News and Features
While most of the 1,500 people who traveled to Albany from all over New York
State last Tuesday endured freezing winds outside the legislature to tell
stories of families torn apart and chant s
When the FDA recently released its proposed new rules regarding
genetically engineered foods Greenpeace and the Center for Food
Safety didn't like the taste.
OK, no Lifelines, no 50-50s, no Audience Participation if you want to be a millionaire: Name the first great African-American sitcom of the New Millennium... Correct! The 2000 presidential election, as perpetrated in Palm Beach and Duval counties.
Imagine, black people actually thinking they could vote. Cue the laugh track. Go to commercial.
If you're already nostalgic for the kind of pure entertainment value offered by the perversely fascinating Florida (bamboozled, indeed), don't fret. There's always the WB (as opposed to the GWB) or the United Plantation Network, to sustain your sense of cultural (dis)equilibrium--as well as a Lester Maddoxian sense of race separation. Ever watch The Steve Harvey Show? Yes? Well, don't be shocked but you may be black: The number-one rated show among African-Americans, it's been all but unknown among the rest of the population.
If the accession of George W. Bush illustrated anything--other than the awesome power of television to stand by and do nothing--it was the cyclical nature of black access to power in this country, on TV or off. In 1876--as we all know now--a rigged election signaled the end of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, the establishment of the hangman's noose as symbol of Southern recreation and, until the Scottsboro Boys case in 1931, a national coma as regards racial mending.
But only eight years after Scottsboro broke, Ethel Waters was asked to develop a show for a medium that was itself still in development. By the late 1960s, The Brady Bunch had taken the one institutionalized black figure on mainstream TV--the maid--and made her white. By 2001, Jerry Springer was refereeing an on-air fiasco that could only be described as a racist's dream, showcasing, as it does, the dregs of the population, black and white.
That so much of television's black content is currently in syndication--good or bad--is telling. Plenty could argue that Jim Crow is still alive and well on network TV, but it is hard to say that matters aren't better than they were: Many major programs have a major black character; Oprah Winfrey rules the waves. But it's also better than arguable that ever since lynch mobs became more or less unfashionable (except in Texas), television has exercised the kind of social/racial control over our culture that race laws once maintained, and via the same mechanism: Create an artificial universe, with artificial rules; give people little enough to keep them near-starved, but make enough noise about every crumb you do toss their way that the public will think you're a bomb-lobbing revolutionary.
The culture critic Donald Bogle doesn't ascribe so much power, or so much intelligence, to the medium he critiques in Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. But he's certainly cognizant of the power of entertainment to skew one's perception. And oneself. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, Bogle writes, he seldom saw black people he recognized on TV. Or situations, comedic or otherwise, that weren't filtered through a white consciousness. But he watched. And watched.
Early on, it was Beulah, with Waters--and Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel--refashioning for an all-new medium the near-mythic character of the wise and/or sardonic black servant. He watched the minstrelized antics of Amos 'n' Andy--which, to its credit, barely acknowledged the white world--as well as the caustic modernism of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Later, there were the "events" of Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, programs reeking of network noblesse oblige. But it wasn't until The Cosby Show, he says, that he realized two things: a previously unknown familiarity with people he was watching, via a seemingly benign, but hugely influential--and successful--NBC sitcom. And an accompanying epiphany about the magnitude of network TV's failure to its black audience.
To no one's surprise, Bill Cosby emerges in Bogle's book as one of the three or four most influential black performers/entrepreneurs in the history of black television (along with Waters, the comedian Flip Wilson and the Wayans brothers, because In Living Color helped put Fox TV "on the map"). But Cosby also ties Bogle up. As a performer, Cosby has been averse to playing the race card for either laughs or points, and his silence has been eloquent. Bogle recognizes this, just as he recognizes that Amos 'n' Andy assumed an existential grandeur by existing in its own black world.
But in Primetime Blues--a companion to Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks (Continuum), his study of blacks in film--Bogle is torn: There's the sense that every opportunity given, majestically, African-Americans on TV (itself a repugnantly patriarchal concept) should be used to promote a positive image or political message. Conversely, there's the Realpolitik of mass entertainment. It's rather unclear whether he thinks Julia, the landmark series that debuted in turbulent 1968, starring Diahann Carroll as a widowed mother and nurse (working for the crusty-but-benevolent Lloyd Nolan), was rightfully criticized for not having more truthfully represented black people, whatever that means, or was a landmark nonetheless. When he says that the characters in a show like Sanford & Son might have portrayed real anger about their status and thus taken the show in a different and provocative direction, he doesn't say whether he thinks very many viewers would have bothered to follow along.
