New Essay at The Atlantic – “Mark Sanford, Romantic Hero”

Mark Sanford won a special election for Congress in South Carolina this week after many pundits and politicians believed his career was over due to his irresponsible actions as governor. He left the state for six days to win the affection of an Argentinian journalist with whom he had fallen in love and exchanged emails for over a year. He left his wife and risked his political career in making the trip, and said that he did so, because “he could die knowing that he found his soul mate.” Sanford and the journalist are currently engaged.

I am not sure if it is politically good that Sanford now has a seat in Congress. I don’t really care. Culturally, however, it is very good.

American culture needs examples of romantic bravery and, instead of punishing those who risk everything for love, we should respond with empathy and even measured respect.

I make this argument in my new essay for The Atlantic“Mark Sanford, Romantic Hero.” It is sad and unfortunate that Sanford hurt his wife and children, but those who understand and appreciate the power of love realize that it is a mysterious and frightening directive. It can inspire beauty, cruelty, and a combination of both. As the Rev. Al Green sings, “Love and happiness / It’ll make you do right / Make you do wrong.”

In the essay, I contextualize the Sanford affair by placing it smack dab in the middle of an American culture committed to denying the power of love – “Sanford’s display of romantic bravery that rivals the depiction of the mysterious directive in tragedies and epics is rare in politics. In fact, it is rare in American culture where more and more people prefer to play it safe. Hooking up, online dating, and resistance to the traditional date are simply ways of disguising a guardedness that betrays a fear of love. Real love will make people behave like Sanford, and that is frightening. As essayist Cristina Nehring points out, American culture offers the twin gods of ‘meaningless sex’ and ‘meaningless marriage’ in order to quiet such fear.”

Life is a complicated affair and those who live it on the emotional edges run the risk of creating messy and hurtful situations. To look at the general response to the Sanford affair, however – and the comment section of my article gives a good illustration – is to believe that everyone has lives that are neat, clean, and never marked by the foibles of love and lust. Human affection and intimacy are good, they have value in themselves, and they deserve honor and respect. Sometimes, they win the day, and in the process, leave a path of wreckage, but that wreckage is easier to manage than the quiet death of ignoring the dictates of the heart and the truth of the imagination.

Read the entire essay to learn how I separate Sanford from Clinton, Craig, Spitzer, and other public officials disgraced by sex scandal, and to learn how I would cast the romantic comedy inspired by Sanford’s story.

New Essay for The Atlantic: Why Still So Few Use Condoms

Liberals are obsessed with condoms. They are convinced that teenagers, adult couples, and gay men don’t use condoms because they don’t have sufficient “knowledge and awareness,” and they believe that the Catholic Church is primarily responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, because of its stupid policy of preaching against condoms.

In my new essay for The Atlantic“Why Still So Few Use Condoms” – I take on these myths, and I acknowledge the politically incorrect truth, logic, and reality that most people don’t like or use condoms because they significantly rob sexuality of pleasure, intimacy, and spontaneity.

I also write about how the unlikely and unholy alliance of Planned Parenthood and the religious right have convinced generations of Americans that something they invented call “precum” can impregnate women, despite a mountain of evidence proving that the opposite is true.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was possible for me to write about all of this, because of the necessary, noble, and heroic work of Bill Gates, who after finding that in Africa most people don’t use condoms because of the pleasure factor, he has offered a $100,000 grant to anyone who can present credibly demonstrate that they are developing a condom that will “enhance pleasure.”

I begin my essay with a few quotes from the mighty Norman Mailer who put it best when telling Madonna, of all people, that “the only thing you can depend on with condoms is that they will take 20 to 50 percent off your fuck.”

New Essay for The Atlantic – “The Real Problem With Hooking Up: Bad Sex”

The dominance of the market and utilitarianism over American culture has created a sexual lifestyle that rejects risk, intimacy, and depth. It has removed the fun and adventure from sex, and turned even casual sex with a new partner into a boring, mechanical, and idiotic experience. I’ve suspected that “hookup culture” is destructive to good sex after observing how little college students flirt, and after listening to some of the guarded, but honest comments students make about their sex lives.

Donna Freitas confirms my suspicions in her new book, The End of Sex. She conducted thousands of interviews to research her subject, and she determined, based on students’ own words, that hookup culture leads to bad and boring sex that leaves its participants unfulfilled at all levels.

