Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On coming out to your parents

It is only natural that during this holiday season there have been several discussions on gay blogs concerning coming out to one’s parents. At this time of year when family concerns are at there most intense, those gay men who are still “living a lie” to their parents come under increased pressure. Most of the discussions on this topic have given unreserved support in the direction of coming out to those who are struggling with this issue. I would like to add my voice to those giving support, but with certain reservations.

Before going into this issue, it may be worthwhile to consider that the relationship with his parents is probably somewhat more important to a gay man than it is to most of our straight counterparts. A man’s relationship to his parents changes substantially when he has children of his own; he sees himself principally no longer as his parents’ child, but rather as his own child’s father. Of course, having children of his own doesn’t cancel out a man’s relationship to his parents, but the emphasis changes. His parents are no longer his primary blood relationship. While a substantial number of us are also gay fathers, the large majority of gay men are childless. Their primary blood bond remains with their parents.

This parent- child bond is substantially different than that which one can have with a partner or spouse. No matter how passionately in love one is with one’s partner, and no matter how long or stable the relationship is, it is still a relationship of choice and ultimately revocable. Moreover, the partner --- and, in fact, here may lie the sexual fascination--- always remains “the other.” A man’s parents and children are biologically and phychologically, at least partially, extensions of himself. He can leave them, disown or be disowned by them, but they are still his “flesh and blood.” Of course, the change in life orientation a man undergoes when he leaves his parents and joins with a partner is immensely significant, but the separation is not as complete as when he has children of his own. If he doesn’t have them, as is the case with most gay men, he essentially remains his parents’ child, no matter what happens.

But despite the importance of this parent- child bond for most gay men, it is still destined to attenuate as both the gay adult and the parents grow older. In some of the coming out discussions I mentioned earlier, a young gay adult feels a need to reveal the truth about his sexual orientation to his parents because he wants to maintain a high level of intimacy with them, or, as one young man put it, he wants them to continue to be part of every aspect of his life. I would urge him, however, to look at the relationship that most of his straight friends have with their parents, even before they have children. There is a natural, and healthy generation gap between parents and children, which necessarily widens as the parties grow older, even without the problem of the son’s sexual orientation. We can pretty safely say to this young man that even if his parents do totally accept his homosexuality, the intimacy he craves with them is a fragile and fleeting thing; in about ten years there will probably be lots of things, besides his sexual orientation, that he won’t want to tell Dad and Mom, and they, for that matter, won’t want to tell him.

Because of the ultimately unseverable bond between the gay man and his parents, coming out to them is essentially different from coming out to bosses, colleagues, or friends. It’s even different from coming out to siblings. All of these people are free to accept or reject you on a personal level; they can, if they wish, emotionally walk away from the situation. Our parents, on the other hand, simply can’t. They can reject you, throw you out of the house, disinherit you, and refuse to take your phone calls; but chances are that if a gay man’s parents aren’t ready to accept his homosexuality, regardless of how they react, being forced to confront it will cause them as much emotional turmoil as it causes him. The practical effects for them may be less troublesome (They, in the worst cases, will still have a roof over their heads), but the pain will be about the same.

So, it’s ultimately undemocratic and coercive to come out to your parents without good indication that they’re ready for it. It leaves them with no real choice. Although they can accept it or reject it, they still have to deal with it, frequently at a high emotional cost. Justifying unheeded coming out by claiming to love them so much you can’t stand to live a lie, simply won’t wash. You don’t emotionally corner people you love.

Many gay men follow a course of living a normal gay life, even introducing their partners to their parents, but stopping short of forcing a confrontation on the issue. This is, frankly, the path I took. I did nothing to hide my homosexuality from my mother, including bringing my partner home to my family several times a year. I never presented him as simply a friend; but I didn’t press the nature of our relationship, either. After a few decades, my mother stopped asking me which women I was seeing and when I planned to settle down with one of them. But she still was in denial until circumstances moved her to come to terms with what should have been obvious for years. When she did finally admit to herself that her son was gay, she was also pretty much ready to accept it.