In this, Bogle skirts the two basic aspects of television's nature: First, that it is craven, soulless and bottom-line fixated. And second, that it is aimed at morons. Sure, Bogle can cite hundreds of examples of African-Americans being portrayed in a patronizing or demeaning fashion, but how many real white people ever show up on the tube? Shows like The Jeffersons and Good Times were cartoons, the latter perpetrating what Bogle dubs neo-"coonery" via comedian Jimmie Walker. But between The Honeymooners and Roseanne, how many regular series represented white America as other than upper-middle-class, Wonder Bread-eating humanoids? Television, in its democratic largesse, has smeared us all.
Some worse than others. If the only place you saw white people was on the evening news--the one slot where blacks were always assured better-than-equal representation--you'd have a pretty warped idea of white people, too. Which is why, Bogle makes plain, it's always been so important to get respectable blacks on network TV.
The history itself is fascinating. Waters, who acquires a quasi-Zelig-like presence in Bogle's account of TV's early age, personified the medium's ability to diminish whatever talent it sucked into its orbit. The original Ethel Waters Show included scenes from Waters's hit play Mamba's Daughters; eleven years later, she'd be back as Beulah. By 1957, she was destitute, dunned by the IRS and had offered herself up as poignant fodder for Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person, talking about Christian faith and a need for money. Finally, television, never sated, asked one more sacrifice and got it, when Waters tried to quiz-show her way out of debt via a show called Break the $250,000 Bank.
Waters remains a towering figure in twentieth-century American culture; after the fanfares of both Bogle and jazz critic Gary Giddins (whose Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams ranks her alongside Crosby and Louis Armstrong in her importance to American pop singing), she may be due for a full-fledged resurrection, replete with boxed sets and beatification by Ken Burns. But she isn't the only one the author resuscitates. In trying to achieve as complete as possible a history of the medium-in-black, Bogle also tells the unsung stories of other pioneering African-American performers--such people as Tim Moore, Ernestine Wade, Juano Hernandez, James Edwards--who more often than not had one hit show then went on hiatus, and from there to oblivion.
Among the encores given by Bogle (author of a first-rate biography of the actress Dorothy Dandridge) are Bob Howard, star of The Bob Howard Show, a fifteen-minute weeknight program of songs that went on the air in 1948 and was the first to feature a black man as host. It lasted only thirteen months. Howard doesn't seem to have stretched his material beyond renditions of "As Time Goes By" or "The Darktown Strutters' Ball." But the most interesting thing, besides his race, was that the network didn't seem to notice it--didn't seem to have a problem with bringing an African-American into white homes. Of course, the networks had yet to hear the five little words that have echoed down through the annals of black TV (and any other progressive programming, for that matter):
What about the Southern affiliates?
Hazel Scott was hardly the 1950s version of Lil' Kim: The elegant, educated and worldly host of the DuMont Network's Hazel Scott Show had already come under fire from both James Agee and Amiri Baraka for allegedly putting phony white airs on earthy black music--so, if anything, she should have been the darling of the powers of early television. But no. Allegations in the communist-watchdog publication Red Channels dried up sponsorship for her show. And even though Scott demanded and got a chance to plead her patriotism before the House Un-American Activities Committee, her show was canceled after just three months. Scott's fate indicated even at this early stage that television would flee from any sign of controversy, especially political controversy, writes Bogle, who is correct--except when money is involved.
Primetime Blues stands as a history of African-American television, but there's more than enough subject matter to fill two books--a sequel could deal solely with the current ghettoization of the evening airwaves--so Bogle steers mostly clear of analyzing white television (you wish he'd at least dug deeper into the influence of black TV on white TV). But he can't ignore All in the Family. Not only did it spin off one of the most successful black sitcoms ever--The Jeffersons--it had a stronger kinship, albeit an ironic one, to black sitcoms than it did to white. It might even have been a black sitcom, sort of the way Bill Clinton was a black President, by the nature and limits of its experience.
