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Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America
Dan Savage
New York: Dutton, 2002.
$23.95, 302 pages, ISBN 0-525-94675-6.

Michael Langan
University of Greenwich

Dan Savage makes it clear from the outset that his book, Skipping Towards Gomorrah, is written as an antidote to the right-wing commentators in America whose books adorn the best-seller lists and who fill the American air-waves ranting against the degeneration of good-ol’ fashioned morality and American values. He starts by drawing attention to a fundamental paradox in American culture which is that the pursuit of ‘happiness-with-a-capital-H’, a right enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, proves troublesome for social conservatives, or ‘virtuecrats’ as Savage calls them. Savage’s answer? To carry out his own American road trip during which he will attempt to commit each of the Seven Deadly Sins whilst meeting those who also indulge. His mission is to provide an alternative voice to those who frame their debate in terms of virtue versus sin and for this he seems well qualified:

The list of sins I haven’t committed isn’t very long. You name it and, with the exception of cunnilingus, I’ve done it. I’ve burned with lust, eaten myself sick, envied people who were smarter or better looking than I am, and lain around the house watching television when I was supposed to be studying or writing.

The title of Savage’s book is a response to Arch-ranter Robert H. Bork’s Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (1996), itself, of course, a perverse reference to Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming.’ Savage turns this use of literary allusion back on Bork by quoting the lines, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity’ as he aims to counter a debate which seems to have been monopolised by the right-wing. His introduction is a point-for-point rebuttal of the arguments put forward by these social commentators and his tone is one of exasperated logic of the ‘can’t they see?’ variety, combined with well-constructed common-sense:

What the moaners and groaners at the Republican National Convention, Fox News, and on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal refuse to accept is that freedom isn’t a one-way street. It’s not even a two-way street. Freedom is space, weightlessness, room to maneuver, to go your own way. It’s people blasting off in all directions. We should all agree to disagree about certain things like, say, drug use or pre-marital sex, and, when necessary, establish reasonable rules to prevent people from slamming into each other...

It’s the same kind of tone Savage uses in his advice column ‘Savage Love’ which appears in New York’s Village Voice and is syndicated around the world.

He starts his journey in Las Vegas, the mecca of money, a city Savage has gradually grown to love. It’s also a city which immediately seems to confirm Savage’s gripe with the social conservatives as ‘The people conservatives believe are leading to the moral collapse of the country—feminists, immigrants, gays and lesbians, African Americans—are underrepresented in the most sinful city in the United States.’ When doing a quick survey amongst the gamblers in the lobby of his hotel Savage discovers that the vast majority of them were Bush voters in 2000. It’s also a city which provides a democratic model of sorts:

Only in hyperunreal Las Vegas do the winners and losers rub shoulders—some sitting right next to each other at the card tables—and enact a highly ritualized, booze-soaked version of the striving, winning, and losing at the heart of American life.

Savage wonders why American conservatives remain quiet about gambling until he realises the sums of money involved in their multi-billion dollar industry, a healthy slice of which of course, ends up in the electoral funds of Republican campaigners.

The problem with gambling as an indicator of greed, as Savage soon finds out, is that no-one actually makes any money:

The house always wins, the gamblers always lose, and that’s why casinos are a business and not a charity. If someone loves money, why would he take the almost certain risk of losing it by playing slots or craps or blackjacks?

So is it the casino owners themselves who are the sinners? Savage says, ‘greedy people own casinos; they don't visit them.’ The addiction to gambling is the addiction to emotion and real sensation of elation and despair, the up and down of winning and losing.

To explore lust Savage stays in Las Vegas and attends a swingers convention, people who will commit adultery with the permission of, and often in the presence of, their partners. Adultery is still illegal in twenty-seven states of the U.S. and, unsurprisingly, lots of the people at the convention appear to have come from those very states, including a large Texan contingent. For a lot of those taking part, adultery is not adultery as long as you are honest about it with your partner. One Jewish couple, David and Bridget, use the Torah as justification for what they are doing; ‘“This is something we feel helps our bond as husband and wife. Torah says a man should leave his parents and cleave to his wife.”’ This leads Savage to discuss the nature of sin and the differences between the Judeo and Christian traditions.