I must admit that there were times I would have loved to tell my parents directly that I am gay, and, I my case, there would have been no practical repercussions. By the time I came to terms myself with my homosexuality, I was well into my 20s, no longer living at home and financially independent. Also, both my parents loved me beyond all reason, and there was no way they could have cut themselves off from me.

I didn’t come out to them simply because I had too much respect for their feelings; it would have brought them a great deal of emotional turmoil, and it was not at all clear what it would have brought me. By the time I accepted my own homosexuality, I already had a life quite separate from that of my parents. Although we had a strong emotional bond, our way of looking at the world was already quite different. Coming out to them might have made me feel better for a while, but I don’t see how it would have brought me and my parents closer.

So, guys, I can understand the pressure that many of you are under as you celebrate the holidays with your families. And I can understand your desire to stop living a lie, to tell your parents, and to get the whole business over with. I also applaud your desire to be honest and open with the people you love. Some parents are, of course, ready to receive the news. Others, however, need to be cut a bit of slack, and telling them directly may not be the best way to handle the matter.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

And now for something totally different: A holiday card from Venice

A reader has asked me to post some pictures of Venice on my blog. I’m sorry to disappoint, but I can’t; or more truthfully, I won’t. I consider myself a fairly accomplished and even passionate amateur photographer; I always carry a camera when I travel. I have, however, never been tempted to photograph this spectacularly beautiful city where I have the privilege of living.

The problem is that the beauty of Venice is rendered trivial and banal when reduced to a photograph. There are many attractive buildings in Venice, but with the exception of the Sansovino library, the Ca’ d’Oro, and perhaps the Miracoli and Redentore churches and a few others, truly fine architectural examples are rare. The beauty of Venice depends upon the wonderful, ever changing light of the city, sometimes cold, steely grey- blue, sometimes violet- pink, sometimes golden, produced by the sun, the water, and the mist. Painters (Canaletto, Guardi, Turner) have done a much better job than photographers of capturing the beauty of the city. But even those painters couldn’t capture the wonder of the city as one moves through it on a small boat or gondola through the back canals, seeing each building and vista in the context of the last. It’s a beauty that has to be appreciated in motion, not from a static perspective. You just have to come here to understand.

Nevertheless, I feel some obligation to share something of Venice with people who may be interested. I frequently am asked by visitors to the city what it is like living here; perhaps trying to answer that question, including discussing what it’s like being an openly gay person in this city, will be more useful than any photograph I could post.

Many people who live in very beautiful cities may become so accustomed to the beauty of their surroundings that they are no longer aware of it. I also spend a good deal of time in Paris, and I do, at times, lose sight of how beautiful Paris is. Such dampening of the aesthetic sensibilities never happens in the case of Venice; not with me, and not even with the simplest, least sophisticated native- born Venetian. I attribute this constant wonderment caused by Venice to the kaleidoscopic nature of her beauty; every day, at every hour, with the changes in sunlight, tides, and atmosphere, she presents you with a new face, and all of them are beautiful.

What many visitors really mean when they ask what it is like to live in Venice is how we who live here cope with the millions of tourists that traipse through our city every year. The answer is: barely. Ever since its political decline in the XVI century, Venice has been a city that has lived, at least partially, off of tourism, so tourism has long been a fact of Venetian life. Even the famous Venetian Carnival is not really a real Venetian festival; it was initiated in the XVIII century to attract tourists to the city. The situation has changed substantially, however, in the last thirty years or so, with the advent of mass tourism. No only has the number of tourists visiting Venice increased exponentially; the type of tourist has changed.

When I was given a trip to Europe as a college graduation present by my parents, I was instructed by them that I was to conduct myself abroad as I would as a guest in someone’s home. Tourists now coming to Venice show very little consideration for the people who live here; Venetians who used to be unbelievably kind and accommodating to tourists have begun to lose patience.

Thankfully, however, 90% of the tourists limit themselves to the water busses and to about 10% of the city, so the resident comes into contact with them only on public transportation or if he has to go into certain sections of the city (where no resident in his right mind would live). Also thankfully, the 10% of the city that the tourists do frequent is not even necessarily the most beautiful or most interesting part of the city. So, if you walk instead of taking the frequently tourist impacted public transport, despite the huge numbers of tourists that visit this city, you can be blissfully unaware of them.

