Good Greif: On “On Repressive Sentimentalism”
That Mark Greif has a very skeptical view of “marriage” is clear. And in his “On Repressive Sentimentalism,” he positions what he takes to be homosexuality’s implicit antipathy to “marriage” as something refreshingly and hopefully utopian. Here’s how he opens the essay:
“Gays are our utopian heroes. Many things changed in the twentieth century. No change was more momentous and utopian than that men could choose men for love objects, and women choose women, to remake the sexual household. If the household organization of three thousand years of recorded history could be altered simply in the interest of what people wanted, in the interest of desire, then anything could be changed.”
That his claim for the preeminence of this change is not merely arguable but goes un-argued is as strange to me as is the “our” with which he frames his argument. But I’ll get to that in a moment; first, since marriage is the box in which he places all manner of social injustice for the last three millenia, it is deeply important for him to maintain the utopianism of gay politics by distinguishing it from the merely pro-marriage accommodationism of those bourgeois liberals fighting the various variations on Prop 8. As he will argue, a bit further down, “The goal of gay marriage, in the pro-marriage position, has to include indifference to marriage as an institution. Marriage must remain abstract—it hardly matters if anyone does it once the original blush is off and the initial rush abates.”
To the extent that this “include” is all he is really saying, I agree: allowing gay marriage only to the extent that it can be exactly like straight marriage is possibly as pernicious as forbidding it altogether, and less than nothing has been accomplished. But his is not an inclusive argument, but a polemic, even a jeremiad; the essay, after all, is titled after the “repressive”-ness of sentimentalism.
The first thing, then, is that any time someone tries to talk about the repressiveness of sentimentality, I think about how basically the entire freaking American literary tradition for the last century has used “sentiment” as a short-hand for what Nina Baym calls “the encroaching, constricting, destroying society” against which an American writer has to struggle manfully in order to be considered literary, and which, as she goes on to point out, “is represented with particular urgency in the figure of one or more women.” And Greif is so far from being the first writer to call sentimentality repressive that his failure to address the well-worn path he’s walking becomes interesting in its own right. As I.A. Richards recently wrote in 1929, for example, “sentimental is one of the most over-worked words in the whole vocabulary of literary criticism” and though he noted “its twofold use, as an insult and as a description” more or less so that he could categorize and systematize what exactly is derogatory about being sentimental, his distinction of “its fogginess in the second capacity” from “its social significance” is precisely where we need to start: sentimental is a useful insult because it is both intuitively a bad thing and hard to define why. But as Baym nicely argues, the intuitivity of sentimentality’s badness is so often a simple function of a gut-level antipathy for a domesticity understood as feminized that the fact that Greif can take a statement like “[b]ecause the family…seems to be the origin of violence, hierarchy, and tyranny” as actually saying anything is, at the very least, something to think very carefully about.
He more or less doesn’t. And the prescriptive slant of the polemic comes in when he starts lamenting the way “gay progress…asks for the opportunity of traditional marriage—the very thing many of us straights (not to mention the ’80s gay thinkers we, too, read and lionized) hoped gay life would undermine, in the name of new, better ways of ordering relationships.”
You would think that the marriage of two men or two women would already be a new way of ordering relationships, but it’s clear that the “new, better” he’s after is something very different; though such unions are, in a certain undeniable sense, new, his argument is, quite explicitly, that they are not better. The sentimentality which so represses us seems to be the notion that marriage itself is a worthwhile goal in its own right. And this seems to me quite strange. While he asserts, rightly I think, that the goal of “abortion rights, in the “pro-choice” position, should truly be abortions,” there is something peculiar about how he asserts that “around the kitchen table, we ought to speak plainly” and acknowledge that marriage rights are just a first step towards the real goal, a goal which remains annoyingly unclear. To put this another way, the utopian beyond of “new, better ways of ordering relationships” seems to be defined strictly in terms of not being marriage.
