The Heart of a Moralist: Dan Savage’s “American Savage”

savage-whitefield One never hears the principal truth about Dan Savage used to describe him, which is that he is a moralist of the first order. Besides being that rarest of persons, an original thinker, the founder of the It Gets Better phenomenon is also frightfully brave, ridiculously articulate, exhaustively informed, and wizened by over twenty years spent publicly giving people (ahem) no-holes-barred sex advice

And perhaps most importantly in a moralist, Dan is good-hearted. As anyone who has watched his MTV show Savage U knows, the man is a downright softy. He genuinely wants what’s best for everyone.

And in The Gospel According to Dan, what’s best for everyone is that they rise to the challenge of being honest. To Dan, honesty is not just the best policy, it’s the only policy. Running like a strong electrical current through all that Dan says and writes are the six words that are supposed to be core to the faith tradition in which he was happily raised, and which ultimately grossly betrayed him and so many for whom he speaks: The truth shall set you free.

Believing in those words (if no longer in the divine nature of the man to whom they’re credited) makes Dan, for all of his perceived cantankerousness, an optimist. He is ever (and contagiously) buoyed by his unwavering trust in the liberating power of good ol’ fashioned, unadulterated rational thought. He believes that if everyone would just take a moment or ten to think, everyone would eventually agree on what is right, proper, and respectful to all. Unlike so many with whom he shares the feverish arena of public discourse—and contrary to the way his work gets opportunistically spun by so many who do—Dan does not traffic in strife and stress. What Dan is so tirelessly trying to sell is rational compassion. And, thank God, more and more people are buying it.

In the course of the seventeen essays in his latest book, American Savage, Dan casually but always pointedly holds forth on a wide array of subjects, including the soul-stirring strengths and horrible travesties of religion; the ineffable and irrefutable power of sexuality; the comic and tragic vagaries of relationships; the stubborn inanity of bigotry; the cataclysmic legacies of base political hypocrisy; the painful but inspiring history of the gay rights movement in America; the daily challenges and triumphs of parenthood; his own deeply personal struggles and journey; and how freakishly hot Terry, his husband and partner of eighteen years, looks decked out in his leathers. (The evidence for that would be this.)

There is much to recommend American Savage. It’s funny, personal, honest, surveys a lot of key things going on in America today (I finally now understand Obamacare), takes you behind the scenes of myriad Dan-centered national dustups, and seriously brings the brains: a veteran of the media wars, Dan never offers a fact (and possibly never an opinion) that he doesn’t back up with research—accordingly, this book finishes with fourteen pages of meticulous, small-print supporting notes for each chapter, a veritable treasure trove for the reader who wants more, and wants to know where to get it.

We read because it’s awesome to climb into someone else’s heart and mind, to know what they know—to, for just a moment or two, become them. And if the book we have read is a great one, then on some weird cellular level we are permanently altered by it; for the rest of our lives, we are a little more like the author of that great book. American Savage is a bestseller. This means that many people today are a little bit more like Dan Savage than they were yesterday. And that makes the world a less savage place to be.



Thanks to Dan Wilkinson for the photoshopped image of Dan’s face where the face of George Whitefield should be.

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  • Barbara Rice

    *One never hears used to describe Dan Savage the principal truth about him, *

    Is it me being dense. or is there a word missing from this sentence?

  • It reads right to me. But if you’ve got a word to suggest, I’m certainly all ears!

  • textjunkie

    It’s right, just an odd turn of phrase it is. 🙂 I had to read it twice myself.

    Now I have to go buy that book, apparently… Thanks John! 🙂

  • Thanks for the review (and sorry to all for the Whitefield pic!).

    I got stuck on this:

    “He believes that if everyone would just take a moment or ten to think, everyone would eventually agree on what is right, proper, and respectful to all.”

    As much as I’d like to think this is true, experience has shown me time and again that there are a variety of factors that often form insurmountable barriers to this sort of unanimity. If only it were as simple as just getting people to think…

  • Yeah, of course there’s that big distinction between what Dan believes should happen (which, to be clear, is of course just an assumption I’m making about him), and what the more pragmatic side of him surely understands is actually going to happen …

  • Barbara Rice

    To me, it reads like there is something missing between hears and used. An adjective to describe what it is one never hears.

  • Tori M.

    While on the one hand I admire Dan Savage’s work with the It Gets Better campaign, and his use of his position in the media to make a lot of issues with the gay community more well known, a little bit of digging deeper into his articles and opinions will reveal that he doesn’t really believe that the B and the T have a place in LGBT ( I understand he halfheartedly confronts his bi-bashing in his new book- I haven’t read it and don’t really plan to). Apparently, it only gets better if you’re a white gay man, or if you’re lucky, a white lesbian. It was disheartening to me to learn that, as a young bisexual woman, a man I had for a time looked up to pretty much believes that I don’t exist. I felt the need to express my frustration with the fact that the one of the few gay advocates well known in the wider straight world also practices his fair share of bigotry. So, in short, read his new, adorable memoir with a grain of salt.

