Savage Politics

Our sex-columnist-turned-political-trash-talker is coming here from Seattle to make sure Santorum gets whipped but good.

It’s not hard to guess what Dan Savage, writer of the syndicated Savage Love column that runs each week in this paper (see p. 83), thinks of Rick Santorum. But when pressed to articulate what really pisses him off, he thinks of the children.

After he waged a successful campaign to associate Santorum’s name with a sex act (more on that later), readers contacted Savage with concerns about Santorum’s young children.

Had Savage Love doomed the senator’s kids to a life of ridicule and misery? Savage was furious.

“My response generally is I have children. There are millions of gays and lesbians in this country who have children, and our children have to listen to the Rick Santorums and the Rev. Sheldons of the world compare us to dog-fuckers and suggest that gay marriage is akin to terrorism. And what about our children? Why am I required to be civil to a man who compares my relationship to incest and bestiality and terrorism? And where’s the concern for children when gays and lesbians are the children?”

Savage says the people worried about Santorum’s children are “left-leaning trolls” who worry about civility, something Santorum and the right doesn’t. “It’s attack, attack, attack,” he says. “Attack immigrants, attack gays, attack women’s rights, attack the patriotism of anyone who doubts George Bush, attack triple-amputee senators, question their patriotism and service. The only people who come at me wringing their hands about Santorum’s children are idiot lefties who don’t get how serious the right is about destroying us.”

Oh come on, Dan. Stop beating around the bush. Say what you mean.

Savage has never been one to mince words.

It was the 2005 awards banquet of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) in San Diego, and the organization’s almost exclusively white journalists filed into the hotel’s large banquet room, prepared for the obligatory rubber chicken and weak coffee.

But the draw wasn’t the food, or even the awards. It was featured speaker and MC Dan Savage, who at the 2002 awards infamously began removing items of clothing after having a, um, wee bit to drink. His antics that year were the hit of the conference, and gave journalists a salacious story to take home to their editorial meetings.

In San Diego last year Savage was comparatively subdued, but not cowed. The advice columnist for about 80 papers in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Beijing has long been a champion of people who feel marginalized by what they perceive as forbidden desire. Savage’s mission has been to show their secret longings aren’t only normal but also welcome–at least in a society with putatively progressive ideas about sexual identity and practice.

His embrace of all kinks–aside from, as he often stresses, bestiality, pedophilia, necrophilia and corprofagia–has made him something of a hero to people who, raised in a condemnatory Judeo-Christian tradition, think their sexual cravings make them bad people.

Given his open mind, there’s no taboo Savage hasn’t addressed at one time or another, which adds a thrilling frisson to his appearances.

Savage is also editor of The Stranger, Seattle’s snarky youth-oriented weekly newspaper that’s considered either fearlessly renegade or stubbornly childish, depending on the critic.

In 2005 the talk of the AAN conference was the problematic politics of the host paper the San Diego Reader. The paper’s editor Jim Holman, a conservative Catholic, enjoys protesting abortion clinics in his off-hours and has openly denigrated gay and lesbian causes.

The Reader refuses ads from LGBT groups trying to advertise their events, and takes no gay personals ads. This makes the Reader conspicuous in alternative weekly circles.

Most of the conference attendees were aware of the Reader‘s exclusionary leanings, so it came as a pleasant surprise that Savage, who’s gay and a longtime lefty, agreed to host an event sponsored and organized by the Reader.

After a few jokes about Craigslist, the community bulletin board that has newspaper classifieds departments shaking in their boots, Savage lit into the Reader, reminding his audience how objectionable their editorial and advertising policies were, which made most everyone feel both guilty and giddy at the same time.

Some did wonder if Savage’s harsh words were undiplomatic, but no one thought he’d gone too far until he made a comment about gargling with cum across the border in Mexico. The young AAN interns–innocent, aspiring alt-weekly writers–looked aghast. Others put their forks down and laughed uncomfortably.

Savage, jaunty in a particularly queer sailor’s cap, motored along with a smile. It was a classic Savage moment.

This week Dan Savage brings his gritty sex-advice column to the Trocadero’s stage. The Troc’s history as a burlesque house has rarely seemed so appropriate. Savage is coming here specifically to help defeat Rick Santorum.

To some who haven’t been reading Savage’s column, politics may seem a strange fit with questions about anal sex and sadomasochism, but the self-described political junkie has always integrated the two.

