The war on drag and the art of authenticity

Fresno Bee, May 7, 2023

The war on drag is like the war on drugs. It is a wedge issue that riles some folks up, while hurting the vulnerable. But most Americans have a live-and-let-live attitude. As long as no one is violating my freedom, why should I care if others dress in drag?

The commotion over drag is oddly melodramatic. And drag is often a campy kind of schtick. The villain in the current comedy appears as a mustache-twirling baddy, tying a drag queen to the railroad tracks. This would be funny, if it weren’t the tip of an authoritarian iceberg of homophobia.

Now, I don’t find drag entertaining. But I don’t go to strip clubs, either. I find cos-play mostly ridiculous, whether it is the moaning and groaning of pornography, or the fancy feathers of drag. The same goes for folks who dress up like superheroes for “Comic con.” That’s not my cup of tea.

But if cos-play is fun for you, why should anyone stop you? And in a sense, most of life is cos-play. We cut and shave our hair. We put braces on crooked teeth. We dress up for work and for family photos.

And every spring, college professors put on robes and silly hats for the graduation parade. That’s also a kind of campy performance art. I don’t like it very much. But every year, I don my goofy hat and play along. And if someone wants to wear a wig and a dress for a drag parade, who am I to judge?

I understand the worry of the drag critics who are concerned that kids in our culture are exposed to unhealthy ideas about sex, love, and standards of beauty. But in this regard, pornography is more dangerous than drag, since drag announces itself as parody, while porn does not. And in a free country, bans and prohibitions seem, well, un-American.

Education about love, sex, and beauty is a better solution. We need to promote healthy, loving sexual relationships, and realistic standards of beauty. And we should celebrate virtues like honesty and authenticity.

But authenticity is a tricky thing when it comes to gender and beauty. Drag makes fun of authenticity. When a drag queen dresses up like a buxom bleach-blond woman with fake eyelashes and ruby red lips, it makes you wonder about the authenticity of women with breast implants, fake eyelashes, and ruby red lipstick.

Drag exposes gender as an external performance. It reduces femininity to hair, breasts, and clothing. But those superficial externalities hide the authentic human person, who exists in a world of spirit that is distinct from the body.

And yet we might well wonder whether there really is an authentic self beneath the wigs and the clothes? Christians claim that we are made in the image of God. And the existentialists encourage us to become our authentic self. But what then should we do about our crooked teeth, and those hairs growing in weird places? Can we fix up our broken, fragile bodies? Or must we accept the body as given, warts and all?

These are the deeper conversations prompted by the drag war. What is the true self? What is the difference between artifice and authenticity? And should a freedom-loving people censor any of the arts?

Drag shows are, after all, performance art. One conservative critic of drag, Darel E Paul, traces what he calls “the queering of mainstream American culture” back to Oscar Wilde. Paul sees drag — and what he calls “queerness” — as an “anti-natural work of art.”

But art is always anti-natural. Art improves upon nature. No real woman has the breasts of the women in porn. And none of us look like the filtered images on Instagram. And yet, we model our own bodies on the images we see in art, pornography, and advertising.

This is what Oscar Wilde meant when he famously said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” When we shave and primp and dress up, we model ourselves on some ideal we’ve seen in art or advertising. And if there is no way to distinguish the authentic from the artificial, then why not let people play dress up, and have a little fun?

Read more at:

Living in Accord with Nature

Technology is amazing, but happiness comes from accepting life as it is

Fresno Bee, May 15, 2015

  • Technology promises infinite possibilities for improvement, while creating a challenge for happiness
  • Stoic wisdom encourages us to take the time to love and accept the world
  • Philosophical reflection on infertility, gender transition, and other technological innovations points toward deep questions about human life

Focus on Improving Souls, Not Just Our Bodies

Fresno Bee, January 24, 2014

When Michelle Obama recently turned 50, People magazine asked her whether she would consider cosmetic surgery. That is an oddly indiscreet question to ask the first lady, involving a variety of pernicious assumptions about gender, beauty and age.

Obama said she wouldn’t rule out cosmetic surgery. She added that women should have the freedom to do whatever they need to do to feel good about themselves. There is no doubt that we should have freedom to pursue happiness. And cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries can be therapeutic life-changers for those who have been disfigured.

But our focus on youthful appearance represents an interesting idea about happiness. Instead of learning to accept the changes of our aging bodies, we are encouraged to stay young with Botox and Viagra.

Philosophers have long viewed physical beauty and sexual attraction as minor goods not worthy of serious consideration. Many philosophers were notoriously ugly. Socrates had a snub nose. Crates, the Stoic, was a hunchback whose deformity was mocked in the gymnasium. Epictetus, the Stoic sage, was lame. Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian philosopher, was reputed to have a twisted back. And Thoreau was described by Nathaniel Hawthorne as being ugly as sin.

Insight and wisdom may develop from the alienation that results from an abnormal visage or a physical deformity. Would Socrates have become a philosopher if he had a nose job? Would Thoreau have spent his time alone in the woods reflecting on the meaning of life if he were not so ugly?

The philosophical tradition teaches that the source of happiness should be internal, based upon virtue and integrity. The tradition warns that good looks can deceive. And it reminds us that youthful beauty fades as it must with the passage of time.