In a new essay for The Atlantic, I review her book and give my own insight into hookup culture. The book review and essays allows me to put forward an argument that I’ve been making for a long time –  “The most lamentable aspect of hookup culture is not, as some social conservatives would argue, that it will lead to the moral decay of a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, but that it is so boring.”

hookup_culture_mIn a culture caught between puritanism and pornography, Freitas offers a third way to sexual independence and autonomy. It is a way for those of us who believe that conversation is often the best foreplay, moments of tenderness are more memorable than animalistic orgasms had without thought or emotion, and as I put it in the article, “The electrifying mystery of romance is powered by the surge of a smile from a stranger across the room, the heat generated by hands on an unfamiliar set of hips on the dance floor, and the sweet synchronicity of flirtation.”

The Harmony: My Speaking Event at the University of Wisconsin

Dr. Craig Werner is a professor of African-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin who was written several books – two of which are essential to understanding the power of black music in American life: A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America and Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul.

Most of the courses he teaches are about black music and African-American literature, but right now he is offering a seminar on the music of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Dr. Werner recently read my book, Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen, along with the handful of articles I’ve written about Bob Dylan’s too often overlooked Christian music. He invited me to visit Madison, Wisconsin and speak to his students.

I was thrilled to accept the invitation. I arrived in Madison on Monday November 12th, and met with Dr. Werner for drinks at a local blues club called The Harmony Bar and Grill. After getting to know each other much of our conversation focused on the problems that result from contemporary culture’s insistence on compartmentalizing the human condition. There is a self-defeating tendency to separate the mind, body, and spirit into three independent entities when a realistic view of life and a healthy approach is to understand that the soul and the intellect – the spiritual and the sexual – are always interconnected. Life is at its best – its most terrifying and thrilling – when the interplay is at its most intense.

Dr. Werner’s book A Change is Gonna Come explains and articulates this idea with the predicate of black music in a way that provides new understanding, insight, and clairvoyance. In jazz, blues, and soul – from Ray Charles to Mary J. Blige – there exists the exercise of what Werner calls the “gospel impulse.”

Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are rare in that they are white artists who imbue their work with the gospel impulse, and that they both submit everything to an ongoing process of sacralization. Springsteen often takes concepts from the Catholicism of his childhood and simply removes the capital letter. The phrase “sanctity of life” comes from the Catholic church, but Springsteen transforms the phrase into a catholic principle by making the body sacred, friendship sacred, community sacred, and sexuality sacred. The socio-spiritual quality of Bob Dylan’s Christian music – songs that divide between angry gospel and love songs to God – shows the same inspired and inspirational determination.

During my visit with the students I explained that one of the functions of great writers – whether they are working with a guitar or a notebook, a keyboard or a keypad – is to take something that everyone is thinking about and articulate it with a language that allows everyone to realize they’ve been thinking about it and then go out and talk about it.

Werner’s writing on the gospel impulse does exactly that. He defines it as “the belief that life’s burdens can be transformed into hope and salvation. It is the promise of redemption.” He goes on to elaborate:

At its best, the gospel impulse helps people experience themselves in relation to rather than on their own.  Gospel makes the feeling of human separateness, which is what the blues are all about, bearable.  It’s why DJs and the dancers they shape into momentary communities are telling the truth when they describe dance as a religious experience.

The gospel impulse half-remembers the values brought to the new world by the men and women uprooted from West African cultures:  the connection between the spiritual and material worlds; the interdependence of self and community; the honoring of the elders and the ancestors; the recognition of the ever-changing flow of experience that renders all absolute ideologies meaningless….

The gospel impulse consists of a three-step process:  (1) acknowledging the burden; (2) bearing witness; (3) finding redemption. The burden grounds the song in the history of suffering that links individual and community experiences….We don’t choose our burdens; we do choose our responses.

Musicians grounded in the gospel impulse respond by bearing witness to the troubles they’ve seen, telling the deepest truths they know….The word “witness” works partly because the burden involves history, power.  There’s an evil in the world and…lots of it comes from the Devil.  Call him sex or money, hypocrisy or capitalism, the landlord or Governor Wallace, but the Devil’s real.  You deal with him or he, maybe she, will most definitely deal with you…Gospel promises, or at least holds out the possibility, that tomorrow may be different, better…Whatever its specific incarnation, gospel redemption breaks down the difference between personal salvation and communal liberation.  No one makes it alone.  If we’re going to bear up under the weight of the cross, find the strength to renounce the Devil, if we’re going to survive to bear witness and move on up, we’re going to have to connect.  The music shows us how.

