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November 24th, 2003

  Isms and Wasms


"The isms have all become wasms." Historian John Lukacs, who said that memorable thing after the fall of the Soviet Union, allowed only one exception, for nationalism.

I believe Lukacs was mistaken. The age of isms did not end with the Cold War. Nationalism aside, plenty of other isms refused to become wasms in 1989, and a few new isms have sprung up. There are still ideologues among us, and I believe there always will be. The ideologue is a standard human type, found in all times and places. His style of thinking is one of the ways human beings have devised for making sense of the world. I think we are all capable of ideological thinking in some degree; in that sense, the pure ideologue — the "ist" behind the "ism" — is just displaying a common human tendency in hypertrophied form.

I mention this by way of explaining a point that has puzzled many of my readers this past three or four years, and to the elucidation of which it is high time I gave over a column. Here's the point: In passing comment on the "gay rights" movement, I have sometimes used the word "homosexualist," and I have had many e-mails asking me what the difference is between a homosexual and a homosexualist. Don't these two words have the same meaning?

The answer is: Only if you are a careless writer. Gore Vidal, for example, who is a careless writer, although often a very amusing one, uses these two words synonymously. I don't. I use the suffix "-ism" to indicate the presence of an ideology. A homosexual is a person who is erotically attracted towards persons of his or her own sex. A homosexualist is a type of ideologue — which means, someone who divides the human race into two fundamentally opposed categories, the Elect and the Damned, Lenin's "Who" and "Whom." For a homosexualist, the Elect are homosexuals and those who "celebrate" them, the Damned are homophobes like me, who, for various reasons, and with various intensities of feeling about the matter, decline to join in the celebrations.

As usual with ideologues, homosexualists make no distinctions among the Damned. Differences of degree cannot — must not! — be admitted. That would open up cracks in the ideological edifice, through which might seep the deadly poisons of charity, understanding, compassion, compromise, and the three dreaded h-words that act on the ideologue like garlic on a vampire: humanity, humility, and humor. A mild, tolerant homophobia like mine is precisely as bad, as "sickening," as demonic, as that of a booted thug who goes out on a Friday night with brass knuckles and a length of lead pipe looking for pansies to beat up. "Mild, tolerant homophobia" is, to the homosexualist mind-set, a plain oxymoron, as "mild, tolerant capitalism" would be to a Marxist. I am accused of "gay-bashing" all the time, though I am an inoffensive and pacific person who would never bash anyone that hadn't first bashed me, or someone I care about. But there, of course, I am using the actual meaning of the word "bash." Ideologues are deeply hostile to the notion that words have actual meanings. Ideology is the sworn enemy of language; George Orwell patiently explained all that to us sixty years ago.

Similarly, all dissent from the ideology must be responded to with the bitterest vituperation. Lenin was exceptionally good at this, lashing out at once in the strongest language against anyone who had the temerity to differ from him on points of doctrine. (Lenin was, in fact, an ideologue of the purest, most concentrated kind. For anyone seeking insight into the ideological cast of mind, Lenin's works are a prime resource.) Views that vary from the approved dogmas must be painted as "extreme," even if one-third or one-half of the population professes them. You have to wonder about the mental state of a person who believes half his fellow citizens to be "extremists."

You can be a homosexual without being a homosexualist. In fact, I think it's likely that most homosexuals are not homosexualists. None of the small number of homosexuals I know personally seems to be a homosexualist. I don't think Gore Vidal is a homosexualist (in my sense). Nor is Richard Chamberlain, whom I saw on TV the other night promoting his new book. Sir Nigel Hawthorne, the fine British actor who died last year, though cheerfully — gaily! — homosexual, was certainly not a homosexualist. Contrariwise, you can be a homosexualist without being homosexual: Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be an instance.

Now, a person like myself, who dislikes ideologies yet favors liberty in private sexual activities, has a difficulty to confront. Until recently, private sexual activities between consenting adults were subject to the supervision of the police. For certain kinds of activities, you could be arrested and put in jail. I disagree with this, and always have. Quite apart from the issue of liberty, putting homosexuals in prison seems to me to be a seriously dumb idea.

Here's my difficulty: How did we get from that intolerant regime, which I did not favor, to the current more tolerant one, which I do? We certainly wouldn't have got here through the actions of people like me. I disagreed with those laws, but then, I disagree with a lot of laws. Would I have lifted a finger to help overturn those particular laws? Probably not. I think I signed a petition once, in my student-lefty days; but while I disagreed with those laws in an intellectual way, I never lost a minute's sleep over their existence, when they existed. So how did they get overturned? In part, via the efforts of homosexual activists, many of whom are the kind of ideologues I use the word "homosexualist" for. So I guess I have to admit that here we have a small social improvement — an increment in human liberty — brought about by the activities of people I detest.

This is an instance of some larger historical truth. The great — and, to my mind, wonderful — improvements in the lives of working-class people that came about in the middle 20th century were driven partly by Marxist and Leninist ideologues, who would have murdered the bourgeoisie en masse if given the opportunity. (As they proved in those places where they were given the opportunity.) I know this because my own family was peripherally involved in the relevant movements. As late as 1984 my Aunt Muriel was a fierce supporter of the coal miners' strike of that year, led by the Marxist-Leninist ideologue Arthur Scargill. I disagreed with her at that point in time, but I understood what she was doing because I knew the thing that she knew: English working people were disgracefully treated prior to the great mid-century social reforms, and among the leaders instrumental in obtaining those reforms were some ideologues of the Scargill type. Similarly, the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1960s included in its ranks some people who were, or soon became, white-hating racist ideologues; but I'm still glad we got rid of Jim Crow.

I don't like ideologies. They all seem to me to be equally grim, humorless, and anti-human. They all lead people to do unscrupulous, amoral things. They all abuse language very shamelessly, and I am a language lover. They all produce mountains of terrible prose, laying waste perfectly good paper that could, it seems to me, be put to better use explaining mathematical problems to lay readers, or telling amusing little stories about East Asian immigrants in the U.S. In fact, I dislike ideologies to the degree that I sometimes think I may be in peril of making an ideology out of my dislike … but I'll leave that discussion for another day. Here I just want to offer a grudging admission that yes, perhaps isms do serve some historical purpose.

Once an ism has served its historical purpose, however, I'd like to see it become a wasm as speedily as possible. The fact that this hardly ever happens is, it seems to me, the source of many of the world's ills and annoyances.