Monday, October 10, 2005

Letter to Abdul Karim

Some Mapuche shaman complained recently, I read somewhere, that since their folks in Chile stopped with the child sacrifices, there has been an increase in the number of earthquakes. Cause-and-effect from a religious perspective.

I've got a friend who takes this Chinese medicine because it prevents colds. Thanks to the regular intake of these little yellow pills, she has not gotten a cold in three months. She's a good friend, so I don't remind her that there have been no elephants breaking into her apartment either, and the evidence it was the pills that prevented the invasion is just about the same.

I did ask her once how somebody with so much respect for supporting evidence in other areas (she has a Ph.D.) could hold such views. "If the Chinese have held these convictions for thousands of years," she responded, "There must be something to it." Well, yes. People have held on to astrology for that length of time as well.

But you don't argue against those views. With Chinese herbal medicine, you take the open position that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, chalk it up to harmless thumbsucking, and move on. That way, if the little yellow pills do turn out to prevent colds, you won't look like a total ass.

With child sacrifice, though, you thank your lucky stars we have power over this old Mapuche lady and try to keep her away from the knives when your children are around. Some religious stuff is downright nasty.

If you think Christianity is all about a little baby in a manger, or Mozart's Requiem or those glorious windows at Chartres, you might well want to be in their number when the Saints come marchin' in. If you've ever been at the sharp end of the Christian stick, however, you are more likely to wonder how it is sensible people can worship a god who had to slip into the skin of a human male to be tortured and killed to in order to mollify himself, being so pissed off as he was at the children of Mr. Adam and Ms. Eve.

On the surface of things, why should we respect such nonsense? Where does the idea come from that we should respect irrational claims about the universe? Because they've been around for hundreds of years? Because, like Pascal, we don't want to risk pissing off the Big Guy just in case he's real?

I think the answer is we don't respect it. We think, way down deep in our hearts, it's a bunch of bullshit. We just don't say so most of the time because we don't want to scare the horses. Instead, we give a little so we'll get a little. We let them suck on their lollypop so we we can suck on ours.

This all sounds flippant, I know. Actually, it has a (to me) wonderful moral foundation in Enlightenment values. It starts from the assumption that all god's creatures – whether they evolved or were generated spontaneously or were created not by somebody named God but by another guy named Shakespeare maybe – all god's creatures should sit at a round table as equals until or unless we can come up with a sure-fire system of determining how we might rank some over others without grounding our authority to do so in the law of the jungle. Respect for the person is one of those values; respect for any given ideology, religious or otherwise, is not. In the end, a blind respect for religion can only lead to tyranny of religion, while a respect for each other's space will actually accomplish what one intends by arguing for respect for religion.

For several days now my friends the Danes have been in trouble. I say my friends because I am filled to the brim with respect for the Danish nation and all those lovely blond folk with their mumbled form of the Germanic tongue. Although I know no more than a handful personally, and except for the one night in Aarhus back in the 60s when I thought nothing of sleeping in a storefront in a sleeping bag rather than pay for a hotel, I've never even been to their country. (Oh yes, one stopover in the Copenhagen airport once.)

When AIDS hit and the American president Reagan took four years to acknowledge what was happening, the Danes took the sick into their national health plan as they would any and all of their other sick citizens and saved their dignity as well as many of their lives. When many in America, including many of its leaders, were still calling down Old Testament fury against gay men and lesbians, the Danes were supporting their right to marry and adopt children and make Danish families. While most of the world was wishing the Palestinian problem away, Denmark was out front urging us to work harder to pull them up and out of the morass in which they live. If I woke up tomorrow and found myself a Dane, I think I'd blow a whole bunch of money on champagne.

Now they're in trouble. People are burning their flag and refusing to eat their cheese and torching their embassies because some magazine asked a satiric question of the Islamists and their propensity for violence. The question was, "Is this the prophet you are following?"

If the shoe fits, put it on. The overwhelming majority of Islamic folk take the "peace" in s-l-m seriously. This question was not addressed to them. But the mob driven authorities of much of the Islamic world are bending to their fury and demanding the Danish government come down hard on the Jylland-Posten for having insulted the Prophet.

No! That's not the job of the Danish government. This is a tough call because the pressure is very strong indeed to see this as a red flag in front of a bull. We're being asked from all sides to use "discretion." Be prudent. Realistic. Sensible. To swallow the principle of non-governmental interference with the press so we can go back to selling cheese in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. No!

Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader has just issued a statement suggesting if they had killed Salman Rushdie back when he wrote the Satanic Verses, we wouldn't be in this pickle today. There's no doubt we're playing for pretty high stakes in this game.

It's sorely tempting to do what seems wise and urge caution and get the present situation under control, calm the rioting and get back to the serious work of trying to figure out how to talk across the chasm between Enlightenment and religious fear and ignorance. But I hope we don't send the wrong signal across that chasm.

Samuel Huntington wrote in his Clash of Civilizations that history had progressed through centuries of wars of religious ideology through the Cold War of political ideology to the present war for dominance of Western civilization's fundamental values. I'm with Edward Said in thinking this thesis is facile, but you have to admit it sure seems to make sense in the present context. And if this is war, then maybe we should listen to the peacemakers urging compromise. But we should also remember that one day's compromise is another day's appeasement.

Civilizations don't clash. That's only a metaphor. People clash. And when overspirited boys get into a rumble, other people break it up. As with solutions to other problems, the paths will be multiple. A lot of people will talk across the chasm, each in their own way. I don't want to suggest there is only one approach to take, but let me give you mine. It's a letter to my old friend Abdul Karim Bajwa, a man I spent many hours arguing with when I lived in Saudi Arabia. A Muslim, and one of the kindest, most generous and most compassionate men I've ever known and loved. I don't know where he is today. I'm pretty sure he's not torching embassies, but I'm also pretty sure he's very angry that the Danish government has allowed the Jylland-Posten to insult his Prophet. If I knew where to send this letter, this is what I would write him.

Dear Abdul Karim:

I'm pretty sure you're very angry at the moment at the Danish government, and that you may be tempted, as many of your fellow Muslims are, to extend this anger to all Danish people. Maybe even to Norwegians and French and others from countries which have expressed public support for the right to publish cartoons which insult your religious beliefs.

I wish we could talk about this because I know we'd do this better if we could look each other in the eye and feel each other's emotions. I would like to be sure I heard your real voice when you talk about this instead of the voice I make up for you to speak in. And I would like you to hear my sincerity when I tell you I'm sorry you are troubled by this insult to something you hold so precious.

I would not make fun of The Prophet, because I know what He means to you. I would not draw a picture of Him, because I know that would offend you. I would not do what the Jylland-Posten in Denmark just did, and what many others have repeated.

But just as I accept your faith as part of your person, I hope you can accept my faith in the values of the civilization in which I grew up. I assure you I hold them as strongly as you do yours. One of those values was expressed by Voltaire when he said, "I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.'' I think in order to live free there is no other way but to allow others the freedom to express themselves, even when you disagree with what they say. If you cannot hold to this principle, even when what they say offends you, it is an empty principle.

You will say that respect for The Prophet and for the rules laid down in the Koran should be above all other principles, but you have to remember that without the freedom of all religions and moral codes to co-exist, we have no hope of escaping the tribal wars that have plagued us throughout history. Just as you should act out your religions beliefs without interference from others, you have to allow others similar freedom.

Just as the people who call themselves Christians and go to war for nationalist American reasons insult their Savior, the men who kill innocents in the name of Islam insult their Prophet. We should be working together to stop these people, and not working against each other.

The people who made those cartoons were not insulting The Prophet. They were asking Muslims the question, "Is this the kind of prophet you are following?" It was not the real Prophet depicted in those pictures, but the one in the minds of the misguided men of hate who do those things in the name of Islam you know the Prophet would disapprove of.

Even if they did intend to insult Him, however, I hope you will see that these are people limited by their experience as you and I are limited by ours. You know that if we don't allow all ideas to flow freely – the bad ones as well as the good ones – we will fall victim to those tyrants always ready to make our decisions for us. Saudi Arabia has asked the Danish government to control the press in Denmark. But Saudi Arabia has to learn that such a request cannot be complied with in any democratic nation. In the end, Saudi Arabia is moving in the direction of democracy; it is not happening the other way around.

Most Muslims know they will be freer, ultimately, in a democratic nation than in a non-democratic one to practice their religion. An occasional insult, perceived or real, to the Prophet is the price we have to pay for that freedom. That freedom will enable Islam to grow and prosper and for its message of peace to spread around the world. Please allow a cartoonist here and there to overstep your line now and again and question the motives of some of the people who do such damage in the name of your religion. We will all benefit in the long run.

With great affection,

Your friend,


Saturday, September 24, 2005

Ripping Out the Roses

The move by the new pope and his hardliners to either clean the stables of perverts – to frame it their way – or remove from religious service some of the Church’s most faithful by painting them with too broad a brush – to frame it in the progressive church’s way – is beginning to create friction. Today’s New York Times reports of a suggestion by one priest that gay priests should start wearing pink triangles. Bad enough Pius XII has been called "Hitler’s Pope." Imagine what this could to to the new administration.

The reason for getting rid of gay priests? Too much temptation. Like, hello, this is the first time priests have had to deal with temptation? Where is the theology that says they have to be spared temptation?

