Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Problems with "Problematic" (and more.)

We’re just over a month into the new year and I’ve now come up with my list of the three words or phrases I’d like to hear less of. At the risk of boring everyone to death with my opinions, they are:  

  1. Problematic
  2. My Truth (or, alternatively, Your Truth)
  3. President Donald Trump

My aim in writing this isn’t to air a curmudgeonly gripe about how the darned kids are speaking these days, but rather to make a case against the usage of these phrases for reasons of lucidity and effectiveness. I hope that after reading this, people who commonly fall back on the use of these phrases will reconsider them, and seek out better and clearer words for formulating arguments or expressing their feelings or opinions. In some cases I think these phrases can be pernicious, especially politically, but the degree to which that is true varies with case and context.

Taking the first two phrases above, I’ll concede that popularity or trendiness alone isn’t sufficient reason to dismiss their use out of hand. However, I do think that a noticeable increase in the use of any word or phrase is reason enough to at least question or consider one’s use of it. Overused phrases or cliches suggest common or unoriginal thinking. By using trendy words, the author places her writing within not only a particular point in time, but allies it - whether intentionally or not - with schools or methods of thought or other writers that use that same highly-specific language. 

Even a single use of a phrase in a writer’s work, if commonplace or trendy or popular enough, can render the reader skeptical of an author’s originality. Having seen the term “problematic” used so much recently, I am now predisposed to take arguments using the word less seriously, because I suspect the thinking behind them of being less original. This may be unfair of me, but it’s a very real tendency among readers and something a writer should consider if they want their argument to be effective. Overuse can exhaust a reader, and they may miss or dismiss a point because of the tedious or cliched way in which it is expressed (here’s hoping this essay isn’t too guilty of that.) 

Such a use of trendy terms can be useful if the author wants to signify her belonging to a particular intellectual or ideological group. When someone uses “problematic,” for example, my experience of the common usage of that word suggests to me that the author is probably educated and liberal. If someone else were to then accuse that same author using the equally trendy term “virtue signaling,” I would suspect the accuser of, if not alt-right or conservative sympathies, at least an anti-politically correct feeling. I contend that this kind of easy linguistic not-so-secret handshaking within ideological groups dilutes and muddies the expressions of an independent mind. 

There are more important problems with these first two terms that are specific to their usage and meaning, aside from their overuse or popularity in writing and speech today. Some of these problems apply to both phrases, others to just one. 

Beginning with “problematic,” my first and most basic argument against its use is that it is imprecise. Problematic in the way it is used today is a vague term, usually used when someone means anything from “bad” to “troubling” to “wrong” to “offensive” to “unjust” to “immoral” to “distasteful,” or any number of other negatives. These manifold meanings aren’t exactly synonymous with the original meaning of the word, which my OED defines as “of the nature of a problem; constituting or presenting a problem; difficult of solution or decision; doubtful, uncertain, questionable.”

That definition has doubt and uncertainty sewn right into it, and consideration will show that it is not precisely the same as the common usage of the word today. When someone refers to something as “problematic” these days, they usually aren’t saying that it’s difficult to solve or filled with uncertainty - instead they’re making a negative value judgement, whether moral, cultural, etc… Those who contend that white people wearing Indian headdresses is “problematic” are not typically saying that this is a difficult or ambiguous or doubtful matter that merely presents a problem. They usually mean that they find it offensive and stupid, and I think they’d be much better served by expressing that outright and honestly. This kind of meaning-creep happens all the time, especially when words become popular. “Brutalized” is now usually meant to refer to being beaten up rather than its other more nuanced and interesting meaning of someone being made brutal or desensitized. “Empowered” in common non-legal use today tends to describe “self-empowerment” rather than its more technical meaning of being given or awarded powers. 

One issue with “problematic” being used rather than “bad” or “immoral” or “wrong,” is that it has a vaguely academic or scientific sheen that can disguise an expression of opinion as a matter of fact. If someone were to say “The Washington Redskins name is offensive/ distasteful/insensitive,” we would have a better idea of their true opinion and be better equipped to discuss it. “The Washington Redskins name is problematic,” is simultaneously vaguely non-committal (because “problematic,” can mean such a wide range of things,) and uncompromising (because “problematic” sounds more objective than “offensive.”) This is the kind of language that stifles conversation rather than enables it.

