We may not, in America, have had the kind of engaged public dialogue that would enable us to know what it is, in the War on Terrorism, that we are truly fighting. Evidence for this suspicion is doubly suggestive. In October 2001, the Associated Press circulated a photograph from the battlefront of an American missile with a slogan scrawled prominently across its nose: “High Jack This Fags” [sic], it read. The press circulated the photo with no comment on this noteworthy feature, suggesting something routine or unremarkable about it. When attention was later drawn to the slogan, the photo was removed from circulation, still without comment. The usual disclaimer eventually followed, but the press now threatens legal action against anyone who disseminates the photo, and they will not discuss it, not even to answer questions about ordinary procedures by which such photos are approved.
One conclusion that could be drawn from this episode is that at least some American soldiers appear to believe they are at war against “fags,” a belief taken, apparently, as unremarkable enough to pass the AP’s screening process without notice. We will certainly be reminded, and can even remind ourselves, of the usefulness of epithets in conjuring the necessary berserker rage of warfare. “Fag” is, by nearly any measure, a more direct epithet than “fascist,” with more widely known and perhaps more stable meanings. But there is a long and dishonorable history of conflating these two concepts, and it seems to be on the rise, once again, in what sidewise dialogues we do manage to have about the current war we are waging.
Commentary from the left to the right would have us believe that contemporary terrorism is the New Fascism. On the left, a writer like Christopher Hitchens, in The Nation and elsewhere, doesn’t hesitate to refer bluntly to “Islamic fascism.” At the center, an article called “The New Islamic Fascism” appears in the Winter 2002 Partisan Review. Understandably, since fascism is a phenomenon of the right, that political wing has been a bit warier about such appelations. But what are we to make of Bush’s “axis of evil” metaphor, if not to see it as an effort to align our contemporary conflicts with the battles against the European and Asian fascist powers of World War II?
Anyone who examines the history of fascism will see that the parallels between Islamic fundamentalism and historical fascism are, in fact, not immediately apparent. But while the question of the validity of such parallels remains open, the question of their uses is clearer. Once a word like fascism is stripped of its meanings, while retaining its powers, it lends itself to at least two uses. One is, as already mentioned, as an epithet, conjuring fierce and amorphous contempt for those to whom it’s assigned. Another is as a shield, since what the word signifies most broadly–a system of extremist right-wing doctrines of absolutism–is not by any means a phenomenon of the past. Those who use the word, often knowing that others don’t know what it means, may sometimes use it to usher in, all but unannounced, their own brands of it, while guarding against being labeled as such themselves. It’s probably as common to hear Americans called fascists outside the nation’s borders as it is, now, to hear Islamic fundamentalists so called in America.
Why this should all be of concern to gay Americans–and all Americans–is revealed in an examination of recent historical treatments of the rise of fascism before and during WWII, and in current media coverage of the war on terrorism.
Two recent historical treatments of fascism show how pervasive homophobia is in discussing that topic: Lothar Machtan’s The Hidden Hitler and Duke University professor Alice Kaplan’s The Collaborator. The Hidden Hitler, published late last year, mounts the thesis that Hitler was gay, and that his homosexuality determined crucial aspects of his political identity. Like the rumors surrounding the sexuality of the lead Sept. 11 terrorist, Mohammed Atta, this thesis, too, has long circulated–tritely, but sometimes influentially–as rumor.
In the long run we may have Machtan to thank for discrediting the rumor once and for all. His primary method is to read attacks on Hitler, especially those that employ homophobic slurs, as evidence of Hitler’s homosexuality. He reprints, for example, some cartoons that show caricatures of Hitler mincing about, or otherwise exhibiting what Machtan calls his “effeminacy.” These, Machtan says, demonstrate how common was the knowledge that Hitler was gay. Another possible interpretation is that Hitler’s opponents thought the charge would be uniquely damaging to his reputation. The latter interpretation has been by far the more widely accepted, but Machtan does not even bother to confront it, except in a footnote.
