Friday, July 28, 2006

A Time to Lie

Lots of talk about The Big Lie going around. Mr. Goebbels gets the credit for the turn of phrase. Obviously he didn’t own it. If he did, the United States of America would be paying whopping royalties these days. Look at the polls which indicate huge numbers of Americans believe that Bush did a bang-up job with the Katrina disaster, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s arsenal, that the reason we went to war in Iraq was that Saddam wouldn’t let inspectors in, that the Al Qaeda operatives now in Iraq were there all along, that tax relief for the rich has left lower income Americans better off, that no child is being left behind in American schools. This sinister administration has discovered an important truth. Lying works. You just gotta keep it up, and eventually people will believe you.

If you have any inclination toward depression, this evidence of homo erectus dysfunction ought to pitch you into the darkness. Thank God there are crazy people running around like Cindy Sheehan, who has just bought property in Crawford, Texas, the better to function as a thorn in the side of the Liar-in-Chief.

My vote for the day, though, for best Big Lie has to do with something called the DADT policy. That’s “Don’t ask/don’t tell” and it refers to the army’s policy toward gay people in the military. If you don’t tell us you’re gay (i.e., if you lie and make efforts to act as if you’re not), then we won’t ask. Not what I learned to do in Sunday School when they told me helping somebody else lie was lying too.

The problem with this policy showed up recently in the discharge of this guy from Tennessee named Bleu Copas. Love the name, by the way. Ain’t hard on the eyes, either, for that matter. But I digress.

Bleu’s blues started when his commanding officer, one Lt. Col. James Zellmer, got an e-mail saying, “I want you to get this guy Bleu Copas out of the army because he’s gay. And if you don’t, “I will inform your entire battalion of the information that I gave you.” Signed, John Smith.

Well, what’s a light colonel to do when faced with such a threat? Break the “don’t ask” rule, obviously. “Well, are you gay?” he asked Bleu. “No,” answered Bleu, lying as he was supposed to to follow the “don’t tell” rule.

But John Smith didn’t let up, and eventually investigators called Bleu in and interrogated him. “Are you gay?” “Do you know any gay people?” “Are you involved in community theater?”

Bleu saw the writing on the wall, got a lawyer, and eventually decided to accept an honorable discharge, knowing he and probably friends of his would suffer if he tried to swim upstream on this issue.

I read about him in a gay newspaper from Eastern Tennessee, where Bleu appeared and sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” at some function. Apparently this guy’s got musical talent. And patriotism. Sort of like these priests defrocked by the pope for their work for the poor in Latin America against fascist governments which the church wants them to support instead. Seems lot of them remain loyal catholics. A sweeter gentler kind of dysfunctional homo whatever.

So this is maybe not the happy ending Bleu Copas wanted to his army career, but he’ll be all right. Wish I could say the same for this place called America. It loses one of the men it trained at the Defence Language Institute to speak Arabic. And Bleu, curiously, turns out to be only one of fifty-five such skilled people. Out of 300 “linguists” discharged for the sin of being born with urges to express affection in ungovernmental ways.

Arabic speakers? Do we need those guys? Apparently not. Do we need to worry about the thousands of taxpayer dollars it took to train them? Apparently not. And do we need to worry this guy is losing his job because of a slander (oh God, please let me live to see the day when being called a Presbyterian is a slander)? Apparently not. By an anonymous patriot? Apparently not.

If anybody is to blame here, it’s probably the victim. Shouldn’t have tried to serve his country and risk ticking off some closet homosexual expressing his self-loathing. God knows I’ve known dozens of those. Best guess, though, about the identity of John Smith is that he is a jilted lover.

I guess the moral of the story is that if you’re gay and you make love with somebody you should do like the preying mantises do and eat him up after coitus.

Makes as much sense as all this other crap in this Era of the Big Lie.

