Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 14, 2010

On the Road with Austin and Santino

Filed under: Gay,television — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Like Vanity Fair’s estimable James Wolcott, I am a fan of On the Road with Austin and Santino, a new Lifetime cable show about a couple of fashion designers who go around the country making couture type clothing for plain janes:

The pleasantest surprise of the television year so far is Lifetime’s underhyped and unheralded On the Road with Austin and Santino, teaming two of the most memorable, personality-plus designers from Project Runway, a creative odd couple that make for a terrific matched set. Outfitted in perfect little outfits, Austin Scarlett, diminutive and fey, looks as if he could be the guidance counselor from Glee’s long lost brother, the one who taught her everything she knows about pastels and jewelry selection; Santino Rice, tall, husky-voiced, and spaniel-eyed, has a more loping presence and loose, layered look. But both are quick-witted and droll, and make a helluva comedy duo as they tool around the country in this fashion-makeover road movie on the installment plan. (Santino at least resembles a road warrior behind the steering wheel–to many of the locals, Austin looks as if he landed from Venus.)

The last episode, which can be seen in its entirety here, was particularly entertaining as the two men end up in Antler, Oklahoma, the self-declared deer hunting capital of the country, to design a 30th birthday gown for Alesha, a  mother of two whose wardrobe is filled with hunting camouflage outfits rather than Chanel. There are many funny and charming aspects to their intervention, but especially the way the small town locals accept them on their own cosmopolitan and homosexual terms. Austin Scarlett, the more openly gay of the two, tells Alesha at one point that he has probably worn more skirts than she has over the past year or so.

It is not just the women who accept the two designers with open arms. Alesha’s husband and her father, who look like they could be cast as Klan members, are thrilled to see them working on Alesha’s gown. The other residents of the small town also give them the red carpet treatment. This is not what we would expect in an ostensibly homophobic small town, needless to say. Whether or not this generous and tolerant behavior was staged or not can of course not be determined, although I am inclined to believe that it was genuine. Admittedly, when you are being filmed you tend to be on your best behavior.

Whatever the case, it dawned on me how gratifying the show was when compared to the truly odious last movie by Sasha Baron Cohen that basically followed the same format as this TV show, but to the opposite effect. The gay fashionista Bruno played by Cohen went to the same kinds of small towns in order to catch locals in some kind of homophobic outrage. When Bruno goes out hunting with some men who look and dress like those in Antler, he tries to shock them into bad behavior by provoking them with outlandish sexual advances. To their credit, they largely remain unprovoked. The real lesson of Borat and Bruno, when you really get down to it, is how generally open-minded Americans are despite this British snob’s attempts to convey the opposite.

All this brings to mind Alexander Cockburn’s recent column about how fed up he is with gay marriage:

I’m for anything that upsets the applecart but why rejoice when state and church extend their grip, which is what marriage is all about. Assimilation is not liberation, and the invocation of “equality” as the great attainment of these gay marriages should be challenged.

To buttress his case, he followed up with a letter from a gay activist that stated:

As you might know, only 15 per cent of LGBT are in a relationship circumstance where they would marry.  Yet this issue has dominated LGBT activism for the past two decades. Along with gays in the military, which served 1.5 per cent of LGBT, these two conservative issues have crowded out progress on consensus economic issues, housing and job discrimination protections, which would appear to be in the interests of the vast majority, those of us who must compete for housing and employment.

That being said, the activist also told Cockburn that he’s “probably gonna tie the knot in the future when it becomes legal again.” He also thought that:

The issue of marriage is just a vehicle. The payload is the state ending discrimination in all of its practices. It is disgusting to me that marriage ended up getting us here, but I think that I can see daylight through Kennedy.

In other words, gay marriage might involve belief in a reactionary institution (I am married myself, for what that’s worth) but it is a means to a liberatory end.

