I had the TV on to MSNBC, listening to the progressive cable channel chew over Anthony Weiner. Chris Matthews was sputtering with (I suppose) astonishment and dismay, talking to two psychologists, trying to understand why Weiner did what he did. In a very brief exchange, he said, “I just don’t get it. I think, I get, I get sex—.” By which he meant that he understood sex, but didn’t understand the motivation of a man like Weiner. He went on, “—like we all do. We get sex. Male and female. Gay and straight—” By this point I am sitting up and listening hard. He is going on, and then he begins that characteristic thing he does. He stutters, searching for his next word. He can’t immediately come up with it so he says, “—and—other possibilities.” He didn’t mean to say that. His stuttering displayed his ignorance. Don’t start with gay, unless you know what you’re going to say after you’ve said straight.
Chris was exploring how and why the sex drives of all of us end up making damned fools of a lot of us, even making some of us call ourselves names like Carlos Danger. But people have never been able to control their sex to any great degree since the beginning of the earth, and what is astonishing is that Chris Matthews was acting astonished and dismayed by that fact.
If Chris had started with gay and ended with straight, he would have painted himself as even more offensive than he did when he ended it with “—and—other possibilities.” At least Chris recognizes that there are others—all the rest of us, men and women who are neither gay nor straight—who have to be acknowledged, even if we are not named. This brief exchange puts his ignorance, and the poverty of our language, on display. He didn’t know what to call them, those other possibilities, so it is a pretty fair bet that he didn’t know how to think about them, either.
Chris’s real mistake was in starting his analysis of sex by thinking of sex as if it were a binary construct. “I get sex, like we all do. We get sex. Male and female.” The way he edged into his little discussion is to introduce male and female and sex and the idea of straight, an understandable if parochial mental knee-jerk. He took what he knew best, introduced that into the discussion, and then used gay and straight to start a progression. But the trouble with such a progression—gay, straight, and other possibilities—is that you can’t wimp out like that. You have to name the genders, one by one, once you name the first one. Unfortunately, the human race is built so you can’t ever name them all.
What Chris Matthews should have done on his program tonight was open his line of inquiry by asking his two psychologists, “Can you talk about what drives us when we want to have sex with another person?” And then, “What is it about sex that often makes us lose ourselves in it?” And, in that rapid-fire way he has, he should have asked another question, before the psychologists had had a chance to answer his first two, “Why does sex so often make us make fools of ourselves?”
What we need are new words, new ways of talking about these matters, and so new ways of thinking.