Monday, May 18, 2009

Stranger Next Door

What was a nice, Jewish, lesbian, feminist, academic sociologist doing in a “redneck” town like Timbertown Oregon? Finding out why a town with not much sign of a visible queer community was getting so exorcised over homosexuality. Arlene Stein—the aforementioned Jewish, lesbian, feminist, academic sociologist—later wrote up as The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community's Battle over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights.

The book is an excellent and sympathetic field study of how the fight against granting homosexuals civic equality played out in a small town—which, in accordance with common research practice in such sociological studies, Stein gives the pseudonym Timbertown.

She does, however, occasionally lapse into less thoughtful comments. Early on, Stein claims that that America defined itself via Communism (p.9), a claim that is grossly exaggerated, as if the US had no history, and no sense of identity or defining characteristics, before the rise of Leninism. Leninism was itself profoundly antithetical to the US at so many levels. As a peacetime foreign threat—something the US had not experienced for well over a century—it violated the US sense of being a haven from the outside world and its wars and hatreds. As avowedly atheistic, it violated the religious sensibilities of the overwhelming majority of Americans. As a deeply tyrannical structure, it violated both democratic and libertarian sentiments. As system of state economic ownership and control it violated propertarian sentiments. In its nature, it was the antithesis of the American Revolution.
Moreover, it was a genuine threat. American Communists spied and organised for a foreign power. It was an aggressive ideology, spreading itself by violence. Leninist states were highly militarised (far more so than the US). The Soviet military sought to be able to defeat the US in war. Even the US having a large peacetime military established and elaborate systems of “entangling foreign alliances” in response was a form of violation of American historical identity. But perhaps one has to grasp the genuinely threatening nature of Leninism, and a sense of continuing American identity—particularly an identity with much that was positive—to see so.

There was some burden to the US in the collapse of its Cold War foe in that it opened up the proper role of the US in the world in an apparently open-ended way. In practice, the US is so central to the global state and economic system, its genuine freedom of choice has actually been quite limited. But how to characterise that centrality has been much less clear. Characterising that as having a “burden” from the lack of a Communist enemy is, again, to miss the real dilemmas and responsibilities.

Towards the end of the book, Stein classes welfare reform as “blaming the victim” (p.226). Not a fair characterisation of a set of reforms that have been successful in reducing welfare rolls and poverty.

Both instances suggest a problem with having operating assumptions that get in the way of understanding. But they are far from indicative of the book as a whole—precisely, one feels, because they don’t come from Stein being the careful observer in the field she clearly is.

The Introduction is both a personal statement of her own experience and a thoughtful consideration of the disorientating nature of the cultural and social changes of the last five decades. The first chapter (“The Personal is Political”) places competing view of homosexual identity (a choice in the view of conservative Christian activists and gay liberationists, an inbuilt identity analogous to race in the view of mainstream gay rights activists) in their local context. The next (“Resentment’s Roots”) examines the declining fortunes of the town as the timber industry contracted and the resulting social changes (particularly decline in male breadwinner-female homemaker family structure) and migrations into the town. Stein then sets out (in “Community Reimagined”) how people reconceived themselves, their community and their place in it particularly through religion and particularly through the more passionate forms of religion, continuing that in the next chapter (“Decorating for Jesus”) examining the appeal of Christian identity and activism for women. The experience of local gays and lesbians, and the role of homosexuals-as-imagined, is woven through the narrative.

Having set the scene, Stein now concentrates on the battling activisms. The conservative Christian activists—who had to deal with a widespread reluctance to interfere in people’s lives and wish to keep religion a private and personal matter—and, a little later, their opponents—who had to deal with a sense of homosexuality as an unwelcome and improper alienness. The chapter “Angry White Men and Women” particularly examines the former. Stein notes: “the campaign’s secular framing distinguished between what people do in privacy of their own home—which it considered their own business—and politicized homosexuality—which violates public trust” (p.123): that is, the notion that homosexuals were a “special interest”/”at risk” group requiring anti-discrimination protection and public recognition of their relationships since, the view was, anything that was required the Constitution already covered. (Needless to say, the actual experience of gay and lesbians was not merely irrelevant, but outside their frame of reference at all.) The emphasis was on the alienness of the “bad (political) gays”.

This campaign provoked a response, examined in “We are all Queer—Or Are We?” among people who were at first startled that such a fuss was being made about a non-issue and then had to confront how to defend homosexuals in a town without a visible homosexual community—many of the local gays and lesbians just wanting to continue living quiet, private lives: Stein herself hid her homosexuality and that she was raising a child in a stable-same-sex relationship so as not to create a barrier with her subjects. Stein argues that the counter campaign was handicapped because its activists essentially stayed within a vocabulary of human sexuality that meant homosexuals were still outsiders (pp 163-4).

In “I Shout Therefore I Am” Stein looks at dynamics of the conflict in a situation where activists on both sides were not many degrees of separation away from each other. The pro-gay civic equality activists used Nazi analogies, which the Christian conservatives bitterly resented—indeed, it was a common idea among them the latter that many top Nazis were homosexuals. (Of course true of some; they were also the ones Hitler killed in the Night of the Long Knives while tens of thousands of homosexuals were sent to the death camps, hence the pink triangle as a gay symbol.)

But the Nazi comparison which pro-civic equality activists ran does not really work, there is far too much extra baggage involved. But, having recently read two books on Jew hatred, particularly Peter Pulzer’s The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria, the resonances with pre-1914 anti-Semitism in continental Europe are patent. The resentments at social disorientation; scapegoating a minority with a long history of being excluded from public affairs or acceptable social life; projecting malevolent and corrupting power onto them; the key role of activists. The patterns are very similar.

The conservative activists resented the Nazi analogy at another level: because they deeply resented the notion that homosexuals were their victims. On the contrary, they felt themselves to be victims: to be an embattled minority in a country whose public arenas had become hostile. (Given that they defined Christian as meaning only born-agains, the last wasn’t as silly as it sounds.) But the sense of being embattled victims is another resonance with pre-1914 anti-Semitism.

One of the amusing aspects of the book is how Stein found her Jewishness worked for her. To modern American evangelicals, Jews are a comfortable concept—the Old Testament is all about them. It was pleasant exoticism for many of her interlocuters to meet a real-life Jew. Of course, this Judaeophilism also helped shield conservative activists from any sense that their behaviour and outlooks had Jew-hating resonances.

The next chapter, “Whose Side Are You On”, examines the final stages of the campaign over the anti-anti-discrimination ballot measure the conservative Christians had managed to get placed on the ballot and the polarising effect it had on relationships between people. Their measure won in the end, with 57 per cent “Yes” vote from the about one third of eligible voters who turned out, as did similar measures in surrounding towns.

In the final chapter, “Living with Strangers”, Stein reflects on sense of community, the limits of liberalism and the culture wars and the need to live with strangers.

The book also has two appendices, one examining methodological questions raised by the study and the other reproducing the text of the various ballot measures discussed.

The Stranger Next Door is a careful and enlightening study of how the wider push for civic equality for homosexuals becomes a focus for wider resentments about disorientation from social and economic change. Stein does a particularly good job of reporting the perspectives of people whose outlook and life experiences are very different from hers.

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