Friday, March 20, 2015

Genetics, Gays, Rick Perry, & the Tao of DALLAS BUYERS CLUB's "Rayon" (5 July 2014)

"I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that - and I look at the homosexual issue the same way." — Gov. Rick Perry, 11 June 2014

"Rale is... the right thing to do, [young Orry says,] like learning things at school, or like a river following its course […]." "Tao?" asked Falk; but Orry had never heard of the Old Canon of Man. — City of Illusions (1967)

              I'd better start out with a couple or three of what we used to call CAUTIONs and which may be better known nowadays as "Trigger Warnings."

            First in importance, probably, if not in the order in the blog, I'll caution you(se) that I have one and only one absolute language taboo: I won't pronounce the name of God. I thought I should have a taboo, and that is a traditional one. Otherwise, I try to be ethical and not hurt people unnecessarily and even try to be prudent enough to try to avoid even offending people unnecessarily — but that's ethics and commonsense; I've named my one taboo and outside of that I'll use the words I think decorous for getting the job done, including "B*d Words" (although I'll sometimes nod in the direction of the taboo with an asterisk replacing a letter, and I'll concede upon request the arrogance of my claiming an absolute right to make word choices).

            Second, this blog will be even less linear than usual, and I know my circuitous style pisses some people off (or "p*sses," for adherents of that taboo).

            Third, I'm going to start off on my labyrinthine ways with kind of sort of a defense of Texas Governor Rick Perry's remark, quoted above, relating homosexuality to alcoholism.

            To begin with, on the Perry part, Mr. Perry does seem to be somewhat stupid, and intelligence appears to be largely genetic; so we shouldn't particularly praise people for being smart nor condemn others for, let's phrase it, not being smart. The characterological question is what people do with their brains. In that analysis, Daniel Keyes's Charlie Gordon in "Flowers for Algernon" is admirable when he's intellectually defective because what he has, brainwise, he uses. The semi-literate Charlie tries to think things through, and, all in all, he does a pretty good job. If Molly Ivins and some of her fellow Texans (and others) were correct in their analysis of George W. Bush — not stupid but "intellectually lazy, incurious, ill-read" — then G. W. Bush is culpable, but not someone like Charlie Gordon and only partially Rick Perry.

            Now by such logic we shouldn't much praise people for natural beauty but admire those who beautify themselves with diet, exercise, cosmetics, surgery, drugs, and such — so I'm not going to push this point too hard. But we should allow that Perry isn't a deep intellectual and cut him a bit of slack when he's operating in one of the most difficult areas of American politics.

            So, I will attempt to extricate Mr. Perry from his thoughts and comments, which I can do far more easily than he can since I'm not politician, I'm not running for anything, and I'm an old curmudgeon who can say shit he can't.

            The current mainstream line is that homosexuality is largely genetic and, usually stated far from any comments on sexuality, it is standard teaching that alcoholism is largely genetic. It's widely held that one is homosexual by nature and that one may become an alcoholic if one is genetically susceptible to alcoholism and goes on to consume ethyl alcohol, and then consumes it to excess. In the immediate background here is the idea of genotype: one's complement of traits, and phenotype: how those traits get expressed. Also in the immediate background is the doctrine that most of us apply as a practical matter that people have free will and can, within limits, make significant choices.

            As Mr. Perry says, people may have "the genetic coding" to incline them to alcoholism, but that doesn't necessarily mean they become alcoholics. They may be fortunate enough to be born in one of the rare cultures in which booze is not the drug of choice, cultures in which they might become responsible users of hashish or peyote or coca leaves or a mild opiate. Or they may be born in our culture into a social context where drunkenness is strongly frowned upon and learn how to drink moderately — or they may choose to abstain from alcohol entirely (as the AA people would advise).

            People can be genetically primed to become alcoholics and for a number of reasons not exhibit the behavior (or overcome it), and we usually praise them for not becoming alcoholics and pretty much never condemn them for not fulfilling their nature.