Innuendo is Machtan’s main historical tool. He quotes a commentator saying of Hitler, ” … Men of that kind always succeed in casting an extraordinary spell over young people,” carefully italicizing “of that kind” so we will know exactly what he thinks it means. It’s a nifty trick, to assume nobody ever spoke directly of Hitler’s homosexuality because they all took it for granted. This procedure certainly relieves the author of any need for proof.
Another of Machtan’s tricks is to align contemporary discussions of gay issues with events in Hitler’s life to give the impression that they are somehow directly congruent. The sexologist Magnus Hirschfield, he reports, wrote in 1914 that gay lovers like the seclusion of the countryside and the raptures of the opera house; around that same time, Hitler went camping with buddies and adored the opera. Machtan darkly gives us to understand that the connection is as clear as an unsullied brook: Turn of the century Vienna, write some contemporary commentators, was “obtrusively erotic” and “unwholesomely sultry.” These remarks Machtan interprets as direct references to a homosexual milieu, and then he pulls his rabbit out of his hat: Amid this rampant erotic sultriness, at the very moment it was being so described, sojourned none other than Adolph Hitler himself! Reader: Draw your own conclusions.
As history, The Hidden Hitler is laughable, and it engages in a dangerous historical misreading that has become all too common. Machtan briefly acknowledges what is well-known, that Germany in the 1920s evinced a historical opening in the social acceptance of homosexuality. By attributing homosexuality to attributes of fascism–its monumentalism, its militarism, its mystic ethos of brotherhood–Machtan implies a causal connection between them.
But fascism, of course, closed that opening very forcefully, fiercely legislating against homosexuality and persecuting or killing gay people. Even if there were evidence that Hitler was gay–and there is certainly evidence that many of his compatriots were–this era would still yield the story of left-wing progress being violently overturned by right-wing reactionism, a phenomenon we’re living through again today.
Machtan’s book may be laughed off, but another example has widely been taken seriously. 2000’s acclaimed study The Collaborator, by Duke Romance Studies and Literature professor Alice Kaplan, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Like Machtan, Kaplan asserts a direct causal connection between the “homoeroticism” of her subject, Robert Brasillach, and his fascist allegiances. Brasillach was a French writer, the editor of the Fascist weekly Je Suis Partout, who collaborated with the Nazi regime during its occupation of France, and who was subsequently executed for treason after the war. In Kaplan’s account of the trial, she claims that “Brasillach’s writing suggests a homoerotic attraction to the rituals of fascism.” The facts of Brasillach’s sex life, she admits, are regrettably lost to history, but what is significant, for her, is how the “accusation” of homosexuality “haunts” Brasillach (whom she calls “the James Dean of French fascism”). Little wonder, since Kaplan egregiously perpetuates a traditional, unthinking link between homosexuality and fascism.
Because Brasillach’s actual sexual practices are not known, Kaplan prefers to designate his attractions less literally, as merely “homoerotic.” Like many “pederasts,” Kaplan submits, Brasillach was drawn to the masculine allure she, like Machtan, ascribes to Nazism. From time to time this eroticism edges over abruptly into just plain sex, when Kaplan throws her historian’s caution to the winds: “Brasillach was a writer known for his homosexual leanings.” At trial Brasillach’s prosecutor marshaled anti-gay slurs that Kaplan paraphrases sensationalistically: “We were buggered … and this man liked it.” (“Buggered,” “pederasts”: Kaplan seems to have picked up her vocabulary, smacking of an earlier era for which one is not nostalgic, in the same archives from which she culls her evidence.) “To the extent that Brasillach’s writings about Nazi Germany were metaphorically homoerotic,” Kaplan concludes, the prosecutor’s “metaphorical charges were true.”
