I’ve been looking for a way to talk about Jerry Falwell’s death. There are the obvious things. You know, how he was hateful and disgusting and sinister and crafty and crass. He won’t be missed largely because he has already won the big battle, namely, bringing the legitimacy of hate back into the center of political discourse. Slate.com nicely listed some highlights of his career, including the classic blame: 11 September 2001 is the fault of feminists, et. al.
This “et. al.” is what most interests me. Though Falwell had a nice list – classics, really – there is actually very little range. Familiar enemies, all of them, but many have the common feature of exposed bodies. Not just bodies in general, specific kinds of bodies and bodies in specific kinds of positions. He loved body cavities, which is to say that he loved to hate them and have such anxiety about them. The obsession he and the moral majority have had with not just the fact of gayness, but details of kinds of gay sex, is just too easy. The simultaneity of moral condemnation and excited voyeurism – it is almost trite to make note of it. That is no small part of the problem in thinking about guys like Falwell. They just aren’t that complicated. So, what is there to say, really?
Body cavities bring him into an uncomfortably intimate space, as it were, with his great Satan, his great enemy and whose famous “ad” I’ve posted here: Larry Flynt. It strikes me as noteworthy that Falwell and Flynt share this obsession with open and spread bodies, in both life and death. Falwell was of course obsessed with men penetrating men, with undomesticated women somewhere other than under the sheets, and with the open body of death – for him, abortion. Flynt changed mainstream pornography with the “beaver shot” – spread legged women in Hustler – famously pioneered “reader submission” of the same sort of pictures, and blended all of this with violence. No matter their difference, the blend of fantasized open body cavities with violence and death puts them just so close. So close, in fact, that the moral positions seem hardly to matter. After all, the endless chatter about sinners and their sins can be pretty hot. Or creepy. Either way, pornographic.
Falwell was also so sinister because of how he cleared the space for hate “after racism.” By “after racism,” I mean that shift in our culture and political life after which outright, honest, plainspoken racism was just untenable. This created a real crisis for conservatives. Falwell and the Moral Majority made hate possible again. Or at least transformed racial hatred, giving it a code. The extreme right was really stuck in the seventies. After the civil rights movement, it had become much more difficult to go crazy conservative, as just hating black people was so, well, fifties. Turning attention to gay people, feminists, and abortion rights folks, he mobilized everything productive about hate toward the worst ends. He poisoned our culture just so much. It says nothing good about me that I’m happy he has died, but I am happy. So be it.
Lastly, take a moment to hear out Christopher Hitchens on Falwell. I’m not a fan of Hitchens, not at all, but this is seriously awesome.