Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 5, 2014

Reed Elsevier sucks

Filed under: Academia,computers,Gay — louisproyect @ 6:23 pm

Yesterday I spent three hours on the phone with Apple tech support to resolve a problem that had nothing to do with our Mac’s. Out of the blue my wife was unable to print certain PDF’s  around a month ago. Not only would they fail to print either on our Brother laser or Epson inkjet, all other PDF’s would fail to print following a failure even though they had been printable in the past. The first tech support person I dealt with advised reinstalling the operating system on my wife’s IMac, which I did to no avail. On the second call I spoke to a senior technician who worked with me for over an hour to pinpoint the problem. I have to give Apple credit for working with me so patiently. It cost $19 for their support, a reasonable fee given the amount of time they spent. Finally, we discovered that the unprintable PDF’s had this in common. They all originated from Reed Elsevier’s ScienceDirect website. Oddly enough, I was able to print them from my Macbook but my wife’s IMac spit them up. We left it this—as long as we had this workaround, there was no need to investigate any further.

Curious to see if anybody else was having a problem that both Apple and I agreed was exceedingly obscure, I googled “Reed Elsevier ScienceDirect printing problem” and came up with this:

Screen shot 2014-04-05 at 11.41.30 AM

Now I have no idea if this is the same exact problem we ran into on my wife’s IMac but something tells me that the Reed Elsevier website is flakey, especially in light of the problems I have run into with the new release of Lexis-Nexis. This is the results set for a search on “Paul Buhle”, the radical historian.

Screen shot 2014-04-05 at 11.46.54 AM

The default sort order is newest to oldest, right? So how come 2008 and 2003 are the years for the first two results in the list followed by those for 2014? When I spotted this bug, I contacted Elsevier who told me that they needed to look into the problem. That was about a year ago. Their fucking sort is still broken. If the programmers at Columbia University produced a software release that was this flawed, they would be fired. Plain and simple.

That’s not the end of it. If you do a Boolean search on “Paul Buhle” and “culture”, you get a results set of 75 articles. But if you do a simple search on “Paul Buhle” that returns 354 articles and then do a “search within” for articles that refer to “culture”, you get 96 articles. This of course does not make sense. They should be identical.

On top of all this, even if the software was not bug-laden, the new interface is horrible. An old friend from academia who was doing research in NY blew his stack working in LexisNexis while he was here. In the past you were able to specify all articles within a one-year, five-year, ten-year range just by checking a box. Now you have to enter the specific dates, which is a royal pain in the ass if you are looking for a bunch of different articles. He wondered if the academic version of LexisNexis that he and I use was deliberately sabotaged in order to drive users to pay for the premium version. I have a feeling that the premium version has the same interface. The only difference between the two is that the academic version has a site license.

Reed Elsevier is the result of a 1992 merger between Reed International, a British trade book and magazine publisher, and the Dutch science publisher Elsevier. You may be aware that Reed Elsevier is he target of a boycott by scientists as the NY Times reported on February 13, 2012:

More than 5,700 researchers have joined a boycott of Elsevier, a leading publisher of science journals, in a growing furor over open access to the fruits of scientific research.

The protest grew out of a provocative blog post (http://gowers.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/elsevier-my-part-in-its-downfall/) by the mathematician Timothy Gowers of Cambridge University, who announced on Jan. 21 that he would no longer publish papers in any of Elsevier’s journals or serve as a referee or editor for them.

Last week 34 mathematicians issued a statement denouncing “a system in which commercial publishers make profits based on the free labor of mathematicians and subscription fees from their institutions’ libraries, for a service that has become largely unnecessary.”

The signers included three Fields medalists — Dr. Gowers, Terence Tao and Wendelin Werner. The statement was also signed by Ingrid Daubechies, president of the International Mathematical Union, who then resigned as one of the unpaid editors in chief at the Elsevier journal Applied and Computational Harmonic Analysis.

“We feel that the social compact is broken at present by some publishing houses, of which we feel Elsevier is the most extreme,” Dr. Daubechies said. “We feel they are now making much larger profits at a time when a lot of the load they used to take has been taken over by us.”

Long before the boycott, there were signs that academia was becoming fed up with Reed Elsevier. The NY Times reported on “Concerns About an Aggressive Publishing Giant” on December 29, 1997:

It must have been an extraordinary scene: on Dec. 1, the president of an important subsidiary of the world’s biggest publisher of academic and trade journals, the purveyor of what it likes to call ”must have” information, was politely but firmly told by an important client that ”must have” had become ”can’t afford,” and ”don’t need.”

Russell White, president of Elsevier Science Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier P.L.C., the British-Dutch giant, told a group of professors from Purdue University that the prices of the 350 on-line publications that now supplement the company’s entire list of 1,200 scientific and technical journals could be locked in for three years at an annual increase of 9.5 percent.

What he heard in response could not have pleased him.

Purdue was unwilling and fiscally incapable of absorbing anything close to that sort of rate rise, the professors told him. Moreover, they said, the quality of what they were getting was not worth the money.

Even before Mr. White’s visit, Purdue, which spends more than $1 million a year on Reed Elsevier journals, had canceled 88 of the 803 titles it once received. Among those axed: Brain Research (an annual subscription costs $14,919), Mutation Research ($7,378) and Tetrahedron With Tetrahedron: Asymmetry ($8,506).

”Reed Elsevier journals tend to be second- and third-tier publications, which range from the acceptable to the terrible,” said G. Marc Loudon, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue who attended the meeting. ”None are in the top tier in chemistry, biology and biochemistry, the fields I read in. If we lose Elsevier journals in those fields we will be O.K.

”Why do we want to buy garbage at a 9.5 percent price increase?” he asked.

Erik Engstrom is the CEO of Reed Elsevier. I can’t say that I am surprised to discover that he was formerly the President and Chief Operating Officer of Random House, the publishing house that gave me a royal screwing over the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar. Random House, it should be noted, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Bertelsmann Group in Germany that infamously used Jewish slave labor during WWII.

The chairman of the Reed Elsevier board is one Anthony Habgood, who is also the chairman of Whitbread plc, a British hospitality and food corporation. His work on the Whitbread board must have recommended him to Reed Elsevier:


Horsemeat: Whitbread Shares Slide On New Tests

A leading pub chain sees its share price slide after saying it would impose new tests on all its processed meat products. The Whitbread pub chain, which found horsemeat in its food products, sees its share price fall after announcing a new test regime.

At the close of trading on the FTSE 100, Whitbread’s share price was one of the biggest fallers, losing 3.67%.

The slide occurred after the group said it would impose the new testing regime on all processed meats provided by suppliers and introduce a new system of certification.

Chief executive Andy Harrison said: “We have been dismayed by the recent discovery of equine DNA in two of our restaurant products.

One hopes that when Whitbread embarks on a new testing regime that they are careful not to rely on the guidelines advised by Reed Elsevier science journals that Purdue regards as “garbage”.

Back in 2007 Reed Elsevier finally dropped out of the arms show business after many of its affiliates, especially Lancet, a medical journal that had led the way in detailing civilian casualties during the Iraq war, organized a campaign to bring this lucrative business to a halt. While Reed Elsevier spoke piously about respecting the sensibilities of its mainly academic clients, it is likely that concerns about its bottom line made the big difference just as is the case with Israel and the BDS. The Guardian reported on February 12, 2007:

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust said today it had sold its £2m stake in Reed Elsevier because of concerns the publishing giant is stepping up its involvement in arms fairs.

According to the charity two Reed subsidiaries, Reed Exhibitions and Spearhead Exhibitions, have continued to organise arms exhibitions despite the charity’s three-year campaign to make Reed sever ties to the arms trade.

It said the subsidiaries’ arms fairs included Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi), held every two years in London and organised in association with the Ministry of Defence.

Finally, this article would not be complete without mentioning the scandal that developed around a homophobic “study” that appeared in Social Science Research, a Reed Elsevier journal. A University of Texas sociologist published an article there that claimed that same-sex marriages were bad for children raised in such an environment.

The article was not properly peer reviewed (Regnerus’s colleagues participated) and was marked by serious methodological flaws as Debra Umberson, a colleague of Regnerus at U. of Texas revealed:

The recent study by my colleague Mark Regnerus on gay parenting purports to show that young adults with a parent who ever had a same-sex relationship turn out worse than young adults with continuously married heterosexual parents (who are, in addition, biologically related to their children). He calls this latter group the “gold standard for parenting.”

But in making this claim, he has violated the “gold standard for research.” Regnerus’ study is bad science. Among other errors, he made egregious yet strategic decisions in selecting particular groups for comparison.

His definition of children raised by lesbian mothers and gay fathers is incredibly broad — anyone whose biological or adopted mother or father had a same-sex relationship that the respondent knew about by age 18. Most of these respondents did not even live with their parent’s same-sex partner; in fact, many did not even live with their gay or lesbian parent at all! Of the 175 adult children Regnerus claims were raised by “lesbian mothers,” only 40 actually lived with their mother and her same-sex partner for at least three years.

Regnerus was recruited to put together this study by an outfit called the Witherspoon Institute that paid him $785,000 for his bogus research. Witherspoon is a rightwing think-tank funded by all the usual suspects: the Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, et al. One William Bradford Wilcox, a conservative sociologist at the U. of Virginia who was hired to do the statistical research, is an editorial board member of Social Science Research. Surprise, surprise.

Darren Sherkat, nother board member of Social Science Research, was asked to conduct an audit of the Regnerus “study”. The New Civil Rights Movement, a gay rights website, reported on Sherkat’s findings:

In his audit, Sherkat explains the role that parent company Reed Elsevier played in pushing greed to predominate over ethical science publishing in the Regnerus scandal.

The Regnerus publishing scandal actually is much broader than just the Regnerus and Marks papers. Three Regnerus study commentaries published alongside the Regnerus and Marks papers were done by three persons without same-sex-parenting science expertise, and with conflicts of interest in commenting on the study. Those three are 1) UT’s Dr. Cynthia Osborne, Regnerus’s co-researcher on the “study;” 2) Dr. Paul Amato, a paid Regnerus study consultant; and 3) David Eggebeen, a Witherspoon bigot crony who supports the continuation of sexual orientation apartheid.

