Cultural lag

A story is told, whether canonical or not I don’t know, about Georges Clemenceau. At a memorial service after the war, a veteran shouted at Clemenceau:

“C’etait les juifs!” [“It was the Jews!”]

Instead of arguing, Clemenceau replied,

“Oui. Les juifs, et les bicyclistes.”

Puzzled, the veteran asked,”Et pourquoi les bicyclistes?”

Clemenceau shrugged and said, “Pourquoi les juifs?”

I was reminded of that by a detail of the Jeffrey Kofman affair, brought to my attention by Austin Cline of “About Atheism.” [Earlier post here.]

According to the Lloyd Grove story in the Washington Post, one of the commanders of the 3rd Infantry apparently said to the reporter, whom the White House tried to “out” as a gay Canadian, “Are you really … Canadian?” And Matt Drudge did roughly the same thing, headlining his link “ABCNEWS Reporter Who Filed Troop Complaints Story is Canadian.”

It seems to me — though I may be overinterpreting — that both the soldier and Drudge were making the same gentle joke: rejecting the White House’s attempt to denigrate Kofman in terms of his sexual orientation by focusing their reaction on his nationality instead.

Whoever in the WH press office tried this stunt seems to have run into a little bit of cultural lag. He (or she) struck with a weapon that used to be sharp but has, rather suddenly, become dull.

Thirty years ago, and to some extent even ten years ago, homosexuality was what Erving Goffman called a stigma: a “spoiled identity,” something that people were ashamed of and wanted to conceal. In some quarters, it still is.

But in elite circles, even right-wing or military elite circles, being homosexual mostly isn’t considered shameful any more. Even though some heterosexuals are still uncomfortable with it and some homosexuals are still ashamed of it, that discomfort and shame are not respectable, and therefore are not to be spoken. (It’s about where being Jewish was in, say, 1960.)

Really, that’s such a profoundly cheerful thought I almost want to laugh out loud.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: