Kansas, they said, is the name of the star

While the nation’s cynical eyes turned to the spectacle of a prime minister who sought Churchill comparisons but whose speech to Congress sounded like Ben Carson with logorrhea, state legislatures continued to serve as Petri dishes for bacilli that seek not the national spotlight because they’re being so efficient at infecting local victims. Future Scott Walkers will notice the damage in states like Kansas and take note. For example, this bill passed by its senate last week removes a provision from law books protecting high school teachers from using dirty books:

But supporters said the bill is necessary to ensure kids are protected from pornography at school and that teachers would not be prosecuted for teaching works of literary or scientific value.

Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican, said that in society, it’s illegal for a person to show children pornography and that parents should be able to expect that same protection when kids are at school.

Teachers question who would make the determination about what’s pornography. Earlier in the week, Rep. Joseph Scapa, a Wichita Republican, called a book by Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize-winning author, pornographic.

To ensure these kids return to homes with no nudie books, the legislature has proposed incentives for foster parents:

To become a CARE family, a husband and wife would have to be married for at least seven years and at least one of the pair could not work outside the home. The bill would prohibit alcohol, tobacco and unlawful drugs in the home and “sexual relations outside of the marriage.”

The bill’s advocate, Forrest Knox (R-Inquisition), comes from the CPAC Commitern:

Social workers recounted horror stories about other foster homes, he said, adding that is because the current system treats foster parents as baby sitters.

“They said we were the only normal home that they visited,” Knox said. “My conclusion is that we need more normal homes as foster homes. And how do you get normal? When I say normal, I just mean an ordinary home with a mom and dad who loves the kids.”

He referred to the 1950s sitcom “Leave it to Beaver” to give an example of the types of families he is hoping to attract to the program.

And he’s barely old enough to have watched the Beav in real time too.

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‘A tapdancing freak without qualifications’

Straight brethren, it’s true: gay dating and hookup sites still host plenty of ads from guys looking for, I quote OKCupid, “no femmey dudes” and “Macho preferred plz.” Discussing his upbringing during a Guardian interview, Russell Tovey, the lunkish boring actor who plays Kevin on the HBO show “Looking,” Tovey steps on a rake:

I was so envious of everyone who went to Sylvia Young Theatre School. I wanted to go but my dad flat-out refused. He thought I’d become some tapdancing freak without qualifications. And he was right in a way. I’m glad I didn’t go. That might have changed…

…I feel like I could have been really effeminate, if I hadn’t gone to the school I went to. Where I felt like I had to toughen up. If I’d have been able to relax, prance around, sing in the street, I might be a different person now. I thank my dad for that, for not allowing me to go down that path. Because it’s probably given me the unique quality that people think I have.

I thought his unique quality was the length of his ears. “Apparently accomplished his goal by yanking on the kid’s ears a lot,” my movie buddy Eric H wrote no Facebook. “Yanked the effeminacy out of him,” I replied.

The first couple of years after coming out I used to be proud of myself for “being able to pass for straight.” An older gay man in 2002 wasn’t having it: “Why would you be proud of that? What’s wrong with not passing as straight?” I started to answer, garbage spilling out of my mouth. Of course there was no answer. Pride in “passing” as straight implies contempt for queerness. No other way of putting it. Besides, if in my head I persuaded myself then I ignored the dozen ineluctable signs indicating otherwise, starting with the realization in high school that dating women and competing for girlfriends didn’t just leave me cold but scared me near senseless; my friends couldn’t know either. This nameless, shapeless dread took form my senior year in college.

Noah Michelson’s response lays out the problem:

Despite how much the lady doth protest, he gives himself away. He wanted to relax. He wanted to prance. He wanted to sing in the street. But because his dad — and society — wouldn’t allow him to “go down that path,” he didn’t. That’s not something to celebrate or be thankful for, even if it did result in “the unique quality that people think” Tovey has (which is what exactly? Not coming across as a faggot?). In fact, it just makes me feel sorry for him and his dad — and all of us. Being exactly who or however he was just wasn’t good or good enough and so he was forced to change and conform to what society says a boy should be. That’s not inspiring, that’s heartbreaking. But pity can be progress’ worst enemy and excusing thinking like his — or accepting the idea that it’s just his “truth” — leaves us exactly where we started: in a world where being a faggot is akin to a death sentence.

In a world where these death sentences exist, putting effort into passing looks especially obscene.

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‘Pop culture is very separate from the art world’

Madonna agreeing to a Pitchfork interview would be news by itself. T. Cole Rachel, who identifies as gay and sounds terrified of a Madonna who threatens him with shots of “really good” tequila if she dislikes his question, gets reflective notes out of her when I would have preferred, as I’ve wanted for years, a full-ranging interview in which she explains exactly what she does in the studio. If it hasn’t happened, it’s because she wants to preserve the mystery. For an artist who’s written and co-written some of the greatest songs of the last fifty years, she has proven coy and elusive about pinning down what those in the biz call “the process.”

