Bright Lights Film Journal

The Perverse Privilege of Degradation: American Politics in the Age of Assimilation

A Final Statement of the Obvious

As Irena Salina’s documentary Flow: For Love of Water (2008) has argued, at the heart of the 1947 Universal Declaration of Human Rights lies an absurd irony: amidst exhortations for citizenly rights of food, clothing, housing, medical treatment, land ownership, marriage, free expression, cultural participation, and so forth, there is no right to hygienic water, the one substance on which humans are most biologically structured and dependent. We have become so obsessed with draping the ideologies of our Lockean Constitutions in “natural” or God-given principles that we conveniently forget the liquid essence from which we’re naturally and actually constituted. Salina’s film uncovers Nestlé’s privatizing reach into the heart and soil of the Third World, detailing the machinations of the world’s largest water conglomerate as it controls aquifers and water tables, manages shantytown spigots, and effectively charges the world’s most destitute citizens for the rare commodity of trickling potable water — a totalitarian outcome the United Nations, modernity’s greatest democratic failure, could never have foreseen in 1947. But even such egregious exploitation is beside the point, for every post-Enlightenment declaration of human rights has swathed the dirty logistics of the social compact in mystifying rhetorical puffery. Rights are supposedly self-evident and derived innately — unless they require a revolution to secure them, in which case they were, paradoxically, never self-evident (and in fact warranted violence to conjure them into evidence). Self-evidence is a theological myth we sociologists can no longer tolerate. Rights are not rights if they can be either granted or rescinded capriciously by elected or unelected bodies; we instead enjoy merely provisional privileges (as George Carlin liked to point out), contingent upon parliamentary conciliations, bureaucratic relationships, gerrymandered voting blocs, municipal referenda, enduringly ineducable populaces, and all other deliberatively democratic mishaps that slip through a Constitution’s philosophical cracks.

Jefferson, who could never bequeath to his progeny “contingent privileges,” contrived instead his cannier pursuit of happiness, relegating his key term to a prepositional object and emphasizing with American braggadocio the mythology of the pursuit itself, susceptible to societal enabling or hobbling. Today, when happiness is a commodity scarcer than unchlorinated water, the vocabulary of permanence and transcendence does not poeticize a reality of evanescence and materialism, but instead does injustice to that reality. Freedom remains painfully abstract, not only indefinable but difficult to characterize phenomenologically. We can return to the puzzle Erich Fromm poses in the introduction to Escape from Freedom: is freedom a positive value (the attainment of a new state of being) or a negative one (the removal of social-moral prohibitions)? If we had no taboos against which to rebel, how would we know that we were becoming free? And even if societal prohibitions are removed and we could exist, as libertarians wish, in a “freely negative” space, material contingencies would still imbue that negativity with positive necessities — that is, we would remain unfree to abstain from consumption, labor, entertainment, a militaristic state, Maslovian needs, and so on. Rousseau was once right to say that man is freer within the constraints of society than he is within a Hobbesian deathtrap. Mainstream American politics has now regressed into such egocentricity, however, that we’ve arrived full circle at a paradoxical society of postindustrial amour du soi, a state in which we, so exhausted by our own communities of progress, cling to a self-interest drained of Rousseau’s redemptive ingredient of natural pity. Politics becomes the art of seclusion, language becomes deafness, and all of us become sad little Robinson Crusoes.1

Dreading the tragicomedy of the 2012 presidential election, Americans presently stew in a distended state of rhetorical madness: the vitriol of the right manifests as humdrum charlatanism and monosyllabic diatribes about the evils of taxation, while the left dithers according to custom. How oddly unsatisfying it is to see the rights’ rival oligarchs reek of such childish desperation — poor rhetoricians, conservatives have only stasis and their own pitilessness to sell. On their best days, they might be what Nietzsche ungenerously called “antiquarian historians . . . who can rest content with the traditional and venerable uses [of] the past”2 and who have no sense of monumentality or planetary holism. But they are not even that, for their minds have no best days, only regurgitated loops of grasping, hedonistic nostalgia. Soon the nostalgia melts into infantilism, a blind worship of even the most abstract benefits of capitalism, as if they (but not we) had forgotten that seminal moment in 2008, when Alan Greenspan appeared before a Congressional hearing and publicly disavowed his — and Ayn Rand’s — entire rationalist philosophy. Americans, he belatedly realized, were irrational and thus not legitimate bases on which to propound liable doctrines.

