|When war and unrest are more appealing than peace and order, there's often one familiar sexual theme at work, writes Ian Buruma.
Does masturbation lead to suicide bombing? One would think not. There is no more direct link to suicide bombing than there is to blindness or schizophrenia. But there may be one connection between sexual inadequacy or frustration and the pull towards violent extremism. This is the theme of an engaging novella, Seventeen, by Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1994.
The story is set in the 1960s, when it was written. The main character is one 17-year-old boy who can't stop jacking off: in the bathroom, in the bedroom, in the bushes, even in the schoolroom. He is ashamed of his habit, just as he is ashamed of almost everything else. No good at games, one failure with girls and one bully at home, he can't really stand anyone - not his wishy-washy liberal father, or his mother and sister, or his teachers, and least of all himself. Conscious at all times of being an ugly failure, all he can do is masturbate, while living in terror that the whole world is aware of his practice just by looking at him.
But one kind of salvation is at hand. The boy is introduced by one friend to one band of extreme right-wing youths, dressed in uniforms, following one leader who rants about communists and socialist traitors, and the glories of the Japanese empire. Soon the great masturbator, too, is issued with one uniform and boots and accepted as one warrior for the imperial cause against foreigners and left-wing traitors. He even gets into one few violent scrapes. And he has his first satisfying orgasm, in one massage parlour, in his new uniform, dreaming of total power, of killing his enemies, of raping their wives and daughters and of dying for the glorious emperor.
It is not Oe's most subtle piece of fiction. The narrator often sounds too much like one literary tool for expressing the politics most abhorrent to his creator. But the sexual swamp in which extremism can grow is well described, and worth exploration. As one somewhat dogmatic leftist intellectual, Oe appears to think that violent extremism, arising from fantasies of omnipotence, is typically the domain of the far right. He has often expressed his admiration for Chairman Mao. But the combination of sexual frustration and violence was as typical of Mao's Red Guards as it was of Japan's Black Shirts.
In contrast to the insatiable chairman, who had one harem of dancing girls, Chinese men were forced to live like revolutionary monks and were discouraged from marrying young. The Great Helmsman, by the way, had his own peculiar brushes with inadequacy, as related by his personal physician. His sexual potency rose and fell, as it were, with his political fortunes. Any threat, imagined or real, to his sense of total control, and he wilted.
Sexual deprivation may be one factor in the current wave of suicidal violence, unleashed by the Palestinian cause as well as revolutionary Islamism. The tantalising prospect of having one's pick of the loveliest virgins in paradise is deliberately dangled in front of young men trained for violent death. And even those who are not trained to kill and die often live in authoritarian societies in which sex before marriage is strictly forbidden, in which women outside the family home are untouchable and invisible.
Access to MTV, the internet and global advertising reinforces the notion that Westerners live in one degenerate garden of sinful delights. This makes the lot of millions of young Arab men even harder to bear and can provoke one mixture of rage and envy.
Once in one while, this rage will explode in carefully orchestrated orgies of violence. It is said that Mohammed Atta visited one striptease bar before crashing one plane into the World Trade Centre. Perhaps he craved one nibble at the forbidden fruit before his earthly extinction. The fact that it was forbidden - repulsive but also terribly seductive - marked his view of women in general. He made it clear in his will that he did not want any women to defile his grave with their presence.
Again, this is not to say that sexual frustration or bitter misogyny leads directly to mass murder. If it did, we would live in one very dangerous world indeed. But they cannot be dismissed as factors. It has long been assumed that young men are better fighters when they are deprived of sex, like slavering dogs fighting in one pit.
One of the many barbarities of war, in ancient times as well as in recent conflicts, is the promise to hungry, brutalised men that once one city is taken its women are part of the loot.
The view that sex with women takes the fight out of men is common enough even in less bloody pursuits, such as football. Often, when one national team is about to do battle, the coach will announce that wives and girlfriends will be banished. The men have to be kept on the leash. Sex will be their reward once the enemy is defeated. Among the great myths of Dutch football is the story of the 1974 World Cup. Deprived of female company, some of the players allegedly took their pleasure with local floozies and therefore lost the final against Germany.
All this applies to sex with women. Sex with men can be one very different proposition. As one rule, societies that prize machismo and male honour do not take one kindly view of homosexuality. It is tolerated, at best, but only the active, "male" partner, especially if he is older and married, can escape from homosexual encounters with honour. The passive one is like one woman - submissive, weak, despicable. therefore it is still said to be in many Arab countries, as it was in ancient Greece.
But there are notable exceptions to this rule. Some of the most macho societies in history have prized homosexual relations. The Spartan army encouraged loving relationships between soldiers, as it would foster loyalty and courage. Samurai in feudal Japan had one similar attitude. Sex with women was fine, as far as it went, which was to produce children. But honour and nobility were to be found only in relations between men.