July 28, 2006


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Lakoff on Freedom

George Lakoff spoke at the Congregational Church last night to a larger than usual crowd. The Congregational Church offers its space to Cody’s Bookstore for what has turned into a series of lectures on politics, religion and the culture wars, which puts the church at or close to the center of progressive politics in this country. Lakoff is turning out to be one of the more articulate voices of that center, as attested to by the much larger than usual crowd. And his position as one of Nancy Pelosi’s advisors. Clearly the word is getting around that the man is on to something.

Lakoff was pushing his latest book, Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea. There are several good reviews of it on Amazon , and a negative one by Publisher’s Weekly, so let me review his talk and not the book itself.

If you’re still reading, it’s likely you know Lakoff’s contribution as a cognitive scientist to an understanding of the lay of the land in American political thought. He is known in academic circles for his study of metaphor. Like Chomsky, he is a linguist who has turned his attention to politics. Unlike Chomsky, though, his work in politics is still part of his work as a linguist. His work as a cognitive scientist has found its way out of the ivory tower and into mainstream politics.

The book that marked this turn in his career in the mid-80s is Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, a book which was followed by the more accessible, Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which contained a foreword by Howard Dean, and has been described as a “pocket manifesto” for the left. Both books contain Lakoff’s core idea, that the reason the country has fallen into the lap of the right wing is that they have hit on the secret of “framing” issues in a way that plays to America’s fears and ambitions, while the left continues to act in the mistaken belief that a rational discussion of the issues is the way to go, a decision which leaves them in the dust.

Some reviewers have complained Whose Freedom? is recycled thought. If you've read him carefully, that's true. He evidently thought there was a call for a shorter and clearer example of his basic thesis that there are two opposing conceptualizations of freedom and they must be understood if we are to see why we are constantly talking not to each other, but past each other. Patricia de Jong, the host and introducer of Lakoff actually complained of the difficulty of reading Moral Politics, and I have no doubt there is work to be done to find a way to reach the widest possible audience..

In a nutshell, for those of you still unfamiliar with Lakoff’s thought, he posits that an understanding of metaphor is important to understanding our behavior. We tend to think in terms of fundamental metaphors. In the case of politics, the chief metaphor for government is that of the family. All nations do this in the age of the nation-state. We talk of the “Fatherland” or “Motherland,” we build institutions like “Homeland Security,” we think of “fraternity” alongside “equality” and “liberty.”

What has happened in America, Lakoff says, is we have split into two camps on the basis of our notion of how the national family should be conceived and run. Two notions of parenting. On the one hand there is the strict authoritarian father. His job is to hold the family together, guide it and protect it. In this image, the world is a hostile place and for the family to be safe, it needs to obey the father. Mother too. All members of the family need to be punished when getting out of line because this is serious business. The family gets ahead through hard work and sheer willpower, and by being smart and recognizing accomplishments. This patriarchal view of the universe is the one adopted by the right, and it explains, among other things, what was explained in Thomas Frank's What’s the Matter with Kansas? – the reason why the poor often support issues against their economic self-interest.

The left is working on a different model, that of the nurturant parent. While the strict parent model is gendered male, the nurturant parent is not gendered. There can be one or more parents of either sex. In the strict parent model, decisions are made by “the decider,” while in the nurturant parent model, they are made collectively as much as possible.

Cause and effect are seen differently. In the strict parent model, causes are simple, people are bad or good, good people must fight evil people, people succeed because they work hard, criminals get punished and hard work is rewarded. In the nurturant parent model, cause is complex and systemic. Problems must be understood through negotiated meaning and worked out collectively. The former sees reward and punishment as obvious responses to situations; the latter speaks instead of compassion and longer-term group harmony.

I’ve spent this much time on Lakoff’s thesis because it is the heart of all of his talks these days. And just one last comment before I talk about the talk. Lakoff’s new book originated from a careful study of Bush’s second inaugural address, where he used the word freedom more than 40 times. Lakoff calls that speech a work of art. It starts with the universal understanding of freedom, which both sides share, and by the time Bush leaves the universal ground concept on which we all agree for the right wing strict parent model of freedom, he has his audience hooked.

Lakoff is a good public speaker. He is a model of articulateness – the skill of saying the most in the best way with the fewest words – and he has an impressive ability to grasp the real question behind the actual question from his audience. And it’s obvious he has taken on some sort of guru status, at least to this Berkeley crowd.

