DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of Andrew Sullivanís books: Virtually Normal, Love Undetectable, Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con, The Conservative Soul

Author (or Editor): 

Title: Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival

Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher:  Vintage

Date: 1999

ISBN:  0-687-77315-0

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound

Relevance to doaskdotell: 

Review: Book Review of Andrew Sullivan's Love Undetectable (and Virtually Normal)

Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex and Survival

By Andrew Sullivan. New York: Vintage, 1999. ISBN 0-679-77315-0

Andrew Sullivan first became well-known as the flashy editor of liberal to neo-conservative The New Republic. In 1993, right about the time of the March on Washington and during the epicenter of the debate on gays in the military, he published in TNR a controversial essay "The Politics of Homosexuality." He would refine his concept in his 1995 book Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality (New York, Knopf, 1995, ISBN 0-679042383-6). Both of these pieces were highly disciplined, segmented presentations of paradigms for interpreting homosexuality. The four established paradigms, he wrote, were represented by the Prohibitionists, the Liberationists, the Conservatives (the "don't ask, don't tell" mentality), and the Liberals. Sullivan proposes a fifth paradigm, not so different from my own one of "personal responsibility" in Do Ask, Do Tell. You might call it (following Chandler Burr) "assimilationist" Sullivan calls it "public equality, private freedom," and then analyzes this concept in terms of the way government treats gays in the military and especially marriage law. Since it still recognizes the active role of government in maintaining equal rights, it probably is not quite "libertarian fundamentalism." He finishes the book with the short piece, "What Are Homosexuals For?" and suggests (like Rosenfels) that homosexuals offer the world a lot when they do achieve commitment because they are "forced" to become creative by doing without social supports.

            Sullivan's Love Undetectable consists of (or comprises, "besteht aus") three long essays, which had appeared ins some form earlier: "When Plagues End," "Virtually Abnormal," and "If Love Were All." Here, he seems to be typing out of stream-of-consciousness a most personal first person memoir (such as an account of an out-of-body experience during his experience with his own HIV-medication induced illness, described graphically -- chalky pills, dry heaves and the like), and presents a meandering opus that seems more like suite than symphony. Well, except that in the first essay particularly, he interleaves two themes the way a symphonist would in a sonata form, to wit: the reconciliation of the AIDS "plague" and the importance (again) of the right to marry. A less established author would not have been allowed to do this (at least by a big house or more traditional editor or literary agency). Nevertheless, Sullivan leaves me with some provocative thoughts to which I want to respond here.

            Sullivan, early on, suggests that the status of gays say, about the time of the military ban debate, gays had achieved a kind of public tolerance (not, following Newt Gingrich, "acceptance") which means -- you can do what you want with your own life, but if you don't take grown-up obligations of heterosexuality you'll be treated as a second-class citizen and be regarded as a kind of servant.

            Sullivan's solution is to focus upon the "right to marry," and Sullivan points out that heterosexuals enjoy this right even when they fall far short of the commitment it supposedly demands (as in Louisiana's perfect-world "covenant marriage"). The wedding ceremony is indeed a life-marking event, of approval by society, of maturity and adulthood So why can't gays partake of this equally? Never mind, should marriage become a "fundamental right" if the unmarried must (by mathematical exclusion) subsidize it, even when marriage vows are not honored by its beneficiaries?

            In the book's middle section, Sullivan explores some of Freud's theories on homosexuality (with some fresh insights) and even takes an enlightened view of reparative therapy -- it's you're right to try if it you want. (Yes, libertarian!) Sure, I've made good friends with more than one young man who had "given up the gay lifestyle." But one question here bothers me: if we gay people are intrinsically different, then how can we claim we are the same as everybody else and therefore deserving of exactly equal treatment? Racial minorities can do this because race is a completely immutable and (in almost all aspects) completely trivial biological characteristic that has no significant effect upon personal competence (a race is not a species). Sexual orientation (especially homosexual) involves behavioral preferences, avoidances, inclinations (and, some might say, competencies) which at least deserve evaluation as to their eventual effects upon non-homosexuals. If you're intrinsically different ("A Separate Creation" as Chandler Burr calls it), then do you know that you can earn your way without "special rights"? A least, here, there is a good question for epistemologists.

            But Sullivan brings all this full circle with his allegretto grazioso-style finale on friendship. (How about Beethoven's Fourth Piano Sonata, friends? It played in my head as I read this.) Society is obsessed with heterosexual erotic "love" as the generator of family, to the point that it looses the value of friendship. Well, not completely. Women have always been better at this than grown heterosexual men, with some exceptions. Remember the writings about friendship in Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, in the 1980's movie Four Friends. There is a controversial as yet (I hope not for long) unpublished novel in which a married man falls in love with his high-school best friend. Gay men may be better at this as straight men; as boys, he says, they tend to be socialized by friends rather than family (although what I notice among younger gay men today is how many have been socialized by immersion into an adult world at an early age).

            Of course, my experience of all this was that my own chums getting married, settling down like sessile tunicates to raise their families and drifting away from me. I was supposed to be channeled to do the same.

            What is notable about friendship is its totally voluntary nature. One chooses to care about a friend typically because the friend reflects one's own values and gives one a sense of importance. And (to quarrel with Sullivan) one really can feel about a friend "erotically" even if one doesn't act upon it. Family, on the other hand, is the fount of loyalty. You may choose a mate, but once you settle in, the obligations of Richard Strauss's Sinfonia Domestica hardly seems chosen. Some people make life-defining sacrifices for siblings and aging parents, because they are "family." Friends don't demand such, although I've seen something close to family in movements like buddies for people with AIDS.

            And this brings me to a troubling point. It is sometimes said that recognizing same-sex unions will simply weaken the traditional institution for heterosexuals. The desecration of the family so feared by prohibitionists and conservatives (and celebrated by liberationists) comes about, not so much by destroying commitment as by questioning, peeling away like a skin of a fruit, the fantasy of heterosexual romance, the "tender trap," the simple "John loves Mary" when John indeed embarrasses moviegoers with his ladylike gams. Ordinary men need this, not just to become fathers and parents and raise the next generation, but (as Jonathan Rauch writes) to place themselves where they will be taken care of and where they will take care of others as they age gracefully (and survive life-extending, Medicare-funded surgeries). Now, there is no logical reason (following the Enlightenment) that gay people can't follow the same road of life-long commitment (women -- lesbians -- do this more naturally than men), other than it requires people to think about it.

            What we have to ponder is what it will take to allow people the freedom to choose (and commit to) consenting adult significant others on their own terms, without the interference of government of society. It does require a psychological maturity that some may claim can never take hold outside of isolated grass-roots communes (in the spirit of The Ninth Street Center). There is indeed some risk in openly allowing persons to appropriate sexuality for their own expressive (rather than largely adaptive, according to "family values") purposes. The end result could be a divisive meritocracy where even more people fall through the cracks (not that "family" has always been so good at stopping this anyway). One could (although perhaps not in a libertarian spirit) propose allowing same-sex marriage, but requiring all marriages to be covenants, and, furthermore, by "expecting it" by forcefully penalizing people for not taking on marriage and dependents or making up with some other kind of scheduled "volunteer" activity. This might caulk up the shipboard cracks as well as government welfare.

          We should also note the anthology, edited by Sullivan, Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con: A Reader (Vintage, 1997, 0-679-77637-0).  Sullivan would talk about a fundamental right to marry, equal relative to oneís sexual orientationóbut some conservatives will claim that he and others (like Michangelo Signorile) want to expand the institution to the point that it becomes another vehicle for individual agendas and looses its institutional status as a vehicle for unconditional commitments and parenting.

The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back (Harper Collins, 2006) ISBN 0060188774, 294 pages, indexed, hardbound, blocked red white and blue dust jacket with graphic of two elephants in white block.

I missed the reading of the at Lambda Rising in Washington, but quickly ordered it. Over the years, it has been interesting to follow Sullivan's career from the days as Editor of The New Republic. He always had a knack of presenting long and detailed, and segmented arguments, in periodicals, that started with his issues over his own homosexuality and religion, and fanned out into a political theory very similar to mine in many respects. The book is in six long chapters, starting out with the glory days ("The Silver Age") before 9/11, the examines fundamentalist thought and maintains that it has, for most of history, managed polity and represents, in the Bush world, and increasing threat. In his last chapter he examines his conservative view of liberty and, twice at least, differentiates his view from that of the libertarian, principally because some of the threats to security, particularly external ones like terrorism, are so menacing and real that they can be handled only by government, albeit a small and efficient one.

The real value of the book starts with his simple differentiation between fundamentalism and conservatism. Religious fundamentalism sees absolute truth as handed down from above in scripture, and as non-negotiable (from the viewpoint of intellectual debate) and immutable. Conservatism is rooted in doubt (an offensive idea to some Christians -- I can remember MCC communions where the celebrant whispered "I am a believer, not a doubter") and skepticism. Freedom, somewhat ordered by the disciplines of science, is necessary to give civilization the capability to deal with the dangers of the world, if nothing else. (In the Rosenfels analogy, it is essential for surplus, following adaptive needs). 

