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‘Come, Hangman. Come Vulture’

Is Necropolis near? A teacher sees a sign in his students' embrace of all things gay

A teacher at a prominent private school writes (I’ve edited the e-mail to remove identifying characteristics):

Why all my students love love love gay marriage: because they are, for all intents and purposes, gay.

That is: their relationships are temporary, experimental, experiential, and casually genital.

In other words, they have grown up in an insane “achievement first” culture that prizes credential grabbing, resume building (in the Brooks’ sense) over and always against a kind of semi-serious “courting” of middle-America or their perceptions “of the way things used to be.” They have grown up with the notion that relationships are necessarily divorced from any kind long term commitment, because how can you focus on your career and not have the flexibility to move from NY or BOS to DC and back on a whim. And they have been taught that they should NOT tie themselves down prematurely…every friggin’ movie that came out in the 90’s seemed to have a throughline in it that their parents were divorced because they got married to early “and then grew apart” or some such bit.

But for them, sex is sex. All is a la carte. All relationships, since they are sterile and contracepted, are actually “gay” relationships.

Thus, when one of their gay friends comes out, they see this as a way of carving out a meaningful future for themselves, they who have forsaken so much to “achieve.” They got into Duke, dammit, or Yale, or Stanford. They should be able to get their own “cherry on top.” It’s like their gay friends are finally able to live the upside down world that they are trying to live, too. It’s a version of white guilt. It is an odd expression of hope that they too might be able to find a meaningful relationship in this barren wasteland of Tinder and brunch.

And make no mistake, they are most certainly obsessed with “identity” because they too have none. The sad thought is that we have carved out a real blank canvas in which these kids can do whatever they want, and in the end, they waste it with tawdry hook ups, and selfie-sticked memories on their Facebook pages.

I quote my favorite paragraph from Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, about late Roman Decadence:

From the standpoint of both politics and urbanism, Rome remains a significant lesson of what to avoid: its history presents a series of classic danger signals to warn one when life is moving in the wrong direction. Wherever crowds gather in suffocating numbers, wherever rents rise steeply and housing conditions deteriorate, wherever a one-sided exploitation of distant territories removes the pressure to achieve balance and harmony nearer at hand, there the precedents of Roman building almost automatically revive, as they have come back today: the arena, the tall tenement, the mass contests and exhibitions, the football matches, the international beauty contests, the strip-tease made ubiquitous by advertisement, the constant titillation of the senses by sex, liquor and violence—all in true Roman style. So, too, the multiplication of bathrooms and the over-expenditure on broadly paved motor roads, and above all, the massive collective concentration on glib ephemeralities of all kinds, performed with supreme technical audacity. These are symptoms of the end: magnifications of demoralized power, minifications of life. When these signs multiply, Necropolis is near, though not a stone has yet crumbled. For the barbarian has already captured the city from within. Come, hangman! Come, vulture!

​Come, hangman indeed.

I am sure this letter will stir up the crowd here, but I thought it worth publishing because of its insight into why same-sex marriage, and homosexuality, have become such a thing with so many high school and college kids. No doubt a genuine compassion for their gay friends has something to do with it, but there’s got to be more. This letter reminds me of what a gay male friend back in the 1990s used to say to me about the superiority of being gay. For him, the no strings attached nature of most of his sexual relationships was a cherished feature. What’s interesting sociologically is that as gays have moved toward having more of a stable marriage culture available to them (or at least what they perceive as that), many young Americans seem to be achieving the kind of culture that my gay friend in the 1990s embraced: emotionless, commitment-free sex, and lots of it.

Similarly, Terry Teachout talks about how rap music has become the music of young America, both white and black, and how those artists do not sing about love, but about women as sex objects, and violence. He quotes a new book about love songs, by music historian Ted Gioia:

You can even quantify [them] at the Rap Genius website, which offers a statistical measure of the frequency with which various terms show up in rap lyrics. The site’s database, which goes back to 1988, shows that in every year the term bitch appeared more often than woman or girl or lover. The word romance is all but absent from the database, although guns, cars, and money figure as recurring references.

Back to Teachout:

It is no coincidence that today’s songs should appeal so strongly not merely to black listeners but to the younger public at large. The millennial generation, after all, has grown up in the aftermath of the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. In 1935, the U.S. divorce rate was 17 percent. In 1985, it was 50 percent. Today it is declining—but so, too, is the marriage rate, for whites as well as blacks. Millennials of all races live in an increasingly post-marital world in which it is taken for granted that men and women will “hook up” without any pretense of intimacy. Though polling suggests that their attitudes toward sex are more conservative than their behavior would indicate, they still appear to view marriage not as a sacrament into which one enters with the reasonable expectation of permanency but as an arrangement subject to dissolution at the whim of either party. And while college-educated millennials who marry take a relatively conventional view of how best to rear the children of their union, this view is no longer widely shared further down the socioeconomic ladder, where single parenting is the new norm.

I do not listen to rap music, so a question for those who do: is it crazy to imagine that rap music, as misogynistic as it is, has something to do with shaping the sexual imagination of the kids at this reader’s school? Here’s a passage from the transcript of the 1999 PBS Frontline episode about syphilis and the sexual culture in an upperclass suburban Atlanta school:

INTERVIEWER: What kind of music do you guys like?



GIRLS: Like, Master P. Tupac, definitely. Oh, I love Tupac.

INTERVIEWER: What do you like about rap?