Why? I’m not sure. But the manner in which he finds the origin of all manner of sins in the “traditional” marriage-based household is fascinating:
“Because the home has seemed to be at the origin of economics (the word comes from the Greek oikos, household, and household management, oikonomia), a revision of the home, say one based on non-reproductivity and made by equals of the same sex, could ground a wider egalitarianism. Because the family, as the crucible of personality for children, seems to be the origin of violence, hierarchy, and tyranny—in the old descending triad of dominance: man-woman-child—a revision of the family, such that children could look forward to forming their own future households on different models, could gain new principles of power for society.”
I agree that a household based on equality could ground a greater egalitarianism, just as a society founded on peace would be less warlike. And if the family is the origin of violence, hierarchy, and tyranny, then getting rid of the family would get rid of those things. But not only are these kinds of tautological arguments supremely unpersuasive, they are purely negative; the fact that new ordering systems might bring with them other modes of power is sublimely unthought, as is the notion that other forms of ordering hierarchies not only exist but have no necessary connection to gender at all. Unless we are to have no homes or families at all, after all — something Greif occasionally seems to want to suggest — the possibility that we would find other exploitative modes of organizing households than gender has certainly not been put aside. And the begged claim that an etymological link is actually a determinative one is a pretty sloppy leap: the fact that “political economy” gets some of its guiding principles from household management is suggestive but it doesn’t actually mean that getting rid of the household would rid us of exploitation. A family can be based on something other than “reproductivity” without necessarily being free of hierarchy.
Why is it, then, that marriage comes to be the container from which all forms of hierarchy are derived? Why not, for example, capitalism? It would be equally plausible to argue that the domestic tyranny of husband as owner and wife as unpaid laborer is derived from a capitalist logic that requires an exploited population of dispossessed laborers whose work can be unpaid (because child-raising, for example, is not considered labor). If the dominant form of heterosexual marriage in history is deemed to have been bad — as Greif clearly deems it — why is this badness necessarily a function of household economics rather than political economy? I’m not arguing that Greif is wrong, exactly, simply that he assumes the point, rather than arguing it. A statement like “[b]ecause the family…seems to be the origin of violence, hierarchy, and tyranny” is not a persuasive claim that it is the origin of violence, hierarchy, and tyranny; it’s a deferral and an evasion where that argument should be.
However, because his account of the utopian power of un-marriaged sexuality is as basically wrong and stupid as it is, this evasion is much more problematic; his critique of “marriage” in all its forms, after all, is based on the utopian possibilities which it closes down. Yet I will now invite you observe what a variety of silly things he says when he tries to fill that possibility in, when he suddenly switches into the second person and commands us to look to sex as our savior:
“You have to defend sex because we still have no better model than the actual, concrete sexual relation for a deep intuitive process opposed to domination. We have no better model for a bodily process that, fundamentally, is free and universal. It does not produce (there is no experiential remainder but pleasure) nor consume. It is cooperative (within the relation of the lovers) and, in that relation, seems to forbid competition. It makes you love people, and accept the look and difference of their bodies. Production comes back in with pregnancy and “labor”—that’s why contraception means so much. Competition can come back in with the conquest of partners, and a brutality or technical objectivity in lovemaking that allows men to remake cooperation as if it were struggle—hence utopians’ funny, sentimental insistence on love in the act. Sexual cooperation is the other side of our basic human nature, and matches and disarms economic competition. Conservatives look to the chimpanzees, utopians to bonobos. One viewpoint prefers that side of our evolutionary ancestry that punches and rapes; the other that side, of equal propinquity, that rubs genitals and makes out.”
As Millicent pointed out to me, there is hardly a sentence in that entire mess where he doesn’t massively overplay his hand. He’s not wrong that if you’re looking for a model of cooperation rather than competition, sex is a better model than, say, warfare. But the idea that sex is fundamentally free and universal is one of the most naïve things I’ve ever heard; the fact that it can, potentially, be a relation based on non-productive non-competitive mutual cooperation does make it a powerful ideal, but the fact that it so often hasn’t been just illustrates that there’s nothing necessary about this connection. Rape is sex, too, which is exactly the problem; you don’t get to use sex as a model for violence-free relations if you simply define out of existence all the forms of sex that don’t fit that definition. But the idea that sex “makes you love people, and accept the look and difference of their bodies” would be an arguable proposition only if he argued it. He doesn’t.