But what is most striking of all is Sullivan's second chapter, "The Fundamentalist Psyche". I have often thought that "The Fundamentalist" would make a curious working title for a movie. His analysis is unrelenting. Early, in summarizing ideas of Oliver Cromwell (before talking about the Rapture and tribulations), he mentions the "four kingdoms" in the Book of Daniel which seem to correspond to the four reconciled (extraterrestrial) dominions in Clive Barker's Imajica, which I believe Sullivan has probably read. But the real argument starts with recognizing that Islamic fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism are psychologically the same. Christian fundamentalism is fortunately encapsulated within western democracy and tries to live as a self-contained unreconciled "dominion". The fundamentalist goes out of his way to interfere with the lives of others whose values and behavior do not match the handed-down scriptural manifesto of "truth." (In the vocabulary of Sullivan's earlier writings, the fundamentalist becomes The Prohibitionist.) Why? I would think it would come from a desire for self-righteousness. It would also come from a desire to protect an established political power base and to preserver inherited wealth passed through families. That has always been the case. In fact, "religious morality" has always provided a convenient moral rationalization for inequity.  Here a freedom of speech issue comes up. A newbie "free entry" writer like me is a threat to the whole credibility of handed-down scriptural truth, maintained by recognized "authorities" like the Vatican. That is a war I personally cannot afford to lose (hence I am a litigant in the COPA trial).

But the most important point about fundamentalism, well known now from examining the behavior of Islamic terrorists such as the hijackers on 9/11, is that publicly visible dissenting behavior challenges their whole belief system. Not only gay marriage but gay values in general would seem to challenge what they assume are scriptural definitions of right and wrong. Nothing that challenges a belief system can be allowed to exist in public. It is like not liking to see a real "man" shave his body (except for sports). (In fact, Islam sometimes forbids beard shaving, while requiring other shaving as part of a ritual!)  Actually, from a psychological point of view, it is like not allowing nudity in public. In the 1980s, when I lived in Dallas, TX, the major papers constantly covered ideological debates about inerrancy, especially in the Southern Baptist Convention; yet on p 49, Sullivan presents at least three textual inconsistencies in the Bible that, to a mathematician itself, would make inerrancy impossible. (Even God cannot change mathematics, although maybe he could change the opening postulates: is space Euclidean or not? It is hard to imagine that He could change the Axiom of Choice!)

Fundamentalism, then, protects the individual believer from having to answer completely for his own personal inadequacies. There is always reassurance in the afterlife, or, for Christians, the gift of salvation by grace. (The works v faith axis gets to be a problem.) Conservatism (and even more so, libertarianism) with the emphasis on personal responsibility, leaves the individual exposed.

Sullivan expands on this with a chapter called "The Theoconservative Project" and then "The Bush Crucible" where he maps Christian fundamentalism into the idea of (as Foley, referred to below, would term it) "public morality" as a legal principle. There is a problem of reconciling "public morality" with individual freedom, which Justice Scalia clumsily tried to handle in his dissent in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the sodomy law overturning. At one point, on p 133, Sullivan frankly enumerates the grim possibilities that have been attempted in the Bush years. (COPA, the Child Online Protection Act, following the overturned portions of the Communications Decency Act, is an example, although these were handed to us by Republican Congresses in the Clinton years.)

One can develop a rather authoritarian political theory on moral considerations from a secular point of view. Communism (Marxism) is certainly a good example. One can develop secular moral theory and try to reconcile it with freedom. Such an effort can easily be flawed, as what you get with socialism and extreme attempts to guarantee equality, which, as Sullivan points out, is essential in reasonable balance to the conservative principle of the straightforward provision of basic security. In fact, Vatican moral theory, with all of its diversions into "natural law" (and the contradictions it tackles with its ideas about homosexuality as an "objective disorder") does seem to have a practical basis, when the theology is removed. In particular, the Vatican seems concerned with how common burdens are shared not just by classes or countries but by individuals themselves. Moral questions arise when personal responsibility is carried to objectivist extremes (as in some libertarian or "market fundamentalism" though), because people of less ability get left behind, and because common concerns (like the environment) might not be adequately addressed by an over individualistic culture. Family values (buttressed by Vatican notions of abstinence and the "sanctity of marriage") served the purpose of enabling people to carry out their obligations to others without too much self-consciousness.  Family values are supposed to prevent personal competition from being carried to cruel levels, but in practice families often compete among themselves in a cruel way (the Days of our Lives syndrome). Fundamentalism does take the practical analysis of these moral problems away from individual examination and puts them back into scripture, but then has to deal with all of the contradictions within scripture.

The pragmatic concerns about "public morality" create twists that need for attention. For example, in my own experience, one of the problems with homosexuality is not so much aversion to the behavior itself, but more "evasion" of "family responsibility" and the distance from others that the "narcissism" of homosexuality seems to imply. Others could propose that having children, or at least being able to raise them, ought to be expected of everyone, and that would fit in to handling our eldercare problems. But doing maintaining such an idea might undermine the moral foundation of the family more than anyone expects.  






Paul Rosenfels booksFoley: Liberty for All; Roth-Douquet: AWOLWarren: Purpose-Driven Life  Clive Barker: Imajica    Marvin Liebman: Coming Out Conservative; Richard Tafel: Party Crasher

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