Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Man's a Man for A' That

Buchanan kilt
I’ve been reading around and immersing myself in the flood of information about the Scottish referendum.  For reasons I can’t explain, I feel I ought to be taking a side.  However, the more I read and learn, the less inclined I am to do so.  That hesitation probably suggests I would vote no, if I were living in Scotland and were eligible to vote.  But then, if I were living in Scotland and eligible to vote, I have little doubt I would be a Scottish nationalist.  It comes as no surprise to me that the vote is evenly divided.

Go to the web page of the Gretna Chase Hotel.  It will tell you it’s on the Scottish-English border.  It also says it’s located six miles north of Carlisle.  I suppose they leave it to you to note that since its address is Gretna, Gretna, DG16 5JB.  (DG, I assume, stands for Dumfries-Galloway, that means it’s in Scotland.  But the Gretna Chase Hotel is south of the Sark River, and the Sark River, I’m told, marks the border in the westernmost part of the country.  There is a tale, I suspect, in this imprecision.

Go to Google maps and type in Carlisle (clearly in England) and Dumfries (clearly in Scotland), select “directions” for how to get from one to the other, and you’ll see no mention of crossing a border.  The map shows the road crosses the River Sark, but the designers of the site saw no reason to make anything out of that.   You’re simply travelling from one part of the UK to another.

My grandfather left Dumfries in his 20s back in 1903 and emigrated to America.  It’s conceivable he bicycled in his youth the fifteen miles to Annan, the original home of the de Brus family, including Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s hero-king, at some point, and possibly the next eight miles to Gretna and the border, as well.   I always thought of him as coming from Scotland.  I never thought of him as coming from near the Scottish-English border.  The things you can learn if you allow yourself the time to rummage around in an independence referendum.

I’m working with an assumption that the main arguments for Scottish independence are emotional and the main arguments for continued Union are rational.  It’s head vs. heart.  And that is the reason the decision is so painful and whatever decision is made is liable to lead to considerable resentment.

Have a listen to Sheena Wellington, singing “A Man's a Man for A' That" at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in May of 1999.  

Call up the guide to unfamiliar Scottish terms used by Robert Burns 

Give fools their silks and knaves their wine,
A Man's a Man for all that…

and you’ll see what’s at the heart of Scotland’s left-leaning politics.   Choosing a piece of poetry by Robert Burns is no surprise.  He’s routinely cited as Scotland’s pride and joy.  But why this particular piece, on the pride of being of the poor?

This brought back a memory of a trip to Scotland in the 90s when I went with friends to the Isle of Iona and was swamped with more details of the origins of Scotland than I could absorb in a lifetime, or so it seemed.  What struck us was the plainness of the remaining buildings to which they were ascribing such tremendous significance.  A local pointed out a dark small room in what looked and felt like a shed.  “Our answer to Westminster Abbey,” she said.  Give fools their silks and knaves their wine, indeed.

I’ve been listening to the arguments for continued union.  I won’t list them; they are all over the place.  The UK is something to be proud of.  A force for freedom and democracy, a partner with Europe against the bullying of Putin’s Russia and the chaos in the Middle East, a bridge between America and Europe, a united nation with a flag that represents a united fight in two world wars.  Something worth holding on to. 

And to the arguments for separation.  My heart tells me these folk to whom I owe my name – family name and given name both – in seeking a more equitable nation where the rights of the little guy are not trumped day in and day out by the bankers and politicians of London, deserve to be given an opportunity to get out from under vulture capitalism and give their local politics a go.  This link, for example.   Problem is, of course, that pulling away from a far-away tyrant sometimes lands you in the lap of a local tyrant.  Let's not forget the rivalry between Glasgow and Western Scotland and Edinburgh.

I can’t make a serious claim to Scottish identity.  I thought I’d give it a try once, years ago, when I was looking for a way to get to live and work in Europe and discovered you can apply for UK citizenship if you have a grandparent born in the UK.   That notion hit the rocks pretty quickly when I realized how much work might be involved in getting a copy of my grandfather’s birth certificate and having to explain that he left Dumfries in 1906 and never went back, not even for a single visit.  And then, of course, somebody would no doubt expect me to go live in the UK.  I wanted UK rights.  But I already had three homes, one in San Francisco, one in Japan, and a third one, now greatly slipped away, in Berlin.   I wanted privileges, and did not have anything I wanted to give back in exchange.  So much for that.

