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Family and Poetry

I was very gripped by Kerri ­Christopher’s essay, “Three Christmas Dinners” (February 2023). I’ve not suffered such a thing myself, but just reading about the fractured family affairs of this essay induced in me a sense of emotional vertigo.

I was cheered to read Micah ­Mattix’s essay, “The Integrity of Poetry” (February 2023). I’ve shared many of his thoughts. It occurred to me some time ago that I enjoy a mix of poetry and prose, such as one reads in a critical essay, better than a book of pure poetry itself—the two portions seem to refresh each other. So much so, that I began mixing the two in my essays published in the New English Review and in my books. People don’t seem to object, so I continue the practice.

Don’t get carried away,
but a pinch of poetry
can go a long way towards
seasoning a bland day.

That pothole which nearly broke
the car’s axle
needs a memorial this morning
exactly the size of a haiku.

Carl Nelson
belpre, ohio

What a Drag

I am always excited to receive the newest edition of First Things. I know that it will provide days of enlightening and uplifting reading. That certainly was the case with the February 2023 edition.

However, the lead article “Drag Queens” by Darel E. Paul left me puzzled and quite disheartened. While I have lived long enough to be far from naive about the world (I’m seventy-three), it was sad reading. As expected from First Things, it was very well written, and a plausible exposition of this part of our culture. That this is an ­increasingly touted part of our world seems ­likely.

Having taught college students for forty-six years, I am naturally sympathetic to the vagaries of human nature and to the people portrayed in this article. However, it is one thing to wander down a path of perversity simply out of natural desire, and a totally different thing for our culture to celebrate and encourage it. Is this encouragement a route to human flourishing? Or a sign of tragic decline? In either case, I decided that this piece’s inclusion was likely to provide a clear picture of where our culture is headed.

Kevin M. Moore
syracuse, new york

When my six children were away, I sat down with Darel E. Paul’s “Drag Queens.” My thirteen-year-old son has taken to reading articles in First Things that strike his fancy. I knew this one needed a preview. And how.

The insightful analysis of drag culture left me in a state somewhere between fury and despair, not because of Paul’s ideas, but because of RuPaul’s. I thank the good professor for unveiling so clearly the ideologies behind the tragic project that is drag. I would, however, like to bring one thing to the attention of both the Pauls: Femininity is not a function of stilettos. Or red lipstick. Or even skirts and dresses.

Drag queens are not showcasing femininity when they don their costumes on stage, and neither is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or any of the female politicians Paul ranks on the “spectrum” of femininity, when they don their red lipstick.

Femininity is not a measure of fashion choices or makeup usage. Drag queens insult me because they reduce femininity to an appearance that can be purchased and painted on. We who believe in biological sex as an essential part of our human and personal identity ought to be sure we do not fall prey to the same error.

My female body has matured through the trials of puberty, the decades-long challenges of menstruation, pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, and nursing. I will never bond over any of these experiences with a man, a (male) drag queen, or a trans “woman,” even if we swap dresses, wear matching shades of lipstick, or hire the same surgeon to reconfigure our chests. Masculinity and femininity can’t be bought. Our (gender) identity is given to us freely at the moment of conception. My body, with its uniquely feminine powers, makes me a woman. Not my wallet.

Thus, a radical liberal woman is not actually less feminine because she wears a pant suit and flats. My grandmother’s outfits alone could prove the point. Rather, being pro-choice defaces a woman’s femininity—built by God to nurture life—more than ugly shoes ever could. Ocasio-Cortez and other women with a voting record like hers scorn their femininity in a parody just as grotesque as a man dressed in drag.

