11/25/2011 3:30:50 PM
Yet nothing can to nothing fall,
Nor any place be empty quite;
Therefore I think my breast hath all
Those pieces still, though they be not unite;
And now, as broken glasses show
A hundred lesser faces, so
My rags of heart can like, wish, and adore,
But after one such love, can love no more.
—John Donne, “The Broken Heart”
We’ve all got one in our past: an unbelievably handsome man or jaw-droppingly sexy woman that we’d have given an arm and a leg to date. That is, until a crucial detail comes out. Perhaps it’s a superficial judgment: She’s annoying when she brushes her teeth, he’s not polite to strangers. Or it could be more substantial: He’s an atheist and you’re not, she’s a compulsive liar. In modern parlance, ladies and gentlemen, these off-putting traits are called “dealbreakers.”
For the past few months, Good has been publishing an ingenious series of essays called “Dealbreakers” in which writers talk about all of the reasons—petty, prudish, or quaint—that ushered in the demise of an otherwise healthy relationship. Some are funny, some are sad. Often they’re both in the way that breakups can retrospectively be. I enjoy the wide variety of complaints that people have of their prospective mates—from “He’s Got an Asian Fetish” to “She Was Too Freaky” to “I Couldn’t Handle Her Food Issues” to “He’s in Love With Jesus.” Mostly, though, I love the humanity that shines through the prose.
Image by David Armano, licensed under Creative Commons.
11/18/2011 5:15:40 PM
Perhaps you’ve heard about the goofy white underwear that Mormons conceal beneath their black slacks, white button-ups, and bike helmets? Or that they believe there was an ancient war fought between Israel and a ragtag alliance of Indians on the prairies and foothills of pre-modern America. Did you know that Mormons, upon death or apocalypse, inherit a planet of their own to populate with the children of fruitful polygamy? Had you heard that the leader of the Church of Scientology determines its leadership by competitive games of musical chairs set to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Did you know it was founded by a tax-dodging science fiction author? Seriously, have you seen that Tom Cruise video?
Half-truths, gaffes, and oddities—such as those listed above—are like butter for the mainstream media and Internet culture’s bread, and they’ve spread it on thick, creamy, and caloric in their coverage of America’s newest major religions, Mormonism and Scientology. Trey Stone and Matt Parker, the impish creators of television crass-fest South Park, recently wrote an eye-poking Broadway musical called The Book of Mormon to critical acclaim sold-out seats. Hacktivist group Anonymous has waged an ongoing picket-a-thon of Scientology facilities across the country, armed with Guy Fawkes masks and clever placards. But for all of the perceived kooky antics of Mormonism and Scientology, they are both worthy of serious, detached academic study and rigorous scrutiny.
Much ink has been spilled about Mormons of late for their growing influence in politics and foreign affairs. Of their two most recognizable public figures, one, Glenn Beck, for years harangued from the prime-time throne of the biggest cable network in the country, and the other, Mitt Romney, pontificates from the campaign trail bully pulpit. “[F]or all the attention now lavished on how Mormonism fits in with the American experience,” writes Chris Lehman for Harper’s, “remarkably little is known about a key feature of Mormon belief: the organization of economic life.” Through an exhaustive essay (sorry, subscribers only) covering how wealth figures into Mormon theology and politics, Lehman makes one thing exceedingly clear: The-Little-Church-from-Utah-that-Could is an important subject on which economics and business management professors should fix an unblinking eye.
Just look at the figures. Mormons are the fastest growing and richest religious group in the world—and their resources are being pooled more and more potently, such as the $14 million fundraised to ban gay in California in 2008. Although that figure alone is worthy of deep, deep investigation, there’s more. Allow me to quote from Lehman at length:
The church has its own welfare system, which distributes its own line of food and consumer products under the proprietary Deseret brand. It also holds extensive corporate investments, which are not fully disclosed—but in a 2007 study called Mormon America, Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling fix the church’s total assets at somewhere between $25 billion and $30 billion. (For the sake of comparison, the Ostlings note that a similarly sized U.S. denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, possesses $152 million in stock holdings, mainly to secure its employees’ pension plans.) The Mormon church owns a $16-billion insurance company, at least $6 billion in stocks, and a $172-million chain of radio stations, as well as more than 150 farms and ranches, which easily places the church among the largest landowners in the nation. (Emphasis mine.)
