07/03/2013 10:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Heart of a Moralist: Dan Savage's American Savage


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.