Gay Per Saying: Penguin, Iceman, and Queer Discovery

A few months back, I went on a little bit of a Twitter rant about the monoculture that’s grown up around what a gay narrative is. At the time, I was railing against Robin Lord Taylor’s assertion that his Penguin wasn’t “gay per se” because the character didn’t recognize a gay sexual attraction until his late twenties.

Twitter was enough spleen venting for me at the time, but recent responses to the new Iceman comic over at Marvel have brought the whole thing bubbling back up for me. In a turn which should surprise no one, the usual suspects are railing against the notion that an adult Bobby Drake is “suddenly” gay. Because it’s the usual suspects, I want to bat them aside and ignore them, but I keep coming back to Robin Lord Taylor, a gay man, supporting a very similar narrative about queerness:

Honestly, I feel that part of the reason why I don’t like to say that Oswald is gay per se in the sense that I’m a gay man, I’ve known I was gay my entire life, and for someone at the age of 28, 29, or however old he is to just suddenly question his sexualization wasn’t something I totally understood.

The “gay per se” is fine, because despite hard lines drawn in conservative social settings, there’s plenty of sexuality that falls between homosexual and heterosexual. If The Penguin acted to reverse erasure for bisexuality, pansexuality, demi-sexuality, sapiosexuality, all of that would be wonderful. That, however, isn’t where Taylor’s coming from.

No, Penguin isn’t “gay per se” because, ostensibly, the character hasn’t experienced this kind of attraction in his youth, like Robin Lord Taylor and many other gay people do.

That? Is a problem.

The Closet Isn’t the Only Room In My House

The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t much of a sexual being at all until my late 20s. When I started feeling sexual attraction, it was toward men. What the majority of people hear when I tell them that is that I was in the closet until my late 20s, but that’s not accurate. It’s the easiest story for them to tell, however, because that’s the one they always hear. A large swath of queer people will tell you that they always knew. I can’t count the number of gay men who tell some variation on, “When I was six I saw the neighbor with his shirt off and it was all over for me.”

It’s a prevalent story. It’s a valid story. It’s an important story, the closet, because we need to acknowledge the pain and despair of people who know who they are but choose to hide that because of societal pressures and fears, who may never come out, or who make tragic choices to escape lives of repression. I don’t want to minimize that narrative in any way. I just want to make the point that it’s not the only one.

When I say I wasn’t attracted to men until my late 20s, that’s not a euphemism. I don’t mean that I wasn’t comfortable approaching men until my late 20s, or that that I was afraid to acknowledge my attraction to men until my late 20s. I mean exactly what I’m saying: my queerness wasn’t a tangible part of me until then. The only thing shut behind my closet door was my winter coat.

Some Doors Are Riskier to Open

I get it, I really do. A large part of the queer rights movement is predicated on the notion Gaga anthemed: we do not choose queerness, but are born this way. The logic follows, then, that if queerness is inborn, it should also always be there, right? Drooling over a TV idol shortly after being able to form complete sentences is primal reinforcement of that. Beards and girlfriends from Canada allow for late-stage gay reveals without robbing people of the core reality of their sexuality.

Saying that people may not discover a queer identity until later in life risks opening a door. If queerness can appear late in life, then the same logic as above can insist that queerness may be quashed at a later point, as well. Enter torturous “conversion therapy” and other such nonsense.

Tract Housing Isn’t the Only Kind

If people were robots, I might agree with the logic of the above constructions. If who we are happened to be nothing more than a string of indelible code with predictable responses, then sure, everyone’s queerness would express the same way, at the same time, and follow the same patterns.

I don’t subscribe to that. I’m a gay man. I’m queer. My queerness is a part of me. The fact that I didn’t discover it, that it didn’t let itself be known to me until later in life, doesn’t make it less integral to who I am or less innate a part of me.

It doesn’t fit the more commonly expressed narrative, and by doing so it makes the wider arguments about that narrative trickier to navigate, but that doesn’t make my narrative any less real or deserving to be told.

I’m Out of Housing Metaphors: Fuck Structural Restriction, Anyway

It comes down to this: sometimes it just takes a neighbor washing his car or a ring of keys to make a person’s identity clear. Sometimes it takes encountering the time-displaced, alternate younger version of your mutant super-hero self. The thing that makes stories different and unique is that people are different and unique. So down with the universal closet and monoculture, and up and outward with queer narratives that celebrate their own variety over homogeneity. That’s half the point of diversity, of decolonization, of intersectionality: if you think you know how “these stories” go, you just haven’t read enough of them yet.