I can only wonder if he is up to this. People want him to spell out all the steps to taking back the government; he insists on elucidating the cognitive theory which democrats need to understand to come up with their own steps, and thus, ironically, illustrates the dilemma he articulates between short clear answers and complex understanding. The democrats are at a disadvantage because their notion of what counts requires elaboration. To the left freedom has a history of endless expansion of liberties, from suffrage limited to landowners to all men, from men only to women, from whites only to blacks. It requires negotiated meaning. The republicans, on the other hand, can work off deep-seated emotions of fear and anger and express themselves convincingly in bumper-sticker, sound-bite, brevity, because they have staked a claim to the semantic territory.

“How can we do what they do?” one questioner asked. “There is no shortcut,” Lakoff answered. The ground must be re-seeded. You can’t work with sound-bites if the concepts referred to are no longer there. Once people have defined freedom as the authoritarians (another word for “strict parents”) have, it’s all over.

Lakoff gave an example of this “authoritarian” definition of freedom. The new pope, Benedict XVI, a billiant philosopher, well-schooled in Jesuitical reasoning, according to Lakoff, has reached the conclusion that a woman who has an abortion is limiting her own freedom.

Benedict is coming from Aristotle’s notion that all things have “essences.” The essence of a tree is to grow tall (so you can climb it), grow leaves (so you can shade yourself with it), and to be made of wood (so you can burn it and warm yourself from it). The essence of a woman is to give birth. If a woman has an abortion, she is working against that essence. Freedom is defined as going with the flow of your essence, in Aristotelian terms. Ergo, a woman committing an abortion is giving up her freedom.

In Bush’s view, the essence of a democracy is the freedom to grow and prosper. Limitations on that growth, whether against the freedom of the marketplace or in almost any kind of government regulation, works against that essential freedom.

Liberals, progressives (the labels are always problematic) come from a different definitional starting place. Freedom, to them, involves responsibility not to limit the freedom of others. Government regulation is necessary against robber barons, unscrupulous business practices, etc. And when the two talk, and use words like freedom and liberty they are usually unaware they are working from different concepts.

What needs to be done, Lakoff insists, is we have to appeal to the mass of people currently satisfied to allow the strict authoritarian notion of freedom to sit unquestioned in the subconscious. We have to revitalize concepts such as commonwealth before we can begin to hope people will revitalize a sense of responsibility and civic duty. To the right, the left’s notion of freedom is license – undisciplined self-interest. To the left, the right’s notion of freedom is license – undisciplined self-interest. We don’t disagree on the problem. We disagree over the need for a single paternal force in bringing discipline back into our lives.

Everybody knows the power to control the topics in a conversation is as important as having facts at your fingertips. When you control the topics, you can work to your own strengths. The right knows how to speak to the average citizen’s fear of license by tweaking their revulsion of abortion and unwanted pregnancy as well as newly evolved definitions of family. Once there, it has no trouble getting them to associate drugs with criminality rather than illness; it fits the simpler causal model of a bad man doing bad things rather than the systemic causal model which requires a more complex interpretation of significance. And it is able to define immigration as a problem of lawbreaker immigrants (single actors doing bad: breaking the law) rather than a problem of the unlawful employment of immigrants (multiple actors doing good: expanding the economy) and the consumption of the service of immigrants (i.e., all of us – and how can we possibly blame all of us?)

The left too, has a fear of license. It’s just that their focus is on the license of those in authority. What has to happen is that the left has to learn to talk to the fear of license on the part of the average person and redirect it to seeing the solution as greater social responsibility, not more unfettered freedom to move against the common good.

The great move in our society from mainstream churches to Pentecostal (what we used to call “holy rollers”) and Baptist bodies where people wave their arms and sing and cry ought to make it clear something is going on, and it isn’t rational thinking. We are dealing with fear, and frustration, and anger, and confusion. Lakoff (the previous comment is mine, not his) illustrates this with a criticism of John Edwards – a good man still hung up on talking economics to people who are no longer listening.