An odd slippage occurs here. If the “homoeroticism,” now at two removes, is “metaphorical,” then is it the charge itself, or the truth of the charge, grammatically or logically, that shares this condition of “metaphor”? Even Kaplan appears to know that the properly parallel construction–that the charges were metaphorically true–would be silly, so she simply transfers the modifier. A similar rhetoric marks Kaplan’s initial introduction of the link between homosexuality and fascism. “Why so many pederasts among the collaborators?” Kaplan cites a minor writer asking in 1944. Though Kaplan worries that the “question arouses suspicion today,” two paragraphs later she cites another writer who “acknowledges the existence of a homosexual collaborationist milieu in occupied Paris.”
Again without comment, the speculation of a homophobic resister suddenly becomes a fact, to be “acknowledged.” Nor would I deny it; since gay people exist in every population, it would be puzzling if there were not some “homosexual milieu” somewhere in that time and place. It is, again, the causal connection of fascism and homosexuality, and how it’s being construed or purveyed, that’s at issue. We might as well ask why there were homophobes among the resisters, especially considering the murderous designs on gay people of the regime they were resisting. The answer is, of course, that there were many homophobes in the population at large, as there are today.
On occasion Kaplan, like Machtan, disavows the evident homophobia of her own enterprise. “It would be far too easy to call on a trumped up diagnosis of Brasillach as a homosexual, in a facile homophobic mode, to explain away this attraction [to fascism],” Kaplan writes. The sentence is nonsense. How would this “diagnosis” explain the attraction away, unless we assumed that gay people were mostly closet fascists? The sentence is also fatuous, since it describes exactly what Kaplan is doing. And it’s complacent, since it would not be “easy” for, say, me. I wonder if Kaplan is aware of the uncanny echo of her own sentence to one that she cites a hundred pages later, coming from the mouth of Brasillach’s prosecutor: “It’s only too easy to draw a convenient effect [Brasillach’s homosexuality] from these painful passages.”
But maybe what Kaplan really means is that her own “homophobic mode” is not “facile.” “A critic of our own generation,” she declares, “might be more likely to ask how many homosexuals were drawn to the resistance out of disgust with Vichy’s family values.” How far we have progressed! Still another critic, though, might assume that gay people form their political allegiances much like anyone else, perhaps even out of ideological commitments, rather than sexual expediencies. But all Kaplan can fathom are swoony attractions to shiny boots, or prissy resentments of “family values.”
And Kaplan won’t let Brasillach off the hook for his own family values, either, in a move that betrays her own. Describing an anti-Semitic letter Brasillach wrote to his nephew, Kaplan writes, “Brasillach tried to justify his fascism and anti-Semitism for his descendents–or rather, since he had no children of his own, his sister and brother-in-law’s descendants.” The qualification here is striking, because it’s needless. “Descendents” need not be direct “blood” relatives: We will all have descendants, assuming the species persists, even if some of us are childless. Kaplan’s emphatic distinction is a form of sneering. She is chiding Brasillach for remaining childless, and, maybe, for his vicarious relation to his sister’s child. Perhaps unconsciously, she participates in a very common form of homophobia most adult gay people will probably recognize: devaluing others for the failure to reproduce.
None of this, of course, is meant to expiate Brasillach, the anti-Semitic collaborator. Whatever the sentiments of his own writing, the journal he edited routinely expressed the virulent homophobia characteristic, then and now, of fascist publications and ideologies. Among its many crimes, the regime he collaborated with persecuted gay people relentlessly and murdered them extensively. These two facts might have rendered Kaplan’s thesis (that “homoeroticism” was what attracted Brasillach to fascism), at the very least, curious, if not questionable. But no curiosity is expressed. Instead, the thesis is taken for granted in the book, as if it had already been sufficiently argued elsewhere; and it is widely accepted, apparently, among the book’s many enthusiastic readers, except on right-wing Web sites, where the book is lambasted as a PC tract that is too easy on gays.