Heck, with the amount of influence the Mormon Church carries, I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’m a Mormon already and just haven’t yet been notified.
Tight-lipped and loaded with celebrity converts, the Church of Scientology also occupies a unique place in American culture. The ideas of founder L. Ron Hubbard “contain fascinating religious content that demands serious study,” argues Seth Perry in Chronicle Review in a review of two new books about the institution’s history, public perception, and what can be gathered about its theology.
Perry admits that Scientology can be a slippery subject. “The unearthing of the church’s complicated, often ugly history is an essential part of the study of Scientology,” he writes, “but it does not need to be the sum total of that study.” Its members are at once cultish and beatific, both mystical and matter-of-fact. Perry recounts one pilloried anecdote that embodies many of those elements:
For much of his career, Hubbard gave orders through what he called his Messengers—mostly adolescent girls who were required not only to convey his words verbatim, but to imitate his voice while doing so.
Of the two books Perry reviews—Inside Scientology: The story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman and The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion by Hugh B. Urban—he concludes that the two scholars “have brought the study of Scientology to a crucial, long-delayed point” and will enable academia to “encompass the variety of ways in which individual Scientologists have lived their faith both within that institution and outside of it.”
Lehman and Perry’s stances are refreshingly curious for the current discourse around these two uniquely American religions.
Sources: Harper’s, Chronicle Review
Images: A still from The Book of Mormon Broadway production and the cover of Dianetics.
11/18/2011 11:39:07 AM
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” Rick says gently to Ilsa at the end of Casablanca. It’s one of the most tender, heartbreaking, and quoted lines from the classic film—and according to Den of Geek, “legend has it that this is something Bogart used to say to Bergman as he taught her to play poker in between takes on set. It was never in the original script at all.”
Same goes for De Niro’s famous line in Taxi Driver: “You talkin’ to me?” Ad-libbed, and brilliantly so.
Breaking script is the first thought that came to mind for writer and clinical hypnotist Kristine Madera on her 40th birthday. She woke up ready to end the polite, rigid, dull, scripted conversations that fill out most of our days. She called her new mindset a birthquake, an seismic shaking up of the social contract as a gift to herself:
Once you pay attention to the social scripts, they become so obvious that you wonder how you participated without yawning or bursting out laughing. The most common one, which most people have toyed around with, is the ubiquitous, “How are you?”
It’s such a script that it’s actually a joke, and yet—it still flusters people to answer anything but a version of “fine,” “doing good,” or “okay.” Declaring yourself to be fabulous, or verbally vomiting your aches and pains all over the questioner, throws the whole dance into disarray.
This disarray is what invigorated Madera, broke up the monotony of daily life, and silenced telemarketers, who weren’t quite sure how to respond to her query of “What did you have for breakfast?” Just as ad-libbed lines in movies can become the most powerful and memorable, an improvised life script has the potential to heighten the beauty and passion of social interaction. But beware, writes Madera: “It’s easy, once you break a good one, to get that giddy feeling, and start to take script-breaking to an extreme, which can cause you to lose friends and annoy people in an extravagant way.” So once you harness this power, use it for good, not evil. Here’s looking at you and your renewed life script.
Source: Den of Geek, WNC Woman
Image by D’Arcy Norman, licensed under Creative Commons.
11/16/2011 1:59:44 PM
In some parts of the country you run into more ex-Catholics than stoplights. Heck, my family is a Black Friday parking lot of disgruntled former Catholics. Chalk the theological exodus up to the Church’s delayed, dismissive handling of the sex-abuse scandal or de-traditionalizing of American life. But the Catholic Church has one big scriptural challenge to filling the rank and file: the problem of evil. The hot glow of fire and the sulphur stink of brimstone. Or, more specifically, Hell.
For much of Christianity’s history, fear of hell has loomed large over the faithful. Tired of the constant threat of damnation, however, in the past 50-some years the Catholic Church has moved toward a more positive, salvation-based stance. The trend has spurred U.S. Catholic magazine to wonder, “Has hell actually, finally frozen over?”
“Over the last half-century,” writes J. Peter Nixon, “hell has moved from being a fixture of the Catholic landscape to something that exists far over the horizon.” Nixon cites polling stats from Pew Center on Religion and Public Life: “60 percent of Catholics believe in hell. While comparable to mainline Protestants (56 percent), that’s far below the 82 percent recorded by evangelical Protestant churches.”
