If You Have To Say It

It occurs all the time with all sorts of people.  This week it happened to be Steven Tyler.

In one of those celebrity tiffs that serve to get us from Monday to Friday as painlessly and entertainingly as possible, the Aerosmith front man and former American Idol judge suggested in an interview with MTV that Nicki Minaj, a judge-in-waiting for the competition’s upcoming season, is ill-suited for the job.  Tyler proffered that, were Bob Dylan a contestant on the program, “Minaj would have had him sent to the cornfield.”

Minaj interpreted this comment as possessing racial undertones, unleashing a blizzard of tweets castigating Tyler for pre-judging her judging abilities, writing, “You assume that I wouldn’t have liked Bob Dylan??? why? black? rapper? what?”

To this, Tyler offered an apology of sorts, “Maybe I spoke out of turn,” before proceeding with the famous last words, “I am the last thing on this planet as far as being a racist.”

As we well know, Tyler is not the first white man in America to be accused of racial insensitivity and compelled to argue to the contrary.

That paragon of class Donald Trump, amidst his flirtation with a presidential bid last year, responded to charges of racial undertones in his obsession with Barack Obama’s birth certificate by asserting, “I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”

Less recently—but no less memorably—Seinfeld alumnus Michael Richards was videotaped shouting “nigger” in a crowded theater, compelling him to plead on The Late Show with David Letterman, “I’m not a racist, that’s what’s so insane about this.”

In all of these cases—and plenty more besides—we have folks asserting things that ought to be self-evident from their actions, and thus need not be asserted in the first place.

One is reminded of the truism coined by Margaret Thatcher, “Being powerful is like being a lady.  If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”  Christopher Hitchens expressed like sentiment in saying that patriotism “is something to be proved rather than stated.”

So is being (or not being) racist or sexist or homophobic or whatever else one might be.  As they stress in every creative writing class:  Show, don’t tell.

The most insufferable linguistic formulation of all, of course, is the qualifier, “I’m not racist, but…”  It is an irritating turn of phrase because it effectively seeks to license the speaker to make a racist comment while simultaneously indemnifying him from the charge of being a racist person.

The question is inevitably begged:  Can a non-racist person make a racist comment?  If you can make yourself believe the answer is “yes,” I offer my congratulations.

Otherwise, the perpetrator of this linguistic sleight-of-hand is guilty of a particular pet peeve of mine:  Attempting to evade responsibility for one’s actions.  Either words have meaning or they do not, and I would prefer the former.

Admittedly, I have thus far treated the whole matter of racism, etc., as if it is a black and white issue, which we all know is not true.  Prejudice takes many forms—most of them subtle rather than overt—and it is often unfair to judge a person on the basis of a single remark.

The best I can do, in the context of this column, is to insist that people say precisely what they mean, and allow the rest of us to judge whether it constitutes racism or the like.  If a person’s opinions can be accurately characterized as racially insensitive, then the person in question possesses opinions that are racially insensitive.  Some things are less complicated than they appear.

I don’t think Steven Tyler is racist—not because he insists upon it, but rather because there is nothing in the substance of his comments that strikes me as carrying a racial tinge of any sort.  The offender in this case (if there is one) is Nicki Minaj, who inferred racism where it did not exist, which is no small problem in itself.

Regardless, it is for neither of them to say what their prejudices are or are not.  Their statements ought to be judged (as they now are) by their peers.

In brief:  If one is to talk this way, one really ought to walk this way as well.

A Brief Critique of Religion

David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is the story of how Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence bond and fall in love on the strength of their both being completely nuts, but the movie’s saltiest nut of all may well be Cooper’s dad, played by Robert De Niro.

De Niro’s character is pegged as obsessive-compulsive, the symptoms for which involve his passion for the Philadelphia Eagles and the lengths he will go to ensure the team’s success.  These include the presence of a prized green handkerchief and the strategic alignment of all three TV remotes on the coffee table while the game is in progress.

Although De Niro’s Philly fanatic ostensibly is said to suffer from a psychological disorder, in point of fact, his mannerisms and superstitions fall well within the parameters of typical male fan behavior, and will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent any amount of time in a serious sports town or in the company of serious sports people.

I spent a sizable chunk of my adolescence in the throes of mild sports fanaticism myself, as a tortured Boston Red Sox buff in the pre-Francona era, and I know the rituals well.  The lucky jersey.  The correct spot on the couch to sit.  The unwritten first rule of no-hitters-in-progress, which is that you don’t talk about no-hitters-in-progress.