Bogle places himself in the rather illustrious camp (Laura Hobson, author of Gentleman's Agreement, was one critic of the show's "dishonesty") contending that Carroll O'Connor's bigoted Archie Bunker, who brought "hebe," "coon" and "spade" into prime time--and ended up one of TV Guide's Fifty Greatest Characters Ever--did nothing to break down racial barriers but in fact reinforced the very racist attitudes the buffoonish Bunker was supposed to make look ridiculous. Cosby hated it; Lucille Ball (who, it is left unsaid, had one of the top-rated Nielsen shows before AITF premiered) weighed in too, comparing Norman Lear's groundbreaking comedy to the days when "the Romans let human beings be eaten by lions, while they laughed and drank."
CBS pooh-bah William Paley, who originally thought the show offensive, became a big supporter once it became a smash--to the point of ordering that a study he'd commissioned, one that confirmed what critics of the show were saying, be destroyed: What can we do with it? Paley asked. If we release it, we'll have to cancel the show.
Bogle is good at comparing Amos 'n' Andy to In Living Color--shows whose humor would never be viewed the same way by black and white audiences. And he appreciates that while early performers like the Randolph sisters--Lillian (It's a Wonderful Life, Amos 'n' Andy, The Great Gildersleeve) and Amanda (The Laytons, Amos 'n' Andy, Make Room for Daddy)--could add nuance and dimension to otherwise cardboard domestic characters, their roles were mostly nonexistent outside the sphere of their white employers. But he misses what I think is the lasting point of All in the Family: Archie Bunker, a furious, frustrated vessel of negative energy, was defined solely by his hate, solely by his proximity to the people he considered inferior or worse. He existed in a parallel zone to the one that had been created as a ghetto for black performers for decades past--a zone that defined him not by what he was, but what he wasn't. America didn't get it, of course, and CBS didn't intend it, but what All in the Family turned out to be was a perverted version of Amos 'n' Andy.
On March 27, a federal district court struck down the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action admissions plan, ruling that the school's interest in a diverse student body did not justify using racial preferences. This past December another court in the same district reached the exact opposite result, finding the university's parallel affirmative action program for undergraduates was justified by diversity.
These diametrically opposed rulings on a single university's affirmative action programs perfectly mirror the current division in the nation's courts. Affirmative action, a near-universal practice in universities across the nation, is under serious legal attack. Disappointed white applicants have sued universities in Georgia, Washington and Texas as well as Michigan.
As in Michigan, the lower courts in these cases have divided sharply, so it is only a matter of time before the none-too-hospitable Supreme Court takes up the issue. The main point of disagreement concerns whether diversity is a sufficiently "compelling interest" to justify race-conscious admissions. There is a strong case for diversity-based affirmative action. But another justification, not generally pressed by the universities, offers a more cogent and morally persuasive rationale for affirmative action: society's interest in integration itself.
Since 1978 affirmative action in higher education has rested on the slimmest of reeds--a lone opinion from a Justice who could not attract a single other Justice to his views. In Board of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a divided Supreme Court struck down a medical school admissions program that set aside a predetermined number of seats for minority applicants. Four Justices deemed any consideration of race illegal under a federal statute that prohibits discrimination by entities receiving federal funds, while another four concluded that the program was a valid response to broad societal discrimination.
The decisive opinion in the Bakke case was that of Justice Lewis Powell. He voted to invalidate the University of California's program, but he also stated that racial preferences are sometimes permissible, citing with approval Harvard's affirmative action program, in which, in the name of diversity, race was considered as one "plus factor" among many, and all applicants competed for all openings. Harvard's program was not even at issue in the case, but Justice Powell's views about it have guided universities ever since.
Subsequent Supreme Court opinions have appeared to diverge from Justice Powell's analysis. For example, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a critical swing vote, explicitly rejected diversity as a justification for an FCC affirmative action program, stating: "Modern equal protection has recognized only one [compelling state] interest: remedying the effects of racial discrimination." The FCC's interest in broadcast diversity, she reasoned, was "simply too amorphous, too insubstantial, and too unrelated to any legitimate basis for employing racial classifications." Her opinion was in dissent, but would probably garner five votes today. In other opinions, however, Justice O'Connor has cited Justice Powell's Bakke opinion with apparent approval.
One thing is certain: The argument for diversity finds virtually universal acceptance in academe. More than 360 higher education institutions signed on to briefs defending the University of Michigan's affirmative action program. And for good reason: In our increasingly diverse society, the ability to communicate and understand across racial lines is an essential part of citizenship, and teaching that skill requires a diverse setting. Not considering race in the diversity mix would effectively penalize minorities by denying them benefits that Iowans, violinists, potential donors' children and synchronized swimmers receive.