And where is the evidence they need to be spared – the fact that 80% of the abuse cases are male on male sex? ‘Scuse me, but how about keeping your eye on the donut here. Adults should not take their pleasure on vulnerable kids.

Turns out they’ve decided if you want to kill the weeds the way is to rip out the roses and daffodils as well as the ragweed. They’re moving not only on abusers but on adult priests who might be tempted to do the naughty with other adult priests.

OK, I say. I’m not going to save your damned church for you. You want to run it into the ground? Be my guest. Here’s a couple suggestions, though, to men of the lavender set who want to be professionally spiritual but don’t know how they’re going to weather the witchhunt.

- Father Percy? You like to diddle little boys against their will? Get out of the church now and get help. Go into real estate or something.
- Father Timothy? You like the occasional getaways with hunky high school football players between 16 and 18 who like older men in the back seat of a pickup? If you can’t keep your vows of obedience and celibacy, get out of the priesthood and get work as a gay masseur. As the Benedictines say, lavorare est orare (to work is to pray.) Only do it in Denmark, or one of those other adult countries where the age of consent is 12, or something like that.
- Father Clarence? You can’t stop flirting with Father Wilbur? Get out of the church, both of you. Get yourselves an apartment, buy some IKEA furniture, go into social work and do some good. Work as lay catholics to make the church focus on turning the other cheek instead of kicking so much gay butt.
- For the rest of you, the Episcopal Church is nice. You get to keep your collars and refer to yourself as catholics.

This is just a start, obviously. With all the priests pouring out of the church, there’s bound to be some interesting creative thinking about where these good men can put their talents. Don’t stay where you’re not wanted, guys. Stop tying yourselves up in knots.

The world needs love.

September 24, 2005

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Sublime Victories and Ridiculous Goings-On

Last week ("Veto" – 9/8) I sent around a commentary on the status of the same-sex marriage issue in California in which, in retrospect, my own optimism kind of surprised me. Today, I would be less surprised. In Massachusetts, the homophobic lobby tried again to pass a state constitutional amendment barring gay people from having their unions publicly recognized.

I’m used to the homophobes winning and having to wax philosophical with "stepping backward to get a good jump" and similar consolations. Or watching their mean-spirited attempts to codify their fears fail by a narrow margin, and not wanting to celebrate, because close calls don't make you feel very festive. Every once in a while, however, a victory comes down the pike that tastes sweet indeed and confirms my faith that things may be all right one day for gay people in the U.S. of A. The Massachusetts legislature shot the proposed anti-gay amendment down by a vote of 157 to 39.

In an unrelated story, in Kentucky recently, a man walked into a classroom where his 14-year-old son was a student, took off his belt and gave the kid a beating. Right there in front of the teacher and the kid’s peers. In Kentucky, apparently, the man broke no laws. This is a spare-the-rod, spoil-the-child part of the country, and the father, apparently, was upset that the boy’s older brothers had "gone bad" and needed to prevent further decay in the family.

We are a federation of semi-autonomous states – something hard for the French, the Japanese, and many others to fathom – so we have these differences in values mirrored in our laws. In Massachusetts, the majority of non-gay people have now come to see their gay marrying neighbors as just plain folk whose desire to build their own strong families works with, not against, a broader social desire for strength and stability. A positive notion worthy of support. Biblical notions of the patriarchal family are giving way to Enlightenment notions of the nurturing family. In Kentucky, where support for patriarchal authority holds more sway, things are different.

This doesn’t explain all there is to explain about the culture wars, of course, and it’s more complex than a conflict between red and blue values. But I suspect Massachusetts is leading a national trend toward acceptance of same-sex marriage, and my guess is, at the national level, a majority of Americans will see the Kentucky father’s response to his kid’s misbehavior as woefully inappropriate. Me and my bleedin’ heart liberal friends want to call it child abuse – more psychological than physical, actually, when you consider what this will do to the kid’s sense of self-respect in the eyes of his peers. I don’t think we’re out of tune here with the rest of our fellow Mericans. If I’m right and you can put the two together as head-and-tail events on the national level, there is cause for some degree of optimism.

Meanwhile, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, also in the news today is a progress report on the Vatican’s plan to root out gays from its priesthood. Benedict XVI speaks of the need to "purify" the church. What a show these guys put on. In a world of ambiguity, what purity there is is in the church’s pure bigotry. 80% of the child abusers, it turns out, abused boys. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of people who like sex with their own sex are not child abusers. Never mind that the church provides a formula for dysfunctionality by teaching young boys their same-sex urges are sinful and then offering them a haven in the priesthood where they won’t have to explain their lack of interest in girls, and where they will never deal with their sexual confusions except to further repress them. Never mind that priests have altar boys, not altar girls, junior seminarian priests, not junior novice nuns as constant companions. Never mind all the other possible explanations why there are adults taking advantage of children, and this "step in the right direction" doesn't begin to address the 20% of priests who abused little girls. And never mind that the bigger problem in the church has been its inclination to protect its clergy and hang the kids out to dry.

Imagine in this day and age looking at the crime rate among blacks in the inner city and concluding the way to deal with it is to keep all black people from moving into "our" neighborhood. It still happens, but not like it once did because we have come to understand racism a whole lot better than we did. Benedict and Company have yet to learn this lesson. He’s going for the good folk as well as the bad folk with equal zeal. So much for "Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner" rhetoric. It’s "review each of the 229 Roman Catholic seminaries in the United States for ‘evidence of homosexuality,’" not evidence of child abusers.

There is a bright side in all this. This might be a good time to rifle through the dumpsters of your local catholic seminary for tapes and record collections of Judy Garland and Maria Callas, tailored shirts, kick-ass shoes and killer appetizer recipes.

September 15, 2005

Thursday, September 8, 2005


Schwarzenegger has vetoed with disconcerting speed the bill the California State Assembly just passed that would allow gay marriage. I read the paper this morning with a ache in my belly and a draft in my head to the Governator of a letter dripping with prayers he might soon be carried off on the trashpile of history with all the other political followers-not-leaders who put expediency ahead of doing the right thing.

I couldn’t use that snappy threat not to vote for him any more. I wouldn’t have voted for him on a bet to begin with. There is a perversion in me that wants me to feel sorry for him. Here he is, the once Golden Boy, with ratings in the toilet. His base would have stormed the Capitol if he had approved this legislation. He really had no political choice.

OK. So color me pervert. Poor Arnold. In the wrong place at the wrong time. He probably knows this base of his is driven by fear and ignorance of gay folk. I’ll bet he knows lots of gay folk up close who live lives of dignity others might well learn from. But, like Clinton, he has to go with the flow and represent what he believes is the majority. So let’s not hate Arnold over this, I’m thinking to myself. Let’s not make him carry the burden of cultural conflict. In years to come I suspect the man will feel bad he had to make the decision to veto the bill. He will not be able to say, as civil rights make their way into the lives of Californians, that he led. He will have to explain to the end of his days that he had no choice, he had no choice, he had no choice.

Question is, is he following the crowd really? Is this where folks are these days in this slow but sure sea change of opinion over whether people who express their sexuality homosexually are threats to society? Word is trickling in that the rap gays have taken on being child molesters and psycho-narcissists is just plain hooey. Gays are folk, period, full stop. Some create the Sistine Chapel, others spend too much money on shoes. Some hate kids, others love their kids to death. The one true certainty in all this homophobia is that as non-gay people come to know gay people they loosen their previous reservations about treating them as equals.

Runner up for truest of certainties (with all due apologies to Strunk & White for my need to geld the rhetorical lily here) is that California is one mondo bizarro. It has a State Assembly, for example, of folk who are elected as the representatives of its people. They meet in the Capitol regularly to pass legislation. But then, it turns out, they sometimes pass legislation which turns out to be contrary to the "will of the people" as expressed by referenda.

In 2000, Californians passed Proposition 22 by 61% -- a very large margin by anybody’s standards. Prop. 22 declares, "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." What’s curious about the way California does business is that any law passed by initiative like this can only be overturned by another initiative, and not by the legislative branch of government. Arnold is on strong ground when he says he’s following the will of the people – if you can be sure that the will of the people in 2000 is the will of the people in 2005. Technically, it has to be taken to be so until there is another referendum which reveals the will to be otherwise.

So there it is. Mark Leno and all those other lovely people in the Democratic Party in California who passed Assembly Bill 849 (in both the Senate and the House, don’t forget) will have gay people's undying gratitude for their "initiative." I think they are real leaders who took that extra step toward full civil rights for gays in line with the shift in public opinion. I think it is filtering in to the hearts and minds of Californians that history is moving away from homophobia. Scandinavia is far away culturally from all but the latte set, but when Spain and then Canada passed laws allowing gays to marry, I think it got people thinking. When Prop. 22 was passed in 2000 polls showed people favored a ban on same-sex marriage by 57 to 38 percent. A poll taken last month by the same pollsters showed those figures were now 46 for, 46 against. A dead heat. And if you look up to the larger context, while there has been occasional backsliding, approval for gay civil rights has been not-that-slow and very sure in coming.

The lesson may be that gay people simply need to show patience. I’m not recommending this. I won’t go with the current flow to shout "Arnold stabbed us in the back" but I have decided I can no longer believe that justice delayed is anything but justice denied.

