Dan Savage’s new book American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics is getting press because of his nuanced views on infidelity. The famed gay activist/sex columnist did interview rounds, where he called for a more complex look at cheating – and why spouses feel they have to cheat. Now as someone who was cheated on repeatedly by an ex, I looked at Savage’s argument warily; he argues that cheating may be the lesser of two evils in a relationship – again, when dealing with relationships, I prefer not to deal in “evils” but that’s my own personal take. But reading Savage’s stance does at least open my eyes to his point of view. He doesn’t convince me (I still don’t buy his argument that cheating can sometimes save a relationship, no matter how many times I re-read it), but I cannot dismiss him, either.
And that’s the beauty of American Savage. Aside from being provocative and sometimes belligerent and incendiary, Savage is also a great writer – funny, profane, passionate – and he backs his claims up with lots of evidence – sometimes it’s overwhelming (the footnotes on my Kindle edition were particularly hard to get through – my advice is if you’re going to read this book – and you should – do it the old-fashioned way with a hardcover or paperback edition). He knows his stuff.
Aside from writing about politics – marriage equality, right to die, and healthcare dominate the political aspect of the book – Savage also shares his personal life with his readers, particularly his marriage as well as his mother’s passing. As someone whose recently lost someone, his chapter dealing with his mother’s death was notably poignant and touching; he writes of his grief in an unabashed, unfiltered way, painting an almost-horrifying image of mourning, as he describes being knocked to the floor, sobbing. Readers probably won’t recover from the emotional wallop of that chapter, despite his inclusion of his trademark humor in the chapters that followed.
Savage’s estimable skill as a writer also come into play when he writes of a dinner he shared with National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown. It’s a tense, but funny passage, where Savage invites the famously homophobic Brown to his home to have a debate on Christianity and gay rights. Obviously, readers of Savage’s book will come away with the feeling that he won the debate, while Brown’s supporters will claim victory for their guy – and while the debate is important – and Savage does include arguments made during the conversation, what stays is the presence of Savage’s husband, Terry Miller.
For too long, well-intentioned liberal and LGBT activists have taken on the mantle of “there are two sides to the argument” and “we must respect the other side’s position.” Savage is never guilty of filtering his opinion, but as a writer and journalist, he does engage with “the other side” from time to time; Miller, on the other hand does not believe a debate exists – and so his righteous fury with Savage at the dinner invitation is so right-on.
Many on both the right and even the left have issues with Savage. He addresses some of these points – he goes into some detail about his dismissive comments about bisexual men. He does a good job in taking ownership of his damaging comments, and his explanation does shed some light as to why he made those statements in the first place; he has also been accused of being transphobic (he was even glitter bombed once), and though he writes about trans issues in generalities as they relate to LGBT issues, he doesn’t address his critics on any potential anti-trans bias in his work. Also, his stances on straight women’s issues aren’t always clear – despite claims that Savage is a sexist, he does appear to be supportive of women’s sexuality (although he will annoy some readers – myself included – with his comment that “routine physical maintenance – which includes roughly maintaining your body weight – is one way we show our partners that we value them”), but is not as successful in his rhetoric as he is when tackling other topics like politics or faith.
Reading American Savage isn’t a breezy experience – Savage challenges ideas and taboos, while also articulating what many already think, but cannot put into words. It’s a powerful tome, written by one of the most assertive (and yes, aggressive) figures in social and cultural criticism today; it’s also a terrifically satisfying and exciting read.
Click here to buy American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics by Dan Savage on amazon.com.