But even if you don’t come into contact with tourists very often, mass tourism has had a negative effect on the quality of life of everyone here. It has driven real estate prices through the roof, making it almost impossible for middle class young Venetians to afford apartments and forcing them to move to the mainland. Aside from people (such as me and my partner) associated with one of the three universities here in Venice, which essentially comprise the second largest industry in the city, the middle class has fled, driven away largely by exaggeratedly high housing costs. It city, in fact, has actually begun a program to discourage tourism, since it threatens the demographic infrastructure of the city and has negatively affected the quality of life.

My partner and I have a strong circle of friends, composed in equal parts of native Venetians, Italians from other regions that have moved here, and foreigners. We have this social situation, however, essentially because we are involved with the university and with the city administration, the last bastions of the middle class left in Venice. Professional people, especially expatriates, not involved with these sectors have a much more difficult time connecting socially here. The non- university expats are basically isolated in the expat community, which has very little to do with the life of the city.

Despite the middle class flight from the city and the hoards of tourists, Venice has miraculously remained a real place and has avoided becoming a Disneyland image of itself. Venetian culture is still quite alive in the city. Most non- Italian visitors don’t understand that the language they hear spoken in Venice is very frequently not Italian, but rather Venetian dialect, a language with its own history and an illustrious literary tradition. Venice is the only city in northern Italy in which the local dialect is spoken as frequently as standard Italian. If you understand Venetian, it is not difficult to find an excellent performance of a play by Venice’s world class XVIII century playwright, Carlo Goldoni. A foreigner or a non- Venetian Italian is not expected to speak Venetian, but he is expected to understand it. Venetians will begin speaking to a non- Venetian in Italian, but will very quickly slip into Venetian. It is both more comfortable for them and an expression of acceptance and intimacy.

Another area in which Venetian culture is alive and well is the kitchen. Venetian cuisine cannot compete in variety and complexity with the three or four major centers of Italian cuisine, Emiglia- Romagna, Piemonte, Sicily, and, perhaps Naples (You haven’t eaten pizza until you’ve eaten it at the Pizzeria Trianon in Naples, but that’s another story). But the Venetian lagoon, its islands, and the neighboring mainland produce the best fish and vegetables in Italy; so, Venetian cuisine is quite minimalist, depending on simple preparations of excellent ingredients. A typical Venetian meal would have as an antipasto fried fresh sardines marinated in olive oil, vinegar, onions and raisins --- remember, Venice has strong Byzantine, middle eastern roots---, followed by a risotto made either with fish or, better, with the tiny white artichokes from the lagoon island of San Erasmo, followed by a fresh caught (not farmed!) grilled sea bass from the lagoon. Desert is generally fresh fruit from the neighboring mainland.

What? No pasta? Except for a whole- wheat pasta generally served with an anchovy- onion sauce, Venice is corn meal (polenta) and risotto country. (So much for the myth of Marco Polo’s having brought pasta to Italy from China; if that were the case, wouldn’t pasta be part of the cuisine of his native city?). We eat lots of pasta in Venice, but we consider it slightly “foreign.”

People who live in Venice tend to avoid restaurants and tend to eat and entertain at home much more often than people in other cities. There are some very good restaurants in Venice that have resisted the corrupting influence of floods of tourists who don’t understand Venetian food, and won’t be back anyway. In order to cultivate a local clientele, most Venetian restaurants have special prices for residents. But residents tend to avoid restaurants since some staples of Venetian cuisine, such as risotto, can’t be made properly in a restaurant (It requires 30 minutes of constant attention and stirring, can’t be made for more than six people at a time, and must be served immediately.) Fresh caught fish generally costs at least double the farmed variety; so, serving it in a moderately priced restaurant would be difficult (Most fish served to tourists is farmed.).