To some extent, Cockburn’s complaint and that of some gay ultralefts is a kind of counter-cultural time machine journey back to 1971 or so when radicalism and life style were inextricably linked, especially in New Left circles. For gays, this translated into rejection of all aspects of bourgeois society, especially its sexual mores. What a disappointment it must be to them to see so many gays jumping on the bandwagon of an institution that symbolizes bourgeois society. Like pressing for the rights of gays to join the military or become Protestant ministers, this would appear to be a wholesale rejection of “militancy”.

Perhaps the same thing could be said about the civil rights movement of the 1950s that focused so much on African-Americans not being discriminated against. By the 60s the Black movement had reversed course and worried less about discrimination and more about the possibility of becoming separated from a decadent bourgeois white society.

History played a trick when it came to gays. Rather than moving from anti-discrimination to militancy (except for the rather modest efforts of the Mattachine Society), it went from the militancy of the early 70s to something much more like an “integrationist” movement today. It is too bad that some on the left cannot accept the movement on its own terms.

Oddly enough, Counterpunch has published far more articles in defense of gay marriage than Cockburn’s contrarian pieces, a sign of the publication’s health, I would say. If only the “vanguard” press could live up to this example, we’d all be better off. Here’s one item to consider:

On a swing through Baton Rouge, Louisiana last week, John F. Kerry made it crystal clear that he doesn’t care much for gay marriage. The intolerant senator scoffed at reporters when asked whether or not he supported the inclusion of a same-sex marriage plank in the Massachusetts Democratic platform. Kerry answered by saying that such a statement does not represent the views held by most party members, including himself.

“I’m opposed to it being in a platform. I think it’s a mistake,” Kerry huffed, “I think it’s the wrong thing, and I’m not sure it reflects the broad view of the Democratic Party in our state … I’m opposed to gay marriage.”

The senator, who flip-flopped his way through a self-defeating campaign in 2004, can’t get his act together — yet he is still setting himself up for another run in 2008. Supporting gay marriage amounts to electoral death, or so claims Kerry. He must think inflating his political status is more important than standing up for equality.

Indeed Kerry’s statement is the kind of veiled hate speech we were hearing from racist Democrats down South during the civil rights struggles. Fortunately, Dems in Massachusetts aren’t buying Kerry’s line, as they are planning to vote in favor of putting a same-sex marriage plank in their platform later this month. In fact, Kerry is behind the times, as his state’s Supreme Court legalized gay marriage back in May of 2004.

This, of course, is entirely the right tack to take. Hearkening back to Lenin’s “What is to be Done”, it puts the premium on standing up for the rights of a persecuted minority without trying to gainsay the goal being pursued. In illustrating how a “vanguard” functions, Lenin referred to the German social democracy:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

If Lenin advocated that socialists fight for the right of a “bourgeois progressive” to take office in Germany, why is so difficult for some on the left to see gay marriage in the same terms?

Logo, a polling company subsidiary of MTV, asked young gays about their hopes. It found the following:

For one thing, younger gays now expect to stay put: no more running away to be gay. Rather than heading to big cities where gays are more readily accepted, young gays are planning to put down roots and raise families in small-town America.

That means younger gays fully anticipate, and demand, acceptance from their local communities. At the same time, younger gays don’t see a great need to depart from most cultural norms as expressed by their heterosexual peers; while wishing to be open and honest about their core identities, young gays also wish for the support and purpose of family.

The expectation of a spouse and children is common among younger gays, whereas the research indicated that only about a third of gays 35 and older shared that same desire. Overall, gays polled by the study said their top priority was marriage equality, followed by the environment, health care, and the economy.

Get that? Young gays are planning to put down roots and raise families in small-town America. They also said their top priority was marriage equality.