GIRLS: The beat. The beat. And the words. And it’s just, like, loud. You can really get up and dance.

CHRISTINE: And the way that it’s, like- they can talk about something that’s, like, completely stupid, like drugs and stuff.[crosstalk] But it’s the way they put it, it sounds interesting.

INTERVIEWER: Give me an example.

CHRISTINE: I can’t think of a song.

GIRLS: [singing rap] Oh, take three witches and put ’em in a [unintelligible] I take clothes off you, and I’m blowing [unintelligible]mind. Take one more before I go [unintelligible] Seven bitches get fu**ed at the same time. The [unintelligible] she can s___ a ding-dong all day, all night, all evening long. Bitch has never done it. She says she never tried. [unintelligible] mother-fu**ing[unintelligible] if the bitch is a good trick. Anybody can talk to a bitch and get the bitch to f_k, but how many [unintelligible] talk to a bitch and get their d__ sucked like me? A pimp that you never saw [unintelligible]

INTERVIEWER: That’s about group sex.

GIRLS: Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: Is that something anybody does around here?

GIRLS: Uh-huh!

BRIDGET: Lots of people. A lot of people.

CHRISTINE: Yes, a lot of people.

If this is the way they lived anyway in 1997, then what possible grounds would they have had to object to homosexuality? If sexuality has no meaning beyond giving individuals pleasure, then it makes perfect sense that arguments that say sex has a telos beyond individual pleasure make no sense to this generation.

UPDATE: A reader sends in this essay from a prominent magazine, appearing in 2003, just prior to the Lawrence v. Texas decision overturning sodomy laws. The author appears to agree with the college professor when he writes:

As a simple empirical matter, we are all sodomites now, but only homosexuals bear the burden of the legal and social stigma. Some studies have found that some 90 to 95 percent of heterosexual couples engage in oral sex in their relationships; similar numbers use contraception; a smaller but still significant number practise anal sex. We don’t talk about this much because we respect the privacy of intimacy, as we should. The morality of sex in today’s America and Western Europe is rightly one in which few public moral judgments are made of any sexual experiences that are private, adult and consensual. Within these parameters, non-procreative sex is simply the norm.

But to say they’re the norm is perhaps too defensive. The norm is also, many have come to understand, a social, personal and moral good. It is hard to see why, for example, sexual fantasy, escape, pleasure, are somehow inimical to human flourishing—and plenty of evidence that their permanent or too-rigid suppression does actual psychological and spiritual harm. Relationships which include sexual adventure and passion and experiment are not relationships of “disintegrated” people, but relationships in which trust is the prerequisite for relief, release and renewal. The meaning of these sexual experiences is as varied as the people in them. And there are many contexts in which to understand these sexual experiences other than as purely procreative.

You can think of sex—within marriage and in other relationships—as a form of bonding; as a way to deepen and expand the meaning of intimacy; as a type of language even, where human beings can communicate subtly, beautifully, passionately—but without words. And in a world where our consumer needs are exquisitely matched by markets, in which bourgeois comfort can almost anesthetize a sense of human risk and adventure, sex remains one of the few realms left where we can explore our deepest longings, where we can travel to destinations whose meaning and dimensions we cannot fully know. It liberates and exhilarates in ways few other experiences still do. Yes, taking this to extremes can be destructive. And yes, if this experience trumps or overwhelms other concerns—the vows of marriage, the trust of a faithful relationship, or the duty we bear to children—then it can be destructive as well as life-giving. But the idea that expressing this human freedom is somehow intrinsically and always immoral, that it somehow destroys the soul, is an idea whose validity is simply denied in countless lives and loves.

But if many of us—gay and straight—have absorbed this new sexual consensus, we still deny it in our legal and social treatment of homosexual sex. And the convolutions that legal authorities now have to go through to justify this discrepancy are getting more and more elaborate and less and less convincing. At some point, the unfairness of this must surely impinge itself on our collective consciousness. And the lingering of sodomy laws is but one book-end in this anachronistic structure. The other book-end is marriage itself. One reason there is such fierce resistance to the repeal of sodomy laws is that the supporters of such laws fear that once those laws are removed, there is essentially no legally relevant difference between heterosexual marriages and homosexual relationships. The two issues might be legally separate—as we can see by the many states that have no sodomy laws and yet retain exclusively heterosexual marriage laws. But logically, this discrepancy makes less and less sense. Both gay and straight relationships in our culture are now primarily sodomitic in their sexual practices. Both adhere to the general principles of equality, adulthood, privacy and consent that have become our de facto social norms for adult relationships. Within both straight and gay relationships, there is a wide spectrum of conformity to monogamy, child-rearing, social responsibility and gender roles. And as the years go by and as legally protected same-sex relationships mature as a social institution, the differences that remain are slowly diminishing.

I find it hard to argue with the logic here. Indeed, the differences have diminished much more quickly than even the author of this piece, Andrew Sullivan, could have foreseen.

UPDATE.2: I cannot believe I have to say this, but judging from the comments, I do: Lewis Mumford, who was one of the great public intellectuals of the 20th century, wrote that in 1961. He was not, it may be safely assumed, against bathrooms and highways. His point is that we are under the illusion that material progress is sufficient, that as long as we build more bathrooms and bigger highways, everything will be getting better and better. Meanwhile, our culture rots from within.

Again and again, one sees that certain liberals are as guilty of proof-texting literalism as the Bugtussle Baptists they disdain for their simple-mindedness.