Probably more worrying is the second phrase: “my truth,” (or indeed “your” or “his” or “her” truth.) The principle objection to this one should be obvious: it directly contradicts the idea of “the truth” or any single truth. This is a more benign-seeming example of the classic totalitarian method of perverting language to shape the ruled’s thoughts and reality to the “truth” of the ruler. In this sense, saying “my truth” sounds no less ridiculous and only slightly less sinister than saying “alternative facts.”

Even more so than “problematic,” this can be a conversation-stopper, which is always a dangerous thing. Raising the banner of “my truth” erects an impregnable battlement around a person’s own argument. If “my truth” and “your truth” can coexist, then there’s simply no need to discuss the possibility of “the truth.” “My truth” is the stubborn tantrum of the unchangeable mind; “because I said so,” for grown-ups. 

By delegitimizing the idea of a single truth or “the truth” as something to be pursued however imperfectly yet never conclusively, “my truth” is an intellectual forfeit. The pursuit of “the truth” is the foundation of wisdom, knowledge, science, and philosophy. The pursuit of “your truth,” is the self-obsessive territory of gurus and motivational speakers. 

There’s an important distinction which mustn’t be missed. While I am arguing that the truth is neither subjective nor relative, that doesn’t mean that we all have to agree on what the truth is. In fact, it’s necessary that humans be free to think and speak and follow their conscience and reason wherever it leads them in order that we may all edge ever closer, however incrementally, to some idea of the truth (with many smashed idols and once firmly-held dogmas left by the roadside.) This will necessary mean disagreements on the nature of everything; disagreements about the truth of things. These disagreements are fundamental and crucial in order to foster inquiry, debate, experimentation. But even though we all may disagree radically on what the truth is at any given time or how to discover it, it’s necessary to agree that the truth is something that exists and is objective in order to get closer to figuring it out through collaborative intellectual enterprise. 

The Catholic, the atheist, and the Muslim may all disagree on the nature of truth. But if they can agree on the existence of the truth, they may actually have a fruitful discussion about the what it might be. However, if they each agree to the equal validity of their own respective and contradictory truths, impermeable and unquestionable, what room is left for debate or inquiry? They each go their own way. It’s also important to note that the pursuit of “the truth” is by it’s nature endless and inconclusive. This is one of the foundations of scientific and liberal thought: that nobody has the final say and everything must necessarily remain open to discussion and criticism because humans are fallible and there’s always more to be learned. The opposite is dogma and infallibility: “the gospel” rather than the truth, or the “revealed” truth rather than the one sought by science and reason. It is the end of discussion. “My truth” is a more individualistic way of saying “I’ve already got it figured out.” 
On a more practical and literary level, “my truth,” like “problematic” suffers from being imprecise, vague, even dishonest. When most people say “my truth,” they really mean “my story” or “my version of events.” But by declaring it “my truth,” they seek to preemptively wall it off from criticism or analysis, in an even more uncompromising way than “problematic” seeks to make the subjective appear objective. 

This isn’t to say that subjective opinions or experiences aren’t important, but rather that in order to thrive and succeed they need to be presented honestly as such, not as foregone conclusions or gospel. This understandably isn’t a welcome thought for the many people who don’t want to subject their thoughts and ideas to criticism or have to defend them. Much easier instead to take the shortcut of declaring or even just suggesting that your opinion should be beyond debate. Yet in order for what begins as an opinion to achieve the status of fact or accepted wisdom (at least until something even closer to the truth knocks it off its perch,) it is necessary that it withstand the buffets and blows of criticism, skepticism, and open inquiry. 

Both “problematic” and “my truth” can be shortcuts, ways to avoid the heavy lifting of argument, evidence, and persuasion that gives the best ideas their strength. A careful mind and an honest writer should avoid them and favor instead words that express their clearest thoughts and meanings - and probably for good measure words that aren’t quite so trendy in general. 

As for the third phrase on my list, both it and what it describes have never sounded right to me. 

Update: I woke up this morning realizing that one correct response to a statement like "I found the film problematic," would be "what problems do you think it causes?" This returns to the original meaning of the world and encourages the first speaker to elaborate and be more specific. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Temple of Oscar Wilde


The other night I attended the opening of McDermott & McGough’s Temple of Oscar Wilde at the Church in the Village. The installation is the realization of an idea the artists first had twenty five years ago and have spent the past few years building. 