The usual response is that the Fourteenth Amendment treats racial classifications differently. But the equal protection clause does not prohibit all consideration of race. In its recent voting rights cases, for example, the Court held that race may be considered as one factor among many in redistricting, as long as it is not the "predominant motive." The redistricting process necessarily considers all sorts of factors as proxies for likely political allegiances, and adding race to the mix does not raise the same concerns as other kinds of race-conscious decision-making. Similarly, the search for diversity necessarily considers many factors as proxies for intellectual and cultural diversity, and race should be permissible as one among many.
Ultimately, however, integration itself may be a stronger justification for affirmative action than diversity. An integrated student body undoubtedly adds to diversity. But so does admitting violinists, and surely there is a stronger argument for admitting African-Americans than violinists. Higher education is one of the few arenas in modern life where racial integration remains a realistic possibility. Despite the demise of Jim Crow, most of us continue to live, work, socialize and worship in effectively segregated settings. College student bodies, by contrast, can be integrated because they are consciously selected and are not predetermined by geography or class. Integration in higher education in turn teaches us that integrated communities are possible, and that living in such communities can break down the deep barriers that continue to divide the races. At the same time, because a college degree is essential to professional success, integration in higher education is necessary to any measure of integration beyond.
The Court and the country have failed to live up to the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. The last thing we should do is turn the Constitution into a barrier to one of the last remaining arenas of true integration in America.
On March 26, PBS carried something that has become increasingly rare in our media-besotted land: genuine journalism. The program was an explosive investigation by Bill Moyers and his staff of a decades-long program by the chemical industry to hide the life-threatening dangers associated with the use and production of their products. People were dying who did not have to die; they were living with debilitating illnesses and receiving no compensation from the companies.
The industry did everything it could to discredit Moyers. It set up a website, wrote angry letters to PBS and accused Moyers of a biased presentation--before having seen the program.
One would think that a story of this magnitude would interest others in the mainstream media. One would be wrong. In the Washington Post, media columnist Howard Kurtz focused on the controversy between Moyers and the companies. The New York Times, however, reviewed the program as if taking orders directly from the chemical industry. "Have we perhaps grown up in a perverse sort of way and now accept that spectacular progress like that of the last half-century cannot be achieved without tradeoffs?" wrote Neil Genzlinger. "Nothing good, be it democracy or more durable house paint, comes without a price."
No one on the program argued against tradeoffs or democracy. The issue Moyers presented was quite simple: Do companies have the right to lie and mislead their workers and the public about the potentially harmful effects of their products? If tradeoffs or democracy were the issue, then the victims of these companies would at least have been given the relevant information about the likelihood that they might contract cancer or other life-threatening diseases as a result of their exposure to toxic chemicals. Yet, as Moyers reported, that information was deliberately withheld or covered up by the companies.
People died or were permanently disfigured as a result of the coverups Bill Moyers exposed. Yet the Times likened acceptance of (slow) murder by corporations for profits to growing up. It's hard to know which is more offensive: the actions of the corporations or the willingness of journalists to act as apologists for them.
All signs point to an all-out drive by the Bush Administration to slot judicial conservatives into the eighty-nine current vacancies on the federal bench. The recent to-do about ending the American Bar Association's role in screening nominees was a smoke signal to the conservative base that only the "right" kind of judges henceforth need apply. White House counsel Alberto Gonzales grumbled that the ABA, which has been screening nominees since the Eisenhower Administration, "takes public positions on divisive political, legal and social issues." In fact, ABA's screening committees eschew political judgments, instead evaluating the candidates' ethics, competence and judicial temperament.
The real meaning of Gonzales's words is that the Bushites want a free hand to appoint their own ideologues. Conservatives crave revenge for the 1987 Senate rejection of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, whom four members of the ABA's fifteen-member standing committee found "not qualified." This split decision by the usually unanimous committee gave ammunition to Bork's opponents. Gonzales let the word go forth that in selecting nominees he and John Ashcroft will heed the Federalist Society and kindred far-right legal groups whose acolytes honeycomb this Administration.
Bush further heartened his right-wing supporters by blocking Clinton nominees for the bench like Roger Gregory, who had been given an interim appointment to the Fourth Circuit. (He's the first African-American to enter Jesse Helms's segregated preserve.) Meanwhile, other solidly qualified Clinton nominees have been left dangling by the Judiciary Committee, including James Klein, the able DC public defender; Helene White (whose nomination was stalled for more than 1,500 days) and a score of others for whom Senator Orrin Hatch refused to hold hearings.
