Saturday, 28 January 2017

Will Shakespeare Go Out of Style?

Today I was trying to figure out what movie to see and I googled the reviews for Trespass Against Us, a new flick in which Michael Fassbender appears shirtless.  This seemed to me to be a good reason to go see it, in any case (by the way, it’s a great movie!). But Rotten Tomatoes made it very clear that I should not go to see it because the leading characters were amoral. All the more reason to go, I thought -- amoral, shirtless guys -- I can’ imagine anything more lovely!
But it did get me to thinking.It seems to me that panning a film because it does not improve us sets a bad precedent. Is a work’s didacticism the measure of its success? Apparently it is these days. People seem to think artists should base their work on real incidents and true stories, and deal with big issues like child trafficking, and the murder of aboriginal women. I am all for politicians and journalists tackling these important subjects, but it has never seemed to me that great art comes from moralizing.
I predict that in a few years Shakespeare will fall from his exalted position as the penultimate Western literary genius for one reason alone: his work is singularly amoral. This may be why his plays were so neglected for more than a century after after his death. Unlike his contemporaries Spenser and Sydney, Shakespeare’s work is devoid of overt Christian preaching, neglecting to take a stand on the most important issue of his day. One critic calledTrespass Against Us a ‘violent drama about [an] unlikable criminal family.’ The same of course, could be said of Hamlet. And no relationship would have been considered quite as immoral, in Renaissance times, than the affair between Antony and Cleopatra -- she a whore; and he ‘unmanned’ by her sly womanly wiles. Yet Shakespeare devoted an entire tragedy to this notorious twosome whose only possibility of redemption was in his poetry.
It isn’t that we don’t know Shakespeare’s opinions about anything -- for that is not entirely true. It is true that Shakespeare’s works display an obsession with critiquing the very notion of truth. Shakespeare was the first post-modernist. Post-modernism, does not posit (as many would have us believe) that there are ‘alternative facts’ (Trump style). Post-modernism and post-structuralism suggest instead that everything is fiction, and that we should treat anything that passes for ‘truth’ with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Shakespeare was obsessed with the notion of art as lie; and yet he was a poet. Unlike Sydney, who (in his Defense of Poesy) suggests that poetry is valuable because it instructs, Shakespeare’s plays foreground the discombobulating paradox that art is both a holy, mystical truth, and a dangerous, immoral lie. 
The suspicious lack of preaching in Shakespeare makes his work irrelevant to us now. We need quick, clear answers. We expect art to take positions on the issues of the day.
Because most of all, we want to know -- what is the truth?
And we want to know now.

Friday, 13 January 2017

What About Gay Washrooms?

There has been a lot of talk lately about transgender washrooms.  
What about gay washrooms?
I know you might think I’m kidding. But most decidedly, I’m not.
I understand the importance of transgender washrooms in schools -- young people who self-identify as being of a different gender than the gender assigned them at birth need a safe place to go to the bathroom without being bullied.
But the same can be said about young gay men.
Let me tell you a story. I was having lunch the other day at the Nations grocery store. I sat down beside three high school age young men who were working there, and obviously on a break. I don’t know whether it was my proximity to them (I do tend to be paranoid about these things!) or just well, something in the air, but soon after I sat down they proceeded to have a pretty homophobic chat. One of them was talking about eating a popsicle and that set it off. “That’s such a gay thing to eat man!” Much hilarity. “That’s so gay man!” “You are gay!” etc.
Now despite the earnest efforts of many --  even people who are gay -- to claim that when kids use the word ‘gay’ in high school it doesn’t mean ‘gay’ (the usual excuse is -- “‘Gay’ is just another way of saying ‘stupid;’ it’s totally innocent!”) the truth is that when kids in high school use the word ‘gay’ it is usually in a homophobic way.
Young gays and lesbians in high schools are still afraid of coming out despite Will and Grace and Ellen DeGeneres. Hence the ‘Rainbow Program’ in Toronto -- a Toronto high school to support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students who don’t feel safe in regular schools. The Rainbow program is still going strong.
But gay washrooms should not be merely safe spaces. It should be okay for young gay students to cruise them without policing, and a bulletin board should offer information on condom-less sex and PrEP. Gay high school students often have no outlets for their sexuality except meeting strangers online. Wouldn’t it be great if the authorities at school gave them a safe  space to explore their sexuality that offered lots of information related to their health and safety? PrEP is a new drug that prevents AIDS if you are not HIV positive. And these days, if you are HIV positive you can be arrested and put in jail if you do not disclose. Young gay men in high schools need to know about these things.
Okay, did the last paragraph shock you? Did you think ‘Hey, I was with this guy until he said that high school washrooms should be safe spaces for gay students to cruise?’
I hate to say it, but -- gay or straight -- if you find that offensive, that’s homophobic. Hello! Young people, gay and straight alike, want sex and they will get it, one way or the other. And sex is a good thing! Gay high school boys will end up hooking up with some older guy online if they don’t have a gay washroom where they can be as gay as they want. And these days when HIV is now a chronic illness and HIV positive people are regularly put in jail, they need as much information as possible about health and safety.
I know my idea may not be popular, and is unlikely to be instituted in any high school soon. 
Instead, we prefer to watch as young gay men continue to be bullied and beaten up.
What does that say about us?