Harvey Milk, Goldwaterite

Last night, I saw Milk, an earnest and often very entertaining hagiographic portrait of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States. I was particularly intrigued by the fact, only glancingly referenced in the film, that Milk started out as a Republican — he was an ardent supporter of Barry Goldwater — before joining the left of the Democratic Party.

Faced with ferociously hostile police and the constant threat of public disgrace, it makes perfect sense that lesbians and gay men in the 1950s and 1960s would have been instinctive libertarians, leery of further empowering an already overweening, overly intrusive state. The Goldwater movement attracted all kinds of freethinkers who, like Milk, later gravitated towards a hippie sensibility.

So what causes the libertine libertarian to embrace the cause of the social services state, to oppose free trade and stand shoulder to shoulder with the longshoremen, and to embrace labor-liberalism writ large? My guess is that it had to do with misery and poverty faced by a lot of the younger gay migrants to the Castro. A lot of these kids were forced to commit crimes or to turn to prostitution by virtue of their extreme social marginality. Had Milk stuck to his libertarian creed, he could have called for gays to become the new Mormons — to build parallel social institutions outside of the state. To some extent, this happened. For example, the whistles gay men used to warn of violence were, I assume, a form of spontaneous community self-help, and Milk served as an informal social worker or padrone to hundreds if not thousands of men in the community, this despite being a relatively recent arrival.

At the same time, the main threat facing gay men in San Francisco was, judging by the film, overaggressive cops who ruled by fear, yet who also turned a blind eye to crimes against gays. So really, Milk had to get a hold of the reins of power, if only to restrain these abuses. Having seen the destructive power of local government at work, perhaps Milk felt that, in the right hands, local government had redemptive potential as well. Who knows? I do find Milk’s political turn to be an interesting puzzle.

Of course, there is a simpler explanation, which you might call the Rodney Stark thesis. When Milk jettisoned his old banker cronies to move west, he became part of a new social group that, informed by its social marginality, was more inclined to embrace soak-the-rich solutions. It didn’t help that the established gay elite was reluctant to expend substantial resources on the rougher-hewn part of the community.

One of the more heartening parts of the film’s tragic ending was the defeat of Proposition 6, a truly horrible measure that threatened to strip lesbians and gays of the right to teach in public schools. You get the impression that the measure was defeated in no small part due to the opposition of that old Goldwaterite Ronald Reagan. Would Karl Rove have stood tough against Anita Bryant in that fight? Sad to say, I think we all know the answer to that question is no.