Thursday, January 14, 2010

Don Belton and the Power of Narrative

Not the blog of that name, smart as it is. Just the inevitability of one narrative trope or another to creep into our discussion of events, no matter how nobly we try to suspend judgment. I made a tentative attempt to categorize Good Responses and Bad Responses in an earlier post on the subject; and both kinds continue to appear. Here's a Good Response called "Don Belton Lives" by one Big Mike in Bloomington; and here's an account of a professor at IU who was outraged to discover that Don only had an M.A. and, upon looking further into his university's English department, learned to his dismay that many Creative Writing profs not only lacked PhD's but were black, which I guess proves to him that the academy is in dire peril.

But the types of response have proliferated, and now we have "Perhaps well-intentioned but utlimately lousy responses," such as the fellow in a gay blog's comments thread who said something like, "Belton admitted to me in Philadelphia that he was a sucker for rough-trade, young white thugs who liked Woody Allen movies and that he pursued them whenever he could." That is, there were markers of Don's characteristic sarcasm in the quoted statement, but the commentor didn't grasp that and presented it as evidence of Don's complicity in the events that led to his death. Remember, we're living in a country where a professor (at Lehigh University) can argue, "Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier is not a good book, because it does not tell a story in chronological order and because Ashburnham is not a good man, and Ford wants us to admire him: it calls him 'good' right there in the title." The irony that a man like Don Belton would have learned to use as a survival strategy is incomprehensible to many.

Nonetheless, I was taken by surprise and appalled by a well-meaning post at one of the academic blogs on Timmi's blogroll (that's down and to your right), coming from "a pseudonymous IU humanities professor" who wanted to set himself up as a benignant critic of online discussions commemorating Don. The guy (I think it's a man) complains that the blogosphere is setting Don up as a model of "peace, love, and understanding" and as such erasing his "complex and compartmentalized" personality. Then he offers a couple of warm reminiscences of Don that aren't terribly different from other people's, except that he misses some important irony in Don's conversation, in a way that (like the "rough trade" commenter's recollection) makes Don look more like the man Griffin's defense will want to depict, by presenting him as "wanting to get everybody a little more drunk." Pseudonymous is particularly invested in making himself look more sophisticated than the discussants at Justice for Don Belton, saying that they narrowly define "justice" as "seeing Griffin convicted and punished," and that they don't notice that, by the standards that dominate outside the IU campus, Don Belton has already been served with justice.

Of course, there is in reality a nuanced discussion on the Justice for Don Belton site (and in other sites' comments threads) about what would constitute justice, whether calls for extreme punishment are consistent with the Beltonic values we admire, and what kinds of commemorations and actions are best for preserving the memory of Don and his work. And as for the standards that dominate outside the IU campus, does Pseudonymous really think that the Hoosiers or Americans in general all want to see gay people killed? I don't think that's consistent with the reception that gay artists and performers get nowadays, nor with the outcomes of most trials that we've seen for the killers of gay people. The homophobic prejudices that we have to fight in the majority of Americans are not the same attitudes that one might see in Jamaica or maybe Iran.

So what can one do in response to the ressentiment or obtuseness that one sees in discussions of Don and his death? I had been willing to discuss how grating I'd found certain aspects of Don's personality that were intensified by his unhappiness at Temple U; but they're kind of driving me in the direction that such books as Protocols of the Learned Elders of Sodom drove David Halperin: seeing how, in the years following Foucault's death, scholars began saying, "Well, he was okay until he began to narrow his focus by doing all that special-interest stuff about homosexuality" and others ended up exoticizing him into the representative of a Decadent Gay Figure of Destruction, Halperin threw down the gauntlet:
One of the most brilliant and original thinkers of our era, Foucault now appears to represent such a powerful, volatile, and sinister influence that his ideas--if they are not to contaminate and disqualify whoever ventures to make use of them--must first be sanitized by being passed through an acid bath of derogation and disavowal. As I have watched the cautionary spectacle of Foucault's demonization unfold, and noted the specific terms in which it has been carried out, my own attitude to Foucault has gradually changed, correspondingly, from one of distant admiration to one of passionate personal and political identification . . . So let me make it official. I may not have worshiped Foucault at the time I wrote One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, but I do worship him now. As far as I'm concerned, the guy was a fucking saint.
In Foucault's case, the battle is still being fought, as myths persist saying that Foucault deliberately spread AIDS among Americans, that he was a nihilist obsessed with suicide, that he was responsible for texts that were in fact written by the Marquis de Sade, that he abjured political activism, and that he is central to the Left's support for Islamofascism.

And it is not inconceivable that analogous myths will arise suggesting that Don Belton conducted orgies every Monday at four a.m. in the men's room of 30th Street Station or that he was some kind of alcoholic rapper. So it's heartening to see that, not only at Justice for Don Belton but at many other venues, people are fighting the good fight to take control of the narrative. Scott McLemee found out just a few days ago about Belton's death and very quickly put together a fine column on the subject, one which, although the speed at which he had to work left him using the barely-qualified Josh Lukin as a major source, turned out very informative and moving, showing a real passion for social justice and a characteristic intellectual acuity. How many other journalists would cite Eve Sedgwick in a weekly column (okay, if Bérubé had a column, he'd do it, but there's other things Scott does that he'd not be capable of)? One wishes for many writers to follow the McLemmean example in all things writerly. Many thanks to Scott for such a piece and for helping in the project of keeping Don's own writing visible.


Scott McLemee said...

I used you excessively as a "source," Josh, because other people did not respond.

Being called a "journalist" seems to be my fate, though I have never found the word very useful for describing my work as a writer. For some reason academics feel obliged to use that label. This merits a theory, perhaps.

Josh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josh said...

I apologize for having phrased what I meant to be an expression of humility on my part ("I'm not really the Belton authority that the article might make me seem to be") as a caveat about your column. I've tried to emend it a little to clarify. Very glad you're reading the blog.