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Sunday, February 10, 2008

THE DUKE - REDUX

I was scanning through the Raleigh News and Observer the other day when I stumbled over Ruth Sheehan’s column. Her latest outrage was the arrival on Super Sunday at Duke University of the “Sex Workers Art Show Tour”, which, according to the publicity material, is a “…blend of spoken word, music, burlesque and multimedia performance art”, also described as a collection of “…political statements, musical theatre, a mild dominatrix act, elaborate removal of clothing and an anal sparkler for the grand finale”. Said Ms. Sheehan, the show included “…a transvestite whose privates were covered with tape, who crouched on all fours in a kiddie pool of glitter and stuck a lit sparkler in his bum while America the Beautiful played.” This was followed by “…an overweight stripper who pretended to eat a bunch of dollar bills, then left nothing to the imagination as to the results of the digestion of such a meal.” Gee, where can I get a ticket?
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Of course, Ms. Sheehan was not one of the 300 students, faculty and guests who attended this little soirée. She took her outlandish observations from a pair of rabble rousers who recorded the events for the edification of their fellow reactionaries. The reaction of actual live audiences to the Sex Workers Art Show was perhaps, not quite so outraged. According to one publication “Audience member reactions ranged from rowdy cheers to awkward silences”, and another noted that, “When an ignited anal firecracker follows a poignant poetry reading, the message becomes mixed.” Sounds like a hell of an evening, in parts… and rather boring in some other parts. But then the quality of the show depends on the quality of the audience, le fait non?
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The target audience for this show was college intellectuals, pseudo-intellectuals, artists and art show aficionados. That is what I would call a very narrow target, particularly in any university whose intellectual honesty is guarded by reactionaries. And, in all honesty, artists are, as Hemingway noted, folks who are willing to “…sell stuff from their trash can.” But as trash goes this one was at least cheap. The $3,500 costs was shared by the Student Health Center, The Woman’s Center, Sexual Assault Support Services, the Women's Studies Department, Baldwin Scholars, Students for Choice and The University Fund. No money, evidently, came from the Duke Lacrosse team’s budget. Spread out between seven groups the average share would have been about $500 a piece. And at William and Mary one student, Martha Brucato, spent, according to one publication, “11 months raising funds for the free show in hopes of initiating discussions about sexuality and the way women’s bodies are often seen as commodities; issues she said are rarely brought up on campus.” Hell, $500 is about what each of the Lacrosse team members paid each of their two crazy ass strippers. I doubt it took those boys 11 months to raise their donations to that little evening.
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But that still didn’t stop Ms. Sheehan, nor the reactionaries in the Virginia legislature, from raising a stink when, in reaction to Ms. Sheehan’s column, they grilled officials from the College of William and Mary, the next stop on the Sex Workers tour. It seems the right wing is still playing the “cultural war” card, and still defending tens of millions spent to build a six lane highway to a NASCAR track, while finding it morally repugnant and outrageous to spend $3,500 so a transvestite can stick a sparkler up his butt in front of an audience. If you don’t like watching NASCAR, at least the transvestite with sprinkler has a much smaller carbon footprint, if footprint is the right designation.
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Ms. Sheehan notes that, “Duke…(is) clueless.” But, in fact I would suggest that it is Ms. Sheehan who lacks a clue. And in the name of cultural diversity, allow me to provide her with that clue, by saying simply, this; sweetheart, self-immolation is a pretty stupid way to start a fire. There is nothing wrong with being outraged. It’s healthy. But insisting that your tax dollars only support those things you agree with is a form of cultural suicide. The proof is that all those liberal professors and students who find the Sex Workers Art Show intellectually challenging and insightful, are equally outraged their colleges provide meeting space for the Young Republicans. But the whole point of college – as opposed to “Home Schooling” - is to give you a chance to rub up against things that outrage you…so you can learn what outrage is like, that it does not mean the end of the world, of western civilization, so you will not be so horrified by all the outrages you will run into in your life and become putty in the hands of some hatemonger politician. Then you can decide to accept or reject these crazy ideas on your own. Being mistaken is not a crime. Being ignorant is. And it’s a capital offense.
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As Ms. Sheehan observes, “My guess is that it's one thing when the strippers are hired by academics challenging bourgeois sexual mores and another thing when they're hired by student athletes with demeaning motives.” Or, if I may rephrase Ms. Sheehan, art is in the eye (and mind) of the beholder while rape is in the mind of the victim. And allow me to point out the obvious; if the Sex Workers tour was truly outrageous they wouldn’t have to point it out in the advertising. In other words, a transvestite with a sparkling anus borders on the passé. Why not save your outrage for the truly outrageous things, like poverty in a wealthy nation, like child abuse and neglect, like intellectual and social snobbery, like people who don’t watch the Daytona 500.
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Me, I can’t wait for the Daytona 500. I saw the Sex Workers Tour Show (or its equivalent) when I was in college, and I have no desire to see it again. I’ve seen men screwing chickens (on Super 8mm film), and women with a donkey and Paris Hilton with some rich dude, and frankly I was not that impressed...Amazed briefly, perhaps, but not impressed. And after having been exposed to all of that I still enjoy reading the occasional column by Ms. Sheehan, if just a little less than I did before. And that, Ms. Sheehan, is irony.
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