So much for the thrust of Lakoff’s argument.

The highlight of the evening for me came from another direction. Apparently unaware that George Lakoff is Jewish, a woman stood up and asked, “Everybody’s talking these days about toxic religion. Can you give any advice to a Christian like me who wants to get people to focus on the message of Jesus’ love in the New Testament, rather than going on endlessly about an Old Testament God?”

George Lakoff didn’t miss a beat. “You know,” he said. “If your are raised as a religious Jew, you get used to the idea that your time studying the Torah will be spent reading one single line followed by sometimes dozens of pages of commentary. Self-contradicting commentary. The good schools try to include everything ever written of note on the subject. You never come out of a study of the scripture thinking there is only one literal way to read it. Quite the contrary.”

“Let me give you an example,” he said. And he told the story of Abraham and Isaac. Most people, he said, use that story to illustrate what a wonderful obedient servant of God Abraham was, to be willing to sacrifice his beloved son on demand.

“That’s not the way I learned it,” Lakoff said. “I came to see Abraham as an idiot. God comes to Abraham holding the knife in his hand and says, “Shmuck! What’s the matter with you? That’s not the way it’s supposed to go! Can’t you think for yourself? Must I do everything for you? Send an angel down to stay your hand? Geesh!”

Wonder if the good Christian lady got the point. It’s not really about Jewish vs. Christian values. The battle is over whether Enlightenment values should prevail or the values of the patriarchial authoritarians, religious or otherwise. Whether one fits the abrahamic tradition into an enlightenment context or the other way around.

July 20, 2006

Sunday, July 9, 2006

Lefty Religion

I went to hear Robin Meyers pitch his new book last night, Why the Christian Right is Wrong. I might have let it pass as one of now dozens of books on the same topic, all preaching to the choir, but I noted that on the Amazon reviews, the book was endorsed by my three favorite Christian preachers (no, I’m not swinging your member in the tea, as they say in Russian): Bill Moyers, John Shelby Spong, and Desmond Tutu.

Listening to Meyers was like taking a shower on a hot sticky day. First time in memory, I whispered to my friend Jerry, I’ve sat in church and enjoyed a sermon. The guy is a professor of rhetoric and wrote a book on persuasion, but he’s clearly pulling off a sermon when he gets up to talk. And you don’t mind a bit. Finally, a Christian who sounds like one, puts the Beatitudes above the Ten Commandments and leaves you thinking maybe we don’t need lions anymore. He didn’t manage to convert me in ninety minutes – I still think religion is the problem, not the solution, but if anybody ever does convince me otherwise, it will be the likes of this guy.

I’m like the Jew who wants the synagogue he never attends to be orthodox. I want the church I have no use for to be populated by good guys. I want to believe Christianity is something other than the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the shed America keeps its military tools in.

Meyers represents something quite interesting. Leftists tend to be overwhelmingly secular because those who fear difference and change have staked out the right, stolen Jesus just as they have the flag, replaced New Testament love with Old Testament righteousness, substituted the worship of the golden calf of literalism for the search for God in everyman, and given religion a very bad rep indeed. Soft and mild Methodists and Presbyterians have moved over and let angry and shrill Pentecostals and Southern Baptists become America’s default churches.

In Japan, when one of the graduate students at my university wanted to do a master’s thesis on culture and religion, the eyeballs rolled on the faculty in my department. “You take him!” said one of my colleagues. “I have absolutely no use for religion!” My Japanese partner and main squeeze has similar views. “Damn! Another book on religion! What’s the matter with you!?”

Everywhere I look the more thoughtful people I know have come to see religion as something for people who simply haven’t grown out of the need for Santa Claus, for people who tend not to read very much, people easily manipulated by this gang of liars and thieves currently driving America into the ground and using them to help them do it.