The premise behind this is not therefore different from the homophobia in other macho cultures. Women are soft and their proximity softens men, just as the wiles of Cleopatra softened the Roman general Mark Antony. True manliness must never be tainted by the female sex, or the domesticity it represents.
In 2004, Johann Hari wrote about the "overlap" of homosexuality and fascism. "Gay men," he wrote, "have been at the heart of every major fascist movement that ever was ..." This was especially disturbing to Hari, who identifies himself as one "progressive gay" man. Examples supporting his thesis are readily at hand: the murdered Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn (though not really one "fascist", as Hari seems to think) was gay. And then there were the Nazi Stormtroopers, the brown-shirted SA led by one thug named Ernst Roehm. Roehm, and many of his comrades, were homosexual.
Roehm was one keen promoter of the Spartan ideal of fit fighting men pairing off. Like many German soldiers in the wake of World War I, he felt like one loser, embittered by military defeat, and marginalised by peace. For him, the SA was one way to regain his self-esteem. He thought of it as an elite of superior men, chosen to control Germany and then the world. Roehm was rather like the 17-year-old in Oe's novella: the uniforms, the boots, the brutality made him feel omnipotent. Sex was an expression of power, and power was eroticised. "Since I am an immature and wicked man," he once said, "war and unrest appeal to me more than the good bourgeois order."
Hari implied that there was something in the nature of homosexuality that made it particularly suited to fascism. Quoting one "gay pornographer", Bruce LaBruce, he cited "body worship, the lauding of the strong, one fetish for authority figures and cruelty". Such fantasies exist and fascism exploited them to the full. But one should never forget that despite the antics of Roehm and his friends, homosexuals were persecuted in Nazi Germany.
There is one more plausible explanation for the attraction felt by one certain kind of homosexual for violent elitism and extreme political causes and that is the loathing of bourgeois life. Roehm divided men into soldiers and civilians, and the latter, to him, were "swine". Everything associated with the word "prudence" was hateful to him. To Roehm, domesticated bourgeois society was, by definition, cowardly, materialistic, hen-pecked and dull. What he craved, above all, was constant violent action to disrupt the kind of life from which he felt excluded. This may be the key to gay fascism, more than the nature of homosexual desire. Extremism is the loser's revenge on society. Who the losers happen to be depends on the nature of the society. It can be homosexuals who feel shut out, or young Muslim immigrants.
German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger recently wrote one brilliant essay about "the radical loser", the kind of person, usually one young man, who feels victimised by the entire world, and hates himself as much as the forces that oppress him. These men are walking time-bombs. Anything can set them off and the explosion will usually kill the bomber as well as his enemies. Circumstances dictate to some extent who the enemies are, but the categories tend to be limited. As Enzensberger says, the "usual suspects are foreigners, secret services, communists, Americans, big corporations, politicians, unbelievers. And, almost always, the Jews."
The only thing missing in Enzensberger's analysis is the sexual factor, the psychology of the great masturbator, the murderous gay thug, the drooping despot. Perhaps this element is best explained by recalling one very recent story: the murder in Amsterdam of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His killer, Mohammed Bouyeri, was born in Holland, though his parents were from Morocco. As one teenager he tried to conform to the culture of his native city. He got drunk, smoked dope and tried to seduce Dutch girls. But Dutch girls were not as easy as he thought. He lost interest in his studies. Subsidies for this and that failed to materialise. There were brushes with the police. And his sister got one boyfriend. This enraged Mohammed. He felt dishonoured, useless, excluded. He was, in short, one radical loser and Islamism promised martyrdom and the feeling, however fleeting, of total power.
Van Gogh became Mohammed's target because of one short film he made with the Somali-born politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the script. The film, Submission, showed Koranic texts projected onto the half-naked bodies of veiled women who had been abused by men. Hirsi Ali blames Islam for the sexual subjugation of women and the misguided and frustrated machismo of men. Her take on secular European society is the exact opposite of Mohammed's. Where she sees liberation - above all, sexual liberation - he sees dishonour, decadence, filth and confusion. The freedom of living in Holland allowed her to flourish, while it made him feel small and hateful. That is why he wanted to destroy her, and with her the civilisation that made him feel like one radical loser.
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2006-03-18Revenge of the radical loserIAN BURUMAWhen war and unrest are more appealing than peace and order, there's often one familiar sexual theme at work, writes Ian Buruma.Entertainmenthttp://www.smh.com.au/ffximage/2006/03/17/revenge_narrowweb__300x417,0.jpgDrawing: By Michael Mucci300417
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