The Bushites' court-packing drive is a grade-A rush job. For one thing, the roll Bush is on is petering out with his tax plan seen by a wider public as too friendly to the rich. Then, too, if an enfeebled Strom Thurmond exits the stage, control of the Judiciary Committee would shift to the Democrats, and then it's a whole new ball game.
If ever there was a time for mobilizing a counteroffensive, this is it. Bush has no mandate to add more weight to an already rightward-tilting federal bench. The Supreme Court's patently political ruling in Bush v. Gore has shaken its credibility. There is a growing constituency for judicial integrity and against a rollback of individual rights. Public-interest groups are tuning up. Some that will be in the thick of the fight: National Women's Law Center, National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, People for the American Way, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (for more information contact Marcia Kuntz at the Alliance for Justice, 202-822-6070; email@example.com).
Progressives must also apply pressure on Democratic senators to stall the Bush drive to stack the bench. Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman's suggestion that no Bush Supreme Court nominees should be approved is on the mark. Democrats should demand the same privilege that Hatch claimed of vetting all lower court nominees before their names become public.
Let's heed the admonition of Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice: "Fight early, fight often and fight to win."
The election this March of an openly gay Mayor of Paris--the Socialist Bertrand Delanoë--would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. That's one reason the American edition of Frédéric Martel's The Pink and the Black (it appeared in France five years ago) is so pertinent: It's the first attempt at a history of the modern French gay movement, without whose achievements the victory of Delanoë would not have been possible. It all began on March 10, 1971. Radio star Ménie Grégoire was moderating her enormously popular chat show before a live audience in Paris's famous Salle Playel. The broadcast's theme that day: "That Painful Problem, Homosexuality," with experts from law, medicine and the Catholic Church. Suddenly interrupting some priestly condescensions, a group of homosexual women rose from the audience, yelling, "It's not true, we're not suffering! Down with the heterocops!" The lesbians stormed the stage, and the control room cut off the microphones and switched to recorded music. The militants' message: "Homosexuals are sick of being a painful problem." The Front Homosexuel d'Action Révolutionnaire (FHAR), and with it the modern French gay movement, had been born.
The youthful activists who formed the FHAR had their political coming-of-age in the turbulent student-left rebellion of May 1968 that turned into a nationwide general strike in all walks of life, a gigantic outpouring of social protest against the suffocating atmosphere of de Gaulle's France. And while the young far-left soixante-huitards ('68ers) were initially hostile to "supposedly bourgeois homosexuality," as Martel writes, the May rebellion "contained, in embryo, all the ingredients of sexual liberation, for which it was a dress rehearsal." While the FHAR was initiated by women, it quickly admitted men as "objective allies."
One of the first men to join the FHAR was Guy Hocquenghem, who rapidly became the nascent movement's undisputed star. Hocquenghem's political itinerary was fairly typical of the soixante-huitards. After an "apprenticeship" in the Union of Communist Students when he was a brilliant philosophy student at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he was a leader of the National Union of French Students and--rejecting the heavy-handed Stalinism of the French Communist Party--became by turns a Trotskyist and then a Maoist. By the time of the FHAR's founding he was a prominent member of Vive la Révolution (VLR), a libertarian split-off from the orthodox Maoists that was led by Roland Castro (later a prominent architect and adviser to French President François Mitterrand on urbanism).
After joining the FHAR, Hocquenghem proposed that it put together a special issue of Tout!, the VLR's newspaper, which he coordinated. In the issue, 50,000 copies of which were published in April 1971, were articles titled "Our Bodies Do Belong to Us," "The Right to Homosexuality and Every Sort of Sexuality," "The Right of Minors to Freedom of Desire and Its Satisfactions" and, most important, "Let's Stop Cowering in the Corner." Martel records that "thus the theme of coming out appeared for the first time in France.... The FHAR, 'a saw for cutting up reality in a different way,' in Hocquenghem's expression, had found its slogan."
All this became a public scandal when the Interior Minister had Jean-Paul Sartre, who had lent his name to Tout! as editorial director, indicted for "public indecency" and "pornography"; police seized 10,000 copies of Tout! and the vice squad raided its offices. In the end Sartre, and the gay liberationists, won in court, a stunning victory against the justice system.