The temple is a Catholic-style chapel, its centerpiece a four-foot carved wood sculpture of Wilde at the height of his velvet-clad long-haired fame. At the base of the statue’s plynth is a soapbox pulpit bearing a label for “fairy” brand soap. On the walls of the chapel are paintings of Wilde’s own stations of the cross, each with gilt-painted haloes and details like quatrocento icons. The scenes include Wilde’s arrest, the auction of his belongings, the cutting of his hair, and his time in Reading Gaol, among other things. 

In addition to this the chapel has a guest book, a section of line portraits of LGBT martyrs including Harvey Milk and Alan Turing, a candle-lit collection stand for homeless LGBT youth, and a book of remembrance in which guests can write the names of those who died of aids. Same-sex weddings will also be held in the temple. 

To portray Wilde as a gay icon, saint, and martyr is not uncommon. His arrest, downfall, and ignominy, coming at the end of the 19th century, set the tone for the particular style of homophobia that would dominate the 20th. Despite being a six-foot-plus bruiser of a man, Wilde’s fashion sense, delicacy of taste, refined sensibilities, and sharp wit would come to define the queer male archetype in the public consciousness, recast as vanity, effeminacy, flamboyance, and camp. 

The irony of placing Wilde at the center of a chapel isn’t lost. It was the doctrine of the Church of England, informing the law of the state regarding sexual relations, that lay at the heart of Wilde’s persecution. Wilde himself converted to Catholicism on his death bed, having always been fascinated by and attracted to the church’s iconography, sumptuousness, and sensuality, and seeing in that church’s bloody image of Christ the sufferer something of his own crucifixion. Of course, perhaps no church has burned more gay men than the Roman one while at the same time indulging in the hypocrisy of “hate the sin love the sinner,” a deeply closeted clergy, highly homoerotic imagery like the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, and of course, the unforgivable decades (centuries?) of the rape of children by those tasked with their spiritual health. 

Its perhaps the installation’s emphasis on young people that gives it its most power, as well as its inclusion of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender martyrs - as well as people of color - in its pantheon. In the past Wilde was chiefly a symbol for gay white men, but McDermott & McGough’s version of the deity is a more inclusive one. I hope that young people of all sexualities and backgrounds will gain an appreciation for Wilde’s importance and meaning by visiting the temple. 

That legacy is one not just of gay rights, but of a profound capacity for love and compassion. Wilde was “Christian” in the most generous sense of the word, capable of great understanding and empathy in a way that the chauvinistic and patriarchal christianity of the Victorian empire could only pretend to be. His deep personal knowledge and experience of suffering informed his own personal theology, and he was almost miraculously able to take from his own ordeal a greater sense of love and forgiveness. Its a nearly superhuman feat, one which organized religion stumbles over on a large scale. It is personal and generous, and it demands no superstition or obeisance to authority - its mandate is a deep love for and patience with humanity and reverence for its ability to improve. 

If only there could be more altars to secular heroes and people of great spirit like Wilde - monuments stripped of medievalism and consecrated to the humanistic spirit. We have McDermott & McGough to thank for this one. 

I’ll end with two Wilde-related poems. The first, “Narcissus” by John Betjeman, always has me weeping halfway through, mainly because it so heartbreakingly shows how the short-sightedness, hang-ups, and prejudices of adults are inflicted upon the innocence of childhood. 

Narcissus

Yes, it was Bedford Park the vision came from - 
de Morgan lustre glowing round the hearth,
And that sweet flower which self-love takes its name from
Nodding among the lilies in the garth,
And Arnold Dolmetsch touching the spinet,
And Mother, Chiswick’s earliest suffragette.

I was a delicate boy - my parents’ only - 
And highly strung. My father was in trade. 
And how I loved, when Mother left me lonely,
To watch old Martha spice the marmalade,
Or help with flower arrangements in the lobby
Before I went to find my playmate Bobby.

We’d go for walks, we bosom boyfriends would
(For Bobby’s watching sisters drove us mad),
And when we just did nothing we were good,
But when we touched each other we were bad.
I found this out when Mother said one day
She thought we were unwholesome in our play.

So Bobby and I were parted. Bobby dear,
I didn’t want my tea. I heard your sisters
Playing at hide-and-seek with you quite near
As off the garden gate I picked the blisters.
Oh tell me, Mother, what I mustn’t do - 
Then, Bobby, I can play again with you.

