Tiresome Introduction. Some years ago—I thought it was five, but it seems it was only three—Dale Peck wrote a hilarious takedown of the newest star in the political firmament, Pete Buttigieg. It ran briefly online in TNR, then was spiked, but not before it became an instant legend. And it soon disappeared from the ether altogether, except for a copy saved by a friend and posted on Facebook. Shortly after that, Friend 2, after much searching around, found the FB posting and copied it to his own blog, after which he discovered that it had disappeared from Friend 1’s Facebook page. It hadn’t been deleted by Facebook; Friend 1 decided to privatize it before it attracted any more attention. But a few months later, Friend 1’s Facebook account was removed, silenced, banned…leaving Friend 2’s blog post the only one remaining. “The Last of the Mohicans,” Friend 2 called it.
Here I will lead in with Friend 2’s foreword:
My Yale friend introduced it, thusly:
“In which famed hatchet-man Worth David—I mean, Dale Peck—weighs in to tell you why nouvelle fague Mary Pete Buttfuck isn’t all that he’s cocked up to be.
“This was originally posted in The New Republic, but the fat Bengali or someone got an advanced case of weenieitis.
“For sheer homocidal glee, this thing is right up there with Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest. Mister Peck, we salute you!”
My Mayor Pete Problem
Sunday, July 14, 2019
One of the worst things I ever did happened in 1992. I was leaving the bar called The Bar (RIP) on Second Avenue and 4th Street to go to a party called Tattooed Love Child at another bar, Fez, located in the basement of Time Cafe (RIP x 2). TLC was held on Wednesdays (Thursdays?), and I often went to The Bar after work for a few hours so I wouldn’t have to go all the way home first. So it was probably 10-ish, and I know it was late winter/early spring because I was carrying a copy of the completed manuscript of my first novel Martin and John, which I’d just turned in to my publisher that very day. Which makes me 24 and old enough to know better. Or who knows, maybe this was exactly the age to learn this kind of lesson.
What happened was: I was halfway down 4th Street when I heard someone yelling. I turned to see a large fellow running after me. At first I wondered if I was getting gay-bashed. But even though this guy didn’t set off my gaydar he still didn’t seem particularly menacing. When he got closer I clocked the pleated khakis (this was the era of the ACT UP clone—Doc Martens, Levi’s tight or baggy, and activist T-shirts—which look I had embraced fully) and rust-colored Brillo hair. I love me a good ginger, but you gotta know how to style it, especially if it runs frizzy. And so anyway, this guy, whose name was Garfield but said I could call him Gar, told me he’d been in The Bar but had been too shy to talk to me and decided to try his luck on the street. As politely as I could, I told him I wasn’t interested. He asked me how I could know I wasn’t interested when I didn’t know him, which was an invitation for me to tell him that not only did he look like a potato, he dressed, talked, and ran like a potato. Alas, I chose not to indulge his masochistic invitation.
He asked where I was going and I told him. He asked if he could go with me and I told him he could go to Fez if he wanted but he shouldn’t think he was going with me. He came. I quickly learned that he’d mastered the art of speaking in questions, which put me in the awkward position of answering him or ignoring him, which made me feel rude even though I’d told him I wasn’t interested. When he found out I was a writer he got excited and said I must love the New Yorker! I told him I hated the New Yorker. He asked how I could hate the New Yorker and I told him that besides the fact that the New Yorker published shitty fiction (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose), and the only gay fiction it published was assimilationist and boring, there was also the fact that an editor there (Dan Menaker, if we’re naming names) had rejected a story of mine by suggesting in his correspondence with my agent (by which I mean that he wasn’t embarrassed to write this down, let alone worried about repercussions) that psychological problems were preventing me from creating effective fiction. (By the way, fuck you, Dan.) None of which made any sense to Gar. The New Yorker was important so I must love it. I just didn’t know I loved it yet. Or something like that. At some point in this exchange I remember saying something along the lines of Look, I’m just going to apologize now, because it’s pretty clear that sooner or later I’m going to say something really offensive to you and your feelings are going to be hurt. I don’t want to do that, but you’re clearly not getting the fact that you and I don’t look at the world the same way, and you keep thinking that if you hang around long enough we’re going to find common ground, when all you’re really doing is making our differences that much clearer. He laughed at this, one of those confused/nervous/defensive laughs, and if I’d been more mature I would have been more blunt and told him to get lost. But I too was a little deluded. I thought he had to get the hint eventually. But although I understood pretty much everything else about him, I failed to reckon fully with his lack of self-respect.