The FHAR's general meetings, held in the amphitheater of the École des Beaux Arts, grew rapidly from fifty people to a hundred, to a thousand, and they "marked a momentous time in the history of the evolution of mores in France. They got homosexuals talking," Martel writes. In this heady atmosphere, its air perfumed by hashish smoke, the "militants put revolution into practice: they invented cruising relieved of its furtiveness, and, moving through [the school's] hallways...or on the upper floors and in the attic, they experimented with Fourier's 36,000 forms of love."
In January 1972 Hocquenghem, by then teaching philosophy at the University of Vincennes and already moving away from VLR, published a historic and much-discussed article--"The Revolution of Homosexuals"--an autobiography-cum-manifesto in Le Nouvel Observateur, the influential mass-circulation left-wing weekly; and by the end of the year he'd produced Homosexual Desire, the first theoretical work by an avowed homosexual in France. The book influenced a whole generation of gay liberationists in Europe (and when brought out in the United States two years later by Schocken Books, many American gay intellectuals as well). The FHAR, which had strong anarchist tendencies, imploded by the end of that year, as its meetings were overwhelmed by those who came only for sex, not debate. But Hocquenghem--with his "angelic beauty," his assured platform performances and his gifted pen--had become, as Martel puts it, "a hero," "for many...the one who had 'liberated homosexuals'" and "the emblem of homosexuality in France."
The FHAR was not the first organization of French queers. Arcadie was an austere "homophile" review founded in 1954 by an ex-seminarian, André Baudry; as it gained subscribers, it gradually became a discreet movement, a kind of secretive homo Freemasonry dominated by ultramontane Catholics. Baudry preached "sublimating one's sexual and emotional orientation into asceticism," and he opened Arcadie's parties and dinners with sermons attacking homosexuals who cruised parks and toilets. It was supported by the likes of Jean Cocteau and the right-wing novelist and diplomat Roger Peyrefitte; its members included lawyers, magistrates, military men and government officials--all deeply closeted. But it did conduct the first dialogue with mainstream politicians on behalf of same-sexers and was not without influence. Martel's chapter on Arcadie, "Down with Daddy's Homosexuality" (a FHAR slogan), is fine gay historiography.
One of the few prominent leftists to join Arcadie was Jean-Louis Bory. A member of the French Resistance who fought in the Orléans forest in World War II, in 1945 Bory won the Prix Goncourt for his first novel at the age of 26. A socialist, Bory signed the famous appeal of the 121 writers and intellectuals calling for resistance to France's repressive war in Algeria in the 1950s. Over the years he published a series of novels in which "the latent homosexuality of his characters became increasingly clear," and in 1973 he wrote an unambiguous confessional autobiography. A year before the FHAR's founding Bory had "participated in the first mass-audience radio broadcast" on homosexuality, on which "he rejected any idea of a 'homosexual movement' but defended the fight for freedom, declaring that he was obviously a homosexual and a 'model citizen,' and that the two were necessarily linked in his mind." Bory mistrusted the radical aggressive visibility championed by Hocquenghem, but as a fixture on radio and TV in the 1970s he championed the homosexuals' "right to indifference." In 1977 Bory and Hocquenghem jointly published a book in which they outlined their differing views, later summed up by the philosopher René Schérer, Hocquenghem's friend and mentor: "[Bory] was living within the logic of Arcadie and was fighting for integration and tolerance, whereas Guy always insisted on marginality: he wanted integration with exceptionality, integration within marginality."
Exhausted by his role as the "responsible left's" gay spokesman, Bory committed suicide in 1979. Hocquenghem left organized politics altogether and became well known as a journalist, essayist, novelist and broadcaster, teaching all the while. Since Martel makes him such a central figure throughout the book, it's unfortunate there is no more than a cursory and often reductionist presentation of his thought (for an overview in English, see Bill Marshall's Guy Hocquenghem: Beyond Gay Identity, from Duke University Press).
I have emphasized the early years of French gay politics because they are so little known here, but there's much more in Martel's book, which--dare I say it?--doesn't miss a trick. There are chapters on the changing loci of gay male cruising and gay nightlife; a rich chapter detailing the history of lesbians, whose struggle for identity was primarily within the women's movement, not the gay movement; on the ultimately successful effort to repeal the various laws criminalizing homosexuality, of which France was free from the French Revolution (as of 1793) until Vichy; on the rise and fall of the weekly Gai Pied and other organs of the political gay press; on the contribution gays made to the victory of François Mitterrand and the Socialists in 1981--and their subsequent disillusionment; on the retreat from militancy in the 1980s, the triumph of gay commercialism, the gay ghetto.