Mark Leno, who led the fight for AB849 is taking gas for his attempts to argue Prop. 22 meant only that Californians did not have to recognize gay marriages in other states, that it said nothing about California, and therefore AB 849 does not run counter to the spirit of Prop. 22. But that’s embarrassingly silly. Of course people voted against gay marriage because they didn’t want it here, either. Leno is led by a touching desire to make the right thing happen now, and not when it has been aired and discussed for God knows how much longer. He’s not a fool; he’s simply really familiar with the injustice that homophobia has laid on gay folk for so many many years.

Gay marriage will come to California. I think in my lifetime. I am not sure about its acceptance in the U.S. in my lifetime, but as other countries move in that direction, who knows how people’s thinking may change. And if gay people continue to share their love of family openly with their non-gay neighbors and display the commonality of their hopes and challenges, more and more non-gay people will come to see what a wretchedly sour misuse of language and thought it is that they are "a threat to the family."

Don’t take the champagne back to the store. Keep it cool.

September 8, 2005

Friday, September 2, 2005

Obits and Labels

If you romp as I do every day through The San Francisco Chronicle, you pass the obituary page to get to the editorial page. This morning the smiling face of a young guy jumped out at me. This is San Francisco and when young people die my first thought is AIDS. I quickly scanned down to "Jimmy is survived by his domestic partner of seven years…" and thought, sadly, yes, one more. Just like the reading researchers say, reading is not about pouring information into an empty vessel; one casts one’s eyes across text to confirm or deny information previously structured within the brain.

Except that instead of moving on after the quick scan I decided to stay with this obit and noticed something I had at first missed. "Jimmy passed away suddenly," it begins, "without illness into the hands of God on Aug. 18th, 2005."

Whoever wrote the obituary curiously chose not to tell us why Jimmy died. It makes me wonder whether he lied about the illness and the reference to "the hands of God" makes me wonder if this is an AIDS denial. It still goes on, I am well aware, after all these years, especially among certain religious groups. I can’t relate this to the culture wars because I have too little information. I didn’t know this smiling face, but because it caught my attention the knowledge of his death saddens me, and I find myself wondering what it must mean to the people who loved him.

Jimmy Oh was Korean-American. His parents live in Oregon, his sister lives in Oakland. He grew up in Europe and his partner’s name is given as well, and if you google the partner you see he is well-connected. (I've changed the names since there is no point in identifying them.)

But Yang Ho "Jimmy" Oh, born in Seoul on my father’s 59th birthday (to drive home how recently that was), died in his 32nd year and that’s too soon by far.

I’m not nuts about obituaries, but this one captured my attention because only seconds before hitting upon it on page B4 I had read on page A9 about how the people trying to take away domestic partnership rights in California are still hard at work. You may know the story. There is an initiative that would amend the California state Constitution not only to ban same-sex marriage, but to take away the whole concept of domestic partnerships as well.

The fight is on between these people and State Attorney General Bill Lockyer over how the measure should be labeled. Lockyer has labeled it "Marriage. Elimination of Domestic Partnership Rights" and attached a description in 100 words or so that explains that it will eliminate the right of gay couples (or any couples who are not married) to form a partnership which will enable them to share the same rights of community property and health care as married people.

The people sponsoring the bill have the name "Liberty Counsel" and they are represented by their attorney Mary McAlister. Liberty Counsel. Note the peculiarly American construct. Form an organization to take away people’s right to form partnerships because of a literal reading of scripture and label it "Liberty." Reminds me of the use of "democratic" in the names of the various Democratic Republics of the now diminishing communist world.

Lockyer wanted Californians to understand what a vote to kill domestic partnerships will mean, so he decided to tell them. Liberty Counsel’s lawyer is fighting to kill the title "Elimination of Domestic Partnership Rights," which they declare "misrepresents the measure," even though that is absolutely and unequivocally what the bill will do, and change it to something that will "more accurately" represent what the bill will do – "protect marriage rights."

If voters took the time to understand what they were voting for it would not be necessary to fight this battle over labels. But they don’t. And if you ask the average Joe and Lucy whether they want to "protect marriage rights" – especially if you add "because they are under attack" – Joe and Lucy will no doubt do the right thing and say, "You betcha." But if they vote this way, the long term story will not be the label change from "Eliminate Domestic Partnership Rights" to "Protecting Marriage Rights." It will be the label change "domestic partner" to "insulter of the institution of marriage."

The California Senate has just passed a same-sex marriage bill. If it passes the House, it will move California ahead of Vermont, and even Massachusetts, toward recognition of gay marriages. The fight is bitter and sad. Bitter because of such subterfuge as the Liberty Counsel is trying to pull off. And their desire not only to keep gays from being "married," but to keep them from forming secure civil relationships at all. Sad because so many people are worried gays are pushing culture change too fast and the result is as likely to be a backlash as it is to be a legal victory. Nothing hurts like thwarted expectations and it’s sad how many people I hear warning we shouldn’t get our hopes up.

State Senator Hollingsworth, a Republican from Riverside County, warns us we need to base our state laws on God’s will. "Forward me the e-mail you got from God on this and I’ll vote your way" would be my response to such horseshit, but State Senator Alarcon, a Democrat from Los Angeles County, wouldn’t dare talk like this even if he agrees with me. This is America and the national language is now god-talk. "The last time I checked," said Alarcon in response," a higher power created all of us. In the eyes of God, they are all human beings, all equal to him…Why are they not equal to us?" You see the success the conservatives have achieved in being able to determine the level and style of discourse on the subject.

By 1965, progressives had largely succeeded in knocking down most barriers to interracial marriage, but conservatives could take heart that in some places in the U.S. interracial marriage was still illegal. (The ban was removed only in 1967.) Forty years later the question is how many California conservatives are ready to join their liberal colleagues in casting gay marriages in the light in which they’re seen in Canada and Spain and much of the rest of Europe. And, if they’re not so inclined, whether the voters will take their cue from a negative vote and take away domestic partnerships as well.

I know I’m risking heartbreak. But I’m not listening to people who tell me not to get my hopes up.

September 2, 2005

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Rivers of Religion

What a time to sit in an ivory tower and watch the world march on, each of us to the beat of our own drum. What a curious place. So many ideas. So few universals these days.

"Why is it you gays hate Christians so much?" asks a born-again of my acquaintance. "How do I count the possible answers," my head responds in a whir. One answer, "Because you’re such assholes" comes to the tip of the tongue, but I decide to take a closer look at the inventory of possible responses. "We don’t hate you," I say, finally, falling into the trap of speaking for the millions as if we had a single voice. "We just want people standing on our foot to get off."

Such a clever answer, methought. So much better than the one with assholes in it. It wasn’t a clever answer. She had no idea what I was talking about.

The news came out today that the pope has decided there will be no more gays in the priesthood. That’s two roll-on-the-floor laughing jags I’ve had in seventy-two hours. I just spent the better part of the day two days ago in a wheezing seizure over Pat Robertson’s comment that we ought to assassinate the elected president of Venezuela. Now it turns out his Papatude thinks he is going to solve what ails Mother Church by cutting the priesthood – already cut in half by priesthood flight since twenty years ago – in half once more. Push ‘em out; pull ‘em out. Wonder where all the priesties went!

I was reading Episcopal Bishop Spong’s latest book, Sins of Scripture, recently where he suggested the number of gay priests in the Catholic church may be as high as 50%. Even allowing for a good chunk of overestimation, this latest move has got to be the best example of shooting yourself in the foot in a long time.

But I mention this gay priest cleansing business not out of a desire to keep the august institution afloat, but to point out that the question "Why do you people hate the Christians" might just be up there with asking Jews in the 20s and 30s and 40s why they hated the Greenwich Country Club. (Hell, the 1990s if you were black, but that’s another story.) It is, actually, all about sorting out who’s standing on whose toes.
Terry Gross was interviewing some Christian marriage counselor the other day. I wasn’t listening closely but my ears perked up when she asked the guy about gay couples. "First of all," said Mr. Christian Person, "Gay marriage is not legal in the United States." Terry Gross is a superb interviewer, so her follow-up question was not, "And just why is that, asshole?" Instead she said something like, "But considering the number of gay couples out there, surely there must be some in need of counseling."

I don’t know how you keep score, but for me that was Lions 1; Christians 0.

His answer? "We have committed ourselves to working with the mainstream."

"Blessed are the mainstream, for they shall get therapy." (Matthew 5:11a)

At least he didn’t use the word ‘normal.’ There is social progress.

The rise in conflict between modern culture and religion has moved center stage in recent years. Books are popping up all over the place on the topic and there are arm chair academics like myself and some real serious social researchers as well in hot pursuit of new theories of what is going on.

It’s not just the Christians against the lions. It’s much broader. Jews in Israel still cannot marry outside their religious boundaries, even though their nation was founded by secular Jews. Muslims who try to make the case that the Koran never says women cannot pray with men are threatened with their lives. Hindus in India and Buddhists in Sri Lanka are going at their enemies with guns and knives. And everybody thinks their stances are signs of religious devotion. Religion always gets the blame, complain the good religionists, when it’s Culture’s problem. Modern Enlightenment Culture gave us the notion of progress, human rights, and all the liberation movements without which we’d still be living under the heel of Religion, say the Culturists. Ah, yes, when and how will we sort this all out?