Even though hell doesn’t seem to trouble the layperson like it used to, religious scholars, writers, and clergy continue to question its theological place. Evangelical pastor Rob Bell, in his book Love Wins, pinged the problem of evil in contemporary spiritual discourse, wondering, if we have a just and all-loving God, “Will all people be saved or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?” Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire Ministries says we can’t forget about hell completely, that, Nixon summarizes, “Catholic teaching affirms hell’s existence, but doesn’t tell us if anyone has ever been sent there.” Is there any reason, though, why it might be advantageous for hell to exist?
Nixon lays out a number of reasons why hell may be a crucial component of Christianity. Are contemporary Christians too optimistic about their own salvation? Do they live in a state of what German Protestant Dietrich Bonhoffer would call “cheap grace”? As Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, explained to U.S. Catholic, “[Hell] did communicate a depth to life. Life was to be lived for high stakes.” That sentiment, I’d argue, is something folks of all faiths can agree on.
Then again, maybe not. One final anecdote from Nixon:
A priest as well as a theologian, Randy Sachs has few regrets about the church’s change in tone. “In the confessional I’ve heard people talk about their understanding of God in ways that would turn your hair white. Some of our baggage is definitely worth losing.”
Source: U.S. Catholic
Image by matthewvenn, licensed under Creative Commons.
11/14/2011 1:35:54 PM
The little basement room where our cubicles were crammed smelled like dust and coffee. I occupied the farthest cube against the back wall, through which a snippet of window and weak sunlight and outdoor vines peeked. Here I answered student emails and graded compositions and wrote stories. It was a big football university, although I wasn’t there to tailgate but rather to study creative writing in the graduate program and meanwhile earn my way teaching English to undergrads. Some of these undergrads inevitably turned out to be student athletes: softball players, track runners, and of course football players. I was initially leery of them. At a Division I school like Penn State, these are high-profile students with a lot riding on their performance on the field, from scholarships to championships. Or, boiled down, money and prestige.
Here in this little grad student dungeon I fielded an email from a frantic student named Matt Sandusky. He was signed up for my class but had stopped showing up many weeks earlier. He never got around to dropping the course, and then the drop deadline passed—which meant he automatically earned a failing grade. His email asked something to the effect of If I start coming now, is there any way I can get a passing grade? I’m on the football team, and my dad is a coach, and I just can’t fail or I won’t be able to play.
No, I told him firmly, you’ve missed far too much class time to recoup. I’m sorry but you’ve already failed the course.
After the exchange, I talked to the department dean, just in case I got wrapped up in some pushy football player privilege drama. He’s a coach’s son, I said anxiously. No, she assured me, this school has zero tolerance for that; I guarantee you there will be no pressure from the coaching staff.
And there never was. Matt Sandusky accepted my decision, he was sidelined for the season, and I never heard a word from the coaches. I was impressed.
That was fall of 1999, my first semester, and it established the tone for the rest of my three years at University Park. The student athletes turned out to be a wonderfully disciplined lot. They showed up on the first day of class with a list in-hand of each class they would be missing due to games or travel, and explained that they would turn in any homework assignments ahead of time and also take any missed tests ahead of time. They were uniformly polite and deferential; they made use of the tutoring center of their own accord; and they were model students, across the board.
Everyone knew it was head coach Joe Paterno’s rule that made the student athletes so disciplined. His message was clear: Playing college sports is a privilege. Academics always come first. No special license would be accorded to athletes—no extra time for tests or homework, no excuses for missed work, no pressure on instructors from coaching staff to let things slip, no cover-ups for bad behavior in or out of the classroom like at so many other universities. No mass plagiarism scandals, no tolerance of domestic violence. JoePa famously only allowed numbers on jerseys, no names, to discourage egoism. It was a wonderful contrast to what I had braced myself for.
During my high school and early college days, I’m ashamed to say, I had a holier-than-thou attitude toward student athletes. Who cares about something as insignificant and pointless as game play when there are the elevated arenas of academics and fine arts? But the passion of the student athletes at Penn State chipped away at my smugness, and I came to wholly admire them. They were good at it, they loved it, and they worked hard to make it happen. They were cool people with direction and dreams.
In my three years at Penn State, I never attended a football game and avoided the blue-and-white chaos of downtown on game day, but I got swept up in the legend of JoePa. I never became a rabid fan, but I was won over by JoePa and what he stood for. He was untouchable.