“I’ve been discussing politics in the column since the day it started,” says Savage, who’s lately published several political op-ed pieces in The New York Times. “I think it’s one of the reasons why the column has such longevity. It’s clearly written by someone who thinks about things besides blow jobs every once and a while. As a man I think about blow jobs every three minutes, but I also think about other stuff.”

Though he’s made a joke, Savage–on the phone from Seattle–is deadly serious about his role as a sex columnist. “Anyone who’s a sex writer in America who doesn’t write about politics isn’t a very good sex writer. I’ll stop writing about politics when politicians stop talking about sex. In America they’re completely–for lack of a better term–in bed together, and you really have to be obtuse or delinquent in your responsibilities as a sex writer if you don’t talk about politics.”

His visit to Philadelphia this week, organized by Philadelphians Against Santorum (PAS), will no doubt bring these two ideas together, but Savage points out it’s not exactly his fault his column became so closely associated with the senator. If they were children in a sandbox fighting over a toy–say, a vibrator–little Dan might say, “He started it.”

And he did.

It’s April 7, 2003, and Sen. Rick Santorum has no idea he’s on the verge of making an ass of himself. Talking about the Supreme Court’s examination of sodomy laws, Santorum tells an Associated Press reporter, “You say, ‘Well, it’s my individual freedom.’ Yes, but it destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that’s antithetical to strong, healthy families. Whether it’s polygamy, whether it’s adultery, whether it’s sodomy, all of those things are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.”

Yawn. Typical Rick Santorum blather.

Then: “Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. Why? Because society is based on one thing: that society is based on the future of the society. And that’s what? Children. Monogamous relationships.

“In every society the definition of marriage hasn’t ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It’s one thing. And when you destroy that you have a dramatic impact on the quality … ”

And that’s when the reporter breaks in: “I’m sorry. I didn’t think I was going to talk about ‘man on dog’ with a United States senator. It’s sort of freaking me out.”

It freaked out a lot of people. The influential lefty blog Daily Kos wrote: “Tell me, what kind of person walks around talking about ‘man on dog’ sex? I can confidently say the thought never enters my mind unbidden. Yet Santorum, in the course of a conversation with a reporter, casually mentions bestiality … For a senator to bring the topic up to a reporter is, well, beyond belief. So Republicans–this is your No. 3 guy in the Senate. Aren’t you even the least bit embarrassed?”

A day later Republican senators Olympia Snowe and Lincoln Chafee released separate statements. Snowe’s read, “Discrimination and bigotry have no place in our society, and I believe Sen. Santorum’s unfortunate remarks undermine Republican principles of inclusion and opportunity.”

Meanwhile regular Savage Love readers wrote in to the column, assuming correctly that the incident was right up Savage’s sex-politics alley. Outraged by the notion that consensual gay sex would be compared to bestiality, one reader went so far as to suggest that a sex act be named in Santorum’s honor.

“So I threw it out there to my readers for potential definitions,” says Savage, “and let my readers vote on it.” There were various suggestions, but the winning entry wasn’t a sex act. It was a noun–the frothy mixture of fecal matter and lube that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.

It was a perfect fit, says Savage. “There was no name for it. It wasn’t competing with anything. It’s unwelcome. If you’re doing [anal sex] right, it’s not gonna happen, and if it happens, it’s a bit of a killjoy, which is what it would be if the actual senator strolled into the room.”

What happened next seemed delightfully inadvertent, though Savage admits he worked pretty hard to make it happen. The term–santorum–gained real traction. Savage put up a website (www.spreadingsantorum.com), which even now gets lots of hits despite being defunct for two years. In that time the site’s been on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show twice, and was featured on Google Current. “It’s the most discussed inactive website in the world, I think,” Savage says.

As often happens with Web-based success, bumper stickers and T-shirts followed. The word found its way into salacious dictionaries–and books published on actual paper. Ultimately Santorum–the man–was forced to acknowledge the word existed. It was Savage’s–and Savage Love readers’–great triumph.

“My goal was to get Santorum’s hands dirty, discuss it and have it rubbed in his nose,” says Savage, “and once I got letters he’d sent to constituents talking about it and videos of somebody asking him about it, I threw it up on the website and declared ‘mission accomplished’ on my aircraft carrier.”

The definition Savage Love spawned is still the No. 1 Google result for the word santorum.

The senator’s official website is No. 2.

Ray Murphy, founder of Philadelphians Against Santorum (PAS), is the yin to Dan Savage’s yang. He’s as politically passionate, but instead of railing and swearing, he talks sweetly about his West Philadelphia upbringing of yard cleanups and neighborhood activism. He and Savage share a pragmatism and disdain for self-righteous posturing, but Murphy has none of the urgent aggression Savage expresses.

