Friday, May 11, 2012

800 Words: Why Religion Always Wins - Part 2

“When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those 
hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested 
generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We 
do not even know their names. In the whole of Greek and Roman history, 
how many slaves' names are known to you? I can think of two, or possibly 
three. One is Spartacus and the other is Epictetus. Also, in the Roman 
room at the British Museum there is a glass jar with the maker's name 
inscribed on the bottom, 'FELIX FECIT'. I have a mental picture of poor 
Felix (a Gaul with red hair and a metal collar round his neck), but in 
fact he may not have been a slave; so there are only two slaves whose 
names I definitely know, and probably few people can remember more. The 
rest have gone down into utter silence.

-         -  George Orwell, Looking Back on the Spanish War

This is actually a post about the last few developments in Same Sex Marriage. No doubt, this is an odd place to begin it; particularly as I’m going to do the oddest possible thing, and take a long and tragic view of history in the wake of one of its few happy days. No doubt, nobody wants to hear about such things when something so historically awesome as the first true expansion of American civil rights in nearly fifty years seems on the cusp of happening. But if we’re serious about making the happy moments last, it can only be done by remembering the toil and tears it took to get there.

Let’s continue by bringing up another writer, still more seminal though perhaps less intelligent than Orwell. Sigmund Freud was as terrible a doctor as he was great a writer (read his essays, he is a GREAT writer). It’s worth noting that by the end of his life, Freud had completely changed his view of homosexuality and seemed to accept it as a natural part of biology, and even at his most intolerant he accepted that some homosexuals were innately and biologically gay. But when he wrote his Three Essays on Sexuality, Freud believed that homosexuality was (in most cases, and this is an absurdly simplistic reduction of his theory) a “simple” case of castration anxiety in some children which caused them to switch their primal attraction from their parent of the opposite gender to their parent of the same. Therefore, he believed that in most cases, homosexuality was a mental disorder, a perversion to be cured. To be sure, Freud was, as usual, full of shit.

But in his essays, Freud makes another observation, comparatively minor, that’s more difficult to contradict. He notes that homosexuality is particularly acceptable in places of great wealth and civilization in their late stages– Athens after the age of Alexander, Theodosian Rome, fin-de-siecle Vienna, and off-handedly notes that the widespread acceptance of homosexuality is a sure sign of a civilization’s imminent decline.

Let’s be pellucidly clear: if the acceptance of homosexuality is a sure sign of civilization’s decline, then we should all be on the side of decline, and rooting for our society to burn (flame?) up like a pyre. A civil society without civilization is a place not worth living in. There is no reason to go on living in a time and place where behavior that does not hurt others is considered a capital offense. But at the same time, there is something about this argument that is, at best, difficult to refute. 

What Freud neglected is that an accepted gay community is hardly alone in being symptomatic of an imminent collapse. What’s true for them is true for any minority allowed to exist as equals at the whim of a majority. The acceptance of gays as equals is no more or less symptomatic of kind of a systemic decline than the acceptance of the tens of millions of black descendents of slaves and the Jews who were refused asylum from virtually every first world country so millions of them can go to the slaughterhouse. Every country has an original sin (or thousands) upon which it was founded, and once the country’s covenant with their sins is broken, they are no longer fueled by the power which sustained their rise. All that remains for civilizations past their peak is to coast on the achievements of past toil and wait for a civilization with greater will to power to impose their way of life.

Man is an intolerant animal by nature, and like children, adults find it easier to be told what to think. Most people would prefer the simplicity of a sentence-long explanation than to weigh all creation’s ambiguities for themselves. But even if they accept the simplicity of a short explanation, complexity remains all around them, and more importantly, complex people remain in their line of sight. In every culture, no matter how repressive, there are many people who don’t fit established models of what a person is supposed to be. To a human being who accepts simple explanations, every person who disagrees with them presents a calamitous threat to their peace of mind. And as the relationship with these ‘others’ become still more entangled, the simple majority will try everything within their power to coexist with their minorities without changing their viewpoints a single iota. They will try to reason with them, persuade them, convert them, discriminate against them, ostracize them, bully them, threaten them, beat them, rape them, mutilate them.

