Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Saturday, October 04, 2003  

Palahniuk's secret: Does being gay matter?

The buzz among writers in the Pacific Northwest is Chuck Palahniuk's awkward admission to having carried on a long affair with another man.

The best-kept open secret of Portland's literary scene is history. Last week, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk made public his 11-year relationship with another man.

The revelation, in a now-deleted "audio blog" on (a.k.a. "The Cult") ends a long-running media cat-and-mouse game. Since his electrifying debut novel, Fight Club, became a publishing sensation and celebrated movie in the late '90s, Palahniuk has maintained a shroud of privacy over his personal life, even while amassing a rabid fan base.

The juggling act survived dozens of stories written about the 41-year-old author. (Over the years, at least two publications have mistakenly reported that he is married to a woman.) Ironically, Palahniuk's unveiling of his romantic life seems the result of fears that a reporter was about to kick him out of the closet--worries ultimately proved groundless.

Early last week, the author, touring Europe to promote his new novel, Diary, phoned in one of his frequent MP3 reports to The Cult. The post, which was soon deleted, was in response to an upcoming article in Entertainment Weekly. According to subsequent online chatter, Palahniuk believed EW staff writer Karen Valby intended to out him -- so he tried beating the magazine to the punch. He also seems to have talked a little trash about Valby, stirring fans' ire.

In fact, the five-page feature story in the Sept. 26 issue of EW story makes no mention of Palahniuk's relationship. Valby does describe the author's amusement at erroneous reports regarding his spouse. "Palahniuk has no wife," Valby writes, "and declines to discuss his personal life on the record...."

I don't think anyone would argue that his apparent homosexuality will impact his ability to write or reception of his books. Either one is a fan of his work, including the highly successful novel Fight Club, or one isn't. But, it seems to me the revelation could cause readers and critics to look at Palahniuk's writing in a new way. His career-making book was the impetus for a cult of masculinity. Throughout the country men have founded clubs where they engage in unregulated fisticuffs, in imitation of the plot of Fight Club. Some fans scar themselves before attending Palahniuk readings. Part of his appeal to women admirers may be a belief he epitomizes a kind of cool machismo. Will the heterosexual men who have admired Palahniuk, or at least his protagonist in Fight Club, feel differently knowing the book is the work of a gay novelist? Will women doubt his ability to relate to male-female relationships? Will devotees consider his willingness to let readers think he was married deceptive? Time will tell.

However, I am sure Palahniuk's late admission will cast him into subgroup status to critics. That happens to just about all identifiably minority writers and to gay writers who are out. (In bookstores, I sometimes shift books that are ghettoized into black, Native American, Asian or Hispanic literature sections to their actual genres for that reason.) The judgments made about him in regard to his new status as a minority writer may not be at all comfortable to Palahniuk, who has attempted to mold his public identity as a quirky individualist.

The last time a significant writer was 'outed,' he was already dead. I am not sure whether the posthumous revelation that John Cheever was bisexual harmed his reputation as a writer. However, it did change the way people looked at his work. For a while, critics were more interested in probing Cheever's controversial life, in which he pursued all kinds of sexual liasons with abandon, than they were in critiquing his novels and short story collections. If Palahniuk is considered important enough, the reaction to his self-outing may be similar.

posted by J. | 6:07 AM

Thursday, October 02, 2003  

'Subtle' support of racism
Part II: 'Bake sales' cheapen minority students' lives

For several months, I have reading about what has become a favorite form of protest of affirmative action by young conservatives on college campuses -- 'bake sales.' I recently read about one of these events being shut down by a university.

DALLAS - Southern Methodist University shut down a bake sale Wednesday in which cookies were offered for sale at different prices, depending on the buyer's race or gender.

The sale was organized by the Young Conservatives of Texas, who said it was intended as a protest of affirmative action.

A sign said white males had to pay $1 for a cookie. The price was 75 cents for white women, 50 cents for Hispanics and 25 cents for blacks.

Members of the conservative group said they meant no offense and were only trying to protest the use of race or gender as a factor in college admissions.

Similar sales have been held by College Republican chapters at colleges in at least five other states since February.

A black student filed a complaint with SMU, saying the sale was offensive. SMU officials said they halted the event after 45 minutes because it created a potentially unsafe situation.

"This was not an issue about free speech," Tim Moore, director of the SMU student center, said in a story for Thursday's edition of The Dallas Morning News. "It was really an issue where we had a hostile environment being created."

The sale drew a crowd outside the student center and several students engaged in a shouting match, Moore said.