Here is part of Sherkat’s explanation of how Reed Elsevier greed is driving the publication and promotions of the wide-scaled anti-gay Regnerus scandal:

“Controversy over sexuality sells and in only a week after publication these papers have already skyrocketed to the most downloaded papers published in Social Science Research.” (Bolding added). “But neither paper should have been published, in my opinion. Undoubtedly, any researcher doing work on same-sex parenting will now have to address the Regnerus paper, and these citations will inflate the all-important “impact factor” of the journal. It is easy to get caught up in the empirical measures of journal success, and I believe this overcame Wright in driving his decision to rush these into print. The fetishism of the journal impact factors comes from the top down, and all major publishers prod editors about the current state of their impact factor. Elsevier is particularly attentive to this and frequently inquires about what Wright is doing to improve the already admirable impact factor of Social Science Research. As social scientists, popularity should not be the end we seek, and rigorous independent evaluation of these manuscripts would have made Social Science Research a less popular but better journal.” (Bolding added).

In his CYA “audit,” Sherkat further wrote:

“once they were accepted there was an unseemly rush to publication.” He continues: “that was justified based on the attention that these studies would generate. The published responses were milquetoast critiques by scholars with ties to Regnerus and/or the Witherspoon Institute, and Elsevier assisted with the politicization by helping to publicize the study and by placing these papers in front of the pay wall.” (Bolding added).

So you have to wonder. Did Aaron Swartz die in vain? If this is the kind of junk behind the JSTOR paywall, maybe we are better off just dumping these journals. Or finding a way for scholars to share information without corporate pigs who organize arms shows and sell horsemeat getting into the act? Open Access journals have their problems as well, but at least they are not tainted by the almighty buck. Whatever solutions lie in store, let’s hope that Reed Elsevier is excluded since everything about them sucks.

February 14, 2014

Ted Rall on Michael Sam

Filed under: Gay,sports — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

February 13, 2014

Good commentary on Michael Sam

Filed under: Gay,sports — louisproyect @ 8:29 am

March 19, 2013

108 Cuchillo de Palo; Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home

Filed under: Film,Gay,housing — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

Two outstanding examples of leftwing documentary deserve the widest viewing. Opening yesterday at the Maysles theater in Harlem and playing through the 24th is “108: Cuchillo de Palo”, a study of the oppression of gay men in Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay that I would rank at the very top the list of films committed to gay rights, right next to “Before Stonewall” or “The Celluloid Closet.” Just having finished a theatrical run on the West Coast, “Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home” is now available as a DVD or streaming from Cinema Libre Studios, a production company that has a repertory of leftwing documentaries to its credit that is second to none.

Renate Costa Perdomo returned to her native Paraguay from Spain after learning of the death of her uncle Rodolfo Costa in order to understand what life was like for a gay man in one of Latin America’s most brutal dictatorships. The 108 of the title refers to a blacklist maintained by the state, while Cuchillo de Palo is Spanish for knife made of wood, a derogatory term directed at the “uselessness” of  gay men who will never impregnate women, God’s purpose for them as Renate’s deeply religious and deeply homophobic father reminds her every chance he gets.

The moments spent between Renate and her father Pedro Costa, the proprietor of a blacksmith shop inherited from his father, is a reminder that many men and women retain prejudices despite progress made by a powerful and insistent movement determined to win equality. Sitting across the kitchen table from him, she presses him on the disservice he did to his brother by treating him as a sinner. He unctuously replies that he is a sinner too and begins reciting biblical verses. She tells him that it is impossible to have a conversation with him. His response is to shrug his shoulders and smile placidly. One can understand why his wife divorced him long ago and why Renate fled to Spain. While her father was by no means a Stroessner supporter, it is not too hard to figure out why his 35-year reign was facilitated. The population was obviously trained to be passive and obedient by a calculating government and church.

Despite this being her first film, Ms. Perdomo is very adept at developing character and revealing psychological complexity. Despite her father’s obdurate opposition to the idea that gays have a right to live as they please, there is a softer and more likeable side to him that she brings out in comically unproductive kite-flying and fishing expeditions. You can’t help but feel that his homophobia is partially explained by his failure to have ever become an adult. An infantilized Paraguayan male population is made to order for an authoritarian system.

But the most uplifting and dramatically powerful parts of the film are Perdomo’s interviews with men who spent time in jail or prison as society’s sexual outlaws and lived not only to survive but to come out of the closet as well. She also interviews transvestites who knew her uncle well, women who had less to fear under Stroessner in some ways since they never had to worry about losing a job. When you make a living as a nightclub act in drag, there’s little chance that being on a blacklist would cause you to be fired.

Structured as a kind of detective story with Ms. Perdomo digging into her uncle’s past, including a survey of police records, we are drawn into the plot and the circumstances of her uncle’s death. One assessment from a family relative: he died of sadness. Thanks to the efforts of gay activists in Paraguay and everywhere else in the world, such casualties are becoming fewer and fewer.

If you’ve ever visited downtown Los Angeles, you’ve probably seen the Skid Row area that is home to the homeless. In humanizing its denizens, who are bedeviled by drugs and mental illness or both, “Lost Angels” deserves place of honor next to “Dark Days”, the 2000 documentary about homeless men and women living in the train tunnels beneath Grand Central.

Like “108: Cuchillo de Palo”, there was a woman whose creative vision was behind “Lost Angels”. Writer and co-producer Christine Triano was formerly the editor of Alternet, one of the Internet’s higher profile progressive websites.

Departing from the predominantly pro-Democratic Party slant of Alternet, Triano has no use for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who has been spearheading a drive to throw the homeless out of downtown L.A. as part of a gentrification effort that will transform Single Room Occupancy Hotels into lofts for hedge fund managers and web developers. Villaraigosa had hired New York’s former police commissioner William Bratton to “clean up” the city, especially its Skid Row. As Mayor Giuliani’s right-hand man, Bratton had the necessary experience to terrorize the poor through implementation of a “broken window” theory that states that when you crack down on petty crimes, you undermine serious crime as well.

Giuliani’s crackdown was examined in another fine documentary titled “Giuliani Time” about which I had to say:

[Rightwing think-tank analyst Myron] Magnet explains that Giuliani assumed power largely on the basis of the “broken window” theory pioneered by the ideologues at the Manhattan Institute. This posits the notion that petty crimes (or even offenses to bourgeois values) such as street-level drug dealing or panhandling have to be eradicated in order for larger law-and-order values to prevail. Unfortunately, many decent middle-class New Yorkers, who tended to vote Democrat, got suckered into voting for Giuliani because they were fed up with panhandlers, crack vials in their vestibule, etc.

It is clear that Los Angeles voters were suckered into backing Villaraigosa on the same basis, an outcome that was welcomed by The Nation Magazine’s Marc Cooper who crowed:

Villaraigosa’s campaign embodies not just the hopes for a rising Los Angeles progressive politics; it has taken on national significance as well. “LA has become a national bully pulpit in fighting for working families across the country. If we are successful in electing a mayor who can expand the middle class, then it will become a national watershed,” says Martin Ludlow, political director of the County Federation of Labor and Villaraigosa’s former legislative chief of staff.

As a cri de coeur, both of these films will certainly command the attention of anybody with a moral conviction that the oppression of society’s outsiders, whether the gay men of Paraguay or Los Angeles’s down and out, must come to an end. Although the left has a reputation of being weak and divided, the existence of such powerful works of art and advocacy are a reminder that our message will be heard. I especially recommend the website for “Lost Angels” that has links to groups fighting against the eviction of the homeless and other causes on their behalf.

“Lost Angels” is available on DVD from the Cinema Libre Store as well as Amazon and other web retailers.

It’s also available digitally via HULU and Amazon Instant very soon.

May 17, 2012

God hates no one

Filed under: Gay — louisproyect @ 1:32 pm

October 7, 2011

The Sons of Tennessee Williams; Elevate

Filed under: Africa,Film,Gay — louisproyect @ 5:51 pm

Although the adjective “inspirational” is one of the most hackneyed in the film reviewer’s vocabulary and hence one that I tend to shirk, I could think of no other word that better describes two new documentaries: “The Sons of Tennessee Williams”, opening today at the Quad in NY, and “Elevate” that opens at the AMC Empire in NY on October 21 and in other major theaters around the country thereafter. The first is about gay men in New Orleans who used Mardi Gras as an opportunity for what amounted to gay pride demonstrations long before Stonewall. The second is about Senegalese high school students who win basketball scholarships to prep schools in the United States. While sharing some of the same dark concerns as “Hoop Dreams” (basketball as a problematic ladder up from poverty) and “Lost Boys of Sudan” (African youth dealing with an alienating white bread American environment), it is instead an uplifting story of true grit and the finest movie I have ever seen about basketball.

Joining “Before Stonewall” and “The Celluloid Closet”, “The Sons of Tennessee Williams” illuminates the efforts of gay people to express themselves when the law and a backward society were against them even much more so than today. The film is structured around old home movies and still photos taken by the men themselves and their reflections on the past. Most are now in their 60s and beyond and obviously thrilled at the idea of telling anybody who will listen that they had nothing to be ashamed of. While Hollywood fiction films still tend to the “gay as tragic” motif, documentaries continue to make the case that gay men and women can live happy and fulfilled lives if the bigots would just leave them in peace.

“The Sons of Tennessee Williams” tells the story of “drag balls” in the early 60s that used the cover of Mardi Gras to allow gay men to express themselves. Even if cross-dressing was not necessarily their “thing”, these occasions were opportunities to implicitly “come out” since it was understood by everybody that they were coming at things from a different angle than the heterosexual men who cross-dressed during Mardi Gras in the same way they might have wore more conventional costumes. Of course, New Orleans being what it is, just about everybody enjoyed getting in rhinestone-studded outfits whether they were gowns or cowboy duds.