All in all, On the Road with Austin and Santino is an expression of these hopes and dreams. Gay youth want to be accepted on their own terms, even in such a place as Antler, Oklahoma. The desire to express one’s sexual identity without negative consequences is entirely normal. The United States is headed inexorably toward significant demographic changes that will help to undermine the reactionary prejudices of many white males living both in places like Antler and in New York City where gay-bashing still takes place. Socialists have an obligation to strengthen every initiative that moves us away from the prejudices that have taken the lives of Blacks, Latinos and gays. Part of this is fighting for gay marriage, a change that would make gay people and straights equal in the eyes of society, whether or not one or another reactionary has endorsed this demand. As is always the case, socialists should not put a minus where the ruling class—or elements of it—put a plus. As Leon Trotsky once said, we have to learn to think.


  1. Exactly right.Unfortunately Cockburn’s writings are often full of this “vanguard thinking” which distract from the valid points & criticisms he often make ,consequently I have a hard time taking him serious.I do wish he would dispense with the judgments,e.g what actions/causes are of value and or advance the struggle.
    To expect real life and actual living people to conform to some theory, preconceived plan and or expectation is ridiculous.If people are fighting for justice, peace,gay rights ,living otherwise etc etc… they are on the right side of history.
    Anything that opens peoples minds and forces them to question their own or societies preconceptions and or the status-quo is a good thing. Indeed we are that much closer to the goal, critical mass builds next thing you know bang,its on.(for sure success is not guaranteed but to do nothing guarantees failure)

    Comment by dirk — August 15, 2010 @ 1:34 am

  2. The United States is headed inexorably toward significant demographic changes that will help to undermine the reactionary prejudices of many white males living both in places like Antler and in New York City

    You’d be surprised how much east Texas has changed on racial issues , as well (you’ve mentioned living there). Yes it’s still right-wing and now full of Tea Partiers , but mixed ethnic relationships in the under-30 set are very normal.

    Comment by okie — August 15, 2010 @ 5:05 am

  3. This is humane and beautifully thought-out and written–I love the Lenin connection. Also, it’s good to hear from okie about East Texas (home to Albert and Lucy Parsons).

    Comment by Jim Holstun — August 15, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

  4. I loved the article. Very interesting and thought provoking. I had only minor qualms with your saying, “the more openly gay of the two.” What does that mean? I appreciate your avoidance of the word “flamboyant,” but equating “flamboyant,” which means “marked by or given to strikingly elaborate or colorful display or behavior,” with “more openly gay” stereotyped gay people even worse than using the loaded term, “flamboyant.” Do we have to wear feather boas to be more in-tune with our sexuality?

    Having grand gestures and high drama does not mean someone is more “open” about his sexuality than his co-host who is also gay for all the world to see. I hope you see my point and I am not just being particular without reason. Many of those youths who want to settle down in rural America will also define themselves by what they feel and allow themselves to be open without having to live life with the entertaining metropolitan mannerisms of a queen who may be hiding more about how he feels behind his flailing arms than he is being open or honest about anything.

    Comment by Phil Reeves — August 15, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

  5. Seems to me that the same sex comrades are peddling precisely the gender commodification we once deplored, tarting up an honest proletarian deer killer for the sake of … what? Fashion? One cannot possibly question the UM’s good heart or razor acumen. Nor can one refrain from admiring the back-country welcome extending to the guys. But adopting Louis’ weekly pursuit of entertainment like this will require a greater flexibility of taste than some of us can muster.

    Comment by J. Marlin — August 16, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

  6. Regarding your Lenin quote…

    Wasn’t the Lenin of the time of What Is To Be Done? still behind the semi-Menshevik position of getting the peasants and workers to carry out the bourgeois revolution on the Russian bourgeoisie’s behalf?

    Lenin compliments the Germans on defending bourgeois mayors precisely because he’s trying to persuade Russian revolutionaries to carry out a bourgeois revolution.

    Lenin actually managed to carry out the Russian Revolution by moving beyond this semi-Menshevik position, setting up his theory of imperialism, and coming to the Trotskyist international viewpoint that the Russian workers and peasants should go for full socialist revolution (and thus spark world proletarian revolution, etc., etc.)?