I told him I hated the New Yorker.
So: we got to Fez, where I ran into my friend Patrick (Cox, I think, but it’s been a minute), who looked at me like, What are you doing with this weirdo? I wouldn’t let Gar buy me a drink and I did my best to exclude him from my conversation with Patrick but he still wouldn’t take a hint. He must have hung around for a good hour. My answers to his questions grew more and more peremptory. Bear in mind I wasn’t disagreeing with him or dismissing his opinions just to get rid of him: we really had absolutely nothing in common. But we both read the New Yorker and we were both gay and we both wore clothes to cover our nakedness so clearly we were birds of a feather. Finally he said he had to leave. He asked for my number. I remember Patrick laughing in his face, but maybe that’s just because I wanted to laugh in his face. I was like, Are you serious? And he was like, We have so much in common, we should get to know each other better! When I was fifteen years old a pedophile used that line on me in the Chicago bus station, and if I’m being honest I had more in common with the pedo, who was about 50, black, and urban, while I was a white teenager from rural Kansas, than I did with dear old Gar. I told him I wasn’t going to give him my phone number or accept his. He seemed genuinely shocked and hurt, which of course made me feel like shit, which of course made me mad, because why should I feel like shit when I’d spent all night trying to rebuff him? He asked what he would have to do to get me to go out with him. Without thinking, I said, Take a good look at yourself and your world, reject everything in it, and then get back to me. It was the kind of soul-killing line people are always delivering in movies but never comes off in real life, mostly because even the most oblivious, self-hating person usually has enough wherewithal to cut someone off before they’re fully read for filth. I believe I have indicated that Gar did not possess this level of self-awareness. His face went shapeless and blank as though the bones of his skull had melted. For one second I thought I saw a hint of anger, which might’ve been the first thing he’d done all night that I could identify with. Then he scurried away.
Now, I’ve said shitty things to people before and since, but this one’s always stuck with me, partly because, though I’m a peevish fellow, it’s rare that I speak with genuine cruelty, and when I do it’s because I’ve chosen to. This just came out of me. But mostly I remember it because I knew I’d seriously wounded this guy, which, however annoying and clueless he was, was never my intention. I was and still am a very ’90s kind of gay, which is to say that I believe in the brotherhood of homos and the strength of our community, that however different we are we’re all bound together by the nature of our desire and the experience of living in a homophobic world. When one of your brothers fucks up, you school him. Sure, you might get a little Larry Kramer about it, but you don’t go all Arya-and-the-Night-King on his ass.
I’m telling you this because it’s what popped into my head when I tried to pin down my distaste for Pete Buttigieg. Mary Pete and I are just not the same kind of gay. (For those of you wondering about “Mary Pete” a couple of months ago I asked Facebook what the gay equivalent of Uncle Tom was, and this was the answer at which we collectively arrived.) But Mary Pete and I aren’t different in the same way that Gar and I were different. Gar and I had nothing in common. Mary Pete and I have a lot in common, but at a certain point we came to a fork in the road and I took the one less traveled and he took the one that was freshly paved and bordered by flowers and white picket fences and every house had a hybrid in the driveway and some solar panels on the ceiling, but discrete ones, nothing garish, nothing that would interfere with the traditional look of the neighborhood or the resale value of your home.