But although direct citizenship and residence was out, that didn’t lessen my sense of connection with Scotland.  Like many Americans of European descent, our family lived in a kind of old country diaspora, and kept the old country coals burning by teaching children a pride of place of origin.  In my home, we didn’t say my mother was “from Germany originally”; we said she was German.  And my father was not the son of an immigrant Scot; he was Scottish.  I had to contend with being of mixed parentage (it sounds almost ridiculous now, but it was an issue when I was a child, actually).  I had three grandmothers.  My mother was an only child, and that made me the only grandchild of her mother for the first five years of my life.  But my mother had been raised by her aunt, so I effectively had two German grandmothers.  And they were German speaking and took it for granted I would take on a German identity.  My father’s mother was Canadian, not Scottish like her husband, and had six grandchildren, two by each of her three sons, and one set of cousins lost their mother early on and lived with her, a move that couldn’t help but create a little more distance between us.  So I readily identified as German and not Scottish.  Which upset my father no end.  I remember vividly an agonizing discussion when he made plain that he thought one took one’s identity from one’s father’s family, and that family was unmistakably Scottish.  I tried to argue that his mother was Canadian (English-Canadian, yet) and that my claim to Scotland was pretty diluted.  No, sir, says my father.  If your father is Scottish, you’re Scottish.  He would have made a great Orthodox Jew.

This Scottish identity was intensified by the fact that we spent our summers in Nova Scotia.  To be Canadian was to be French-Canadian or English-Canadian, but my family in Nova Scotia sailed right past that distinction and claimed not English origin but Scottish.  Don’t forget, my father told me once, we almost named you “Bruce Alan” after Robert the Bruce.  In the end, they named me Alan John, moving Alan to the front and giving me my father’s name as a middle name.  Robert the Bruce, if your Scottish history is weak, was the King of Scotland who successfully led the wars against the English around the turn of the 14th Century.  He is celebrated for his victory at the Battle of Bannockburn 700 years ago this year and is considered a Scottish hero to this day.  Alan survived, with the Scottish spelling (Allen is considered English).  Some tell me it’s the Celtic word for bold.  Some tell me it’s the Celtic word for rock.  Doesn’t matter, so long as it’s Celtic, you see.

When I was sixteen I ended up in a hospital in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and had to stay there for a month.  My family had to return to Connecticut, and because I was alone, the priests from St. Francis Xavier College would visit on a daily basis, and I quickly made friends with several of them.  The hospital was a Catholic hospital and the priests were descendants of the followers of Queen Mary.  They were Gaelic speakers, and between listening to them and the bagpipes on the radio at least an hour each day, I felt first hand the still strong connection between Scotland and Nova Scotia.  It was one of the few places around where people didn’t routinely accuse me of misspelling my last name, like my elementary school teachers did when I wrote it with –nick at the end.  They knew it was a Scottish variant of MacCormack, and didn't wonder at the explanation that our name was a sept of the Buchanan clan.  

My sense of pride in my Scottish heritage soared when I tuned in to the debates over the right of same-sex couples to marry in the Scottish Parliament and watched Scotland become the 17th nation to grant such rights.  Since Scotland leans left, it’s no surprise that gay groups routinely credit Scotland with being gay-friendlier than England is, although since England now has such rights as well (they got there first, actually) that’s a bit unfair.  Still, one picks up things other might miss.  This video of one of the groups supporting independence, for example.  Listen for the line in the song that goes, "gay or straight... who gives a damn..."  [we all support Scottish independence].  Little things mean a lot.