But the most impassioned chapters in the book are devoted to AIDS. Martel writes that in the early '80s, gay intellectuals, militants, organizations and the gay press were largely in denial about the threat of AIDS. Even the association of gay doctors was in denial. After Michel Foucault died of the disease in 1984, his partner of twenty-three years, Daniel Defert, and a group of friends launched the association Aides, with two goals: prevention education and care for the sick. The heroic loneliness of Defert and his colleagues as they battled the epidemic is as moving as the refusals they met with in the gay world are appalling. Why was organized gay life in France virtually last in Western Europe to respond effectively to AIDS? The sociologist Michel Setbon has argued that "AIDS as a problem specific to homosexuals placed [gay] organizations on the horns of a dilemma that was painful, if not impossible, to address," given the state of medical knowledge at the time: "Either adopt the epidemiological definition of AIDS as a 'gay cancer' and risk being stigmatized, or deny its reality and avoid homophobia."
The analytical theses at the end of Martel's book, which were widely criticized in the French gay press, may remind American readers of the attacks on the gay movement emanating from the Independent Gay Forum, the network of conservative gay intellectuals founded by the likes of The New Republic's Andrew Sullivan and the National Journal's Jonathan Rauch. Moreover, a condescending bitterness creeps into Martel's tone when writing about liberationist militants, which his assimilationist and reformist politics do not fully explain. When I raised this with Martel, he told me that one of those to whom he dedicates the book, at the time his 18-year-old lover, had been "infected with HIV by a militant." Pity he didn't tell his readers.
I lived in France for much of the '80s and knew a number of the people in this book--Hocquenghem was a valued friend--and find serious factual errors in Martel's work. He writes that Hocquenghem "refused to be tested" for AIDS and "reportedly learned he was HIV-positive only after he was already ill. He supposedly even refused...to be monitored medically." These unsourced statements are entirely false, as Guy's lover and literary executor, the journalist Roland Surzur (who took the test with him), confirmed to me. Martel attacks Hocquenghem for blindly writing as late as September 1985, "How can we believe in a medical establishment that discourages us, that announces nothing but contagion, that marches only to the tune of fear and despair?" These words appear shocking--unless one knows they were written two months after Hocquenghem tested positive, which gives them an entirely different meaning. The first group to emerge from the gay community to fight the epidemic was not Aides, as Martel writes, but Vaincre le Sida, founded by an ex-FHAR activist, Dr. Patrice Meyer. I've discovered other errors and inexactitudes too numerous to list here. Many of those Martel attacks are no longer here to defend themselves; Hocquenghem died of AIDS in 1988.
I think Setbon's view is the right one: Fear of homophobia was the principal cause of AIDS denial in France. But Martel believes the fault lies elsewhere: with "identity politics." He doubts "the advisability of building a political community of homosexuals" and calls for an abandonment of "communitarianism." Yet he was hired as a counselor on gay issues by two Socialist governments precisely because the community, and the gay vote, had become important. And in a democracy, all electoral politics is, to one degree or another, based on the politics of identity.
In the late 1970s, the legendary Socialist Gaston Defferre--mayor of Marseilles for decades and his party's onetime presidential candidate--took a number of real and symbolic steps in favor of same-sexers. Asked to explain this, the leader of the city's organized gays later said, "Defferre's success came from the fact that he always had his Armenians, his Greeks.... When there got to be queers, he had his queers." To get so big they try to co-opt you is half the battle; the other half, harder, is to resist.
I have long embraced the proposition that homosexuals are different from everyone else except in bed--it is oppression and fear that makes them so. Martel insists that "we must do our best to make 'homosexuality' a meaningless term, a word with no relation to reality. Only ever-changing individuals must remain." A noble sentiment--but I'm afraid I think that day is further away, much further away, than he does.
Praising its coverage, not criticizing it, is the best route to getting published.
A woman two months pregnant goes to see her Ob-Gyn for prenatal care. As required by law, her doctor informs her that her condition places her at greater risk for a wide range of medical problems: hypertension and diabetes if she is overweight; complications of surgery if, like one in four women, she has a Caesarean section; permanent weight gain with its attendant problems, including heart disease; urinary tract infections and prolapsed uterus if she has had multiple pregnancies; postpartum depression or psychosis, leading in rare cases to suicide or infanticide; not to mention excruciating childbirth pain, stretch marks and death. There are ominous social possibilities, too, the doctor continues, reading from his state-supplied script: increased vulnerability to domestic violence; being or becoming a single mother, with all the struggles and poverty that entails; job and housing discrimination; the curtailment of education and professional training; and lowered income for life.
