June 13, 2011

Anthony Weiner, the Queer Perspective. ~ William Turner

Photo: Huffington Post

“The queer perspective?”

You wonder, am I trying to claim Congressman Anthony Weiner for the gay team?

Surely we all know by now that a marriage is no guarantee of (exclusive) heterosexuality (see, e.g., Craig, Larry). But no, I’m not trying to say that Weiner is gay.

“Queer” does not necessarily mean “gay.”

Photo: Huffington Post

Etymologically, “queer” means only failing to fit expected categories or definitions. Of course, after Bill Clinton and the various members of Congress who have found themselves in varying levels of trouble for their multifarious sexual indiscretions since the infamous impeachment debacle of just over a decade ago (as two scholars explained it, “A Democratic president, by any reasonable definition of the term, had ‘sex’ with a twenty-two–year-old White House intern and repeatedly lied about it, both publicly and under oath. So of course it makes perfect sense that the main consequence was that two Republican Speakers of the House lost their jobs. …[O]ne year later, the legacy of Clinton’s impeachment is scarcely detectable”), we might wish to say that political sexploits are the expected now, making Anthony Weiner seem frightfully normal.

But the public response to the events, from the initial appearance of the erection-in-undies through Weiner’s somewhat, um, flaccid denials and subsequent admission of guilt, up to the latest development—revelations of the erection au natural (NSFW)—suggests that many Americans are not yet ready to accept sexual misconduct among political leaders as a sort of inevitability.

Photo: Beacon Press

There was a time in the late 1960s when political radicals argued that sexual repression was a key component of the generally politically repressive culture of the United States that they deplored and called for revolution against. This critique tended to rest on an ideal of sex and sexuality as natural expressions of human biology and identity that culture warped with its repressions, arguments that relied heavily on the work of early psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud via German Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, whose book Eros and Civilization became an important text for the New Left during the 1960s.

Queer theorists look with some suspicion on the sexual theories of the New Left, believing instead that culture plays an all-pervading role in defining all aspects of human identity, making the point that, even if human identity does rest on some substrate that we can reasonably denote as “exclusively biological,” meaning “not cultural,” the only means we have to identify and discuss the “exclusively biological” is through language, that is, through culture.

That is, granting that Weinergate depends on certain facts about human anatomy, still the list of important facts about the whole incident is a veritable panoply of cultural definition and institutions—Congress, marriage, cell phones, texting, “sexting,” partisanship, etc.—that once you remove all of them to talk about the biological, you will have arrived at a conceptual point that is so abstracted from the reality of the events as to be meaningless.

Thus, from a queer theoretical perspective, the only constant is change, since human culture changes constantly, and that if any other constant exists, it is perhaps politics, or the exercise, or attempted exercise of power and dominance by some individuals, usually in groups, over other individuals. Following the famous feminist dictum that the personal is political—that “intimate” relationships are prime spots for the contested exercise of power and domination—and that few things are more allegedly “personal” in American culture than sex, queer theorists see issues of sex and sexuality as primary sites for power plays.

Sometimes, this is patently obvious, as in the seemingly endless scandals involving sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, or the Clinton impeachment, or the 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas in which the Supreme Court struck down all of the remaining state statutes prohibiting sodomy in the United States. Sometimes it is more subtle and insidious, as in the sexual exploitation of young Asian women by rich male sex tourists, and the daily, unremarked psychotrauma of women and men across the nation who suffered sexual exploitation as children and continue to carry that history with them into all of their subsequent relationships.

Photo: Exeter

Following French philosopher Michel Foucault, queer theorists are more likely to see western culture generally as totally fascinated with sex and sexuality, not as repressing it, with that fascination serving as a key vehicle for inculcating moral subjectivity, for encouraging individuals to see themselves as persons who are capable of, and responsible to, moral decisions.

Such moral subjectivity may be necessary to any society, but it is not at all clear that sex and sexuality are necessary vehicles to the achievement of moral subjectivity and, perhaps not surprisingly, given that many queer theorists find themselves on the fuzzy end of the lollipop in terms of enforcement of sexual norms, they tend to doubt that sexuality is really necessary to the inculcation of moral subjectivity, indeed suspecting that sexuality is perhaps entirely too effective, at least in its capacity to imbue the entire society at what Foucault called the “micro-level” with a policing impulse. There is no pressure like peer pressure.

So perhaps what makes Weinergate so irresistibly fascinating in modern American society is that, in matters of sexuality, every citizen is police officer, judge, and jury unto her/himself, ever ready to inflict/impose her/his standards on everyone else. Sex, then, is an especially tasty form of ego candy, at least in western cultures. And, as we all know, too much candy leads to rotten teeth, obesity, and diabetes. Queer theorists might want to suggest that Americans, as well as being physically obese and diabetic, are politically obese and diabetic as well.


William B. Turner is a historian, legal scholar, Buddhist, avid yogi, and sometimes militant LGBT civil rights activist.  He has nothing terribly clever to say about himself, being profoundly cynical about such expressions of cleverness.

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