Until now. The grand jury report detailing the child sex abuse crimes committed in the campus football locker room by Matt’s father, coach Jerry Sandusky, makes my blood run cold: Graduate assistant Mike McQueary “saw a naked boy, Victim 2, whose age he estimated to be ten years old, with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky.” McQueary reported this crime directly to Joe Paterno, who in turn reported it to his supervisor. But the speed with which an eyewitness report of child rape got watered down to a message of “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature” is chilling. And it was Paterno who did the watering down.
From Paterno, the message spread up the line to athletic director Tim Curley (who testified that the behavior was reported to him as “horsing around”), senior vice president Gary Schultz, and president Graham Spanier. Not one went to the police. These are men of power and supposed great integrity, men who shaped the ethos of a town and its university. These are not disempowered people—like the boys who were sodomized—who don’t know where to turn. Nearly a decade later, Curley and Schultz have now been indicted for perjury and failure to report child abuse, and Paterno and Spanier have been fired, as is their due.
The issue here is not just that the crimes were committed. Jerry Sandusky is clearly a mentally diseased sexual predator who lost his moral compass many years ago; may his maker forgive him, even if the rest of us cannot. The issue here is also that the crimes were repeatedly and inexplicably covered up and allowed to continue by people who knew better, who had an intact and well-promoted moral center. Over and over, these victims were failed by people who knew the difference between right and wrong, who had the ability to make a difference.
The Patriot-News article that ran the story of the grand jury investigation back in March
describes years of child abuse by Jerry Sandusky, many reported incidents that went nowhere, and multiple missed opportunities to end the abuse:
Another boy, now an adult in the armed forces, was named as a witness in the 1998 Penn State police report and has been contacted by state police, his wife confirmed.
When reached by phone, his mother said she took her son to Penn State police for questioning in 1998 but didn’t listen to the interview. She said she never asked her son what happened.
In a way, child sex abuse is literally an unspeakable crime. Perhaps that explains why so many adults failed to come forward, failed to protect the children involved. They didn’t want to believe, they couldn’t confront the horror. It must be a misunderstanding, they think, or a one-time instance of something that got out of hand and misinterpreted. But the distress that an adult feels upon learning of child abuse is so little compared to the confusion and terror and shame experienced by the victim.
In the November 4 Patriot-News story that caught national media attention, my wayward student’s name comes up:
Among those who testified was the mother of Sandusky’s youngest adopted son, a boy he met through The Second Mile, took in as a foster child and later legally adopted as an adult.
Matt Sandusky’s mother, Debra Long, told The Patriot-News that she had raised concerns about the behavior of her son and Sandusky once her son went to live with the Sandusky family in 1995.
“We tried to stop it back then,” Long said. “We were dragging it to the court system all the time and we couldn’t prevent it. It upsets me, because these kids didn’t need to go through this.”
The message that needs to come out of this tragedy is that when a victim of child abuse speaks, listen. When the crime of child abuse is reported, act on it. When whispers of child abuse are spread, follow them to their source. Never be in the position, like Paterno in his retirement announcement, to say, “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
The impressive ethic I witnessed at Penn State—no special license for bad behavior, no excuses, no cover-ups—somehow applied only to the students and entirely escaped the coaching staff. And although it was Paterno who spread the message, it was the students who displayed the heart and the hard work to make it come to life. Even though university officials fell below the ethic they established, I am going to hold on to the lesson I learned in my dusty basement cubicle. Any young person who can figure out what they’re good at and go after it deserves my wholehearted respect. The passionate glint in the eyes of the student athletes, the talent they found in themselves and cultivated, fell right in line with those who earned accolades for their work in the humanities, sciences, and arts. Plenty of the players I knew were scholarship students for whom their athletic skill, combined with diligent study, was their only ticket to the kind of education Penn State could provide. Mom and Dad couldn’t write a check. They were bright and hardworking and incredibly focused.
Despite the ugly student riots that further tarnished the Penn State image, I know this mindset doesn’t represent the entire student body. In fact, I sense that it will be the students and alumni who search the hardest for a positive outcome from the terrible serial child abuse that was allowed to be committed on their home ground, and it’s with a grateful heart that I watch a grassroots effort take hold to raise $557,000—a dollar for every Penn State alumni—to help victims of child abuse through the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. As of today, they’ve raised $344,152. (In the time it took me to post this article, another $8,000 was raised.) Knowing the student body at Penn State and their sense of community and purpose, I believe they will transcend their financial goal and, even more importantly, make the ugly reality of child abuse a topic of open discussion and establish a clear response system—and restore the ethic I admired during my time in Happy Valley.