Because Venetian residents entertain so much at home --- having people in, or eating at friends’ homes two or three times a week is not a rarity--- the level of intimacy in friendly relations is quite high. Also, since space is at a premium in an island city that can’t expand either outward or up, people live very close to each other. Unless you are very rich and have a palazzo of your own, you smell your neighbor’s sardines frying up for lunch, and you hear his arguments with his spouse. In short, privacy is almost non- existent. Living in Venice is like living in a very beautiful fish bowl. (The positive side of this is that Venice is perhaps the safest city in Europe.)

This living on top of one another has, of course, a strong impact on gay life in the city. There are no gay bars or specifically gay clubs--- they are all are on the mainland. Venetians tend, because of their imperial history and also the influence of tourism, to be very tolerant of non- conformity and cultural differences--- much more so than in many other cities in highly conformist Italy. But unless you’re out to your friends, colleagues, and family, you couldn’t frequent a gay bar in a city in which secrets are almost impossible. So, Venetian gay guys use the bars and baths in Bologna or Padua; even the few gay places in the mainland section of Venice, Mestre, are too close to home for them. The gay venues in Mestre are generally patronized by tourists and Italians from other cities, as are the few open air cruising places in Venice.

Ironically, there is a gay nude beach with an adjacent pine grove for immediate consumption. It is used by Venetians, resident outsiders, and well informed tourists. I suppose it works because people are less inclined to gossip when they themselves have obviously been bare- assed in the dunes. Gossip, then, involves a certain amount of self- indictment.

Perhaps because of the legacy of Henry James, Venice has the image to those who don’t know her as an elegant, mysterious, and snobbish place. But because of its imperial and mercantile history it is also the most culturally tolerant and cosmopolitan of cities. It confined its Jews to the ghetto, but it didn’t expel them, as many medieval and renaissance Italian and European cities did. And now, despite Venice’s location in Italy’s politically conservative and even xenophobic northeast, the city has a traditionally leftist government and a model program for assistance to people seeking political asylum. Quite a different thing from sipping tea in the garden of a crumbling palazzo on the Grand Canal--- we have that, too, but it’s clearly no the whole picture.

I hope this brief verbal sketch of life in Venice has done justice to La Serenissima.

Best wishes to you all for the happiest of holidays!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

On Evangelical Compassion II- The gay Evangelical rank and file

On Dec. 12 the New York Times, prompted by the same events that prompted me to write my first post “On Evangelical Compassion,” ran a very informative article on rank and file gay Evangelicals, their difficulties with their belief system and with other Evangelicals, and their attempts at coping with their situation. Most of those gay Evangelicals who assert their homosexuality justify their position ideologically by reinterpreting the passages in the Bible that have been traditionally understood as injunctions against homosexuality. Gay Evangelicals have also established several web sites and on line magazines that promote these unorthodox interpretations and provide emotional support to fellow gay Evangelicals struggling either with their own feelings of religious transgression or with the ostracism of their more orthodox coreligionists.

While a few of these web sites seem designed, Elmer Gantry style, essentially to milk some poor gay Evangelical of a few dollars, the majority of them are run and staffed by what seem to be sincere gay men and women who have suffered a great deal, both spiritually and socially, because of the contradictions between their homosexuality and Evangelical teaching. Regardless of what one thinks or feels about their professed beliefs, one has to accept that the intent and function of these web sites is to alleviate suffering; if their claims are true, and I have little doubt that they are, they have actually prevented suicide. So, despite my own lack of sympathy with their religious position in general, I must applaud their efforts. When it comes to saving a life, or alleviating suffering, one’s passion for the truth sometimes has to be put on hold.

Unfortunately, however, these gay Evangelical web sites and the groups generated around them, despite the comfort they offer their gay coreligionists, cannot be viewed as elements of progress for the rest of us. They are almost entirely reactive, and, as the Times article points out, they do very little to try to change the aggressively homophobic stance of the Evangelical Churches and rein in their attempts to influence legislation and public policy. They seem radically parochial, little preoccupied with the concerns of the gay community in general, and interested primarily in creating a safe area within existing Evangelical belief and practice where gay Evangelicals can survive.

Their failure to assume a more active position against homophobic Evangelical policy and political activity is probably derived, at least in part, from the weakness of their arguments justifying homosexuality within an Evangelical context. Their unorthodox interpretations of scripture have been almost universally rejected not only by traditional Evangelicals but also by secular Biblical scholars.