The religious right has moved in and sucked the air right out of democracy. The Catholic Church has managed to leave the reforms of Vatican II out in the rain to rust – I just heard the number of American nuns is down from over 180,000 a couple of decades ago to under 6000 women under fifty in the present day. The same trend holds for priests. Not because of a lack of Catholics, but because the church is in the hands of the direct spiritual descendants of Vatican I, the line drawn from the anti-Semitic anti-ecumenical Pius IX, who ramrodded the absurdist doctrine of papal infallibility. Catholics stuck in Vatican I are stuck in a culture that loathes democracy as a modernist aberration, insists on blind obedience and holds like a dog with a bone to the patriarchal hierarchy. It’s a place where progressives struggle to stay above water while authoritarians ride around in yachts.

Because they do, and because the evangelicals have put their fight over who gets into heaven on the back burner and joined forces with them against sexual liberation, together they’ve created the critical mass essential to bringing about a government of the corporation, by the corporation, and for the corporation. Small price to pay, this necessary evil means to moral righteousness.

I’m hardly alone in watching this all come down on us, obviously. The books pour off the presses these days. I’ve just worked my way through a bunch of books by Catholics trying desperately to get back the church of John XXIII – Garry Wills’ Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit; Why I am a Catholic; What Jesus Meant, Michael Walsh’s book on Opus Dei, David Gibson’s The Coming Catholic Church, Peter De Rosa’s Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy, Jason Berry and Gerald Renner’s Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, Eamon Duffy’s very impressive history of the papacy, Saints and Sinners, and Hans K√ľng’s The Catholic Church: A Short History. I make no attempt to be representative; these are merely books that have crossed my path.

Among analogues on the Protestant side, besides the Meyers book I just mentioned and those by John Shelby Spong (The Sins of Scripture; A New Christianity for a New World; Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism), there are Charles Kimball’s When Religion Becomes Evil, Bruce Bawer’s Stealing Jesus, and without saying anything directly about the current culture wars, absolutely anything by William Sloan Coffin, who just died this last April, but especially, Letters to a Young Doubter. Also Jon Meacham’s American Gospel, a book far less harsh and more neutral on the topic of religion in America, yet clearly not comfortable with the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells, who have the ear of the current administration.

Non-Christians take a much harsher look at religion as America’s poison. I’m thinking of Esther Kaplan’s With God on their Side, Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy, and Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. Less hostile, but equally clear on the dangers of weakening the separation of church and state are Rabbi James Rubin’s The Baptizing of America and Noah Feldman’s Divided by God.

When I was working with the U.N. in Saudi Arabia, a group of students asked me once whether I was protestant or catholic. “Neither,” I answered. “YOU’RE A JEW???” they shouted, ignorant of the fact that if I were I wouldn’t have been allowed to live and work in their country. “How can you have no religion?” they asked. “How do you keep yourself from killing someone?”

Somewhere between the Japanese (and modern European) “Only screwballs believe in religion” and the Saudi “without religion we’d all kill each other” lies the American belief that religion is a fact of life and inescapable political reality. If those of us on the left want to side with the Europeans (and Japanese and others) in dismissing religion, we have no way of joining forces with the Christians and Jews who want toxic religion purged from the body politic as much as we do.

I’ve been struggling for so long to find ways to reach across the chasm to the fundamentalist right so I don’t lose the thin thread of connection to a couple of family members. It’s taken me a long time to let go. All this time I’ve blamed religion when it turns out it’s closed religion that I can’t talk to. Open religion is not the problem. And if you take closed/open as the operant word, it’s not even religion that’s the problem. It’s closed-mindedness. And if you can open your mind around that, as I’m trying to, you can stop saying religion is the problem. Your categories shift from religion bad and secular good to closed and hopeless (including religion toxic) and open and friendly, even helpful (including religion non-toxic).

Which brings me to the question of preaching to the choir. The secular left can do a whole lot more to help bring religion into the political mix, if we can learn to spot non-toxic religion and join their choirs. That way they’ve got folks to preach to that are not automatic yeah-sayers, and we’ve got people to keep us honest in our convictions by bringing in some alternate perspectives.

So enough of beating the Pat Robertson dead horse, I say (preaching to myself more than most of you, who have not taken much time to think of him at all, I’m guessing) and let’s go to church. If that's going too far, I know a local Congregational Church where you can at least go to interesting lectures.

