Monday, June 17, 2002
Raymond's Elephant

Eric Raymond's current piece (as of this writing) is supposedly about the current scandal in the Roman Catholic church. You remember, the one about priests diddling little boys and young men (as if anyone could forget). It's also supposedly about how the "dominant media culture" (he really uses that phrase) is giving a pass to the pretty obvious to anyone with half a brain fact that the scandal is about priests diddling little boys and young men. What the piece is, though, is a festering poot of fear and loathing based on bad reasoning, received "wisdom" viewed unskeptically, and fairly disgusting hyperbole.

It took me multiple tries before I could get through the piece. It took self-reminders that Raymond is someone who usually shows a degree of thoughtfulness about what he's discussing, not a garden-variety homophobe. (Yes, InstaPundit and others who've pointed to this, "homobhobia" is a figure of speech that doesn't literally mean it describes a phobia.)

It's tempting to do a Usenet-like pointing out item-by-item of the ridiculously high number of stupid claims in Raymond's post. But, it's probably better to separate his several complaints and deal with them in their larger senses without getting caught up with every single one of his statements.

His first point that I disagree with is this "dominant media culture" business. He seems to believe that the mass media in the US is giving gay folk some kind of pass. He's ostenstibly focused on some kind of protective journalistic behavior which is supposedly suppressing the fact that what the scandal is about is the fact that priests have been abusing their authority to come onto or diddle little boys and young men. While I'm sure there's a big distribution of how much randomly selected people get from what comes across the tube or shows up on the web or the front page of randomly selected media outlet, and while I believe that people can, both en masse and as individuals, be incredibly stupid, I don't believe for half a minute that people in the US haven't grasped, by and large, the idea that the scandal is about priests coming onto and diddling little boys and young men, or that a goodly chunk of those priests identify as homosexuals, that part of the problem that the US church is having in dealing with this is what to do about gay priests in general as well as what to do with those who abuse little boys and young men. When I've heard about these priests and their lovers and their being well-known members of gay communities in some towns, it's really creeped me out. Ugh.

Raymond's point about the free pass mentions those comments about several NYT staffers who are gay having a certain degree of influence on the front page. He seems to take it as a matter of fact that gay men with editorial responsibilities are of necessity trumpeting gay causes, suppressing embarrassing stories about gay people, etc. And this gets to Raymond's big overall mistake in his piece: He's not dealing with individuals; he's describing collectives as if the behavior of every individual in the collective is going to be the same.

Still on the media kick, he throws out these claims: "because one of the rules of the U.S.'s dominant media culture is that Homosexuals Are Not To Be Stigmatized (I think it's carved in stone right next to `Environmentalists are Saints' and `Gun Owners are Redneck Nut-Jobs')." Well, we're on the borderline fruitcake regime here. Instead of understanding that every lousy newspaper has its own lamo editor, its own lamo reporters, its own lamo headline writers, etc., Raymond blames it on what's obviously a bogey: "the U.S.'s dominant media culture". Now I don't mean to be stupid here and pretend that a small number of media outlets don't have a lot more clout than quite a few others do, but to attribute monolithic collective behavior to collectives that by their very organizational nature (e.g., aspects of a competitive economy) prohibit their acting like a collective with enforced rules and expectation is goofy.

If the big-bad media is so gay friendly, how come later this month we'll all be treated to the usual scenes of drag queens, dykes on bikes, leather men, etc. as quasi-pornography to sell newspapers, 30-second spots on the evening news, etc. when Gay Pride happens? If the big-bad media is so gay friendly, how come you can count on police actions, accompanied by local TV news crews, at cruisy places during sweeps weeks?

The next of Raymond's yahoo-seeming comments has to do with pederasty and pedophilia in the main and secondarily about gay activists. I'm off my original tack, but let's let his words speak for him again: "pederasty has never been a marked or unusual behavior among homosexuals, and even advocates of outright pedophilia are not shunned in the homosexual-activist community." He has a reference (here) for his claim that young men and boys have been the preferred partner in homosexual relationships since time immemorial. This is the kind of received "wisdom" that gets spouted about by self-appointed cultural watchdogs from Raymond to Camille Paglia. The trouble is: how do you determine the relative frequency of sexual behaviors in the past, or now, when sexual behaviors often have lots of associated cultural baggage -- or, hey, they might even be illegal. So, there may be examples like the Afghan one or ancient Greece where pederasty has a certain social normalcy about it. How do you go from that to determining that other forms of homosexual behaviors, including adult male to adult male partnerings, don't happen. Lack of evidence is only lack of evidence, not evidence for the lack.

