Saturday, July 18, 2009

Musings of a Novitiate Ally, Part 4: In Praise of Silliness

So there was this BBC show called "The Making of Me" about John Barrowman trying to determine why he's gay. I think it's fantastic; I liked it so much that I wanted to put all six of the YouTube segments right here for your viewing pleasure, but unfortunately the embedding for those particular videos is disabled. Here are the links, though.

The Making of Me, Part 1
The Making of Me, Part 2
The Making of Me, Part 3
The Making of Me, Part 4
The Making of Me, Part 5
The Making of Me, Part 6

If I remember correctly it was HomoPolitico who linked to the YouTube videos above. I went to the first one, and beneath the video I noticed this comment.
Lastly the truth is that sexuality is an infinitely more complex & varied phenomenon that this glib 'tabloid' type nonsense provides us with.Sexuality exists on a continuum ; often shifts back & forth in quantity & ratio ; some people are 80/20% some 65/35% etc.etc.etc. & even THAT can change ; some folk feel theyre gay since they can remember & some say they felt it first in their 20s, 30s, even later.Granted many people feel COMLETELY straight or COMPLETELY gay & NEVER change so bla bla bla
I'm just enough of a wannabe intellectual snob that this derisive and dismissive statement swayed me a bit; it sounded like the type of thing I wouldn't want to watch. But I gave it a try, and ended up watching all six parts and loving them all.

The funny thing is that I don't disagree with most of what the reviewer says. Sure, it's ham-fisted. Sure, it's overly simplified. But you know what? Sometimes we need things to be oversimplified, because let's face it, at one point or another each one of us is a dumbass.

Sometime around 1999 I sat in the Barnes & Noble in Syracuse and read Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization. I loved it. I was proud of myself for having read it, because I'd never had a head for history; it was a real effort to broaden my horizons.

A few years ago I took a hard look at my own ignorance and decided to change it. I committed to reading only history. At first it was like slogging uphill through molasses. Then I read Garrett Mattingly's The Armada and the scales fell from my eyes; it was the first time I'd realized that history could be exciting. Since then I've developed a passion for history as I've read books and listened to various history podcasts and Teaching Company lectures.

One day I was hiking along listening to one of Professor Kenneth Harl's lectures, and my ears perked up as he mentioned How the Irish Saved Civilization. He dismissed it as a silly book, and I felt a wave of embarrassment at having enjoyed it. But the more I thought about it, the more I came back around to my old opinion. I no longer think of it as a great piece of historical research, but I do think it's a great book - because it got me interested. It was what I was ready for at the time.

I've come to see history as a fractal; formulating a historical truth is like trying to measure the length of a coastline. If you take a satellite photo, trace the coast with a piece of string, and measure the string, you'll get one number. Paddle along every bay and estuary measuring with rods, though, and you'll get another, much larger number. Walk the coastline with a ruler and the number increases again. Walk the coastline with a caliper, sticking it into every crevice in every rock, and the number increases still more. Eventually you're down to measuring the average (and very much theoretical) distance between quarks and your number is expressed in terms of astronomical distances. It's not that the zoomed-out view is incorrect, but rather that, no matter at what level you look at a fractal, you end up making approximations. As you zoom in, the scale of the approximations change, but it seems like there's always more zooming to be done.

There are a whole lot of people out there with a whole lot of misconceptions about LGBT folks. They need an entry-level vehicle to the subject: they're not ready for Simon Schama; they need a story on the level of How the Irish Saved Civilization. I don't think "The Making of Me" is inaccurate, so much as it shows a satellite view of the gay coastline. People need that view.

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