One cannot blame people for desiring the accolades that come with physical beauty. Our culture rewards good looks. Attractive people tend to make more money. A study by sociologist Rachel Gordon seems to indicate that better-looking kids do better in school.

In such a culture, it’s not surprising that people would invest in surgeries and other procedures that enhance their looks. Nor is it surprising that some become unduly obsessed with their appearance, leading to eating disorders and self-mutilation.

Our culture celebrates what some scholars call “morphological freedom”— the freedom to alter our bodies. For some, the body is a canvas to be inked and sculpted as an expression of personality. So long as we don’t create unfair competition or harm anyone else, why not do what you want to your own body?

It is difficult to see where a line could be drawn limiting morphological freedom. We put braces on our teeth, cut our hair, shave, pluck and wax. We die our hair, paint our nails, wear wigs and so on. From those widely accepted practices, it’s a short step to a culture where tattoos, piercings and cosmetic surgery have become common.

But the philosophical tradition would suggest that excessive focus on the merely cosmetic appearance of the body creates a false dream. Lurking in the background is a narcissistic concern for perpetual youth and external beauty. While the law should leave us alone unless our narcissism harms others, there are better uses of our freedom than gazing in the mirror.

Our obsession with youthful beauty tells us something about our relation to old age and the seasons of life. An ancient Chinese proverb defines filial piety — the virtue of honoring parents and ancestors — in terms of care of one’s body. The Confucian proverb says that since we received our bodies — our very hair and skin — from our parents, we must not presume to injure or damage these gifts.

It is natural and normal to resemble our parents. We honor our parents and represent our heritage in our very bodies. What are we saying about our parents or grandparents when we take radical steps to avoid looking old and wrinkled like them? What if we viewed wrinkles and gray hair with pride appropriate to the season?

It’s easy to understand the desire for cosmetic assistance in a society that rewards youth and good looks. But Socrates would suggest that instead of changing our bodies, we should focus on improving our souls

Read more here:


Recent Violence Raises Questions About Men

Recent violence raises questions about men

Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, 2012-12-29

The Newtown gunman killed his own mother before opening fire at Sandy Hook elementary school. Another gunman, near Rochester, N.Y., killed firefighters who responded to a fire he had set. He had previously killed his grandmother and most likely began his rampage by killing his sister. In both cases the gunmen killed themselves.

These stories have an obvious gender component. Mass murderers are almost always men. According to Mother Jones magazine, of the 62 mass murders committed since 1982, only one was done by a woman. The rest of the shooters were men.

It might be that mental illness has a gender component. But why do mentally ill men shoot their mothers and random strangers, while mentally ill women do not? Mental illness manifests itself in culturally specific and gender specific ways. Killing, brutality, and suicide are associated with masculinity.

Men are, in general, about 10 times more likely to commit murder than women. Suicide also has a gender component, with a ratio of four male suicides for every female suicide. We might also note that domestic violence is gendered, with incest, partner rape, battery, and honor killing usually perpetrated by men.

Some might blame biology. The “demonic male” thesis popularized by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson holds that male violence is a common trait among male dominant apes such as humans and chimpanzees. According to this idea, male dominance is a useful tool for social organization, even though it results in occasional atrocity.

But biology and evolution only explain so much. Culture also matters. Brutality, toughness, and fearlessness are deeply woven into cultural images of masculinity. We celebrate mean and ruthless men — on the sports field, in films, and in our military mythology.

The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre appeared to blame cultural images of violence in his remarks earlier this month. He deflected criticism of guns and called for armed guards in schools. He also blamed violent video games. Most interesting was his description of violent video games as pornography. He said, “Isn’t fantasizing about killing people to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?”

The porn connection points toward the gender issue. American men grow up in a culture in which sex and violence have become vicarious events. It is easy to watch people have sex and to watch people kill. What kind of affect does this have on our relationships and our ideas about morality?

The larger problem is one of dehumanization. Pornography turns women into two-dimensional images to be observed and consumed. And violent games and movies turn killing into a thrilling spectator sport. The consumer is able to view other people as objects to be used, without consideration for the experience of the other person.

This problem of dehumanization may explain the connection between mass murder and suicide. The philosopher Immanuel Kant noted two hundred years ago that lack of respect for others is connected with lack of respect for self. Suicide and murder are two sides of the same inhuman coin. Like suicide terrorists (who are also almost always male), mass murderers have embraced death. The shooter wants to die. But he wants to take innocent people with him as he kills himself. This points toward a kind of rage against life, a hatred of everything.

Games and films are not to blame for deep moral nihilism. Most game players do not end up murdering strangers. And most porn-consumers do not become rapists. The causal story is complex. Nonetheless, the constant dehumanizing imagery of popular culture can have an insidious affect on the disaffected and mentally ill. Imagining murder in a game makes it that much easier to commit it, when life falls apart around you.

Rage and despair combine with images of masculinity and easy access to deadly weapons to create a deadly mix. Maybe that’s the price we pay for liberty: for the freedom to own guns, consume porn and enjoy violent entertainment. Gun control would make suicide and mass killing more difficult. Maybe censorship would help. But the problem is larger than the guns and the games. The deep question is why some men hate life enough to kill mothers, grandmothers, children, and themselves; and why women rarely do.