The Lives of Otters: A Conversation with Alex Knepper
In the two years we’ve shared as undergrads at American University, this will be the first time I’ve crossed paths with Alex Knepper. The self-described “renegade conservative” writes a column for The Eagle, AU’s independent student newspaper, and in that capacity has been involved in more than his fair share of controversy. His most recent piece, “Dealing with AU’s Anti-Sex Brigade”, has drawn heavy criticism from students who understood it to be trivializing date rape – criticism which quickly escalated from angry letters to the editor to organized protests, acts of vandalism, and threats of bodily harm.
I sit down with Knepper late Sunday afternoon. He seems remarkably well-composed for a college sophomore who’s been at the center of a heated debate on free speech and sexuality that has by now extended beyond campus to local and national media coverage, not to mention the flurry of blog attention from sources as diverse as the Huffington Post and David Horowitz’ News Real, to which Knepper regularly contributes. After chatting briefly about how lousy Randians are in the sack (Knepper begs to differ) and his recent encounter with Christopher Hitchens at a house party hosted by David Frum, I finally figure out how to work my audio recorder and get down to business with the young man who might well be, for the moment, the most notorious homosexual in the District of Columbia.
TNG’s Andrew F: I notice your body guard isn’t with you today.
Alex Knepper: Jesus is my body guard, and he is risen today.
TNG: So how has the past week been? You’re twenty years old, studying political science at American University, and you find yourself quite unexpectedly cast into the middle of what you’ve termed a national media firestorm.
AK: I have the feminists to thank for all of this. If they hadn’t trashed the papers, none of this would have happened. I’ve written columns in the past that have been controversial, usually they receive about 50-60 comments at a time. I figured this would be like anything else, but I underestimated the fury with which feminists would disallow a discussion about rape.
TNG: I think this is important to build some background for our readers: you’ve described yourself elsewhere as a gay intellectual conservative. In a climate in which any two of those terms might seem to be mutually exclusive, what’s it like to live your life?
AK: I don’t so much like the term “conservative” on its own. I describe myself variously as “renegade conservative” or a “classical liberal.” My beliefs in ten seconds are laissez-faire capitalism, a robust foreign policy, social tolerance, anti-religion, pro-sex, and anti-psychiatry.
I think there’s a niche out there for a contrarian in the media that needs to be filled. As far as what’s it like, I think it’s done me more good than harm, reaching out to people, because there is a dearth of voices that are speaking in the same ideological fashion that I am.
TNG: The fact of your homosexuality –which you’ve never concealed — you described yourself on the CBS morning show as an openly gay man – has been conspicuously absent in a lot of the media coverage. The Huffington Post story and ABC news interview come to mind. I’m wondering what you think of this resistance, willful or not, to factor your sexual orientation into the dynamics of the controversy?
AK: The subtext of all of the interviews has been that I’m a douchey fratboy trying to justify his way with women. Half of the interviews that I walk in to, I get the feeling that the media are trying to perform a community service in being the capital-G “Good Guy” and putting this douchey college fratboy in his place.
Mentioning my sexual orientation flips the script. It’s a shame we can’t have a dialogue about this detached from identity, and when women like Camille Paglia or Katie Roiphe or gay men like myself can even halfway get away with talking about this. But that’s the state of identity politics and victim politics right now.
TNG: You’ve talked about, sort of, the Duke Lacrosse phenomenon, situations where it doesn’t so much matter who people are or what they’ve actually done, so much as where they fit in a politically convenient script…
AK: It seems like there are two crimes in this country in which people are considered guilty until proven innocent, and those are rape and child molestation. You see this in the media coverage of any rape case in which the accuser is referred to as “the victim.” It’s an inversion of how the justice system is supposed to operate, and we can’t even talk about this rationally because it’s Judeo-Christian morality that’s locked in sexual behavior as the pinnacle of what constitutes morality.
TNG: Speaking of child molestation and Judeo-Christian morality, happy Easter.
AK: Arrest the pope.
TNG: In your piece on the Frum Forum you write about what you’ve characterized as an “outpouring of support from Middle America,” and that most of the backlash as you’ve experienced it so far has come from a “pampered, middle class, white demographic from the coasts.” I’m wondering what form that’s taken.
AK: It’s kind of knocked some of the elitism out of me. Almost unanimously from racial minorities I’ve received support. Racial minorities are used to living in a world with risks. They’re more used to reading signals when partaking in risky behaviors. These wealthy, upper-class white suburbanites have never had any problems in their lives and have never bothered to read any philosophy, literature, history, or psychology, and so they don’t even have the intellectual background to understand it. So I guess I’m not really surprised in hindsight. But in Middle America, this is still a common sense view. If you’re going to inject yourself into risky behaviors, you need to understand what you’re getting in to before the fact.
TNG: Of course I have to ask, because this is for a gay blog, and both of us like cocks…
AK: I like cocks.
TNG: … because you’ve established this dichotomy of common-sensical Middle America on the one hand and a sort of out-of-touch elite on the other – have any of those supportive Middle Americans engaged the matter of your sexuality and if so, how?
AK: No, most of them don’t care. And this has been something that’s continually irritated me about the left and even some of the elites on the right , their continual conflation of the religious right with the Republican party and Middle America. The religious right is a loud, well-heard minority of the Republican party. Everyone else is completely open and willing to dialogue, and I would even say that most of the religious right, in my experience, is. I have never received as much hatred from the religious right as I have from the gay left.
TNG: On a related note – and by the way, if you keep talking so reasonably about these things, you run the risk of convincing me, so this could be dangerous…
TNG: You’ve talked about what you’ve termed, on campus, the “AU anti-sex brigade” and the two groups at its helm: “feminists” and the people you refer to as the “gay party.” These are terms that mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. What do you mean when you use them?
