American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics, by Dan Savage, Dutton, 280 Pages, $26.95.
Dan Savage inhabits an interesting niche in the American body politic. How exactly did a gay man whose career took off as a sex columnist for (mostly) straight progressives in alternative weeklies end up as a national “thought leader” within the gay community, a boogeyman to the far right, a parenting symbol, an anti-bullying advocate, and a household name?
The essays in Savage’s latest book, American Savage, bounce back and forth among his various interests—a sampler platter that probably isn’t particularly filling for his devoted followers but may well be devoured by detractors looking for reasons to be offended. And that’s the deal with Savage, really. To be Dan Savage is to have your comments constantly picked over for any potential offense, whether it’s from Christian conservatives looking for proof that Savage hates religion and wants to corrupt their children or from sensitive progressives who take any sort of cultural criticism as a personal attack.
Savage may have a reputation as a rabble-rousing, sex-obsessed loose cannon, but fundamentally he’s a communitarian. He argues that sexual liberation—whether through non-monogamy, non-traditional bedroom behavior, or anything that leads to sexual enjoyment without harming others—strengthens relationships. He criticizes those who advise suppressing your non-traditional sexual desires, on the grounds that such repression results in soul-dead marriages, cheating, and divorce. He’s a sexual realist, not a libertine, a stance formed by his frustration with the Catholic Church’s proscriptions against non-procreative sexual behavior.
Savage’s conflicts with the religious right are filtered through that lens. His arguments are not necessarily about preventing religion from influencing the law; it’s about the harms he believes are caused by repressive, regressive religious positions. These may manifest through anti-sodomy laws or through the denial of marriage recognition of gay couples. They also may manifest in bullying, an issue that has become Savage’s latest crusade. He makes many sharp points on these subjects, but you get the impression that Savage doesn’t object to the influence religious conservatives have on policy in a country where church and state are intended to be separate; he just thinks they’re on the wrong side.
Savage focuses several chapters on his interactions with Christian conservatives, notably Rick Santorum and the National Organization for Marriage. He also devotes some chapters to his attitudes toward sex, particularly his defense of not-entirely-but-mostly monogamous relationships, a position that sets him apart from most other advice columnists. He spends a chapter on his conflicts with bisexuals and his statements (which he now repudiates) that bisexual men don’t really exist. In his most political chapters, he defends the Affordable Care Act and gun control on typical boilerplate progressive grounds.
The chapter on the Affordable Care Act is particularly disappointing. Savage spends much of the essay arguing about whether ObamaCare is socialism, pointing out the role Republicans played in crafting the ideas in the legislation. Libertarians’ detailed, documented concerns about the economic and logistics problems the law will cause (and is currently causing) are dismissed with a churlish footnote declaring that libertarians are against ObamaCare because they are willing to “sacrifice” everybody’s lives for small government. He’s so busy pointing out that the insurance mandate was the conservative Heritage Foundation’s idea that he never recognizes its unjust economic impact on young working-class Americans.
His chapter on gun control, meanwhile, dismisses (again in a footnote) those who argue that prohibitions don’t work or prevent gun violence with a misguided analogy about a person declining to call the fire department about a house fire because it’s now too late to have prevented it. The same argument could have come out of the mouth of the most rabid conservative proponent of the war on drugs. It’s also nonsensical. Fire trucks don’t prevent fires in the first place.
The book feels much more engaging when Savage writes about his own experiences rather than spitting out quotes from others. Gay marriage and parenting are big debates right now, and Savage’s family—his husband and their adopted son—are smack in the middle of it all. The book’s best chapter is “Crazy, Mad, Salacious,” which describes how the awkward portrayals of gay men on television while Savage was growing shaped his behavior, and then later made him look at the way television portrays heterosexual boys now that he was raising a son of his own. The chapter ends in an amusing twist as Savage finds himself inadvertently immersed in a stereotype he had been fighting against for decades, only to find it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the mincing flamer that TV presented.
Savage is less interesting when he writes about gay issues that don’t directly touch on his family. His chapter on closeted anti-gay leaders could have been written by anybody, and therefore feels like it was written by nobody in particular. And his while his fight with the religious right is ongoing, it already feels dated. The people whose outlook on gay matters Savage has the capacity to change – well, most of those folks have changed. The people who Savage continues to battle probably aren’t ever going to alter their views; his idea of community will never match theirs, and vice versa. The book would have been better served by focusing more on his family’s relationship with the world, a topic that is interesting and different, rather than his opinions on culture and politics, which are not.
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