The same conservatives, Savage asserts, who ignore gambling as a sin, expend vast amounts of energy arguing against the validity of gay relationships and vehemently oppose gay marriage as it poses a ‘threat’ to the institution of heterosexual marriage but, as Savage seeks to prove by a mixture of anecdotal evidence and ‘number-crunching’, such a ‘threat’ comes, not from gays, but from non-monogomous, heterosexual, married couples who don’t even see what they are doing as a threat to marriage but regard it as something which strengthens their marriage. The swinging, however, seems strangely unthreatening; David and Bridget emphasise how regulated and safe the whole experience is. The only time Savage is shocked is when David makes an explicit sexual reference, as if he had forgotten that sex was what this was all about.

When discussing sloth Savage takes the opportunity to examine working practices in America, where large numbers of people have no holiday because they can’t take the time off or are frightened of losing their jobs, before discussing marijuana use and arguing for its legalisation. Gluttony takes him to the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Association in San Francisco. Why is it, Savage muses, that so many social conservatives are lard-asses? He travels on to an expensive weight-loss farm in Malibu where people pay 500 dollars a night to get away from luxury—nothing to envy there. It seems that the developing narrative is that Americans work hard, but are sedentary, eat a lot, get fat, then pay to lose it.

And why don’t the same social conservatives who believe, as Robert H. Bork does, that ‘Religion tends to be strongest when life is hard,’ and that poverty can be character building, also believe that the rich should be taxed more to redress the wealth imbalance in the U.S.?

Savage attends the annual Gay Pride march where he meets an ‘only-in-L.A.’ gay ubercouple, Kevin and Jake, who insist on the importance of gay pride as a beacon of hope for gay youth but, as far as Savage can tell, the gay pride march is purely and simply about having a good time. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you admit it. He goes for a shooting lesson in Texas and, to his amazement, finds that he’s a great shot, a natural—which isn’t something he gets called often in Texas. He likes it, he enjoys it, even finds himself firing at a picture of Osama bin Laden, but that is part of the seductive power of guns and he doesn’t allow himself to fall prey to their charms. For Savage, ‘owning a gun in America is one way for conservative white males to demonstrate their anger at crime, liberalism, feminism and modernity.’

Savage ends his trip in New York, that modern-day Gomorrah which he loves more than anywhere else and which, at the time of writing, is still reeling from September 11th. He writes an effective comparison between Islamic fundamentalist intolerance and bigotry and Christian fundamentalist intolerance and bigotry. They hate the same things in the same way he hates Osama bin Laden. Savage expresses the view that war in Afghanistan was completely justified and that Bush has done a good job on it. This comes as a bit of a shock to the reader who has listened to him debunking myths of America and using statistics to counter-attack the arguments of the Republican right. It’s like everything that has gone before goes out the window when he says, ‘I’m a patriot. On September 11 I didn’t blame America; I blamed bin Laden,’ as if what happened on that day is beyond cause and effect. One of the National Rifle Association’s slogans is ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’ Savage might as well be saying ‘American foreign policy doesn’t kill people, Arabs kill people.’

Savage’s book is concerned primarily with America but, in the age of globalisation—which really means Americanisation—is this good enough? It’s one thing to argue for sexual freedom and the legalisation of marijuana but the same greed which drives America to advertise food as the biggest, the longest, the heaviest, is also the same greed which made the gas-guzzling SUV the American vehicle of choice and which enables America to produce 25% of the world’s greenhouse gasses, as if this were America’s right. He’s also not above comparing America to other countries when statistics prove his point though he sometimes takes short-cuts in his arguments as when he says that ‘England is moving towards legalization’, of both marijuana and prostitution. Whilst Savage often hints at his discomfort at certain aspects of the American psyche, he doesn’t really tackle any of these wider questions head-on, and maybe this isn’t the place for it. His personal journey gives a non-American reader an insight into the liberal view-point as focused on its apotheosis, which, at a time when American mainstream news media is dominated by Fox and the shock-jock, provides welcome relief.

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