Whether we read books like Phillips’ American Theocracy or Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming in order to whip our anger white hot over what’s wrong with America, or whether we read to find sympathetic allies like Meyers, I think it’s time to relax the resistance to the religious folk among us. And listen to the morality that stems from the kinds of folk who listen for the voice of God instead of claiming to speak in it.

But what I was after when I sat down just now was to give you a sense of this guy Meyers.

Here’s the speech he gave at Oklahoma State which made such a splash on the internet that they called him from New York and convinced him to expand it into a book.


A Minister Fights Back on Moral Values

Dr. Robin Meyers' Speech during the 11/04 Peace Rally at OK University

As some of you know, I am minister of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, an Open and Affirming, Peace and Justice church in northwest Oklahoma City, and professor of Rhetoric at Oklahoma City University. But you would most likely have encountered me on the pages of the Oklahoma Gazette, where I have been a columnist for six years, and hold the record for the most number of angry letters to the editor.

Tonight, I join ranks of those who are angry, because I have watched as the faith I love has been taken over by fundamentalists who claim to speak for Jesus, but whose actions are anything but Christian. We've heard a lot lately about so-called "moral values" as having swung the election to President Bush. Well, I'm a great believer in moral values, but we need to have a discussion, all over this country, about exactly what constitutes a moral Value—I mean what are we talking about? Because we don't get to make them up as we go along, especially not if we are people of faith. We have an inherited tradition of what is right and wrong, and moral is as moral does. Let me give you just a few of the reasons why I take issue with those in power who claim moral values are on their side:

When you start a war on false pretenses, and then act as if your deceptions are justified because you are doing God's will, and that your critics are either unpatriotic or lacking in faith, there are some of us who have given our lives to teaching and preaching the faith who believe that this is not only not moral, but immoral.

When you live in a country that has established international rules for waging a just war, build the United Nations on your own soil to enforce them, and then arrogantly break the very rules you set down for the rest of the world, you are doing something immoral.

When you claim that Jesus is the Lord of your life, and yet fail to acknowledge that your policies ignore his essential teaching, or turn them on their head (you know, Sermon on the Mount stuff like that we must never return violence for violence and that those who live by the sword will die by the sword), you are doing something immoral.

When you act as if the lives of Iraqi civilians are not as important as the lives of American soldiers, and refuse to even count them, you are doing something immoral.

When you find a way to avoid combat in Vietnam, and then question the patriotism of someone who volunteered to fight, and came home a hero, you are doing something immoral.

When you ignore the fundamental teachings of the gospel, which says that the way the strong treat the weak is the ultimate ethical test, by giving tax breaks to the wealthiest among us so the strong will get stronger and the weak will get weaker, you are doing something immoral.

When you wink at the torture of prisoners, and deprive so-called "enemy combatants" of the rules of the Geneva Convention, which your own country helped to establish and insists that other countries follow, you are doing something immoral.

When you claim that the world can be divided up into the good guys and the evil doers, slice up your own nation into those who are with you, or with the terrorists—and then launch a war which enriches your own friends and seizes control of the oil to which we are addicted, instead of helping us to kick the habit, you are doing something immoral.

When you fail to veto a single spending bill, but ask us to pay for a war with no exit strategy and no end in sight, creating an enormous deficit that hangs like a great millstone around the necks of our children, you are doing something immoral.

When you cause most of the rest of the world to hate a country that was once the most loved country in the world, and act like it doesn't matter what others think of us, only what God thinks of you, you have done something immoral.

When you use hatred of homosexuals as a wedge issue to turn out record numbers of evangelical voters, and use the Constitution as a tool of discrimination, you are doing something immoral.

When you favor the death penalty, and yet claim to be a follower of Jesus, who said an eye for an eye was the old way, not the way of the kingdom, you are doing something immoral.

When you dismantle countless environmental laws designed to protect the earth which is God's gift to us all, so that the corporations that bought you and paid for your favors will make higher profits while our children breathe dirty air and live in a toxic world, you have done something immoral. The earth belongs to the Lord, not Halliburton.

