Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness
New York: Dutton, 2002.
$23.95, 302 pages, ISBN 0-525-94675-6.
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.
Savages 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 havent committed isnt very long.
You name it and, with the exception of cunnilingus, Ive done
it. Ive 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 Savages book is a response to Arch-ranter
Robert H. Borks Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism
and American Decline (1996), itself, of course, a perverse reference
to Yeatss 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 cant 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 isnt a one-way street. Its not
even a two-way street. Freedom is space, weightlessness, room to maneuver,
to go your own way. Its 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...
Its the same kind of tone Savage uses in his advice column
Savage Love which appears in New Yorks 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. Its also a city which immediately
seems to confirm Savages gripe with the social conservatives
as The people conservatives believe are leading to the moral
collapse of the countryfeminists, immigrants, gays and lesbians,
African Americansare 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. Its also a city which
provides a democratic model of sorts:
Only in hyperunreal Las Vegas do the winners and losers rub shoulderssome
sitting right next to each other at the card tablesand 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 thats 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
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 dont 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
When discussing sloth Savage takes the opportunity to examine working
practices in America, where large numbers of people have no holiday
because they cant 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 luxurynothing 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 dont 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. Theres nothing wrong with that, as long as you admit it.
He goes for a shooting lesson in Texas and, to his amazement, finds
that hes a great shot, a naturalwhich isnt 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 doesnt 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. Its
like everything that has gone before goes out the window when he says,
Im a patriot. On September 11 I didnt blame America;
I blamed bin Laden, as if what happened on that day is beyond
cause and effect. One of the National Rifle Associations slogans
is guns dont kill people, people kill people. Savage
might as well be saying American foreign policy doesnt
kill people, Arabs kill people.
Savages book is concerned primarily with America but, in the
age of globalisationwhich really means Americanisationis
this good enough? Its 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
worlds greenhouse gasses, as if this were Americas right.
Hes 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 doesnt really tackle any of these wider questions head-on,
and maybe this isnt 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.