Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Love me some goose-steppin'

What's life without a little complexity?

If you've got a moment, have a look at these super-cute kids, one more adorable than the next, goose-stepping around the stage to what we in the West consider the hokiest of music forms, the polka.

From Putin country. Trump's best friend and possibly boss.

Moves suggesting militarism of the most loathsome sort, the kind we associate with the Nazis, but actually has been maintained by modern-day authoritarian states from North Korea to the former East Germany to Latin America to China. (For a quick history of the goose step, check out this guy.)

So what's with this kiddie goose step? Innocence? Naiveté?

What it draws attention to, I think, is how well some places manage to show a respect for discipline. 

And how closely this discipline is associated with both authoritarianism and high-quality performance.

The first two Russian commenters on this YouTube page with the polka-dancing kids declare:

1. How great it would be to be a child again [no irony intended, I suspect; no apparent awareness of the association between the goose-step and the dangers of militarism]; and

2. How we miss Soviet education and life under the Soviets, the clean and good relations (sic). Thanks for the memories, for the wonderful dance number!

Walking around in Berkeley the other day I found myself focusing on how absolutely sloppy everybody looks. Like before going out they all deliberately avoided putting on clothes from their closets but pulled things out of the dirty laundry basket instead. Disciplined is definitely not the Berkeley look.

I guess that's why I find anything that smacks of discipline strangely attractive these days. It mirrors the constant struggle within me, the feelings I work with now that I'm living in retirement. Part of me still respects discipline, knows what you get with it - talented music and dance performances, for example, high quality art work, high quality work of all sorts. And part of me says, "I'm retired. Peel me a goddam grape. And don't expect me to do a damn thing I don't want to do anymore."

Like a kid raised in a non-churched home who becomes curious about religion, or a kid denied information about sex who becomes obsessed with pornography, I'm drawn to cute little tykes from the former Soviet bloc who goose step.

If you have medication for this, please let me know, will you?

Friday, October 18, 2019


The other day Elizabeth Warren delighted liberals with her response to a hypothetical question by somebody opposed on religious grounds to the Supreme Court decision that same-sex couples had the same rights to marry that opposite-sex couples do. “I’m old-fashioned,” the putative questioner claims, “and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

First off, stop for a minute and consider this curiosity of American discourse. We use the word “faith” as a short-hand stand-in for “dogma espoused by the religious organization I am affiliated with.” It’s not the person’s belief (faith) that Christ died to take away the sins we have allegedly inherited from Adam and Eve that is at stake here, but the right of people to ascribe to a notion not supported by evidence and then claim because it’s a religious notion they somehow have the right, nay the duty, to insist the rest of us are bound by that notion, as well.  Even if the claimant’s fellow church-members do not share their view. Hopefully the days of the special status of religious believers over non-believers are coming to an end.

Warren went straight to the heart of things. Our ultimate legal authority in America is the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court, and most assuredly not by one of the many conflicting voices within the larger Christian or other religious communities. Warren’s response quite correctly acknowledged the individual’s right to determine for themself who they might marry. Assuming it’s a man speaking, she said, “Then just marry one woman - I’m cool with that!”

A few days later, The Washington Post’s deputy editorial page editor, Ruth Marcus, took issue with Warren for being too flippant. We need to show more tolerance of religious beliefs, Ms. Marcus said, evidently failing to realize that a person’s opinions are not the same thing as the person themself, an astonishing error for somebody in Ms. Marcus’s position to make.

Warren did respect the questioner. “Then just marry one woman,” says as much. It’s the same thing as saying, “Go ahead and exercise your rights as a citizen. I will not oppose that.” What she did not respect is the opinion that lesbians and gays’ legal rights should not stand. Nor should she. We have all sorts of wretched opinions held by Americans, that black people should only be allowed to live in certain neighborhoods, that the children of people seeking asylum in this country should be taken from them and put in foster homes, that if you’re rich it means you have worked hard and if you’re poor it means that you haven’t, that global warming is a plot devised by the Chinese, that the world is only 6000 years old, that the moon landing was faked by the government, and on and on. There is no reason on earth an absurd opinion should be shown respect. An opinion that reflects cruel intentions even less so. Warren was well within her rights to poke fun at the question by adding to “just marry one woman” - “if he can find one!”