By which I mean: Mary Pete is a neoliberal and a Jeffersonian meritocrat, which is to say he’s just another unrepentant or at least unexamined beneficiary of white male privilege who believes (just as Jay Inslee believes he’s done more for women’s reproductive rights than Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar) that he can make life better for all those people who are not like him, not because he knows anything about their lives but because he’s smart and nice and well-meaning, and when smart nice well-meaning people run things everything works out for the best. That’s just, you know, logical. It’s like, science. Like Kirsten Gillibrand, he believes in “healthy capitalism,” which is a bit like saying you believe in “healthy cancer” Yeah, you can (usually) treat it, but wouldn’t you rather be cured?
Pete and I are just not the same kind of gay.
Most of what I dislike about Mary Pete was expressed in this Current Affairs article, which does a good job of using his own words (mostly from, ugh, Shortest Way Home, his memoir pretending to manifesto) to damn him. Shortest Way Home conjures a young Harvard student who thinks the word “edgy” is sufficient to describe both proto-Dumpster fascist Lyndon LaRouche and Noam Chomsky. His description of Harvard Square takes in those actors who belong to the school; the homeless people who live there are invisible to him, or, even worse, not worth mentioning. He seems perfectly content to dismiss left-wing student activists as “social justice warriors” despite the fact that this phrase is paradigmatic in right-wing discourse. He speaks fondly of his time at McKinsey, a company regularly described as one of the most evil corporations in the world. He joined the military long after 9/11 could sort-of-but-not-really be invoked to justify the U.S. propensity to go to other countries and kill lots of people. By 2007 it was no longer possible to pretend that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were anything other than failed, murderous exercises in empire-building and/or revenge, but despite the fact that these were the only places he was likely to serve he signed up anyway. And though he loves to talk about the notes he left his family in case he didn’t come back, by all accounts his chances of seeing combat were as low as they could be—but boy, he sure got a lot of cute pictures in uniform out of it!
Every move is simultaneously cynical and morally oblivious. They’re the steps one takes not to learn about the world but to become a marketable political candidate (hmmm, what’s a good counter to the whole sleeps-with-men thing? I know: military service!) (side benefit: you’re surrounded by hot guys!) and if as a Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar you decide not to be a captain of industry, then clearly the White House is where you belong. I mean, sure, he wants to make the world a better place. But the operative word in that sentence, just as it was with Bill Clinton, is “he,” not “world,” and “better,” for Mary Pete, is just the neoliberal variation of “make America great again,” which is to say that in Buttigieg’s version of American history the progressive ideals in the First, Thirteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments, in the Civil Rights Act and Roe v. Wade and marriage equality, are the only authentically American ideas, whereas slavery and Jim Crow and border security and defense of marriage campaigns and heartbeat laws are nothing but aberrations, glitches in the code rather than yin to liberalism’s yang, warp to its weft, a set of ivory chess pieces lined up across from a set of ebony chess pieces and equally powerful.
Like Obama, Buttigieg seems always to be saying that the United States is the only place where someone like him could’ve succeeded, and that he wants everyone to enjoy the same peculiarly American successes that he’s had. But unlike Obama (whose naïvete was at least partly a pose), Buttigieg’s biography belies the idea that his success was either hard won or particularly unlikely. He’s lived the life of a comfortably middle-class white male, but he acts as if it’s his natural gifts (by which he means his intelligence and his ability to speak seven languages and play the piano, although they’re actually his whiteness and maleness and financial security) that have raised him above from the rabble. It’s right there in his “Medicare for all . . . who want it” song and dance. To Mary Pete this is simple egalitarianism and freedom of choice. If you want Medicare, you should be able to have it. And if you want private insurance you should be able to have that. It seems never to occur to him to ask why one would want to pay three or four or ten times more for health care than you have to. Could it possibly be because private insurance will get you better results than Medicare? And could private health care possibly provide better service than Medicare not because of marketplace competition but because as long as there’s a profit motive in health care medical corporations will always seek to maximize profits, and thus favor those “customers” who can pay the most? Embedded in this oblivion are both the liberal delusion that people are naturally good and the neoliberal sophistry that the market, like the tide, will raise everyone up with it.
Pete is just the neoliberal variation of “make America great again.”
