Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sunday Reading

Going to Extremes — Leonard Pitts, Jr. on profiling the dangerous ones among us.

“I know this sounds racist, but . . . ”

So goes the subject line on last week’s email from Bill, a reader. It seems Bill has an idea. Given that “all of the radical terrorists have been Muslims,” he wants the government to mount a program to surveil every follower of Islam who immigrates to these shores. We are, claims reader Bill, “faced with a population who swears an oath to God to kill Americans — not Canadians, not Mexicans, but Americans.” It is, he says, “time we protect ourselves.”


For our purposes today, we will ignore the fact that Islam is not a race, so animus toward Muslims is not, strictly speaking, “racist.” Bill’s point is clear enough. And his anger is understandable, coming as it does after the Boston Marathon bombing and the savage butchering of a British soldier by Islamic extremists. Predictably, the UK has suffered a rash of right-wing demonstrations and attacks on mosques ever since Lee Rigby’s death. One suspects there’d be no shortage of sympathy for Bill’s suggestion — and for measures even more draconian — both there and here.

But I find myself thinking about white boys.

Consider: This nation’s recent history is stained by repeated acts of school violence. From Newtown, Conn., to West Paducah, Ky., to Santee, Calif., to Eugene, Ore., to Conyers, Ga., to Pearl, Miss., to Jonesboro, Ark. to DeKalb, Ill., to Littleton, Colo., we have seen scores of people killed and injured. The violence has been random, large scale and indiscriminate, identical to terrorism except that it has no political motive. And the profile of the assailants is virtually always the same: white boys and young men from suburban, small town or rural communities.

Small wonder Chris Rock got such a huge laugh when he joked about diving off the elevator when two high school age white kids got on. “I am scared of young white boys,” cracked Rock in 1999.

Writing on Teaching Writing — Jon Reiner: All of a sudden, everyone’s taking or teaching a class on writing.

There have long been three kinds of writers: writers who write for readers (novelists, poets, memoirists, essayists, journalists, etc.); writers who write for other writers (students); and writers who write for themselves (diarists, shipwreck survivors). The digital age has screwed with the dynamics of that trilogy by turning writing from a solitary, exclusive, private act into a collaborative, inclusive, public one. Anyone with a WordPress account can write for readers, and the mushrooming of the number and type of writing programs has been a field crop for that revolution. If you’re going to be a writer, you might as well know something about how to do it, right?

This all crystallized for me when I saw the reaction to an essay I wrote for last month. In it, I used the case of a student writer placing an unexceptionally written but promising piece in The New Yorker online to exemplify the movement of publishers and readers privileging “story” over the craft of writing. That cultural shift has felt like a door blown open to people bursting with tales to tell, and a freshly dug grave for writers who tear at their flesh trying to sculpt perfect sentences (to invoke Truman Capote) while the digital world zips by.

Part of the essay focused on my dissenting view of the University of Michigan’s MFA “Zellowships,” annual $26k stipends that fund students for a year after graduation, endowed by a historic $50 million dollar gift from Helen Zell. I thought the students would be better served getting out of the academy and into the world, and that the money would be better spent supporting publications that paid writers for work that would be read by real readers. In response, Michael Byers, the director of the Michigan program, blasted me online and, impressively, recruited an army of Wolverines to bare their claws. Byers called me “witless” and my writing “horse puckey.” One of his students, in an online magazine essay, referred to me and my ideas as “stupid.” Other readers, however, replied more thoughtfully—agreeing, disagreeing, even apologizing for the Michigan robohate, and sharing their personal stories about why they study writing and what led them to it. Many of the writers were people years beyond the age of traditional writing students, with mortgages and dependents. Why were they moonlighting from or quitting their day jobs to pay someone else to teach them to write?