If we believe pizza salesman Herman Cain, the protestors of Occupy Wall Street are not merely irrational but are “jealous”3 of their financial betters, perhaps the most obscenely (if candidly) jejune economic analysis ever uttered by a neophyte demagogue. Cain’s naiveté betrays the social function of his own financial success; as Galbraith puts it, “The ostentation, waste, idleness, and immorality of the rich [are] all purposeful: they [are] the advertisements of success in a pecuniary culture. Work, by contrast, [is] merely a caste mark of inferiority.”4 Of course, conservatives must pretend that they wish everyone to climb the ladder of mobility, as long as we ascend stoically, and without bitterness, calls for social equality, or remembering that someone must clean the toilets. In practice, however, conservatives must kick out enough rungs to ensure the lastingness of their own imperiled manhood.

But whatever happened to that sweet old bugbear of homophobia, the Republican Party’s greatest mobilizing apparatus of the past three decades? Conventional wisdom claims financial collapse has degraded sexual panic into irrelevance. True, media-savvy conservatives now paste a happier face on their bigotries — inexorable generational shifts make it suicidal to do otherwise — and the fulsome descriptions of bacchanals imagined by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the 1980s and 1990s have been replaced with a quasi-Biblical mantra scripted by Republican tacticians: “Marriage is between a man and a woman.” An oblique, specious reference to Eden is the only argument required for those unschooled in sexuality — never mind that in the irretrievable state of Paradise Adam and Eve were unmarried.

It can be no coincidence that conservative rhetoric has become more reactionary and reductionist precisely when homophobia has softened into politically correct euphemism. Though rightists’ policies have become ever more plutocratic and xenophobic (though not fascistic, for fascism assumes the delusion of popular unity), politicians have not abandoned their cherished homophobias. Rather, sexual panic has been subsumed by more amorphous if still predictable forms of McCarthyite otherness: Mexican immigrants, the belligerent underclass, a dark-skinned president, instigating socialists, and so forth. This transmutation of forms follows a predictable historical pattern. There is nothing “psychoanalytical” about this transformation, for nothing was ever repressed in the first place — Christian homophobia still bubbles visibly under a transparent surface, ready to pounce at opportune moments. Yet the demand for political correctness creates moments of unprecedented comedy: in the August 11, 2011 Republican presidential debate, professional bigot Rick Santorum, in a speech intended to rebut the isolationism of Ron Paul, insisted that the U.S. should continue pressuring Iran because it oppresses “women . . . and gays.” Only a few years ago, I could never have imagined that political rhetoric could be at once so blatantly conciliatory and so blatantly self-contradictory; for Santorum, gay people should be spared by Islamic law so they can take their pre-appointed places in Protestant Hell. We have arrived at a point at which self-contradiction — the inevitable outcome of Christianity’s mind-body dualism — can pass for humanitarianism.

The softening of homophobic rhetoric in the past several years does nothing to disguise its history of terrorism. The common man was supposed to be petrified by the slippery slope arguments posited by Antonin Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) — will acceptance of same-gender relations lead not only to marriages but geriatric coprophagia, widespread shoe-sniffing, or consensual ephebophilia? If the laissez-faire argument is central to the conservative understanding of democracy, all such deviances logically should be celebrated, not merely tolerated; if queerness is acceptable only because nature forces it upon us, democracy has already failed. But “freedom,” it turns out, was never actually at stake, for our most unpopular freedoms were revealed as irrelevant.