Certainly, Kaplan sees no need to argue the causal connection that she relies on, even though the facts just cited are not entirely lost on her. She mentions the facts once, in a sentence in a footnote. It’s an odd footnote. It cites four sources to document “when historians … talk about the homoerotic pull of fascist culture.” One of the four sources does not mention fascism. The other three do not accept, in anything like Kaplan’s terms, the simple “link between fascism and homosexuality” that Kaplan asserts.
Kaplan frets over why Brasillach himself was executed, when so many collaborators were not. But a likely answer seems never to occur to her: Because homophobia neither is nor was, now or then, confined to fascists. As Kaplan shows, the prosecutors used it against Brasillach; and as her book illustrates, it thrives among us, often in subtle and unremarked forms, even where it is most blithely denied, and perhaps least expected.
One of the online right-wingers attacking Kaplan for not making the link between homosexuality and fascism even more emphatically smirks, “Why do you think there are so many leather bars?” The sentence is galling in its familiarity. The link in question exists most pervasively not in any definable locale, but as myth, in various forms of culture too numerous to cite and too nebulous to grasp, materials ranging from popular culture, as in Cabaret (but not in its source, Isherwood’s Berlin Stories), to coterie culture, as in films like Open City or The Conformist.
If you try to trace the similarly pervasive yet nebulous murmurs about a gay mafia behind Islamic terrorism–eloquently attested to in the slogan on that missile–you will find, for starters, about 600 Web sites mentioning Mohammed Atta’s purported homosexuality, and a few thousand more about Osama bin Laden’s. Predictably, these are mostly deranged cries in the wilderness, but one cannot help but wonder how long, in the age of the Internet, guileful rumors can float around in the information septic tank before they become validated as gospel, as earlier and equally banal conflations of fascism and homosexuality undoubtedly have. The question is especially urgent as many commentators, left, right and center, have dubbed Islamic fundamentalism the New Fascism.
Treatments of Mohammed Atta in the mainstream press do not reproduce the direct imputations of homosexuality found throughout the electronic hinterlands, but they may be case studies in how currents of such gossip get translated into undercurrents of mainstream lore. A long, influential profile in the Los Angeles Times (Jan. 27, 2002) begins by characterizing Atta, “described by the people who knew him,” as “a meticulous, dutiful believer, a man who could sublimate himself, a man who could embody a plan … a perfect soldier” (italics mine). The italicized phrase here is questionable at almost any level: We may sublimate impulses–in which case, for the phrase to make sense, we would need to know something about what impulse is being “sublimated” into what other impulse–but it’s doubtful that one can sublimate a whole self; nor is it clear what the outcome of such a process would be.
The profile’s main theme is Atta’s asceticism, an attribute that is incomprehensible to the writer, and can only be seen in terms of denial, repression, sublimation. From that bias derives the primary melodrama of the profile: the pull between Atta’s austerity and the writer’s incredulity that anyone could adopt such a disposition. We are given a quote from Atta’s father: “My son
is a very sensitive man; he is soft and was extremely attached to his mother.” Another quote from a teacher describes him as “tender, sensitive.” We are shown the view from the window of his childhood bedroom, from which, the profile reports, he “would hold clandestine conversations with neighbor boys.” We are given glimpses into the conflict between Atta and his roommate’s girlfriend, smacking of jealousy and misogyny. In a moment of triumph, the writer uncovers a craving for chocolate candy (“Atta’s sole indulgence,” the writer comments pertly).
Like most journalistic coverage of Middle Eastern culture to appear in the United States in the wake of Sept. 11, this article reveals far more about American culture than about its putative subjects. The very format, especially with its oblique but persistent pop-psychoanalysis, revels in a presumption of individualism that could be seen as foreign to its subject; and indeed, as if angling for a Pulitzer, the writer of the profile meditates poetically on the final unknowability of the Attas of the world. That conclusion has the advantage of letting us draw our own inferences about whatever it may have been that Atta was sublimating, and any reader who has visited a few Web sites and can parse the profile’s unsubtle stereotypes will have no trouble doing so.
