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Why a gay Jew should be president

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The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony. –Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’”, 1966

Sontag wrote these words a long time ago, when her New York City seemed the center of the universe, and other forces such as evangelicism and radical Islam were yet to make their appearance on the stage. Still, her formula retains a certain validity. The police reform movement stems as much from Jewish moral seriousness as it does from the concerns of the Black community (and the two historically have been intertwined). I could argue, too, that we actually live in an age of post-irony, in which the distinction between “earnest” and “ironic” sensibilities has become muddied (perhaps only temporarily), a trend that was further exacerbated by Donald Trump’s assault on truth.

“Jewish moral seriousness” is a nice and true phrase. The ancient Jews invented what we think of as “morality.” It stemmed from the need of the tribe to stay united in the face of tremendous adversity, which resulted in the moral demand that, for instance, all male children be circumscribed, and more importantly in the conception of a single God (monotheism), which has formed the basis of Western civilization. From Jewish moral seriousness issues the righteous demand that all men are created equal, and that the Law itself, if it has any value, must treat all equally, in order to further the cause of freedom. (This truth, by the way, also lies at the heart of the Democratic Party, which is why that party has been so closely identified with Jews.)

Jews are taught to take these things literally and seriously. Jews have been at the forefront of every modern struggle for freedom and liberty (themselves the bases of the Passover celebration). Even more than now, in the 1960s, when Sontag wrote, Jews were an intrinsic part of the Black civil rights movement, providing much of the intellectual armor for Dr. King, and providing also many of his foot soldiers. (Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered by the KKK along with their friend James Chaney in 1965, both were New York Jews.) Jews made up a significant percentage of those advocating for women’s rights and gay rights in the 1960s and 1970s, and even in today’s Black Lives Matter movement, more than 600 Jewish organizations, representing a majority of American Jews, signed a full-page ad in the New York Times supporting BLM; and they did so on the 57th anniversary of Dr. King’s historic march on Washington.

But what about “homosexual aestheticism and irony”? Sontag herself defined “camp” as “one way of seeing the world,” namely, “in terms of the degree of artifice.” For me, the epitome of artifice, of “homosexual aestheticism and irony” has been exemplified by Andy Warhol and his art, and the way he implanted that irony into the culture—or reflected it. When Warhol said, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it,” he was highlighting this irony: there was “something” behind the “nothing,” but who could tell the difference? Warhol not only highlighted the artifice of modern art in all its grimy commercialism, but the artifices of America itself.

I have both my feet firmly planted in “Jewish moral seriousness” and “homosexual aestheticism and irony,” so if Susan Sontag is correct, then I am “the pioneering force of modern sensibility.” But to tell you the truth, I don’t feel like the Zeitgeist. I’ve always felt like the Outsider. This is, I suppose, for the dual reasons that (1), the world is such an amoral or immoral place that anyone driven by “moral seriousness” must feel like an alien. And (2), “homosexual irony” is not the easiest mindset with which to pass through this world. One is constantly caught in the inbetween-ness of things as they present themselves and the ambiguous semiotics that lay below the surface. Being “in the closet” is the perfect metaphor for this inbetween-ness. Homosexual irony suggests that nothing is as it appears; all is layers, artifice, make-believe.

Were homosexual irony all there was, it would lead to a huge moral catastrophe in the world. But Jewish moral seriousness rides to the rescue by imbuing the world with meaning. Trump in his own weird way caught the essence of homosexual irony: ambiguity can be helpful to a devious and greedy man. What he completely misses is moral seriousness. His daughter and son-in-law may profess to be Jewish, but their particular cult is rigid and ideological and thus immune to the real “moral seriousness” of Judaism. Which leads me to wonder: wouldn’t it be great to have a gay Jew as president?

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