Alba gu brath – it’s pronounced “Álapa goo bra” – long live Scotland.  It was once something for disgruntled nationalists to go around saying.  Gaelic-speaking Scots number fewer than 60,000 native speakers, these days, about half the population of Peoria, Illinois, although another 30,000 or so speak it to some degree.  Now, with the new popularity of the idea of independence, you can hear the call a whole lot more.   But while Welsh is an official language in the UK, Gaelic is not.  There will no doubt be an increase in interest in breathing more life into Scots Gaelic if independence comes (and maybe even more if it gets voted down and there is a backlash), but outside of the Outer Hebrides (which sounds for all the world to me like Ultima Thule – the ends of the earth), it is hard to find speakers.  Nationalism being what it is, that doesn’t prevent the use of two languages on the new Scottish Parliament/Pàrlamaid na h-Alba  building.  Still, when comparisons are made with Catalonia, whose independence from Spain has language at the center of the fight, it is well to remember that Scots are speakers of English. I went to Scotland in 1960 hoping to study the Gaelic language.  I didn’t know where to begin.  There were no schools.  I tried asking around in bookstores.  The advice I got was, “Better go to Ireland.”

I said earlier that I was working under the assumption that the arguments for independence are mainly emotional.  I’ve mentioned the singing of Robert Burns’ “A Man’s A Man” at the opening of the Scottish Parliament.  I might have added what happened just before or after – the words uttered at the official opening:  (here, at minute 7:36) 
The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March, in the year Seventeen Hundred and Seven, is hereby reconvened.   
 Go ahead.  Tell me your eyes are dry.

But that’s not to say there are no rational arguments for independence.  The Scottish claim that they vote Labour over and over again, whilst England votes Tory over and over again, and it never matters what Scotland votes.  They get what England votes for.  Think American blacks voting at 90% for Democrats and getting a Republican Congress over and over.  That’s not just emotional stuff.  It’s a pretty solid argument, although one can pick apart the claim that Scotland itself speaks with only one voice.  While hitchhiking to Scotland back in 1960, I was picked up still in England by a Scot heading home.  “You’re a Yank!” he says to me, with delight, soon as I opened my mouth.  When I told him my name, he was even more delighted.  “By the way you are dressed (I was carrying an umbrella) I thought you were English and almost didn’t stop.”  I told him I was heading for Edinburgh.  “But why would you want to go to Edinburgh?” he asked.  “Too many Englishmen there.”  He then regaled me with tales of battles with England and the time a Scot had pinned an English soldier to the ground only to realize he had lost his knife.  “No problem,” he says to me, “he just lunged forward and ripped his throat out with his teeth.”  I figured it was time to get out of the car.

John Oliver has a hilarious take-down of the seriousness of the event here.     Note, that while poking fun at the Scots he also refers to the union as a “300-year arranged marriage” in which England has been “a little bit of a dick since the honeymoon.”  And, as many are quick to point out, when a couple is on the verge of divorce, the winning line, if there is going to be one, really ought to be “I love you,” if the marriage is going to have a chance of getting back together.  Not “You’re going to be poor and you’re going to be sorry.”  The rationalists are at a disadvantage here.  

In any case, the time for the neutral voices  is over.    It’s time to make a decision.

Glad I don’t have to take responsibility for what that decision will be.

Buchanan quilt source

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Trip to Italy - a review

In 2005, Michael Winterbottom made the first of three films starring the comedic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Coogan and Brydon always seem to play, we are told, some version of themselves. That first film, entitled Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, was about a film crew making a film about Tristram Shandy. Whether Winterbottom was playing with some postmodern notion of simulacrum or what, the idea of a film within a film made no sense.  It was deadly dull and instantly forgettable.

The second film in the Coogan/Brydon series was called The Trip.   Originally a TV sitcom, the conceit was that a newspaper would pay Coogan to make a foodie road trip and write up his restaurant experiences for the paper, and when Coogan’s girlfriend dropped out, Brydon went along instead.  The film received mixed reviews.  Netflix only rates it two and a half stars, i.e., between “liked it” and “didn’t like it,” but Rotten Tomatoes gave it 89% positive. Roger Ebert gave it four stars out of five and Coogan won a Best Male Comedy performance award.  