For I know hide-and-seek’s most secret places
More than your sisters do. And you and I
Can scramble into them and leave no traces,
Nothing above us but the twigs and sky,
Nothing below us but the leaf-mould chilly
Where we can warm and hug each other silly.

My Mother wouldn’t tell me why she hated
The things we did, and why they pained her so.
She said a fate far worse than death awaited
People who did the things we didn’t know,
And then she said I was her precious child,
And once there was a man called Oscar Wilde.

‘Open your story book and find a tale
Of ladyes fayre and deeds of derring-do,
Of good Sir Gawaine and the Holy Grail,
Mother will read her boy a page or two
Before she goes, this Women’s Suffrage Week,
To hear that clever Mrs Pankhurst Speak.

Sleep with your hands above your head. That’s right - 
And let no evil thoughts pollute the dark.’
She rose, and lowered the incandescent light.
I heard her footsteps die down Bedford Park.
Mother where are you? Bobby, Bobby, where?
I clung for safety to my teddy bear.

The second poem is A.E. Housman’s “Oh Who is that Young Sinner,” a well-known piece written after Wilde’s arrest but not released until after Housman’s death. Like most of Housman, it has a  countryside sing-song economy that bears a deceptively heavy message. 

Oh Who Is That Young Sinner

Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

'Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time 'twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

Oh a deal of pains he's taken and a pretty price he's paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they've pulled the beggar's hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they're haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.

Now 'tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare

He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Glenn O'Brien: King Cool

This post, our memorial to Glenn O'Brien, appears on Rose's "Dandy Portraits" blog also.

Try writing about Glenn O’Brien without using the word “cool.” Might as well describe the ocean without mentioning water. Glenn was so unassailably, impeccably, motherfuckingly cool you’d glance at the thermostat when he walked in the room. Glenn’s coolness was cosmopolitan and manifold, like the renaissance-man portfolio of jobs he juggled throughout life. He was all kinds of cool: stylish cool, cultured cool, witty cool, and just plain laid-back breezy cool. If someone were to say “don’t lose your cool,” they could just as well have said “be more like Glenn O’Brien.”

Glenn’s coolness seemed innate – one could no more imagine him getting ruffled or flustered than picture him running to catch a bus. He’d wait for the next one, no sweat. Or hail a cab. Or hitch a ride. Or steal a bicycle. Whatever way, it’d be cool.

Speaking of Glenn & transport, one of the coolest things I can recall involves Glenn and a Metrocard. Glenn wrote the introduction to my and Rose’s first book “I am Dandy.” The artist Peter McGough had put us in touch with him. Glenn was skeptical of the project at first, but he liked Rose’s photos and – much to my delight – my writing, so he agreed. He also put us in touch with Bergdorf Goodman, who ended up hosting our launch party. Glenn only showed up at the very start and only for a few minutes. There are only a couple of photos of him there, one of him gamely standing next to your truly, the beaming young author. In his left hand are both a champagne glass and a Metrocard.

Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com
It’s just the kind of too-perfect detail that handily affirms Glenn’s reputation as a man at home in the high and the low. Was he really just on his way out and thought it prudent to whip out his train fare before taking the elevator downstairs and walking two whole blocks to the station? Or had he just arrived and absent-mindedly neglected to put it away? Had he forgotten his wallet?
Or was it a deliberate move? I wouldn’t put it past Glenn. Perhaps a code – a subliminal signal – to the other partygoers that he couldn’t stay long: just the sort of social trigger Glenn would have noticed when nobody else had. Or could it be a clever accessory to confirm his outsider-insider aura, casually holding a proletarian artifact while surrounded by unabashed luxury, a reverse of Evelyn Waugh walking a mile to mail a letter from a fancier post code.

Glenn was in some ways like a character from one of those earlier Waugh satires. I don’t know if Tom Wolfe had much contact with Glenn, but I imagine he might have been jealous to see realized in flesh the sort of city society character he sometimes struggled to invent. Better still, the phrase “too cool for school,” didn’t apply to Glenn because he was such a valiant opponent of ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and pretense.

