Sunday, January 29, 2012

Contradictions of the Prick

“New poems by a noted publisher tell the story of an aging, married man who falls in love with a younger man.”

That’s the subhead of a front-page story in the Metropolitan section of today’s New York Times, “Contradictions of the Heart,” which tells what is apparently intended to be a heart-warming story of Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, finding himself as gay and coming out with a book of poems about it.

On the front page of the Times Sunday Review, also today, there is another piece, “Newt’s Real Legacy,” which opens: “Do you think that after all is said and done, Newt Gingrich will just go down in history as the politician who conclusively proved that voters don’t care about a candidate’s sexual misbehavior?” This obviously isn’t meant to be heart-warming.

The week before I read these two pieces, I’d been kidding people at the office about how Newt Gingrich’s victory over Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primary could be seen as a victory of slob appeal over snob appeal. Romney is an establishment candidate, part of the Country Club set – and it doesn’t help that he benefits from tax breaks tailored for those rich who derive huge incomes from capital gains and dividends rather than salaries. Gingrich, by contrast, can appeal to the Joe Sixpacks – many of whom have been through a divorce or two themselves, even if they see themselves and their party as defenders of moral purity. Gail Collins, author of the Sunday Review piece, appears to see things the same way, although she’s hardly a Romney booster – she never mentions him in a column without a reference to his having once taken a trip to Canada with his dog strapped to the roof of his car.

People like to talk about class warfare, the 99 percent versus the one percent. They see class only in economic terms; the Wall Street fat cats versus the working stiffs, and that has become an element in the political campaigning. Demonizing the rich has gained traction since the economic meltdown of 2008, and from the rhetoric of the Left you’d think none of our multi-millionaires pay any taxes at all -- while robbing us blind. According to that logic, Steve Jobs must have been just as bad as the kind of bankers who peddled credit default  swaps and paid themselves huge bonuses while ripping off investors and costing many ordinary people their homes. Of course, class warfare cuts both ways; from the rhetoric of the Right, you’d think that all our economic woes are caused by Mexican immigrants, who are either too lazy to work and live off welfare, or are taking away jobs from Real Americans. Only black people are on food stamps, of course. And for some reason, allowing gays to marry will bring the country to total collapse.

But there is another kind of class warfare, which has unintentionally surfaced lately in the Occupy movement. Most of the people involved in that movement, or at least the most seen and heard, are college students, and their most pressing issue is student loan debt – which they think should be forgiven. That means the rest of us should be paying for their education, so that they can become members of the class they aspire to: the intelligentsia. And while they profess a traditional Left commitment to the working class, and have won some token support from union leaders, their attitude is paternalistic. On the West Coast, they shut down several ports a while back, which meant that dock workers and truck drivers lost work – and pay. But the Occupy people were sure they knew better than the workers what was good for them. They may not have class, but they have a sense of class.

 “All of a sudden I felt, ‘This is how I’m supposed to feel,’ ” Charles McGrath quotes Jonathan Galassi in the Times piece regarding his affair in 2005 with a man he called “Jude,” which led to a painful divorce from his wife of more than 30 years, Susan Grace, with whom he had two daughters. “Jude” was soon outed by “publisher insiders” as Bill Clegg, a literary agent and author of a confessional book, “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man,” a memoir of alcohol, meth and crack addiction. Clegg is also said to be the inspiration for Keep the Lights On, a movie by his former boyfriend, Ira Sachs.

Now if Galassi had been either a congressman or a banker, it’s doubtful that the Times would have worked up much enthusiasm for him. Perhaps he deserves more sympathy than Gingrich; I gather he never did anything as gross as visiting his first wife in the hospital to demand a divorce while she was recovering from cancer surgery. Even so, Galassi’s wife (who declined comment for McGrath’s feature) can’t have been any more thrilled than former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s wife Dina (his second) after he cheated on her with Golan Cipel -- an Israeli he had appointed homeland security advisor, but who later claimed that he and others had been pressured into sex by the governor. McGreevey has since studied for the Episcopal priesthood, and gone into counseling for ex-prisoners – which may have gotten him the kind of sympathy denied the likes of John Edwards and Mark Sanford.