A Drop of Gay Goes Further, Apparently

I went on a bit of a Twitter rant the other day about Mass Effect: Adromeda and gay male romance. Not about the restricted choices, since I realize that isn’t new. I’d already read a bunch of the romance guides and seen that, if I wanted to have me some boys macking on each other, I’d have a narrow range of options.

But since I’d read those guides, which all said basically the same thing, I felt okay with the restrictions. Both of the male options for a male Ryder were, I kept reading, casual romance hookups that you could choose to commit to or not. So, hey, I could sample the wares for maximum boy kisses.

(I see you judging me. Look, if you can run around crunching numbers to optimize your combat prowess, the least you can do is let me optimize my sexytime prowess, too.)

I tried to stick to the bare bones info on the romances: where to find them, how to make sure you didn’t accidentally shut them down. I steered clear of full video walkthroughs because it’s no fun if you know how the first date’s already gonna go, right?

For exactly that reason, I should also probably pause here and say: romance spoilers for several characters in ME:A, especially Gil and Reyes.

Okay. You’ve been warned.

So I jumped on in. Spent entirely too long making sure my male Ryder looked like he could charm a few pants off (side note: some day a character creator won’t woefully disappoint me with its facial hair options). Flirted all over the place. As expected, most of the male characters politely brushed me off, but, you know, don’t put a heart icon conversation option on the dialogue wheel if you don’t want me to at least give it the old college try.

The first guy who returned my interest was, as the guides had told me, engineer Gil. And he’s a fun flirt. Nothing much was happening beyond that, but I was assured by every list out there that Gil had a “casual romance” option on offer.

Then I started flirting with the other MM available option, Reyes, who was also receptive, but unlike Gil, we went out, got drunk, made out, and then got a nice slow pan away from us that I could easily fill in with the story of how we had ourselves a thoroughly good time in other ways, as well.

But, dude, Gil was still just flirting. And I’d been flirting with him for so long. When did his face sucking option show up? I broke down and went looking for a video walkthrough. Then I went looking for another, because that couldn’t be right. And another. Then I did some creative swearing.

Here’s why: after flirting with Gil at every opportunity, there comes a point where Gil asks Ryder to meet his best friend. Right before Ryder meets her, Gil asks if they’re just friends, or if Ryder is “his guy.” At this point, friends, Ryder hasn’t even kissed Gil. I know that because at this “so are we dating or not?” juncture, male Ryder gets the option to say exactly that: woah, dude, we haven’t even kissed, what are you talking about?

If you take that option, Ryder can get a kiss. Then, you decide if you’re together forever or not. And that, dear hearts, is what constitutes Gil’s “casual romance.”

headdesk

To be clear, this isn’t especially about Bioware’s choices in this case. What leaves me so red faced is how every damn site is totally on board with classifying this (*flails at monitor and scowls*) as a casual romance.

You could try to argue with me that flirting constitutes casual, but here’s the thing: remember, above, how everyone offered me at least one flirt option? If flirting = casual romance, then all those other NPCs are also casual romances for a male Ryder: the straight men and gay women are only casual, the rest are casual you can commit to.

Except that isn’t the case. Every guide or walkthrough has no problem taking the straight male and gay female NPCs out of the list of options for a male Ryder, and vice versa. And so long as one of the people in the pair is a woman, no one writing these things is confused about the fact that, if I can’t do more than flirt and maybe steal a kiss before being faced with deciding the fate of a relationship, then your romantic partner isn’t any kind of casual.

Yet when the participants are two men, stray innuendo is somehow of a piece with zero G sex with an alien woman.

Is it the romantic equivalent of people perceiving gender parity when a group is only 30% female? Certainly it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been told there were gay characters all over the place in my entertainment media when they’re still in most cases a single instance (or pair) in a much larger cast.