In my view, civility beats incivility and kindness is way too often underrated as a value. I’m not advocating slapping the label “idiot” on everybody whenever they demonstrate what fools we mortals can be. But I also think progressive-thinking people like Ms. Marcus need to stop bending over backwards to give any poppycock notion credence simply because it can slip into the discussion under the cloak of religion. Religious nonsense is still nonsense. And history is full of evidence that some of the worst idiocy - and cruelty - ever conceived has included religious claims. Rather than give them a lifetime of free passes, we’d do better to stop them at the gate and check for weapons.

No need to look very far for examples. Never mind the religious wars, the Spanish Inquisition or Martin Luther’s urging we burn Jewish homes to the ground. Look to Salt Lake City where just the other day the Mormon Church went back on its word and is now opposing the ban Utah put in place on what the church calls “conversion therapy,” a form of psychological torture which, according to the Trevor Project, nearly three quarters of a million young gay people have been subjected to. Once gays had to endure electric shocks when feeling sexual attraction to others of the same sex. Advocates of conversion therapy will see the glass as half full and tell you we’ve left such barbaric practices behind. But just as segregation is progress when seen against slavery, conversion therapy is an insult to decency that must be stood up to. Arguing its advocates must be allowed to continue because what they advocate stems from their “faith” makes us all enablers.

No, Ms. Marcus. Some ideas must be actively opposed. Not all opinions are of equal value.

Bless you for your faith in the human race, in the belief that people can be talked around if you just take the time to engage with them. I take it that’s where you’re coming from. I trust you had the kind of 3 a.m. discussions I did back in your college dorm or wherever you first debated whether Gandhi’s non-violent approach would have worked with Hitler or Stalin or the Pol Pot Regime. I’m all for debate and persuasion when that avenue is open to us. But I’m not open to the notion that there is something about religion that entitles it to special favors.

Monday, October 14, 2019


Chosen family folk stopped by the other day for a quick bite before going to the theater. We spent much of the time catching up on the news of their still new grandson, Elias, who lives in Buenos Aires.

I love these people dearly. Loved watching their daughters grow up. One is now doing her part to fight crime and injustice (that's how I choose to define her job as a lawyer in the nation's corrupt capital) and the other is, among other things, responsible for baby Elias.

Barely do I have time to properly groove on the wisdom of this child to be born into such a loving family before I get news about another grandchild, born about the same time. This time it's the grandchild of my nephew, Joe Onion, Jr.

We all met last May, Elias's grandparents and Joe Jr., while visiting my sister in Connecticut. Joe's son, Joe III, was there, too. He's the daddy of this little girl, Ella Rose.

Ella Rose and her Grandpa
Can't believe how lucky I am that I now understand the joys of being a grandparent, even though I'm not one myself. Not directly. But I know what I'm feeling, and if I can have these feelings I can only imagine what the actual grandparents are feeling.

It's no secret that those emotions are enhanced by precious memories. I was visiting my sister one time - must have been around 1973 or 1974. Joe Jr. said good-bye and went out the door to walk to school. Two minutes later he comes back in, marches up the stairs, flushes the toilet, and goes back out again without a word to anybody. "Sometimes he does that," my sister says, "forgets to flush the toilet." That leads to a discussion of how many things we take for granted that people know that they actually don't. There are a whole lot of things kids simply have to learn while growing up, one painstaking detail at a time.

That kid is now the grandpa on the right. Ella Rose is the great great great great granddaughter of "Grandma Mary," my great-grandmother, the woman in the rocking chair in the kitchen by the stove I have such vivid memories of, in Manchester, Nova Scotia when I was at the flush-forgetting age. Which didn't matter, because we didn't have indoor plumbing in those days, but that's another story. Mary Johnston was pretty old by then and had taken to starting the fire in the stove first thing in the morning to bake bread. Problem was she kept doing this several times throughout the day and we all worried she might burn the house down.

I feel sorry for the younger generations. They don't have all the memories I have. They see this little face and think, "How cute!" I see her and think of her grandpa learning one has to flush a toilet and of the fear we could all go up in smoke, if we weren't on our toes.


Such joy.