The cops generally allowed these “krewes” as they were called some leeway but it was understood that anybody caught in a dress after carnival was over would be arrested. The press notes for the documentary describe the origins of this early foray into gay liberation:

In February 1959, a group of gay men in New Orleans decided to have a Mardi Gras ball of their own. Mardi Gras organizations in New Orleans, called krewes, are social clubs comprised of members who celebrate the season together. Each krewe has their own festivities, including parties and parades, usually ending with a formal ball and the coronation of a King and Queen. Everyone seems to have a krewe of some kind to belong to. A full decade before Stonewall, a gay Carnival krewe was founded. They called it the Krewe of YUGA or “KY”. In 1962, “KY” rented a school cafeteria in the notoriously conservative suburb of Jefferson Parish. Securing such a venue for an all male krewe to hold a Mardi Gras ball would not likely raise suspicion. Most krewes were, in fact, made up of an anonymous all male membership. Various personnel from the venue were present at functions like these, however. This would no longer be a private event. “It was a kindergarten, is what it was.”

Familiar with police raids, the men knew that the 1962 ball would break a few laws. They made absolutely sure to be in full drag anyway. “It was a ball, after all, not bowling night.” The police roared in precisely at coronation time, alerted by private citizens of crossdressing men entering the building at night. Krewe members attempted to escape by running into the swamplands adjacent to the school, chased by officers with dogs and flashlights. Many were betrayed by their glittering costumes while hiding in the dark night and tall grasses of Jefferson Parish. They were taken to jail, identified by name in the newspaper and eventually prosecuted with the charge of “disturbing the peace.” The significance is this. The following year the ball was not raided nor was any subsequent ball in the history of these annual events. By 1969, there were four gay krewes legally chartered by the state of Louisiana as official Mardi Gras organizations, holding yearly extravaganzas at public venues across the city. “Society matrons begged for ball tickets from their hairdressers.” New Orleans was the first place in America where gay and straight people came together to publicly recognize gay culture.

Not only does the film celebrate gay culture, it is a celebration of what makes New Orleans a special place. The film has a perfect title since Tennessee Williams, despite his first name, was the city’s poet laureate. It begins with a quote from Blanche Dubois, from his greatest play “A Streetcar Named Desire”. (Streetcars in New Orleans actually had such names.) When asked by her brother-in-law Mitch whether she was being straight with him, Blanche answers: “Straight? What’s ‘straight’? A line can be straight, or a street. But the heart of a human being?” How true.

“Elevate” begins in Dakar, Senegal at the SEEDS Academy, where young basketball players from across West Africa come to get intensive athletic and academic training. We are introduced to Amadou, Assane, Byago, Dethie and Aziz as they go through the paces on the basketball court and the classroom.

We also see them at home where you can get an idea of domestic life and family relations in West Africa that is unlike anything I have seen in a documentary before. The warmth and solidarity that family members offer the young athletes is one of the film’s most engaging aspects. With so much emphasis in documentaries about war-torn countries like Sudan or Ivory Coast about cruelty and suffering, these scenes are a reminder that there is more to Africa than doom and gloom.

Once the athletes get off their planes and drive to their new schools in the United States, the contrast with Dakar could not be starker. One school has mandatory chapel services that Assane amiably takes part in despite his Muslim faith. After services are finished, he goes back to his room and prays toward Mecca. At the very minute another athlete Aziz is eying a hot dog in his school’s cafeteria during Ramadan, worrying if there is pork in it, the film cuts back to Dakar where it shows his mother preparing a traditional Senegalese dish in a huge kettle. The contrast drawn between America and Senegal throughout the film is not one intended to be judgmental, only to help one understand the psychological adjustment the young protagonists had to make.

And make them they did. The film benefits from having five of the most likable and engaging young people as you can possibly imagine. Wise beyond their years, they have few illusions about making it to the NBA. They see prep school not as a path toward a McMansion and a fleet of cars but rather one that can get them into an American college on a basketball scholarship and then a profession, like medicine or law.

Much of the film consists of locker-room banter, games on the court, sessions between the athletes and coaches or guidance counselors that are ostensibly mundane. But they take on a highly dramatic character since everything the five young heroes are involved with amounts to stepping stones toward a better life. This is a documentary that takes a seemingly routine business—the lives of Senegalese basketball scholarship students in America—and turns it into high drama. Highly recommended!

August 14, 2010

On the Road with Austin and Santino

Filed under: Gay,television — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Like Vanity Fair’s estimable James Wolcott, I am a fan of On the Road with Austin and Santino, a new Lifetime cable show about a couple of fashion designers who go around the country making couture type clothing for plain janes:

The pleasantest surprise of the television year so far is Lifetime’s underhyped and unheralded On the Road with Austin and Santino, teaming two of the most memorable, personality-plus designers from Project Runway, a creative odd couple that make for a terrific matched set. Outfitted in perfect little outfits, Austin Scarlett, diminutive and fey, looks as if he could be the guidance counselor from Glee’s long lost brother, the one who taught her everything she knows about pastels and jewelry selection; Santino Rice, tall, husky-voiced, and spaniel-eyed, has a more loping presence and loose, layered look. But both are quick-witted and droll, and make a helluva comedy duo as they tool around the country in this fashion-makeover road movie on the installment plan. (Santino at least resembles a road warrior behind the steering wheel–to many of the locals, Austin looks as if he landed from Venus.)

The last episode, which can be seen in its entirety here, was particularly entertaining as the two men end up in Antler, Oklahoma, the self-declared deer hunting capital of the country, to design a 30th birthday gown for Alesha, a  mother of two whose wardrobe is filled with hunting camouflage outfits rather than Chanel. There are many funny and charming aspects to their intervention, but especially the way the small town locals accept them on their own cosmopolitan and homosexual terms. Austin Scarlett, the more openly gay of the two, tells Alesha at one point that he has probably worn more skirts than she has over the past year or so.

It is not just the women who accept the two designers with open arms. Alesha’s husband and her father, who look like they could be cast as Klan members, are thrilled to see them working on Alesha’s gown. The other residents of the small town also give them the red carpet treatment. This is not what we would expect in an ostensibly homophobic small town, needless to say. Whether or not this generous and tolerant behavior was staged or not can of course not be determined, although I am inclined to believe that it was genuine. Admittedly, when you are being filmed you tend to be on your best behavior.

Whatever the case, it dawned on me how gratifying the show was when compared to the truly odious last movie by Sasha Baron Cohen that basically followed the same format as this TV show, but to the opposite effect. The gay fashionista Bruno played by Cohen went to the same kinds of small towns in order to catch locals in some kind of homophobic outrage. When Bruno goes out hunting with some men who look and dress like those in Antler, he tries to shock them into bad behavior by provoking them with outlandish sexual advances. To their credit, they largely remain unprovoked. The real lesson of Borat and Bruno, when you really get down to it, is how generally open-minded Americans are despite this British snob’s attempts to convey the opposite.

All this brings to mind Alexander Cockburn’s recent column about how fed up he is with gay marriage:

I’m for anything that upsets the applecart but why rejoice when state and church extend their grip, which is what marriage is all about. Assimilation is not liberation, and the invocation of “equality” as the great attainment of these gay marriages should be challenged.

To buttress his case, he followed up with a letter from a gay activist that stated:

As you might know, only 15 per cent of LGBT are in a relationship circumstance where they would marry.  Yet this issue has dominated LGBT activism for the past two decades. Along with gays in the military, which served 1.5 per cent of LGBT, these two conservative issues have crowded out progress on consensus economic issues, housing and job discrimination protections, which would appear to be in the interests of the vast majority, those of us who must compete for housing and employment.

That being said, the activist also told Cockburn that he’s “probably gonna tie the knot in the future when it becomes legal again.” He also thought that:

The issue of marriage is just a vehicle. The payload is the state ending discrimination in all of its practices. It is disgusting to me that marriage ended up getting us here, but I think that I can see daylight through Kennedy.

In other words, gay marriage might involve belief in a reactionary institution (I am married myself, for what that’s worth) but it is a means to a liberatory end.

To some extent, Cockburn’s complaint and that of some gay ultralefts is a kind of counter-cultural time machine journey back to 1971 or so when radicalism and life style were inextricably linked, especially in New Left circles. For gays, this translated into rejection of all aspects of bourgeois society, especially its sexual mores. What a disappointment it must be to them to see so many gays jumping on the bandwagon of an institution that symbolizes bourgeois society. Like pressing for the rights of gays to join the military or become Protestant ministers, this would appear to be a wholesale rejection of “militancy”.

Perhaps the same thing could be said about the civil rights movement of the 1950s that focused so much on African-Americans not being discriminated against. By the 60s the Black movement had reversed course and worried less about discrimination and more about the possibility of becoming separated from a decadent bourgeois white society.

History played a trick when it came to gays. Rather than moving from anti-discrimination to militancy (except for the rather modest efforts of the Mattachine Society), it went from the militancy of the early 70s to something much more like an “integrationist” movement today. It is too bad that some on the left cannot accept the movement on its own terms.

Oddly enough, Counterpunch has published far more articles in defense of gay marriage than Cockburn’s contrarian pieces, a sign of the publication’s health, I would say. If only the “vanguard” press could live up to this example, we’d all be better off. Here’s one item to consider:

On a swing through Baton Rouge, Louisiana last week, John F. Kerry made it crystal clear that he doesn’t care much for gay marriage. The intolerant senator scoffed at reporters when asked whether or not he supported the inclusion of a same-sex marriage plank in the Massachusetts Democratic platform. Kerry answered by saying that such a statement does not represent the views held by most party members, including himself.

“I’m opposed to it being in a platform. I think it’s a mistake,” Kerry huffed, “I think it’s the wrong thing, and I’m not sure it reflects the broad view of the Democratic Party in our state … I’m opposed to gay marriage.”