Conservatives’ fears that same-gender marriage would collapse civilization are, of course, painfully ironic, for the absorption of unorthodoxy into a bourgeois institution would only defang deviance and expand the institution’s normalizing powers. One would imagine conservatives would rejoice when queers abandon claims to oppositionality in favor of terminal integration into mass culture. This irony becomes more and more an American fixation. Even David Cameron has recently claimed, “I support gay marriage not in spite of [my conservatism] but because I am a conservative,”5 in an address that incited significant applause among upstanding British heterosexuals and Lordly closet cases. Such a response is unthinkable in America, where hypocrisy is the only guarantee of power and the deaths of the uninsured — rather than laissez-faire sexuality — prompt libertarian rejoicing.6 At the same time, to be joyed by the prospect of gay marriage is to acclaim the whims of duplicitous legislators empowered to grant or withhold specified freedoms. The normalization of gay marriage, furthermore, would only ostracize gender identity variation and odd heterosexual fetishes — the elderly shoe-sniffer will be pushed, willingly or not, to the vanguard. But conservatives fear gay marriage not simply because it will render their institution no longer exclusive or proprietary, but because it would remake marriage as something other than a Protestant workshop where children are reared and familial neuroses are fostered. What conservatives fear is their own freedom, for if marriage were remade, they would then be free to reimagine marital sexuality as something other than a purely reproductive or genitally centered enterprise.

It’s not necessary to rehearse the arguments against assimilationism — they’ve been made well and often enough before (by Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal [2004], for instance). There is an unfortunate logic in assimilation: if straight fantasies focus on legal transgression (e.g., cinema’s endless succession of gangsters and bank robbers), queers should contrarily fantasize about bourgeois romance, their own transgression, relatively speaking. While independent queer media continue to trade in the occasionally wanton and filthy — Bruce la Bruce’s Otto (2008) and L.A. Zombie (2010) are convenient examples — the blandness and homogenization we’d fear would attend normalization have otherwise come to pass. Most obviously, the cable channel LOGO, a subsidiary of MTV (in turn owned by Viacom), has assiduously worked to negate every legitimate vestige of lesbian and gay intellectual history, replacing Barbara Hammer, Fassbinder, and Pasolini with a nauseating pageant of consumerist triviality and sexual infantilism. Viewers are regaled not with the sweet belligerence of Rosa von Praunheim or the literate languor of Visconti but with the endless sub-proletariat farce of reality dating shows. To be sure, vitriolic criticism attended LOGO’s inception; journalist Doug Ireland’s early 2006 article “Why Is Gay TV So Mediocre?” captured the general opinion by lamenting the channel’s adamant anti-intellectualism and willful ignorance of queer history.7 In the interim, corporate-managed anti-intellectualism has declined into outright and shameless illiteracy. The struggles, aesthetics, and philosophies of a Magnus Hirschfeld, John Cage, or Benjamin Britten cannot sit alongside cultural directives for fashion tips, dating advice, or kitchen renovations. In effect, LOGO does to LGBT culture what MTV did for youth culture — that is, destroy it (yet here the conspirators destroy not bad songs but the pained centuries of an intellectual heritage). The socialist leanings of queer Europeans, furthermore, would seem humorously out of place on a commercial network — could we imagine The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966) regularly interrupted by ads for Macy’s Big November Sale, “Dance Mix USA,” or the new Dove Moisturizing Beauty Bar? Pasolini himself would have abstained, without laughing.

At the risk of boring or depressing the reader (and myself) to tears, I feel it necessary to provide some evidence and list the films shown by LOGO during a random ten-day period in mid-2011 (each film received one airing unless noted otherwise)8:

The Adonis Factor (2010)
The Butch Factor (2009)
Dare (2009) — two airings
Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat (2009)
The People I’ve Slept With (2009)
Mulligans (2008)
PTown Diaries (2009)
Pornography: A Thriller (2009)
Were the World Mine (2008)
A Four Letter Word (2008)
Eleven Minutes (2008) (“fashion documentary”)
Nonsense Revolution (2008)
Boy Culture (2007)
Annie Liebowitz (2007)
Puccini for Beginners (2006)
Trantasia (2006)
Freddie Mercury: Kind of Magic (2006)
Adam and Steve (2005)
Three Dancing Slaves (2004)
Straight Jacket (2004)
Girls will be Girls (2003)
Normal (2003)
Nowhere (1997)
Love and Death on Long Island (1997)
The Incredibly True Adventures of 2 Girls in Love (1995)
Three of Hearts (1993)