David C. Rushing, 23, a law student and chairman of Young Conservatives of Texas at SMU and for the state, said the event didn't get out of hand. At most, a dozen students gathered around the table of cookies and Rice Krispies treats, he said.

"We copied what's been done at multiple campuses around the country to illustrate our opinion of affirmative action and how we think it's unfair," he said.

Matt Houston, a 19-year-old sophomore, called the group's price list offensive.

"My reaction was disgust because of the ignorance of some SMU students," said Houston, who is black. "They were arguing that affirmative action was solely based on race. It's not based on race. It's based on bringing a diverse community to a certain organization."

The group sold three cookies during its protest, raising $1.50.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled universities could use race as a factor in admissions under limited conditions. In Texas, universities had been banned from using race as a factor under a 1996 decision by a lower court.

Two aspects of this scenario interest me.

  • Are the bake sales free speech, which is protected from state interference on the campuses of public colleges, and by extension, at private schools which accept government funds, or, are they acts of incitement, which can be curtailed without violating the First Amendment?

  • What is the impact of such activities on relations among the students on campuses where they occur?

  • I believe an argument can be made that the bake sells are symbolic speech. After all, the point is not to sell cookies, but to encourage observers to criticize the practice of affirmative action. However, deeming an activity symbolic speech does not mean that it can't be subjected to time, space and manner regulations. As the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year, an act that has the effect of mere confirmation of a belief in one situation can be incitement in another. So, I don't believe the administrators at SMU acted beyond the scope of the law in curtailing this activity. If the College Republicans want to hold a bake sale open only to fellow travelers that would be a different matter.

    The most racially troubled college campuses I am familiar with knowlingly create hostile environments for their black and Hispanic students. Faculty members and administrators are often part of harassment of minority students. For example, at both the University of Texas and the University of Michigan, Right Wing faculty encouraged white students to bring 'reverse discrimination' lawsuits against the colleges. The impact of such actions is to create a hostile environment for students of color, where their lives are devalued. The actions of SMU's administrators stand out because they have done just the opposite. By curtailing the bake sale, they discouraged the animosity toward minority students it was likely to incite. Since SMU is a very conservative school, I am surprised the administrators 'interfered.' I believe they deserve to be commended for doing so.

    One of the bloggers at Flyover Country, who is often indifferent to harm impacting people of color, disagrees, saying, "Logic, when contacted for a reaction on Houston's comments, wept." Methinks I have explained the logic of SMU officials' response.

    Another Right Winger, a wordier fellow, dons a leisure suit (the Republican version of sackcloth) and beats his chest at Enter Stage Right.

    The administration responded to this act of protest by closing the bake sale down because it offended some students. At least one black student filed a grievance with the university. Tim Moore, director of the Hughes-Trigg Student Center at SMU remarked, "This was not an issue of free speech. It was really an issue where we had a hostile environment being created that was potentially volatile." According to this reasoning, free speech only applies to situations without heated discussions. By these standards, Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have been allowed to give his "I Have a Dream Speech." Everyone knows how volatile the civil rights movement was in America, but does that mean it should have been prevented?

    Once again the hypocrisy of the academic left has been exposed. To them, free speech only applies to "politically correct" ideas, like support of affirmative action. Any speech that does not fit into the paradigm of liberal thought must be prohibited in the name of "tolerance." This paradoxical idea is a common feature of leftist beliefs.

    . . .The Young Conservatives of Texas are now calling for nationwide affirmative action bake sales to protest this discriminatory policy, and to challenge the administrations of universities to uphold the principles they claim to espouse. YCT will continue to work for academic freedom of thought, and for the right of all students, regardless of political beliefs, to express their opinions on their campuses. YCT also encourages the SMU alumni to withhold donations until the administration apologizes for their blatant censorship. This fight for free speech is a battle that must be won, to ensure that the leftist thought police are not allowed to impose their beliefs on students.

    Both Neandertals, Brendan Steinhauser and Chris, miss the point. There are degrees of free speech. A government entity is free to curtail the kind of symbolic speech that occurred in this situation with relative ease. Its value to any legitimate debate is limited and its role as incitement high, so I believe the balancing of interests was correct. Nor does the gratuitous attempt to claim bake sales and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech are similar make any sense. The speech occurred in a public forum after meeting the requirements of the federal government in regard to time, place and manner regulations. No one present was threatened by it.