I’m vaguely interested in the question of the extent to which it does, actually, but it also just seems to me to be completely self evident that a variety of sexual practices manage and have managed to co-exist quite nicely with all manner of hate and violence. Rape is extremely far from being the only way that (mostly male) people channel their aggression into sexual activity; so far from being basically opposed to violence either silent and overt, in fact, human history seems to me to be pretty filled with examples of sex as being the very modality through which all manner of hierarchical, authoritative, and violent relationships get expressed. This relationship is hardly necessary either, of course; my personal belief is that one of the things that written history records quite badly is the extent to which human beings find ways of loving partners which socially conditioned beliefs and desires instruct them to hate, abuse, or exploit. But the fact that they don’t always succeed even when they try is the sort of fact that cannot exist in Greif’s account: if sex is magically transformative (which is literally what he says), then the fact that it so rarely transforms people into loving lovers is the sort of fact that you would think he would want to address. He doesn’t.
Instead, we get a spoonful of willfully ignorant pop zoology and the strange notion that we are determined by our “evolutionary ancestry.” Starting with the basic ridiculousness of the free-love bonobo vs. mean-nasty-rapist chimp cliché (which would be significantly more persuasive if it wasn’t a complete fiction, my correspondent observed), his retreat to talking about our evolutionary background just illustrates Greif’s lack of interest in thinking about the ways actually existing human society manage conflict. After all, if you acknowledge that sex, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Madagascar, always has consequences, you have to also acknowledge that while the extent of those consequences varies radically, conflict is no less an organic part of sex as love. This is why he asserts (rather than argues) the obverse of both statements: because managing conflict between lovers is actually the opposite of easy, because desire can produce resentment and frustration as easily as it can produce love, and because human beings have invented ways of dealing with those conflicts (some of which are called “marriage”), if he acknowledged that sex can be both good and bad, he would have to think about how to concretely go about making it better. Instead, the answer that our bonobo brain is real sex while our evil chimp brain is some kind of weird perversion of it just allows us to forget the complications of reality.
Mixed in amongst a fairly mean-spirited heckling, Tom Scocca delivered what seems to me to be the thoroughly sufficient pronouncement that Greif’s piece was “a mix of handsy Whitmanism with some dusty Sixties hedonism-as-liberation poet-guru jive, rendered in a pompous (not difficult, not challenging, but turgid) authorial voice.” That all seems basically right to me, but the “handsy Whitmanism” is the part that really stings; Whitman could, perhaps, be forgiven for thinking that free love would revolutionize human society, just as 19th century Utopian thinking can be forgiven for not having benefited from the hindsight of the twentieth century. What’s Mark Greif’s excuse? I don’t mean by this what dumb conservatives often mean, that “Stalin” magically proves the immorality of hippies. I mean, simply, that well over a century of radical societal experimentation, all across the globe, has shown that there is no magic bullet for ending oppression. And it’s exactly because Utopian idealism has so often gone so very wrong that doing better has to try to learn from that history of failure. I’m not arguing that we should give up on “love” as an ideal, but honestly, is Greif really unaware that the most violent and repressive period in Western history is the very period where imperialist thinkers have been most obsessed with the power of sentimental attachment to soften away the soft edges of our violent human nature? And “Western history” is a pretty profoundly parochial lens through which to view humanity; Karl Marx and Walt Whitman can be forgiven for knowing very little about the vast breadth of the human experience, since the vast ideological engine of 19th century Eurocentrism conditioned what it was possible for someone in the 19th century to know about the massive, stunning heterogeneity of different ways human beings have ordered their society. What is Mark Greif’s excuse?