The senator, who flip-flopped his way through a self-defeating campaign in 2004, can’t get his act together — yet he is still setting himself up for another run in 2008. Supporting gay marriage amounts to electoral death, or so claims Kerry. He must think inflating his political status is more important than standing up for equality.

Indeed Kerry’s statement is the kind of veiled hate speech we were hearing from racist Democrats down South during the civil rights struggles. Fortunately, Dems in Massachusetts aren’t buying Kerry’s line, as they are planning to vote in favor of putting a same-sex marriage plank in their platform later this month. In fact, Kerry is behind the times, as his state’s Supreme Court legalized gay marriage back in May of 2004.

This, of course, is entirely the right tack to take. Hearkening back to Lenin’s “What is to be Done”, it puts the premium on standing up for the rights of a persecuted minority without trying to gainsay the goal being pursued. In illustrating how a “vanguard” functions, Lenin referred to the German social democracy:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

If Lenin advocated that socialists fight for the right of a “bourgeois progressive” to take office in Germany, why is so difficult for some on the left to see gay marriage in the same terms?

Logo, a polling company subsidiary of MTV, asked young gays about their hopes. It found the following:

For one thing, younger gays now expect to stay put: no more running away to be gay. Rather than heading to big cities where gays are more readily accepted, young gays are planning to put down roots and raise families in small-town America.

That means younger gays fully anticipate, and demand, acceptance from their local communities. At the same time, younger gays don’t see a great need to depart from most cultural norms as expressed by their heterosexual peers; while wishing to be open and honest about their core identities, young gays also wish for the support and purpose of family.

The expectation of a spouse and children is common among younger gays, whereas the research indicated that only about a third of gays 35 and older shared that same desire. Overall, gays polled by the study said their top priority was marriage equality, followed by the environment, health care, and the economy.

Get that? Young gays are planning to put down roots and raise families in small-town America. They also said their top priority was marriage equality.

All in all, On the Road with Austin and Santino is an expression of these hopes and dreams. Gay youth want to be accepted on their own terms, even in such a place as Antler, Oklahoma. The desire to express one’s sexual identity without negative consequences is entirely normal. The United States is headed inexorably toward significant demographic changes that will help to undermine the reactionary prejudices of many white males living both in places like Antler and in New York City where gay-bashing still takes place. Socialists have an obligation to strengthen every initiative that moves us away from the prejudices that have taken the lives of Blacks, Latinos and gays. Part of this is fighting for gay marriage, a change that would make gay people and straights equal in the eyes of society, whether or not one or another reactionary has endorsed this demand. As is always the case, socialists should not put a minus where the ruling class—or elements of it—put a plus. As Leon Trotsky once said, we have to learn to think.

December 7, 2009

Among the Freudians

Filed under: Gay,psychology — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

Dr. Samuel Kahn: ardent Freudian

This year I worked with a couple of people on a comic book memoir about my comic life that should be out in 2011, god willing.

That exercise has triggered a Proustian examination of key episodes facilitated more by Google than a Madeline dunked into a cup of tea. Pretty much all of my strange encounters will be covered in the memoir but one slipped my mind entirely. When I was 14, my parents shipped me off to summer camp for neurotic children. Yes, I know that sounds funny but that’s what it was. Just like there are summer camps for fat kids, Jewish kids, rightwing Christian fundamentalist kids, there are summer camps for neurotics. At least there was in 1959.

Around the time I turned 14, my mother became worried that I never smiled. I suppose if she asked me why, I could have told her that I was tired of being bullied by bigger kids in school and by the mindless materialism and conformity that I was growing disenchanted with. I still didn’t have a handle on my malaise, but reading Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg a year later would help me figure it out. And then a year later, when I turned 16, I went off to Bard College where I became acquainted with 400 other neurotic youth newly liberated by the school that Walter Winchell had called “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson”.

My loquacious mother was asking around about what to do with me, especially during the summer when vacationing Jews from New York flooded into our village, bringing their big-city sophistication up with them. We were rubes by comparison. One of these Jews was Kenny Gottlieb, an Amherst undergraduate who was working summers at the Olympic Hotel. Like thousands of other young men depicted in movies like “Dirty Dancing”, the summer earnings as camp counselors, waiters and busboys helped pay tuition and expenses at places like Amherst and Columbia. Kenny’s uncle was Sam Weiser, the owner of a famous occult bookstore in New York that has since moved to Maine. After I became a fledgling beatnik, I used to make pilgrimages to the bookstore to browse titles in Gnosticism, Kabbalah and other “hipster” religions.

Kenny was introduced to my mom by the people who ran the hotel, who were locals like us. Sizing up my situation, he recommended that I be shipped off to Camp Quakerbridge in Croton-on-Hudson that was run by a psychiatrist named Samuel Kahn whose sister owned the Olympic. So in the summer of 1959, I went to summer camp for the first time in my life. Instead of playing pinball machines, fishing for pickerel in nearby ponds or shooting off firecrackers with my hooligan pals, I was going off to be “cured”.

Most of the kids there were Jews like me and seemed to be suffering from the kind of emotional burdens associated with middle-class life as documented in the novels of Philip Roth. Whether they could be described as “neurosis” or not is open to debate but that did not seem to deter the counselors and social worker/therapists who were steeped in Freudian theory and camp director Samuel Kahn’s particular interpretations of the man he studied with.

A typical day might consist of playing softball from 9:30 to 11 followed by a session with “Mrs. Rabinowitz” (I can’t remember any of their names except Kahn’s) who explained to us kids what was wrong not only with us, but most of the human race. Using a blackboard, she went through terms like “ego”, “superego” and “id” to bring us up to speed. When she came to the Oedipal Complex, most of us had trouble wrapping our minds around that. The idea of having erotic feelings toward one’s mother seemed most improbable, especially when you had a look at some of them who came up to visit on weekends.

I didn’t take the lectures that seriously but was happy to get away from my father’s fruit store for the summer. I was expected to put in a few hours a day waiting on customers who asked in thick Yiddish accents “you got some nice tomatoes maybe?”

In early July, having spent about a month there, I wandered over to the main building where I spotted a group of the counselors and other staff members sitting around in a circle while the camp’s drama director walked up and down in the middle. For a few moments, he was talking about things that were troubling him that would not be of much interest to a 14 year old—like a sense of inadequacy, etc. You have to become an adult for such things to get you down, especially in bourgeois society. But what happened next was totally unexpected. The counselor began to sob uncontrollably about his problems, the tears falling down his face. I had never seen a grown man cry, an act that was particularly rare in the self-controlled masculine world of the 1950s.

A few days later, I received an even greater shock. Dr. Samuel Kahn wanted to meet with me, about what I had no idea. We sat on a bench near the main building and he presented a proposal to me. He thought that I would benefit from living with a couple in Croton-on-Hudson who would be able to “rescue” me from the misery my parents were inflicting on me. Although I was happy to be away from them for a summer, the idea of going to live with people who cried in public and whose lives revolved around discussing the superego was not my cup of tea. I called my mom that evening and demanded to be brought home. Since my father’s fruit store was doing a booming business that summer (the Catskills would collapse only 6 or 7 years later), they didn’t think twice about bringing me home to wait on customers.

Just out of curiosity, I did some investigation on “Samuel Kahn” and “Quakerbridge” on the Internet. This is what I came up with. The NY Times reported on December 28, 1981:

Dr. Samuel Kahn, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who had studied with Freud, died Thursday at Westchester County Medical Center in White Plains. Dr. Kahn, who was a resident of Croton-on-Hudson, was 84 years old.

He was born in Atlanta and was a graduate of Emory University where he also received his medical degree. Dr. Kahn interned in various New York City hospitals and studied in Vienna.

He was a clinical psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital and served as an associate professor at Long Island University. He was the founder and a director of the Quakerbridge School, a youth camp in Ossining, N. Y.

Dr. Kahn was the author of more than 30 books of psychotherapy, of which the most recent was ”Practical Child Guidance and Mental Hygiene.” Among others were ”How and Why We Laugh,” ”Anxieties, Phobias and Fears,”, ”Master Your Mind!” and ”Thanks for a Better Memory.”

He is survived by his wife, Karen; two daughters, Dr. Janice Kahn of Island Park, L. I., and Susannah of Ossining, N. Y.; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Of even greater interest was a website called http://quakerbridgecamp.com/ that has a bunch of the good Doctor’s musings. The first one that caught my eye was called “Acting Out” – Homosexuality and Bisexuality, a talk he gave exactly 52 years ago to this day. He explains:

A passive homosexual is one who can be made into an active homosexual by special circumstances. Under ordinary circumstances he prefers heterosexuality, but supposing he would get drunk and be locked up in a room with a homosexual, he would have homosexual relations. When the drinks wear off, he again prefers heterosexuality. The largest numbers of homosexuals are the passive unconscious homosexuals. These don’t know that they are homosexuals and they are the ones who get mentally sick. The way to find out whether one is a passive unconscious homosexual is to interpret the dreams. Many times these dreams are symbolic so that the individual himself cannot interpret the dreams and hence, may not recognize his homosexuality or the kind it is. Once in awhile a passive unconscious homosexual may have an overt homosexual dream. This may happen, but it is not so common. These dreams may or may not be remembered. The exact situation may happen to females.

The first time I got an inkling how stupid this was from the comedians Jack Burns and Avery Shreiber who did a skit called “The Conventioneer and the Cabdriver” around this time on television. Burns played the conventioneer as a thick-necked Rotarian from someplace like East Jesus, Nebraska who was in NY for a convention. Shreiber, the cabby, was taking him to his hotel and answering his anxious questions about the visit. Somehow, the conversation turned to ballet dancers that the Rotarian heard thrived in New York. He told the cabby that if any of them ever got smart with him, he’d punch them out. Everybody understood how stupid he sounded, even if the reference to gays was only veiled. 10 years later, with the Stonewall rebellion, most intelligent people in the U.S. would have nothing to do with the prejudices of the conventioneer played by Burns or by Dr. Samuel. As backward as American society can seem sometimes, I have to remind myself from time to time that we are making progress.