Without planning on it when I originally received the invitation to speak at the University of Wisconsin, I was able to add my own ornamentation to the tree that Werner built for his students. I played the Springsteen song “Human Touch” and discussed how, in the school of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, Springsteen presents sexuality as a sanctuary from a troubled world. It is not only physically stimulating, but also spiritually edifying. It is sacred – not a hedonistic tool used for manipulation that goes toward conquering another person for the purposes of your own pleasure nor a sacrifice made on the altar of a church’s doctrinal demand.

I also played “Shot of Love” by Bob Dylan and explained how it represents and expresses a form of spiritual combat. Surrounded by sin and social injustice, Dylan cries out that he needs a “shot of love” rather than submitting to the pressure to conform to a materialistic order or fighting fire with fire by engaging in the same kind of hate and hostility that he condemns. He has faith in God, but he isn’t optimistic: “What I got ain’t painful / It’s just bound to kill me dead / Like the men who followed Jesus when they put a price upon his head.”

I once watched Dr. Cornel West explain at St. Sabina Church on the southside of Chicago how listening to certain forms of music – blues, gospel – can make you a better person. I believe that is true, because I’m a product of it.

Conversation can also make us better – intellectually, spiritually, and morally. Dr. Werner’s contribution to a national conversation, and his inclusion of me in it, has made me better. I hope that my contribution to the conversation in his classroom has made his students better.

September PopMatters Column: Sex Education and Smokey Robinson

The newest installment in my monthly column for PopMatters is up. In my new essay, I use the concert experience of a true American treasure – Smokey Robinson – to write about music history, the enduring power of Motown, and the joyful and playful sexuality that Smokey expresses. In the essay – “The Way You Do The Things You Do: Sex Education and Smokey Robinson” – I make the argument that “In his golden years, Robinson is more convincingly and excitingly sexual than nearly every young performer who will join the parade of sensationalistic imagery on the MTV VMA awards,” because, “He always understood and continues to understand that sexuality is best enjoyed when it is playful, romantic, passionate, and generous.”

One of the most sad and tragic elements of contemporary American culture is the removal of playfulness, intimacy, and most of all, fun from sexuality. Two warring factions of extreme viewpoints – I’ll call them the Bible Belt and Breast Implants crowds – have reduced sexuality to an ideological prop and a method of conquest. Whether the vulgarity of hip hop, pornography, and much discussed “hook up” culture seeks to conquer a partner for the purposes of ego orgasm or the puritanism of virginity pledges, abstinence only sex education, and censorship aims to conquer sexual impulses for the purposes of political orgasm, sex no longer looks free and fun.

Smokey Robinson is not only one of America’s greatest living songwriters and singers, but he is also an avatar of an alternative form of sexuality – one that embodies the ethic of reciprocity – one that seeks to share pleasure – one that is fun, but also one that is spiritual.

Many of my columns at PopMatters have elevated the joy of the black musical experience. I’ve written about Mary J. Blige, Shemekia Copeland, Ruthie Foster, Diana Ross, Nikki Jean, and now Smokey Robinson, in an attempt to demonstrate that the joyful swirl of sensuality and spirituality surrounds the best of black music and imbues it with a form of magic – magic that makes the listener feel more human.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to believe that Smokey Robinson is one of the greatest exemplars of this tradition, and that he is, at this point, the most important living popular American musical performer. His influence is immeasurable and inarguable. He, along with Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder, represent the last living legends of Motown. The soul-pop music of their era, which also hit the airwaves from Chicago (Curtis Mayfield, Chaka Kahn), Philadelphia (Teddy Pendergrass, The Ojays), and Memphis (Al Green, The Staple Singers), possessed a spiritual joy that sustains those performers and their audience. It combines the influence of the church and the club to create a live experience that is beyond anything else on the modern stage. The professionalism and excellence of those performers shoots through the loins, quickens the heart, and shakes the soul.

“The Way You Do The Things You Do: Sex Education and Smokey Robinson” touches on all these issues and ideas, but it is most about the “sex education” of Smokey Robinson. “Doesn’t it feel good to feel good?” he asked the audience towards the end of his show. It is a question of both simplicity and profundity, and it is one that many people – obsessive porn users, careerists who treat sex as a blocked activity on an itemized calendar, and young people terrified of intimacy – need to look in the mirror and ask.

Fun, romantic, and intimate sexuality needs rescuing in American culture, and Smokey Robinson offers a lifeline.