Because where I really get off the bus is when I start using the part of my brain that is aware of how profoundly limited Greif’s sense of historical possibility is. This is a common problem with many utopians, actually: being strategically unaware of the broad heterogeneity of ways that humans actually have organized themselves into societies can enable the argument that the path towards social justice can only be a rejection of what obtains in the here and now. In fact, after all the heckling, Tom Scocca went on to make the much more interesting point (in an exchange with Keith Gessen, Greif’s editor at N+1) that the problem is exactly this kind of historical framing:
“Greif described gay marriage as the most momentous challenge to a domestic order that had existed for 3,000 years. That’s simply not true. The household that he sees as so oppressive–a monogamous heterosexual nuclear family, formed by free choice between equal partners–is a fairly recent institution.”
This is a point that’s worth underscoring, bolding, and italicizing; by pretending that all social ills are the result of the past, we can only locate our solutions in the future. But if we take the trouble to note how the social ills we presently suffer from are deeply and basically contemporary in how they afflict us, then “the beyond” becomes deeply insufficient as an answer. I found Gessen‘s response interesting in its inadequacy, in fact, which will take me back to Greif in a moment. Gessen reiterates that:
“The one thing that has been stable in the various forms of household that have existed in the Judeo-Christian space over 3,000 years is that at their core was a man and a woman. And forty years ago that changed.”
Both Greif and Gessen are operating in a particular kind of conceptual space which, because they do not acknowledge it, causes them to make claims that are much less strong than they seem to think. But even though Scocca is right to demur from this kind of “since the dawn of time” framing gesture, he doesn’t say nearly enough about why it is stupid. Cause it is: while the slippage between Greif’s original “three thousand years of recorded history” and Gessen’s defensive stand at “Judeo-Christian space over 3,000 years” is worth noting, both are reliant on a basic presumption that “the West” is pretty much the entire world, and also all of history to such an extent that even passively deploying it as a framework is also an active act of ignoring the non-Western world and an argument for the universality of that insularity. This is where I lose patience.
It’s telling, for example, that when Scocca challenged Gessen on the 3,000 years of oppression thing, Gessen replies by referring back to The Classics and the Bible: “I’m not a scholar of the ancients but Socrates had a wife. Uh, Odysseus had a wife–Penelope. Agamemnon had a wife–I think she killed him when he got back. Abraham had a wife. Noah had a wife. We don’t have a lot of sources for these things.” This is a particular way of framing what we mean by “the twentieth century” and it’s the way Greif frames things like Stonewall: before “recorded history” there wasn’t much worth mentioning, and during the three thousand years of it, there isn’t much variation. And then, pow! Us!
To put it mildly, this is bullshit. The extent to which “the West” which traces its identity back to Homer and Moses is actually representative of humanity is pretty much the extent to which the British Empire was the vessel through which God poured history on the world. Yet how would the twentieth century look if, for example, we were capable of imagining how many different ways non-Western people had of not being bourgeois heterosexuals over the long duree of human history? And if we considered that it was precisely the coming of Judeao-Christian modernizers who revered the Greco-Roman tradition that put an end to these kinds of interesting heterogeneous non-heterosexuality in places, for instance, like Africa? Only if you think all human history is a family tree springing from the potent brains of biblical and classical patriarchs is it possible for you to imagine that the set of practices which a minority of the world’s population happened to have the military might and historical luck to impose on the rest of the world and call universal actually were. And you can only think that if your perspective has been sufficiently closed by that success to make you its product.
As Scocca puts it, then, “the bedrock of Greif’s free-love argument is ahistorical mush” and it is. But when he goes on to talk about how “what makes Greif’s version of the history of liberation so totally wrong” is the point in human history when “marriage stopped being the transfer of a piece of property, the woman, from one family to another,” he actually participates in the same problematic framing. After all, where did the idea that women were simply property come from? The “Debating Dowry” and “Legislating Marriages” chapters in Tabitha Kanogo’s African Womanhood in Colonial Kenya, for example (which are sadly not on Googlebooks), show in careful detail how the British strategically misunderstood what kind of social relationship marriage had been among the Gikuyu, and how, after having deplored the manner in which they imagined savage Africans to have bought and sold their women like property, they proceeded to make sure that each purchase of a wife was carefully logged into official court documents so it could become nice and legal. One might note, for example, that Britain was not a bastion of egalitarian gender relations in the first part of the twentieth century, and one would be right. But the point isn’t that gender relations among Africans were magically conflict free (Africans are neither chimps nor bonobos) but that it was the very imposition of Western values that transformed marriage into a relationship of ownership.