Then, too, for reasons I can never wrap my head around, the barest suggestion of MM romantic interaction seems to equate to sex in the minds of some people. It’s the reason kids’ books where two men kiss wind up the subject of protests. We can see men and women, or maybe even two women, kissing without “going there,” but if this recent experience is any any indication, apparently the barest suggestion that two men might be into each other somehow releases a flood of every homosexual act ever in the memory centers of the human mind.

Which: do better, people.

Not Really That Much Stranger

My better half and I binged our way through new Netflix series Stranger Things last weekend, and I’ve been chewing on it ever since. On its face, the show — a sci-fi suspense period piece set in suburban Indiana in the 80’s — is kind of custom-made to hit a metric trailerful of my geek-nostalgia buttons.

Spoiler warning here, since I can’t talk about some of my strongest responses without them. You’ve been warned.

So, on that surface level I referenced above, the show delivers. The Duffer Brothers and their cast and crew do an amazing job of re-creating 80’s sci suspense. Hairstyles and clothes are spot-on 80’s Hollywood without being over-the-top The Wedding Singer riffs, but that’s kind of the least of it. The recreation here is much more immersive, including a synth-y soundtrack reminiscent of a Carpenter film and title credits that call back to basically every 80’s movie based on a Stephen King book ever.

Unfortunately, it’s such a good recreation of an 80’s sci suspense flick that I had a hard time seeing what this brought to the table that all its predecessors hadn’t done already. Movie posters for Jaws and Evil Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing remind us that there was a time when what Stranger Things is doing was innovative.

That time isn’t now, though. While my own eternal weakness to jump scares holds true, most of the twists of plot and nearly all of the character arcs feel staid and well-worn. Of course Finn Wolfhard’s Mike and Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven will develop a crush on each other. Of course maternal instinct will drive Winona Rider’s Joyce to face horrors for the sake of her son.

There are a rare few moments that stand out as bucking the trend. When Charlie Heaton’s loner teen Jonathan and Natalia Dyer’s popular Nancy decide to face down a monster, it’s Nancy, with no experience, who turns out to be a natural with a gun. For once, too, the third point of a teen love triangle (Joe Keery’s Steve) manages not to be a total garbage fire of a human being.1 And on the visual front, there’s a really fun inversion of the E.T. flying bicycle moment that I literally applauded.

Sadly most of these happen both very late in the season and are isolated in general. Much more likely, and in several cases frustratingly, the show doesn’t seem to have any real interest in more than pushing the verisimilitude of its 80’s Hollywood-ness. One of the reasons this reads as such an amazing recreation of an 80’s flick, for example, is how very White, Male, and Straight it winds up being.

The women in this show are intriguing, but by and large they aren’t capable of doing anything until the men in their lives empower them.2 Joyce knows her son is alive, and even creates a way to communicate with him across dimensions, but she can’t do anything about it until David Harbour’s Sheriff Hopper decides she isn’t crazy. Similarly, it takes Jonathan to empower Nancy to go out monster hunting. There’s an almost palpable theme here wherein nothing is real until a Dude believes it is.

Hell, Eleven — who has actual kickass super-powers — almost never uses them save at the behest (or imminent danger to) the trio of boys she falls in with early in the series.

There’s an even smaller ethnic minority presence than there is a female one, largely represented by Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas, who at least seems to do as admirable a job as his young peers. There’s probably an argument to be made about why he of all the characters has to be the constant voice of dissent, but Lucas at least has a measure of agency, though mileage on that may vary.

Perhaps I’m simply more forgiving because Lucas (1) exists and (2) isn’t called out by slurs. Which is the exact opposite of the show’s treatment of LGBT and the 80’s. I went on a bit about this on a Twitter thread already, but the long and short of it is: while the show tosses “you’re a queer” around as the ultimate insult (indeed, in two separate cases people come to blows over the insinuation they might be “a queer”), there’s no evidence that anyone is actually queer. The creators get the benefit of claiming they’re accurately recreating attitudes of the time without bothering to actually deal with the people most affected by those attitudes.

Daniel Reynolds over at The Advocate is much more willing to buy into a “coded queer” reading of the show than I am. I just think we’re well past the point where I should have to rely on coding. We aren’t working against an actual 80’s standards committee trying to get this work made.

In general, it all points to a lot of energy being spent on recreation and not much at all on reflection or examination. A lot of these elements would get little more than an eye roll from me in a film produced in the 1980’s. Whatever its setting, though, Stranger Things was produced by people who have a lot more distance with which to recognize that era’s cultural baggage and a lot fewer barriers to inclusivity.