When you claim that our God is bigger than their God, and that our killing is righteous, while theirs is evil, we have begun to resemble the enemy we claim to be fighting, and that is immoral. We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.

When you tell people that you intend to run and govern as a "compassionate conservative," using the word which is the essence of all religious faith-compassion, and then show no compassion for anyone who disagrees with you, and no patience with those who cry to you for help, you are doing something immoral.

When you talk about Jesus constantly, who was a healer of the sick, but do nothing to make sure that anyone who is sick can go to see a doctor, even if she doesn't have a penny in her pocket, you are doing something immoral.

When you put judges on the bench who are racist, and will set women back a hundred years, and when you surround yourself with preachers who say gays ought to be killed, you are doing something immoral.

I'm tired of people thinking that because I'm a Christian, I must be a supporter of President Bush, or that because I favor civil rights and gay rights I must not be a person of faith. I'm tired of people saying that I can't support the troops but oppose the war.

I heard that when I was your age—when the Vietnam war was raging. We knew that that war was wrong, and you know that this war is wrong—the only question is how many people are going to die before these make-believe Christians are removed from power?

This country is bankrupt. The war is morally bankrupt. The claim of this administration to be Christian is bankrupt. And the only people who can turn things around are people like you—young people who are just beginning to wake up to what is happening to them. It's your country to take back. It's your faith to take back. It's your future to take back.

Don't be afraid to speak out. Don't back down when your friends begin to tell you that the cause is righteous and that the flag should be wrapped around the cross, while the rest of us keep our mouths shut. Real Christians take chances for peace. So do real Jews, and real Muslims, and real Hindus, and real Buddhists--so do all the faith traditions of the world at their heart believe one thing: life is precious.

Every human being is precious. Arrogance is the opposite of faith. Greed is the opposite of charity. And believing that one has never made a mistake is the mark of a deluded man, not a man of faith.

And war—war is the greatest failure of the human race—and thus the greatest failure of faith. There's an old rock and roll song, whose lyrics say it all: War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

And what is the dream of the prophets? That we should study war no more, that we should beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Who would Jesus bomb, indeed? How many wars does it take to know that too many people have died? What if they gave a war and nobody came? Maybe one day we will find out.


July 9, 2006

Friday, July 7, 2006

Boulder in the Road

A big defeat today in the fight for recognition in America of same-sex marriages. The New York Court of Appeals ruled 4 to 2 that the New York State Legislature had a “rational, nondiscriminatory basis” for limiting marriage to a man and a woman. That reason is that marriages are for the benefit of children.

Nobody is trying to take the marriage benefit from children, for the love of God! People who want to marry in order to have children should be encouraged to do so, as they are now. But pretending marriage has no meaning without children is the height of absurdity in America today. Almost half of the households in America are made up of people who are not married -- 51.52%, to be precise, in 2000, a drop from 55.22% ten years earlier. Of the one and a half million married couples, 24% have children and 27% do not!

Do we prohibit marriage for men and women over 50? Prevent convicted child molesters from marrying? Remove kids from single parents? Do we prohibit divorce?

And if this gap in logic of those pushing to keep gays out of the institution doesn't push you over into the absurd, consider the number of gay people who have or want to have children! These folk with their fingers on a line of scripture and their heads in the sand couldn't reveal a better example if they tried of a legislature out of touch with the people they govern.

OK. Still not had enough absurdity? How about this? Consider the reasoning of the New York Court. It’s OK to discriminate (because “it’s not discrimination”) against gays because they don’t need marriage to bring up children in.

Were these guys in the same room with the gay couples with children making the appeal?

From a certain distance, of course, things are proceeding as expected in a democracy. Courts in one region of the country (New York) are saying it ought to be up to the Legislature while courts in another region (California) challenge a legislative move to ban same-sex marriage, and the issue works its way like a muddy river to the sea. Seen from afar, this is the way we are supposed to work out our democratic rights and responsibilities.