In a crowd of a hundred anthropologists, I bet you’d find three dozen who could tell some version of that story, some variation on the theme of how the imposition of Western modernity on “tribal” people involved replacing one kind of structured gender inequality with a massively more oppressive and patriarchal one. And, again, you don’t have to have recourse to the equally ahistorical notion of primitive free love to learn the real lesson of that story: there has been no more powerful machine for transforming sex into violence in modern history than the mainstream of “Western” culture. Yet instead of noting how particular those kinds of sexist hierarchies have been and still are to the mainstream of the Western tradition (particular in the sense of being what distinguished it from the alternatives), Greif and Gessen want to make all of this into a narrative of the West’s development towards egalitarianism. And you don’t even need to think of “the West” as the container for all that is evil to see that this is just an argument without any basis in anything but Greif‘s desire that it be so, as the sad state of gender politics within the “West” today surely illustrates.
I started down this line of thinking, though because of the final lines of the paragraph I excerpted the other day, which were: “Women’s straight desire and wish for love and pleasure is the thing that’s supposed to seduce women back into the system of inequality—a beautiful inequality mentally structured by childbearing and the determination of your life course by the consequences of desire. It is beautiful, in its way; as oriental despotism was beautiful, too.”
This just reinforces my point: anyone who uses the phrase “Oriental Despotism” as if it means something, anyone who could call it “beautiful” without indicating what a hall of mirrors the concept is, well, such a person is unlikely to be able to understand or value or even believe in the thing which that fiction covers up. Greif is aware, of course, that “oriental despotism” is a figment of the colonialist and orientalist imagination, since his use of the term relies on your getting the point that it was a beautiful lie. But what he doesn’t seem to be aware of is the fact that something also existed which was both misnamed by that lie and which was different from what Western modernizers think is natural base-line human behavior. “Oriental despotism” was the kind of fiction which had an effect on reality, because the societies which were misnamed that were also very fundamentally transformed by that very process of being mis-named, making that name a way of defining not their essence but their dilemma. This is important, actually, and since the silly thing he implies about “oriental despotisms” helps illustrate why he says such silly things about marriage, I’m going to go on a little tangent. If you want to get to the part where I wax indignant about Greif again, just skip the next 800 words or so.
The thing is this: conceptualizing Islamic states as “Oriental Despotisms” has been an useful ideology for the people who do it, but the fact that it is a fiction doesn’t mean that Islamic states don’t exist. Which allows us then to observe that the practical effect of naming the Islamic state an oriental despotism is often to reinforce that very state of despotic authority which the polemicist is apparently bemoaning. We hear, after all, the loudest voices lamenting the Islamic tendency towards authoritarianism coming from neo-cons and realists alike who both take as given the practical necessity of strong-man authoritarians in the middle-east (not so differently from the way British imperialists used to complain about how patriarchal traditional African societies were and who then went on to codify these traditional practices into law by the force of British military might). Show me someone who believes there is something innately anti-democratic about Islam, and I’ll show you someone who thinks of the Saudi royal family as a necessary evil or the limited nature of elections in Afghanistan and Iraq as an inevitability. Deriving your social science from the eternal verities of culture, after all, allows you to paint an institution like the state as inevitably and hopelessly depraved, yet still imagine it to be the only bulwark against the raging barbarism represented by that culture.
I happen to have Yakya Sadowski’s “The New Orientalism and the Democracy Debate” handy, so let me hand the mike over to him:
“The classical Orientalists argued that orthodox Islam promoted political quietism,” writes Sadowski; “Supposedly the great medieval Islamic thinkers, horrified by the periodic rebellions and civil wars that wracked their communities, decreed that obedience to any leader — even an unworthy or despotic one — was a religious duty.” As he goes on to show, neo-Orientalists in the last half-century have carried this argument into the present day, arguing (as he cites Elie Kedourie, for example), that “there could be no question of representative bodies being set up to carry on a dialogue between ruler and subject; neither could there be institutions of local self-government in town or country-side; nor could craft or professional associations flourish unhindered, since they would always be suspected of limiting the sway of the government over its subjects.”
