[8 April 2003]
There are those of us who adopt a “different strokes for different folks” philosophy when it comes to other people’s actions and preferences. And then there are those of us who see lifestyles like homosexuality, promiscuity and drug use as morally wrong and who want to discourage the masses from practicing term. Terms for these people range from ‘virtuous’ to “virtuecrats,” or, as Andrew Sullivan refers to them, “scolds.” These people are the target of, and inspiration for Dan Savage as he wrote his book Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America.
As a sex columnist, atheist and homosexual, Savage obviously has an axe to grind with his muses, who include William J. Bennett, Patrick Buchanan and Robert Bork (author of Slouching Towards Gomorrah), as they all oppose his way of life and the sins he explores. As he sees it, despite their claims of virtue or patriotism or guidance, their attempts to discourage people from living their lives as they see fit or pleasurable is denying one of the main tenets of this country: the pursuit of happiness. “They’ve convinced themselves that the pursuit of happiness by less virtuous Americans is both a personal and a political attack.” Their continued attempts to change people actually makes them inherently bad, explains Savage, as they prevent others from their right to pursue happiness. He adds, “Sinners, unlike the virtuous, do not attempt to impose their definition of happiness on others,” as he talks about his failure to ever meet a pot smoker who tried to force non-drug users to toke or gay people out to convince straights to become homosexuals.
In order to prove his point, that is, that America’s sinners can be and often are good people, Savage took a tour of the country, committing the seven deadly sins and meeting those who take pleasure in lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, anger and pride. Savage respectively meets with an Orthodox Jewish couple from Illinois who swings, attended at National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance convention in Las Vegas (where he also gambled, of course), smoked pot and lay in bed watching movies at home, spent a week at an exclusive and outrageously expensive spa in California, fired off some rounds at a shooting range in Texas and attended the Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco.
Savage’s chapters vary in style from personal profile to personal essay to political rant, which keep them moving fast and generally avoid preachiness. And, let’s face it, reading about sin and the practices we hear of yet perhaps do not perform is fascinating and voyeuristic. It’s difficult to avoid thinking, however, about the Savage’s selections for his investigations of the “seven deadlies.” Is gun use the prototypical example of violence? Could he have attended an eating contest for gluttony? And does gay pride fall necessarily under “pride,” or could that be “lust”? Of course, though, he book is not a dissertation on what the seven deadly sins are: it’s more of an examination of just how sinful the sinners actually are (i.e. he goes to great pains to display the swinging couple as being very upstanding, very religious and doting upon their children.)
Although from this description, it would seem that Savage’s mission would be to embark upon conservative-bashing and a bunch of “neener-neener, people are having fun sinning and there’s nothing you can do about it.” But it’s not the case. Savage himself is like many of us: a mixed bag. A Catholic from the Midwest who can be both squeamish and cynical when it comes to many of the ‘sinful’ practices and movements, while he often points out what he sees as the folly of the scolds, he many times sees their point and isn’t afraid to call into question many of the people he profiles in the book. He sees many of the obese people at the NAAFA convention as being deluded, for instance, and takes the homosexual community to task for slapping purposeful phrases like “for gay youth” and “pride” onto events and products that are really just for fun and entertainment.
Along with his entertaining storytelling, Savage’s insights are refreshingly candid for the millennium. For instance, he spots the Catch-22 of the issue of the legalization of marijuana. While many people in the country partake of the drug, including upright, responsible citizens, most of those lobbying for its legalization represent the negative stereotype of marijuana users: essentially, the potheads and hippies who wear tie-dyed shirts, smell of patchouli and haven’t held down a job that doesn’t require a nametag or hairnet. This of course gives the wrong impression that all drug users are the stereotype, but until more upstanding individuals take up the cause of legalizing marijuana, more upstanding individuals who support the cause of legalizing marijuana will be afraid to make themselves known, for fear of being lumped with what is seen as a bad influence.
With a tone that is simultaneously gleeful and irreverent while circumspect and cynical, Savage’s entertaining and thought-provoking book is at once bound to provide a glimpse at how “the other side” lives, as well as change a few minds.