—Danielle (Ibister) Magnuson, ’02
Source: The Patriot-News, The Penn Stater, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
Image by acaben, licensed under Creative Commons.
11/10/2011 11:05:49 AM
How long does it take to change how the world thinks about human history? French priest Father Patrick Desbois has been trying to broaden our collective understanding of the Holocaust for the past eight years—and despite diligent work, constant advocacy, and a spiritual impetus, the light at the end of the tunnel remains dim.
Recently profiled in Jewish lifestyle and culture magazine Moment, Desbois contends that people generally simplify the Holocaust as “trains taking people to death camps.” He gives a number of reasons why, including the iron-fisted Soviet control of Eastern Europe, complicit actions of non-Jewish Europeans, and that Western Jews were more likely survive and tell their story. Although a brutal element of the Nazi war effort in Central and Western Europe, ghettos and gas chambers weren’t nearly as common on the Eastern front. In the bread basket of Europe, guns were the executioner’s weapon of choice, and “the rule became one Jew, one bullet.”
Much of Desbois’ work in the past decade has been to find the sites of mass graves—no easy task. Traveling across the Ukranian and Polish countryside, he and a team of researchers have found and interviewed nearly 2,000 witnesses of Nazi atrocity. Many describe how, fearing for their own skin, non-Jews helped exterminate large numbers of their countrymen. Some participated in the Berlin-ordered “Sonderaktion 1005,” a tactic to destroy evidence of the mass shootings in case Western nations heard of the genocide. Some would “exhume and burn the bodies buried in mass graves,” others would help pile up corpses to conserve space. (33,771 people, for example, were killed during one massacre at the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev.) Desbois’ investigation is also running against the clock—the clock of decay. Many of the executed (the ones that weren’t exhumed) have been buried for more than 60 years.
In addition to correcting history and ensuring victims are properly buried, Father Desbois sees broader implications in his work. “I have the conviction that we cannot build a modern Europe, and perhaps a modern world,” he told Moment, “above thousands of mass graves of Jews, who have been killed like animals, buried like animals. We cannot build democracies above mass graves. Otherwise, what can we say to Rwanda, to Darfur, Cambodia? What can we say to other countries if we don’t bury the victims?”
I’ve glossed over or completely left out many fascinating facets of Desbois’ life and work—including his family’s history with the Holocaust and his run-ins with Holocaust deniers. All in all, an excellent profile of an individual wearing out the soles his shoes for social and historical justice.
, licensed under
11/7/2011 10:58:15 AM
Ask any college student and they’ll tell you that course textbooks are a racket. But pose the same question to a middle- or high-school student and they’ll shrug with an air of hormonally augmented indifference. High schoolers don’t typically need to purchase their textooks, but borrow them from the school library or individual department. Just as there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there’s no such thing as a free textbook. The school district picks up the tab instead.
The high school textbook industry is controlled by a few very powerful publishers that sell one-size-fits-all books at a premium price to schools. Some basic texts can cost as much as $65 a piece, even when bought in high volume. A school in Blaine, Minn., for example, budgeted $200,000 for a new set of math books that would need to serve the department for 10 years. Why spend that much money when the teachers can write the textbooks themselves?
That was the bright idea of math teacher Michael Engelhaupt of Blaine High School, who led a team that wrote, organized, produced, and distributed a new textbook for the Anoka-Hennepin school district. Overall, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Engelhaupt and his colleagues saved the district $175,000. You do the math.
Not only did Blaine’s math teachers save a lot of money, they ultimately made a textbook better-suited to their students. For one, students can access the textbook online (both at home and in the classroom), rent it from the school library, or buy a physical copy for $5. Many mass-produced textbooks cater to students in Texas or California, where the market is bigger and the testing standards are different. Depending on the state, many textbooks have entire chapters that go unused in the classroom. Thus, Engelhaupt and company custom tailored the textbooks to the district and state curricula
“The district spent about $10,000 paying Engelhaupt and the other teachers to develop the material,” according to the Star-Tribune, “which he said was about their regular hourly rate. Another $5,000 went toward making the material accessible to students without Internet connections either at home or in the classroom with hard copies and DVD versions.” What’s even more exciting for the math teachers that put in the legwork is that their department will have extra money to put to other uses. Again, the Star-Tribune: “The Anoka-Hennepin teachers also persuaded the district to spend the savings on the math department. The details haven’t been worked out, but it could include more classroom computers and more teacher training.”
