Around Town . . .
The traffic cops have coined a new euphemism for extreme auto congestion: gridlock. It is a vivid image-cars stacked up in every direction so that nothing moves, no progress is made, and all the drivers grow increasingly irritable. This "gridlock" metaphor also applies to the world of ideology, to the tendency of explaining all thought as the product of an arbitrary idea-system. Everything today is labeled and explained by an "ism," and the isms are beginning to stack up into an unsightly mess: racism, feminism, sexism, patriarchalism, fascism, corporatism, ad infiniium, ad nauseum.
"The radicalism of the past century," the sociologist Robert Nisbet notes, "has been a stage on which ism after ism has postured." This "ismization" of the world has transformed that stage into a circus, with so many clowns crowding the ring that the result is akin to gridlock on the motorway. The willfulness of ideology has replaced the idea of truth. No longer are ideas and morality discussed in terms of truth and reason; instead, today's forums are the scene of mere assertion and counter-assertion, with sheer volume counting for more than reasonableness.
The reductio ad absurdum of this method was demonstrated by the lesbian conference at Scripps College in February. There, a new ideology was offered: "heterosexism." The official title of the conference was "Invisibility in Academe: Lesbians in a Heterosexual Culture." "Lesbians," the program explained, "are invisible in academia. Their history is denied and their art ignored, while recognition of their humanity is avoided. . . ." Here's the rub: "Such denial has its roots in the prejudicial assumptions and values of the dominant community which, taken for granted, are also invisible." Then we get the "isms" to frost the cake: "Heterosexism, like racism, distorts our vision and destroys lives."
At first glance this "invisibility" seems incommensurate with the circumstances. Among the ostensibly invisible panelists was Adrienne Rich, who is not just the "Scholar-Poet in Residence" at Scripps College but is the "Distinguished" Scholar-Poet in Residence. Her books are widely distributed, and she has received grants and has been published in anthologies and journals, as well as in the New York Review of Books and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She has also been praised by reviewers in Newsweek, Saturday Review, The Washington Post, and several other leading newspapers. This is "invisibility"?
Among the other invisible panelists was Bonnie Zimmerman, a tenured professor at Cal State San Diego (she also teaches at UCLA). Professor Zimmerman frankly confessed that "Lesbianism can help your career. . . . In my corner of the world . . . it seems to be valued to be a lesbian and be open about it. . . . I think I sometimes get an article accepted because it's the only lesbian article for an anthology, and you've got to have a lesbian article or the lesbians will get mad." Then there was Lilian Faderman, also a tenured professor and administrator at Cal State Fresno, where she was so invisible last year that she was voted "outstanding professor" on the campus. Big invisible voting block, I suppose.
But to point this out, I am told, is to patronize the already patronized. A lesbian could be elected president and still be "invisible" so long as lesbianism is not regarded as normative and fully "integrated" (that's the key word) into academic curricula. Their invisibility today consists of being shoved off into separate "women's studies" programs while being given only perfunctory treatment in most other academic disciplines; e.g., "Okay, we've spent an hour on lesbians; now let's get back to the main topic."
According to lesbian ideology-and they readily concede, with no trace of opprobrium, that it is ideology-it is the illegitimate "prejudicial assumptions and values of the community" that denies their "experience." White, male-dominated society is-watch this taxonomy-in the grip of "heterosexism," "heterocentrism," "androcentrism," "homophobia," or, don't forget, a "patriarchal construction of knowledge." One almost needs a foxhole to dodge the ideological shrapnel flying about at these gatherings. Now, the "prejudicial assumptions" of heterosexuality used to be known as something called "human nature," but of course, like Santa Claus, no one believes there is a human nature any more. In their sexual identity, humans are akin to interchangeable parts in industry-slam, bang, click. In other words, the physically distinct characteristics of male and female imply no prescriptive sexual behavior. Nothing is natural; everything is artificial. Or, anything and everything is "natural," but then the idea of nature is hopelessly trivialized, not to say useless.
This sort of moral casuistry stresses "experience" over prescription or reason, but beginning with experience means that knowledge is subjective, which makes the idea of truth radically problematic. ("That's right," one feminist proudly told me, "we're trying to get rid of objectivity!") Yet here we have Paula Goldsmid, Dean of Faculty at Scripps College, telling the assembly that "education is about finding the whole truth of human experience, and to the extent that we systematically ignore, or worse deny, part of that human experience, we deny what we say we are about, which is the search for truth." Whenever I hear someone invoke the "search for truth," I reach for my Walkman, for invariably the "search" is more important than the truth, even as waiting is more important than Godot. If Goldsmid "found" the truth, how would she recognize it? The idea of the "search for truth" presupposes that there is indeed truth to be found, and the idea of truth necessarily entails the idea of falsity. But in the morally neutral world of arbitrary "values" lesbians have envisioned, there is neither true nor false, only "experience." Thus it is meaningless to attach the adjective "human" to the noun "experience" as Goldsmid does because the word "human" as she understands it implies exactly nothing-it is entirely open, undefinable, and limitless. There is no basis for distinguishing between "true" human behavior and "false" human behavior.