Moreover, they are so fixated on the question of the Biblical injunction against homosexuality that they have not dealt at all with the ultimately more difficult issue of the general Christian discomfort with non- procreative sex. Even if we chose to disregard or reinterpret what is written in the Bible about homosexuality, homosexuality still involves non- procreative sex and thereby is a “sin of the flesh.” In short, intellectually, they are in no position to do battle with traditional Evangelical Churches on their own ground. It is, therefore, sadly understandable that gay Evangelical leaders have to take a duck and cover position.

Given this situation, it could well be argued that the best advice a friend could give a gay Evangelical would be to kick the Church in the balls, get the hell out of there, and start living a normal life. But I suspect that for a large number of Evangelicals, getting out simply isn’t an option.

It isn’t merely a matter of religious fervor. The world is full of lapsed Catholics who were brought up going to mass every Sunday; my mother, who came from a very religious but non- Hassidic Jewish home, would feel at most a vague twinge of discomfort as she served a pork roast to her family for dinner on Yom Kippur. But Evangelical Christianity, like monastic Catholicism, Hassidic Judaism and certain types of radical Islam, are mystical, charismatic forms of religion that rule out the possibility of a secular existence. They are not simply religions, but rather the keystones of an entire cultural complex. The individual cannot leave since his whole identity is wrapped up in the Church. Generally, if one does manage to leave, despite the pain the Church may have caused him, he still feels a longing for what he left behind.

It is, therefore, understandable that gay Evangelicals do whatever they humanly can to stay within the fold. It is, moreover, also understandable that they have no real interest in the rest of us, unless, of course, they can convert us. After having come down so hard on Evangelicals in my last post, I wrote to some gay Evangelical web sites inviting them to a dialogue. I sent out the following e mail:

Dear xxx

I have read a few pieces from your magazine and enjoyed them. You and your colleagues are sensitive, intelligent, and good writers.

I would invite you and your colleagues, if you have the time, to look at my blog . I am a rationalist and highly critical of religion, especially of monotheistic religions, and very especially of Evangelical Christianity. I suppose that Evangelical Christianity receives the brunt of my criticism not because it is worse than the other organized monotheistic religions, but rather because it has become so influential in forming the attitudes of the current American administration.

There are several posts there that may interest you, and I would welcome your comments. I am interested not only in comments of gay men who agree with me or who come from my own cultural milieu, but also of those who come from a very different standpoint.

I promise I will not try to dissuade you from your religious beliefs, and I trust that you will also respect my rationalist position and not try to convert me. I hope we can have an interesting and fruitful dialogue.

With very best wishes,


I have, as yet, not received any response. I’m not betting that I will.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On Evangelical Compassion

According to an article in today’s New York Times, the recent coming out and subsequent resignation of yet another prominent Evangelical minister has prompted several Church leaders to urge a modification of the Church’s aggressively hostile attitude toward homosexuals; while still maintaining that homosexuality is sinful, they urged compassion towards homosexuals, especially those within the Evangelical Church. As explained in statements issued by these Church leaders, it was having respected colleagues who had struggled with their sexual orientation that had brought about their change in attitude.

I suppose we should be grateful for small favors and accept the Evangelicals’ change in attitude as some sort of progress. Nevertheless, as a man who ascribes a great deal of importance to rational processes, I still find their expressed justification for their change in attitude shocking: Formerly, they supported aggressively hostile behavior towards homosexuals; now they urge compassion, but the reason for that compassion is that some important members of their own social group have been affected. It was not reason that brought about the change, no change in the determination of what is right and what is wrong, but rather an emotional reaction based upon personal contact or association.

Why is this important, and why am I so negative? According the Evangelicals’ expressed decision- making process, it was acceptable to be hostile as long as no one who they knew and was important to them was affected. By extension, since we know no one in Darfur, have never been driven from our homes, and have never been on the verge of starving to death, the Evangelical Church would have to conclude that withholding compassion for the Darfur refugees is acceptable.