  • This canard about Dan being anti-bi and/or transgender is old news long laid to rest. And in case anyone is still unaware of Dan’s position on/about either matter, he goes into it in his book (and does so a good deal more than halfheartedly). I’m certain you’d be satisfied by what he says there, Tori.

  • Anakin McFly

    Reads ok to me.

  • Another way to say it would be “One never hears the principal truth about Dan Savage used to describe him, which is that he is a moralist of the first order.”

    I think I got that right. 🙂

  • That does sound better, doesn’t it? I’ll use it! Thanks, Nicole!

  • charles

    what is unique about Savage is that he is both very well spoken, and has the courage to sometimes yell about it.

    not to compare him to Jesus, but he is sort of like him in the temple driving out the moneychangers….

  • Elizabeth

    All about the thieves in the temple. *thumbs up*

  • Barbara Rice

    It could have been because I was bleary-eyed without coffee, that it didn’t sound right to me.

  • Lymis

    I agree with John. It’s simply not true.

    And the vast majority of what is quoted out of context to try to craft the lie is years if not decades old, and almost entirely lifted from sex and relationship advice given to a specific person who wrote to him about their specific relationship – which people lift and try to claim he was writing essays about all bi or trans people.

    An entire section of his book addresses in depth the whole “biphobic” thing – he apologizes honestly for parts of it, explains other parts of it, and absolutely stands by some of the things he did and continues to say.

    For the record, he never said, as far as I know that bisexual women don’t exist – what he is on the record as saying was that bisexual men don’t exist – a view he had solid, if very faulty, justification for, and which he has now repeatedly and vocally recanted.

    Besides, whatever he may have said about bisexual people in the past, he is certainly saying you exist and deserve equality now. Like he goes into pretty deeply in the book you seem to be dismissing.

  • Matt

    “Rational compassion.” I like that a lot. I’ve always had very little patience for syrupy saccharine sentimentality. But something clean, focused, and yet absolutely what’s needed…I can’t imagine anything better to be selling.

    Also: shouldn’t Terry be “freakishly” hot in his leathers, rather than just “freakish?”

  • see? this’ll teach me to write at 2 a.m. good eyes! changed.

  • You’re very welcome! 😀 *proud*

  • Lymis

    You also have to keep in mind that “what is right, proper, and respectful to all” doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone agrees on the specific answer, but rather than people can agree on how to handle disagreement and diversity.

    People who firmly believe in Christianity can agree with those who firmly believe in Judaism can agree on what is right proper and respectful with regards how to deal with religion without agreeing on what the religion needs to consist of.

    Similarly, there’s a place in adult dialogue about a societal consensus on how and were to allow free adult sexual expression, and when and where it should be out of the broader public eye, without requiring an agreement about a single way that everyone should act.

    It’s that old saying about how some people are wrong to think that everything morally wrong should be forbidden and others are wrong to think that everything morally right should be mandatory.

  • Amy

    John, thank you for posting this review/recommendation. Upon reading it, I immediately purchased a copy of the book! I aspire to be “an original thinker…frightfully brave, ridiculously articulate, exhaustively informed, and wizened” one day and if reading Dan’s new book can take me one, small step closer to becoming someone like that, I will gladly and gratefully read it.

  • What I like about Dan is his bulldog/puppydog tenacity. He’s always willing to say what he thinks, and sometimes he says the wrong or indelicate thing; he said a few of those, especially, about Trans people.

    He’s one of the clearest gay male voices out there when it comes to the topic of trans people, and one of the funniest; I think he was the one wondered aloud who was downloading the millions of dollars of shemale porn, because it “certainly isn’t gay men”.

    He’s like Bill Maher to me; even when he makes me mad, I like him.

  • I should clarify: after he said those “indelicate” things; he got the message and grew; just like a regular human being should.

  • Anakin McFly

    Agreed in general, though a clear voice isn’t necessarily/always a good voice, and many jokes about trans people tend to be made at their expense. In the example you mention, the joke is funny mostly only if one thinks there is something inherently funny about straight men being attracted to trans women, or even something shameful and secretive about it (that Dan has to openly wonder who is downloading all that porn). As a trans person, it’s hurtful for me to think that there’s something inherently funny about the idea that someone might find me sexually attractive; and as a trans man I don’t get anywhere near half the flak and jokes about that as trans women do, such that it would only be worse for them. While it’s unlikely that Dan meant it that way, and more of a dig at the non-gay men in question, the underlying assumption is still there. But he’s apologized, so I’m grateful for that, but still unable to completely let down my guard when it comes to him.

  • Elizabeth

    I get that, and I sympathize, Anakin. I do. As a straight woman, I can only say you grow thick skin with the jibes. I can swap blonde jokes with the best of them.