            Genotype is only partly what determines phenotype.

            Similarly, one could be genetically primed (and imprinted or whatever) such that by a very young age you are not attracted to the sex genetically other than yours but to those of your own sex and gender. Crassly put, a genetically XX female person can be attracted to other XX female people, or XY males to XY, with most of the direction of attraction established prior to adolescence or even "the age of reason" (say, seven years old).

            The question is then what one does with the attraction — one's sexual orientation — and a homosexual person could choose to do without a sex life even as some heterosexuals have done.

            But very, very, very few people choose to do without a sex life, and for good and ill people in our culture express who they are by their sexual choices even more than by their choice of drugs or abstinence from drugs.

            Which gets to the objections put to Mr. Perry as to when such choices are anybody's bloody business.

            There are people who can be pretty confident that their genetic makeup and upbringing combine to make them strongly susceptible to alcoholism: for sure people whose parents were both alcoholics, and whose extended family and peers blatantly tended toward drunks. There is a good chance that such people will become alcoholics if they use alcohol, and that alcoholism, the expressed disease, will cause social problems. And some of those problems can be serious: spouse and child abuse, drunk driving, assaults, and worse; some people can be exceedingly mean drunks.

            As of now, most of us would not have the State "intervene" with potential alcoholics, and our experience with culture-wide Prohibition of alcohol was very bad. But we do want strong social pressure on potential alcoholics to lay off the booze, and many of us would even endorse sobriety as a condition of probation for an alcoholic with a record of DUI.

            And that "strong social pressure" can include disapproval and stigmatization, plus nagging and "interventions" even before there is any criminal behavior or serious anti-social fuck-ups.
            Now social condemnation of homosexuals — plus stigmatization, discrimination, and threat of criminal penalties up to burning at the stake (at least for male "sodomites)" — have been part or occasional parts of Western civilization since Moses and, later, Caesar Augustus. Such policies are pernicious and wicked, but defensible.

            Consider George Orwell's comment in "Politics and the English Language" that in his time, 1946: "[…] political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties."

            Similarly, or similarly enough when I'm dealing seriously with the homosexuality/alcohol analogy — similarly, condemnation of homosexuality can be defended coherently but only by arguments too theological or Machiavellian for most Americans to deal with.

            "The Abominations in Leviticus" probably got there to preserve Israel's holiness and Mary Douglas asserts plausibly "that holiness is exemplified by completeness. Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused." Homosexuality is sexcrime in Leviticus most directly because it confuses male and female in the sex act, and Israel and "the nations," specifically those gentile nations that were less hung up on heterosexuality than the Jews, and/or whose major concern for status for a guy was not the sex of the sex-partner but more on whether he was the fuckor or the fuckee.

            Anyway, Douglas can make sense of many of the prohibitions in the Biblical Book of Leviticus in terms of maintenance of categories, and as much as they are in Leviticus by conscious, human choice, that's probably how they got there. The sexual prohibitions, however, also make excellent sense as part of a pronatalist program, and fit in with such programs outside of the Abrahamic religions and, indeed, religion entirely. The logic is simple: most human beings want sex; if you want lots of people for military and economic reasons, do all you can to ensure that their sex acts are likely to lead to reproduction and raising kids until those kids are old enough for military and/or economic service (and/or more reproduction).

            With Earth's human population at over seven billion and climbing, pronatalism is a bad idea, but that's irrelevant if you accept as an "undisputed maxim in government, ‘That people are the riches of a nation,’" or if you accept "Be fruitful and multiply" as an absolute, enduring obligation — or if you accept Leviticus as part of a Bible that "is without error or fault in all its teaching" and that "the autographic text of Scripture, ... in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy."