God Bless America, I say. Canada, too. And Spain and Ireland and all those other funny countries where the Church is being challenged by the Enlightenment notions of freedom from racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and popes who give birth to daughters like Lucretia Borgia. It was in America that Reform Judaism was born. Jews who believe non-Jews can be good neighbors, good friends and even good spouses. It is the Canadian bits in Muslim gutsy lady, Irshad Manji, I have to assume, the author of "The Trouble with Islam" that lead her to argue Islamic Civilization needs to grow Enlightenment notions just as Christian Civilization did and urge her fellow Muslims to find their way to recognize gay love is love and love is good, women are more than their wombs and Allah might just be less interested in redressing injustice with suicidal attacks on innocents than with peace, like the s-l-m in Islam and Salaam says.

"Hate Christians so much?" Hell, nobody hates Christians. They hate people who can’t tell where Christ’s message ends and their own begins and peddle so fast to make the beautiful ugly. Pat Robertson reads the Bible but somehow doesn’t see that the President of Venezuela is one of God’s children. Instead he sees him as Bush’s enemy. Jesus, man, talk about chasing after false idols.

One of my grad students is writing an M.A. thesis with me on the topic of Religion and Culture. One of my colleagues said to me, "Good thing you’re here to do this. Nobody else on this campus has any interest in religion."

More’s the pity, I say. Religion is here to stay. There’s a book out this year with the title, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations. Not everybody’s idea of a fun read, but one which is riding the crest of the wave, in my view.

We got rivers of religion and we’re riding the rapids. Got to stay in the boat, ‘cause the water’s toxic. Got to get to the other shore.

August 30, 2005

Monday, August 1, 2005

Guns and Race and Family

For a while there I thought that all this commuting between Berkeley, USA and Oiso, Japan had finally worn off the culture shock that used to plague each new leap across the waters. I simply switched wallets, spoke out loud "the passenger seat is on the right/left" the first couple of days, and waited calmly while jetlag ran its course.

Recently, however, culture shock seems to be hitting me once again with a vengeance. Let me tell you three little stories to illustrate what strikes my Japanese eyes as peculiar about my first days and nights in this other hemisphere where you Americans abide.

Yesterday I went to an outdoor concert in Stern Grove. One of those things I used to do decades ago when I lived in San Francisco with no money and had some of the best years of my life. Out among the trees in a picnic environment with three thousand people all in a good mood, a full symphony orchestra on the stage and operatic voices to lift you off your feet. A glorious thing to do of a Sunday afternoon.

When I had settled in on my perch on the hillside, something caught my attention. Among the thousands of folk, it took me several minutes to locate a black face. The audience was virtually entirely white and Asian. In fact, the only conspicuous black faces were on the policemen and women and on Denyce Graves, the leading soprano. I have an American explanation for this, of course, but with my Japanese eyes still in place, I wonder how it is that so many Asians take to opera and so few blacks.

Two days before another racial question had popped into my mind. The names of three local kids – all African–American – are in the headlines. Meleia Willis-Starbuck, routinely described as the kind of kid everybody is proud of, a 19-year-old, back from school at Dartmouth for the summer to work in a shelter for homeless women, was shot dead on College Avenue at 2 in the morning. The misery didn't end there. Apparently the guy who killed her is her best friend, a 20-year old who came to the rescue when she was hassled by some guys on the street. Word has it she phoned him and told him to "bring the heat," according to a witness. And apparently he showed right up and for some unknown reason fired into the crowd. The only person hit was Meleia.

And the horror goes on. The kid driving the car, 20-year-old Christopher Wilson, referred to by his high school teacher Rick Ayers as "a really good kid," turned himself in and is out on bail. "I’m shocked he would even be in the same car as someone with a gun," Ayers said. The parents of Wilson’s best friend decided to get a property-bond on their house for $326,000 to pay the bail and have taken him in till all this blows over.

Now here are my Japanese questions. How is it American kids carry guns? Why would a 19-year old star student call a friend to come help her from being hassled and why would she use the expression, "carry heat?" Is this a black thing? Why would a good kid, even a nervous one, one that would inspire such faith by his best friend’s parents, fire a gun into a crowd? Are there no in-built inhibitions against killing strangers? (Leave aside the risk of killing his friend.) The really big question, I think, aside from whether we have the facts straight so far, is whether we’re dealing with individual foolishness or systematic social decay. Something is obviously wrong, and it’s something quite peculiar, among modern nations, to the United States of America.

I’m getting my information from places like the The Berkeley Daily Planet, a paper that leans so far left it’s probably more horizontal than vertical, and the independent student paper, The Daily Californian, and that means it is probably painting the kids in the best possible light. Which is OK by me. I think the facts of the story, if I have them right, suggest this is almost pure tragedy, the kind of thing that ruins lives for decades, if not forever. But even leftie sympathetic Berkeley is full of the routine arguments for gun control both pro and con, all in the context of the latest victory of gun manufacturers in Bush-ridden America, now home free of any responsibility for damage done by their products. I mourn more for the kids who fucked up bad but I blame the adults who think this is a way to run a society and can’t fix what is so obviously broken.

Hollis, the shooter, is still in hiding. Imagine the agony his parents are going through. College Avenue is three blocks East of here, and the shooting took place a few blocks North. Meanwhile, two blocks West, and three blocks South, right on the path we take to the BART station, they are still cleaning up after a fire and thanking the Goddess for her blessings the whole block didn’t blow up. Turns out the fire took place in a house containing explosives, machine guns, assault rifles and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition. The assault weapons included a 50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle which can kill at ranges of more than a mile. None of this apparently has any effect on gun control thinking; the NRA still argues we need these weapons against possible rape and other mayhem. And corporate America rallies round behind the business of gun manufacture.

A teenager "packing a pistol" held up a 46-year-old man at Alcatraz and California Streets two weeks ago Wednesday, and slugged him when he refused to turn over his wallet. On Holly Street and Buena Avenue last Thursday a man with a pistol hit up a 43-year-old man. This time the guy complied and didn’t get slugged. The same evening a 25-year-old man with a gun was apprehended after burglarizing the Wet Seal and Gap clothing stores on Telegraph, and last Friday a gunman robbed the till at Extreme Pizza on Shattuck and got away. People called the cops at 3:14 a.m. at Prince and California Streets last Saturday to report gunshots, but the cops couldn’t find any bullet holes.

When I’m not living in Berkeley, I’m working in Fujisawa, a town in Japan about the same size, maybe slightly bigger, where there have been no killings and no armed robberies and no incidents at all involving guns in the past year that I am aware of. You see what I mean by culture shock.

The third American curiosity is linguistic. Actually it’s a highly political struggle over the right to determine what label to put on an initiative in the state legislature. The State Attorney wants to call it, "Elimination of Domestic Partnership Rights." Its sponsors want to call it "Voters’ Right to Protect Marriage."

The initiative is the first step, according to the Christian Communication Network, to getting a California anti-gay-marriage amendment into the constitution. "It's high time," they say, "that we the people (sic) override the judges and politicians who've been relentlessly attacking marriage." Time, they say, to rip this issue out of the hands of "anti-family mayors like Gavin Newsom."

Now twirl that language around in your mouth for a while before you spit it out. "We the people?" "Relentlessly attacking marriage?" "Anti-family" mayor?

Culture war is one thing. I don’t resent any Christian who opens the Bible, skips over all the talk about poverty, rich men…eye of the needle…turn the other cheek…and that sort of stuff and goes to the part where it says Jesus likes war and capitalism and the American way. It’s their Bible, too and they can read it any way they want to. But calling gay people who want to marry and straight people who want to help them have their families recognized "anti-family," well, honey, my Japanese eyes and ears are having trouble wondering how such a logical folk squeeze that fat-foot of an argument into the golden slipper of government protections. "Voters’ rights?" ‘Voters?’ ‘We the people?’ Don’t let anybody tell you the power to determine how words are going to be used is a trivial one. It’s at the very heart of politics.

Here’s where Japan and America are on the same track. In Japan the Chinese, Korean and other girls once pressed into sexual slavery are called "Comfort Women," and most decent folk of Japan will tell you "we Japanese love euphemism" because it’s less confrontational. Well, horseshit. It’s a way of controlling how people will think of issues. Textbooks come out approved by the Japanese Ministry of Education in which "invasion" is euphemized into "advance" and in which the Rape of Nanking is twisted into "restoring order." Groupthink and its parent concept, the self-serving euphemism, is at home in all totalitarian environments. Actually, it’s probably fascism’s most effective tool. So it’s not surprising it should spill over into Christian ideological groups who think of themselves not as manipulative but as media-savvy.

Japanese tend to see Christians as well-meaning wackos. A god who walks on water, born to a virgin, whose real daddy in the sky needs a sacrificial lamb to forgive people for wanting to eat of the fruit of knowledge, and who dies and comes back to life again and walks around with holes in his side but no mention of a headache – well, at least those people who believe that stuff build nice schools and hospitals sometimes. But this Japanese fellow (OK – I’ll admit I’m talking about myself. I have a Japanese green card and it’s been my home for most of the past three decades) can’t help thinking of these "Nanking didn’t happen" right wing morons of Japan in the same category as these language-manipulating "protect the family" Christians of the U.S. of A.