To a young writer with broad cosmopolitan tastes and interests, Glenn was an inspiration and refutation of the vogue for specialization. Interviewing him was daunting – as with masturbation you always got the sense the chap could have just done it better himself. Still, he smiled and thanked you when it was over. And that smile! Glenn could always deliver a devastatingly handsome look to camera with his beaming double-barreled blues sitting above his notorious cheekbones, but when he smiled the eternal teenager shone forth. Here was Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain in whole.

For a young man, Glenn’s patented aphorism-laden brand of laid-back masculinity was a breath of fresh air: unapologetic yet unburdened with musk and machismo. Glenn was a cool dude in Chuck Taylors or bespoke brogues, a t-shirt or a tuxedo, a beard or bare-faced. In the same way he was always implausibly plausible as both elder sage and puckish rapscallion. He even made a couple of passing remarks that suggested he didn’t think I was such a bad dresser, either, which is a bit like the Pope saying “Hey, nice miter.”

Whenever I saw Glenn at an event and said hello there was always a moment or two when I was struck by the fear that he didn’t recognize me. I’d feel nervous, prepared for the embarrassment accompanied by his unreadable poker-faced gaze. Then he’d always do something like turn to the person next to him – the sort of person who thinks being cool does mean not remembering young writers’ names – and say “This is Natty. He wrote a great book about dandies.”

If there were a heaven, St. Peter wouldn’t even need to check the guest list. Every bouncer knows Glenn’s invited to the party. And in the unfortunate event of Glenn’s sins tipping the scales in the other direction, hell would surely soon freeze over from all that cool.



Photographs were taken by Rose Callahan at Glenn's home in New York City on June 25, 2013


Saturday, December 17, 2016

Books by Friends

As excited as I am by the recent publication of my own book, I'm equally stoked that several of my good friends have books out this season, all of which should be read by you and your loved ones. They are, in no particular order:

Searching for John Hughes, by Jason Diamond
I grew up in Manhattan and the movies of John Hughes were farther away from my experience than Kids, but Jason's memoir is relatable, moving, and enjoyable for its wit and emotion without the necessary pop culture sympathies. 

Hot Sauce Nation, by Denver Nicks
Denver's cross-country survey of hot sauce covers history, science, and personal stories with brilliant prose. 

Stuffed Animals, by Divya Anantharaman and Katie Innamorato
My friend Divya makes incredible art from dead organisms and with her new book, you can too!

Atlas Obscura, by Ella Morton, Joshua Foer, and Dylan Thuras
Atlas Obscura is one of the best sites on the internet, chronicling the most interesting places and things in the world. Ella's labor of love is a masterpiece that should be read for decades to come, if not centuries. 

The Good Immigrant, by Coco Khan and others
I'm still waiting for this one to arrive in the mail, but it's been making waves in the UK, with Coco's essay garnering particular critical acclaim.

Amberlough, by Laura Elena Donnely
This one's not out yet, but you should pre-order it. Lara's fantasy-espionage novel, set in a kind of Weimar dystopia, is a work of unique vision and lush prose. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

We Are Dandy is here!

Dear Readers,

The moment is finally upon us to celebrate “We Are Dandy,” our second survey on international dandyism, this time adding two continents and ten countries to this mighty project. As the world seems increasingly fractious and unmoored, eminent photographer Rose Callahan and I are pleased to report that dandyism not only perseveres but does indeed flourish, even in unlikely and infertile soils.

We spent several months canvassing North America, Europe, Japan, and South Africa for elegant gentlemen, and found ourselves saddled with a surfeit of rakish toffs and sporty knaves all eager to preen and proclaim for our camera and pen. We also somehow managed to convince elegant icon and legendary smokeshow Dita von Teese to write the book’s preface.

I’ll take this opportunity to share a couple of my favorites with you, but I urge you to purchase the book when it goes on sale in the US very soon, ideally from our publisher Gestalten or at your local bookstore. (Although you could also have some company send it to your door via flying robot, I hear.)

Ever yours,
Nathaniel “Natty” Adams


This is the cover, featuring Tokyo's dandy barber Yoshio Suyama

 George Skeggs, the dandy of Soho, London

 "Fresh" & Ntabiso Sojane in Johannesburg, South Africa

 Mark Haldeman and James Aguiar in Brooklyn, New York

 Baron Ambrosia in the Bronx, New York

 Poggy in Tokyo, Japan

 Makoto Iida in Tokyo, Japan

Loux the Vintage Guru and crew in Johannesburg, South Africa


Monday, June 13, 2016

On Islam and Orlando


Updated: See below

More than 50 civilians are dead and dozens more have been wounded in the worst mass shooting in modern American history. The perpetrator, a familiarly pious fanatic, targeted these men and women for the crimes of loving whom they please, expressing themselves, living freely, and enjoying their lives, because in his petty, pathetic, filthy, narrow-minded religion, these people are less than human and their rights as such are forfeit. This is not only because of their sexuality, but for their rejection of his particular brand of his faith.