            Now add here some pieces of Christian doctrine on salvation and damnation and you get that homosexual acts put homosexuals in risk of damnation, and open and notorious gayness tempts others to abomination, hence to damnation: cf. condemnation of the Serpent in Eden in Genesis, and the fate of heretics, also logically killed horribly as "both due vengeance to themselves, / And wholesome terror to posterity," as the old play of Gorboduc says should be done with mere traitors to a kingdom and not those far more dangerously putting at risk immortal souls of infinite value.

            More, "Choose life" in Biblical terms means choosing life under God's Law, and choosing otherwise can be deadly to oneself and to the community. Indeed, sodomy puts the whole community — God's new Chosen, let's say, America — at risk of destruction like unto that of Gomorrah and, way more to the point, Sodom.

            Sooo … so if Rick Perry had the wit and education to make the argument — and any popular venue allowed him the time to make it — and if he didn't want to be elected US President, he could argue that private sex lives have public meaning, that "the personal is the political" with a (divine) vengeance, and that homosexuality is far more a matter for social, political, and legal consideration than alcoholism.

            Indeed, back in the bad old days of that really Old Time Puritan Religion, he could start from a hard-ass Calvinist view and celebrate finding homosexuality largely genetic and pretty much irresistible: God would make those he's eternally hated gay "in thought, word, and deed," and therefore obviously deserving of the damnation he has in store for them anyway.

            But the hard-ass Calvinist view raises the question of why a society should bother to suppress vice (to keep the Elect from being annoyed, as a practical matter) — and, more important here, Rick Perry is obviously not a hard-assed Calvinist but one of those unconflicted believers in free will. In Perry's Christian-inflected view: even as those genetically predisposed to alcoholism can choose not to drink booze, even so those genetically gay can choose to refrain from homosex (or any sex). And homosexuals should so refrain if they don't want to be damned or risk divine vengeance on America. And gays should definitely stay closeted and not tempt the temptable, annoy the Elect, and make it obvious that we American Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God deserve divine wrath for not suppressing homosexuality.

            Now in American culture, anyway, one's choice of drugs is fairly important for who one is, and total abstinence more so, especially among subcultures where heavy drinking is the norm. Which gets us to a useful analogy between alcohol use and homosexual acts — Prohibition of either is very stupid and dangerous — and the question of whether those who'd compare the two would have a right or obligation to use more moderate means to discourage both.

            My answer for society is that we're endangering human civilization in encouraging births and, if anything, we ought to be encouraging people to focus their sex lives on sex that is not reproductive: contraception to start with, but much of the Xtube gamut as well.

            Away from law and public policy, however, I'm more ambivalent.

            I was intellectually brung up, in part, in the biological sciences, and I'm convinced that between genetics and environment ("nature and nurture") there's not a whole lot of space for the exercise of free will. On the other hand, I was also brought up intellectually when Existentialism was in fashion, and I would like to believe that "Existence precedes essence" and that — even given a shitload of "facticity" — we define who we are by what we choose to do, or refrain from doing.

            But philosophical thought isn't really my strong suit, and I'll resolve this issue as much as I can starting from a concrete scene in a movie.

            The scene is from DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, the one with Jared Leto's character Rayon meeting with Rayon's father.

            It's a brilliant scene in all ways I could notice, including makeup, hairstyling, and costuming. It's the first time we see Rayon — apparently an XY person — in men's clothing, and in men's clothing he's in drag. And that is the point, and one that leads to a further point: Rayon in men's clothing is a violation of what Orry calls "Rale" in Ursula K. Le Guin's City of Illusions and which the older man Falk understands as Tao (from the Tao Te Ching). The male costuming on Rayon isn't just sartorially off but violates the Tao of Rayon, the personal being of the character.

            Well, duh, you might say.

            Well, you might — you got this far in this blog post — but Rick Perry and a lot of other Americans might find that assessment weird, or wicked.

            Rayon's sex life, or Jared Leto's or yours or mine, is none of their business; Rayon's public presentation of self however — that's something the neighbors and friends and family can have opinions on and comment on.

