Saturday, March 12, 2011

A lie so traditional as to become accepted truth

Joseph Goebbels Ph.D., master of propaganda, was famous for observing that a lie told often enough becomes the truth. There are few, if any, areas in contemporary life where that is more true than in the area same-sex attraction and orientation.

A striking example of this recently caught my eye:
Nussbaum would have done well to consider the religious grounds for opposing the gay rights movement, since she underestimates the relevance of the Judeo-Christian tradition for the matters at hand. She suggests, incredibly, that the only strictures in the Bible pertaining to homosexuality are found in the Book of Leviticus. Has she managed to wipe completely the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from her mind?
Possibly. Or possibly, unlike David L. Tubbs, the educator criticising Martha Nussbaum in the quote above, Prof. Nussbaum has actually read the original biblical story in its own terms, not the traditional (mis)interpretation. Or was simply aware of the serious scholarship on the matter.

The notion that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, as found in Genesis 19, is about homosexuality does not come from the Scriptural story itself. The actual tale is a story of attempted rape and abuse of hospitality. The notion that the particular crime of Sodom was boy-boy sex was a later interpretation.

It is an instructive exercise, to go through the references to Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament. In the Hebrew scriptures, the sin of Sodom was inhospitality (Wisdom 19:13), pride, lack of generosity, contempt for others (Ezekiel 16:48-49), failing to protect widows, orphans or act justly (Isaiah 1:10-17), or being unrepentant in evil (Isaiah 3:9). Or was the appropriate punishment for idolatry (Deuteronomy 29: 22-28), for threatening the land and people of Israel (Zephaniah 2:8-11) or being unrepentant adulterers and evil doers (Jeremiah 23:14). All of which is much more in line with the recurring concerns of Scripture, and Abraham’s bargaining with the Lord over saving the cities (Genesis 18:16-33), than an exterminatory Divine obsession with boy-boy sex. The Priestly source that many scholars identify as the compiler of chapters 1 to 27 of Leviticus is also identified as the compiler of Genesis 19:29 (which states God saved Lot due to his descent from Abraham). Yet the Levitical prohibitions make no allusion at all to the story of Sodom. While Judges 19 makes it clear that rape of strangers was treated very seriously, regardless of the sex of the victim.

When Jesus refers to the story of Sodom (Matthew 10:5-15), his comments fit in with the framings of Hebrew Scriptures, not the interpretation that became traditional.

Nevertheless, Tubb takes it as absolutely obvious that Sodom and Gomorrah was about homosexuality. It is a falsehood so traditional as to become accepted truth.

There is a great deal of “just assumed” mythmaking about the issue of whether the same-sex attracted are so metaphysically deformed that they should be denied equal protection of the laws. Some of the time it is misleading silence which has been the problem. Columnist Charles Krauthammer expresses an example of this when he writes:
until this generation, gay marriage had been sanctioned by no society that we know of, anywhere at any time in history.
This is just flatly wrong. Entire books have been written about same-sex marriage in particular cultures. Thus the Roman acceptance of same-sex marriage has been lost from cultural understanding even though the Sifra – the earliest surviving text of rabbinical commentary on Leviticusdenounces pagans for permitting same-sex marriage. When anthropologists attempted to discern what, if anything, were the common features of marriage across human societies, being a purely opposite-sex phenomenon was most certainly not one of them. (The sole common feature they could find is that it creates in-laws.)

It is all part of the notion that same-sex attraction, let alone same-sex orientation, should not exist and those displaying such benighted features should have the decency not to act on them. And certainly should not aspire to be treated as the equal of “proper” folk if they are so lacking in common decency as to do so.

This notion of “metaphysical deformity”, which is still the teaching of the Catholic Church, is an extremely dangerous and pernicious idea. It justifies unilaterally stripping people of moral protections by category. If one considers all the fights for equal protection of the law – such as abolishing slavery, abolishing Jim Crow, Jewish emancipation, women’s suffrage – at the back of all such exclusions (or, indeed, right up front) is some notion of metaphysical deformity: some idea that such people are, by category, not worthy of equal protection of the law because they are, by category, profoundly intrinsically flawed in some way.

The ultimate expression of this is that they should therefore be exterminated. The notion that some category of people within one’s own society should be exterminated – indeed, that God wants them exterminated and is willing to do it Himself – comes from this idea of metaphysical deformity and it specifically being applied to queers. We see it expressed in this passage from the medieval bestseller The Golden Legend, a hagiographical compilation assembled by an Archbishop of Genoa who was later beatified (mainly for compiling The Golden Legend):
In that night our Blessed Lady and Mother of God was delivered of our Blessed Saviour upon the hay that lay in the rack. At which nativity our Lord shewed many marvels. … And it happed this night that all the sodomites that did sin against nature were dead and extinct; for God hated so much this sin, that he might not suffer that nature human, which he had taken, were delivered to so great shame. Whereof St. Austin saith that, it lacked but little that God would not become man for that sin.
The Gospel of Love transmuted into a message and example of exterminatory hate in this “Christmas Day massacre”.

The very term ‘sodomy’ invokes this notion of righteous extermination, going back to the arguments of Philo of Alexandria as adapted by Church Fathers as St John Chrysostom, patron saint of preachers. The story of Sodom is a story of righteous extermination and if one claims that the great sin of Sodom was boy-boy sex, one is invoking the notion, at least implicitly, that those who engage in it should be righteously killed. (Or perhaps have the decency to commit suicide, and so save the bother.) The notion of metaphysical deformity and virtuous extermination lashed together.

Language matters because ideas have consequences. In the above quote, Tubb was not displaying Nussbaum’s ignorance but his own. And a vile and pernicious ignorance it is too, no matter how traditional. It is hardly surprising that he is also arguing for the proposition that some group of his fellow citizens are so metaphysically deformed that they are not entitled to the equal protection of the law.

But that, of course, is the power of the idea of metaphysical deformity: the entire point is to block the thought that they are “real” people so that how you treat them matters. But, of course, it does. There are no “metaphysically deformed” humans, there are just people.

It is a very clear lesson of history: it never just stops with the queers. If you let the notion of metaphysical deformity loose, it spreads. Philo of Alexandria used natural law theory to push it into the tradition of Judaic revelation, targeting the queers but, soon enough, the notion that his people, the Jews, were metaphysically deformed and in revolt against the purposes of the Creator became entrenched in Christendom. With regularly horrific results: massacres, pogroms and industrialised extermination. Even the Leninist massacres, exterminatory famines and other megacides were also based on notions of metaphysical deformity. For the notion of metaphysical deformity itself is a lie, a lie created by theory and such theories, such lies, can be applied to anyone.

A very useful lie, however, if one wants to set oneself up as a "gatekeeper of righteousness". So one appealing to priests, clerics, gauleiters and kommissars. And to all those they sell narcissistic, effortless virtue to as members of the class of "proper" (even superior) people.

Tubbs, alas, is showing rather more ignorance than mere ignorance of Scripture in his screed against Nussbaum. But his traditional ignorance of Scripture is very much one of the anchor points for that vaster, and much more disastrous, ignorance.

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