This all comes back to what I think is a central weakness of the show. Stranger Things peppers its background with movie posters for Jaws and Evil Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing. And the influence of these movies (and more) are similarly plastered all over the film-making. I can’t tell you how many times I got a nostalgic thrill recognizing a riff on a sequence from E.T. or Alien or Firestarter or Carrie or several other movies I’m sure I’m missing.

Unfortunately, while the creators show a seemingly exhaustive love of the innovative films which form the series’ inspirational sources, they aren’t bringing much of anything new to the table themselves. That may ultimately be all that most of its fans want, mind you. Surely there’s a piece of me that responds to a lot of it. But, like “The Upside Down” that plays a pivotal role in the show, I can’t help but also see the dangers of the wider, other world the show leaves unacknowledged.

1. This Variety interview suggests Steve’s better qualities may have less to do with purposeful subversion and more to do with directors enjoying an actor, but the end result is nonetheless refreshing.

2. Hat tip to Adam Michael Sass over on the The Geeks OUT blog for hitting this particular nail on the head: “No woman can save the day until a man believes her.”

Missing by a Hair’s Breadth

I’ve started to hear a lot of applause for Bernie Sanders’ “no nonsense” response to a question about Hillary Clinton’s hair coverage by the media:

When the media worries about what Hillary’s hair looks like or what my hair looks like, that’s a real problem. We have millions of people who are struggling to keep their heads above water, who want to know what candidates can do to improve their lives, and the media will very often spend more time worrying about hair than the fact that we’re the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people.

It looks good on its face, I suppose: Sanders is, in general, running on a platform that he’s not putting up with the media circus because there are stakes which deserve better than spin and calculation about the best news cycle. “Hair questions” are silly.

The big problem here is that I think someone who thinks that way ought to have more than enough insight to realize “Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?” isn’t about hair. The media focus on female candidates’ appearance is the least painful symptom, surely, but nevertheless a symptom of gender inequality.

This was, then, a prime opportunity for Sanders to discuss the way women’s health is a political football or the pay gap between men and women (and, for extra intersectionality, the even larger gap for women of color).

Yes, Sanders mentions both financial distress and health care in his dismissal of the question, but because he flatly ignores the gender element (even after the interviewer explicitly says this is about gender) the whole thing winds up taking the unfortunate tone of some kind of #AllLivesMatter tweet.

Then again, in the same interview, Sanders expresses his surprise at having Black Lives Matter activists interrupt an event that was to feature him, pointing to his record on civil rights. Said record is good. I’m not trying to impugn anyone’s efforts here.

I am saying, though, that maybe the reason activists come at Sanders are the same reason a reporter who happens to be female thought she could ask him a not-particularly-coded question about gender inequality and he wouldn’t need it spelled out for him: because the people most likely to help, by signal boosting or allowing for their own errors or checking their privilege, are going to be those who’ve done so in the past.

And if we can’t get them to recognize the ongoing issues, how the hell can we expect to move the needle when it comes to those firmly entrenched in opposing rhetoric?

Blunt Weapons Don’t Have Points

Spoilers for the latest episode of Game of Thrones, just in case you need them.

I’ve not really said much about the HBO Game of Thrones so far for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve not read the books, which I don’t think is any kind of requirement for criticism so much as I think it speaks to my being a more casual fan. Second, those elements which I do find problematic are, largely, being critiqued by people far better at it than I am.

I’m not even sure I’m about to launch into a critique of GoT even now so much as I am this article Eric Deggans posted over at NPR. The title itself probably tells you most of what you need to know: “Do Critics Of Violence And Sex In HBO’s ‘Game Of Thrones’ Miss The Point?”

Also, this is your last spoiler warning.

It’s an especially messy op-ed piece not least of all because it conflates criticism of GoT’s growing-infamous tendency to have its female protagonists raped with a scene wherein a young girl is murdered by her father. Which, really, seem like incredibly different arguments to me.

Whether it’s too far to kill a child character more-or-less on camera (and / or arguing that it’s a step Stannis Baratheon would never take) is a very different thing than pointing out how often GoT goes to the Rape Well when they need Something Horrible to motivate their female protagonists. About the only thing they have in common is that they’re both criticisms of the show, and they both seem to be sticking points for an irrate fandom.