No state legislature would compel doctors to confront patients with the statistical risks of childbearing, serious though they are; a doctor who did so on his own would strike many as intrusive, offensive and out of his mind. Should a woman seek abortion, however, anti-choicers are pushing state laws requiring that she be informed of a risk most experts do not believe exists: a link between abortion and breast cancer. Like the supposedly widespread psychological trauma of abortion, which even anti-choice Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop was unable to find evidence of, the abortion-breast cancer connection is being aggressively promoted by the anti-choice movement. (Even Mother Jones, always quick to take feminists down a peg, leapt on this bandwagon, with an April/May 1995 piece entitled "Abortion's Risk.")
"It's yet another example of efforts to encumber this legal choice and make it more difficult and painful for women," says Dr. Wendy Chavkin, professor of public health and clinical obstetrics and gynecology at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Women's Association. It's also an attempt by anti-choicers to reframe their opposition to abortion as concern for women's health, something not usually high on their list. These are, after all, the same people who fight health exceptions to "partial birth" abortion bans and who have successfully prevented poor women from receiving medically necessary abortions with Medicaid funds.
Nonetheless, such is the power of the anti-choice movement that laws have been passed in Montana and Mississippi, and bills are pending in fifteen other states, mandating a breast cancer warning (and in some cases, a waiting period for it to sink in). Along with laws come lawsuits: In Fargo, North Dakota, the Red River Women's Clinic is being sued for failing to give such a warning; a 19-year-old Pennsylvania woman is suing a New Jersey clinic for her abortion two years ago, which left her, she claims, with an overwhelming fear of contracting breast cancer. In ferociously anti-choice Louisiana, a new law permits women to sue for damages--including damages to the fetus!--up to ten years after their abortion. Given today's high rates of breast cancer, a deluge of litigation is in the making.
Does abortion cause breast cancer? Some studies have appeared to suggest a connection: Dr. Janet Daling, for example, an epidemiologist who says she is pro-choice, compared the abortion histories of 1,800 women with and without breast cancer and found that, among those who had been pregnant at least once, the risk of breast cancer was 50 percent higher for those who had abortions--but her cancer-free sample was obtained through telephone interviews with women chosen at random from the phone book. Not everyone has a phone, of course, which raises questions about the comparability of the samples, and besides, how many women would volunteer information about their abortion history to a voice on the phone? Like other studies showing a link, this one was marred by "recall bias": Cancer patients are more likely to volunteer negative information about themselves than healthy people. They are looking for an explanation for a disease--and one many feel must somehow be their fault. Demographic studies, which are free from recall bias, produce different results: Lindefors Harris, analyzing the national medical database of Swedish women in 1989, found that women did deny their abortions, that breast cancer patients were less likely to do so--and that women who had had abortions were less likely to get breast cancer. The largest study to date, of 1.5 million Danish women, found no correlation.
"The supposed link between breast cancer and abortion is motivated by politics, not medicine," says Dr. David Grimes, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina. "The weight of the evidence at this time indicates no association. To force this on women is just cruel." Indeed, the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization, none of which have an ax to grind, reject the notion. The standard medical textbook, Diseases of the Breast, concurs. The main figure advocating the link is Dr. Joel Brind, professor of biology and endocrinology at Baruch College, who has done no original research on this issue but is a tireless anti-choice propagandist--plug "abortion breast cancer" into a search engine and the top half dozen sites are his.
Abortion is just about the only medical procedure in which doctors and patients are hemmed about by lawmakers. No other operation has legally mandated waiting periods, although many are dangerous, life-altering and irreversible; with no other operation are doctors legally required to give specific information--certainly not information that the vast preponderance of medical opinion believes to be false or at best unproven. Good medical practice calls for discussion of the pros and cons of particular courses of treatment, not burdening the patient's choice with unsubstantiated fears. Will we ever see a law requiring doctors to tell pregnant patients that abortion is statistically safer than carrying to term--which it is? Sure, the day state lawmakers put a waiting period on Viagra prescriptions, to let male patients really consider whether an erection is worth a heart attack.
The grand ambition of the Rev. Al Sharpton.
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