Go ahead. Argue with me they’re not the same. You’ll win, probably; there are big differences.

But until the little Japanese homunculus behind my eyes gives up his seat to the little American homunculus who pilots my thinking when I live in this Christianesque territory for an extended period, that’s how it looks to me.

You have one really weird country, you guys.

August 1, 2005

Monday, June 20, 2005

Mother’s Many Children

Is there any institution past or present which has inspired such a range of responses, from undying loyalty despite all its faults – the Crusades, the Inquisition, Mel Gibson, Indulgences (forgiveness for the sins you will commit in the future), on the one hand – to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on the other.

The Church has lost its way. I know, I know. Some of you ill-willed Protestants think they never had the way. But give a little here.

When I say lost, I’m thinking of how you’re supposed to figure out how this Cardinal Law creep who for twenty years allows molester priests to skip town to molest again then gets kicked up to Rome to participate in John Paul II’s funeral. When my father refused to vote for John F. Kennedy because he “didn’t want America ruled from Rome” he guessed wrong. Catholic JFK was a president for all Americans, not just the catholic ones like himself, not just the white ones like himself, not just the rich ones like himself. And I wonder what my father would have said if he were alive to learn the Church was telling catholics to vote against the second rich, white, catholic from Boston with the initials JFK, and vote for George “What would Jesus do” Bush instead?

Hard to keep track of this religious comedy sometimes, it’s gotten so muddy.

Today, I just read the hierarchy have unleashed a mass demonstration against Spain’s plans to be the third country in Europe, after Holland and Belgium, to recognize gay marriages. Twenty senior bishops and apparently a cardinal here and there are taking to the streets to lead a “protest of the faithful” against Spain’s putting things right that should have been put right years ago. OK, Benedict, you’re so fond of scolding your liberation theology brethern for forgetting their duty lies in “prayer, not politics!” If you have any integrity, you’ll send these guys back to chapel as well.

I was in Rome for Easter in 1961 and ran into an American priest who got me tickets to see John XXIII say mass only a few feet away from me. It was a moment I’ll always treasure. Shouts like olé, Irish nuns swooning, waves of applause. Nobody does theatre like Mother Church. I almost came away catholic. Given the new ecumenical focus, there was less reason not to be than when I was growing up and my best catholic friend told me that he worried the only reason he masturbated was so he’d have something to tell father in confession.

That’s long gone now, those good old aggiornamento days of opening up the church and letting the sun shine in. Since John XXIII died the Church has fallen back into the hands of the rightists, and freethinkers are having a hell of a time of it. Hans Küng, one of Roman Catholicism’s most lucid theologians, is not permitted to teach at a catholic university. Tissa Balasuriya, Asia’s most prominent catholic theologian is on the edge of excommunication because he thinks there is something Europeans can learn from Asian religions; liberation theologists are expected to say they’re sorry for spending too much time trying to focus government attention on the poor. What a sad and ridiculous institution! All dressed up in silks and satins and nowhere to go but backwards.

Just when you’re about to lose heart, though, and give up on religious institutions entirely, along comes one that restores your faith in the power of the imagination to do good. I’m talking about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

Unless you live in a place like San Francisco, Toronto, Sydney, Berlin, and (are you ready for this?) Montevideo, Uruguay, where the gay community is big and proud and loud, you may not be aware of the work of this religious order given not to piety, chastity and obedience, but to doing away with piety, chastity and obedience to the rotten status quo where the rich get richer and the poor get AIDS.

Call it blasphemy, if you like. I prefer counterculture.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Sisters, check out the Sydney, Australia site: It does as well as any to give you a flavor of their purpose in life: the “promulgation of universal joy,” the expiation of “stigmatic guilt” (shedding centuries of scapegoating of gay people), “habitual manifestation” (basically showing up when and where you least expect them) and, of course, “perpetual indulgence,” a fine catholic tradition, freeing members of “temporal punishment of sin.” The order, they tell us, is collective in its decision-making and anarchist in its practice. The members are diverse. “There are radical faeries, marxists, christians, atheists, haute couture, and gourmet members, and members that don't listen.”

The Mother House of the MOPI (Missionary Order of Perpetual Indulgence) is still in San Francisco, where it was founded in 1979. It is the home of, among others, Sister Bella De Ball, S.P.I., Sister Edith Myflesh S.P.I., Sister Hellen Weels S.P.I., and Sister Mary Mae Himm S.P.I. But since their founding in 1979, they’ve branched out: Seattle has Sister Glo Euro N’Wei.

Manchester, England has Sister Anorak of the Cheap Day Return. In France, Soeur Raquelle Surprise of the Soeurs de la Perpétuelle Indulgence, last I heard, was attached to the Couvent de Paname, Paris, but there are several more at the Couvent d'Oc, the Couvent d'Ouil, the Couvent d'Alor and the Couvent des Aubépines.

Die Schwestern der Perpetuellen Indulgenz (Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne) has Sr. Daphne Maria Sanguina Mensis. The Convent of Dunn Eideann (Edinburgh) has Sister Athletica de la Bain, and there are sister houses in Aberdeen, Dundee and Glasgow as well. One of my favorite characters (this will make sense only if you know the Japanese “Hello Kitty” idiocy) in Edinburgh is Sister Hello Sissy. Check out her site at .

Most of the Sisters’ efforts are focused on AIDS education, in recognition of the fact that somebody has to right the wrongs of the Church. I mean really, girls, what can you say about an organization which bases its entire approach to the pandemic on the conviction that if you don’t know how to put on a condom you won’t want to play hide the salami with the girl next door?

Sometimes, as with the Hermanas de la Perpetua Indulgencia (Montevideo, Uruguay) they branch out. Opus Gay and all that. They played a part recently in getting a monument to diversity in their city.

So go ahead and march in the streets of Madrid, you twenty bishops from hell. The toothpaste is out of the tube and there ain’t no putting it back in. Sister Bea Attitude, Sister Ann R. Key, Sister Dana Van Iquity, Sister Flatulina Grande, Sister Lolita Me Into Temptation, Sister Roxanne Roles, Sister Saki Tumi, Sister Buffy, Sister Jezebel, Sister Dixie Wrecked, and Sister Justina Nickatime are all going to give you a run for your money.

And maybe save a few of those lives you would put at risk in the process.

June 20, 2005

Monday, June 13, 2005

Japanese Lesson

Japanese isn’t hard. It’s a language like any other. There are words and they have meaning.

Let me give you a little Japanese lesson.
  1. Here’s a little word. nen. Nen ( 年)means year.
  2. Here’s another little world. kin. Kin (金)means money.
  3. Put nen and kin together and you’ve got nenkin, (年金)which means pension.
That wasn’t hard, was it?

OK. Let’s do a little more.
  1. Koku  (国)means country.
  2. Min (民)means people.
  3. Put koku and min together and you’ve got kokumin, (国民)which means national.
  4. Put kokumin and nenkin together and you’ve got kokumin nenkin, (国民年金)which means National Pension.
I wasn’t kidding. The language is logical as any other, and therefore learnable, right?

OK, so you’re ready for the next level.
  1. Kou means thick. (厚)
  2. Sei means life. (生)
  3. Kousei means public welfare.
  4. Kousei nenkin (厚生年金)means public welfare pension, right? Well, kind of. Actually it refers to the pension given to employees of a large corporation.
OK. That was a little harder. But you’re still riding with me, right?

Just two more little words, and then I’m going to tell you a story. A nice about money and security in your old age and happiness and freedom from want. The kind of story that makes us all glad we live in modern civilization and not some jungle where the words don’t mean anything, for example.
  • Kousei nenkin is generally translated Employees Pension.
  • Kiso means basic.
  • Put these together with the words you now know and you can say things like tokubetsu nenkin (special pension) and kiso nenkin (basic pension). See? Cooking with gas here.
Now, armed with this vocabulary, if you should someday out of the blue get a letter which says to you…

  • You are a person who up till now has been receiving a tokubetsu shikyuu (special grant) no rourei (old person) kousei nenkin
  • Starting at 65, this tokubetsu shikyuu no rourei kousei nenkin (Special grant old person Employee Pension) will become a rourei (old person) kiso (basic) nenkin (pension) (Old person basic pension)…

“Keep talking. It’s your nickel,” you’d say, right?

That’s what I said.

But wait a minute. I haven’t been receiving any pension, no special grant. What are they talking about?

There’s more to the story, but it’s all too much for a Japanese lesson, so I’ll summarize in the English tongue, since I sense your eyes glazing over.

This letter is scolding me for not obeying the law. According to the law, by the end of the month in which I turned 65 (i.e., May 31st just past) I was supposed to have informed the Shakai Hoken Gyomu Sentaa (Social Insurance Management Center) whether I would like to receive this tokubetsu (special) pension now that it is no longer going to be called a special pension and is going to start being called a kiso (basic) pension. ("Just circle either wish or don’t wish, please.")

OK. It’s clear to me now that it’s time for a little help from my friends.