Or take his response at the Democratic debate to the murder of Eric Logan by the South Bend police: “I’m not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back.” Here is a mayor—a man—whose first allegiance isn’t to the victim or the victim’s family or the other people at risk because of a racist police force, but, at the very best, to the system, and maybe to nothing more than his own political future as a centrist Democrat. “I accept responsibility,” he told us, in the same way that the white teenaged boy who gets caught stealing a car or drunk-raping a girl says “I accept responsibility” and fully expects to let off without punishment, because boys will be boys, after all, and isn’t feeling bad punishment enough? Free education? Why, that’s unfair to the working class! They’ll end up paying for the education of all those millions and millions of billionaires’ children! What are we, czarist Russia?
You keep looking for a politics rooted in justice or history or, at the very least, empathy, but everywhere you find nothing besides a kind of idealistic pragmatism, if that’s a thing: a belief that if we only talk about nice things, only nice things will happen. If we only acknowledge our strengths, our faults will fade away. If we trust smart people to do smart things, nothing dumb will happen. Hey, JosÃ© loved it when Pete answered him in Spanish, right? Education has brought us closer together!
All this makes Mary Pete different from every other left-leaning neoliberal in exactly zero ways. Because let’s face it. The only thing that distinguishes the mayor of South Bend from all those other well-educated reasonably intelligent white dudes who wanna be president is what he does with his dick (and possibly his ass, although I get a definite top-by-default vibe from him, which is to say that I bet he thinks about getting fucked but he’s too uptight to do it). So let’s dish the dish, homos. You know and I know that Mary Pete is a gay teenager. He’s a fifteen-year-old boy in a Chicago bus station wondering if it’s a good idea to go home with a fifty-year-old man so that he’ll finally understand what he is. He’s been out for, what, all of four years, and if I understand the narrative, he married the first guy he dated. And we all know what happens when gay people don’t get a real adolescence because they spent theirs in the closet: they go through it after they come out. And because they’re adults with their own incomes and no parents to rein them in they do it on steroids (often literally). If Shortest Way Home (I mean really, can you think of a more treacly title?) makes one thing clear, Mary Pete was never a teenager. But you can’t run away from that forever. Either it comes out or it eats you up inside. It can be fun, it can be messy, it can be tragic, it can be progenitive, transformative, ecstatic, or banal, but the last thing I want in the White House is a gay man staring down 40 who suddenly realizes he didn’t get to have all the fun his straight peers did when they were teenagers. I’m not saying I don’t want him to shave his chest or do Molly or try being the lucky Pierre (the timing’s trickier than it looks, but it can be fun when you work it out). These are rites of passage for a lot of gay men, and it fuels many aspects of gay culture. But like I said, I don’t want it in the White House. I want a man whose mind is on his job, not what could have been—or what he thinks he can still get away with.
So yeah. Unlike my experience with Gar, I actually want to tell Mary Pete to take a good hard look at his world, at his experiences and his view of the public good as somehow synonymous with his own success, and I want him to reject it. I want to do this not because I have any particular desire to hurt his feelings, but because I made a similar journey, or at least started out from a similar place, and I was lucky enough to realize (thank you, feminism; thank you, ACT UP) that the only place that path leads is a gay parody of heteronormative bourgeois domesticity: the “historic” home, the “tasteful” decor (no more than one nude photograph of a muscular torso per room; statuary only if they’re fair copies of Greek or Roman originals), the two- or four- or six-pack depending on how often you can get to the gym and how much you hate yourself, the theatre (always spelled with an -re) subscription, the opera subscription, the ballet subscription, the book club, the AKC-certified toy dog with at least one charming neurosis and/or dietary tic, the winter vacation to someplace “tropical,” the summer vacation to someplace “cultural,” the specialty kitchen appliances—you just have to get a sous vide machine, it changed our life! Sorry, boys, that’s not a life, it’s something you buy from a catalog. It’s a stage set you build so you can convince everyone else (or maybe just yourself) that you’re as normal as they are. Call me a hick from the sticks, but I don’t want someone who fills out his life like he fills out an AP exam serving as the country’s moral compass. And no, I wouldn’t kick him out of bed.