But few people, particularly few simple people, aspire to be murderers. It is only having exhausted every other possible option that the crowd which prefers simple explanations begins to rationalize the thought that every burden must be born so that the threats to their simplicity must be eliminated. And eventually they come to the realization to which all totalitarian regimes arrive. As Stalin said: “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.”

Civilizations rise because rough people are willing to do feats of labor and violence beyond our imaginings so as to establish order where chaos once reigned. But civilizations stay in place because the descendants of these simple roughnecks have the privileges of leisure, of entertainment, of self-examination, and on seldom occasions in our lives, of enlightenment. Being born to soil already conquered, they (we) can spend our time on more pleasurable pursuits. But all the activities which give our lives meaning can easily be obliterated by those who do not share our desire for a more enlightened world. And because people don’t realize how easily our social compacts can be broken, we see and read about all sorts of odd spectacles – from ‘progressive’ University students demonstrating in support of terrorist organizations who would replace their universities with Mosques, to their professors trying to put government officials on trial for war crimes because they imposed sanctions on theocratic dictators who’ve killed hundreds of thousands so as to help bring an evil regime down. In so many cases, the members of the world’s most educated and intellectual social classes have grown so decadent that one can’t help wondering if they no longer see anything worth preserving in the freedoms which their society fought so hard to earn. Along with the theocratic majority, so simple in their outlook, there is also a ‘complex’ minority within the minority, who has so abused the privilege of intelligent thought that their conclusions scarcely differ from the most fanatical tongue-speaker. This minority-within-the-minority gives their intellectual prestige to barbarism so that they can partake in the cheap thrill of ganging up with barbarians on everything which civilization holds dear.

This has been a banner week for gay rights in quite a few ways – both good and bad. The vote in North Carolina to approve defining marriage as being between a man and woman filled me with disgust, as it should any civilized person. But it also fills me with sadness: could we possibly have expected anything more? We are still less than a lifetime away from a long era in American history when homosexuals could be lynched with impunity. Thinking about it fills me with disgust and sadness, but not outrage – because it’s frankly (and tragically) amazing that gay rights have come as far as they have given the savagery of its opposition. The fact that any state at all would acknowledge these rights is cause for enormous celebration and perhaps gives greater hope for the fact that civil rights will go still further.

We are still, hopefully, in the beginning stages of gay rights being widely accepted. Perhaps gay people have a while yet to enjoy freedom in America before the pendulum swings back on them, perhaps even a century or two. And perhaps this is one of those few moments in history in which a critical mass is reached, and an entire pattern of intolerance is changed. But that’s unlikely. What’s far more likely is that we’re currently experiencing an oasis of freedom in history’s inevitable blood and iron. Martin Luther King said that ‘arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Martin Luther King was wrong. History has no arc, it only has a continuum on which security and freedom is earned, bought, and stolen, until someone earns, buys, or steals the privilege away from us. There is nothing in the history of the world which conclusively demonstrates that freedom is a fundamental right, it is a privilege which we earn through eternal vigilance, because the moment we drop our guard, someone will be there to take it away from us.

Even in the best case scenario, every gain in gay rights is likely something that will not last – even for the duration of America’s period on the world stage. Even in the strongest, freest civilizations, the rights of all minorities can only be tenuous. When times are tough, even tougher than they are right now, the simple majority will look for people to blame. And the only people handy to whom their leaders can pin it on will be whatever minorities are handiest. It might be gay people, it might be Latino immigrants, it might be Communists in the State Department. But it hasn’t happened yet…

Frankly, we should all be celebrating our freedoms every day of our lives, just as we did on Wednesday; not just for any hard-won gain in civil rights, but that we were simply born in a country as free as America currently, because it is its own sort of miracle that we were all born to a country that values the rights of any minority, however abysmally at times.  Even a Lesbian Black Latino Quadriplegic Learning-Disabled Jewish American on welfare would probably never trade her life for that of a gifted and powerful man in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And perhaps by celebrating the ways we are already free more often, we’ll be able to understand how easily that freedom can disappear. Don’t take that freedom lightly, the survival of the gay community may depend upon your understanding. In the meantime, let’s hope that we can either delay the downfall, or that history has grown a new precedent – and that gay people can get married for at least another 3-500 years.

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