Murphy, 27, has been involved in political activism since he helped form a block association when he was 14.

“During one of those big snowstorms in the early ’90s our next-door neighbor was shot and almost killed after being mugged,” Murphy recalls. “Many of our neighbors were really upset and realized they didn’t know one another very well. We all pulled together and formed a block group. This was West Philly–there were no vigilante or NIMBY attitudes.”

One of those neighbors gave Murphy a present: his “first copy,” as he puts it, of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. There was no chance now he’d grow up to sell stocks. By the time he turned 15, he was elected to the board of one of the community associations.

After Murphy came out of the closet, he helped found the first LGBT student group at Central High. (“It wasn’t easy,” he says.)

At college in Pittsburgh he put his organizing skills to use trying to overthrow a conservative student government and elect a slate of folks from traditionally underrepresented campus groups–African-American and Southeast Asian students, women and LGBTs. “When I actually went to class,” Murphy says, “I was a social work major.”

Murphy came back to his beloved hometown–he calls Philly a “temptress”–to work for the Philadelphia Unemployment Project as a welfare organizer. After that he left for a job in Harrisburg as coordinator of a newly formed labor-faith-community-advocacy coalition called United Pennsylvanians.

In 2004 he started working for MoveOn.org, and it was a turning point. He’d been accustomed to working directly with the people whom his activism would affect. But working with MoveOn meant targeting a different group–“you know, Center City, Mt. Airy-type residents who really do have a lot to say but don’t feel like anyone ever came up to them and asked their opinion, or gave them an outlet for their anger that they felt was productive.” Murphy was energized by the commitment he saw among more than 2,000 volunteers.

“They knocked on the doors of tons of people they didn’t know, their neighbors, and got them out to the polls on Election Day,” says Murphy with wonder. “And it wasn’t just about winning on Election Day, but it was also this process of having to build a community. That’s always been what drives me–this desire to strengthen communities. That’s often kind of said in a platitude kind of way, but I mean that really specifically. I’ve always enjoyed living and spending time and being around people who aren’t exactly like me but who have some things in common and are all kind of committed to living a lifestyle where everybody’s happy and everybody has opportunity.”

Murphy realizes it sounds utopian and possibly naive, but he saw it work. “I felt like MoveOn volunteers were kind of demonstrating what it would mean to build those kinds of communities in Philadelphia.”

But after the national election MoveOn “kind of picked up their marbles and went home,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot of cultivation of leadership and building of relationships among the folks who were really active in the campaign. It became clear to me we needed to have groups similar in style to MoveOn but locally controlled so we could extract resources beyond the particular election we’d be working on.

“Logically the Democratic Party and the city would be the normal place for that to happen, but I think there’s a real sense the party’s not that welcoming to people who have a different level of energy and a different set of ideas.”

Translation: Machine politics aren’t very friendly to young visionaries like Ray Murphy. But in a city with less than 50 percent voter turnout, maybe it’s time for new tactics, which is probably why PAS gets strong support from Philly for Change (PFC), an offshoot of Philly for Dean that’s since worked on a variety of local issues, and plans to be active in the 2007 primary.

Along with PFC, which relied heavily on the tactic during Anne Dicker’s state rep campaign, Murphy is still committed to “field”–going door-to-door, talking to people one on one. That kind of personal engagement during political campaigns is a lost art, and it can be powerful in state races, he says.

“But beating Santorum by knocking on a lot of doors alone isn’t going to turn the tide for Philadelphia progressives and others who want to make Philadelphia a better place to live,” Murphy cautions. “The current machine’s more than 50 years old, and is a testament to the fact it takes time to build power.”

In the fight against Santorum, then, field has a broader purpose: making people aware of the issues, and getting them politically engaged.

“We’re building relationships in order to get as many volunteers as possible to stick around to fight for the next election and the next issue,” says Murphy. “For the long term, people who want to make Philadelphia a more progressive city are going to have to be patient and learn to savor victory and live with losing. The war won’t be won until there are good-paying jobs, quality public education, healthcare, green spaces, decent public transit and safe neighborhoods in every part of the city–not just an elite few.”

Frankly, while Ray Murphy was refining this locally centered political philosophy, Dan Savage wasn’t really thinking about Philadelphia. Despite Murphy’s repeated attempts to lure him here, Savage didn’t respond to him for some time.