There was no shortage of viewers calling it empty and tiresome, but apparently Winterbottom thought it was worth doing a third time (i.e., extend the TV series a second season).  He repeats the travelling food and wine conceit, this time in one of the most gorgeous settings imaginable. It’s the yuppie notion of paradise, zipping along the breathtaking coastline of Liguria and Amalfi in a Mini Cooper and popping in and out of some of Italy’s most exclusive hotels and restaurants with a budget that takes the food and wine in stride.

For a while, the banter is quite funny, the food is appetizing, and the scenery alone is worth the price of admission.   But it quickly wears thin.  Some have compared the frenetic energy of Coogan and Brydon to Robin Williams – David Denby in The New Yorker, for example – but that’s way off.  They’re not even close in wit and intelligence, much less human sympathy.  Denby likes the hostile banter, finding the English bromance “a triumph of the lean British comic style over the maunder and the mush” of the American variety.  I find these guys infantile.  They don’t know anything about food, and their ignorance and immaturity are supposed to be funny.  It doesn’t take long before it begins to cloy and the endlessly repeated impersonations of Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Richard Burton and other famous voices aren’t actually all that good.

Winterbottom makes much of the fact that these modern-day Englishmen are tracing the steps of the Romantic poets Keats, Byron and Shelley.  They visit their graves, recite their poetry and pay homage to their sensibility.  Or try to.  It’s like watching a girl walking around in her mommy’s high heels.  They come across as clueless. 

Which is not to say they are unsympathetic.  Grasping at life and aware of how swiftly it seems to be getting away from them, their reflections on aging and dying should resonate with anybody of a certain age who has the courage not to look away from such thoughts, even if done with clumsy humor.  The juxtaposition of the Romantic notions of beauty and death are the heart of this film, and for me the choice of the last of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs to accompany the scenes of sailing on the Mediterranean, was perfection.

That last song, Im Abendrot (At Sunset), is a poem by Germany’s Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff, a contemporary of Byron, Keats and Shelley.   Eichendorff writes of embracing death with calm and quiet acceptance.  Strauss does with music what Eichendorff does with words, so the meaning will very likely come across to English viewers without their awareness, a powerful example of the importance of musical accompaniment in film.

The problem is Winterbottom thinks if a little is good, a lot has to be better. He allows the impersonations to go on far too long. And then he pushes the Strauss through seemingly endless repetitions. Takes a heart-stopping moment of beauty to the eyes and ears and hits you with it again and again.

Go see the film for the scenery and the moment when you first see the sailboat move against the background of this exquisite Strauss piece of music.

Then forget the film, and add the Renée Fleming version of Im Abendrot to your repertoire, if it isn’t already there.  Here she is, at Carnegie Hall.  With English subtitles.

photo credit

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Religion is not the problem

I’ve been thinking the past couple of days about a discussion on my friend Bill Lindsey’s blog not long ago. Bill Lindsey is a Catholic theologian. He writes a blog which he calls his “Bilgrimage.” He’s married to another Catholic theologian. Both of them have been slapped hard by their church for being gay, losing their jobs over the sexual orientation they were born into, and Bill spends much of his time calling the church hierarchy on what they claim to be Christian virtues and he feels are vices. Like Hans Küng, and the majority of Catholics in the pews, they know their church to be something other than what the hierarchy conceives it to be.

I like the church he describes. Admire the people who engage in the uphill climb to make their church look more like the image of Christ in the Gospels. Left up to me, I’d say, give it up. It’s a lost cause, this church of yours. I gave up my Christian faith in my early 20s and to this day celebrate the freedom that comes from that unshackling. We don’t share religious convictions, Bill and I.

But we do share friendship. And a common moral code. If we wanted to, I’m sure we could build a great believer/non-believer support group analogous to all the many gay/straight alliances popping up everywhere. Because I like his ideas and admire his ability to engage in this sisyphean task of his, I read his column regularly and often find myself wanting to engage with his other readers in the commentaries.

Here’s what popped up that set me off on this preoccupation. One of his readers asked why it is that so many fundamentalist type Christians put their focus on the Old Testament, where the image is of an angry God, instead of on the Gospel, where Jesus’s values of forgiveness and love are on display. The Old Testament God is all about law and order, vengeance and punishment. God is a disciplinarian. God in The New Testament view is more of a caretaker. Are these people really Christians, the commenter wondered. Or are they better described as some kind of “weird New World Hebraic cult?”