            Rayon comes across right in female clothing and somehow off in male. Unsolicited, I'll make that comment, and, since Rayon is fictional, we can let it go with my expressing my opinion that s/he should stick to women's clothing.

            Meeting his father in his father's office, Rayon notes that he "didn't make the cut" for a photograph (of his father's other children?), and his father says, "You've made that choice yourself." Rayon responds, "It wasn't a choice, Dad."

            Okay, Rayon's sexuality wasn't a choice: he could form one or more homoerotic relationships — I recall him in only one in the film — or he could do without sex and deny himself as a sexual being. Still, how he dresses both is and is not a choice. Rayon can dress as a male obviously: we see him that way in this scene, and it's mentioned in the dialog. But, again, that's a prudent and courteous decision for him, but wrong; and this is undoubtedly the case with a thousands of other transvestites and, more so, transsexuals.

            In other cases, though, I am going to come down on the side of free will, choice, and "the personal is the political (in complex ways)."

            As that Xtube (et X-al.) variety of uploaded variations makes clear, there are lots of ways people present themselves for the public, and however genetic gayness may be, the public presentation part is strongly affected by the social milieu, and in the final steps leading from genome to behavior, chosen.

            As long ago as the 1960s, in, I think On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz pointed out that even in terms of stereotypes, there are at least two for gays: the painted youth in a Weimar cabaret — Lorenz was born in 1903 — and Achilles. Achilles's sexuality was complex, but it's the stereotypes that count here: the "f*ggot" in the cabaret and the super-masculine macho asshole, and/or epic hero.

            Does a gay male have the right to present himself at those extremes? Well, of course. I'm a life member of the ACLU, and I'll defend to the point of significant inconvenience pretty much all forms of expression. But that which is legally done or even ethically done is not necessarily worthily done.

            And here I'll return (jerkily in terms of essay construction) to the concrete, and personal.

            Sometime in high school in Chicago, I did something unworthy and unwise but instructive. Talking with a small group of friends I sniffed and dismissed a guy out of earshot with, "TNSJ," a term I'd recently learned. Given a quizzical look, I replied "Typical North-Side Jew," with which I was challenged, "And aren't you a typical North-side Jew?" To which I replied something I'll stick with: "I hope I'm not a typical anything." ("Only pigeons belong in pigeonholes.")

            I later learned the expression, among young Jewish guys of that time and place, "Professional Jew." Also not a good thing to say, but ….

            But it's not good to reinforce stereotypes, especially by choices that move one toward living a stereotype: only pigeons should limit themselves to pigeonholes.

            Rayon in women's clothing is not a problem; but it is not good for gay males to present themselves in ways that can be seen as a parody of femininity: "The Feminine" viewed sexistly in terms of male chauvinism. To use a distinction from the 1960s, repeated somewhere in the George Carlin opus, but my formulation here: "¡F*g, sí; f*ggot no!"

            Achilles is an interesting literary character, but you probably wouldn't want him and his bloodthirsty companions visiting your neighborhood. And the world is way too full of macho assholes for any encouragement for any guys, of whatever sexuality, to play that role. In this case, Be here and queer, guys — but leave the heavy leather at home or in the dungeon.

            So, to Mr. Perry et al.: Keep the State out of the sex lives between and among consenting adults, and be cautious trying to regulate even older children. To all the neighbors and society more generally: generally, mind your own business. How humans become gay or lesbian — or straight or the rest of The Penthouse Variations and YouPorn potpourri — is an interesting question but not a public policy issue like alcohol abuse; homosex is not a social problem.

            Alternatively, if you are convinced any form of freely-chosen sexuality is a public issue, spell out your logic, politely and civilly: too many places already are bloody from religious violence; we don't need literal culture wars in the USA.

            How people choose to present themselves is also, usually, nobody's business. But if people are choosing to go stereotypical in mischievous ways, a word or two is in order, best delivered civilly by a member of their larger group.

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