CRIMES OF THE TIMES
Some have accused me of being too much of a “Sovietologist” when it comes to reading the New York Times. Last Sunday, a friend accused me of over-reacting when the Times permitted Warren Beatty’s bizarre rant of an op-ed to be published with a whole sentence in ALL CAPS. (Writing in ALL CAPS is usually a sign of wanton self-indulgence and immaturity. Many of the tinfoil heads who write me with conspiracy theories about their CATS KNOWING WHERE JIMMY HOFFA IS BURIED!!! write in ALL CAP). The New York Times would never dream of letting a policy geek or even a mainstream politician write that way, but for Mr. Beatty they probably figured they were being radical and so they threw their style guide out the window. So when I set fire to my face in protest, I was accused of “over-reacting.” Pshaw.
I inherited much of this rage from Poppa Goldberg, who fumes every time he sees that the Times has run a correction about the spelling of the name of some interior designer’s dog, but would never dream of correcting itself about the monstrous inaccuracies that emanate, like stink from a French cheese party, from its editorial biases. Where, for instance, is its apology for treating Stalin like a better-dressed Ghandi?
So anyway, I always read the Times on two levels. First is that text stuff — you know, the stuff that’s going on in the world, AKA news. But I think you also have to read the Times for its Timesness. The Times didn’t think the Cold War was over until it said so. The Times simply asserts what it thinks the news is. Of course, all newspapers do that. But the Times is so revered, so mimicked, so envied by the rest of the media — and the smug bastards know it — that they often dictate the agenda for the country. The Times reportage on the Matthew Shepard, James Byrd, and Dialo cases, to name just three examples, created an entirely bogus national hysteria about the law-enforcement “climate” in America. For the Times, you are now a homophobe if you think that the death penalty or life in prison are adequate punishments for people who murder gay people. No, the Times guys think you need to slap them with hate-crime charges if you’re really going to deter murder.
Anyway, I digress.
Today the Times features a story that is fascinating on both levels, the actual news and the Timesness of its presentation. They have located a new problem with the Internet — it spreads syphilis. “Privacy Questions Raised in Cases of Syphilis Linked to Chat Room,” declares the page 1 story by Evelyn Nieves. Apparently a bunch of San Francisco-area gay dudes who meet through the web are exchanging more than e-mail addresses. Now, anybody who’s typed “Whitehouse.com” instead of “whitehouse.gov” into their browser, knows that sex and the Internet go together like two underwear models in a women’s prison movie. And anybody who’s read And the Band Played On knows that when it comes to promiscuity, the gay community is not exactly comprised of Shakers.
So it turns out that some AOL member set up a chatroom, SFM4M, which stands for “San Francisco Men for Men” (my first guess was Science Fiction Mania 4 Maniacs, but then again I’d rather go where no man has gone before than go where lots of other men have gone — if you know what I mean). And these guys in the chat room shared the love which until about three decades ago dared not speak its name. The problem is that many of these guys only know each other by their chat-room names, or “handles.” Now this is pretty alien stuff to me; not once has a woman said to me “Oh, JonahEmail@AOL.com, sure, you like me now, but will you respect me in the morning?” But to each his own. The Times reports that seven syphilitic men (including one from another chat room) have identified 99 fellas they’ve had sex with in the last three months. One guy got jiggy with it with 47 “partners” (these were, in the parlance of corporate America, “limited partnerships”).
And, of course, gays, San Francisco, syphilis, and rampant anonymous sex are all key ingredients for HIV transmission. So the problem for health officials is, do we track down these guys — even if it means violating their e-privacy? Should AOL give out the info? Blah blah blah, hand-wringing, hand-wringing. You get it now, right? The sanctity of cyber privacy versus a compelling community interest in maintaining public health.
So what is interesting — and annoying — on the news level of this story is this almost mystical quality we assign to the Net. I know I may lose my savvy cyber-dude decoder ring for saying this, but what is so damn special about web privacy? If these guys were meeting in a bar or a bathhouse, what would be the big deal? The state needs to stop the spread of awful diseases like syphilis and AIDS. But for some reason if you add the word “computer” to any discussion about state authority, the number of self-described civil libertarians jumps about 25%. This is remarkably similar to the debates we had in the 1980s, when adding the word “gay” created civil liberties that never occurred to anyone when TB or typhoid broke out.
Take the recent brouhaha over the feds’ desire to disable encryption on suspected criminals’ computers — provided they get a warrant. Drug dealers and organized-crime bosses are using computer encryption to communicate securely via the Internet, because phones can be too easily tapped. I know plenty of people who have no major problem with wire taps for phones but think cyber taps are somehow unadulterated evidence that Big Brother is on the march. I don’t get it; the cops would still need a warrant.
Now, the annoying thing about the Timesness of the story is the way they report homosexuality. It’s not until the twelfth paragraph that the word “homosexual” appears anywhere in the story. Indeed, nowhere on the front-page portion of the article is it deemed relevant — or interesting — to make it clear that this is a gay problem. Instead, you see, it’s an Internet problem or maybe a health problem. It’s no big deal that these guys are playing candygram-for-mongo with dozens of random dudes, it’s a problem that there’s a conflict with our cherished web privacy. If these guys were passing turbo-cooties the old-fashioned way — at, say, the hospitality booth of the men’s’ Olympic figure-skating team — would the Times even think it worth printing? Doubtful, because after all, who are we to judge?
The Times has been at the forefront of mainstreaming gays and ridiculing people who disagree with them for more than a decade now. If you’re a religious conservative you’re a hate-filled weirdo. If you’re a wildly promiscuous gay guy, well, you’re just celebrating life on your own terms. I don’t think the Times should go back to calling gays “perverts” as it did as recently as the 1970s, but it’d be nice if they could put their agenda down long enough to give it to us straight from time to time.
No pun intended.