Indeed, baseball is possibly the most superstitious activity on planet Earth, both amongst its spectators and its participants.  One would be hard-pressed to locate a True Fan who could not be plausibly diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive by an objective observer.

It is perfectly acceptable, as a fan, to believe one’s own actions—conducted largely in front of the TV screen, totally unbeknownst to those in uniform—directly affect the activity on the field.  That a heartbreaking loss can be attributed to some cosmic disturbance or hex, possibly brought about by a malicious cover of Sports Illustrated.

Players themselves—having far more to gain than the average viewer—are no less beholden to ritual in their approach to their profession.  Staying within my Boston bubble:  ’90s fan favorite Nomar Garciaparra famously took forever fastening his batting gloves and tapping every knee and elbow before entering the batter’s box.  A decade earlier, third baseman Wade Boggs made a point of eating chicken before every game and fielding precisely 117 ground balls during practice.

Of course, this is all very amusing, in part because of its harmlessness.  When has taking sports a little too seriously ever produced unintended consequences?

And is this all characteristic of a psychological, or neurological, disorder?  Can we answer in the negative simply because it would apply to so many people as to be rendered meaningless?  Or are we, rather, compelled to entertain the possibility of an ongoing, undiagnosed mass psychosis?  If so, are we obligated to do anything about it?

Personally, I have relaxed my own passions for the game in recent years, following it casually but without the superstitious bells and whistles.  At some point—I cannot say precisely when—they began to strike me as just the slightest bit silly.

Humor Under Fire

Visiting Great Britain after the Revolutionary War, the venerated soldier Ethan Allen would frequent English toilets adorned with portraits of George Washington, which had been hung by disgruntled members of the war’s losing team.  Mischievously asked if he had noticed the curious décor, Allen affirmed that it was all very appropriate:  “There is nothing that will make an Englishman shit so quick as the sight of General Washington.”

Historically accurate or not, Abraham Lincoln quite enjoyed that story, and would regale audiences with it at regular intervals during his presidency.  He is depicted doing so to members of his Cabinet in a scene from Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

I cannot speak for you, but I find it very difficult to trust anyone who does not possess a serviceable sense of humor—doubly so for those in power.

Humor suggests intelligence and sophistication—indispensable qualities in anyone worth sharing time and space with—as well as a generally well-rounded sanity and sense of perspective.  As no less an authority on world affairs than comedian Lewis Black has observed, the evil of groups such as al Qaeda and the Taliban is partly explained by their inherent humorlessness.  Anyone with even the most rudimentary sense of irony would cast a skeptical eye toward an ideology that promises sex as a reward for suicide.

The fact of Lincoln’s own lighter side—so well-concealed in most history books—is an essential one precisely because of the seriousness of the time he occupied and shaped.

We Americans have this unfortunate impression that wit and lightheartedness is neither necessary nor particularly appropriate in epochs of great consequence, be it the Civil War or the weeks following 9/11, when Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter proclaimed, “It’s the end of the age of irony.”

This assumption is manifestly wrong, and we are extremely fortunate that this is so.

In Lincoln, we see the president telling stories and jokes as a means of disarmament, as he attempts to calm tensions amongst his staff, as well as to raise morale and generally relax the mood.  In times of great stress, when monumental decisions must be made from which horrible consequences could result, these are hardly trivial skills to possess.

For Lincoln himself, characterized invariably as the most melancholy of men, humor was foremost among the tools he used to right himself from fits of depression and despair that, left unchecked, might have crippled him and thus the nation.

Anyone who has ever attended a Jewish funeral understands comedy’s power to sooth and console.  The adage that “laughter is the best medicine” might not be true in all circumstances, but its underlying sentiment surely is.

In politics, fits of gaiety further serve to remind us that our leaders are human.  In a positively spellbinding piece of video scraped off the cutting room floor, for instance, we see Richard M. Nixon in the moments before announcing his resignation—surely the most painful few minutes of his career—looking relaxed, cheerful and, at times, outright giddy, yukking it up with the camera crew, hoping they won’t catch him picking his nose.

As Ted Kennedy once said, “We have learned that it is important to take issues seriously, but never to take ourselves too seriously.”