That’s not nearly enough for me to buy in that the same argument works for both situations. It’s a rhetorical tactic somewhere akin to adding anti-marriage amendments to a federal budget. I’m not letting you graft them together in an effort to strong arm my support.

So, the Baratheon child has nothing to do with this, okay? Leave the girl and her father in whatever horrific version of peace they can manage.

Now we’re left with just the one charge. And its defense, at least in the most recent case:

From my perspective, the journey of Sansa Stark’s character has been completely about seeing her romantic and unrealistic vision of her world hardened by adversity – including her father’s beheading, her own kidnapping, the murder of her mother and other family members, and her forced marriage to two different men, including the sadist who now tortures her regularly.

Is that the point I was supposed to be missing? Because I didn’t miss it. Not after the beheading, not during the murders or the kidnappings, not even with the forced marriages. It’s very hard to miss that point. It’s fairly obvious, honestly. I think, rather, that apologists and counter-arguments are more missing the point of the critics.

As Deggans’ own list shows us, Sansa’s journey thus far has been dour and horrific and traumatizing in all the ways this grimdark fantasy most enjoys, and no one screamed and hollered and said “but Sansa should live in a world of butterflies and pretty flowers!” This isn’t about life in this world being awful and ruinous for just about anyone who enters it. It’s about the fact that, for female characters, the writers seem to consistently shortcut everything by adding in rape scenes.

As I said above, I think others are in a better position and possessed of more eloquence than I in discussing a lot of the inherent sexism and triggering that rape scenes evoke. What I feel entirely qualified to say about such repetitive narrative shorthand, though, is this:

It. Is. Lazy.

This is a world with ice zombies and dragon queens. Where shadow babies murder wannabe kings and the seasons don’t play fair and predictable. I’m not asking for a utopia where only pleasant things happen. I’m asking that, if you’re going to go for this grimdark worldview, if you’re going to drag me through despair and horror, the least you can do is be more imaginative than “Our female character needs horrific hardship to overcome. I know: rape! Because that’s the thing about women, they get raped, right?”

Pointed enough?

Newsroom: If One Innocent Man…

The December 7 episode of The Newsroom was probably meant to have everyone talking about its shocking final scenes. While one or two sites seem to have bit on that score, they weren’t the thing I found most (or particularly) shocking. The event(s) seem to have become something of a trope in Sorkin’s series. I was, however, moved to a lot of conflicting brain jibbering by Don Keefer’s (Thomas Sadoski) subplot in the episode.

Spoilers ahead for anyone who’s avoiding that kind of thing.

The basic theme of scenes within ACN this week was, essentially, how Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) seems to have finally capitulated after the network’s recent sale. He pushes stories on everyone which, to a soul, they have issues with for reasons that boil down to variations on This Isn’t What News Is.

Don’s issue is with a story he’s been handed on a website created for giving women a safe, anonymous place to warn others about their attackers. The new network owner wants him to put the site’s creator, a rape victim (Sarah Sutherland), on air with one of the men she’s accused of rape via the website. Don’s not comfortable with the story. In typical Sorkin fashion, there’s a lot of Don half-saying why for a while, until he gets in a room with the college rape victim who built the website, where he encourages her not to participate in the show.

I’ll admit that the story certainly fits with the clear theme of this final season: that the Internet, by virtue of its lack of accreditation, is a troublesome source for anything resembling fairness or facts. It’s not like he pulled “the internet punishes people via mob mentality” out of thin air just for his campus rape story.

And it feels like there’s an effort being made not to turn rape victims into straw women. The arguments coming from Sutherland’s Mary are both strong and strongly acted. And while Don has plenty to say in response, I found it exceptionally telling just how quiet Sadoski plays his half of the back and forth. This argument, on just about any other topic, would usually have both parties similarly animated in their responses to one another.

I don’t know if it was Sadoski’s choice, or Paul Lieberstein’s (the director), but the stillness and lower volume of Keefer’s responses, the measured way he spoke, at least gave me the impression that people involved knew just how (justifiably) uncomfortable and possibly tenuous Don’s position was. This wasn’t Don as he usually is (as, honestly, many of these characters usually are), snapping back his rejoinders with an unshakable sense of his rightness.