I have a couple questions, you see:
  1. What is the difference among the four pensions: national, employees, special and basic?
  2. What is this pension that I have been receiving since age 60 that will now go from “special” to “basic”?
And the answer is/answers are …
  1. There aren’t four pensions; there are only two: National and Employees. From 60 I became eligible for the National Pension and they started paying me. But since I continued working and collecting a salary, they reduced the payment level to zero. So they have been paying me; they have simply been paying me zero. That’s why when they said “Since 60 you have been collecting a special grant pension,” they weren’t lying. I was collecting a pension; it just happened to be zero. Special grant means it amounts to zero. Otherwise it wouldn’t be special.
  2. Now that I am 65, they can’t give me zero any more. Now they actually have to give me something more than zero. They can’t tell me what it is, because that would be too complicated. They’d have to calculate it all depending on my income, the length of time I’ve been paying in, and other criteria that only dogs can hear on a clear day, and so I just have to trust them. But do I want to postpone payments? Because if I do, they can do that. I just have to tell them. That’s what I didn’t do, and because I didn’t do that, now I will have to go to my city hall and get the mayor (no kidding – it says “mayor” even though somebody with a much lower salary actually stamps the form) to put his stamp on my card saying that I’ve been to the city hall – which has nothing whatsoever to do with the nenkin management office, of course. It’s just there to put stamps on people’s documents who don’t do as they’re told.
  3. This “ basic” pension, being the “national” pension used to be “special” but now it will just be “basic,” and has nothing to do with the Employees Pension, which I will start collecting once I actually retire and even though the letter said I had been receiving a special version of the Employees Pension, I hadn’t. It was a special version of the National Pension that I had been receiving (in the amount of zero). I had not actually been receiving any of my Employees Pension, but I had been receiving the “eligibility” of the Employees Pension, and that’s what they meant when they told me that up to age 64 I was receiving the “special” version of the Employees Pension.
Honjou to yukichiga to natta baai goyousha kudasai.
If our letters have crossed, please forgive us.

I forgive you. It's the least I could do.

July 13, 2005

Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Blind Men and the Elephant

I recently assigned the story of The Blind Men and the Elephant to a writing class for interpretation. I gave them three versions to work from: the John Godfrey Saxe poem, a Buddhist version, and a Jain version written in India for children. The story is familiar to most people as a moral lesson. A number of blind men, usually six, each try to identify an elephant. Limited to touch, each one grabs a different part of the elephant and reaches a different conclusion about what the elephant is. The one touching the side concludes it’s like a wall, the one touching the tusk says it’s like a spear, and so on.

The three versions reach different conclusions about what the moral of the story is:

Saxe says:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The Buddhist version says:

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.

And, finally, the Jain version for children says:

The moral of the story is that there may be some truth to what someone says. Sometimes we can see that truth and sometimes not because they may have different perspective which we may not agree to. So, rather than arguing like the blind men, we should say, “Maybe you have your reasons.” This way we don’t get in arguments. In Jainism, it is explained that truth can be stated in seven different ways. So, you can see how broad our religion is. It teaches us to be tolerant towards others for their viewpoints. This allows us to live in harmony with the people of different thinking.

I read the three versions aloud, after passing them out, and then asked the students to write their understanding of the story from memory in three sections, concluding with the moral of the story. Here is the moral of the story as each of them saw it:

  1. Each thinks his view is universal. He should think again.
  2. Each opinion is true according to its reason. It is important to hear others and make harmony with them.
  3. All persons’ opinions are right and wrong at the same time. We need harmony and tolerance.
  4. Feelings are incredible things.
  5. We should see the other perspective before arguing. We should have tolerance for other viewpoints.
  6. Harmony is very important. It is important to have a wide view and terrible to be ignorant.
  7. We should consider things from another viewpoint.
  8. We should listen to other people and be tolerant. This allows us to live in harmony with other people instead of arguing like the blind men.
  9. They didn’t see the whole elephant. We should stop insisting on our own view and understand what each other means.
  10. Things have many aspects. We have to see from different viewpoints. We often cannot see the forest for the trees.
  11. There are many different aspects to an argument. We should see things from different viewpoints. Then we can live in harmony.
  12. Each was partly right, partly wrong, because they couldn’t see more than a part of the thing. We should admit this and admit each viewpoint. That will make the world more peaceful.

As I was reading the student papers, it struck me how often the word “harmony” popped up. It appears in five of the twelve responses. Since I don’t see the moral of the story in terms of harmony at all, I was astonished to find this degree of consensus – almost half the responses. I was about to conclude that students were reading something into the moral from their own moral training about harmony in Japan. But then I went back and saw that this was made explicit in the children’s version, and I would not be justified in claiming they were reading something that wasn’t there. I take that as a moral lesson for me personally – to check my facts before reaching conclusions.

The issue of whether we see harmony as a Japanese value, or a Jain value, aside, it still remains interesting that one should conclude harmony is the lesson we should draw from the story. Tolerance, yes, but harmony?

Some postmodernists argue that objectivity is not possible, that we can never see things coolly and unemotionally from an outside perspective, that we all allow our own experiences and feelings to color what we see. To them, there is no elephant, only one’s particular perspective on an elephant. I think, however, that as the story is presented one is not justified in concluding that this is its moral. After all, we the audience are allowed to see the entire elephant in our minds. We see what the blind men do not see, and we see that the way out of their dilemma is to share perspectives in order to build a truer collective image of an elephant than each is capable of building individually.

For me, the moral has to do with the nature of knowledge, and not harmony at all. When harmony is the goal, the strategy is too often simply to listen to others and say nothing. It leaves us stuck in our own isolation and ignorance. In real life, we are not always like these blind men whose only error is that they see only part of the truth. While it is arguable that none of us ever sees the whole truth, it is also true that sometimes people are not merely reflecting a limited perspective but are actually wrong about their facts. One thing we should learn from the moral lesson of The Blind Men and the Elephant is that The Blind Men and the Elephant is not the only moral lesson we should learn from life!

Sometimes seeking harmony is a way of making us blind. The Blind Men and the Elephant helps us to see the wisdom of tolerance, because in this case each person has part of the truth, but it does not tell us what to do when we are faced with other people who are actually wrong or people who lie about what they see. If we work collectively, we can overcome factual error and deceit, but we have to be willing to challenge others’ opinions and insist that they reveal to us how they have reached their conclusions. That challenge sometimes means we have to make harmony a lesser priority. The art of life lies in part in distinguishing between those times when we should seek harmony and those times when it is a barrier to understanding.

At least that’s the part of the elephant my hands are on at the moment.

April 30, 2005

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Evening the Pope Died

The evening the Pope died I was sitting around the dinner table with some friends and one of them said, "I’m glad that old son of a bitch is dead. Good riddance."

Hey, I said. I don’t like that. The thought didn’t sit well with me at all. And not because of the old conventional bit about not speaking ill of the dead. That’s one of those fine rules to live by, actually, but that’s not what bothered me about the remark. What bothered me was that I’ve always held a bit of admiration for the man.

Back in 1979, only a few months after this Polish man had taken over the reins of Mother Church, I was in a coffee shop with the Santa Cruz (California) contingent that had just marched in the San Francisco Gay Pride parade – about thirty of us. The topic of the new pope came up, and without giving it any thought I said, "I think he’s an interesting man."

That’s the word I used – interesting. Not wonderful, not saintly, nothing more than that English word probably most devoid of content. It was as if I had picked my nose and asked people to look at it. If there had been a chute available to send me to hell, this crowd would have all rushed for the lever.

"No," I said, not knowing when to shut up. "I mean look. He was a drama student!" – trying to appeal to this bank of queens without being too obvious. "And how many of us would have stood up to the Nazis like he did?"

They were not listening anymore. I was done with this group. For good, it turns out. I never saw these guys again without reading in their eyes, "Oh, it’s you! The asshole who likes the pope."

This event came immediately to mind the other night when I found myself across the table from two very important people in my life. "You’ve got to separate the man from his ideas!" I insisted. But again, these guys, not coincidentally gay also, were not having any of it. "Not this guy. This guy’s ideas were dangerous and he pushed them aggressively."

I wonder about this. I am persuaded that if you can’t separate a person from his ideas you can’t get anywhere. No persuasion, no negotiation. No education is possible.

I watched a movie last night called "The Last Supper." A not-even-B-grade movie with a brilliant premise – a bunch of liberals sit around a dinner table poisoning conservatives one by one whom they invite to dinner to reveal their obnoxious points of view. At one point in the story they raise the moral question, "If you had run into Adolf Hitler when he was still young, would you kill him?"

These moral dilemmas are the stuff of my ethics seminars, and I eat them up. I waited to see how they would deal with the question. Obviously, if you buy into the premise that you can time travel and carry knowledge of the future with you, you might well conclude the answer ought to be "Damn straight I would kill this guy! Anything else would make you responsible for the misery he came to cause."

The twist in the story, though, came when one of the guys they most wanted to finish off said, "No, I wouldn’t. I would try to talk to him, befriend him, become an influence in his life and turn it around."

Another powerful idea in the movie was the charge – the fact the movie was made ten years ago makes the point even more poignant – that liberals just sit around and talk while conservatives get their act together and make things happen.

With the recent coming to power of Karl Rove and his skill at "firming up the base" and making it possible for corporations to surge out ahead of individuals, for warmongers to make peacemakers sound silly and irrelevant again, we get to see the difference between "the power of ideas" (as liberals like to construct the notion) and "the ideas of the powerful" (the version that comes across when radical conservatives are in charge.)