I like that question. It reveals the folly of taking the scriptures literally, closing your eyes, picking out a passage, and taking it at face value, without processing it through the mind first. When I was a kid, I was presented with one of those bibles where the words of Christ were printed in red. I still have it. And nowadays I find such irony in the fact that the people most likely to present you with a bible with the words of Christ printed in red seem to be unaware that those words include the Beatitudes. “If a man asks you to walk a mile, walk with him twain... Give him your cloak as well as the coat he asks for... Forgive him... Love him….” Why are these folk still stuck with all that fire and brimstone stuff? All that sin? All that vengeance? Check the beam in your own eye.

The answer is not hard to find. The believers in our midst - the fundamentalists especially - hold beliefs passed on to us by some pretty psychologically disturbed people. You know the jokes about the Baptists - that they avoid sex because if they were caught at it somebody might think they were dancing. Or the definition of Puritans as people who live in fear that somebody somewhere might be having a good time.

Even bigger than the divide between believers and non-believers, I think, are the American Protestant and Catholic literalists who see sin as central and lose sight of charity and humility much of the time. The Protestants focus on the scriptures, the Catholics on rigid church teachings, but the end result is the same. Religion, to the closed people, becomes all about guilt, shame and fear. To open people, religion offers hope, inspiration, possibility.

Most mainstream Christians in America hold that the Jewish and Christian scriptures are limited by their historical context, and it behooves us to read them more as poetry than as rules for living our lives today. Back in my believer days, I too accepted the argument made by these mainstream Christians that the Old Testament was largely irrelevant except as evidence of God working his wonders before the time of Christ and setting the scene for Christ’s work to begin.

It never occurred to me what a terrible disservice we were doing to Jews. It was sort of saying, well that SOB of the Old Testament is your problem, not mine.

It was George Lakoff who put me straight. If you are not familiar with him, he’s a linguist who has done his major work on metaphors, those rhetorical figures of speech that create mental images by means of association. More recently he has extended his work to politics, hoping to persuade Democrats that they need to frame their arguments more persuasively. Challenge the Republicans, who currently have the edge. Just look at how they seized the Affordable Care Act, for example, and made people forget it was largely about eliminating such things as not being able to get medical insurance because of a so-called pre-existing condition. Consider how often when the left and right debate, the left has to fight off claims they are inviting socialism, a notion many Americans are unable to distinguish from communism - which routinely still gets defined here as pure evil. How did we let the Republicans seize the right to frame the argument that way? Dumb.

The Lakoff lecture I’m referring to was held in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, an important venue for all kinds of lectures and concerts that have nothing to do with religion. This particular night, if I remember right, Lakoff was urging his largely democratic audience to recognize the importance of language when designing political strategies. One woman who had wandered in, evidently thinking since this was a church it must be a church-event, had a question for the speaker. “What suggestions do you have for getting our fellow Christians to pay more attention to the New Testament and stop dwelling on things in the Old Testament?” she asked.

You could hear a pin drop. Most people knew George Lakoff and knew that he was Jewish. How was he going to handle what most Jews would surely perceive as an insult?

Lakoff didn’t skip a beat. “You know, when I was young, and I was going to Yeshiva and studying the Talmud,” he said… All eyes were on the woman to see how long it would take the lights to go on. “I remember a heated discussion with a rabbi about why God would ask Abraham to slay his son, Isaac.”

“Can’t you imagine the conversation that must have gone on between Yahweh and Abraham?” Lakoff asked. “Can’t you just see Yahweh saying, ‘Abe, I gave you a brain and I expect you to use it! Do you seriously think I would promise you the world and then have you slay your first-born son? I was clearly just testing you, you shmuck!”

Several things happened at once in that moment. I’m guessing this brought home to the woman that she was talking to a Jew and disparaging the Old Testament was probably not the coolest thing she might have done. She was also presented with a view of religion that takes the scriptures as guidelines to be interpreted in a larger context, not holy writ to be taken literally. A non-literalist’s view. A thinking person’s view. Someone who began his approach to religion by thanking God for giving him a brain. Free will. Choices to make.