Now, as Sadowski illustrates, writers of this ilk never let a pesky fact get in the way of a good orientalist ideology, and when events like the Iranian revolution showed how basically weak the Iranian state was, a counter-argument developed within orientalist thinking: the problem with Islamic states wasn’t that they were too strong, it was that they were too weak. As a variety of political scientists came to believe that democracy actually required a strong central state, neo-Orientalists like Patricia Crone and John Hall asserted that the problem with Islam was that “tribes, mullahs, and mamluks had demanded too much autonomy and created a crisis of governability in Islamic societies.” Because the neo-Weberianism of Ernest Gellner’s account of the rise of the West, for instance, asserted that strong central states had made it possible for civilization to happen in Europe, it was then possible for neo-Gellnerians like Hall to assert that the problem with Islam was this crisis of governance, the fact that the state could never get strong enough to hold all those unruly mobs down.
In effect, then, the choice was between state authoritarianism as an indigenous inevitability or as an externally imposed necessary evil. And Sadowski’s point is that this is all ideological bullshit; in his words:
“The irony of this conjunction needs to be savored. When the consensus of social scientists held that democracy and development depended on the actions of strong, assertive social groups, Orientalists held that such associations were absent in Islam. When the consensus evolved and social scientists thought a quiescent, undemanding society was essential to progress, the neo-Orientalists portrayed Islam as beaming with pushy, anarchic solidarities. Middle Eastern Muslims, it seems, were doomed to be eternally out of step with intellectual fashion.”
My point is slightly different: what both sides of this debate have in common is a basic antipathy to real democracy in the middle-east, an antipathy which they hide by pretending to bemoan its impossibility. Whether democracy is doomed in the middle-east because Islam is intrinsically authoritarian or anti-authoritarian is irrelevant; in both cases, the practical response to such a made-up dilemma is to support despotic states like Saudi Arabia and strong men like Saddam Hussein, to view flawed elections as the closest thing to real democracy those sad and doomed Muslims are capable of, and to view explosions of political Islam, any and all, with extreme distaste.
Two things, then, allow them to do this: the fatalism of their culturalist attitude towards Islam and their unexamined belief that the natural alternative is the institutional framework they identify with themselves. While they dislike the Islamic state in whatever form it manifests, therefore, attributing its failures to an underlying and immutable culturalist straw man allows them to regretfully argue the impossibility of any alternative; until such time as the people of the middle-east learn not to be Muslim Arabs and have the good sense to be born as white Americans, the best we can do for them is help build big strong daddy strong-man states and buy their oil. Which is what we do.
To turn back to Greif, the problem with his account of marriage is that his social science is no less derived from the eternal verities of a culturist explanation, allowing him to paint an institution like marriage as inevitably and hopelessly depraved, and as a necessary evil until we sort of magically become revolutionary and better people (like him and his friends, I believe I‘m not uncharitable in guessing). For him, marriage is dominance as surely as middle-eastern states are “Oriental despotisms” to the Orientalists who are trying to imagine how best to control them: as Republicans come along and demand that marriage is patriarchy and needs to be defended from the gays, he quite oddly elects to accept their account of both marriage and the threat that homosexuality poses to it. The fact that he is on the other side of the debate doesn’t change the fact that he has allowed James Dobson to frame its contours, that he has agreed to forget that something else can exist underneath that lie and that marriage isn’t necessarily what conservative bigots find it conveniently useful to say it is (and again, Caleb Crain’s is a nice retort).
The reason I demur from his account, then, is that I think an account of what marriage should be is necessary if we are to say clearly why Dobson’s is so repulsive. Unless we think about what kinds of actual relations men and women should have with each other, in whatever combination, there’s very little we can actually say about why it shouldn’t simply be misogynist domination, why, for example, a wife might still have some rights despite having said the words “I do,” or what recourse or language of protest a homosexual partner might have in a relationship that might not turn out to be all that Greif’s magical utopianism promises it to be.
