You’re missing out on the deal

Armaan Rashid, Editor-in-Chief

Dear Reader,
All this talk of a “polarized” and “divided” nation is misleading: if all politics is just a negotiation of sympathies, and it is, we’re only divided because this is the first time we really have to negotiate.

Actual, capital-P Policy is just a negotiated sympathy — the ongoing debate about DACA and the border wall is something like a negotiation of just how much sympathy our government is willing to have for immigrants, for what kind of immigrant.

Almost all political moves can be interpreted this way, and I think it’s perhaps the most interesting way to view them. A recently negotiated sympathy culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision to nationally require states to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples, a move that — while practical, in the sense that marriage affords many practical benefits — also functioned as a sort of signal, a legally symbolic validation of same-sex love as much as one of same-sex marriage, in the same sense that marriage validates love for people in society generally. As much as it was a policy move it was also a negotiated sympathy for queer people, a strange sort of recognition.

There are a lot of reactionaries — that is, people or organizations opposed to political change in society — out there today; indeed, they are something of an animating force these days, trying to renegotiate sympathies back to what they once were. “Reactionary” is, itself, an inflammatory word that brings to mind an inflammatory person with a tower to his five-letter last name, but it’s not always so; sometimes, reactionaries, and their renegotiation of sympathies can be thoughtful, disarming and considered.

Consider the case of Them Before Us, a website dedicated to advocating for “traditional marriage” through the lens of “children’s rights” — basically, the website aims to advocate against gay marriage without necessarily advocating against gay people.
The website features numerous accounts from the children of same-sex parents recounting their lives with their parents, and how not having a mother and a father damaged them. All of these people are quick to assert that they harbor no ill will towards actual queer people, but only that they advocate traditional marriage.

These stories are laced with the usual dog-whistles — references to the “gay lifestyle” and the “gay agenda” — but the truth is that they are, for the most part, genuinely sad. These are people actually damaged by their same-sex parents, and in that sense, these stories are ingenious moves in terms of renegotiating a sympathy.

The worst of these stories is the utterly horrifying account of Moira Greyland, daughter of (formerly) revered feminist sci-fi author Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Greyland’s account, published on the site that preceded Them Before Us, Ask the “Bigot,” is nothing short of harrowing. In it, she describes how her parents — who divorced, and then both had same-sex relationships — indoctrinated her with the belief that, one, all men are gay and thus no one would ever want her, and two, that it was normal and natural for everyone — even kids — to have sex.

That’s unsettling enough before you even get to the actual, repeated and violent sexual abuse from her mother and father, which is horrific and doesn’t need to be repeated in detail here. Even more alarming is some of the abuse of other children she describes at the hands of her father — some of which happened in public, at parties and in front of other families, even in front of some of those children’s parents. Horrific doesn’t even begin to communicate it.
So when, at the end of her column, Greyland comes right out and says that “it IS the homosexuality that is the problem,” I didn’t bristle — I felt an overwhelming flush of sympathy for her position, even as I could recognize that she might be wrong on a logical level. In blaming “homosexuality” for the things that happened to her and other children, Greyland says some questionable things in this section of her story — she strangely assumes that everyone in the “gay community” believes that “everyone is closeted” — but her ideological clarity, in its own, strange way, felt sort of inspiring. The renegotiation was done.

If I left the narrative here, it would be very easy to paint feminism and gay marriage and leftist social politics more generally as evil, nefarious and, most crucially, violent. But of course, this would be bias by selection: I have neglected to talk about the well-documented histories of violence against women and queer people, but that’s the thing — they’re well-documented, or at least better-documented than stories like Moira Greyland’s. Who do we sympathize with?

Bias by selection is, in fact, key here. A horror story like Greyland’s, supported with the other, less-horrifying-but-still-sad stories that are all over Them Before Us, starts to build an image of what causes violence — gay marriage, and though no one comes out and says it, gay people and their “lifestyle.” But Them Before Us, ingenious renegotiator it is, is still in the minority. Images of queer people being subjected to violence at the hands of homophobic straight people now saturate pop culture — a few weeks ago, the (brilliantly unhinged) CW show “Riverdale” used the horrors of gay conversion therapy as a throwaway plotline.

This is the deal: between who is “really” violent and who is not, between who’s got the chainsaw and who’s just fighting for their rights with the shirt on their backs, maybe a steak knife if they can get hold of one. The chainsaw is powerful, but everyone wants to look like they’ve got the knife.

I’m not really interested in making a point about gay marriage as an issue as much as I am interested in noticing the deals that happen. The people in power always get the sympathy — as sympathies shift, so does the power structure.

The nonviolent civil rights movement made huge progress for several reasons, but among them was that nonviolent protest, especially as depicted, made it seem like white people had the chainsaw (which they very much did). Nowadays though, there’s still so, so far to go, we theoretically live in a society where it’s not okay to be openly racist, but liberals and conservatives alike support neoliberalism. Capitalism kills — or at least is violent — towards a lot of people, and yet it’s perfectly acceptable for people (most recently, though there are many examples, King’s College professor Emily Skarbek) to go on about the benefits of sweatshops in terms of helping the world’s poor. Who cut that deal?

The people in power, of course, who generally benefit from neoliberal exploitation of cheap, foreign labor. (I should note, dear reader, that for the most part we are very much included in this definition of the people in power.) But I also wonder about the usefulness of seeing everything in terms of hierarchy, in terms of the powerful, even if that hierarchy offers beautiful, overwhelming intellectual relief: these are the people in power, the people siphoning pleasure from your pain in some act of violence.

The basest hierarchy is the one between pain and pleasure, because it is a hierarchy of desire: we want one over the other. We are constantly cutting deals to get one over the other; to avoid pain, to maximize pleasure. Moira Greyland probably sees homosexuality the way she does to avoid pain; rich politicians cut taxes for rich people to maximize pleasure. Almost every political decision can be seen like this. Look for long enough and then you’ll become jaded about the fundamental self-interests of pain and pleasure and be really invested in the coolness of your own “freethinking” jadedness, as it seems to be happening to so many of us young people in particular, until that cynicism becomes non-negotiable.

What I’m trying to get at, dear reader, is that I get incredibly overwhelmed by politics, even as I have strong political beliefs, because how could you not be? I think I go on the Internet less than the average young person, and still it is hard not to be subsumed by a feeling of boundless tragedy and violence, but I engage with the stuff anyway, because if I didn’t, I would definitely be minimizing my pain. That feels like giving in somehow.

Beneath the feeling of terrorized paralysis, my lack of years has still managed to sneak some idealism in there, a belief in a utopian alternative, where, in the words of Hannah Black, “it is still possible to negotiate between pain and pleasure, on the vanishing edges of pain and pleasure, as if cutting a deal, the best deal, a beautiful deal.”