AK: Victim groups. Self-styled “victims.” People who need mommy government or mommy administration of American University to step in and make them empowered. Truly self-empowered individuals derive that strength from philosophy and from values. This is how it’s been in the entire Western tradition. But they’re ignorant of the Western tradition and so they have no basis on which to judge whether this is an accurate means of empowering one’s self or not. Anyone who’s ever read Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus can attest to the fact that self-empowerment does come from values. But these people don’t even know who Marcus Aurelius is. They know who Jacques Derrida is, they know who Andrea Dworkin is, but they have no idea who the great classical writers are.
TNG: I find it interesting, this sort of intellectual question, if you will. There were something like fifteen words that set off the tinderbox of sexual politics on campus , and then the national conversation, and the other 95 percent of your piece has been neglected by everyone but Amanda Hess at the City Paper. If we could just sort of bracket the “rape question” altogether – let the record show that I’m using quote fingers right now, so as not to seem presumptuous…
TNG: This is what interested me the most: the claim that, in order to have any fulfilling or meaningful kind of sexual relation there has to be a certain dynamic of submission and domination, of hierarchy and asymmetry. I’m wondering if you could talk about that now, maybe in a way that you couldn’t in the space that the Eagle allots you.
AK: I’m saying that what makes sexual exploration exciting is that exchange of energies, and, as I explained it to Amanda Hess, femininity in sex is not literally about being female. It’s about assuming a role of surrender or submission, and that simply relates to the metaphysical nature of “the female.” And that’s extrapolated from there. If somebody asks me, is it bland to be gay in light of this, well, absolutely not. There’s a lot more wisdom in the old question “which one of you is the girl?” than it gets credit for. Well, which one of you is playing the female role in sex? Who’s taking the dick? That’s the person playing the female role. This isn’t homophobic. This isn’t insulting. It’s hot.
TNG: So there is that element, right, and I think it plays out in the sexual ecosystem of Washington, DC. But I can’t help but think of another perspective, and first I’ll address this question theoretically: What if we worked with a picture of sexuality that involved, rather than, as you’ve put it “two amorphous, genderless blobs, asking if they can place their lips below each other’s nipples” – what if we moved from that toward a robustly homoerotic, egalitarian, and democratic picture of sexuality we get from someone like, for instance, Walt Whitman, who writes in stunningly poetic language about gay sex that is thoroughly and beautifully non-hierarchical, thoroughly and beautifully egalitarian?
TNG: Right, and I think there are important moral and political consequences to be discussed here…
AK: I think we can separate romantic sex from pure sexual exploration, and especially in the context of the column I was talking specifically about anonymous sex. Romantic sex is more emotional, sexual exploration is primarily erotic and physical. I think you have to be able to separate the two. The hotter element is definitely the latter.
No, I don’t think you can separate gender from pure eroticism, it’s impossible. As long as you have a receiver and a giver, you’re dealing with the twin powers of masculinity and femininity. I speak also in the column of fetishism, kinks, masochism, an erotic cross-dressing. These are inherently gendered, because of that. So, when we’re dealing with cross-dressing, for instance, you can’t cross something if it isn’t said to exist. If we take radical feminism to its logical conclusion, there can’t be cross-dressing, and it completely loses its erotic element.
TNG: To begin wrapping up – I appreciate you’re honesty on these questions of sexuality, and I think that if more Republicans were as in tune with and transparent about their kinks as you are, we’d have a more interesting kind of national political conversation…
AK: I don’t see any democrats being up front with their kinks…
TNG: .. Snorkeling? Nancy Pelosi’s heels? Really?
AK: This is the hilarious thing about what the left-wing narrative about gay rights and the place of gay culture within American culture. The Democrats are as bad as the Republicans. Honestly, it’s because they’re beholden to the cultural interests of racial minorities which are overwhelmingly anti-gay. That’s the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. Black people voted against proposition eight 85 to 15. No one wants to talk about this. The Democrats can’t make a move on this because they’re going to piss off a third of their constituency. It’s terrible, the Democrats really can’t make moves on anything because they have such heterogeneous constituencies, all with clashing interests and linked together only by their sense of victimhood. If they lose that connection, they lose the entire coalition. And that’s why nothing ever gets done, not only for blacks or Hispanics but for gays.
TNG: Speaking of coalitions, the conventional wisdom on the left is that there is, or should be, an alliance between all the people represented by the letters in “LGBTQ” and people who identify as feminists. I’ll hazard a guess that you don’t agree.
AK: No, because it’s all rooted in victimhood. You can’t live a fulfilling life as a gay person qua gay person or just as a human being living in constant victimhood. We can’t have a nation of infants, a nation of whiners, we have to have people that say, “Fuck the government, I don’t need the federal government to validate my existence.” All these people making these marches on Washington and equality pride marches – these are people whose self-esteem is at risk. If the government isn’t validating their marriages or their existences – I support same-sex marriage because I think the federal government shouldn’t be hoarding benefits for heterosexual couples. If it were up to me, the federal government would get out of the marriage question altogether and leave it to the market, or perhaps civil unions for all. I don’t think that the Human Rights Campaign would be satisfied with that.
TNG: You mentioned in your column– and we’ll end here, I promise – the set of intellectuals who have come to inform your views on sexuality. People like Camille Paglia, Christina Hoff Summers, and the man you describe as the “divine” Marquis de Sade. In the spirit of unflinching self-analysis that these thinkers represent, and to have something interesting and inflammatory to tack on to the end of the column, would you describe the most intense sexual fantasy you’ve ever had?
AK: (long pause)
To preserve my mother’s sanity I’ll omit this.
TNG: Those don’t sound like the words of a “truly self-empowered individual.”
AK: (chuckles) I love my mom.
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