By Scott Tucker
Doug Ireland, gay liberationist and radical journalist, died in his East Village home in New York City on Oct. 26. He had survived two strokes, and in his last years also suffered from diabetes, kidney disease, sciatica and the long-term effects of childhood polio.
In 1963, at the age of 17, Ireland was elected to the National Council of Students for a Democratic Society, and became an assistant national secretary from 1963 to 1964. In 1966 he left SDS, and concentrated his activist work on the electoral wing of the anti-war movement. Ireland had begun his work in journalism at the New York Post. From the late 1970s until his death, he worked primarily as a political journalist for publications of the left, including The Nation and In These Times in the United States, and Liberation and Bakchich in France. He also wrote for The Village Voice, The New York Observer and New York magazine. In more recent years, he was a regular columnist for Gay City News in New York.
Ireland was not only a left-wing critic of sexual and political conformism among sectors of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movements, but he was also one of the notable public intellectuals of the civil libertarian left. Our paths crossed only three times, many years ago in the previous century. During his period of heavy drinking, I once visited his apartment and helped him fill trash bags with empty bottles and pizza boxes. The only time we had a truly free-ranging conversation in person was when he, scholar Dennis Altman and I were weekend guests of activist Ethan Geto, staying on one of the Thimble Islands of Connecticut in a small cabin that had once been owned by Tom Thumb.
In the following years, we would exchange emails now and then on various subjects including AIDS activism and European politics. Neither of us ever ventured beyond the personal boundaries of the other, and we were never close friends. Even in the more impersonal realm of public events, our political alliances were somewhat testy and contingent. Both of us had joined activist groups of the left in our teens, and both of us were also active in the post-Stonewall gay movement on the East Coast. This is considerable common ground in politics, and we took care to highlight the overlapping segments of the Venn diagrams.
We discussed the Democratic Party, of course, but never really argued about the subject. The argument would have been pointless. We had the same evidence before us, but had come to different conclusions. Ireland was often a ferocious critic of the career Democrats, and he became a true public scourge of Bill Clinton. But Ireland remained engaged, both personally and politically, with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. (I allow the word progressive here without iron quotation marks, but I refer to vanished decades.) Indeed, Ireland was an adviser and manager in the campaigns of some notable Democratic politicians, including Eugene McCarthy, Allard Lowenstein and Bella Abzug. So far as I know, he never gave up hope for what was left of the left in the Democratic Party, even in his last years.
Ireland appeared as a studio executive in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” which seems oddly apt, and he was an admirer of French philosopher Michel Onfray, especially of the latter’s explicit atheism and hedonism. Bill Dobbs, a gay civil libertarian in New York City, reminded me that during “the mid-90s war on sex,” Ireland wrote an important article, “Don’t Regulate My Body,” for the June/July 1995 issue of Poz magazine, and argued for both reason and pleasure in places on the borderline of the public and private realms. In the piece, he argued:
“Asserting, as New York Newsday columnist Gabriel Rotello recently did, that sex clubs are ‘the killing fields of AIDS’ helps promote the myth that such places have sparked the so-called second wave of infection. In fact, most unsafe sex takes place in private bedrooms. … Sexual policing by government is not the way to stem the tide of AIDS. By taking the lead in a new witch hunt aimed at the commercial sex industry, our misguided activists are providing ammunition that will certainly be used by the growing ranks of homophobes.”
On his blog, Direland, Ireland had posted in 2010 a memorial to Herve Couergou, including these words and a brief video:
“The video below is of my late beloved Hervé Couergou, in which he speaks of his seropositivity and the AIDS virus not long before he was swept away by it. The video was made in Paris by our dear mutual friend and brother Lionel Soukaz, the pioneering French gay filmmaker, who has only just sent it to me—it’s an extract from testimonies from 30 years of AIDS which he is compiling in a video journal. For me, watching this video of Hervé is deeply moving and reduces me to tears each time; but it is also a reminder of his sweetness and courage which I’m so glad to have as a souvenir of our years together. How I miss him! Thanks, dear Lio.”
Ireland was one of my trusted “translators” of European politics, most particularly of the politics and culture of France, where he had lived for 10 years. In his reports on the Russian gay movement, and especially of gay activist Nikolai Alexeyev, I found him less reliable. Alexeyev’s egotism seemed plain from the start, but at least Ireland explicitly denounced Alexeyev when the latter began publishing anti-Semitic rants.
In an obituary, it is the custom to erase philosophical and political disagreements. That is a bad public habit, and I dissent. The atheism of recent years has not, to my mind, advanced far beyond the debates of the 18th century, and rarely matches the literary style of the radicals of the Enlightenment. It is less earnest and more trendy than the atheism of those two great friends, Albert Camus and Jacques Monod, who had joined the fight against the Nazis, and who wrote after World War II in the most individual style against all metaphysical escapism. Atheism was one bond of friendship between Doug Ireland and writer Christopher Hitchens, until they parted company in a public polemic over the war in Iraq. For myself, the philosophical horizon still surrounds us and still remains an open question.
Ireland was a lifelong enemy of religious totalitarianism, and he was often wicked and witty in public argument. The reason he linked my old website, Open Letter, to his blog was primarily because of our common admiration for Karl Kraus, the forensic analyst of Viennese newspapers (and of much else that passed for “high culture” after the First World War). Kraus wrote, “The Superman is a premature ideal, presupposing man.” He also wrote, “Family life is an intrusion into private life.” But even closer to our subject here, Kraus wrote, “Political journalism: what matters is not the size of the target but the distance.” (The translation from German is by Jonathan McVity, from “Dicta and Contradicta,” published by the University of Illinois Press in 2001.)
At his best, Ireland brought a philosophical and critical mind to the daily news. When he became increasingly confined by illness, he could not pretend to be a truly investigative journalist. The conditions of work for many writers will remain lonely, but the costs of political journalism are becoming punitive. Not least in the radioactive background of the surveillance state, and in the threats of career politicians against independent journalists. Ailing but still vitally at odds with the politics of war and empire, and defiant of the god William Blake once called Nobodaddy, Doug Ireland gave his best until the end.