July 10, 2009

MRZine and Sex Change Operations in Iran

Filed under: Gay,Iran — louisproyect @ 3:33 pm

Iranian transsexuals

Despite aspiring to speak for the Iranian left, which in its view is reducible to Ahmadinejad and the forces that support him, MRZine has come under attack again and again by the Iranian left, both in exile and in Iran itself. The pro-Ahmadinejad tilt is mainly the contribution of the editor Yoshie Furuhashi who became converted to the Ahmadinejad cause before assuming control of the online publication at the time of its launching exactly 4 years ago.

To some extent comrade Furuhashi’s attachment to Ahmadinejad transcends politics, as indicated by this comment she made on Doug Henwood’s listserv a month after MRZine debuted.

Today is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inauguration. Rostam Pourzal made a tough deadline and delivered a great article in time for it. Now, it’s featured on the homepage of, together with (what I think of as) a handsome photo of Ahmadinejad.

Like Furuhashi, Rostam Pourzal is an unabashed supporter of Ahmadinejad. In June of 2006, he wrote an article for MRZine defending the Iranian government’s crackdown on International Woman’s Day on the basis that no women were beaten–only arrested. He cites a correspondent from Tehran who was an eyewitness:

In [sic] two different occasions, I saw two groups of protesters, each about four or five, who were arrested and driven away in vans. In one occasion, a woman protestor who was resisting arrest was treated roughly by a female officer, but I saw no beatings, and no use of batons and gas against the protestors.

This is most reassuring that there were only arrests and rough treatment. I can see Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff smiling benignly from their clouds in Marxist heaven over this revelation.

Pourzal’s article was so outrageous that it prompted an open letter by members of the Iranian left in exile that posed the question:

Let us assume for a moment that the report in the email received by Pourzal is correct, and that the demonstrators were not hit by batons but by flowers. Shouldn’t one consider any effort by the state to stop a peaceful demonstration by women in a park an act of aggression? Isn’t this unnecessary violence?

With the political crisis developing in Iran since the elections, MRZine has effectively functioned as a propaganda arm of the Iranian government, even more openly than in the past. If you read the comments at the bottom of the offending articles, you will find Iranian leftists expressing their outrage but none supporting the editorial position of the zine. This is typical:

I live in tehran and for the last 30 years I have felt the brutal and fascist nature of Islamic state. Is MR in supporting position of Islamic state? My comrades brutally sentenced by Islamic State, some times for translating MR materials! I don’t konow why you are not supporting Iranian Left? and Are you supporting a Fascist-Islamist regime?!!

farhang | 06.22.09 – 2:59 pm | #

Today, there’s a very useful article by Saeed Rahnema, a Professor of Political Science at York University in Canada, on Znet titled “The Tragedy of the Left’s Discourse on Iran” that hones in on MRZine:

The most bizarre case is the on-line journal MRZine, the offshoot of Monthly Review, which in some instances even publicized the propaganda of the Basij (Islamic militia) hooligans and criminals. The website has given ample room to pro-Islamist contributors; while they can hardly be considered to be on the left, their words are appreciated by the leftists editing the site. One writer claims that the battle in Iran is about “welfare reform and private property rights,” and that Ahmadinejad “has enraged the managerial class,” as he is “the least enthusiastic about neo-liberal reforms demanded by Iran’s corporate interests,” and that he is under attack by “Iran’s fiscal conservative candidates.” The author conveniently fails to mention that there are also much “corporate interests” controlled by Ahmadinejad’s friends and allies in the Islamic Guards and his conservative cleric supporters, and that he has staunchly followed “privatization” policies by handing over state holdings to his cronies.

During the 1979 revolution, the late Tudeh Party, under the direction of the Soviet Union, was unsuccessfully digging deep and looking hard for “non-capitalists” among the Islamic regime’s elements to follow a “non-capitalist path” and a “socialist orientation.” Now it seems that MRZine magazine is beginning a new excavation for such a breed among Islamists, not understanding that all factions of the Islamic regime have always been staunch capitalists.

While it is tempting to look at the MRZine editor’s passion for Ahmadinejad in psychological terms, it is more profitable to approach it politically. To begin with, it must be stated that Comrade Furuhashi likely turned her attention to Iran because she had become frustrated with the slow pace of politics in the U.S. After a brief experience with the antiwar movement and membership in Solidarity, she found to her dismay that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were continuing despite her best effort. And even bigger pill to swallow was the fact that American workers continued to remain politically passive. I can commiserate with her after spending the past 42 years of my life banging my head against the wall trying to foment a socialist revolution in the U.S. That being said, I’d prefer to take up bird-watching rather than propagandize for Ahmadinejad.

For those trying to get a handle on MRZine’s editorial direction, it must be stated that the pro-Ahmadinejad tilt is likely inspired by the line of two Marcyite groups, the Workers World Party and a recent split that goes by the name of Party of Socialism and Liberation. It should be said that these two groups are indistinguishable politically and probably split over who would run the show, an outcome generally associated with the corporate world rather than Marxism-Leninism. The term Marcyite is a reference to the founder of Workers World Party, one Sam Marcy who split with the American SWP over its support for the Hungarian revolution in 1956 preferring to back Soviet tanks.

The two strands come together in an MRZine article titled “An Open Letter to the Anti-War Movement: How Should We React to the Events in Iran?” by Phil Wilayto that has all the earmarks of a Workers World piece. Although Wilayto represents himself as an independent, he did write for their newspaper in the past. The MRZine article has the Workers World/PSL approach down pat. You dredge up some evidence that imperialism is opposed to some government and then work overtime to prettify it, whether it is run by Mugabe or Ahmadinejad. Here’s a sample of his mechanical approach:

This is from a June 25 story in USA Today: “The Obama administration is moving forward with plans to fund groups that support Iranian dissidents, records and interviews show, continuing a program that became controversial when it was expanded by President [George W.] Bush.”

That story, published 13 days after the Iranian elections, explains that the U.S. Agency for International Development, which reports to the U.S. secretary of state, had for the last year been soliciting applications for $20 million in grants to “promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Iran.”

Pretty clearly, that’s internal interference. After all, imagine how Americans would have reacted if Iran had allocated millions of dollars to “promote democracy” in Florida after George W. Bush stole the 2000 presidential election?

Speaking only for myself, I don’t allow U.S. support for dissident movements to guide my thinking on various governments. The U.S. backed Soviet dissidents in the 1960s and I opposed the Soviet government nonetheless. But in the case of Cuba, I support the government and oppose the dissidents. If this is too complicated for others to understand, I recommend a remedial course in Marxist dialectics.

Wilayto also adopts a stratagem that is found in Workers World articles when dealing with characters like Mugabe or Ahmadinejad. The author finds evidence to make them look irresistible. In the case of Ahmadinejad, this most frequently takes the form of hailing his populist measures that benefit the poor. This we are led to understand trumps democratic rights, a kind of paternalism generally associated with Stalinism of the 1940s and 50s.

It is a bit more difficult to put a spin on the question of personal freedom, especially when it comes to women and gays. Ahmadinejad has a most unusual position on the latter, stating to a Columbia University audience:

In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you we have it.

Wilayto implicitly tries to finesse this question by referring to Iran’s generosity in enabling sex change operations:

Subsidies for food, housing, gas, public transportation, airline seats, movies, arts, books, fertilizers, vacations, and sex change operations. (That’s right. Iran has the highest number of sex changes operations of any country except Thailand. Subsidized by the government.)

This enthusiasm for subsidized sex change operations has been expressed by Furuhashi and the Workers World Party in the past as well. On her blog, Furuhashi calls attention to “Changing Sex, Changing Islam” and finds encouragement in a newspaper article that states:

One early campaigner for transsexual rights is Maryam Hatoon Molkara, who was formerly a man known as Fereydoon. Before the revolution, under the shah, he had longed to become a woman but could not afford surgery. Furthermore, he wanted religious guidance. In 1978, he wrote to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was to become the leader of the revolution but was still in exile, explaining his situation.

The ayatollah replied that his case was different from that of a homosexual and therefore he had his blessing.

Workers World is even more breathless in an article that warns gay activists to stop protesting the treatment of same sexers in Iran:

Today, Tehran offers more rights to transsexuals than any other government on the planet, including low-cost government loans for surgery and free hormones. Khomeini made the initial decision and it has since been reconfirmed by many other Iranian clerics.

This credulous support for sex change operations must be challenged and fortunately an excellent documentary on the matter called “Be Like Others” can be seen on Youtube in its entirety. It makes three essential points as it monitors the progress of several men scheduled for sex change operations:

  • They opted for surgery because life for transgender people is a living hell in Iran. Harassment by thugs on the street or potential arrest by the morality police forces them to go through the procedure.
  • After the surgery, they are victimized by their new identity and can not find jobs. One interviewee makes her living as a prostitute utilizing the “Islamic temporary marriage license” to permit her to have sex with a john for about an hour.
  • All suffer serious depression of the kind that causes many transsexuals in Iran to commit suicide.

I urge you to watch the entire movie, starting with part one below:

If you don’t have the time, at least have a look at this article which encapsulates the lessons of the movie quite effectively:

Filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian has long been fascinated by gender issues, so when she read a New York Times story about how the Iranian government was dealing with homosexuality, she was completely transfixed.

Iranian-born herself, the New York-based filmmaker learned that in Iran, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. But the government has provided a way out for the nation’s gays and lesbians: a sex-change operation. Fully paid for by the state, the procedure would allow these people to conform to Iran’s theocratic standards of sexuality.

Eshaghian decided she had to interview some of those involved in this gender-reassignment program. The result is a devastating documentary called Be Like Others. Shot in verité style, the film captures the pain and brutality of a regime that is pushing sex-change operations as the path to a final solution to homosexuality.

What was nearly as surprising as the revelations in the film is the fact that Eshaghian didn’t have to go undercover to get her story.