The thing with Galassi is that he’s not only a publisher but a poet, and McGrath’s focus is on Left-handed, Galassi’s new book of poetry inspired by his journey of self-discovery. That gives him class, and may have more to do with his positive image than being a liberated gay. By a coincidence as sheer as that which put the Galassi and Gingrich stories on front pages of different sections of the Times, the cover of its Sunday Book Review featured a review of Renegade, Frederik Turner’s biography of Henry Miller. Miller, best known for Tropic of Cancer, which was published in Paris in 1934 but wasn’t available here until a court battle in 1961, became a literary celebrity and was widely hailed as a prophet of the sexual revolution. But Jeanette Winterson, in her review, points out that it was hardly a revolution for half the human race: Miller sponged off women nearly all his life, and treated them as sexual doormats in and out of his fiction. Whatever else you can say about him, he was as straight as they come in his sexual orientation. Perhaps it is no longer considered anti-intellectual to point out his misogyny, but it surely would have been when I was young: he had class. I never got around to reading Tropic; I don’t think I’d want to wade through it now.

It’s amazing how forgiving the intelligentsia can be. William S. Burroughs, who later became a darling of the literary avant-garde, killed his wife Joan Vollmer in a stupid William Tell stunt, and managed to avoid any serious punishment. “Like O.J., he got away with murder,” acerbic sf writer Thomas M. Disch complained. But an entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia co-authored by John Clute doesn’t even mention the killing, while giving a reverential account of Burroughs' work and influence. Burroughs’ Wikipedia entry offers a detailed account, including his later self-justification -- “I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death” (at least he admitted this was “appalling”) -- while pointing out that he had been writing before that, if none too successfully. In the literary mainstream, Burroughs is as highly regarded as his fellow beat Jack Kerouac. Among Leftist intellectuals, meanwhile, Louis Althusser seems to be just as highly regarded for his work in purging Marxist theory of “humanist” elements, although he killed his long-time wife in 1980 in what was described as a fit of madness. Would a mere popular fiction writer like Stephen King, or some right-wing pundit like William F. Buckley get a free pass for doing the same thing?

Only, it isn’t all about fashionable politics, any more than it’s about sexual identity. It’s about class. Louis Ferdinand Céline, a novelist who was a fascist and an anti-Semite, still commands respect among the intelligentsia because he is considered one of them. Incredibly, no less a political thinker than Hannah Arendt -- author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, and famed for coining the phrase “the banality of evil -- once tried to cut some slack for Martin Heidegger, a philosopher with whom she had had an affair but who later went over to the Nazis. Decades afterward, Heidegger was an influence on Jacques Derrida, the much-admired French philosopher who turned “deconstruction” into a household world -- at least in academic households.

If Roman Polanski had been a plumber, nobody would have excused him for having had sex with 13-year old girl – but Polanski was a genius film director, so the rules that apply to plumbers didn’t apply to him, at least in the eyes of the Hollywood community – which is supposed to be progressive on social issues. If Woody Allen had been a plumber and had an affair with the adopted daughter of the woman he was living with, his fellow plumbers might well have shunned him. But he too was a genius director, and the film community certainly didn’t ostracize him for the way he treated Mia Farrow when he cheated on her with Soon-Yi Previn, whom he later married. This sort of acceptance of bad behavior by icons of the film industry among their peers and admirers has trickled down the masses, as witness the fans who groove on the antics of the Kardashians or Snooki.

I could go on at much greater length about how the cultural and intellectual elites are no better than elites that have held power in ancient and modern times. C.S. Lewis once coined the term “charientocracy” for the rule of a managerial elite that might arise from the intelligentsia and justify itself by its intellectual pretensions. Would this be any better than the aristocracy of the Middle Ages or the plutocracy of crony capitalists and their political allies?

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