So the entire thread of his post that suggests, sometimes quite slyly, that pederasty and pedophilia is some kind of norm among gay males is suspect. "If the prevalence of homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood is the elephant in the sacristy, the homosexuality/pederasty/pedophilia connection in gay culture is the elephant in the bath-house. No amount of denying it's there is going to make the beast go away," Raymond says. But his argument that the pederasty and pedophilia connection is there is badly argued, based on incorrectly interpreted evidence, so his conclusion is weak, too.

The last of his three big bogeys is gay activists and NAMBLA. Uh, Eric, I hate to have to tell you this, but portryaing the comments of most self-appointed gay activists, much less NAMBLA, as if anyone outside a very limited group of politicos and journalists pay attention to them is not exactly evidence of rigorous argument. And trying to suggest that groups like NAMBLA are embraced by some larger gay community is just trying to make points that have no basis in fact. Taking down NAMBLA is like shooting fish in a barrel, but in this case, fish in a barrel that no one pays attention to. Almost every gay man I've ever met thinks that NAMBLA is a bunch of pathetic old creeps and dweeby creepy little boys that need to have some sense slapped into them to get away from those creepy old men. If NAMBLA is afforded opportunities to participate in gay celebrations and the like, it's only -- and almost certainly begrudgingly -- because of freedom-of-speech issues.

It seems like what Raymond is really trying to say -- and badly at that -- is that the NAMBLA-okay absurd point of view was embraced in certain RC seminaries which ended up being hothouses for the rape and abuse of boys and young men. If that's what he's saying, fine. It may well be the case. But if he's trying to say that the larger gay community embraces those NAMBLA-okay values, he's just completely off base.

He finally puts all this together in several closing paragraphs.

Are gay men biologically or psychologically prone to rape boys at a level that makes a gay man even without a known history of abuse into a bad risk around boys? Does queer culture encourage a tendency to rape in gay men who are put in authority over boys?

Here is where the question becomes practical: were the Boy Scouts of America so wrong to ban homosexual scoutmasters? And here we are with a crashing thud back in the realm of present politics. After the numbing, horrifying, seemingly never-ending stream of foul crimes revealed in the scandal, even staunch sexual libertarians like your humble author can no longer honestly dismiss this question simply because it's being raised by unpleasant conservatives.

The priestly-abuse scandal forces us to face reality. To the extent that pederasty, pedophilic impulses, and twink fantasies are normal among homosexual men, putting one in charge of adolescent boys may after all be just as bad an idea as waltzing a man with a known predisposition for alcoholism into a room full of booze. One wouldn't have to think homosexuality is evil or a disease to make institutional rules against this, merely notice that it creates temptations best avoided for everyone's sake.

Notice how he purportedly asks a question "Are gay men...prone to rape boys...?", and answers it, supposedly in the conditional with, "To the extent that pederasty, pedophilic impulses, and twink fantasies are normal among homosexual men, putting one in charge of adolescent boys may after all be just as bad an idea as waltzing a man with a known predisposition for alcoholism into a room full of booze." (Gag: Homosexuality as alcoholism. How effing old.) But he does so without any real attempt to determine whether gay men really are more likely to rape boys than straight men are likely to rape girls. Or boys. He's not asked an honest question, given the framework he's constructed in the rest of the post which sets up the idea that the gay community -- okay, he repeatedly and sneakily says "gay activist community" -- is sympathetic to, protective of, such behavior.

Look, I know I haven't lived a life that's terribly deeply involved in the gay community, much less the gay-activist community. I've known some of these folks, though, have corresponded with some, have participated on Usenet with some, and I just don't think Raymond's claims -- whether it's the dominant-media one, or the pederasty and pedophilia is a norm in the gay world one, or the NAMBLA and their creepy agenda is widely accepted in the gay (activist) community -- hold up. But then, I've never met masculine-identified gay men who wear make up (as depicted in The Birdcage). I've probably missed a lot. But at least I'm a gay man who's missed a lot, as opposed to Eric Raymond who thinks he knows a lot about what gay people are about, but doesn't seem really to know much at all.

Update: In e-mail, Eric S. Raymond (missed the `S' first time around), says he wasn't trying to be sneaky in his word choice. I have to take that at face value. I think the phrase "gay activist groups" would work better, would never cons up the issue of "why is he using that phrase?", than "gay activist community," because "gay community" has a certain well-used quality about it (the words "gay" and "community" link up anyway around "activist" in his phrase, to me at least), but, hey, it's his piece, it's his word choice.