Sunday, May 22, 2011

I do not get the Divided States of America

How do you go about making sense of can a country which has the Folsom Street Fair and Harold Camping's (failed) prediction of the rapture?

Other countries have their internal conflicts but none so much as the DSA. Maybe it's because it's so big. Maybe it's because the people who founded it were all the bolshy ones from Europe who refused to compromise their values and "make do" and so they passed on their bolshy DNA and memes down the generations. Maybe it's all the extreme weather. As someone born into a cramped, damp nation whose glum inhabitants mainly muddle along in a haze of irony and detachment, refusing to take anything too seriously, the fervour of Americans, whether it's for gay marriage, Krispy Creme, the Knicks or Sarah Palin, produces a mixture of fear, distaste and envy in me.

The whole country feels like it's in a giagantic tug of war. Witness the "don't say gay" bill approved by the Tennessee Senate Committee to ban discussion of homsexuality in the classroom.

A similar bonkers bill was passed in the UK back in the 1980s - mainly as a result of moral panic around AIDS. There was a smallish backlash, but this was very much a bullying conservative majority picking on an already beleagured minority.

The situation in America now is different - the country is making strides towards equality, gay people regularly appear on tv shows, for many people it is no big deal. While Britain slowly, grudgingly and incrementally has edged towards equality and acceptance, America looks more like a battle-ground.

Star Trek's George Takei suggests an obvious solution to the Orwellian "don't say gay" bill - which implicitly acknowledges de Saussure's sign theory - meaning is made up of a word (the signifier) and what it means (the signified). So, you just change the signifer to another word but keep the signified. (Nasty American teenagers did the opposite when they started calling things they didn't like "gay". They kept the signifer, the word "gay" but changed what it signified.)

Ultimately, I think Tennessee is fighting a losing battle - Orwell's fascists in 1984 may have thought you could change ideology by deleting words and concepts from people's minds, but they didn't realise that the situation was more complex than that - words exist in a symbiotic relationship to ideology - it's not a one-way street. And people will still feel sexual desires, even if there are no words to describe those desires. To paraphrase everyone who has ever being sexually incontinent - we don't just think with the brains in our heads.

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