I’ve got a job that keeps me liberal. I walk into a classroom several days each week and look into the eyes of a bunch of bright fresh faces of people in their early twenties and talk about ideas.

Yesterday I started my new ethics seminar off with the topic of torture. Seven guys, five of whom I’ve already got a good relationship with, launched into the question of whether there are times when torture is acceptable.

"Yes," they all said. If somebody has kidnapped your three-year-old little girl and is hiding her with people who are likely to abuse her, torture is the right thing to do.

"You mean poke their eyes out? Stick chopsticks in their ears and break their eardrums?" I asked.

They didn’t like that. "Let’s keep this discussion on a rational basis," one of them said. "Do you approve of torture or don’t you?" I asked.

Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard hotshot lawyer who’s always making news, has come up with an idea. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have brought to our awareness that Americans, like anybody else, can and do torture people. It’s time, he says, to come out of the closet on this issue, admit that it’s done, and try to control it. Sort of like the liberal argument about teenage sex.

Dershowitz wants us to put in place a system in which agents of the state have to get a "torture warrant" from a judge, as they do with search warrants. They would have to specify who and when and why they want to torture, give convincing cause, and then use only one method – sterilized steel needles under the fingernails.

Suddenly the magnificent seven – they were all men, as it happened – turned back into sweet little boys. What machismo and swagger there was went right out the window. "Oh, God," said one of them. "That’s just too much!"

The new semester was off to a good start. In the very first hour of the seminar we had taken an idea, kicked it around from yes to torture to no, not really, to well, if you put it that way, to if we can follow these guidelines, to but is torture efficient? to do we really have to talk about this, to I guess I don’t know what to say about this topic anymore.

They left the room drained. I left the room thinking, "Damn, I love my job."
It’s all about ideas. Any idea. Every idea. Keep ‘em coming and let me hear what you really think. No bad ideas, only undeveloped ones. Everybody has got the right to say what they think, right?

Well, what about the pope? Does he have the right to tell us God wants us to hang onto the notion that women are subordinate to men and not in charge of their own bodies? That you’re not supposed to act on your sexual feelings unless you are married and making new little souls? That you’re not supposed to think you are right with God unless your soul is soldered fast to the Holy Roman way of life?

Liberals say of course he has the right to hold these ideas, bullcrap though they may be. But does he really if he is this powerful? Wishing him dead, or rejoicing in his passing is saying no, he doesn’t have the right. Unlike ordinary mortals, this man has too much power. You can separate a person from his ideas when you are in the insulated isolated ivory tower, but in the real world powerful men are their ideas and bad ideas kill and maim.

I still insist that Karol Wojtyla was an interesting man. In fact, I think he was a good man. I find it not all that hard to wrap my mind around the notion that a good man can hurt me. Karol Wojtyla hurt me when he spread the idea that homosexuality is wrong. I would have no fear if he and I were lost on a desert island together that he would hurt me – in fact, I think being in the presence of this kindly old soul would likely be a thrilling experience, certainly an educative one.

Pure liberal silly thought games again, you might say, and you might suspect me of hero worship. But I insist, the man simply comes from a time and place where his integrity requires him to hold on to certain principles and his intellect tells him the world will fall apart if the framework is rattled too abruptly. He was wrong about that, I think.

That’s the point, for me. You don’t need to list all the positive things Karol Wojtyla did – apologizing to the Jews, entering a mosque, taking a stand against capital punishment and capitalist greed. Even without those things I can respect the man for his integrity. I mean think about it. Put him up against the Roadkill of the Hour, Tom Delay, for a minute, and you’ll see what I mean. Compare Wojtyla to Mr. Zero Integrity and I’ll bet you’ll find yourself wondering how to join forces to fasttrack his canonization.

The funeral is over. Wojtyla went into a plain wooden box and into the ground. It’s really time to refocus attention on that dinosaur of an institution run by old farts in crimson dresses whose fear of change keeps them tied to Augustine and his loathing of sex and to pre-industrial beliefs in patriarchy. On the battle between those with an ecumenical bent, like kindly old Giovanni Roncalli (John XXIII) and the embrace of Vatican II on the one hand, and the retrograde forces of Vatican I, papal infallibility and the stacked curia of today. Time to separate other men from their ideas – people like Josef Ratzinger, often referred to as Roman Catholicism’s most brilliant theologian and thinker, and his provincial and arrogant notion that God listens only to the prayers of Roman Catholics.

Time to consider whether Wojtyla’s fear of liberation theology really was because if priests carry guns they will also kill and if priests kill they will also want to marry. (Kind of like the Southern Baptists who don’t like sex because it might lead to dancing.)

Time to wonder if Rome’s disregard for a 50% drop in people joining religious orders has anything to do with their being out of touch, and time to wonder whether the promotion of that creep Cardinal Law – you remember him, he’s the guy who covered up the child abuse scandals in Boston – to a position of power in Rome after being booted out of Boston means the church is in self-destruct mode.

Time to wonder about all those things, if you’re of a mind to.

As for me, I’m wondering how it is that I have such a soft spot in my heart for old Mr. Karol Wojtyla.

I loved some of the things you stood for and hated others. You were an interesting man. And I admired your integrity.

Rest in Peace, old man.

Oiso, Japan
April 13, 2005

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

I Didn’t Steal the Rainbow

I was driving back from a family affair recently with two other gay men friends and a straight woman friend. “There’s something I have always wanted to ask,” she said, “And this looks like the right time. Why is it gay people have taken the rainbow flag as their own symbol?”

A perfectly good question, don’t you think? And one which we, none of us, had to consult with the others in order to answer. “It’s a bright, optimistic symbol,” one of us said. “It goes with joy and happiness and with the word ‘gay.’ An uplifting symbol to counter the bitter history of condescension and shaming, the history of being treated first as freakish, then as sinful, and then as sick.” “It’s a declaration that the world isn’t monotone or grey,” somebody said. “A laying claim to a world in which diversity isn’t a bad word but a very good one,”

“But it’s a symbol of universalism,” she said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate that any one group should take it for their own, when it’s clearly intended to represent the whole world.”

Oh dear, I thought. We’ve gone and pissed off the world again. Us against them. We’re always doing something wrong.

Still without looking at each other, the three of us knew what the others were thinking. Something between exasperation and disbelief. How could something so patently obvious not be patently obvious?

The answer, of course, is that it wasn’t obvious at all. It was another one of those times in which a discussion risks going off the rails because one side takes the other side’s failure to comprehend as a sign of ill will. “You can’t be stupid,” goes the reasoning, “you must be malicious.” Or the other way around, depending on the players.

This was an old friend, so I knew she was neither stupid nor mean, and I could plainly see the reasoning. Children, as she pointed out, seem to draw rainbows spontaneously when they want to draw a happy sky. Why, she wondered, should we have to explain to them that they were making a pitch for gay liberation!

By this point, I was beginning to feel a little heat under my collar. “Why should I have to defend anything,” I heard the voice in my head say. “Gays use the symbol. It’s widely understood and accepted. Get friggin used to it.” In the end, the context provides the meaning. There is a “Rainbow Room” day care center in Berkeley, and nobody resents the kids for the choice. Nobody I know in Germany is miffed that Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” is used for American, and not international, political purposes.

But no amount of resistance on our part would deter her from her desire to free the rainbow from its captivity by gay activist reductionists. The field of semiotics informs us that things mean what people working in groups take them to mean. A symbol becomes a symbol only if and when it is broadly accepted as one. And once that happens, no amount of reason will shake it from the role it comes to play.

Yellow ribbons and large American flags on Humvees signal Republican supporters of Bush’s war. I may want the color yellow back, or wish the ribbon still represented the captives in the American Embassy in Teheran, and I certainly wish I could have my flag back, but that’s the way things go. Meanings come and go, but they aren’t legislated or prayed or threatened in and out of existence; they evolve. I don’t like the phrase, “You know what I’m saying?” that so many black folk toss into their commentary with great frequency. It sounds aggressive, as if all normal discourse was a clash of wills, and arrogant because it sounds like the speaker thinks he is speaking above the hearer’s comprehension level. But I’m not going to get people to stop using the phrase, any more than we were able to shake 60s folk lose from their “wow”s and their “groovy”s.

I’ve heard Jews complain that gays have jumped on the Holocaust Bandwagon (now consider that notion, will you) with their use of the pink triangle. As if the 300,000 gay folk who died in concentration camps ought to be intimidated by the 6 million Jews into shutting up. I remember Gore Vidal being asked that question once at a talk in San Francisco. “How can you gays talk about your numbers when the number of Jews killed was so high!” this guy asked. “Numbers? Numbers?” said Gore Vidal. “Are you in real estate?”

Another complaint along the same lines was the one made by some black men about how they were portrayed by Alice Walker in “The Color Purple.” “How could you hold black men up to such criticism before the world,” went the argument. “We should stick together and present a solid front against white oppression.”

“You tell your story, and I’ll tell mine,” Alice Walker responded.

I think that’s the only sensible approach. We’ve all got our shtick. Some woman in front of a supermarket gave me the nastiest look the other day when I didn’t agree with her instantly that saving the trees of California was the most important thing in the world. What an irony, I thought, as I walked away. I actually do think trees are right up there with Mozart and macadamia nuts as things life wouldn’t be worth living without. She just didn’t give me enough space for my own issues.

