Tuesday, September 30, 2008
The Anglo Files
I’m about half way through my current favorite book, “The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British,” by Sarah Lyall, an American and journalist for NY Times who married an Englishman and moved to London a decade ago.
She’s funny and brash and razor sharp and unashamedly biased in her perspective of life across the pond. She’s also wickedly hilarious and deeply insightful about all the vices and virtues of British society. Indeed, at times, this book reads like a superb social and cultural anthropology. At turns bitter and sweet, Lyall pulls no punches in her analysis of the English, including the hypocrisy, venality, and hopeless confusion about sex.
In a chapter entitled, “Naughty boys and rumpy-pumpy,” Lyall catalogues some of the silly euphemisms for body parts: “private parts” for genitals, “willies” for penises, “front bottom” for the dread vagina, “naughty bits” for the whole package (unless you are talking specifically about a man’s whole package and then you can say, “dangly bits.”). “
She continues, “Not even serious people seem comfortable with using real words for real sex, known popularly as “shagging,” “bonking,” or “having it off.” Private Eye magazine calls it “discussing Ugandan affairs,” a reference to a woman journalist who, when caught in flagrante with a Ugandan politician, claimed they were talking about Uganda.”
One can only imagine, then, the internal British conflict about homosexuality, can’t one?
She reports a typical exchange between her friend Ed and his dad when he was eight years old and hunting grouse on the moors which, “on account of having to pay attention to what they were doing or else they might shoot the wrong thing, they could look at the birds instead of each other”:
“’You’ll soon be going away,’ Ed’s father remarked, peering at the potential grouses concealed in the bush. He fired a shot.
‘Boys will want to interfere with you.’ He fired again.
‘Don’t let them.’”
Right, then. The fascinating thing is the way Lyall points out the connection between homosexuality and homoeroticism and humiliation and physical abuse. She writes: “Spanking or ‘smacking,’ is associated with a shameful sexual thrill, the kind of humiliation laced with pleasure that British people are said to particularly enjoy.
“Le vice anglais,” the French call it. It can evoke nostalgic reveries of one’s nanny, a source of severity and punishment but also of security as she snuggled you inside the safe confines of her large bosom.”
“Spanking in the extreme becomes beating,” she writes, “which has its own sexual undercurrents. Beating was officially made illegal in 1999, and most schools had abolished it by then, but it was once a fact of boarding school education: All those stories you hear are true.”
“It shouldn’t matter so much, because boarding-school students make up such a small percentage of the total population in Britain. But they are disproportionately important: they tend to be the people who now run the government, the judiciary, the military and many of the major institutions in the country (note from me: like, say, the Church of England?). The weapons once used on friends of mine include cricket bats, pool cues, belts, straps, and birch sticks.”
“Like victims of Stockholm Syndrome, not all schoolboys were bitter about their punishments. In 1994, a debate broke out on the letters pages of The Times of London about the late Anthony Chevenix-Trench, who as headmaster of Eton in the late 1960s was famous for getting drunk, flogging the pupils, and then breaking down and tearfully begging their forgiveness. Legend had it that, in what must have been an amateur record, he once beat an entire divinity class of twenty-one students in a single afternoon.”
Lyall continues: “Men my age and from my husband’s background of educational privilege may be the last ones to have gone to all-male boarding schools whose halls were suffused with sexual undercurrents, but it has had a lasting effect on them. The masters leered at the boys; the older boys leered at the younger ones. (My husband’s) school had a teacher known popularly as “Homo Holmes,” who used to hang out and watch the wet naked boys emerge from the shower.”
“Is it any wonder,” she asks, “that so many of them - particularly British men of a certain class – are so mixed up about sex?”
“Is it any wonder, either,” she continues, “that so many of them still harbor erotic fantasies about former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who managed to hit all their buttons at once – femininity laced with masculinity, firmness laced with seductiveness, pleasure interwoven with pain? For the men who worked for her, nothing could surpass the exquisite humiliation of a Thatcher “handbagging,” as they called it when she was cross with them.” She reports, verbatim, a homoerotic spanking exchange reported to her by journalist Christopher Hutchens which he alleges he had with Mrs. Thatcher
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!
Put this all together with the other ‘vice anglais’: homosexuality, add the ‘natural inclination’ of the British male toward sexism if not flat-out misogyny, remembering that more graduates of the British boarding school are in positions of power and authority in corporate, government and church structures and, after a few more pages of Lyall’s book, a few bells began to go off in my head.
It occurs to me that a major component of the homophobia and heterosexism in the Church of England has nothing to do with a healthy understanding of love between two people of the same sex; rather, it has everything to do with a perverse educational system which is the product of a shame-based understanding of human sexuality which arises out of a deep connection with humiliation and power.
Let me put it another way to underscore this point: The extra-curricular education endured by young boys in the British system of boarding schools was not about human sexuality or homosexuality, but about domination and perversity, along with a prevailing sexism and flat-out misogyny designed to ensure the continuation of patriarchy.
I was telling this to a very dear friend of mine over breakfast last week. He’s a decidedly heterosexual African American man of my age who spent his adolescent years on the South Side of Chicago.
Suddenly, he gasped and said, “I think I just made an important connection, one I’ve been trying to make for years. When I was a kid, we spent a lot of time shooting hoops. After a game, the losers would have to buy the winners a slice or a dog and a beer, and afterward, some of the guys would shoot craps.”
He took a deep breath and continued, “But, some of the guys would go off and have sex with each other. It always bothered me, but not because it was ‘on the down lo’ but there was something else, something I couldn’t name, that seemed very wrong. I think I finally understand.”
“The sex was always about the winners and losers. Now I understand that it wasn’t about sex. It was about dominance and power. It was about sending a message loud and clear: ‘You are on our turf. You lost. We won. We are in power.’”
I listened carefully and said, “You’re right. It’s not sex. It’s violence.”
“Let’s call it what it really is: Rape,” he said.
Right. This sort of thing has gone on for centuries under the ancient rubric “To the victor belong the spoils.” It goes on today – the raping of women and men as a weapon of war. It’s not anything that arises out of human sexuality but rather, is born of the violent heart that wants to show dominance and enforce submission.
I’ve been calling it “the ick factor” – say the word ‘homosexual’ and, for some people, the image of anal penetration immediately springs to mind, which awakens an almost primal reaction in some people which, in turn, shuts down any intellectual ability to reason or think, much less consider information to the contrary.
I am coming to understand that the deep revulsion of homosexuality which we witness in some corners of the church is, in some sense, in our religious DNA. It arises out of an educational system which began with a deep shame about human sexuality in general and created a deeply misogynist culture which connected “homosexual activity” with power and domination, reducing the status of the male to that of a female. Then, they laced it, just for good measure, with emotional humiliation and physical abuse.
I am beginning to get my head wrapped around the almost desperate need for this position to be reinforced by emotionally-charged literal translations of scripture. We have a long record of using scripture to defend that which is, otherwise, indefensible. Like, the oppression and denial of civil rights of women and people of African ancestry.
Have you ever noticed that some of the worst offenses of the intent of the law or scripture are defended from behind long black robes – of the judiciary or religious systems – or, in the case of religion, long white robes, which, if the offense is really heinous, also has a full hood which allows the coward to hide his/her face.
This has absolutely nothing to do with the love and relationship and sacred commitments made between two people of the same sex. Absolutely. Nothing.
What I have written does not pretend to be an intellectual socio-religious analysis or anthropological study. Rather, it has to do with one person’s making some connections about things which, as Arsinio Hall used to say, “make you go, hmmmmm.”