We assume, as I began to say, that the Great Moments in U.S. history were made by men so wrapped up in the significance of their actions that reverent solemnity infected every molecule of breathing space, with humor of any sort being unceremoniously crowded off the stage.

The reason we think this—indeed, the reason many of us behave this way during landmark events in our own lives—springs from the fear that making light of dark moments will somehow cheapen them.  That we might embarrass ourselves and offend others, and be seen as disrespectful and slight.  As we all know, comedy performed in the wrong way by the wrong person can have exactly this effect.

Done in the right way, however, a strong sense of humor demonstrates precisely the sort of ease and confidence that heavy times so desperately require.  It is a cue from Lincoln, among so many others, that we would do well to take (so to speak) with the utmost seriousness.

Fair Weather Citizens

One thing I am thankful for this year, and every other year, is my unbelievably good fortune to have been born in the United States.

I have no idea whether this is the Greatest Country on Earth—I have only spent about two weeks of my life outside our borders—but it has treated me well enough thus far, and I have no immediate plans to leave.

This is not an especially controversial sentiment most of the time.  However, if the headlines of the last week are to be believed, not quite as many of my fellow Americans share this view as I might have thought.

In light of Barack Obama’s re-election as president, good citizens from all 50 of our states united have filed petitions, through the White House website, to peacefully withdraw from the American republic.  As of this writing, petitions from seven states have amassed at least 25,000 cyber signatures apiece—the amount required for an official White House review.

We need not worry ourselves too much about this curious outbreak of contrarian civics.  It exists within the wonderful anonymity of the Internet—people “sign” only with their first name and last initial.  We have no way of knowing how many of these documents are serious, and anyway, secession is fantastically illegal.

In this discussion, secession itself is a red herring.  No serious political figure has uttered the “S” word, and we should not expect it in the near future.  (Texas’s governor, Rick Perry, broached the subject in 2009, but his standing as a serious person is very much in doubt.)

The attitude undergirding the more genuine elements of this grieved movement is the one that repeats every four years—namely, the premise that a country ruled by the candidate you did not support is a country not worth living in.

Surely we all know what we’re talking about here.  There was an enormous amount of bluster during the 2004 campaign, for instance, by people who vowed to relocate to Canada, Europe or elsewhere should President George W. Bush be re-elected.  Four years back, Tina Fey cheekily said she would be “leaving Earth” in the event of a Vice President Sarah Palin.  Rush Limbaugh, for his part, picked Costa Rica as his destination should Congress pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

The underlying sentiment in all these instances, naturally, is patriotism.  These are people who love their country so much that they will flee at the first sign of trouble.

In football, the term for this is “fair weather fan.”

To an extent, we should appreciate the freedom to abandon a free country (individually, that is) as one of the great American contradictions, in the way that the right to burn the national flag is represented by the flag itself.  And don’t even get us started about how the words “all men are created equal” were written by a man who owned more than 200 human beings.

Yet I cannot help but view these would-be rebels as a gaggle of shortsighted, freeloading cretins.

One has every right not to love one’s country.  However, to proclaim that one does—as most Americans do—carries an implicit promise that, as with a husband or wife, one will stand by said country through thick and thin, the good times and the bad.  Love means never having a mistress country on the side.

Meanwhile, we can take comfort in the fact that, with few exceptions, these shortsighted, freeloading cretins are also liars and cowards.

Hardly anybody who pledged to run for the exits should Bush/Obama prevail actually did.  It was all a bluff—a blowing off of steam, rather than any kind of serious threat.

But that doesn’t make it any less excusable, because it completely overlooks what is so great about America in the first place, which is that if you do not like the present state of affairs, you have the right and the power to try to change it.

Secession—or the mere threat of it—is a lazy evasion of one’s responsibilities in a free society.  It amounts to opting out of the system, rather than engaging with it.  There is something acutely contemptible about the whole business, and those who do not even have the decency to mean what they say should do us all a favor and knock it off.

Breaking the Glass Closet

It is entirely possible that Abraham Lincoln was not gay.

Our 16th president lived in an epoch in which such matters were not openly discussed in the way they are now, and we have no conclusive evidence of his sexual preference in any case.  Further, it is foolish and ignorant—as historians would have us believe—to transplant the mores of our own time unto those of the 19th century, or any other foreign era.

“Very few other presidents in history have slept with a man in their own bed in the White House while their wife slept next door,” Andrew Sullivan matter-of-factly put it.  Officially, however, we are enjoined not to infer anything sexual about such historical tidbits.  Since when has the fact of two people regularly sleeping together been a signal of any kind of intimacy?

Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, does not have the plausible deniability that comes with being dead for nearly 150 years.

The subject of a marvelous new documentary called Koch, which saw its outside-of-New York premiere this past weekend at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, the 87-year-old Koch has been dogged by rumors about his sexuality for most of his life, beginning (at minimum) during his first campaign for mayor in 1977, when supporters of his main opponent, Mario Cuomo, posted signs that read, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.”

As with Lincoln, evidence for Koch’s homosexuality is circumstantial.  He has never married or, indeed, engaged in an intimate relationship of any kind, so far as anyone knows.  When pressed on the subject in this new film, he cheerfully tells the camera, “It’s none of your fucking business.”  We are left to interpret this however we wish, although one is forced to notice that, if the answer to the gay question is “no,” Koch has spent an awful lot of time not saying so.

What he does instead—often quite eloquently—is make the point that the sexuality of public officials should be off-limits in polite society.  His excuse for not disclosing his own orientation, he says, is that doing so would lend credence to the notion that the question is legitimate and the answer matters.  Koch believes that neither is the case.

He is not alone in thinking this.  There is a well-established, and perfectly respectable, wing of the gay community that objects to “outing” public figures willy-nilly, no matter how self-evident their gayness might be.

This school of thought is not entirely wrong.  For instance, there was no moral imperative—no cries about “the people’s right to know”—in revealing that CNN’s Anderson Cooper is gay until Cooper decided to do it himself, on his own terms.

However, as Koch makes plain, there are instances in which the privacy principle does not apply.  Sometimes whether a particular politician is gay makes all the difference in the world.

The charge leveled against Mayor Koch is as follows:  During the 1980s, as AIDS was running rampant across New York, killing scores and terrifying the holy heck out of the gay community, Koch did not do all that he might have to counteract the epidemic because doing so would effectively confirm his homosexuality in the public’s mind.

It is a deadly serious allegation to make, and profoundly irresponsible were it not made in good faith and with ample evidence to back it up.  Koch, for his part, has rejected its premise, saying his response to the AIDS outbreak went as far as it could reasonably have gone.

Whatever the truth about Koch, we have a duty to take seriously the proposition that living in the closet can produce a great deal of misery that extends far beyond the heart of the closeted person himself.

One is put in mind of the many virulently anti-gay politicians, clergy and others who, as surely as the sun rises, are revealed to be gay themselves, and we realize the hardcore rhetoric was pure posturing and misdirection.  The details of the scandal that brings out the truth might be amusing, but the damage these people inflict upon others in the meantime is real, and sometimes irreversible.

The good news is that word has gotten out, and the world is adapting accordingly.  Young people who, in the past, might have struck stridently anti-gay attitudes as a means of asserting their own masculinity understand that today such bluster raises the prospect of a deep, dark secret.

In effect, supporting gay rights is now the most surefire way of convincing your peers that you are straight.  As an outcome, it might not be ideal.  But it’s not bad.

When Church Met State

A brief word on religious liberty in America, courtesy of two stories that popped up at the end of this week.

The first of these is a report by the Human Rights Campaign that the Roman Catholic Church expended roughly $2 million to keep same-sex marriage out of Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota—the four states that voted on the issue early this month.  (The first three ultimately opted to legalize gay marriage; Minnesotans rejected a proposition to constitutionally ban it.)

Second, a lawsuit brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation against the Internal Revenue Service, charging it with “violating the U.S. Constitution by allowing tax-exempt churches and religious organizations to get involved in political campaigns.”

You might be surprised to learn—as I was—that there is indeed a provision in the U.S. tax code prohibiting “any campaign activity for or against political candidates” by tax-exempt organizations, such as churches.  The IRS has a history of ignoring possible violations of this compact, and to that extent, the Freedom from Religion Foundation may well have a case.

The reason the existence of such a clause took me aback is illustrated by the aforementioned report about the Catholic Church.  The fact is that religious organizations have insinuated themselves into politics for many years—a state of affairs they have made no effort to conceal and which no thinking person denies.

And that’s fine by me.  I cannot conjure a justification to prohibit any particular group from engaging in the political process.  The more the merrier.  After all, had the Catholic Church been denied the opportunity to pour millions into defeating gay marriage, I would have been denied the pleasure of seeing it fail.

