HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

September 3, 2007
From Liberty Street

Lost Opportunity

John Turner


The Larry Craig affair has played itself out in the public prints as sound and fury, scorn and hypocrisy, indignation and opportunism, all served up with scoops of ribald humor. That's to say it followed the normal course we have adopted to divert ourselves with scandal.  It's too bad it functioned that way because if we weren't so bent on sacrificing education to amusement, we might actually learn something from it.

What does it tell us, for example, that a man can over a long period denounce and denigrate an activity he, himself, is driven to embrace. The first thought that comes to mind is addiction. It's possible, I presume, for an addict to despise whatever it is he's addicted to and still be too weak to resist it. But, does it make sense to call homosexual desire an addiction?

It's when we ask questions of that sort we begin to see we don't have adequate definitions for the words we use, which is, itself, a good thing to know. What is addiction?  My dictionary offers scant help in understanding how we use the word now. It says merely that addiction is to be devoted habitually or compulsively to something. But how about the thing the addict is devoted to? Don't we have to know its nature before we can say a devotion is an addiction? It doesn't convey the modern sense to say that humans are addicted to food, or to air. That's not what we mean by the word.

In order to claim we're addicted to something, that thing has to be bad. As soon as we get into badness we're even deeper in the thickets of definition. Is homosexuality bad? We don't seem to be close to agreement on that issue, although there has been movement recently in the direction of saying that it's not. And maybe, just maybe, we have moved far enough to decide that though many still regard homosexuality as bad a majority can agree it ought not to be seen as criminal.

Our laws, though, always drag well behind our attitudes. And in that dragging lies lots of opportunities for cops. They, evidently, are in the habit of going into public restrooms and giving signals that they would welcome sexual activity. Then, when somebody responds positively, he is arrested and humiliated. This we call law enforcement.

Let's face it: that it's against the law to make sexual connections in restrooms whereas it's perfectly all right -- and even celebrated --  to make them in bars, or libraries, or hotel lobbies, or grocery stores is an intention to criminalize homosexuality. It's true that unwanted sexual advances can be unpleasant, but, for the most part, we rely on people being able to take of themselves in those situations. When a nerdy guy asks a popular girl for a date, we don't call in the cops. If the girl says, thank you but no, and the nerd goes away, there's no occasion for jail time.

Larry Craig may be a reactionary politician and a serious hypocrite, but nothing that's been revealed about him so far was justification for his being arrested and hauled into a police station. That was made possible by anachronistic laws based on beliefs we have said we no longer hold. As long as those laws remain on record the cops will use them because they like to arrest people. So, what should that tell us about action to be taken?

You'll notice, however, that there hasn't been much discussion about legal reform with respect to this case. Instead we have been treated to high-toned moral indignation from people formerly allied with Senator Craig, people pushing the same policies he has pushed. Now, however, they are astounded, shocked, and horrified because he, allegedly, broke a law that ought not to be a law.

If there are Democrats glorifying in Senator Craig's downfall, they ought to be ashamed of themselves. So far, though, I haven't heard much from the Democrats. It's the Republicans who have been sounding forth, and most volubly that paragon of rectitude, Mitt Romney. Their reaction and not Craig's peccadilloes ought to be the lesson from this event. But we all know there's not much chance of that.

We are left with the original question. What can we learn from a situation of the kind enveloping Senator Craig? I can't be sure he is driven by homosexual desires but the public and his colleagues believe he is. Let's say they're right. What might he teach us? The first thing is the miserable condition of a man who can't free himself from the bigotries of his youth and his region and yet, feels compelled to flout them through his own actions. And the second is the degree of freedom our politicians have to say what they think. In the first case, we need badly to find ways to offer people escapes from that condition. And in the second, we ought to be looking a lot harder than we are, for political leaders who are unwilling to sacrifice their personal freedom.

Larry Craig should have been able to say to Mitt Romney, "It's none of your damned business what I do in a restroom stall," and to be backed up by the public in saying so. But, then, there is that little matter of law.


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