“It’s a very public phenomenon,” she says. “These sex changes are legal and are endorsed by the leading clerics. It’s embraced. I asked for a press permit before I went. After a month, I was given the OK. Officially, I was allowed to do what I needed to do. It’s not like I was doing a film on nuclear strategy — they don’t see it as an openly political issue. The rest was what you have to do with any documentary: spend a lot of time gaining trust.”

What her film reveals is a culture so steeped in hatred of gays and lesbians that it deems a sex change preferable to simply accepting differences in sexual orientation. The shift in policy came more than two decades ago, when Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious decree) declaring sex changes permissible for “diagnosed transsexuals.” Be Like Others introduces us to a number of the people who have been given this label. Some have accepted their fate, and feel the sex change to be a way to avoid further persecution; others are clearly uncomfortable with the idea, but have agreed to it simply because of intense outside pressure. One young woman laments that her boyfriend seems uninterested in her now that she’s no longer a man.

Full article can be read here.

Finally, I advise you to check out the film’s official website here.

May 6, 2009

Red Diaper Baby

Filed under: Gay,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:14 pm

Allen Young
(photo by Robert Giard, copyright 1992)

Not long after I posted the Robert Duncan essay on “Homosexuality and Society” on my blog, Allen Young showed up to post a comment:

Dear Louis, One of my gay email friends brought this to my attention. Recent comment on your blog is by Giles Kotcher, a friend of mine from the NY Gay Liberation Front (early 1970s). When I tell friends about my childhood, I sometimes remark about your father’s store and especially the pickles. I think the last time we were in touch was around the time of the “Weatherman” film. Naomi Jaffe, whom you mentioned at that time because she is in the film, has recently joined a rather extreme pro-Palestinian group of Jews who reject the right of Israel to exist. My views are different from hers on this topic, and others. So life goes on. Stay in touch.

I imagine that Allen does not hold my own extreme pro-Palestinian views against me since we have had amiable email exchanges since he got in touch. Both Allen and his cousin Naomi Jaffe figure in the comic book about my life that will be published within the year unless Random House goes out of business.

As will be clear from the mini-memoir by Allen that appears below, he (and Naomi as well) was a red diaper baby in the tiny village next to mine and three years ahead of me in school. Both became leading SDS’ers in the 1960s. Naomi joined the Weatherman and Allen went on to become a theoretician and activist in the gay liberation movement.

In chapter one of the comic book about the unrepentant Marxist, you will find all sorts of interesting anecdotes about the Communist subculture in the Borscht Belt. In addition to the Young and Jaffe family, there was my piano teacher Henrietta Neukreug who like Allen’s parents kept copies of Soviet magazines on her living room coffee table. Sid Caesar, who got started in show business in a nearby hotel, was performing Odets plays there in the 1940s. And so on.

I have a feeling that Allen’s article is a bit tougher on extremists like me than the original talk he gave at a conference on the 1960s at Eastern Connecticut University in 1994 that I attended. Whatever problems I have with his current-day political views, I have nothing but admiration for Allen’s life-long dedication to the cause, his elegant writing style, and his piquant sense of humor (his anecdote about discussing the Butcher Franco in high school lasted with me since I heard it in 1994.)

Red Diaper Baby
By Allen Young

©1994 by Allen Young

My parents were members of the Communist Party (CP), so that makes me a ‘red diaper baby.’ If I had to sum up my political evolution, I could summarize it this way: I started out in the Old Left, became involved with unbridled enthusiasm in the New Left, and now just feel pretty much left out.

Actually, I don’t feel so much ‘left out’ as unwilling and unable to find a label that works for me. There are political ‘causes’ that I care about and I am an avid believer in the concept of democracy, but I am by no means a ‘political junkie’ and I am turned off by zealotry. I still have some radical ideas but I don’t want to be as marginalized as I was earlier in my life. I am a registered Democrat though sometimes disappointed by Democratic office-holders, write letters to my elected officials, and I still vote without fail in every election.

Growing up in a Communist Party household when McCarthyism reigned in America was a challenge. I was, like most children, strongly influenced by my parents’ way of looking at the world. It’s important to note that they did not identify openly as Communists. This was due to a mixture of fear, discretion and party policy. During this historical period of crude repression, ‘rank and file’ members were encouraged to keep their membership secret while CP officers were open. My parents and their friends described themselves most often as ‘progressive’ and on occasion as ‘socialist,’ but I sensed in my childhood that they were pro-Communist, and eventually learned from them that they were actual members. The media used to refer to ‘card-carrying Communists,’ but I neglected to ask them if they ever carried a membership card.

It took some time for me to diverge from my parents’ political views and develop my own. This first occurred in the early 1960s when I left home to go away to college. Only then did I become aware of other left-wing groups and especially a development called the New Left. One of the New Left’s leading thinkers, an iconoclastic Texas-born sociologist and prolific writer named C. Wright Mills, was one of my teachers at Columbia. My political development continued in the late sixties when the New Left took on a more activist form and I dived in with fervor and apparently limitless conviction.

How did ‘nice people’ like my parents, Rae and Louis Young, become Communists, affiliated with a group of people which society hated and scorned during my formative years? Living in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, my parents completed high school, but due to family finances, they had to get jobs and were unable to attend college. Predictably, both became involved in the burgeoning and highly successful labor movement. My father worked as a printer, my mother in the retail clothing trade. Many in the labor movement joined the Communist Party because of its strong commitment, both ideologically and in practical terms, to workers’ rights. Furthermore, the CP took a strong stand against anti-Semitism and against the racist Jim Crow laws in the U.S. south. The party advocated socialized medicine while some of its proposals, most notably social security system, were adopted by the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The CP grew to tens of thousands of members in the 1930s, but by the 1950s the numbers had dwindled. My parents were among those few thousand nationwide who remained steadfast.

One reason for the decline of the CP was the lack of internal democracy in the party. Indeed, my father complained occasionally about the egotistical and autocratic party leaders. Another reason for the party’s decline was its insistence on the Soviet Union under Stalin as a role model. The CP faithful refusd to take seriously reports in the press about Stalin’s crimes; this was seen as ‘the bourgeois press’ trying to undermine the much-admired ‘first socialist nation.’ Soviet foreign policy was especially troublesome, and many left the party after Stalin signed a pact with Hitler. More left after World War II when Communist governments consolidated power, with the help of the Red Army, throughout Eastern Europe. The ranks were thinned further when Khrushchev gave significant revelations of Stalin’s crimes, of the murders of millions. And they left when Hungary was invaded by Red Army troops in 1956. My parents did not leave, however, continuing their membership well into the late 1950s. Although I think they were seriously disillusioned, they did not leave voluntarily but were expelled as the result of bogus charges of racism. Expulsion of people from the CP on various charges was not unusual; as the party weakened, a sort of cannibalization occurred.

While Communism was so vilified by society in the 1950s, what I saw of Communists, as a child, was quite benign. My father was an active member of a farmers cooperative and both of my parents were active in the American Labor Party, considered a front group for the Communist Party (though the term “front group” was essentially a hostile epithet that was rejected by my parents). My mother’s most memorable and admirable activity was a successful campaign to improve the living conditions of migrant African-American laundry workers who cleaned the sheets and towels for the famous resorts of the Catskill Mountains. I grew up with a great sense of pride in the political struggle waged by my parents and their friends. I did not identify their politics as ‘Communist’ but it was all thinly veiled. CP publications were always in our house. There were many meetings and film-showings at party meetings in our home. I quietly perched at the top of the stairs and tried to hear everything. At one meeting, my parents called to me and asked me to look in our (hopelessly outdated) encyclopedia to find out about the height of wheat grown in the United States. Someone was asserting that wheat in the Soviet Union grew taller.

My parents called themselves and their friends “progressives,” a kind of closet terminology that I find irksome, causing me to dislike the use of the term today despite its return to popularity. My pride in my parents was based on their defense of working people, their opposition to racism and fascism, their reverence for peace. Part of the pride resulted from the sense of being different, being special. Some red diaper babies have written about how this “difference” was an unpleasant, sometimes horrible and alienating experience, but for me, it was more thrilling and self-satisfying than scary. There were a few instances where I was hassled; someone once asked me Stalin’s wife’s first name, which of course I did not know. In that incident, what frightened me was the towering older boy was who was questioning me.

Being raised in a Communist Party household had advantages and disadvantages for a curious young man. It was not as ‘cool’ as some people think, for after all my parents were not bohemians or anarchists; in fact, despite all the Marxist-Leninist tracts and dedication to socialism, their values and especially their ambitions for me were quite middle class (or ‘bourgeois,’ as the jargon goes).

I was essentially indoctrinated into left-wing dogma. I was not encouraged to think for myself, and I was not particularly well educated in the more controversial and complex aspects of left-wing politics. I knew ‘Trotskyite’ was an epithet, but I had no idea until I was a college student who Leon Trotsky was or what his followers stood for. In some areas, what I learned was useful at times though harmful in its absolute tone — for example, I was taught to mistrust the U.S. press and government authority. Communists gave a great deal of importance to Negro History Month, and I learned about Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass (not part of any public school curriculum in those days) — but I didn’t learn that Richard Wright, the great Negro novelist, had bitterly broken with the Communist Party. It wasn’t until several years later that I read the accounts by Wright and others in the aptly titled book The God That Failed. I learned a lot of labor history and knew about Joe Hill and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, but it took me years to accept the idea that labor unions might be corrupt or labor leaders self-serving. In social studies class, I was a tiger when it came to defending the faith, though now some of this seems foolish. When my teacher used the term “satellite” to describe Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, I protested vociferously. I remember once referring in class to the leader of Spain as “Butcher Franco,” thinking that “Butcher” was his first name, when in fact it was an epithet I had read in an American Labor Party leaflet.