This is, of course, nonsense, as is the way in which the Evangelicals arrived at a compassionate attitude towards gays. It also gives us an idea of how difficult to effect a real change in attitude will be in a group who rejects reason as a vehicle in the decision making process. I almost prefer the old hostility rather than a compassion based upon reference to some self loathing gay minister.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

What’s a nice gay guy like you doing at IKEA? Or,
A Few Gay Targeted Ads Don’t Make a Gay Friendly Environment

As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been rather absent from blogland in the past few weeks. I haven’t even answered some of the very interesting comments made on my last post (sorry, guys). My silence, however, should not be understood as indicating a waning interest in discussing issues. It’s just that my partner and I have been in the midst of restoring a (small) apartment we bought in Paris last summer. It has been a rather consuming experience. But the worst component of these tribulations--- even worse than having to fire, through a lawyer, the first contractor we had hired--- has been putting in the kitchen from IKEA, a company with which I had no previous experience. The IKEA experience was not only insanely time consuming and stressful; it also involved coming into contact with a social philosophy I found repugnant and even dangerous.

IKEA has occasionally run ads seeming to target a gay clientele. Why shouldn’t they? We have tremendous buying power and it would simply be bad business not to encourage our patronage. We should not, however, be deceived by organizations and businesses that seek our support and patronage and at the same time espouse a social philosophy that is implicitly contradictory to the openness, flexibility, and respect for individualism that we as gays need to thrive. IKEA is certainly not overtly homophobic, but it is also hardly a comfortable place for a gay man.

The founder and guiding light of IKEA was the son of Nazi sympathizing Swedish farmers; he himself had a considerable flirtation with Swedish Nazism even after the War. Much later, in the 1990s, when his brown tinted past was discovered, he recanted and called his former association with Nazism a mistake. Even, however, if the founder’s separation from Nazism is completely sincere, and although the more brutal and overtly militaristic aspects of Nazism are certainly absent from IKEA’s identity, it still is nevertheless clear that much of the social philosophy underpinning Nazism is still present in IKEA.

As soon as one enters an IKEA store, the enterprise’s definition of society becomes quite clear. This is a space made for young families with children--- play areas for the kids abound, and none of the staff seems to be over 35. So, despite the gay targeted ads, IKEA hardly provides a homey atmosphere for a middle aged gay couple. Youth, family values, well, you all know the scene.

Most important, however, is that the furniture and accessories offered are uniformly austere, correct, and unmitigatedly bland, negating the possibility of the expression of the least amount of individualism on the part of the consumer. No whimsy, no daring, not ugly, but not beautiful either--- the most neutral stuff you can imagine. The furniture is fresh, clean, safe, and incredibly inexpensive, leading the buyer even to forget that he has an individual personality to express. He is seduced by the low prices and the comfort of the assurance that there is no way he can get out of step.

IKEA’s sense of design not only protects the aesthetically insecure from choosing a piece in bad taste; it avoids the issue of taste all together. Taste involves the assertion of self through discrimination, and in IKEA this process is for all intents and purposes eliminated. Stylistic differentiation is present only in the most generalized sense, and within those divisions, pieces differ primarily in size, function, and perhaps the color of the (frequently artificial) wood. At IKEA everything can be matched with everything else; the IKEA sofa you choose may be too large or small, but you can be sure that it will match any side table from IKEA that you pick. No exercise of taste, or expression of individualism, is necessary, or, for that matter, possible.

Not only does IKEA free us from the “burden” of individual taste; it also carefully avoids any reference to social class. Unlike most furniture enterprises, where various levels of quality and modesty or luxury are presented, at IKEA everything is of the same adequate, but non- luxurious quality. In fact, IKEA has even run ads ridiculing people who aspire to a more elegant, aristocratically inspired style. No marble work surfaces for the kitchens, no solid, rare woods. Not only our individual taste, but also our class determined taste is eliminated. We are all safely, comfortably, the same.