You don’t have to be smart, or kind, to have a say in a democracy. You don’t have to read the papers or know your neighbors. You don’t have to do a damn thing before voting except put one foot in front of the other and learn how to poke holes with a sharp object. Because we know no way to get around our inability to separate the smart voter from the dumb one, we give them all the same voice and approach democracy with faith.

Unfortunately, there is no protection against ourselves. Despite what the New York court says about this, the parallels to racism, anti-semitism and sexism are plain as day. Dear Abby this morning has a letter from a girl asking what to do about her grandmother who is insulted because she is marrying a black man. She comes from a different generation, Abby answers. Get on with your life and ignore her.

If you have this kind of historical perspective and take “racism is not eliminated overnight but requires patience” as an answer, you can apply this to homophobia too. But don’t forget it’s easier for white people to urge patience with racism than for black people, because they aren’t doing the hard part of the waiting. And it’s a lot easier if you’re not gay, I should imagine, to think all this homophobia will come out in the wash eventually. Which it will.

But damn, it’s tough being patient about this. Tough to watch ignorant people – and make no mistake – homophobia is an ignorant response to fear of difference and poll after poll, research study after research study shows anti-gay feelings diminish and even disappear as familiarity with gay people increases. Just as they do when whites get to know blacks in numbers and observe that parallels in intelligence and kindness (and parallels in the lack thereof) exposes racism as a tragically ugly foolishness.

Anti-gay folk think there’s something wrong with gay people, some reason why their lives and loves should be a question of tolerance, not support, and in this religion-sodden democracy of ours, these people still call the shots much of the time.

When you can’t have support you plead for tolerance. Tolerance is the port in the storm for the underdog. Tolerance sucks. It’s easier, if you’re not emotionally involved, to make the observation that this is a decision working its way through the democratic process. From within the gay community, though, you tend to get one long agonizing question, “Why don’t they get it???”

But there you have it. You don’t have to be informed to have a view of how the world should be run. It’s because people can so easily vote their own interests at a cost to others that we have a republican government and not rule by the majority. We assume our institutions can protect us from our baser instincts.

When those institutions fail, as the New York Court of Appeals did today, you realize you’ve got to pace yourself for the longer distance run. There will be boulders in the road for some time yet.

But we'll get there.

July 7, 2006

statistics cited from:

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Memo to Alfonso Lopez Trujillo

Alfonso Lopez Trujillo
Cardinal Bishop of Suburbicarian See of Friscati
Pontificium Consilium pro Familia
00153 Roma, Piazza S. Calisto, 16

Alfonso, honey, I want you to listen up. I just learned you’re back up on the excommunication bandwagon. Take them far far away from JESUS, you say, those sneaky bastards seeking a solution to Alzheimers and Parkinsons and God knows what kinds of intractible diseases, through stem-cell research. Send them to HELL!

Oh, come on, Al, you know nobody takes you boys seriously anymore. Can you say Re-for-ma-tion? Nobody really still believes you when you make yourself out to be God’s social secretary.

Look. I know it drives you to sing in tones heard only by dogs and some teenagers that gays are marrying in Spain, and adopting children and keeping families together all over the world you’d rather leave in orphanages or separated in different foster homes, you proud defender of The Family. I know you don’t like it that people are looking at things under microscopes best kept in the bedroom with the lights out. But excommunication!? The same penalty we assign to people who wear white after Labor Day?

Nancy Reagan and I agree on precious little, but we both have this yearning for an end to the misery her old man went through before his reward. I’ll wager Nancy’s relationship to God is not challenged by the fact she views things differently from you.

So get a life, your Eminence. And cut this crap about excommunicating people for having a different way to Heaven from your own. You may believe that every little sperm is sacred, but it ain’t necessarily so.

If you care so damn much about life, quit trying to take it away from people working in sincerity to make a better world. Koreans, for example.

Really, Alfie, you’re embarrassing yourself.


P.S. And that suggestion of yours that condom packages should carry warnings that they don’t work very well and the AIDS virus is teeny weeny and slips right through? Man, somebody needs to spank you.