I have always loved a good polemic. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I selected the culture wars as the topic of my current research. The polemic is the genre of choice for culture warriors. Unfortunately, most of the culture wars polemics I read are bad; they are mostly, to phrase it generously, “inartful.” So much so that I have almost grown immune to the polemic. But every now and then I come across a master polemicist, someone like Gore Vidal. For anyone interested in learning the art of the polemic, his 1981 essay “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” should be compulsory reading. (The essay was originally published by The Nation [Nov. 14, 1981] but is perhaps easier located in The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, 339-356.)
“Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” is a 17-page review of an article of about the same length, which might seem strange minus some context. Vidal’s essay was a scathing critique of Midge Decter’s infamous “Boys on the Beach” article—a vicious, anecdotal attack on the gay right’s movement—published in Commentary (Sept. 1980). “Boys on the Beach” was widely read and discussed in literary circles. In other words, Decter’s article merited the Vidal treatment.
Decter opposed the gay right’s movement in general, just as she opposed women’s liberation, and all the other movements associated with the Sixties. In this she was the typical, even prototypical neoconservative. But specific to her 1980 Commentary article, she framed her opposition to gay rights, and to homosexuality more generally, by way of her observations of the gays who populated Fire Island, a Long Island beach resort where Decter and her family spent their summers in the early 1960s. Among other slanders, Decter interpreted the homosexuality she observed on Fire Island as a flight from the responsibilities of women and children. She accused the Fire Island gays of flaunting their narcissistic behavior in the face of the straight men who duly went about their unexciting but meaningful lives but who nonetheless felt that the gays were flaunting their irresponsibility. The straight men Decter defended—men like her husband, Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz—“feel mocked most of all for having become, in style as well as in substance, family men, caught up in getting and begetting, thinking of mortgages, schools, and the affordable, marking the passage of years in obedience to all the grubby imperatives that heterosexual manhood seems to impose. In assuming such burdens they believe themselves entitled to respect, but homosexuality paints them with the color of sheer entrapment.” The upshot is that Decter believed the gays of Fire Island already had everything they wanted, so what need was there for a gay right’s movement?
Vidal cut Decter down to size on the merits of her argument, to be sure. As Vidal makes clear, Decter described the Fire Island gays as if they represented all gays, ignoring that plenty hid in plain sight due to social prejudices. And on the notion that gay men lived to torment the straight men around them, Vidal had this retort: “Although Decter’s blood was always at the boil when contemplating these unnatural and immature half-men, they were, I would suspect, serenely unaware of her and her new-class cronies, solemnly worshiping at the shrine of The Family.”
Vidal also went after Decter’s style, since, for the master polemicist, there is no strict division between style and substance. A small sample: “[Decter] writes with the authority and easy confidence of someone who knows that she is very well known to those few who know her.”
Even more damning, Vidal questions Decter’s basic understanding of homosexuality, in response to her remark, a mix of wonder and disgust, that the bodies of the gays on the beach were seemingly always hairless. “It is startling that Decter has not yet learned that there is no hormonal difference between men who like sex with other men and those who like sex with women.”
But the icing on the polemical cake is the way Vidal framed his overarching argument. By titling his article “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” Vidal called attention to Decter as a Jew, and to Commentary as a Jewish publication. “In the German concentration camps, Jews wore yellow stars while homosexualists wore pink triangles.” In the context of Reagan’s election and with the newfound political visibility of evangelicals, Vidal reasoned that Jews and homosexuals, once again, had common enemies and should unite. And yet, to the contrary, “Mrs. Norman Podhoretz… has managed not only to come up with every known prejudice and superstition about same-sexers but also to make up some brand-new ones. For sheer vim and vigor, ‘The Boys on the Beach’ outdoes its implicit model, The Protocol of the Elders of Zion.”
This latter element of Vidal’s argument is the most suspect, at least, in terms of accurately judging the Jewish position in the United States. That many Jews have found common cause with evangelicals, and not just regarding Israel, has not constrained their freedom as Jews in the United States. Quite to the contrary, as George Nash convincingly demonstrates in “Joining Ranks: Commentary and American Conservatism,” a chapter from his latest book, Reappraising the Right, the conservative turn taken by the Jews at Commentary demonstrated that Jews were more mainstream than ever, and thus less threatened as a minority than ever. Nash writes: “In 1945, Commentary had been born into a marginal, impoverished, immigrant-based subculture and an intellectual milieu that touted ‘alienation’ and ‘critical nonconformity’ as the true marks of the intellectual vis-à-vis his own culture. Two generations later, Commentary stood in the mainstream of American culture, and even of American conservatism, as a celebrant of the fundamental goodness of the American regime, and Norman Podhoretz, an immigrant’s milkman, was its advocate.” Of course, perspicuity is not always a prerequisite for a powerful polemic, nor for a proper ethical stance.
Allow me to conclude by asking two questions of you, dear reader: What makes a good polemic? And who are some of your favorite polemicists?