America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.In the first part of this little mini-series of posts, I commented on a peculiar Russian video that encourages young viewers to respond to the historic call of their nation in its time of need by becoming productive workers, planning a family and building a strong country. Aside from the particular ham-handed manner in which the agit-prop was delivered, such injunctions should be familiar, I think, to pretty much every inhabitant of the modern world.
America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.Allen Ginsberg, “America” (1956)
In his 1985 study, Nationalism and Sexuality, the eminent historian of political culture George Mosse explored these connected ideas of nationalism, duty, respectability and sexuality:
Analyzing the relationship between nationalism and respectability involves tracing the development of some of the most important norms that have informed our society: ideals of manliness ... and their effect on the place of women; and insiders who accepted the norms, as compared to the outsiders, those considered abnormal or diseased.A few pages later he turned his attention to how these norms were translated into imperatives, or "common duties of life":
Sexual relations between men and women were stripped of sensuousness; marriage and the family were to be based on the joint practice of piety. Sins, real or imagined, were to be atoned through the single-minded concentration on one's vocation in life.What does such a vision of pious respectability and nationalism look like? Allow me to quote at length:
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.Now, I know that I might be mishearing--or selectively hearing--the message. I might be getting caught up on little bits of language that call for manly sang-froid, sacrifice and endurance (despite Obama's choice of gender inclusive examples). But I tell you truthfully that when I first listened to these passages I felt a familiar suffocating sensation. What I heard Obama saying to me was this: “Don’t be queer.”
Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less.
It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.
Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
For us, they fought and died in places Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.
Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life.
What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.
...let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
All the heteronormative hallmarks were there: think about your parents; don’t just seek pleasure, be responsible; have a family; and acknowledge the central place of the child in politics.
The point isn’t that some sense of common purpose isn’t a laudable thing. Or that the current situation doesn't force hard choices. Rather my point is that the sober language of nationalism that Obama uses—and uses well, I should add—is akin to that of the Russian PSA I highlighted earlier in that it ties together (as I said before) “economic productivity, social reproduction and biological reproduction” in ways that exclude queer life choices.
More than the choice of a bigot to deliver the invocation or particular bugaboos about masculinist language, what worries me is that this vision will inform the administration’s long-term policy choices (which I take to be a separate matter from his short-term tactical maneuvers, no matter how distasteful I may find them). And while groups have been organizing around how the economic stimulus will affect women and people of color, I have yet to see much concrete talk about the possibilities of this moment for changing institutions that marginalize queer existence.
To this end, I find myself strangely (or not so strangely) returning to a rather old essay by John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (1983) [pdf here], in which the author worried about the “overreliance on a strategy of coming out—if every man and lesbian in America came out, gay oppression would end—[that has] allowed us to ignore the institutionalized ways in which homophobia and heterosexism are reproduced.” Following this line of thought, we need to think very seriously about the ways in which economic and political transformations will affect queers, especially because Obama's rhetorical framework--policy implications pending--doesn't allow much room for contemplating a future of play, pleasure and sexual expression--a queer future.
You want me to go out even farther on this limb?
I don’t think that this message helps with the task at hand (though it does make an effective argument for marriage equality):
Before you get carried away disagreeing or arguing the merits of this video, think about this sentence, again from Mosse:
…even feminists, homosexuals, and lesbians proclaimed their adherence to the basic norms and stereotypes of respectability, wanting only to bend the bars of their cage, not to unhinge them.Or, for those of you who like to prolixly wax Lacanian (a habit I generally discourage), try this passage from Lee Edelman's "The Future is Kid Stuff":
The consequences of such a compulsory identification both of and with the child as the culturally pervasive emblem of the motivating end, albeit endlessly postponed, of every political vision as a vision of futurity, must weigh upon the consideration of a queer oppositional politics. For the only queerness that queer sexualities could ever hope to claim would spring from their determined opposition to this underlying structure of the political--their opposition, that is, to the fantasmatic ambition of achieving symbolic closure through the marriage of identity to futurity in order to reproduce the social subject. Conservatives, of course, understand this in ways most liberals never can.What, still not getting it? OK, try this. Think about that Regina Spektor song being the soundtrack for the same campaign, but with this visual*:
Let it marinate.
* For the technologically not-so-savvy, you can accomplish this effect by playing the first clip with the volume on, scrolling down, and then playing the second clip with the sound turned off. Lizzie B thinks that it is a worthwhile experiment.