Writers on Web sites, less professionally inclined than reporters for the Los Angeles Times, are more direct. The trouble with terrorists, we learn on dozens of American sites–or, in the case of the following quote, in a CNN interview–is that they “didn’t like the ladies.” A more recent article in the Times translates such concerns into the clearest statement to date from a nominally respectable source of the homophobia that stirs beneath American construction of Islamic fundamentalism. “Kandahar’s Lightly Veiled Homosexual Habits” (April 3, 2002) is a feast for those with an interest in cultural projection masquerading as enlightenment.
Here is the crux of the piece: “Though rarely acknowledged, the prevalence of sex between Afghan men is an open secret, one most observant visitors quickly surmise. Ironically, it is especially true here in Kandahar, which was the heartland of the puritanical Taliban movement.” To substantiate this claim, the writer interviews six people: a
motorbike repairman, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, a local cleric and a doctor in Kandahar, an anti-Taliban commander, and an aide of the Kandahar governor.
Of the group, the motorbike repairman is the sole practitioner of the sexual practices that are the article’s subject. He “is unmarried and has sex only with men and boys. But he does not consider himself homosexual, at least not in the Western sense.” What is “the Western sense”? It has to do with conceiving of sexuality as a facet of identity rather than strictly as a form of behavior. Still, “visitors might think they see the signs” in Kandahar, the writer goes on, portentously. “For one thing, Afghan men tend to be more intimate with other men in public than is common in the West. They will kiss, hold hands, and drape their arms around each other while drinking tea or talking.” We glean, in this passage, the initial sensitivity to cultural difference quickly waning, and a trivial fantasy of otherness emerging, especially in the bit about “drinking tea,” an effeminate activity, no doubt, but one hard to engage in while draping one’s arms around others.
What’s more, for this writer, “dandyism” is prominent among Pushtun males: “Many line their eyes with kohl, stain their fingernails with henna, or walk about town in clumsy, high-heeled sandals.” This is difficult to square with the prohibitions the article harps on unless we assume that these cultural practices are not interpreted by members of the culture as a Westerner, the one doing the reporting, seems inclined to interpret them. Love between men, however, “is even enshrined in Pushtun literature.” That “even” is priceless, in this article that claims to be unveiling aspects of a non-Western culture to the Western bloc, since it bespeaks ignorance of the long history of similar enshrinement the world over.
An oddity of culture has been its continual tendency to produce homosexuality as novelty, sometimes even among or by those who practice it, when it has demonstrably occurred in every human population known to history. It’s perhaps easier to construe homosexuality as aberrant or “evil” if we continue to view it as something on the rise, a threat newly looming, rather than as a well-known and fully entrenched phenomenon, hardly a specialized one, with a history as long as that of life itself. This article debates whether “homosexual practices in Kandahar are becoming more open or more closed since the Taliban was defeated.” The debate converts the article’s posture of cultural neutrality into a Manichean disposition: “Some Westerners reported seeing [post-Taliban] commanders going about town openly with their [young gay lovers].” It is not clear whether it would be bad or good for the “homosexual practices” to be “more open or more closed.” On the one hand, if closed, they could be evidence of repression, and that, we may think, is bad. On the other, openness could be a sign of decadence–isn’t that what a “dandy” signifies, in “Western” culture?–and we must surely not condone such turpitude. If we ask whether repression or decadence is to be blamed for terrorism, the answer may not be so simple.