Gina Loehr
fond du lac, wisconsin

I was fascinated to read ­Darel E. Paul’s article “Drag Queens.” His linkage of today’s drag queens with Oscar Wilde and the historic camp aesthetic was the most convincing explanation I have seen for the ascendance of the drag queen phenomenon. However, I disagree with Paul’s assertion that “camp has become a one-way street,” with males and females both “tasked with becoming more feminine.” While this may be true among the cultural elite, hyper-masculine camp not only exists, but has enduring popularity in professional wrestling. I believe pro wrestling plays the same role in conservative culture that drag shows play in liberal culture. Both use camp as a comedic device, while reinforcing cultural values of liberation (drag) or heroism (wrestling). In pro wrestling, each angle, or narrative, involves a cartoonish face, the good guy, who suffers various injustices at the hands of a heel, the bad guy. Over the course of several unfairly rigged matches, the face will inevitably triumph through grit and determination. The heel’s defeat is humiliating and, if well-planned, hilarious. At its core, pro wrestling is a morality play. Because of pro wrestling’s predictability, much of its entertainment value is in its campiness. Characters enter with music and fireworks, walking down a catwalk as if in a grotesque fashion show. Wrestlers have many body types, but all are over-developed and unnatural. Hard-to-believe romance between badly matched characters is a frequent narrative element. Masculinity and suggestive femininity are exaggerated to the point of incredulity. One-dimensionality is intentional. Unlike drag, which becomes more mainstream each year, pro wrestling’s sustained marginalization suggests that it may be a purer form of the camp aesthetic. As someone who appreciates the camp aesthetic, my conscience is troubled by the biblical call to keep our minds on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and excellent (Phil. 4:8). I wonder whether Dr. Paul thinks camp is inherently destructive of traditional values?

Josh Baggett
arlington, texas

Darel E. Paul replies:

The skids of radical cultural change are always greased by obfuscation. Advocates invariably insist that big transformations are actually small, things that appear decadent are in fact noble, and in any case traditionalists are clearly overreacting. I wrote five thousand words on drag queens—some of which were intentionally rated ­­NC-17—to help cultural conservatives see more clearly through the fog. Thus, when Kevin Moore says that my article was “sad reading” or Gina Loehr declares she was left by it “in a state somewhere between fury and despair,” my reaction was grim-faced satisfaction. Drag queens are not affable clowns, and they are not beautiful. While ­Nancy ­Pelosi, Kamala Harris, and ­Alexandria ­Ocasio-Cortez may exercise protective ignorance in their praise of drag, we should not do the same.

That being said, not everything that defenders of drag say or believe is necessarily false. One of those things is the distinction between sex and gender. In her reaction against my discussion of femininity in drag, I believe Loehr confuses what should be analytically ­separated. While sex is material, gender is cultural—as post-structuralists enjoy saying, a “social construction.” There is no reason cultural conservatives should reject this. Even in our own lifetimes and culture, what is considered appropriate for one sex or the other to do or say or take an interest in has changed as our conceptions of gender change, not to mention differences across cultures. Many of these changes are even good. Where the cultural conservative cannot go, however, is to the place where sex is eliminated and only gender remains. This is the land where “trans women are women.” Gender is always constructed on top of sex, and ultimately can never be separated from it without destroying sex, gender, and even thought itself.

Another thing we need not reject is the idea of camp. I especially appreciated Josh Baggett’s observations on professional wrestling as a camp expression of masculinity. His point on the American class divide over camp masculinity and femininity is equally welcome. While American elites have seemingly given up on masculinity—even in professional sports and the military, traditionally the most masculine of social locations—the middle and working classes clearly have not. I think ­Baggett shows that Sontag goes too far when she insists all camp is necessarily a love of the unnatural. Why indeed can’t frivolity and jest be good-natured (pun intended)?

Fascist Thuggery

It is disturbing to see ­Michael Millerman’s article “Alexander Dugin Explained” (February 2023). Millerman writes:

Dugin’s ill-starred political alliance causes many to dismiss him, writing him off as the source of intellectual legitimation for a fascist, kleptocratic thug who wishes to recreate the Russian empire. Duginism is indeed compatible with Putinism, but we need to see that it is not reducible to it. It is more accurate to say that Dugin is the chief philosophical mastermind of an ideologically coherent alternative to Western political modernity.

If Dugin’s “ideologically coherent alternative to Western political modernity” is “compatible with Putinism,” how is that “not reducible” to “intellectual legitimation for a fascist, kleptocratic thug who wishes to recreate the Russian empire”?

Has First Things been reduced to this—endorsing illiberal ideologies that are compatible with Putinism, Nazism, and fascist thugs? Is there any reason to believe that Richard John Neuhaus would have endorsed this?