And here’s the final damning thing: because can only imagine marrriage as a joy-killing contract to forgo all jouissance in service of making babies, he can only cast scorn on people that actually want to be married. Yet the fact that there are all sorts of actual people out there, both gay and non-gay, who actually do want to get married can only be a kind of judgment on their false consciousness, and that seems to me to be the real problem: to make the argument he’s making, a prescriptive argument about what the goals of LBQT movement should be, he has to pretty much write off the fact that a lot of gay people actually want to be married. And his damningly faint “Gay marriage is a preparation for institutions beyond marriage; abortion a means to life beyond patriarchy. So we want the beyond . . . but we’ll take the steps before it, first” makes me really want to question who that “we” is. Because when he attacks gay marriage by implying that it actually is what a “Defense of Marriage Act” understands gay marriage to be threatening, and can only be that, he closes his eyes to why there’s something good about it now and for the people who want it. And the best illustration that there is a significant difference between what pro-marriage activists want and what “defense of marriage” activists want is the fact that they‘re on the opposite fucking sides of a debate they wouldn‘t be fighting otherwise.
In that sense, the weirdest thing for me about the essay is the undefined “we” of Greif’s rhetorical pose, a word he uses an annoying twenty times. Because when you use the first person plural to tell people what they should want, that gesture towards solidarity actually has the effect of saying that what I desire, you should desire, that we all desire the same things. Yet is anything as dismissive of the very basis of queer theory as such a presumption? Is there anything as disrespectful of people’s heterogeneity of desire as the implication that the same “we” he uses to describe “we utopian straights” can be anything near sufficient for describing the political desires of actual gay people actually living in the world? For an essay that attacks the desire of actual gay people to get married (that includes the strikingly dismissive line “Opposing gay marriage is like denying the wishes of people who want to feed your pets or take out your garbage”) to begin with the phrase “Gays are our utopian heroes” is absolutely bizarre.
Because: No. Not at all. They’re people, no more and no less, and the particularity of their personal predicaments is just exactly the fuck as irreducibly specific to them as is yours to you. And the idealization of one form of liberation over the forms actually desired by the people involved is as tone-deaf, and as hopelessly unpersuasive, as when Western feminists refuse to reckon with the variety of ways that women across the world put on a variety of veils willingly and precisely for reasons having to do with their own approach to and dialogue with power. They do so, and they want what they want, because they‘re the ones who have to live with the consequences, and anything but encouraging their ability to determine and pursue whatever their desire may be is to disrespect them in a very fundamental way. It’s not to defend all veils to recognize that sometimes women put them on for very good reasons, just as defending the possibility of a good marriage is not to propose a “Defense of Marriage Act.” But to forget that sometimes your fight is not theirs, that your utopian ideal is not the same as theirs, is something that only the privileged have the privilege of forgetting. The revolutionary era of the late 18th century brought us a lot of good things, but the moment we overlook the fact that everyone defines freedom in ways that are irreducibly particular to the mode of their own unfreedom, the logic of universal human rights and “liberation” leads to the French president telling Muslim schoolchildren how precisely they are allowed to be free, or the bizarre spectacle of Grief’s essay.
The fact that Greif begins by confusing the “we” of “we utopian straights” with anything close to a universal we, in fact, seems symptomatic to me, since writing that “Gays are our utopian heroes” interpellates both writer and reader into a first person plural that actually, explicitly, dis-includes gay people, that externalizes them, that regards them and idealizes them out of subjectivity, leaving Greif not so much arguing against as closing his eyes to the variety of things people are capable of wanting, as well as their reasons why. He ignores (and un-thinks) the fact that there are real people who get called “homosexual” and live with it by taking that hand they‘ve been dealt and making it into something beautiful, and that they do. The fact that a great many are articulating their desire as marriage is something we straights, dear sir, have the obligation of respecting. That is the place where “we” need (and needs) to begin.