Friday, February 01, 2008

Recalling George Gilder's ideas


Back in the 70s and 80s, conservative writer George Gilder (I don’t know if he’s the same person as the finance column writer) wrote some books and columns on marriage as it affects men. The second of these, “Men and Marriage,” was published by a small company near New Orleans in 1986. He had a chapter “The Perils of Androgyny,” in which he advanced what may sound today like a laughable theory about male homosexuality. He claimed it was related to non-monogamy and philandering among heterosexual men.

He was especially critical of what he called “the sexual princess problem,” in which young attractive women capture well-to-do-older men who already have wives, instead of settling down with men their own age and starting out in adult life. The end result, he says, is many “weaker” or “less-competitive” young men who can’t find wives and turn to homosexuality. He believes that this is particularly common in Muslim society, obviously a nerve-piercing observation giving the goings on today (especially given the comments by Iran president Ahmadinejad at Columbia University in September 2007). The observation would fit in countries or tribal areas that encourage or allow polygamy.

Andrew Sullivan once, as I recall, mentioned Gilder’s ideas. For me, like so many theories like this, they may exhibit the proverbial, if toxic, grain of truth. Men, writes Gilder at one point, bear the responsibility for initiative and performance, a requirement many men would probably like to be relieved of (and there is plenty of the latter on message boards on the Web). A less competitive male (like me as a boy) naturally develops other mechanisms to adapt to the world. One would be to learn to enjoy “submission” and, at the same time, develop the critical facility to “notice” other men and decide among them who is the fittest. The behavior is to be protected as a “private choice” or “individual fundamental right” (e.g., Lawrence v. Texas (2003), as long as the partner is a consenting legal adult), but the publicly expressive result (especially now, with the Internet) is to put straight men on edge and tease them with the idea that some of them can fail physically. Randy Shilts wrote about this with respect to gays in the military (his 1993 book “Conduct Unbecoming”), and mentioned that even as far back as the early 80s popular culture was putting a lot of pressure on heterosexual males to prove that they could all “compete” when it knew very well that many of them can’t.

Of course, men relate to each other for “creative” reasons, for the value of the psychologically polarized relationships themselves, a paradigm developed at the Ninth Street Center in the 70s and discussed in some places on my own sites. The founder, Paul Rosenfels, would have considered the mechanism Gilder describes as a psychological defense common with "psychological feminines" and a form of "sadism." (For "masculines" there is "masochism".) But that sort of community seemed to be more effective when it was relatively closed and circumscribed, as it was on the lower East Side in New York then. As ideas circulate and become more public globally, they tend to have unanticipated effects on others at the margins.

I think Gilder’s theories do help explain what we know as “homophobia” and horrific attitudes like those expressed by Iran’s president, or what happened to me at William and Mary in 1961. Most people perceive homophobia as generated primarily by religion. Perhaps it is more related to hyper-individualism and rationality taken to their logical extremes. Free societies must allow men to compete, and must deal with the natural result that some men (and women) compete better than others and that their families will often be better off as a result. Societies must use this freedom without allowing notions of “meritocracy” to take over to the point that many less “successful” (in “Darwinian” terms) people are marginalized (by the takings of more powerful people) and allowed to perish (or, in an ultimate endpoint, possibly forced to perish). One way to keep society stable in some sort of dependable ordered liberty, says Gilder and most social conservatives today, is to ration partners: one per customer, in a recognized marriage with rights and responsibilities. Logically, then, that same idea could apply to gay couples and justify gay marriage. Another way, say some conservatives, is to curb the media (whether corporate or amateur) expressions that discourage the more “average Joe” people from being in the game and forming and keeping stable marriages. That runs into our First Amendment tradition.

Many of the more conservative religious faiths (the Mormon Church is a good example) make an attempt to socialize all men and, whatever their competitive experiences as children (which inevitably must be brutal on some younger "marginal males"), mold them as adults and socialize them into adaptive stable procreative marriages (for Mormons, "Eternal Marriage") by considerable Church activity. There are variations, to be sure: the Catholic Church tries to maintain a priesthood of men who seem less interested in conventional procreation (the Vatican has a religious explanation, and it doesn’t seem to hold water in practice); many Muslim cultures maintain rigid patriarchal domination of their families (with the hiding of women) that seem related to what Muslim men think they need to keep performing. An overriding idea in religious culture is that the individual’s own “competitive” standing with respect to others is insignificant when laid against the common welfare of the family and group again. If religion contributes anything here, it is perhaps to play down the excessive preoccupation in our commercial culture with “measuring people.”

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