All that said, whatever argument you put in a principal’s mouth has a tendency to automatically lend extra credence to that argument over any made by a guest star. When said principal’s argument is intertwined with a season-long case you’ve been making, it gets even stronger. When the final decision your principal makes falls in line with that argument at the “y’see, Timmy” moment in the episode… you get my point.

And that argument is, essentially, “A man might be falsely accused of rape via this website, and we’d be helping that happen if we brought you on our show.”

I get that this is about taking sensationalizing out of news. I get that it’s about not letting people like Nancy Grace call themselves journalists as they pronounce judgement on criminal suspects with little to no facts (or just ignoring facts altogether).

Still.

I just don’t know if this particular scenario is one that works. It is possible that some man some where might be accused of rape maliciously. But pretty much every statistic on this suggests that the opposite is true: men who rape are far more likely to get the benefit of the doubt that they just “misinterpreted signals.” That in matters of “he said, she said,” he said–especially Caucasian he said–holds extra weight just by virtue of not starting with that feminizing “s.” That a swath of rape victims continue to have their integrity called into question, and thus wind up double-victimized. That, as a result, another swath of rape victims never say a thing, because they’re trying to avoid having their lives ruined by the aspersions cast by their own attacker.

No, a website isn’t a court of law. But we’ve seen time and time again that the more likely response to exactly the scenario Sorkin posits (public naming of a rape suspect), especially on the Internet, is far more often to be a raging pile of flame war at best, and death threats at worst.

When women can’t even suggest that video games have a tendency toward objectifying women without receiving death threats, and when those threats are, like accusations of rape, dismissed as attempts to vilify men, I just have a really hard time listening to an argument to silence debate and visibility as regards rape culture. Which, no matter how carefully they tried, still hit me as an undercurrent of that storyline.

It certainly helps no one whatsoever that the “but what about false accusations” argument comes from a straight, Caucasian male character. Especially when stood next to said character’s girlfriend, Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), who in the same episode grinds another ACN employee to dust, on air, over the stalker potential of his smartphone app.

Maybe those two storylines were meant to be a contrast, to provide some kind of give and take. But the fact of the matter is, I feel like this is the same kind of balance / equal time philosophy that suggests we should teach Evolution and Creationism as two kinds of science, rather than a science and a theological doctrine; or that you should put climate change denial groups in a one-to-one pairing with scientists in a newscast.

In the end, though, however hard they tried, this storyline just feels like a Caucasian male character (with an argument constructed by a Caucasian male writer) essentially telling a female character–who is clearly meant as a stand in for the frightening number of women in similar situations–that she needs to behave better Because The System.

From a show whose mission statement has so very often been to flip off the status quo because it’s more important to be better than to behave, I can’t help but be disappointed.

ETA: I’m slow at this kind of response writing, so by the time I’d done this, it seems a metric ton of folks had already responded faster and better than I had. Abigail Nussbaum links to a wide selection of some of the best, as well as taking on Sorkin’s own response to the fallout from the episode. Click through and have a read.

Nature vs Nurture vs Numbers

You may or may not have heard about the recent dust up involving Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher, where Affleck was less than pleased with the line of argument Maher and guest Sam Harris started engaging in with regard to Islam. The video below should be the bulk of the exchange, and you’re free to watch all of it, but I’ve cued it up to play the bit I’m most interested in, since it’s about the only bit with any actual data attached. It’s roughly 45 seconds, and mostly skips the uncomfortable argument:

“78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted.” It’s a big number, admittedly, but there are two issues I’m going to take with it.

First, the argument Harris is making is about the danger of jihadist dogma among less-than-militant Muslims. Most people remember the Jyllands-Posten scandal because of calls to put cartoonists and publishers to death over the cartoons’ publication. It seems clear to me Harris is using his statistic to try drawing a direct line between “prosecution” and “execution.” The attempt, though, smacks of people using the phrase “card-carrying member” in an attempt to evoke some non-existent connection between Red Scare Communists and the ACLU.