But who are these “Westerners,” and to whom did they “report”? There is no way of knowing, but we might note that all the witnesses to the facts of this article are “observant visitors,” “visitors,” “some visitors,” “many,” “Westerners,” and “some Westerners.” “Locals” are cited once: “Hugging doesn’t mean sex, locals insist.” (For some reason they had to “insist”: Who was forcing them to believe that it did?) The procedure will surprise no one, since it’s pervasive in contemporary journalism: to isolate a phenomenon, call it new, invent an anonymous aggregate of people who are witnessing it in some unspoken way, from some indefinable vantage point, and then quote a few actual people, sometimes even with names attached, commenting on what the “visitors” or the “Westerners” or the “many” have surmised. It really is a very specialized language that our newspapers have perfected, one that lends itself readily to mythology. But the article is no better when it turns decisively to fact, what we may have supposed to be the proper domain of journalism. The local cleric is quoted as follows: “Ninety percent of men have the desire to commit this sin. But most are right with God and exercise control. Only 20 to 50 percent of those who want to do this actually do it.” The cleric appears well-informed. Perhaps for that reason, our journalist, “following the mullah’s math,” uses his statistics to figure that “between 18 and 45 percent of men here engage in homosexual sex–significantly higher than the 3 to 7 percent of American men who, according to studies, identify themselves as homosexual.” The writer doesn’t stop there: “That is a large number,” she writes, in her one claim that seems beyond dispute, “to defy the strict version of Islam practiced in these parts, which denounces sex between men as taboo.” The “version” denounces them, that is, not the “parts.”
Statistics are nearly as beloved of American journalism as its strange, deracinated patois–of which statistics have long been a crucial feature–and “studies” are at least as irrefutable as “observers.” But would anyone take this logic seriously? The article takes the off-the-cuff musings, rife with private fantasy, of a local mullah, and generalizes them to produce an absurdly broad figure–it would be only a little more ridiculous, and certainly more accurate, to say “between 0 and 100 percent”–which is then buffered by another baseless figure that, whatever its intent, has the effect of showing that Americans, which is what “Westerners” usually means, exercise even more of the admirable restraint that the mullah praises his own people for assaying. But that “3 to 7 percent” is pure snake oil. Some studies suggest that the percentage of gay men in America is lower, others that it is far higher. Why delimit it arbitrarily? For one reason alone: to produce the impression of scientific accuracy.
Where, clearly, there is none. The article is, in its entirety, the product of fundamental biases, half-witted prejudices, and silly fantasies. It presents no explicit correlation between homosexuality and Islamic militancy, but neither does it emphasize, for instance, the murderous extremity of Islamist prohibitions against homosexuality, levied with special brutality, as it happens, in Kandahar. It’s impossible to imagine that the article has not stoked unreasoning prejudice among its millions of readers or the millions more who’ve only heard about it, many of whom wouldn’t know a Pushtun from a Pathan, pre- or post-Taliban. Should we decide, if we haven’t already, that Islamic repression and Islamic decadence are really one and the same, that both equal fascism, that “evildoers” do not discriminate among their own sins, and that homosexuality is a constituent part of the mix, we will have these early reports to look back to, as records of our own destructive fantasies. What such documents really reveal is the process by which “Westerners” project themselves onto whatever does not fall within that self-defined boundary, and then, where once it was used as the incitement to colonialism, fob it off as a testament to cultural difference.
Paul Bowles’s short story “A Distant Episode” is one of the most eloquent studies of how this process works. In the story, a timid professor visits Morocco and is captured and tortured by a group of renegade militants. Before his capture, the professor does not want to think of the Moroccans as “primitive.” Despite not wanting to, we see that he does, and they, the Moroccans, know it. They, too, have their ideas about him. Because they happen to exact the quicker violence, the militants are able, this time, to impose their projections upon him, to make him really be the clown they think he is already.
Bowles was a gay writer who lived much of his life in Tangier, and wrote brilliantly about the cultures of Northern Africa and the Middle East, less to explain it to “Westerners,” perhaps, than to show how it eludes certain kinds of understanding. The title of his story, of course, is ironic: Episodes are only distant if we happen to be far away from them. To those in the midst of them, they are close. Had the author of “Kandahar’s Lightly Veiled Homosexual Habits” familiarized herself with Bowles’ work of the past 50 years, or any important manifestation of her subject, she might not have been astonished by what her visiting informants reported to her, might not even have supposed that it was, in any real sense, news. But few read Bowles. More, now, should.