There are some clear failures on the part of our security. This man was investigated twice by the FBI but still had a security guard license and was still able to get an AR-15 assault rifle and other firearms legally in the county where he committed the crime. This is a scandal. It’s obvious that we need stronger gun control in this country. And perhaps the murderer was mentally ill, and we do need strong services for the mentally ill. But it is suicidal madness to ignore the deeply-held religious beliefs of the killer as the main motive for this attack.

I brace myself for the all-too-familiar bile drip I feel after these events when people inevitably swear this has nothing to do with religion or ideology, and instead seek to blame anything else - usually American foreign policy or Western institutions or even feelings of marginalization among Muslims in the West - for the murder of dozens of gay men and women by a devout religious ideologue. Instead we are all too often told that it is in fact the religious who deserve protection from our criticisms, our cartoons, our words.

The global enemy’s targets include novelists, artists, journalists, bloggers, cartoonists, filmmakers, secularists, Jews, Christians, Baha’is, Yazidis, Kurds, gays, women, human rights lawyers, progressive politicians, even the wrong kind of Muslims. What will it take for liberals around the world to unite against such a naked and self-declared threat to the institutions of democracy, pluralism, free expression, and liberty that we know to be necessary to a fair and functioning society? What will it take to even have an honest examination of the belief systems espoused by the killers? When will we stop playing nice with the medieval and prehistoric dogmas which lead grown men to murder, rape, enslave, and indoctrinate their own children in hatred?

I’ve already a few articles of the kind which always pop up after these events when they occur in non-Muslim majority countries: “Muslims fear backlash.” This seems to occur whether the attacks were in New York, Bali, Boston, Madrid, London (during the bombings, beheading of drummer Rigby, and recent stabbing,) Paris (after Charlie Hebdo and November,) Ottowa, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Glasgow, Kampala, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Cologne, Toulouse, Dijon, Lyon, Chattanooga, Berlin, and Brussels (both the Jewish Museum attack and the recent airport attack.) I include this extensive a list so people don’t forget how widespread the problem is. This obviously doesn’t include the mayhem, slaughter, and oppression being carried out in the name of Islam across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. I’m not sure what the exact nature of this greatly-feared “backlash” might be, but so far it seems to mainly be a rhetorical one. It’s true that anti-Muslim rhetoric is something to be worried about (and something to recognize as different from criticism of both Islam and Islamism,) and there are always reports of spikes in anti-Muslim hate crimes - often vandalism and some assaults - after episodes of Islamic terror, but pogroms against Muslims have not broken out in the capitols of the Western world, and - Donald Trump notwithstanding - most politicians go well out of their way to stress that not all Muslims are terrorists (as if anyone deserving of being taken seriously has ever claimed that they are.) Muslims are well within their right and reason to be worried about their frightened neighbors’ reactive attitudes toward them when a member of their faith commits an atrocity while invoking Islamic teachings. But I always can’t help but being insulted by the implicit suggestion that the vast majority of citizens of liberal democracies around the world are violent bigots foaming at the mouth to kill muslims given the slightest excuse. If that didn’t happen after 9/11 it won’t happen now. The reaction of most of our fellow citizens has almost invariably been support, outreach, and concern. No embassies have been burned, no hostages have been taken, and no citizens have been set upon by baying lynch mobs. After all, its not like someone drew a cartoon or something.

