Today’s guest post, a response to NonProphet Status’ final report on the 2010 American Atheist Convention, comes from Andrew Fogle, a D.C.-based cultural, social, and sexual interloper presently studying philosophy and religion at American University. He is a regular columnist for the alternative queer blog The New Gay, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The by-now infamous conclusion of Edwin Kagin’s 2010 AAC address on blasphemy elicited more than a few interesting responses from more than a few interesting people. Chris Stedman, seated in the audience, fought a pitched internal moral battle before deciding to do the virtuously pluralist thing and hear out a perspective he didn’t agree with, however distastefully it was presented (whether or not this makes for “cowardice” seems to depend on what value a person places on sincere efforts of mutual understanding over and above the recorded sound of his or her own voice.) Sayira Khokar was nearly brought to tears by the footage posted on skepticsresource.com, recounting in her guest piece the disquieting resonance between her memories of post-9/11 Islamophobia and the behavior of the guffawing, self-satisifed (and – did anyone else notice this? – almost exclusively white) crowd gathered for the occasion of North America’s premier atheist conference.
On seeing the YouTube video of Burkagate, I had another reaction:
“Mary, Please,” I said to myself, borrowing a phrase from the famed word-hoard of my people. “I’ve seen 300 pound Latino men in Diana Ross costumes pull off more convincing altos than these girls.”
Much (and maybe too much) virtual ink has been spilled over the “Back in Their Burkas Again” fiasco, a performance which in its comedic subtlety and technical execution seemed closer to an unorthodox PTA holiday program than an SNL skit. To the thoughtful charges already explored on this blog I would add – probably unexpectedly – one more: the American Atheist Convention is guilty of sponsoring bad theological drag. Terrible theological drag. The kind of poorly-conceived, overblown ecclesiastical cross-dressing that would be booed off the stage at any respected queer cabaret on the East Coast (more welcome would be the queen who called herself “Pope RuPaul II.”)
A religious or secular commitment – like a job, a gender, an ethnicity, or a sexual orientation – isn’t a part of us in the same inert and self-contained way that, say, hardness and grayness are part of a rock, or bad cover design and overpricedness are part of a Christopher Hitchens book. We aren’t the kind of beings who simply “are”: free consciousness means that we have to “play at” the roles we assume, however natural or objective they might seem. This “play” is rarely light-hearted, to be sure – the soldier at war is doing something importantly different from the little boy having fun with Cowboys and Indians, and the work of trying to build and hold on to a sense of self that is always doomed to fail is the most frustrating, burdensome, humiliating, and for all of that, important things that human beings get up to.
Recognizing this fact, and being able to laugh at ourselves because of it, is an important part of staving off insanity for modern people. Gay people have always been good at recognizing this, because we’ve always been especially modern and especially close to insanity. Drag as a cultural institution is the highest expression of this sensibility: a gritty, sassy, localized art form that suspends and subverts the categories and hierarchies that less interesting, more powerful people use to keep us (and others) down. For hours on weekend nights, on gin-and-sweat-streaked stages in every city in this country, the systems of class, race, gender, and sexuality that keep American injustice humming are dissolved in nebulae of glitter and laser lights. Fur, vinyl, and essentialism are slipped off seductively and cast aside until audiences are confronted with the naked and jarring truth that everything we ever call ourselves isn’t given freely by God or natural selection; it is actively affirmed or denied by us in the kinds of shows we put on for ourselves and other people, every minute of every day.
Good drag doesn’t mock particular identities (e.g. “woman,” “neo-disco pop star,” “Sarah Palin.”) Good drag makes tragicomic light of the very structure of identification itself, poking fun at the ceaseless and exhausting cycle of adopting names and roles from the world around us with which we can never, try as we may, fully coincide. “Back in Their Burkas Again” failed to attempt anything like this, treating the category “theocratically oppressed Arab women” like a geographer might treat the category “mountains”: as one more inert fact to be catalogued and manipulated (in this case for the sake of entertainment.) So long as such women are viewed to have stable, self-contained identities opposed to the stable, self-contained identities of enlightened Western atheists, attempts at dialogue will always collapse into self-perpetuating shouting matches. The AAC organizers could have put together something more sophisticated, something that acknowledged the inevitably ambiguous and performative aspects of fundamentalism, something that recognized the institution of the hijab as a massively complicated and irreducibly self-contradictory human phenomenon which always contains at its core of radical freedom the germ of its own self-transcendence, or something that, at the very least, involved strobe lights and Whitney Houston songs. They didn’t, opting instead for a cowardly and un-self-critical caricature of a lived tradition they didn’t bother to try to understand.
In the words of Liza Minnelli – the only woman other than the Virgin Mary to whom I’ve offered petitionary prayer – “Life is a Cabaret, old chum / It’s only a Cabaret.” In the 21st century, when the kinds of traditions and certainties that used to bind people to stable, directed senses of self are shattered daily like so many martini glasses under leather high-heels, the insight has never been more relevant. We, all of us – gay and straight, religious and secular – are better off embracing the terrifying responsibility of the radically free, self-directed performativity that makes us who we are and nothing more, rejecting the bad-faith securities of an all-powerful god on the one hand and an all-encompassing materialist determinism on the other. It is in this affirmative movement, and not in the resentment of blasphemy, that the prospects for a more decent world seem most bright.