The earliest film shown dates from 1993; the great majority are from the last five years, presumably to ensure loyalty from the myopic 18-35 consumer demographic. If one or two of these films are unfamiliar, it hardly matters; the ideology of MTV-LOGO is very much linked to the parochial notion of “currency” in its dual meanings — as the flow of money reflects the flow of history, queer visibility is imagined only in terms of dominant consumer culture, or what happens to sell in a given moment. Just as the Republicans have among them no true sense of discourse — just unidirectional sermons and deaf monologues — LOGO replaces the notion of discourse (literally, a multiplicity or polyphony of coursing meanings) with a single course of assimilationism that poses as innocuous humanism. History is lost, and the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness is unmasked as the pursuit of banality. In exchange for this banality, we surrender the right to be offended and secure for ourselves the contrary right to jadedness. If we happen to become offended by homophobia, we betray our political correctness — unable to “get over it,” we must be weak and spineless, unable to accept the quotidian degradation that attends everyone’s allotted place in society.9

LOGO’s more or less apolitical lineup of films is a short-lived paradise compared to the degradations of its bread-and-butter “reality” shows, which intend to pacify and beguile a lowbrow audience as completely as do these shows’ heteronormative brethren. I list here the full and agonizing schedule of non-cinematic programming from the same ten-day period (listed in order of the frequency of airings):

RuPaul’s Drag Race: (and spinoffs Drag U and Untucked) — twenty-eight episodes
Pretty Hurts (a reality show “following a Beverly Hills skin care therapist as he injects
Hollywood stars, socialites, wives, wannabes, and drag queens with his ‘liquid face-lifts'”) — twenty-four episodes
1 Girl 5 Gays (“reality-talk about lifestyles”) — twenty episodes
Setup Squad (a dating show) — twenty episodes
Daria (animation) — twelve episodes
NewNowNext PopLab (“music videos”) — ten episodes
Absolutely Fabulous — nine episodes
Buffy the Vampire Slayer — nine episodes
Reno 911 — seven episodes
Bump! (a “travel show”) — seven episodes
Be Good Johnny Weir (reality program about flamboyant skater) — four episodes
Nip/Tuck — four episodes
Drawn Together (animated) — four episodes
Chris and John Go to Camp (a program featuring “makeover experts”) — three episodes
Can’t Get a Date (dating/reality) — two episodes
One Night Stand (comedy) — one episode
Click List: Best in Short Films — one episode
Wish You Were Here (a series about “gay vacations”) — one episode
The A-List: New York (reality) — one episode
That Time of the Month (“showcasing female bisexuals and lesbians”) — one episode
Mores for Gays (“pop culture”)one episode
Jeffrey and Cole Casserole (comedy) — one episode
Pretty Boys (“a look at Canadian male models”) — one episode
Decorating Adventures of Ambrose Price (“home and garden”) — one episode

In the interests of disclosure, I admit that I could not actually withstand the majority of these shows for more than a few minutes; nevertheless, this list requires no commentary — it serves well enough as its own critique. An earlier draft of this essay included an assessment of the few moments I endured of Setup Squad, but I was forced to erase the description in its entirety when I realized how humiliating it was to recount — I felt as cheap and debased as the show’s characters.10 It suffices to say that political awareness or intellectual involvement has been replaced with (at best) programs of delusionary humanism or with incessant propagandas that push the dogma of consumerist lifestyles. Rather than broadening queerness into a pansexual, pan-political legitimacy, such “cultural” programming waters down LGBT interests into the shallowest and commonest broths of the culture industry.

You needn’t inform me that over the last several pages I’ve said nothing new. Perhaps I’ve tried your patience. I am certainly aware of my unoriginality. Yet sometimes originality becomes superfluous — moments of aggravation overwhelm the drive toward poetry and drag one down into plainness, even simplemindedness. With a historian’s cautious optimism, Galbraith could claim in the 1950s that “no society seems ever to have succumbed to boredom . . . [for] man has developed an obvious capacity for surviving the pompous reiteration of the commonplace.”11 Today, there is nothing left to succumb to except the commonplace, whose reiteration need no longer be pompous.