Not only does IKEA seduce us into accepting the negation of our individuality and our social identities, it also negates the importance of one of our most precious possessions--- our time. IKEA’s low prices depend on their low level of costumer service, with interminable waiting at the check out and merchandise delivery desks, unconcerned and inefficient staff at the help desks, and, of course, the costumer’s having to transport and assemble much of the merchandise himself. The implication is that if you’re not willing to spend your time and effort into buying, transporting and setting up your furniture, there’s no room for you in the IKEA family. He who resists is viewed somehow as lazy and decadent. It also means that the buyer values his time and effort so little that he is willing to swap huge--- yes, really huge quantities of it to save some money.

And just in case you’re still under the illusion that you’re in an ordinary store where, aside from the “hidden persuaders” of advertising, you’re free you go in, buy what you want, and leave, consider IKEA’s practice of naming all of their merchandise with bizarre Scandinavian appearing names (they are, as I found out, not even all really Swedish or Norwegian). In order do any substantial shopping at IKEA, you have to learn their language. This is a technique taken straight from Nazi practice and the practice of other authoritarian regimes. The Nazis renamed all sorts of common objects, giving them Arian names in order to transform reality into their terms. Having someone adopt your language is a well established mechanism of thought control.

Many department stores make you wander around the store for a bit before you find what you came for or before you find the exit, but IKEA carries this technique to extremes. No matter what you came for, you have to walk through the entire store, and frequently all the floors, to get to the object, pick it up from the warehouse section, pay for it, and get out. It makes a visit to IKEA of under an hour pretty impossible; generally it takes at least two. You wind up picking up a few things you don’t really need both because they’re cheap and because you have to justify all that time you spent. More important, you must totally surrender to the order and rhythm of shopping that IKEA imposes upon you.

And to what end this thought and movement control? If IKEA’s very low prices haven’t been sufficient to make you renounce your last vestiges of individualism and self determination, a few hours of being bombarded with a strange, exotic language and being forced to walk what seems like kilometers through stacks of merchandise that you originally had no intention of buying breaks down any nascent rebellion against the IKEA ethos that may be stirring within you.

None of this is in the least by chance. IKEA’s founder makes no bones about the firm’s having a very specific philosophy and his desire to impose it not only on his staff but also on the public. He set it all down with evangelical zeal in a tractate he called “The Testament of a Furniture Dealer,” in which he makes it clear that IKEA in not simply a business, but rather the embodiment of a social and moral philosophy in which simplicity, hard work, and conformity are absolute values. In a series the Guardian ran on IKEA starting June 17, 2004,,1240462,00.html, the author aptly refers to IKEA as a “cult.” The Guardian articles also quote some rather chilling passages from the “Testament.”

Not that there is anything wrong with simplicity and hard work, but when these values are put in the context of conformity, one becomes a bit uneasy. The combination becomes downright creepy when you see how the institution not only seduces people into renouncing their individualism and personal taste through low prices; getting people to compromise values because of low price is perhaps pretty much what many businesses do, but what makes IKEA dangerous is that it makes people rejoice in that renunciation of self because it’s safe and relieves them of the responsibility of choice. In short, no storm troopers, Sieg Heils, or brown shirts, but more than a whiff of fascist stench.

So, IKEA can run as many gay targeted ads as it wishes, but it still won’t get my vote for a “Gay Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” An attempt to attract gay clientele and the projection of a tolerant and open social philosophy that encourages individualism and diversity are very different phenomena.

At this point the reader may well ask why, if I have this opinion of IKEA, did I buy a kitchen from them in the first place. Well, I simply didn’t have any idea of what I was getting into, and the IKEA price was less than half of what an equivalent kitchen would have cost anywhere else. I had no idea when I began the process of what the human and emotional costs would be.

Also, the bland, functionalism of IKEA furniture seems very well adapted to the context of a kitchen, essentially a practical work space, and in all fairness, the IKEA kitchen we bought finally turned out fairly well. But it also cost an inordinate amount of our time (eight visits to the IKEA store, the briefest of which was about two hours) and stress. These non monetary costs were caused mostly by the incompetence and indifference of the overworked, underpaid and exploited IKEA staff; I’ll spare you the details, but let it suffice to say that what the IKEA kitchen planners could do wrong (planning a kitchen without a fridge, for example), they did. But IKEA’s well-documentedly disastrous customer service and exploitation of staff are only symptoms of larger, more serious problems with the institution.