matthew Arnold, that great English literary critic, clearly demonstrated that different cultures may have important contributions to make, but that does not grant them parity.

Pluralism understands this fundamental distinction. It grants that not all cultures are equal, nor all religions meritorious, nor all economics the same. Perhaps each and all have something to contribute to our appreciation, understanding, evaluation, and distinctions, but human nature allows for differences of accommodation, and grants idiots the same space as intellectuals, but it does not confuse one for the other, much less consider one equal to the other. Until academia twisted our inheritance, pluralism was our noble inheritance, multiculturalism and dogmatism our perverse antogonists.

Enter homosexuals. Their cultural contributions to our social melieu are clearly disporportionate to their number, and many a homosexual (e.g., Plato, Keynes, Wittgenstein, Shakespeare, Michaelangelo, et alia) have made extraordinary contributions to our culture by anyone's measure. That recognition is simply a pluralist's persepctive, one without dogmatism or multiculturalism attached. Why so many homosexuals have offered culture so many appreciable values, I cannot possibly say, other than to hypothesize that marginalization, in some instances, has found creative outlets in others (hardly a novel theory). But to claim from such observations that therefore homosexuality is obviously equal to, or superior to, heterosexuality would be preposterous. In modern parlance, it would be a categorical mistake.

Multiculturalists deny this fundamental observation, and conflate all cultural contributions as more or less equal. They are equally notrorious for making categorical mistakes, such as insisting all categories are equally tenable. Here's one homosexual who is delighted that homosexuality is not the dominant paradigm (as say in ancient Athens and Sparta), for some relatively ostensible reasons, of which survival of the species probably trumps them all. But unlike the dogmatist (the extreme opposite of the multiculturalist), I don't deny homosexuals' contribution to our better and nobler instincts are any less esteemible because homosexuals made them. Indeed, I wouldn't want to argue that we should make homosexuals' lives any more difficult or compromised so that society could benefit from their creative expressions diverted from their sexual preference.

At some point, we must still aspire to our Founders' aspirations to create and sustain a pluralistic liberal democracy, which necessarily entails variety and difference. That, in the homosexual's case, is neither to grant special accommodation, nor to deny equal access, but to grant the pursuit of happiness to everyone. Homosexuality, for example, fits me just fine, but I therefore don't want to claim that it must be the dominant paradigm or that it should be eschewed for religious reasons. I'm sure homosexuals can find contentment in their universe and religious wingnuts contentment in theirs and pluralists in theirs without trying to equalize or epitomize either.

Pluralism vs. multiculturalism and dogmatism is certainly to be favored, not because of any intrinsic merit of pluralism, but because it claims no intrinsic merit for anyone. Provided no harm comes to anyone, each must stake out an existence than suits his or her uniqueness, without anyone compromising the differences, nor anyone trying equalize their uniqueness. That's the difference between pluralism, dogmatism, and multiculturalism. The last two ideologies deny our fundamental human nature, only pluralism extols it. And however that nature is expressed, with the criterion of "harm" as its measure, so long as no one is harmed, then all differences should be able to express themselves or harmonize themselves, as each sees fit, but no one should try to equalize, conflate, monopolize, or abrogate one's indivdual contentment in order to diminish its uniqueness nor fit someone else's agenda.

So two forces are working, hopefully, in synergy: (1) pluralism and (2) human excellence. The antagonists are (3) multiculturalism and (4) dogmatism. One of the Englightenment's most noble concepts is that each person is free to set his or her own valuations, and that such valuations obviously matter, if only to the one making them. While we have the freedom to advocate our particular values, so does our opponent, but neither is free to impose his or her values on the other. That is pluralism in a liberal democracy's promise, and many of us are still awaiting its fulfillment.

Matthew said...

Not that there aren't brilliant female and non-Western European artists and thinkers; there are and they shouldn't be given short-shrift (and the injustices -- sexism and institutional homemaking -- which prevented such "on par" achievement should be also duly noted). But "greatness," not "equal time" or "diversity" should be the standard. The equal time standard, by its very nature, gives more time to works that, while they may be good, don't belong in the Canon next to Shakespeare, Milton or Proust.

Equal time has a good argument, and will continue to, simply because there is no such thing as greatness in humanities. There are different forms of aesthetics, like expressionism vs minimalism, but there are no logical grounds to say that one is "greater" and therefore more deserving of time. I think the same is true for arguments against gay studies (or any cultural studies programs).

However I don't think this is a particular problem. All you have to do is drop requirements altogether and let students choose for themselves which painters, writers, philosophers etc. they want to learn about.

goatchowder said...

There's a very simple, very obvious reason why gays and lesbians have made such a staggeringly huge contribution to Western culture, arts, and sciences:

They don't have children. At least not until recent times.

Anyone who is burdened with raising kids will clearly understand why this is such a significant difference.

You cannot devote yourself to producing brilliant, groundbreaking, innovative work-- particularly in the area of the arts or humanities-- if you have hungry mouths to feed. It's impossible. You have to take some shit corporate job or stay home and change diapers and drive kids back and forth to school and just make it through the next 20 years.

If you have children, your greatest creative peak years are wasted on bringing home the bacon or cooking it up.

When you are done it's all you can do to play golf.

Gays and lesbians haven't (haven't been medically able to, or allowed to, up until recently) had kids. Hence, rather than producing genetic progeny, they've been able to focus on producing memetic ones.

Jonathan said...


You could be right. I've also seen Derbyshire advance this possibility.