Skipping Towards Gomorrah
The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America
by Dan Savage
Dutton, $23.95, 302 pages
THE AMERICAN SODOMITES have found their defender and his name is, appropriately, Dan Savage. In his day job, Savage writes a wonderfully lewd sex column in which he reports on a great variety of bizarre sexual practices with chilling and not-at-all self-conscious candor. And the light touch he has brought to erotic fetishism surfaces throughout his new book's loosely organized riffs on politics and American culture.
But while "Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America" is often entertaining, it is not always truthful. As a political analyst, Savage suffers from a condition that makes him believe the very worst of his enemies, no matter how obviously phony the charge. Another symptom of this malady is an almost chemical dependence on strawmen.
First the good. Savage's best licks come as he endeavors to commit the seven deadly sins to illustrate the many ways in which happiness can be pursued. On a cross-country frolic, he gambles in Las Vegas, parades in Los Angeles, attends a fat-is-beautiful conference in San Francisco, hires a prostitute in New York City, and much else. Along the way he discovers some exceptional interview material.
Take David and Bridget, a conservative Jewish couple from the Chicago area. They have two children and they keep a kosher house, but once or twice a month they swing, meaning they go to a club and swap sexual partners with other couples. Organized swinging has doubled since the 1970s, its supposed heyday, and David and Bridget would give the practice a most respectable face if only they didn't keep it a secret--a choice Savage, himself an out-of-the-closet gay, finds regrettable.
Following up, Savage asks if they would ever tell their children. David says no. "I wouldn't want to know all the details of my parents' sex life. I mean, if your parents had been swingers, would you want them to tell you about it?" It's good that the confessional culture knows some boundaries.
Savage is a delightful and sensitive guide. One trusts his instincts on the people he features and gathers that these people also trust him to represent faithfully what they are up to, as when Savage attends a conference run by the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance. What makes the conference especially interesting is the complete absence of a consensus on the organization's primary mission. More than a few attendees apparently believe the campaign to defend and celebrate fat people is bad for fat people.
Savage falls in with a woman named Teresa, who's recently left a fat-appreciating husband (such men are referred to as FAs, fat admirers) and has even undergone weight-loss surgery. NAAFA considers such procedures as liposuction and stomach stapling to be an insult to fat people. Teresa is fast becoming a dissident to the movement's politically-correct codes. She tells the story of a late friend, a 31-year-old woman who weighed 700 pounds. The friend "sat up in bed one day, took a breath, and slumped over dead. She couldn't be cremated in Sacramento because no funeral home had an oven that was big enough to accommodate her body."
But this isn't just a comic-tragic tour of America's sometimes exotic mores. "Skipping Towards Gomorrah" is a polemic. Savage wants to slay the conservative scold, typified by such giants of the culture wars as Bill Bennett, Pat Buchanan, and Robert Bork. And with each of these stories, he's trying to pick a fight. For example, Savage wants to know why Bennett, so willing to argue against gay marriage on the grounds that gays don't believe in monogamy, hasn't criticized the growing swinging movement. Savage's unsubtle suggestion is that Bennett is not interested in virtue or strong marriages, only gay-bashing.
There are, of course, any number of reasons a guy like Bennett wouldn't take up the subject--for one, unlike gays, swingers seem to have little intereste in making fundamental changes to marriage law--but Savage doesn't care. If there is a bad thing to be said about his opponents, then it's worth saying. Even if it isn't true.
Indeed, a brief fact-checking experiment on Savage's chapter on anger and guns turns up several falsehoods. Savage writes that "ten children" are "shot and killed in the United States every day." Where he got this 10-children factoid, Savage doesn't say. Fortunately several pro-gun-control groups that publicize the same number do. The number comes from the Centers for Disease Control.
Using CDC numbers, however, the only way to get such a figure is by including 15- to 19-year-olds, an age group that is responsible for more than its share of violence in our society. As Iain Murray of the Statistical Assessment Service puts it: "Calling a 19-year-old drug dealer a 'child' is definitely stretching the point." What's the number of "children" under 15 who are shot and killed on a daily basis? It's less than two--1.3 per day, when you control for suicides.
In the same chapter, Savage complains about the "NRA-backed" concealed handgun bill George W. Bush signed into law as governor of Texas. He doesn't mention that in the two years after this law took effect, the murder rate in Texas fell by 25 percent, much faster than it did in states without concealed weapon laws. In a similar vein, Savage states that in Texas, it is legal to carry a gun into a house of worship, yet another embarrassing-to-Bush story, this one circulated by the New York Times during the presidential campaign. Too bad it isn't true.
Sometimes this willingness to believe the unbelievable leads Savage to say the utterly ridiculous. In his chapter on sloth and marijuana use, he writes: "Personally, I would rather see a stressed-out teenage boy pick up a bong every once in a while than pick up a gun and shoot his parents, teachers, classmates, soccer coach, and piano teacher to death."
There's so much to laugh at in that statement, but perhaps funniest part is the opening modifier, "personally." It is to say: You, an unreconstructed caveman drug-warrior, right-wing virtue obsessive might prefer that people die by the dozen in regular serial killings than see a teenager get high, but I, the wise and progressive Dan Savage, see things a little bit differently.
Master of the anecdote, purveyor of leftist propaganda, and shameless producer of strawmen, Savage perhaps cannot be all things to all people. But there is one more role he plays in this book that is worth mentioning, that of the patriot. It may be telling of his overall seriousness that Savage sees this most public role, yet again, as a private matter, but let's not quibble too much. "Personally speaking," he writes, "I would rather live in a country where I can buy a drink, kiss a guy, and rent a hooker without risking a public beheading. I also think it's better for women to be free--free to get an education, to have a career, and obtain an abortion."
Unlike Susan Sontag and some other anti-American leftists, Savage is undivided in his affection for this country. He believes the United States is worth fighting for, just not some "1950s era dream of the United States." And, hey, that's seems fair enough.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.