27 December 2005


When it comes to knowledge of history, I usually feel confident laying bold claim to being one of the more ignorant folks you will encounter, especially for someone with a bunch of worthless degrees. I never studied European or World History of any sort in high school (it just wasn't in the curriculum) and I never took a single History class in College. Simply put, I know very little history.

This was made quite clear to me in a lengthy discussion a few weeks back with the son of one of my colleagues, called Luke. Luke was discussing British history in depth, making arguments about English nationalism, colonialism, and monarchical rule. I couldn't challenge any of his arguments, because I hardly knew any of the history he was covering. Luke is 10 years old.

Thus, it frustrates me even more – and would lead me to rant in detail if I knew any details too rant about – that there seems to be such shockingly little regard for history in the world around me of late. Two banal cases should suffice to capture my rather vexed state:

  • The AP article from this morning's 'newspaper' (local Vancouver press), describing the proposal in Congress to do away with 'Birth Citizenship' for illegal immigrants. In true 'objective' fasion, the article tried to present 'both sides' to this issue, but failed to mention in any place that coming to America so that your kids will be American is nothing new but rather has a long and interesting history. Some might even argue that knowledge of that history shows us that this practice is quintessentially American - part of the very fibre and fabric of the country.

  • The vast commentary on Brokeback Mountain. Almost no one among the cacophony of voices seems to understand that the movie is set in the early 1960s, in Wyoming. Stonewall is 1969 folks! These guys aren't gay, because 'gay identity' does not yet exist in the world. They cannot act and talk and think and make choices the way we might wish them to in 2005 (that is, if 'we' live in so-called blue states), because there simply is no subject position available to them in which they might express a so-called gay identity. And that's not the same as saying their 'true nature' is closeted, repressed, or whatever else, because in the time and place and context that these two grew up, they had no gay identity to express. This isn't medieval European history, it's just a few decades ago, but it's history nonetheless.


dan said...

Regarding Brokeback Mountain: I want to say "right!" "exactly!" and "I was going to blog about that very thing!" but then, I learned all that from you. I will soon reflect this sentiment as best I can, but first I think I have to rail about the "slow, cautious release" that the distributer is doing with the film. A rather different topic, but one of immediate importance.

I am utterly confused about the about your assertion that immigration is "quintessentially American." So, what, we're all here because some people came over on a boat? Pfft, right Sam. Riiight. Radical Liberal.

Transient Gadfly said...

yeah, having seen BBM (every time i try to type 'brokeback,' i type it wrong) twice now and managing to think about little else all week, i have finally pulled some of these ideas together a little bit. your observation is interesting because traditionally westerns and cowboy movies are historical by definition. in fact, the idea of "west" is outdated -- that west no longer exists as such. and though there are cowboys in america today just as surely as there are still hate crimes towards gay people, the western remains a genre about another time. though it is a great movie apart from its story and though its themes are indeed universal, it is very much a movie about two men (very very men -- i mean these guys are really...male) in love and the heartbreak that comes as a direct result. so while i think we initially thought these reviews suffered for lack of vocabulary -- they don't know the term "queer" -- in fact i think maybe it's far more insidious, and they suffer from, after all, homophobia. there's too little room to allow a (fairly) mainstream film to be both very gay and very good. so the subtext of what these mainstream reviewers say to their mainstream viewers is, "it's okay. we're grossed out and uncomfortable too. but don't worry -- it's not really gay -- really it's about universal themes of love and wanting what you can't have and how life wears you down and mountains are pretty. so it's safe to go see and appreciate and love this clearly very good and powerful film and be moved because it's not really gay." you'd sort of think the historical nature of the text -- that it most distinctly does not take place here and now -- would be an out for these reviewiers, that one of the first things they'd mention is this is historical fiction. but history -- even fictional history -- is grounding. it says this or something like it may have or could have happened at this time and place. if we take that away, we can pretend this is just a story about mountains and love that could happen to anyone, anywhere and has nothing to do with the love that shall not speak its name.
-- lef

sageblue said...

At this point, I can only comment on a little bit of your BBM commentary, since I have yet to see it (I KNOW I KNOW, WE'RE SEEING IT TONIGHT).

Frankly, I think that while the time period in which these guys are situated hampers their ability to attain a gay subject position, it certainly doesn't preclude a gay subject position from being attained: look at the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, etc. who were all asserting their gay identity before Stonewall. Yes, it was hard, but it was being done, albeit in metropolitan areas, so perhaps the issue here is more about place than time: I found it interesting that they didn't film in Wyoming, but in Canada, so that even the Wyoming on film doesn't really exist (because gay men couldn't [can't even now safely?] exist in Wyoming?).

Without even seeing it, this film is threatening: it threatens the history of the United States, because if a cowboy (as Laurie says, "very very men") can be gay, then what/who else is subversive/wrong/opposite in our history/culture.

Sorry for the ridiculous overuse of parentheses and slashes.

Ruth said...

I hate you all. I have been waiting for this movie for MONTHS, and even its "nationwide" release hasn't brought it closer than 2 hours+ to my home. And it's not like I live in the middle of nowhere.

Having said that, however, I haven't noted the rollout being any more cautious for Brokeback than it ever is for an arty film -- in fact, this'll probably reach some places "The Squid and the Whale" will never see. I haven't read the publicity materials, though, so I'm willing to grant there may be more nefarious intentions afoot. Could you be more specific in your railings, Dan?

I'm also inclined to question the "no gay identity before Stonewall" idea. Surely the accepted date is around the turn of the century? Stonewall may have introduced the word (did it?), inagurated the gay civil rights movement, and started to make queerness more mainstream, but I've had the date 1892 highlighted in my Halperin photocopies (sorry, dude: fair use) for years. I mean, ya'll know way more about this than I do, but have I missed the updates?

Sam said...

Dan: ecstatic to know I taught someone something.
MTG: you need to start blogging, as you've said more, and more interesting, in the comments than I said in the post.
Sage: YES, YES, place is CRUCIAL, and was really part of my point.
Ruth: It WILL make it your neck of the woods, as they are actually rolling it out faster than they originally planned. Also, I'd insist on a distinction between homosexual identity and gay identity. The former comes in the late 19th century, but the latter (along with the idea of coming out, etc. etc.) really only emerges after Stonewall. Even the societies that Sage refers to call themselves homophile organisations, with the idea being that homosexuality is good.