While I was committed to my parents’ political views and did not squelch my own radicalism, it is also true that McCarthyism and the Cold War ‘Red Scare’ were threatening to me and to my parents. My mother was foreign born and had to get a lawyer to help her obtain documentation requested by the government, so that she could avoid deportation. My parents burned many of the pamphlets they owned, much of it CP literature praising the Soviet Union. I remember being frightened and upset at this book-burning. They were horrified and saddened by the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and they raised money to free Morton Sobell, who was sentenced to 30 years in a Federal prison for a related conspiracy charge. I became friends with Michael Meeropol, the son of the Rosenbergs, in 1958 when I was a freshman at Columbia and, by coincidence, his adoptive parents living in Manhattan were neighbors of family friends. This was only five years after his parents’ execution.

The friendship of other red diaper babies was important during my youth. We were a special community, and we banded together against a hostile outside world. We rarely, if ever, expressed doubts about our parents’ political views. We were kids, for sure, but we were different from other kids because we knew so much about politics and what we knew was in such stark contradiction to the majority viewpoint. I remember once, at age 10 or 11, hiding behind a hedge along Riverside Drive in New York City with my friend Michael Lessac. We were usually good boys, but this time, to entertain ourselves, we had water pistols and were squirting people who walked by. But when a black woman walked by, neither of us squirted. Later, we had a discussion about which was the right thing to do: show our belief in equality by squirting the black woman the same way we squirted white people, or refrain from squirting because we knew she was a victim of racism. You could say our decision to not squirt was an early version of affirmative action.

When I left home and arrived at Columbia University in the fall of 1958, my political outlook began to shift but one would be hard put to say I was in rebellion against my parents’ views. The process of change was more subtle than that. The New Left began in the late 1950s with British pacifists who objected to Soviet nuclear program as much as to the Western nuclear program. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were various new publications expressing the ideas of the New Left, magazines like Studies on the Left (Madison, Wisc.), New University Thought in Chicago and Root and Branch in Berkeley, all of which I read. The policies of the Soviet Union were beginning to be questioned, especially the militarism and the lack of democracy, also the specific brutality and the anti-Semitism of the Stalinist regime. Stalin had been a heroic figure for my parents in the 1940s and even up to his death in 1953, but now things were starting to change. Away from home, I met other kinds of socialists, those who supported Norman Thomas (the so-called right wing socialists or social democrats), the Trotskyists, and others. I went to meetings and heard speeches by a variety of people: Norman Thomas, Bayard Rustin, Mike Harrington, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benjamin Davis (a leader of the CP). None of the other groups in the Old Left appealed to me, however, even though they were actively recruiting (unlike the CP, which was laying low). The anti-communism of these groups bothered me, and some of the people seemed a little nutty. I’m convinced that people who are very needy psychologically, some even mentally disturbed, gravitate toward certain political and religious groups. In this regard, leftist sects are not unlike religious cults.

In 1959, Fidel Castro and the guerrillas he led came to power in Cuba, and this was a watershed event for me. Here was a real independent revolutionary, someone challenging capitalism and the United States but not subservient to the Soviet Union and clearly not dogmatic. The Cuban revolution also had an element of irreverence and fun to it. My professor, C. Wright Mills, visited Cuba and returned to write a strongly pro-Castro book, Listen Yankee. Mills, through his lectures and his other major books, White Collar, Power Elite, The Causes of World War III, had a profound influence on me. Like Fidel sporting a beard, Mills rode a motorcycle and refused to wear a jacket and tie, the only professor I knew who rebelled in this way. I met some dynamic individuals on the Columbia campus who became outspoken defenders of the Cuban Revolution, among them the economist James O’Connor (then an instructor at Barnard, where he had a reputation for dating college girls) and Electa Rodriguez, a Mexican-born Spanish teacher who was smart and beautiful. The CP was lukewarm at best toward Castro, who was supported by the Cuban Partido Socialista Popular (as the Cuban Communists were called) only when his insurrection was about to succeed.

There was no magic moment that turned me into a New Leftist; it was a gradual process that led me to change my views. I like to say that I began to think for myself. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that I began to listen to ideas other than the ones presented by my parents and their friends and the left-wing periodicals that came into my childhood home.

I developed decidedly critical ideas about the Soviet Union, realizing that it was not democratic, also seeing its leaders as stodgy and boring, and also concerned about the Soviets’ lack of support for Cuba and for armed revolution elsewhere in Latin America. The Old Left was quick to label the New Left as infantile leftist or adventurist or to dismiss it as ideologically weak, while I and my new friends considered the Old Left to be, well, old and tired and boring and increasingly irrelevant and dishonest. My political activities in the period from 1958-64, when I was in college and graduate school, ranged from the Youth March for Integrated Schools (1958), picketing Woolworth store at 110th Street and Broadway because Woolworth lunch counters in the south refused to integrate, writing and passing out leaflets for the Student Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (to warn of the danger of strontium 90, the result of fallout from above-ground tests). I canceled my subscription to the National Guardian when the newspaper made excuses for the Soviet testing, but I quietly returned to the paper because I was so used to it and did not have a good alternative. I was decidedly not attracted to ordinary liberal politics because it was too sedate and not committed to radical change. I was ready for the New Left, but it really wasn’t quite off the ground at this point. I was part of a group called ACTION at Columbia, comparable to other campus activist groups in the early 1960s — many of us were red diaper babies, but our focus was the campus. I was the editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator and used that position to promote some radical ideas. Spectator ran my editorial on the Sobell case, which was attacked by Prof. Daniel Bell, a liberal sociologist who not coincidentally hated C. Wright Mills.

My career development at this point was greatly influenced by the turn of events in Cuba. I took my existing interest in journalism a step further and decided I wanted to become a foreign correspondent specializing in Latin America. I had already fulfilled my college’s foreign language requirement, but decided to study a new language: Spanish. I also decided to obtain a master’s degree in Latin American Studies, choosing an institute at Stanford University in California which had obtained a lot of publicity for exposing secret CIA training camps for Cuban exiles in Guatemala. At Stanford, I studied yet another foreign language, Portuguese, the language of Brazil.

I was in California at Stanford in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis and I was one of three speakers (along with Peter Eisenberg and Saul Landau) at a public forum to criticize President Kennedy because I felt Castro was justified in doing what he needed to do to stop a U.S. invasion. That was a scary moment — the three of us were all Jewish and we had to endure anti-Semitic taunts. While at Stanford, I studied Marxist economics with Paul Baran, and made friends with other leftists including Marvin and Barbara Garson and Landau. I also began to get in touch with the cultural changes that were taking place, and among the people I met was Ronnie Davis, leader of the San Francisco Mime Troupe (founded in 1959).

My first public action on Vietnam came early in the war — on May 2, 1964, when I attended a demonstration against U.S. intervention in Vietnam. I surely would not have known about this small demonstration if I were not in touch with the left in New York. I was at this time a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, working on my second masters degree. This May 2 action took at the intersection of 110th Street and Central Park West and was sponsored by an obscure Maoist group, soon to be called the May 2 movement in honor of this event. My gut reaction against the war was a reflection of my Old Left allegiances, but my understanding of the war deepened when I read a 1964 pamphlet by the New Left journalist Robert Scheer, entitled ‘How the U.S. Got Involved in Vietnam’ and published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

I spent three years in Latin America, 1964 to 1967, the first year as a Fulbright scholar to Brazil. A crucial point in my personal life was the curious dichotomy between my radical ideas and my mainstream ambitions for my personal life. At the point of my departure from the U.S. for Rio de Janeiro, I vaguely assumed I would get married and have children, even though I knew my inclinations and most of my experiences were homosexual. Similarly, though my inclinations were toward socialist revolution, I assumed I deserved a Fulbright scholarship (administered, after all, by the U.S. Department of State), and I also assumed I would have a career as a foreign correspondent, preferably for The New York Times. Looking back on this phase of my life, I see a basic contradiction in the message I got from my parents: on the one hand, I was supposed to admire socialist heroes and values; on the other hand, seek a successful middle class professional life. My parents wanted me to be a doctor, precisely because they felt a doctor could be a radical while a journalist would be deprived of freedom of expression.

In Brazil, I benefited from friendships I had made with some Brazilian student radicals who trusted me because they knew I was a student of Marxist economist Paul Baran. Professor Baran was widely known and respected in Latin America, though he was vilified by Stanford alumni and virtually ignored by the U.S. economic profession. In Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and Argentina, I traveled widely and met people of many political stripes, but I was closest to independent leftists. I identified as a New Leftist and as a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, and that enabled me to overcome the widespread anti-American prejudice I found throughout the region. Of course, there were exceptions, people who couldn’t tolerate any norteamericano, people who may even have thought I was an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.

At one point, I got myself into trouble when I spoke against the Vietnam War at a rally sponsored by a Communist youth group at the University of Chile. Ralph Dungan, U.S. ambassador to Chile (Kennedy appointee), called me and another American, Peter Roman, into his office to express his outrage at us for speaking out against U.S. policy at a rally sponsored by Communist students. He said we should go home and run for Congress rather than criticize our own country. He threatened us with deportation and frankly he scared both of us, not into silence exactly, but he scared us for sure. I was on a scholarship and effectively dodging the draft, and I was afraid I would be drafted if my scholarship were canceled! In 1965, while in Chile, I also launched the international “Committee of Americans Abroad For An Honorable Foreign Policy.’  I had hoped to obtain enough signatures and money to buy an ad in the New York Times to express the point of view that U.S. military action in Vietnam was making people around the world hate the United States, but unfortunately my effort was not successful. I later obtained my file from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, wherein an informant described this effort as ‘recognizable Communist propaganda.’

I kept in touch with events in the U.S. by subscribing to the National Guardian and to New Left Notes, the newsletter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In Brazil, my sexual expression as a gay man became a big part of my life (I was in the stage of self-acceptance for the first time), and I also danced a lot, smoked a lot of pot, sun-bathed on the beach, and traveled widely, taking in everything I could, expanding my horizons. During this time, I had many articles published in the New York TImes and the Christian Science Monitor, and a few in European left-wing magazines such as the International Socialist Journal and New Left Review.