“We bugged the hell out of Savage,” says Murphy. “Me and a number of our other members in the early, early days of this project–like back in December and January of last year–we would kind of get bored. If something else wasn’t working or you just had nothing to do, you’d just go, ‘Let me just send an email to Savage to remind him to get involved with Philadelphians Against Santorum.'”

But it wasn’t until Savage sent Casey a donation–and Casey sent it back–that it became clear to Savage he’d have to find a new beneficiary of his largesse.

Savage says, “I sent Casey $2,000, and they cashed the check. They invited me to a Casey fundraiser here in Seattle so I could meet him. They knew who I was–the check was from Savage Love, which is just me. They sent it back and told me I was offensive, and Casey told one of the newspapers he wanted to strike a blow for civil discourse, which is just the sort of pansy-ass horseshit coming out of Democrats’ mouths that you never hear coming out of Republicans’ mouths.”

It comes back, says Savage, to the idea of civility–the same civility that keeps worries about the children at the forefront of left-leaning minds.

“Republicans aren’t civil,” says Savage. “What they did to Max Cleland wasn’t civil. What they did to John Kerry with those bandages at the Republican National Convention with purple hearts on them wasn’t civil. Democrats shouldn’t be so concerned about fucking civility.

“Why does Casey think civility is so freaking important when it comes to dealing with these assholes? He should’ve cashed the check and told Rick Santorum that if he was offended by him taking that money, he should try to work harder at not offending every goddamn person in the country, and then comb through Santorum’s cash to find equally offensive people who said equally offensive things.”

Savage wrote about the episode in his column, which again drew the attention of PAS. By this time Murphy and co. had sent about 150 emails to PAS supporters saying, “Savage is looking to give away some money. Send him a personal email and tell him just why you think our project’s so important.”

“We didn’t hear anything for like a month,” says Murphy, “and then I just kinda got this random email from him. Maybe he thought, ‘These wackos in Philly keep emailing me. They have a good name. I’ll give the money to them.'”

Savage thinks it was a mistake for the Casey campaign to return the money. “Look what happened. They sent me the check back because they were afraid it would get in the newspapers, and they’d have to spend staff time discussing my donation,” Savage says. “And then they had to spend staff time discussing my donation because it in fact got in the newspapers. Their fears were realized because of what they did. It was just stupid.”

Though Savage obviously has plenty of criticisms of Casey, he doesn’t think this election is the time for Democrats to work through their collective angst about the politician’s deficiencies.

“I don’t like his positions on certain issues that are very near and dear to me, but I like Rick Santorum’s a whole fucking lot less. Someone who’s less offensive to me is less offensive to me. The lesser of two evils is the lesser of two evils. You’d think the last six years would’ve taught [the left] to be extremely motivated–not to just go to the polls, but to talk our really stupid moronic friends out of doing really stupid moronic things like voting for Ralph Nader or pouting because Casey isn’t perfect.”

Talk like that has drawn fire from feminist pro-choice quarters, but Savage counters, “My defense–besides getting Casey in there and getting a Democratic majority in the Senate–is that [Casey’s win would] result in a lot more pro-choice action out of the Senate despite Casey’s personal position. There’s also that he’s terrible on gay issues. It’s not like I’m selling women down the river. I’m throwing myself down the river too.”

Murphy would prefer not to put it so baldly, certainly, but the two agree that politics is a gradual process, and a revolution simply isn’t at hand. Which is why Savage Love Live is needed.

“Politics isn’t always exciting, and it’s not only boring to some people but distasteful,” says Murphy. “It feels like something that’s dirty, is full of folks who say whatever they have to say to get elected. So we figured if Dan Savage came and did Savage Love Live, we could make things a bit more comfortable for them. What we’re hoping to get out of this is people who are gonna come out to see Savage, and they’ll stay to make progressive change in Philadelphia afterward.”

As for Savage, Philly is, he points out, “a fucking long haul” from Seattle. But he doesn’t see a choice.

“I feel like everyone has to do their part right now,” he says. “I really feel that it’s an all-hands-on-deck sort of fucking moment.”

Senior editor Liz Spikol (lspikol@philadelphia weekly.com) also writes the Trouble With Spikol. For more information or to volunteer, go to www.phillyagainstsantorum.org

Savage Love Live
Tues., Oct. 10, 7:30pm. $10-$25. Trocadero, 1003 Arch St. 215.253.6579. www.phillyagainstsantorum.org

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