I learned something too. I realized how like that probably well-meaning woman I was. How I too had focused too much on the folly and lack of sophistication of the fundamentalists and missed how many religious folk there were gathering information at the broadest possible level and subjecting language to analysis and interpretation. And I was selling short the possibility that Jews, no less than Christians, could handle this psychopathic deity that slays innocents, punishes children for the sins of their fathers, and pretends to give you free will but tears you to pieces if you make the wrong choices as a creature in the mind of folk from another time and place. Some Jews can, at least. They are able to see a bigger picture and not stumble over secondary issues. To folk who understand metaphor, and who think their way through an ancient text, it's not the raw words on a page that matter, but how one reads things in context. And this is true as much for the Old Testament as for the New.

In the end, although I can see how one might comb the bible for the poetry of love, and leave the other stuff, I still cannot reconcile the notion of a god of love, with a god, even one read metaphorically, who would set you up in a garden, demand that you remain stupid but tempt you with knowledge, and then punish you, your children and your children’s children for all time because you succumbed to the temptation. And then demand a blood sacrifice. And then present himself as the victim to be sacrificed. What a god-awful bloody story. What an astonishing thing that so many people picked this story up and took it in. And what was this sin, anyway? A desire to know things? We are all cursed, the bible tells us, for having the desire to eat of the tree of knowledge. And god will punish not just us but our grandchildren for this weakness that is intellectual curiosity. Until the time of the blood sacrifice.

Not my cup of tea, this.

I am also bothered by the simplistic black and while notions of good and evil, and the idea that there are demons out to get you. That powerful Irish movie, just out, Calvary, is about this kind of thing. A guy comes into the confessional, tells the priest he was abused as a child and intends to get back at the church by killing him, the priest hearing his confession, a week later. The movie then takes you through the priest’s interactions with the villagers during that week building up to the question of whether he’s actually going to die. And as Mick LaSalle, the movie critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, put it, the movie only makes sense if you accept that all the villagers are possessed by demons.

My point is only that religion, with all its unseen forces (whether gods or demons, it doesn’t matter), makes no sense to me. But since I’ve observed a number of people of good will do manage to make sense of it, I accept that it’s probably here to stay. And I can make the important distinction between people who live with these fictions but don’t insist on running the world by them, and people who do. Christians, Muslims, Jews, it hardly matters. It’s the fundamentalists, the absolutists, the ones convinced they hear the voice of God and you don’t. Those are the dangerous beings, not the demons who “roam throughout the world seeing the ruin of souls,” in the words of that prayer to St. Michael Catholics used to say after the mass.

There is a delightful Christian evangelical singer named Vicky Beeching who has recently come out as a Lesbian. I saw her on a video recently debating homosexuality with that sad confused fellow evangelical, Scott Lively. Speaking of monsters. He’s the monster who encouraged the folks in Uganda to pursue their homophobic witchhunt (although he now denies he had anything to do with the death penalty laws there). You want to see the power of religion for evil? Just take a close look at this man who believes, contrary to the the testimony of millions of gay people and others, that sexuality is chosen, not revealed to be part of one’s nervous system.

And if you need help drawing the line between benign and malign religionists, watch the video of these two evangelicals talking to each other.

Slowly, but surely, we’re learning to dismantle the walls that separate us to no good purpose - the walls between religious and non-religious people, specifically. And to reach across the gap to build unions between people of good will.

I once bought into the notion that the Christians had the right idea about God and the Jews the wrong one - all you had to do was set the New Testament up against the Old. Today, I join hands with believers and non-believers alike, concerned only whether they are open, and of good will. I once thought the fact that fundamentalists preached one could rid oneself of homosexuality by “coming to Jesus” meant that believers were on one side, gays and lesbians on the other. Today, I note with respect that gay people are working inside their churches to expose that as a false dichotomy.

And, even as a non-believer, I find that to be a very good good step forward.

photo credit