    Why do too many of our brethren, mainly conservatives, see nothing wrong with activities that demean black, Indian and Hispanic people? I believe it is because the habit of degrading people of color is so ingrained in the character of many white Americans, they don't think twice before engaging in it. To them, it is how minorities are 'supposed to be be' treated. I'm glad the officials at SMU thought twice.

    posted by J. | 1:08 PM

    Tuesday, September 30, 2003  

    Reading: Early Cherryh proves she is a sci-fi master

    The best of C.J. Cherryh's speculative fiction, Cyteen and its progeny, is such an admirable accomplishment, that one can easily find fault with her numerous other novels in comparison. As Joyce Carol Oates can testify, that is the problem with being a prolific writer. Evenso, many of Cherryh's lesser works exceed the best work product of more commercial science fiction writers such as Orson Scott Card and Anne McCaffrey. Hunter of Worlds, the second of the two early Cherryh novels in this twin volume, is such a book.

    But, first, let's consider Brothers of Earth, thought to be her earliest published novel. Like its companion, Brothers focuses on humans severed from the worlds they know. Cjan, the methi of Nephane, is a human who was shipwrecked with a small team on an alien world that had already had its fill of human treachery. After she proved herself to have no immediate vision of conquest, she was elevated to a leadership position that prevented conflict with nemet theology. It is a role she shares with another methi on the other land mass of the world, Indresul, which is hostile to Nephane. Meanwhile, humans from the occupation centuries ago have gone wild in an isolated part of the small planet and are generally avoided by the nemet. Into this balanced scenario, literally drops Kurt Morgan, the sole survivor of a battle between Cjan's people and his own, who have been engaged in a world destroying war for millenia. The two enemies tolerate each other out of a mutual need to have some contact with another human. Ultimately, each of them must decide whether to accept a diminished role in nemet affairs or use the nuclear weapons Cjan still possesses to dominate or destroy the planet.

    Brothers is prescient about some of the themes of Cherryh's later fiction. There are intelligent, but different, species, locked in conflict, but seeking equilibrium. The core of the tension between Cjan and Kurt is the mutual animosity between the genetically engineered and natural humans. Throughout most of the novel, reason takes a back seat to emotions, including greed, pride and religious orthodoxy, for humans, but particularly for nemet.

    Hunter of Worlds features three species that have reached an accommodation. The space lords, the Orithain Iduve, started all species in their section of the universe on the path to space. The Kalliran are a race of bourgeois bureaucrats who accept domination as the price of peace. The Amaut, would-be farmers, provide muscle for the Iduve with their excess population while pursuing their own trade routes. Both Kalliran and Amaut are sometimes bound as slaves to the Iduve. Enter humans, who the Orithain have had little to do with. Specifically, enter a single human, Daniel, captured by the Iduve along with the world-born Kalliran Aiola, to be used in a scheme by Chimele, the Orithain chief of the world ship Ashanome. Her brother, Tejef, insulted her and the other Orithain of Ashanome in an unforgivable way a few years ago and the time allotted for vengeance by the governing council is running out. Aiola, Daniel and another mind-melded Kalliran, Isande, will be the bait used to draw Tejef out of hiding.

    But, neither of the two new mind-controlled slaves behaves as ship-born m'metane do. The pain that can be easily applied by the Iduve notwithstanding, each maintains a degree of independence. It is that independence, in bound people, that becomes the man against society conflict in this novel, in my opinion. The more obvious conflict is the renegade Tejef's rebellion against Chimele and the Ashanome, but it is decided by Aiola and Daniel, ultimately. Historians who study slavery have decided that chattel have a great deal of influence on the societies they live in despite the dominant group's refusal to recognize them as equals. Hunter of Worlds is a representation of that truth. Like most science fiction set in another time, and in a place far, far away, it is really about our own planet, now and in the not so distant past.

    I don't consider Hunter a flawless novel. Cherryh makes much of the Iduve as a predatory race, but I found the others, with the exception of the Kalliran, equally so. Some of the most irrational and violent behavior in the novel occurs when humans abuse other humans. Chimele is supposed to be the most volatile of the Orithain, but compared to some of her kith and kin, she is remarkably balanced. I also think the resolution of the novel a letdown in some ways. (No, I am not going to give that aspect of the plot away.)

    Brothers of Earth and Hunter of Worlds are excellent showcases of a fine writer developing. They also are a reminder that sci-fi is not escapism in its most literary form. This companion volume makes these two books available at a discount. It is a bargain you would do well not to pass on.

    Note: I believe some writers of speculative fiction, including Cherryh, Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler, provide much insight into in group interactions and group psychology.

    posted by J. | 4:00 AM