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January 22, 2005

THE NATION'S 'BABE LINCOLN' CONTROVERSY CONTINUES...

If the outrage continues to mount against The Nation 's decision to publish a gay-offensive cartoon by Robert Grossman, it's the magazine's own fault. ( if you missed the cartoon, it's reproduced in my last post). Among the heartfelt letters of protest to the magazine was one from John Berendt, the former editor of New York Magazine and author of the best-selling "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," who wrote:

"I'm sure I'm not the only person who finds your Abe Lincoln cartoon deeply and painfully insulting.  What you mistake for humor is nothing more than virulent and blatant homophobic garbage, utterly unworthy of the 140-year-old magazine entrusted to your care.  It's this kind of ignorant stereotyping that fuels and perpetuates hatred, disgust and violence against homosexuals.  I'm embarrassed for you."

Indeed. If only The Nation's editors had taken a suggestion made by some of the mag's own staff, simply said, "George Bush won't admit his mistakes--but we do," and acknowledged that running the Robert Grossman cartoon was an unfortunate lapse in judgment, I have no doubt that would have earned widespread respect, and little more would have been heard about the matter.

Unfortunately, that's not what The Nation did. Instead, the inhabitants of Irving Place in New York, where the magazine is put together, chose to pick a few of the many Letters to the Editor they've received in protest, stick them up on their website--but leave any response to the protests to Grossman, who penned what one of my friends rightly called "a resentful and sarcastic dodge" of the issues raised by the controversy.

The brief paragraph from the mag's editors introducing the letters and Grossman's reply, as originally posted, read: "We regret it if the cartoon demeaned homosexuals, transgender people or even Log Cabin Republicans. --The Editors" (Ah, that cowardly and Clintonesque "if"...) Then, it was changed to read: "We regret if anyone was unintentionally offended. --The Editors" I can't quite figure out what that change means in their little heads, unless it's to excise any hint of an admission that the 'toon "demeaned homosexuals", as the first version put it. (Moreover, the second version is illiterate--it reads as if there are queers running around who are feeling offended without meaning to be, instead of what I suppose was meant, that the mag's editors did not intend to offend anyone. But nobody thinks the mag's editors sat around intentionally trying to think up ways to offend gay people, so this non-apology is puerile and avoids the real issue--one of attitude, and of judgment)

The cartoon has generated a wide response in the blogosphere from all sides. Andrew Sullivan -- with whom I disagree profoundly on so many issues, including his ill-founded critiques of the gay liberation movement -- posted this comment:

"You expect the homophobic Weekly Standard to run tasteless cartoons about gay people, playing to stereotypes, ridiculing serious study of homosexual history. But The Nation? I'd say their cartoon of 'Babe Lincoln' is worse than the Standard..." 

On Irving Place, Andrew's comments are being dismissed as "arrant opportunistic criticism from a right-winger who likes to pose as a liberal from time to time--and get in his digs at the left whenever possible," as one of the magazine's editors wrote to me. Whatever one thinks of Sullivan's positions, actions, and ethics on other issues--and I could cite any number of instances in which I've found his thought and conduct revolting--I can't agree when it comes to this one. Andrew's gay outrage is not artifice -- for, as much as I have fundamental political and philosophical differences with Andrew, I am certain that, when gay people are harmed, dissed, or sneered at, his indignation is genuine. And this time, Andrew's comment is unexceptionable--one expects The Nation to know better.

The folks at The Nation cannot so easily dismiss the stinging criticism from one of their own--Marc Cooper, a longtime contributing editor of The Nation and host of its widely-syndicated Radio Nation broadcast, wrote on his blog:

"Grossman's cartoon is embarrassingly stupid. Something you might expect in some fourth-rate right-wing rag...Problem is, once the mistake was made, my friends at The Nation didn’t just come out and say ‘oops’  -- sorry. That would have been the right thing to do. Maybe they’ve been watching Condi too closely and have forgotten how to simply acknowledge an error...Instead, in my humble opinion, they have compounded the mistake with their ‘remedy’: a posting of irate letters followed by a totally inadequate response (and self-defense) by cartoonist Grossman...." There were any number of other bloggers with posts on this matter--including an intelligent, witty, and scatological one, entitled "The Nation Puts Gays in a Skirt," from Lenin's Tomb.

As someone who has written dozens of articles for The Nation --including quite a few on gay politics and gay issues -- I want to say that this entire sorry episode has left me feeling disheartened and depressed.

By putting all the onus on Grossman to reply to critics of the magazine's decision, and letting his snarky riposte -- which reflects the same mentality as the cartoon, and which even thanks the mag for running it--stand as the only real response by the magazine, The Nation's editors have simply amplified their insensitive error, making it doubly offensive. By choosing to publish Grossman's defense of his attitudes toward same-sexers that are from another age and time, while avoiding admission of any real responsibility or mistake by The Nation's editors in the matter, the magazine has only made things worse, and underscored the flaws in its editors' mindset when they decided to run the cartoon in the first place. Their abandonment here of the faculty of critical judgment that makes for a great magazine forces one to reflect on what this episode says about what the magazine's deciders have in their heads and hearts when it comes to gay people, once one scratches under the surface of the kneejerk "politically correct" rhetoric which, thanks to the organized gay civil rights movement's teachings, they have learned to spout. To put it simply, in the everyday language of our time, they just don't get it. And that reflection leaves me quite sad.

P.S. Don't miss Gore Vidal's Vanity Fair article, "Was Lincoln Bisexual?" It's a dissection of and meditation on the recently published C.A. Tripp book, "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln," which sparked the incident recounted above.

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Comments

I love BabE LincoLn, its funny! I dont think it is that serious...I could understand how it may affect some people who cant take a joke. Now days people are too sensitive and get offended and are quick to make a Big Something out of Nothing. I dont think its a BIg Blow 2 homosexuals, and I really respect and I LOVE GAYS. My BestFriend is gay and he Laughed and didnt take an offence at all!

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Posted by: laptop battery | Oct 12, 2008 10:46:00 PM

It's worth noting that book reviewers from both The Weekly Standard and The New Republic (who I imagine have very little else in common) condemned Tripp's book as unreliable, historically inaccurate trash.

Posted by: Fritz | Jan 27, 2005 12:53:31 PM

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