A few weeks ago, a strange, seemingly anachronistic snippet of text momentarily flooded the viralsphere. Versions of it had appeared over the past year or so in various and disparate Facebook Users' status updates, as material on robotic news aggregation sites, and as posts on unscrupulous and content-desperate blogs around the world. “Charles Beaumont's 'The Crooked Man' was first published in Playboy magazine in 1955,” the most common version of the snippet begins, before moving on to describe the story:
In Beaumont's future, heterosexuality has been outlawed, as a form of population control. Current society is seen as being more enlightened, further developed. Homosexual relationships are seen as the only acceptable ones to have. Indeed, heterosexuals are locked up, or given the "Cure." Childbirth is handled in a lab.
When the story came out, it was a first of its kind. It caused quite a stir, as you might imagine. I think the story has value in that it makes it far easier for the someone to get an idea of what it must be like for a person to feel cast out or hated by society simply for having a particular sexual orientation. Far more chilling is the idea that a government entity is intent on forcing one mindset upon the masses.
Beaumont’s story concerns the sexual struggles of a young man named Jesse. Out at a bar when the story begins, he fends off advances from men even as he waits for Mina, a young woman who, like him, has unsavory "hetero" impulses. Jesse is forced to hold fleeting meetings with a disguised Mina in public because this society's laws—as written by a "Senator Knudson"—have established harsh penalties for heterosexual liaison. Knudson's platform speech, which led eventually to frenzied mob violence against “the queers,” still rings in Jesse's ears: "Vice is on the upswing in our city. In the dark corners of every Unit perversion blossoms like an evil flower. Our children are exposed to its stink, and they wonder…why nothing is done to put a halt to this disgrace!…The time has come for action, not mere words. The perverts who infest our land must be fleshed out, eliminated completely, as a threat not only to public morals but to society at large. These sick people must be cured and made normal."
Heavy-handed stuff, but in line with what you'd expect from such a story. Artists who have a point to drive home about some social ill often create reductive arguments and simple dichotomies to make their point. To be fair, the average issue of Playboy in 1955 had scant space to launch a nuanced and balanced disquisition on the status of homosexuals in America. Nor would that have made particularly good literature. As it is, in the story's few pages Beaumont manages to: A) establish an alternate universe that is still somewhat recognizable to us, B) create a sympathetic, if flawed main character and situation that has us cheering for a law-breaker, and C) bring to a close a stressful and suspenseful situation with a climax that raises our ire and sense of indignation. What's most remarkable about the tale, however, is how recognizable is its reductive view to our 21st-century ears.
Beaumont's hope is, of course, for people of good conscience to be so incensed by his story's arguments against injustice that they have no choice but to act. And in fact no small number of stories and works of art hinge on much the same rhetorical strategy. Among other artistic artifacts that flip an easy dichotomy in this way are: All That Glitters, a 1977 Norman Lear TV sitcom that posited a world where women were in charge and men were sexual objects for them to toy with; the 1963 Pierre Boulle novel and 1968 film Planet of the Apes, which suggested a future in which a race of apes rule over an enslaved and oppressed human race; and both a recent South Park episode called "Ginger Kids" and the (widely banned) video for MIA's "Born Free," which turn racism on its head by making red-haired people its focus.
Despite the fact that these artistic arguments have provoked plenty of controversy each in their day, none of them really managed to change many minds. Beaumont's story questioned the oppression to gay people nearly 50 years ago, but not much is different now. In recent years, in fact, a widespread social movement to ban gays from gaining the right to marry has led to anti-gay marriage laws in 29 states. Neither did Charlton Heston, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and M.I.A. manage to contribute much to solving the problem of racial injustice.
Further, there is growing evidence that, when it comes to social issues in America, it is becoming increasingly impossible to change anyone's already fixed ideas. According to a 2007 RAND study titled "Polarized Politics and Policy Consequences," between 1960 and 2000 the elite members (elected officials, activists, and other major players) in each political party have moved away from the political center and grown increasingly homogeneous in their stance regarding a greater breadth of social issues. Voting districts, too, have grown less prone to vote against a candidate from a party that has been politically favored there, and voters are increasingly sticking with parties they have tended to favor in the past. This greater polarization in political discourse amounts to, according to the RAND study, increased legislative "gridlock" (defined as “the share of salient issues on the nation’s agenda left in limbo at the close of each Congress”) and less tendency to develop legislative compromises, among many other problems. According to one study cited by RAND, the least polarized congressional terms in the past fifty years produced between 60 percent and 166 percent more legislation than did the most polarized terms. Of particular concern to the RAND authors is the thought that such polarization may prevent thoughtful consideration of serious long-term policy challenges such as "the growth of entitlement spending, Social Security solvency, and health care reform."
In the face of such a dysfunctional and polarized political discourse, when rhetorically reductive works of art such as Charles Beaumont's "The Crooked Man" are released and their with-us-or-against-us messages are digested, it is likely both sides of the issue just grow ever more polarized. After all, in an argument in which no middle ground is offered the only logical political stance is to dig in and fight violently for your view, rather than compromise. One need only to tune into the political wire on any given day, or listen to a random "no-compromise" speech by a random party leader, to know this is true.
In the end, while artistic exercises like "The Crooked Man" and "Planet of the Apes" provide entertaining thought experiments to their audiences, they, much like modern American political rhetoric, are no substitute for thoughtful and effective public policy initiatives.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. Hie work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
Both images are licensed under Creative Commons.