"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," Orwell reminded us. The promiscuous and insincere use of language by the lesbians, did not limit itself to the word "truth." "Oppression" was also thrown around a lot, usually in conjunction with a weak qualifying adjective in an attempt to blunt the shamelessness of its use: "covert" and "overt" oppression were mentioned, as well as something called "polite oppression." Polite oppression?? ("Excuse me, Mr. Sakharov, would you mind stepping over here into our nice little Gulag?") The examples given ranged all the way from the trivial to the merely inane: If my lover has an accident, the hospital will release information only to family or a spouse. . . . Our parents might disapprove and cut off our tuition support. . . . Is it going to affect my recommendations if I "come out"? "There is no heterosexual equivalent to these pressures," one panelist lamented, ergo, we are Oppressed! Recently the wife of Anatoly Scharansky toured the U.S., relating the details of Mr. Scharansky's severe incarceration in the Soviet Union. Scharansky's "crime" was attempting to monitor a human rights pact to which his country is a signatory. In a world with oppressors the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Andropov, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Castro, tenured lesbian professors who publish freely in leading journals and who freely meet at a prestigious university, moan and wail about their oppression-and then wonder why they feel "invisible" and ignored.
This prattling about "oppression" was belied by a pernicious elitism. Though lesbians at this conference resisted saying it in so many words, they seemed implicitly to regard lesbianism as superior to heterosexuality. Thus heterosexuality is sneered at. For instance, L. J. Tessier, a Claremont Graduate School religious studies student, said, "Whether they want them or not, heterosexual women have Bride magazine, Ladies' Home Journal, Nancy Reagan, and Miss America." Naturally. We in the lesbian cognoscenti just know that middle-class, suburban-dwelling heterosexual couples with kids and mortgages are unthinking philistines of diminished imagination. One thinks ironically of Lenin's query: "Who's oppressing whom?" Behind this sniggering lies the presumption that one's sexual identity is something to be "chosen," much like a favorite color or a car. Heterosexuality, you see, is entirely arbitrary, and predominates only because of-wait for it-"male aggression." That is why heterosexism, as they call it, "is like racism." More than one speaker mentioned the "compulsory heterosexuality" of our culture. "It is impossible," Adrienne Rich declared, "for any woman in a gendered society, dominated by men, to know what heterosexuality really means, both historically and in their individual life."
Like racism, the answer to the "intellectual and moral sterility of heterosexism" (Rich's words) is the magic word "integration." Lesbianism must be "integrated into the classrooms so that education is relevant to all of us," said the first panelist. Prof. Zimmerman was quick to agree, adding that "integrated" is "a good word these days." But Prof. Faderman was the most forthright about what "integration" means: "Of course, I believe that ideally every heterosexual should study homosexuality before he or she claims to be a thoughtful or educated heterosexual, who has chosen her lifestyle rationally." (Once again, linguistic base-stealing: rationality, like truth, has no meaning in the context of subjective "experience.") We must have our "prejudices challenged," she added, for the sake of "growth." Try swallowing this one: "Obviously in a Utopian community . . . courses on Lesbianism would be mandatory as a part of the general educational program." Obviously. Obviously?
In a recent essay on the British traitor Anthony Blunt, George Steiner observed that:
Neither sociology nor cultural history, neither political theory nor psychology has even begun to handle authoritatively the vast theme of the part played by homosexuality in Western culture since the late nineteenth century. The subject is so diffuse and of such methodological and emotional complexity that it would require a combination of Machiavelli, de Tocqueville, and Freud to produce the great missing book. There is hardly a branch of literature, of music, of the plastic arts, of philosophy, of drama, film, fashion, and the furnishings of daily urban life in which homosexuality has not been crucially involved, often dominantly.
This passage was offered as a grandiloquent apology for the tentativeness of his subsequent judgments on the relationship of Blunt's homosexuality to his betrayal. Steiner just barely resists suggesting outright that homosexuality played the preeminent role in Blunt's treachery, a suggestion that would cast deserved obloquy on homosexuality. Nevertheless, Steiner's point is well taken. The role of homosexuality in the motivation, perception, and artistic vision of many figures has been poorly examined and is a worthy avenue of scholarship.
But more thorough scholarship is decidedly not what lesbians have in mind by "integration." They are not interested in truth. Education, according to the lesbian world view, is ideological indoctrination; it is a therapeutic process. "I amgetting paid," Prof. Zimmerman proudly proclaimed, "to change ideology and to promote lesbianism." The lesbian agenda is clear: Not just legitimation and tolerance, but promotion and expansion of lesbianism is the aim. To do so, all moral distinctions must be obliterated, through an ideological sleight-of-hand that denies human nature and asserts that all moral standards are self-willed. And once this willfulness is made the basis of human society, the very notions of decency will have disappeared.