Monday, May 25, 2009

On gay activism (with or without quotes)

Several months ago, I received a "friend request" on from Cleve Jones. The name sounded strikingly familiar, as it came a very short time after I had seen the movie Milk. Cleve Jones, as portrayed in the based-on-historical-events feature film on the life – and death – of the so-called Mayor of the Castro, was a young, sarcastic, mischievous-turned-idealist member of Harvey Milk's campaign team in San Francisco. 

Naturally, I thought it was a prank. After all, among my now-600-odd facebook "friends" are a dead author, a fictional orphaned girl from Kansas and even a teddy bear whose name resembles that of an Israeli-made semi-machine gun. I accepted this request, but questioned the requester as to the authenticity of the account from which it was sent. Within minutes a response arrived, informing me that indeed this was the Cleve Jones of Milk fame, well, really his personal assistant (who eventually became my "friend" as well), and that the real Cleve Jones is seeking to network with other gay activists.

The Hebrew verb katónti comes to mind. This is a stative verb, which essentially is a word that inflects like a verb (in this case, like a past-tense verb), but denotes a state rather than an action. It translates roughly as 'I am [too] small.' A more liberal interpretation would yield a meaning approximating 'I am humbled by this epithet, of which I am hardly worthy.'

I refrained from further questioning Mr. Jones, i.e., his personal assistant, as to the nature of my alleged activist status. I can only imagine that someone somewhere had read about my week-long (or was it week-short?) hunger strike in January of 2008, protesting the refusal of my employer at the time, the University of Texas at Austin, to abide by its own nondiscrimination policy and extend the same spousal benefits to same-sex couples as it did to other-sex couples. 

As a rule of thumb, I do not intervene in internal US politics. I am not a US citizen, and as such do not feel that it would be appropriate for me to do so. I did participate in anti-war demonstrations, as it is a global issue, and as a citizen of a Middle Eastern country what the United States does in a country which shares a border with a country with which my country shares a border is very much my business. And in the case of my own employer violating its own rules I also felt as if the relevant "citizenship" was that of me as a UT faculty member rather than the one imprinted on my passport.

So I took a stand. Needless to say, the University of Texas had bigger fish to fry, but my passive-aggressive protest caused a bit of a tropical storm in Central Texas, including a number of notable mentions in the local media and around the blogosphere.

So am I a gay activist? I maintain that there are people more worthy than I of that title, but I'll give Cleve Jones and his assistant (a young, seemingly interesting bloke in his own right named Tony Cochran) the benefit of the doubt.

The next installment (originally planned to be included here, but postponed for brevity's sake) will be on friendship (also with or without quotes). I may even have something profound to say.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Sure, it's only mid-May and today's forecast calls for no more than 63 degrees Farenheit (that's 17 Celsius), but in our lazy world of academia this is the beginning of summer, the end of classes, end of grading (I was done 25.5 hours before the deadline!), and a catastrophe of rising tides in the blogosphere. I haven't written a word here since Cairo, and I expect to squirt out gigabytes of text in a very short time. The good news is that I'll probably get tired and/or lazy (oops: bad writing; I had already used "lazy" in this paragraph) and relieve the world of my ramblings much sooner than expected. Which probably means this whole expectation thing is nothing but a paradox.

When I first moved to the United States as an "adult," in 2000, I subscribed to the New York Times. How could I not? I think that for the first few weeks or months I also subscribed to the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was either free, or deeply discounted, and I felt the urge to get a local perspective on things. Whatever. Needless to say, my priorities quickly changed and reading the paper was no longer on the top of the list. I went through periods of full subscription, no subscription, weekend subscription, and as of late, a Sunday subscription. 

To be frank, I am still too lazy (hey, this is a new paragraph!) to read the entire paper, and in most cases, as I indicated in my first post (probably still my best one; check it out!), I typically read only certain portions of the New York Times Magazine. Though the Op-Eds are often worthy of my time too.

Now nobody wants to read my critique of the Times' writers' critique of the world. But here's something that's been bugging me for a while. I really want to like Maureen Dowd. Can't really put my finger on the reason. Maybe because she's a woman with a regular, serious column in the NY Times. Perhaps it's the brevity of her column (it's actually a column, not four or five). Or could it be her somewhat literary style of conveying the same ideas other writers express in their dry, journalistic, unengaged jargon. Or maybe it's just something about the ring of that name: Maureen Dowd. Sounds like a good name to drop at the brunch table with my more sophisticated friends and colleagues.

At any rate, Dowd writes from Washington. I may have even read that she lives in Georgetown. And if I haven't, that's where I imagine she lives. Having lived in the DC area for two years, I find it unimaginable that she would live in Silver Spring or Alexandria. She's gotta be a District gal.

Like everybody who's anybody this week, she's picking on Nancy Pelosi. Of course, she also accuses Dick Cheney of having "done many dastardly things," but that's like accusing a cow of mooing, as Simon Cowell so eloquently put it a couple of weeks ago when one of his colleagues had criticized Adam Lambert of being "too theatrical."

It's hard not to agree with virtually everything Dowd writes this week in her column. But her language, her style, really got on my nerves and reminded me of that DC-insider lingo and behavior that can take away much of the fun of living in Washington. 

Dowd cannot find it in her heart to stick to just one signifier for each signified. "Nancy Pelosi" is also "the liberal speaker from San Francisco," "[t]he stylish grandmother," "the glossily groomed speaker," "the woman who's making Joe Biden seem suave" and "one ambitious congresswoman." And all this, mind you, in a single one-columned column.

Other DC characters each get fewer signifiers, but the ones they get are nauseatingly Washingtonian: 

"The Bushies," I believe, refers to the collective of Bush administrator insiders, starting with "W." himself, and going down the chain of command to "Condi Rice," "Rummy," and my biggest pet peeve, "Vice." I admit, Had I not seen Oliver Stone's docudramedy "W," in which the title character often addresses his vice president simply as "Vice," I probably would have gone back to the beginning of Dowd's column to look for a name whose last name is Vice. 

I also dislike Dowd's chummy reference to "Osama" and "Saddam" by their first names only, although she is not the only one in public discourse to be guilty of such conduct. 

The final, and possibly most telling, insider lingo in this column is "State." That one actually bugged me last night too while listening to Dr. Shirley Anne Warshaw of Gettysburg College speaking on WITF's (the Central Pennsylvania NPR affiliate, based in Harrisburg) "Radio Smart Talk." It brought back memories of Georgetown University professors trying to sound like they're more governmental than the government itself. Oh, and "State" means "State Department," in case you were wondering.

My next post will be about "being 'a gay activist'." I think.

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