Still, in land-of-the-free world, 78% of folks just wanting fines or jail time for free expression is, understandably, still troubling. So I went looking for the poll. Harris doesn’t cite it on the show, but ye Google would suggest this article is referencing the same poll. It also provides what I think is some enlightening context:

Asked about attitudes towards free speech, there was little support for freedom of speech if it would offend religious sensibilities. 78% of Muslims thought that the publishers of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed should be prosecuted, 68% thought those who insulted Islam should be prosecuted and 62% of people disagree that freedom of speech should be allowed even if it insults and offends religious groups

So, from the poll sample, there’s only a 16% gap between British Muslims who want to prosecute for the Danish cartoons and those who think speech should be prosecuted when it’s insulting to any religious group, not just in the case of offenses to Islam. And here’s where I think something other than religious factors has to come into consideration. The fact of the matter is, UK laws on hate / offensive speech are not nearly as lenient as they are in the US.

In fact, it only took me Wikipedia plus a few clicks to find an example of British prosecution for “religiously offensive” cartoons, this one from five years after the Jyllands-Posten incident Sam Harris is talking about:

It took [the jury] just 15 minutes to find Mr Taylor guilt[y] of “religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress” after viewing the “grossly abusive and insulting” images in court. The cartoons — which had been cut from newspapers, magazines and other mainstream publications — included one showing a smiling Christ on the cross next to an advert for a brand of “no nails” glue. In another, the Pope is shown wearing a condom on his finger. Others featured Islamic suicide bombers at the gates of paradise who are told, “Stop, stop, we’ve run out of virgins.”

The conviction was made using a still-in-force piece of legislation called the Crime and Disorder Act, passed in 1998, which includes provisions against “racially or religiously aggravated harassment.” I’m not here arguing that the law is sound, or that it reflects the whole of society in the UK. Even at the time, people were trying to change it.

However, so far as I can tell, it’s still on the books.

Especially relevant here is that the “religiously offensive” cartoons in this case actually included one of the Danish cartoons (“Islamic suicide bombers at the gates of paradise are told: ‘ Stop, stop, we’ve run out of virgins.'”).

That a jury trial in 2010 actively convicted someone for displaying a cartoon set including at least one of the Danish samples points to at least a moderate social context in support of legal sanction against public religious mockery. Given that, it seems entirely possible that some portion of Muslims in the UK support prosecution not due to a specific religious belief, but because the UK in general is more inclined to prosecute for perceived religious insults by authors. Insisting that the sample is a significant indicator of Muslim thinking without once considering or acknowledging what impact thinking in the UK may play into the results seems irresponsible. Given that the same poll questions weren’t conducted outside Muslim citizens, it’s difficult to make any kind of assertions from a solid statistical base.

There was one other statistic which cropped up in the argument. At one point, Maher says he’s seen a Pew poll of Egyptions Muslims, in which “like 90% of them believe death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion.”

While the number I found–that 64% of Egyptian Muslims believe leaving Islam should result in death–is well south of Maher’s 90%, it’s still a unarguably disturbing statistic. That those numbers don’t play out across all Muslims, though, again suggests that the issue may be as much national-cultural and it is religious-cultural, or at least that perhaps that’s worth considering.

Does the view persist out to Ablanian Muslims? It does, though there the number is 1%. If I’m being honest, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover at least that many Christians hold similar views about people who perform abortions. I would never consider using that to characterize the core values of the majority of practitioners, though.

Maher regularly gives a kind of hand-wave to Christian extremism and terrorism as a response to his ideas re: Islam. Usually, he makes a crack about how long it’s been since The Crusades. I sort of think that that folks in Northern Ireland, or Utøya, or even Oklahoma City might have some stories to suggest that we aren’t nearly that far away from Judeo-Christians turning to terrorist acts.

But setting that aside, if we’re going to say that the core problem of religious terrorism is that religion over there with a document full of dicta supporting violence in support of faith, I think we have to admit that, short of Thomas Jefferson, there aren’t a whole lot of people excising the violent portions and decrees in The Bible. The core document of Christianity still calls for stoning, just for an easy example.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this, except to say that arguments which seem to take the religion of violent factions as the only influential element in said violence seem to be fairly narrow in their view. I don’t think it’s as simple as positing that religion there. That’s the troublemaker. Geopolitical conflict isn’t simple, and it isn’t getting any simpler. Attempts to boil it down into The One Root Cause unfortunately feel, to me, like their premise is just as fantastical as, say, a virgin birth.