All writing, all creative work, on some level, is about confirmation. (I still send new work to my old teachers.) The sprouting of writing programs indicates that the lure of having people read and applaud your work still outweighs the fears student writers may have about the pain and aggravation of being called “witless” in a public forum. What’s changed now is the payoff. The monetary rewards for writing are smaller than in the pre-Internet age. Even if every writing program in the country had a Zell grant to float the post-grads, there’s no way that number of writers could enter the profession and sustain the day-to-day of eating and staying dry. But the psychic rewards, the seduction of an audience discovering you right now, have never been greater. Writing classes, which operate with the collaborative-inclusive-public M.O. of Internet writing, are the first step.

Not-So-Ancient History — Frank Rich on the recent past and the future of gay rights, woven into his own past.

In a new century dominated by terrorism and recession, few would deny two big bright spots: the election of an African-American president and the expansion of gay civil rights. The first arrived nearly 150 years after the Civil War. The second happened with the speed of a fever dream. The modern gay-rights movement only got going in 1969, after the Stonewall riots. Now a dozen states have legalized same-sex marriage, a concept unknown in political discourse a mere quarter-century ago. More astounding is the likelihood that a conservative-leaning Supreme Court will expand those marital rights, however incompletely, next month—it took more than a century after the Emancipation Proclamation to end all bans on interracial marriage.

As we just learned, a man can still be murdered for being gay a few blocks away from the Stonewall Inn. But the rapidity of change has been stunning. The world only spins forward, as Tony Kushner wrote. And yet as we celebrate the forward velocity of gay rights, I think we must glance backward as well. History is being lost in this shuffle—that of those gay men and women who experienced little or none of today’s freedoms. Whatever the other distinctions between the struggles of black Americans and gay Americans for equality under the law—starting with the overarching horror of slavery—one difference is intrinsic. Black people couldn’t (for the most part) hide their identity in an America that treated them cruelly. Gay people could hide and, out of self-protection, often did. That’s why their stories were cloaked in silence and are at risk of being forgotten.

This history is not ancient. My own concern about its preservation comes not from some abstract sense of social justice but from my personal experience. I grew up in the Washington, D.C., of the sixties, where the impact of racism was visible everywhere, front and center in my political education. But gays—what gays? No one I knew ever saw them or mentioned them. Not until the eighties—when, like many Americans of that time, I was finally forced by the rampaging AIDS crisis to think seriously about gay people—did I fully recognize that a gay man had been my surrogate parent in high school, when I needed one most. Not that I ever thought to thank him for it.

For younger Americans, straight and gay, the old amnesia gene, the most durable in our national DNA, has already kicked in. Larry Kramer was driven to hand out flyers at the 2011 revival of The Normal Heart, his 1986 play about the AIDS epidemic, to remind theatergoers that everything onstage actually happened. Similar handbills may soon be required for The Laramie Project, the play about the 1998 murder of the gay college student Matthew Shepard. A new Broadway drama, The Nance, excavates an even older chapter in this chronicle: Nathan Lane plays a gay burlesque comic of 1937 who is hounded and imprisoned by Fiorello La Guardia’s vice cops. Douglas Carter Beane, its 53-year-old gay author, is flabbergasted by how many young gay theatergoers have no idea “it was ever that way.”

Clayton Coots, the gay man who changed my life, fell somewhere between The Nance and The Normal Heart on this time line. He was one of countless gay people who were hiding back then, sometimes in plain sight, from their friends, neighbors, relatives, students, and colleagues. In historical terms, back then was only yesterday. Yet much as we might want to reclaim these invisible men and women from the shadows, they continue to slip away. It’s one thing to retrieve the story of a gay American from the pre-AIDS era who was famous or notorious. It’s quite another to track down a closeted gay American of no renown who lived shortly before the gay-rights revolution took hold. I have spent more than twenty years off and on trying to piece together Clayton’s life. Even in death he is still in hiding.

Doonesbury — Make room for Daddy.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. Three good posts, MB.

    Sometime put the spotlight on the next battle for gay rights, the employment discrimination fight. If and when the Supremes knock down DOMA gays will be more in the open when they attempt to claim the rights they have been denied – inheritance rights, the right to visit a loved one in the hospital, the right to shared pensions and health care benefits – and that’s when employers in too many states will be able to kick them out of their jobs. As I recall, the Great State of Florida is one of those that will allow this to happen.

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