When I returned to the U.S. in the summer of 1967, I hunted for a job on both the East and West Coasts. I was in San Francisco for the famous Summer of Love, and I remember feeling rather confused. I smoked pot, but I wasn’t a hippie. I visited the Haight-Ashbury with a curious look in my eye, but I wasn’t a tourist with a camera. I saw hippies asking for money from mid-Westerners with cameras, much as I had seen Indians in Guatemala ask me for money to take their picture.  You know that line from the Bob Dylan song, “Something’s happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Well, the truth is, I was no Mr. Jones. I had a pretty good idea that the hippies were rebelling against the status quo, and like me, they were for peace and they smoked pot. However, I also was in California to interview for a job at the Los Angeles Times, and my career ambitions and mentality made me pretty straight compared to the spaced out freaks on the streets of the Haight-Ashbury.

After landing a job as a reporter for the Washington Post, I was back on a fast track in my career. But the year was 1967. It was the year of “Battle of Algiers,” a movie about the commitment of radical, armed revolutionaries, also the year that Che Guevara died fighting in the jungles of Bolivia, the year the movement against the war in Vietnam achieved major advances especially the march on the Pentagon in October, and the year that the underground press spawned its own Liberation News Service. Uncomfortable in my role as a reporter for the establishment media, and increasingly aware of the limitations placed on me because I was gay (still secretly, at this time), I quit the Washington Post and began to work full-time in the underground press. I also became active as a member of Students for a Democratic Society and encouraged my friends to become involved in SDS, which I saw as leading the movement through its unfocused mixture of activism and vague leftist ideology.

My Old Left background motivated me in a couple of crucial areas. First, I did not feel comfortable with the pacifists who had an ideological bent against armed struggle and therefore did not entirely approve of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. I followed Lenin’s maxim that the ruling class would not give up power without a fight, though I was never quite sure how I could be a warrior in such a fight because many of my instincts were indeed pacifistic — that is, I hated violence and was somewhat cowardly. Second, I wanted to influence others toward a “complete” ideological program that involved socialist values, anti-racist principles, in other words, an all-purpose movement toward radical change and social justice.

I immersed myself full-time in SDS and LNS, living at first off money I had saved from scholarship and freelance journalism while in Latin America; later helping to developing a system of subsistence salaries for LNS staff ($35 a week salary plus meals bought with LNS money). LNS, by the way, raised a significant amount of money from left-wing sectors of Protestant churches. In retrospect, I think these Christians saw us as good-hearted young idealists working against war, while I think we saw them as an easy mark for money. We were lucky to get their money, and, as I think about it now, I regret that I didn’t interact more honestly with these good church people. I wonder why they were so generous to us; they must have read the LNS packets with occasionally crude rhetoric (calling cops “pigs” and glorifying violence in the Third World). I also regret not interacting more honestly with the Black Panthers, who hung around LNS from time to time because we had printing presses and did work for them at virtually no cost. We at LNS were proud to have the Panthers on our premises because they validated our politics; in fact, we knew little of them except as cardboard political figures, and I had liberal friends who had much deeper relationships with black people.

I saw myself as propaganda specialist for the New Left, even arguing that “propaganda” should be seen as something good, that is, propagating ideas and information that were being hidden by the establishment media, and encouraging people to demonstrate and take action — like the term ‘agitprop’ used in the Old Left. I served as a kind of press attaché at some national SDS meetings. There was a ‘giddy joy’ (a term used by my LNS colleague Nina Sabaroff) to a lot of what we did, but much of it was deadly serious. I don’t think I had a reputation for having a great sense of humor, but I do remember, somehow, a lot of laughs and fun and silliness. Communal living, travel and street actions helped to create a big part of this camaraderie.

An aside: four years of college, two years of graduate school, three years in Latin America, and three years of intensive involvement in the New Left — this adds up to 12 years of practically no television viewing. I don’t do well when people comment about “Gilligan’s Island” or “Leave it to Beaver.”

I went to many SDS meetings in New York and all over the United States — plus dozens of demonstrations. On two occasions in the late 1960s, I was arrested, once at Columbia University with 800 others during the April 1968 occupation, once on a New York City subway station platform when I intervened, with a friend, on behalf of a black man who was being unjustly arrested by a white police officer. I had many other opportunities to be arrested, at demonstrations where some people engaged in civil disobedience, but I declined to go through that again, doubting its value. I wasn’t particular sympathetic to the Catholic leftists who were constantly engaging in civil disobedience and getting themselves jailed. Later, in the 1970s, I was prepared to be arrested during a demonstration at the Seabrook, N.H., Nuclear Power Plant, but a deal was struck with the authorities and there were no arrests. In1980, I was arrested one more time — the charge was growing marijuana.

I once heard someone say, perhaps in the early 1970s, that the New Left was pretty much the same thing as the Old Left. We may have smoked pot and absorbed new issues, such as feminism and even gay liberation, but the dogmatism and the rigidity was reminiscent of Stalinism. I also heard people say, often, that my Marxism was “just like religion,” a charge that I absolutely hated, since I was so resolute in my atheism. But today I believe that leftists like myself were indeed a lot like religious zealots, with our union songs akin to hymns, our political chants reminiscent of prayers and our leftwing tracts not unlike the Bible.

Today, I no longer consider myself a Marxist or even a leftist. In 1969, I loved calling myself a “revolutionary communist,” but I don’t believe in either revolution or communism and I can’t think of any label I’m entirely comfortable with. Libertarians tend to be overly ideological in their views and liberals tend to be too predictable, while conservatives tend to be mean-spirited.  So I muddle through and try to be a good person, while avoiding the notion, once so dear to me, that life should be organized around a movement to change the world. I still believe in the need for change, but I don’t make it my mission in life. I have a house and garden and a circle of friends. I am enrolled in the Democratic Party,  and I belong to the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. I do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union, even though it has been a difficult adjustment for the people of Eastern Europe. I do not trust the people who still admire Fidel Castro or the Cuban Revolution, simply because I think there is no basis in fact for this admiration. While I am uncomfortable when people say that the U.S. “is the greatest country in the world,” I do admire a lot about this country, especially our Constitution. While I flirted with the idea of armed struggle and violent revolution for a while, I am glad my better instincts kept me out of the Weatherman faction of SDS (where many of my friends ended up). Confession time: I threw mud at mounted police during Nixon’s Counter-inaugural. That same night, outside the ball where Spiro Agnew was being feted, I ran toward a cop who had just arrested one of my co-demonstrators — I pulled with all my might to successfully free the demonstrator and I kicked the cop. Instead of armed struggle, I call it ‘legged struggle.’ I also practiced target shooting with a .22 for a while. That was the extent of my involvement with violence.

The crucial years in my political evolution away from leftwing hardliner were 1969-71, including the birth of the gay liberation movement and two trips I took to Cuba. In Cuba, I discovered (not in a well-lit moment, but gradually, with thought) that the revolution I loved so dearly was built on lies, repression and tyranny. The focal point for me was the persecution of gay men and lesbians in the Castro regime, but there was much more than that. The highly touted literacy campaign was a joke considering the powerful propaganda machine maintained by the government, featuring a lack of freedom of the press and the rote educational system where few questions could be asked, no doubts expressed.

In 1969 and 1970, I was part of a committee that formed the original SDS brigade, had my picture taken in the cane fields which appeared on a poster advertising the Venceremos Brigade, a group of Americans who went to Cuba to cut sugar cane in solidarity with Cuban workers, and I signed checks as the treasurer of the Venceremos Brigade organization.

All that changed quickly and I began to write and speak about the persecution of gay people in Cuba, which had adopted a Stalinist line and was engaged in serious repression of not only homosexuals, but also the Cuban variation of hippies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, black nationalists, Trostkyists and dissidents of all stripes.

My experience with gay liberation was exhilarating. I began to live with other gay men, and I made many gay friends, male and female, around the country. I was struck at the variety of people I met in the gay movement, especially the diversity in regard to race and class — more diversity than in the New Left, which was essentially a white middle-class intellectual or student phenomenon. As a gay activist, I participated in and helped organize many marches and demonstrations, and initially these were more frightening, psychologically at least, than anything I had done as an Old Leftist or a New Leftist. As an author and editor, I helped spread the word about gay oppression and liberation. Partly under the influence of psychedelic drugs that helped me get in touch with my love of nature, and partly in response to dogmatic tendencies emerging in the gay and lesbian movement, I left New York City and relocated in rural Massachusetts. There, I continue to spend some of my time in an activist frame of mind, but I have had a more ordinary life as a reporter and assistant editor of the Athol Daily News (circulation around 5,500) and later, the director of community relations for the 30-bed Athol Memorial Hospital.

From my upbringing in the Old Left, to my experience and adventures in the New Left and gay liberation, and finally to a more sedate life in a rural community — I look back and see more continuity than contradiction. I retain an ethical system of caring for and sharing with my fellow human beings that is at the core of socialism.

However, I realize stifling dogmatism or political correctness in today’s society, even within so-called progressive circles, reflect Old Left values, and these are inimical to me. Communist Party theoreticians had answers for everything, but now I am on the side of those who admit there may not be answers. I remember clearly that these same CP dogmatists spread the line that homosexuality was related to bourgeois decadence and could not be tolerated in a revolutionary society. These commissars analyzed each and every play, movie and painting to decide whether or not it served the interest of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. Time and again, they were so sure of themselves. They intellectualized every move and every moment. Today, I don’t have to immerse myself in dogma. I’m more concerned about living in harmony with nature and being kind to friends, neighbors and family, than I am with feeling part of a self-congratulatory political movement.

The above essay is based on:

“Red Diaper Baby: From a Jewish Chicken Farm in the Catskillls, to the Cane Fields of Cuba, to the First Gay Protests in New York City”

Paper presented at the conference on the Sixties sponsored by Vietnam Generation, Inc. Eastern Connecticut State University, Danbury CT, Nov. 5, 1994.

(Allen Young, Liberation News Service, 1967-70; Gay Liberation Front, 1970-71.)

Copyright © 1994 by Allen Young

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