But our aggravation is two-fold: not only do we lament the castration of an intellectual heritage, but we are frustrated with our own stalled rhetoric, whose dialecticism led not to freedom but to a contest of political correctness. Queer theory died because the postmodern contest is by definition unwinnable: it is “a game of catch-as-catch can” (as Bourdieu remarks in his Pascalian Meditations) in which the critic is forever pursued by the ghosts of his own biased omissions, smallest oversights, and inevitable binaries. We cannot be progressive because there is no progress; no matter how correct we struggle to be, it can never be enough, so inadvertently masochistic is the postmodern sport. We have said everything that can be said, careening from overeager utopianism to excruciating critique. Every desire has been unmasked, every binary beaten bloody, every hybridity hybridized, every performativity overperformed, and every solution debunked. What do we have left but our good intentions and bad health insurance?

Oh, we have our history, too. Or at least we used to. If my lament for “high” culture sounds elitist, I make no apologies. The conservative mythology of American exceptionalism is an elitism clearly false for its essentialism and parochialism. Somehow, the fallacious trickle-down theory of economics magically becomes true when applied to history, as every person arbitrarily born within American geography automatically inherits the Jeffersonian spirit and all its empty promises. (We mustn’t even entertain the truth that the post-apartheid Constitution of South Africa is a far greater civil rights document than our own.) Yet we do not need a phonily philosophical exceptionalism when we still have the power to be truly exceptional (the ideological “-ism” is hardly required). If assimilation is inevitable, the erasure of culture is not. The common idlers of Nietzsche’s herd may forget their questions, and today plutocrats may even program the herd to remember falsely, but we are not grazing animals who must forget in order to know satiety.

  1. Ron Paul’s suggestion (following a 2011 Republican presidential debate) that the support of “church and family” can adequately substitute for state-subsidized medical care seems an almost psychotic denial of reality; obviously, many who need health care most desperately — especially the mentally ill — have been ostracized by their families. []
  2. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Use and Abuse of History. Trans. Adrian Collins. New York: MacMillan, 1957, 17. []
  3. Cain repeated his “jealousy” analysis of anti-capitalist discontents several times during the third week of October 2011 in numerous radio and TV appearances. He maintained the analysis even when incredulous interviewers pressed him for a more structurally sound, less hysterical critique. []
  4. Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Affluent Society. Cambridge: Houghton-Mifflin, 1958, 54. Galbraith’s comment incidentally refers to Ricardian economics. []
  5. From the UK Prime Minister’s speech of October 5, 2011 at a Conservative Party Conference. It is certainly also true that American conservatives have come forth in favor of gay marriage, though only once they have left office. As of this writing, Dick Cheney and Laura Bush are to the left of Barack Obama’s position on the issue. Apparently a conservative thrown from power can afford to be more liberal than a liberal still vying for power. []
  6. I allude, of course, to the moment in a 2011 Republican presidential debate in which supporters of Ron Paul boisterously acclaimed the death of a theoretically uninsured man. []
  7. Ireland, Doug. “Why Is Gay TV So Mediocre?” Gay City News. Volume 5, Number 2, January 5-11, 2006. Republished at http://www.actupny.org/divatv/gaytv_mediocrity.html []
  8. From the period May 17- 26, 2011. []
  9. A recent controversy regarding television actor Tracy Morgan demonstrates this well enough. A stand-up comedy routine in which Morgan joked about murdering his son if he turned out gay prompted in equal measure condemnation from the liberal press and half-hearted defense from “artists” crying free speech. The problem, perhaps, is that the comment has no humor, wit, or comedic incongruity by any objective or technical standard; it is simply a conventional bigotry expressed flatly as violence, as if one were to say Morgan himself should be murdered, his mother sodomized, his children eaten, and so forth. Nevertheless, if one wishes to be part of the mainstream, one must tolerate one’s degradation with “good humor,” even when no humor exists.    []
  10. I will mention that the word “bitch” featured prominently in this reality show’s dramaturgy — e.g., “She’s such a bitch!,” “I’m gonna throw that bitch out the window!,” and the like. []
  11. Ibid., 19. []