This is exactly the type of idea the country needs to consider as it engages in a larger, deeper conversation about education reform.
Source: Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Image by blair_25, licensed under Creative Commons.
11/4/2011 11:05:30 AM
In the latest issue of
Utne Reader (Nov-Dec 2011) Mattilda Bernstein reviews Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States. Here, Bronski offers some insights into the book and his reasons for writing it. Special to Utne Reader.
A decade ago, when I first began teaching lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies at Dartmouth College, I was invited to a fraternity house to moderate a group discussion entitled “Don’t Yell Fag from the Porch.” The frat was renown for its rowdiness and, indeed, someone had recently yelled “faggot” at a student passing by. Undoubtedly not for the first time. After being publically challenged on this behavior, they decided to host a public forum on homophobia in the Greek system. The discussion went well and became an annual event. “Faggot” was yelled with less frequency and, in a few years, the fraternity even had a few “out” gay members. But that evening, and over the years, what bothered me was that the entire discussion was predicated on the idea that Dartmouth College, and its fraternities, was essentially a straight place that had to be open to “gay people.” But that makes no sense. We all know that life – and history – is far more complex and complicated than that. Or do we?
All too often most of us think in terms of simple dichotomies – including gay and straight; but who might answer to the call of “fag” when its history has been shown to be more than a simple either/or question? Here are a few lines from a letter Daniel Webster, a Dartmouth alumnus and hero to the College wrote in 1804 at the age of 22 to the 23-year-old James Harvey Bingham, his intimate from their college days: “I don’t see how I can live any longer without having a friend near me, I mean a male friend. Yes, James, I must come; we will yoke together again; your little bed is just wide enough.” Was Daniel Webster gay? Did he love James? Did they have a sexual relationship? If so, what did this mean for his two marriages later in life? Is this queer history?
The last ten years of teaching LGBT studies has been a continual process for me of trying to figure out what is LGBT history. How do we understand it? How do we use it to think about the past? How do we use it to think about the present, and the future? I certainly would have liked to quote Webster’s words while moderating “Don’t Yell Fag from the Porch.” What would the students have thought about Webster’s obsessive desire to lie in bed with his friend James once again and hold him fast to his body? Or, what if I had told them that poet Richard Hovey, who wrote the school’s Alma Mater, was also a lover of men, and although married and an ardent feminist, socialized in gay male circles in America and Europe. (Oscar Wilde once famously hit on him at a party.) Would it have been another reason for their not shouting “faggot” as frequently? Would this have “queered” Dartmouth for them? One of the reasons my book is titled A Queer History of the United States is that it is attempting to “queer” how we think about American history.
The questions of the book are much larger. Over the past forty years there has been a great deal of incredible scholarship on LGBT history and I have drawn extensively upon, rethought, and synthesized it in the book. What follows is a long meditation not only on LGBT history but, because it is inseparable, on all of American history. After two years of thinking and writing, I want to start by suggesting that there are two crucial concepts to consider when thinking about LGBT history in the United States.
The first is that the contributions of people who we may now identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are integral and central to how we conceptualize our national history. Without the work of social activists, thinkers, writers, and artists such as We’Wha, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Martha “Calamity” Jane Cannary, Edith Gurrier, Countee Cullen, Ethel Waters, Bayard Rustin, Roy Cohn, Robert Mapplethorp, Cherrie Moraga, and Lily Tomlin, we would not have the country that we have today. Women and men who experienced and expressed sexual desires for their own sex and those who did not conform to conventional gender expectations have always been present, both in the everyday and the imaginative life of our country. They have profoundly helped shape it, and it is inconceivable, and ahistorical, to conceptualize our traditions and history without them.
The second key, and slightly counterintuitive, concept is that LGBT history does not exist. By singling out LGBT people and their lives – what some people now call LGBT history – we are depriving them of their centrality in the broader sweep and breadth of American history. The impulse to focus on lives that have been shunned, marginalized, censored, ignored, and hidden in the past, and in previous histories of the United States, has been revolutionary in the growth of a vibrant LGBT community. It is part of a larger social and political movement of Native American, African American, Latino/a, and other marginalized identities and cultures to reclaim and celebrate our “lost” histories. But it is equally important to understand that this is a transitional moment in history that has only emerged in the past forty years precisely because they were so deeply dismissed.