When the Karl Rove machine decided to go for gay throats and whip up fear among insecure Americans about the state of American public morality, and started plotting a constitutional amendment to prevent gays from marrying, a friend of mine, with a solid sensible pragmatism and a very good heart indeed asked me, “Would you be willing to give in on the gay marriage issue so that we can pull the Democratic Party together?”

No, I said. No, I won’t. I shouldn’t have to. Let me tell you why.

You can spot progress in American democracy when you find us moving closer to the ideal where one citizen’s freedom ends where another’s freedom begins, and where no citizen, regardless of perspective or arbitrary choice of socially constructed identity, gets to sit in first class seats and dictate the behavior of those in second class seats. When the death of Emmett Till and the resolve of Rosa Parks galvanized the Civil Rights movement, there was progress in America. Before that, there was the struggle for women’s right to vote, and the struggle to free children from sweat shops. Getting rid of segregation was progress, allowing blacks into the military was progress, allowing people to marry across racial lines was progress. And at each juncture there were those putting forth the argument, “Wait! If you push too hard now, you’ll slow down the progress. Be practical. These things take time.”

And there were also voices reminding us that justice delayed is justice denied.

No. I won’t participate in denying justice to myself and others like me. If my justice came at your expense, you’d have a case. But your marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Frightened American, is not at risk. We have to laugh at you straights and some of the dumb stuff you come up with. You know the joke… “What is homosexuality?” Answer: “That’s where the birds do it with the birds and the bees do it with the bees.” If you don’t want to marry somebody of your own sex, you won’t see me assuming I can make you do so. What is this infernal assumption you can and should call the shots for me and mine?

We’ve got to all tell our own stories. Live our own lives. You can, like Jim Wallis, the leftie evangelical Christian author of God’s Politics, insist marriage should be between a man and a woman only, and work to strengthen gay domestic partnerships instead. That’s his thing, and yours too, if you want it. But don’t ask me to applaud just yet. I appreciate that you are a lot more Christian looking than some of your self-righteous co-religionists, but I’ll still insist you – nice as you are – need to keep your religion off my civil right to live as a total citizen, and not a back-of-the-bus citizen.

Ever since 9/11 and the takeover by the Karl Rove manipulators, I’ve been, like so many others, in a state of near-despair. The antidote, I’ve found, is to read folks writing from the middle, since only they can provide any hope at all we might lift ourselves up out of this state. Michael Lind is seeking a revival of the values we had when Roosevelt made efforts, with Social Security, to use government to help out those in the twilight of life, and when Johnson and Kennedy used troops to assure black kids had full access to education. Jim Wallis wants Christians on the right to recognize that it isn’t Christian to take from the poor and give to the rich, and the Christian right needs to snap out of this belief that they are Americans first and Christians second. That’s his story, and I’ll be listening to the follow-up discussion with great interest.

There’s so much to talk about. So many perspectives. So many demands to have issues made top priority. The goal has to be listening and making room on the bench for your neighbor who wants to sit down. It can’t be about constitutional amendments to limit freedom. Or don’t ask/don’t tell policies. Or arguing that your choice of flag or slogan or dinner fork isn’t really yours to make.

You can tell the good Christians from the bad Christians easily enough. The bad ones tell you they are speaking with God’s voice. The good ones are still listening for it. And you can tell good citizens from bad ones by whether they are defending your rights or trying to take them away.

I didn’t steal the rainbow. Look closely after the rain and you’ll see there are plenty of rainbows to go around.

Berkeley, California
March 30, 2005

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Language of High Status Foreigners

This is a letter I wrote to a colleague some years ago who challenged me on two questions. First, he called me on my apparent lack of shame over not having full mastery of Japanese after so many years in Japan, a topic I deal with at greater length in How Come Your Japanese Isn’t Better than it is? (See under: My life in Japan). Then we differed over whether my attitude was worth studying as part of the greater picture of language attitudes, as a way of informing the sociolinguistic side of language acquisition. I said it was – if somebody wanted to undertake the task (I didn’t) – and he suggested such a study would only further add to the already overstuffed pile of studies on the language patterns of the elite.

For what it’s worth, here is my response.

… To get back to our conversation, I have no direct personal interest in justifying the failure of power-structure native speakers of English to learn Japanese. In my own case, I accept responsibility for my choices. I see them as choices. I could have, at several turns in my career in Japan, taken the time necessary – even the extended time it would have taken – to get my Japanese to the point where I became persuasive and able to keep up better. I have had other priorities all along. I like to say that had I known back in 1970 that I would be here in 2004 and beyond that I would have gotten serious about my Japanese, and I’m not lying. But the truth is I don’t have major regrets. I lived this life trajectory and none other, and I’ve always believed one has to work with what one’s got and that’s the end of it.

But that said, I think it is an interesting psycho- or sociolinguistic phenomenon that speakers of English, especially teachers of English, in Japan have an advantage which they cannot honestly be expected not to use. While some make choices to bear down and learn Japanese to a near-native degree, most don’t because they don’t have to to function at a high status level. I can’t tell you how many times – I trust is has been the same for you – people have made comparisons like “When I went to America, I had to learn English; when you come to Japan you should learn Japanese. There’s no difference.” I take that as pure bullshit. There is a major difference in that if they (we’re usually talking about students getting degrees in my experience) didn’t learn English well they’d get nowhere close to their goal, while my goals – being able to hold down a rewarding job and enjoy a wide circle of friends – do not depend on an analogous level of Japanese proficiency. The different contexts are the independent variables.

I don’t think you were questioning the fact, but it seemed to me as if you were making the case that there was nothing there worth studying. My argument is that wherever there is misunderstanding there is something worth studying. Wherever there is pragmatic difference there is something worth studying. It’s not at all a given that this is a tit-for-tat situation, this “in American we learn English; here you learn Japanese” argument.

We need to separate the personal from the social phenomena. On a personal level, I don’t believe I have a moral obligation to learn Japanese. If they discover that my Japanese is not up to their expectations, then they can jolly well change their expectations. I have made choices on the basis of self-interest, exactly as one does when one moves to an English-speaking country from Japan and chooses to participate in the goodies or not. “After all these years, the fact that your Japanese is only this good shows that you have no respect for Japan.” “You’re lazy.” “You have no right to expect people to use English; you’re in Japan. Here we use Japanese.” All these things I have heard more than once over the years. They’re all people’s opinions. They are not wrong. They are not right. They are opinions. And I have my responses. To the first anything between “Screw you, toots” and “I don’t design my life to satisfy cultural nationalists.” To the second, I respond, “Damn straight!” and to the third I respond “This is my planet; I speak any of its languages I’m able to choose from. If you don’t understand me it may be because you are not my intended audience.”

But on a sociolinguistic level, this is interesting. It’s even interesting that you should see it as a moral issue. This issue, like any issue in which the choice of attitudes and responses one particular speaker has laid out before him in a language use or language acquisition situation, makes a story. It may not be your story or a story you personally want to hear, but it’s a part of the bigger sociolinguistic picture.

When people look at social situations analytically they come up with “common sense” explanations. You know how often so-called common sense is nonsense. That’s what justifies social science research in the first place. This graduation thesis I have been working on lately takes questions the assumption that kids “learn languages naturally.” In fact, as my student was trying to demonstrate, it’s anything but natural. It’s jerky, problematic, and tied to all sorts of psychological distress. The study of her particular language acquisition trajectory is interesting because it makes the familiar strange, as Geertz suggested ought to be the goal of ethnography, along with making the strange familiar.

I question your statement that there are some things not worth studying and that you could be the judge of what was not worth studying. In principle, I can agree, but in the marketplace of ideas, I am loathe to assume the role of arbiter of those choices. There are tons of things that I don’t want to read about, that’s a given. And to me personally 99% of all the social science research I read isn’t worth as much as a sip of good wine, a roll in the hay, or a good night’s sleep afterwards. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth its weight in the bigger picture of how the world works.

I think wherever there are faulty assumptions made there is a field fertile for good social science research. I think you have allowed your ideology to interfere with an honest question. Why is it power structure people do bad things? It’s easy to wipe your hand across the surface and blame it all on class structure or some other package deal. But I think it’s worth somebody’s time to poke into the question of why it is English speakers use their status to remain inside an English-speaking cocoon, if that’s not making too much of the phenomenon. It’s not just a moral issue of the good people who put out the effort to be more open to the non-English-speaking world vs. the bad people who don’t; it’s also an issue of practicality, a line of least resistance like any other line of least resistance which explains behavior.

You’re not going to do it, and I’m not going to do it, but somebody ought to. Why you would oppose the idea I can’t understand. There is always the possibility of surprise. If I were a thesis advisor I might well say no to this project on the grounds there was much more inviting stuff out there. And I would have personal reservations, as I do (I share this with you more than you think, probably) with any power-structure research done by people with no apparent awareness of the privileged context in which they are working. But I would not call a halt to it, or even call it an unworthy pursuit if somebody went after it anyway.

There is something wrong with shutting down possibility. We do it all the time because of limited resources. But if the resources are there, whether it’s to send a spaceship to Mars or better understand dandruff, I think we ought to get behind the impulse to expand our human knowledge. In the field of sociolinguistics I think the language use patterns of power structure people ought to be seen neutrally and not dismissed on political grounds.

We ought never to let our politics limit our curiosity.