Anyway. I want to linger on this bit:

Pitchfork: It’s interesting to see how often you pop up as part of that scene—in Danceteria flyers, in David Wojnarowicz’s biography, photos of you and Keith. Do you feel nostalgia for that time?

M: Yes, I do, especially now. I think about Keith coming over and saying, “I heard you are doing a show at the Paradise Garage, I want to paint a costume for you. What are you wearing? Can I just paint on it?” And I’m like “Yes! For sure!” Or then to have Basquiat and Warhol come to the show and then everyone goes out afterwards and just talks about art. Or to go to Basquiat’s gallery and see his work and talk about it. I can’t even explain what an amazing time that was for all of us. We were all excited about each other’s work and jealous of each other’s work and cheering each other on. It was the beginning of something truly amazing—and then suddenly everyone died. All these amazing people just wiped out almost all at once.

Now I think about how artists come up and, well, there is no community, really. There’s social networking, but it’s not real connection between people. It just feels like pop culture is very separate from the art world now, whereas before they used to be one and the same.

Pitchfork: You don’t strike me as someone who trades in nostalgia.

M: No, but it feels like the right time to look back. You know, I got to hang out with William Burroughs. It’s crazy. I got to meet some amazing people, and those kinds of characters—that kind of art—just don’t exist anymore. Well, I’m sure it does, but it just doesn’t seem to be a part of youth culture. When I think about popular culture now, I can’t help but think that we’re living in the age of loneliness. There’s this illusion that we all have instant access to each other, but we actually have no real connection.

The theory that the “art world” — in Madonna’s definition a community that cheered its members’ social ascendancy — is a discrete field several yards removed from pop culture interests me. I don’t know if it’s true. Even if it were true in the abstract, how could I prove it? Thanks to social media and message boards, artists share work. Whether we’ve lost something by trading the journeying from station to station to meet a potential contact for exchanging texts is a point I’ll entertain, although I’ll note that Madonna praises Diplo for showing up at her doorstep “no bodyguards, no assistants, nothing” as if he didn’t own a smart phone.

Listening to new Madonna involves the exploiting of nostalgia: a synthesis built on collective memories of her most vital work and diminished expectations for the latest product fusing into the desire to create new and maybe fond memories. So let me press “Joan of Arc” and “Veni vidi Vici” into a Bible like flowers — both songs, I gotta point out, effective because they cop to Madonna as myth.

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Who’s the irrational one?

Because this week the Bibs will address the House that John Boehner split, expect more posturing than usual on the cable channels. Because it’s safer to discuss the propriety of the Bibs’ addressing the Congress, no one dare mention in front of George Stephanopoulos that the prime minister of Israel and enthusiast for the Iraq War twelve years ago is a liar. J.J. Goldberg puts these revelations in context:

The rationality question lies at the heart of Netanyahu’s dispute with the Obama administration. Under President Bush, the Europeans were negotiating with Iran and getting nowhere, while America looked on. The Bush administration imposed strict sanctions, but Russia and China didn’t participate, claiming America hadn’t given negotiations a chance. Iran, unscathed, raced forward.

Obama changed the game by taking the lead in negotiations. That convinced Russia and China to join broader sanctions, which finally began to hurt. The result: Iran’s agreement a year ago to negotiate seriously and sharply slow its nuclear work — including halting construction at Arak — in return for partial easing of sanctions. The goal is an Iranian nuclear infrastructure that’s kept permanently a year short of bomb capacity, enough time for the West to detect and react to a violation.

Netanyahu insists any Iranian enrichment is too much. Nobody believes Iran will voluntarily drop its entire project, but the prime minister believes — sincerely, his aides insist — that if he can convince enough people, a truly crippling sanctions regime can bring the mullahs to their knees. Apparently they’re irrational enough to welcome nuclear Armageddon, but rational enough to yield to economic punishment.

Plus there’s the small matter of the constitutionality of a head of government meeting with congressional leaders instead of the president, entrusted by stuff written on that yellowing parchment to “receive ambassadors and other public ministers.”

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You keep me hanging on

The Supremes will hear King vs. Burwell this week. At issue: whether the plaintiff’s novel interpretation of four words qualify for disembowelment of the Affordable Care Act. The NYT editorial:

Reading the Affordable Care Act as a whole, it’s clear that Congress meant to provide subsidies on both federal and state exchanges. For one thing, why establish a federal exchange that doesn’t actually work? As an amicus brief submitted by a group of legal scholars put it, “Congress does not write statutes to fail.”