    In any case, we’re in the twenty-first-century West now, not early-twentieth-century Russia. I’m fairly sure the bourgeois revolution has been and gone.

    The task for Marxists is to identify and propagate the political positions which most effectively differentiate working-class interests from those of the bourgeoisie in our moment of history, not to carry out progresive bourgeois campaigns on behalf of the bourgeoisie.

    I’m a gay man. Marxist politics aside, I’d certainly like to have the choice to get married in future.

    But capitalist social relations can still exist even if men can get married to other men. We must keep in mind that the postmodern liberal bourgeoisie is quite at home defending gay rights (even if there’s still a whole load of bourgeois lagging behind the latest bourgeois ideology, especially in the USA). Gay rights are, after all, a good way to bash the homophobic working class and to undermine, in postmodern style, the idea of collective political action in favour of eternal ‘difference’.

    As you and Trotsky say, we have to learn to think hard about the problem in its specific historical context. The American working class needs to be persuaded to free itself from the bonds of backwards ‘morality’ that often tie it to the bourgeoisie. But, at the same time, there is a danger that this will only deliver it into the arms of a more liberal bourgeois ideology which we can already clearly see in formation.

    PS. I’m completely with you about Borat and Bruno sucking.

    Comment by Jack Hunter — August 16, 2010 @ 10:18 pm

  7. Lenin compliments the Germans on defending bourgeois mayors precisely because he’s trying to persuade Russian revolutionaries to carry out a bourgeois revolution.

    It has nothing to do with that. Lenin was simply urging socialists to take up the issues of all the oppressed, not just the economic demands of workers. You really need to read “What is to be Done”.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 16, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

  8. A subterranean issue here is the question as to why capitalist society has, in some instances, been able to more effectively address these concerns than portions of the left: http://amleft.blogspot.com/2009_04_01_archive.html#1545638814145163568

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 17, 2010 @ 1:32 am

  9. Portions of the left have indeed not only overlooked this issue but been quite homophobic. The Maoists were notorious for having a vision of the “proletarian family” that was right out of today’s Christian conservative movement.

    I’ve been very happy to see that after a dark patch in Cuba many years ago that Cuban socialists finally seem to “get” it.

    My own experience on the left is quite mixed. I wrote an account a while back on my blog: http://thecahokian.blogspot.com/2010/03/more-on-left-wing-homophobia-my-story.html

    Comment by ish — August 17, 2010 @ 9:56 pm

  10. One other point on the “fixation” with marriage. Currently, there are a whole host of rights and benefits that come to couples when they are legally married that cannot be abridged anywhere. For example, you want to visit your sick spouse in the hospital, you are in. You want SSI benefits…joint taxes….some may be intimately tied to the current economic regime, but there are others that are profoundly humane.

    Comment by eric — August 20, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

  11. I am a grandmother of two and surely not gay, however , I believe in live and let live .Love and let love.My whole household loves and adores Austin and Santinos new show and we havent missed a show. People need to accept one another for who they are and stop judging.Only God knows our souls and hearts. I have many friends that are gay and I love them all, I am very blessed to have such good people in my life.Do I understand it? Nope, but they dont understand me either and ya know what? Its all ok.

    Comment by Joy — November 4, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

  12. Tonally, this piece is spot on. It is nice to see the argument presented without recourse to a ping-pong of terms like “equality”, “human rights”, “bourgeois institutions”, “love”, etc. In some ways, marriage equality seems like a profoundly simple issue, a non-issue even. But it does seem to profoundly disrupt the radical left, who tend to make arguments in favour by borrowing the liberal-left talking points, or against by dredging up a structural functionalist account of matrimony.

    Comment by k.c. read — December 27, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

  13. […] couture designers, including Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino Garavani, and the Project Runway veterans Austin and Santino, who were featured in a Bravo series last year about designing fancy gowns for women in the […]

    Pingback by Savage Beauty: the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Met « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — June 13, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

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