In global terms Islam is not an oppressed minority religion. There are approximately a billion and a half Muslims worldwide. There are more than two dozen majority Muslim countries with immense power as a voting bloc in the UN (they do, significantly, repeatedly object to any gay rights declarations or legislation.) Muslims living in the West are generally afforded more freedom to practice their religion as they personally see fit than they would be in many officially Islamic countries which seek to regulate and police the faith of their citizens. And nobody is more oppressed by Islamic fundamentalism than Muslims around the world. It shouldn’t be wrong to ask that members of a faith take the lead in getting their own house in order. Indeed, one would think that a far more courteous and kind proposition than offering to do it for them. There should be no shame in insisting that people take an unequivocal stand not just against terrorism (that’s the absolute least they could do,) but against the most outdated and intolerant dogmas and doctrines in their religions - the elements which have no place in a modern society. If coexistence is our goal then honest and open reform shouldn’t be too much to ask in its pursuit. Yet thousands of young Muslims flock to the most unimaginably horrific terror groups around the world while comparatively few seem to be interested in - for example - taking up arms in foreign lands to defend their faith from the extremists whom we are repeatedly told have hijacked something great and good. Instead they insist that “Islamophobia” is a more pressing concern than the droves of their co-religionists seduced by their faith’s most backward, stupid, and outmoded tenets. Reflexively shouting “not all Muslims,” is about as helpful as those who yell “not all men” when confronted with issues of the rape or sexual assault of women. Of course not all of them - but who bears some of the responsibility of preventing this from continuing to happen? Who is in the best position to fight this evil?

Barney Frank, the openly gay former Representative from Massachussetts has no illusions about all of this and generally agrees with my assessment: “There is an Islamic element here. Yes, the overwhelming majority of Muslims don’t do this, but there is clearly, sadly, an element in the interpretation of Islam that has some currency, some interpretation in the Middle East that encourages killing people — and L.G.B.T. people are on that list. And I think it is fair to ask leaders of the Islamic community, religious and otherwise, to spend some time combatting this.’’

Religious fundamentalism - currently most virulent and dangerous worldwide in its Islamic form - is and always has been the enemy of progress and a poor substitute for an informed and reason-based humanistic moral system (when it hasn’t been hostile to such an idea outright.) Religious freedom needs to be protected and defended, but religious beliefs do not, and - especially when they conflict with human decency, peace, and freedom - should be criticized, debated, mocked, satirized, and ridiculed. Whatever warm and fuzzy feelings of personal communion with the godhead or sense of belonging to an in-group or community of the chosen faithful or appeals to charity that religions may provide simply do not outweigh the division, suffering, violence, intolerance, hatred, exclusion, and oppression preached by almost all of their foundational texts and practiced by all too many of their adherents.

In this case, one of the first people to say “this had nothing to do with religion” was the killer’s father. He also said “I don’t know what caused this. I did not know and did not understand that he has anger in his heart.” It would seem that he did in fact know what caused this and that it does in fact have something to do with religion: in the same interview he said “only God can punish homosexuality. This is not an issue for humans to punish.” In a Facebook video he published after the attack, he reiterated: “God will punish those involved in homosexuality," saying it's, "not an issue that humans should deal with."

Human kind has little hope so long as we remain too afraid to question and ultimately outgrow these ancient and wicked beliefs, rooted in superstitious nonsense. Anybody who cares about liberal and progressive values should be firmly on the side of secularism and against religious fundamentalism no matter what religion it happens to be. The international left should revisit its anticlerical roots and extend the same degree of criticism and antagonism to the conservative Islamic right as it does to its Christian counterpart. We can and should rail against the bigoted, homophobic and transphobic American demagogues who want to stop gay and trans people from getting married and using whatever bathrooms they choose, but we should never lose sight of the countless ones in positions of power and influence across the Muslim world who openly want to stop them from breathing. When a Christian fundamentalist attacks an abortion clinic, a chorus doesn’t bleat out “this has nothing to do with his religion.” And yet…

Update: It seems - surprise, surprise - that the murderer may have been a closeted homosexual himself, having visited the club and possibly several others, maybe having asked out a male friend once, and having profiles on several gay dating apps. He was also said to have drunk heavily at the club, something forbidden in Islam. Far from shifting the motive away from religion, this kind of behavior only speaks to the kind of psychological torture religion can impose on people whose identities conflict with the teaching of their faith. Far be it from me to pity a killer, any more than I pity the Catholic priests who rape children. But I can't help but think if it weren't for religion's twisted relationship to human sexuality and the proscriptions and regulations of sexual relationships found in nearly all major religions, we'd see a lot less of this kind of thing. Religion is, historically speaking, the single greatest enemy of sexual liberation and homosexuality in particular. Nothing has persecuted, demonized, or tormented gay men and women than religion and religious institutions.