And yet the challengers insist that their bizarre, noncontextual reading of the law is the only possible one. A majority of federal judges who have reviewed the case have thrown out this argument. So should the Supreme Court. Even if the court were to consider the law ambiguous, under its own precedent it must defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of the statute’s wording. Here, that agency is the I.R.S., which has issued a rule affirming that subsidies are available no matter who establishes the exchange.

The challengers disingenuously say that Congress can go back and change the wording, knowing full well that Republicans on Capitol Hill hate the law almost as much as they do. The states that currently rely on federally operated exchanges could set up their own, but many — egged on by the challengers — have already refused to do that.

Jeffrey Toobin, whom I don’t like to quote on this blog because he defends the national security state:

The claim borders on the frivolous. The plaintiffs can’t assert that the A.C.A. violates the Constitution, because the Justices narrowly upheld the validity of the law in 2012. Rather, the suit claims that the Obama Administration is violating the terms of its own law. But the A.C.A. never even suggests that customers on the federal exchange are ineligible for subsidies. In fact, there’s a provision that says that, if a state refuses to open an exchange, the federal government will “establish and operate such Exchange within the State.” The congressional debate over the A.C.A. included fifty-three meetings of the Senate Finance Committee and seven days of committee debates on amendments. The full Senate spent twenty-five consecutive days on it, the second-longest session ever on a single piece of legislation. There were similar marathons in the House.

But in the last one hundred fifty years the Supreme Court, whether concerning the fate of black American citizens, “imbeciles,” or Jehovah’s Witnesses, has shown it has no qualms about finding novel constitutional provisions that throw American citizens into a legal demilitarized zone.

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About books and spying

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret was the only Judy Blume I didn’t read in fifth grade. Book fairs provided material and math lessons. My five-dollar allowance gave me enough for three books in those days. The night before a fair I’d perform triple-digit addition as I added and eliminated finalists. The Choose Your Own Adventure and Three Investigator series were big deals. The first novel, though, whose strangeness I recognized because it was the strangeness of life was Harriet the Spy, bought in December 1985 before winter break. My experience wasn’t unique. I’ve met people and read accounts over the years remembering how the sixth grade title character’s obsession with writing down her neighbors’ exploits and banalities plumbed unrealized capacities for the absorption of knowledge and character; to write isn’t merely to think, Harriet M. Welsch taught me, but to tease into being. In the beginning, middle, and end was the word. Events happened because she wrote about them. Typical of Louise Fitzhugh’s tact, there is a scene in which Harriet spies Harrison Withers, an old hermit who lives with twenty-six cats, building birdcages out of popsicle sticks. So absorbed is Withers that he ignores the yogurt he bought. It’s the first time Harriet looks into a mirror: Withers is the artist, indifferent to hunger, unaware of his solitude, for, really, he isn’t alone so long as he’s got popsicle sticks. A quiet moment, punctured by Harriet scribbling in her notebook: “There’s also that yogurt. Think of eating that all the time. There is nothing like a good tomato sandwich now and then.”

Pungent, unafraid of the polysyllabic word or allusions to Henry James and Wordsworth, Harriet the Spy and its excellent and for me superior sequel The Long Secret was the first novel I read until the spine crumbled. A portrait of a writer emerging from her chrysalis, yes, but an affectionate rendering of Manhattan’s Upper East Side as experienced by a wealthy child in the sixties too. There’s a sense in which I start a novel hoping to recapture the pleasure of reading Harriet the Spy for the third time. Below is a list of twenty-five books without which no apartment I sleep in could function. This list is representative not final.

Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights
Henry James – The Portrait of a Lady
Alan Hollinghurst – The Line of Beauty
Henry Green – Concluding
Dawn Powell – A Time to Be Born
Kingsley Amis – Lucky Jim
Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse
William Maxwell – The Folded Leaf
Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March
J.M. Coetzee – Disgrace
Andre Breton – Nadja
Muriel Spark – The Driver’s Seat
D.H. Lawrence – Women in Love
Evelyn Waugh – The Loved Ones
Thomas Hardy – Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Christopher Isherwood – A Single Man
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
George Eliot – Middlemarch
Philip Roth – Sabbath’s Theater
Alejo Carpentier – The Kingdom of the World
Peter Handke – Short Letter, Long Farewell
Gore Vidal – Lincoln
James Joyce – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Anthony Trollope – The Way We Live Now

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‘I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading’

March’s poem is by Emily Bronte, defiant against piety:

Often rebuked, yet always back returning
To those first feelings that were born with me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning
For idle dreams of things which cannot be:

To-day, I will seek not the shadowy region;
Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;
And visions rising, legion after legion,
Bring the unreal world too strangely near.

I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half-distinguished faces,
The clouded forms of long-past history.

I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:
It vexes me to choose another guide:
Where the gray flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

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