If LGBT history resides in the queer space of being both enormously vital while simultaneously not even existing, can we even write and speak about it? How do we explicate and uncover the past so that it brings new understandings to both popular culture and scholarly pursuits alike? How will it resonate with our understanding of our own contemporary and historic lives?
We have been taught, in our nation’s fairly unimaginative educational system, that history is a stable linear narrative with a fixed set of facts—names, dates, political actions, political ideas, laws passed and repealed. In The Dialectic of Sex, a groundbreaking book of radical feminist theory, Shulamith Firestone writes that this conventional way of understanding the historical process as a series of snapshots—here is the American Revolution, here is the Declaration of Independence, here is the Emancipation Proclamation—is both limiting and ultimately unhelpful. History, she states (drawing loosely on Marxist theory) is “the world as process, a natural flux of action and reaction, of opposites yet inseparable and interpenetrating.... history is a movie rather then a snapshot.” (Firestone, p2-3)
Much of the popular LGBT history that has been published in our newspapers and magazines and blogs falls into the category that Firestone criticizes. It is essentially a list of famous lesbian or gay people and events used to justify contemporary understandings—here is Oscar Wilde, here are the Stonewall Riots, here are queer couples being married in Boston. This family album approach is appealing as it provides a sense of identity and history, but it is ultimately misleading. In past decades women’s and gender studies scholars called this method of analysis “add one woman and stir.” The “important” women were added to the mix to create a gender balance, but there were no new layers of complexity, or nuance, as to what these women’s lives, thoughts, desires, and actions might actually mean for a shared historical past.
More serious writing on LGBT history has avoided this approach. Historians such as Jonathan Ned Katz, Lillian Faderman, Allan Berube, George Chauncey, and Esther Newton among so many others have written how LGBT history complicates and enriches the American imagination and the national story we already know. I have drawn extensively upon these writers, and many other sources, to present a daringly complex vision of the past, one that forces a fundamental rethinking of what we thought we knew, but one that also makes us rethink the present, and even the future. Its broad use of facts, historic personalities, and events is an invitation to join in a larger intellectual project of reinterpretation. As Firestone argues, history is a movie – not a Hollywood film with a traditional narrative, but rather an experimental film that presents a reality that only makes sense when we appreciate its intrinsic narrative complexity. History is an ongoing process through which we understand and define ourselves and our lives.
Image by Shockingly Tasty, licensed under Creative Commons.
11/1/2011 4:27:58 PM
The bible business has come a long way since printing presses and door-to-door salesmen. Rather than being schlepped or sermonized, now scripture spreads on sacred streams of digital data. The advent of tablets, smartphones, and all manner of mobile computing is changing holy literature even more deeply than televangelism. Religious writing is literally at the fingertips of more people than ever before.
“Apps of the Bible are now more frequently downloaded than Angry Birds,” reports The Book Bench’s Macy Halford, “and the sacred texts of other religions aren’t far behind: there’s an iQuran, iTorah, and a digital Book of Mormon.” The diversity and popularity of scriptural and religious apps is positively astounding. In addition the basic scriptures, there are apps that allow you to compare different scriptural translations in forty-five languages; devotional apps; multimedia texts that add layers of video, recitation, explication, criticism, and commentary on top of the original verse; fun and educational scripture-based video games; and individual house of worship-centered apps that connect members of the same flock.
As you might imagine, this trend is causing some religious leaders to shout “hallelujah!” and others to rend their garments. In her article, Halford talks with experts from the monotheistic religions who express their hopes and concerns for a constantly wired congregation. Some are excited for the utilitarian aspects of many apps, such as Islamic ones that remind the faithful of prayer times or use the mobile device’s GPS to point the right direction toward Mecca. Other leaders caution that in some ways a house of holy is like a move theater: Apps and e-scriptures distract everyone around from the big show. What’s worse, some consider the digital texts an affront to the original scripture’s authority.
To that point, it’s worth considering Leslie Leyland Fields’ ruminations in Christianity Today. “We may forget at times the lineage of these words,” she writes, “but our eagerness to put the Scriptures onto scrolls first, and onto electronic screens much later, is more than a love of invention and gadgetry, I believe. It’s a timeless need for life-giving truths.”
Sources: Christianity Today, The Book Bench
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