My objection concerns the business about being exempt from taxation in the first place.

If I may quote from the First Amendment:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Perhaps I am being obtuse, but it seems to me that the government waiving any and all tax obligations for a religious organization would constitute “respecting an establishment of religion.”  A congregation has every right imaginable to establish itself on American soil, but I do not see what entitles it to a government subsidy.

Where I sympathize with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and those who share its views, is its claim that such churches are given an undue and unfair advantage in the electioneering game by these very subsidies, and I would feel much better about affirming their right to engage in politics if they did so on a level playing field.

As it stands, they do not.  The money they spend on candidates and ballot initiatives—to say nothing of the money they spend on everything else—is effectively inflated by the fact of its not being subject to taxes the rest of us have to pay.  Even billionaire financiers (in theory, at least) are not afforded that kind of leg up by the government.

Stop giving churches tax breaks, and the whole problem clears up immediately.

Sex Positions

Like Woody Allen said, “Thank God for the French.”

After all these years, they still do sex scandals so much better than we do.

Imagine, if you will, that Bill and Hillary Clinton decided to run for president in the same year and that Hillary prevailed, resulting in Bill running away with Monica and then being elected in his own right later on, and you have a rough idea of what the political leadership in France has been up to.

From 2007 to 2012, you will recall, the president of France was Nicolas Sarkozy, a hard-line right-winger known as much for his romantic escapades as for his politics.

Sarkozy’s successor is a Socialist named François Hollande, whose former girlfriend and mother of their four children, Ségolène Royal, was Sarkozy’s main opponent in 2007.  Hollande and Royal, who agreed Royal would be their party’s standard-bearer five years ago, have since parted ways as Hollande has taken up with his longtime mistress, Valerie Trierweiler, a journalist who has attempted to undercut Royal’s career at every turn.

Hollande was elected this year on the promise that his personal life would be boring and uneventful.

In a Vanity Fair feature that chronicles all of this hilarity, Evgenia Peretz notes that, contrary to perceptions here in the States, the French public can grow as weary of its government officials’ sexcapades as we do of ours, particularly when they prove an unhelpful distraction from serious domestic business.  (The French economy is in worse shape than our own.)

The Hollande affair, such as it is, could be instructive for us as we cope with—finally!—the first sex scandal of the Obama administration, involving none other than the now-former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, General David Petraeus.

Petraeus, even more than Hollande, came off as just about the least-likely person to embroil himself in such hanky-panky.  The honor code inherent in the military culture he inhabited would seemingly rule out acting on adulterous impulses.  Petraeus struck most who know him—and virtually all who don’t—as a consummate professional.  And, failing all else, for Pete’s sake, he was director of the CIA!

It seems to me that, if we are to extract any lesson or meaning out of this mess on the sexual front, it might be in recognizing that we should probably give up judging our leaders on the basis of their personal lives.

In doing so, we invite a paradox.  I maintain the view that there is nothing more important in assessing a public official than character, and how one behaves in a marriage is as integral to this equation as anything else.

And yet are we really prepared to say that, had we known this would happen, we would deprive ourselves of Petraeus’ expertise and wisdom on the battlefield?

In a way, Petraeus’ case is unique, and a relatively easy trapdoor out of this moral dilemma.  As we have learned, to carry on an affair while leading an agency that operates at the highest possible levels of sensitivity is the epitome of irresponsibility.  It really is an instance of one’s personal life impinging upon one’s public performance.

Most of the time, however, the sex has very little to do with the politics, and should be taken as a mere component of the whole package—a reflection that even our most distinguished leaders are susceptible to the same worldly temptations as the rest of us.

Americans have always tried to have it both ways.  We want leaders who are like us, but also better and more virtuous.  As it turns out, Petraeus filled both roles better than most.  He was a soldier who exhibited extraordinary self-discipline; yet, simultaneously, in the words of David Ignatius of the Washington Post, “It turned out he was a human being.”

Many scribblers are framing the whole episode as an epic Greek tragedy, with the general’s testosterone-driven recklessness as the fatal flaw.

We should be careful not to overstate the case.  Petraeus is a man, first and foremost, who lived his life—for better and worse—in all three dimensions.

To again quote Woody Allen, “The heart wants what it wants.”  As much as we might wish officials such as Petraeus would rise above matters of the heart, we just might need to accept that such a proposition is easier said than done.

Just like the French.