Larry Arnhart
northern illinois university
dekalb, illinois

Michael Millerman replies:

Leo Strauss once wrote:

It would be wholly unworthy of us as thinking beings not to listen to the critics of democracy—even if they are ­enemies of democracy—provided they are thinking men (and especially great thinkers) and not blustering fools.

My article argued that Dugin is a thinking man whose political philosophy, whatever its other virtues and vices, has the great merit of helping us understand something about Martin Heidegger, the greatest thinker. Larry Arnhart invokes the predictable rhetoric of fascist thuggery and the like. Does such a response, and the attitude it typifies, reflect what is “worthy of us as thinking beings” when it comes to the basic questions of political philosophy?

Straussian Atheism

Daniel E. Burns (“How to Be a Straussian,” February 2023) is to be commended for bringing out some of the key aspects of two interesting new books on the thought of Leo Strauss (Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai and Leo Strauss and Islamic Political Thought). However, there is one highly significant point on which I would have to differ with him and with several of the authors of these two notable books regarding the interpretation of Strauss. I believe that it is not at all obvious—when one considers everything Strauss wrote—that he was an atheist. In fact, if one looks carefully at the entirety of Strauss’s works, one sees that his attitude toward religion is open-minded, deeply reflective, and yet complex, and all in the search for truth, which to my mind makes Strauss something akin to a “cognitive theist.” Indeed, the very fact that Strauss devoted a substantial portion of his efforts, in a long career of political philosophy, to the comprehension and appreciation of religious thought surely points to how seriously he grappled with the question of religious truth, however he may have resolved this problem in his own mind and heart. One does not study religion in search of truth if one knows in advance that this is a matter which has already been determined false.

But my main reason for writing concerns something else. I generally like to think that the often-­contentious arguments among fellow Straussians is a sign of intellectual vitality and vigor. Nevertheless, as Burns points out, something in the search for truth can also be lost in the separation into opposing factions. Since the extreme divide of the factions (as with all factions, political or academic) means that they are unlikely to be reconciled while maintaining intellectual honesty, I therefore wish to endorse Burns’s encouragement of the development of a “Straussian middle.” I understand that defining this “middle” is not so easily done, and that Strauss was ultimately in favor of putting the search for truth over and above any compromises which make a reasonable social life possible. Hence, I propose that answering Strauss’s lifelong fundamental questions—namely, “What is God?” and “What is the just political order?”—would help to unite these factions. This encapsulates what Strauss prescribed for serious minds: the pursuit of the truth about both politics and religion. I think that each of the Straussian extremes could learn a great deal from the other, even if they remain opposed on some critical issues. Yet, it would be precisely on this basis that they might advance toward a mutually beneficial, open-minded position that we might describe as the “Straussian middle.” Thus, by exploring the fundamental questions, they might tentatively move together toward answers to the highest and most ultimate matters, while preserving the priority of the questions.

Kenneth Hart Green
university of toronto
toronto, ontario

Daniel E. Burns replies:

I am grateful to have received this generous reply from Kenneth Hart Green, one of the world’s foremost scholars of Leo Strauss.

Green and I may be in more agreement than he suggests. I never meant to insinuate that it is “obvious—when one considers everything Strauss wrote—that he was an atheist” throughout his life. I called Strauss a “thirty-year-old atheist.” When I said that he lacked “religious faith,” I meant to refer to his entire adult life, but this would be compatible with his having become a type of agnostic in his maturity. I have no objection to the thought that Strauss was (to adopt Green’s formula) “something akin to a ‘cognitive theist,’” either at age thirty or in his maturity.

I did my best to emphasize, as Green rightly emphasizes, the sincerity and depth of Strauss’s personal quest for religious truth. Perhaps Green is concerned that readers will assume, based on their own experiences, that no “thirty-year-old ­atheist” would engage in such a sincere quest. I can only reiterate that I was trying to describe “the extraordinary combination of human characteristics that [Strauss] managed to unite” and that probably no one since him has similarly united.

I am also grateful for Green’s admirable description of how different types of Straussians ought to learn from one another. I hope that many will continue to take his advice, as some of my acquaintance already do.

Image by Picryl via Creative Commons. Image cropped.