Thursday, November 15, 2007

Albert Memmi: The Immobile Nomad - A Review

How often do you go see documentaries about living persons, and then sit and listen to an hour of talking heads and come out charged? Noam Chomsky did that for me. Susan Sontag. The Dalai Lama. This time it was Albert Memmi.

Albert Memmi?

French intellectual. Tunisian writer. Jew, all in one.

I knew his name. Had it up there in the brain in a little box with Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire (Fanon’s mentor), people who gave a passionate voice to the experience of colonization. But since I have spent my adult life in a postcolonial age, and came to believe early on that as an American the colonial experience was purely historical and not immediately relevant (except when you read British and French history), there is a huge gap in my knowledge of this body of literature.

Now I want to know this man. I just placed an order with Amazon for Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, for his first novel, Pillar of Salt, and his essay entitled Portrait of a Jew. Let me tell you why I find him so interesting.

I started life with a German-Scottish identity mix, lived out years as a New Englander in California, had an early American-in-Germany consciousness and followed it up with an American-in-Japan consciousness. Only now, in my 60s, am I seeing with my experience in Argentina that I have at long last succeeded in being comfortable as an outsider. I’m just passing through here. I don’t have to become Argentine to enjoy the place.

Most of my life I didn’t know that you didn’t have to blend with your environment. Didn’t have to become what everybody else was. I was taught there was something rude about being different, and even when I couldn’t help it – being gay in a straight world, for example – I chafed at the challenge. Identity dilemmas have been with me since I can remember.

Imagine you are a Tunisian living as a Jew among Muslims. You discover France and find it appealing because it enables you to escape the provincial outpost from which you came. You then discover that Tunisia has a hold over you that won’t let go. You join with your buddies in a protest against empty Jewish ritual and eat ham sandwiches outside the synagogue on shabbas. You then discover how deep your Jewish roots go.

Some people take this kind of thing as nothing more than the lay of the land. Others are torn apart psychologically. And still others, like Memmi, make a lifetime of explaining their way through it and out.

I remember once sitting at a table with a large family of Vietnamese in San José, California. I got into a conversation with a five-year-old about a “choo-choo train.” The adults didn’t understand what the kid was talking about. When I explained, there was an instant spontaneous smile on some twenty faces. They saw in this five-year-old the better future he would bring to them all.

Contrast that with a study done by John Ogbu in the inner city of Chicago. He wanted to learn why poor black kids were doing so poorly in school. As he went into the homes he found example after example of single mothers who would say things like, “I don’t like that white school. My kid thinks his teacher is prettier than I am.” Or “they’re teaching him to be white.”

Two different approaches to crossing cultures, one in which the original culture does not experience the other culture as the oppressor culture, and one in which it does. Americans discovered the limitations of assimilation some years ago when cultural distance became reconceived as political distance, “cultural other” (white) became “oppressor other,” and assimilation became redefined as cultural death.

Italians take two or three generations to become American, (or Canadian or Australian). Dutch or Swedes do it in one. Chinese historically have taken five or six. With Hispanics the situation is complex because of diversity of class and race. Blacks – well blacks have forced those who speak of assimilation to start from scratch.

The American immigrant experience gains perspective when located in a larger context. There are Japanese kids who grow up abroad who sometimes run into cultural nationalists when they get back to Japan who believe their foreign experience has polluted them. Kurds live an experience where state is one thing, but nation is another. Swedes in Finland, Armenians in Turkey, Russians in Latvia – there is no shortage of tales of ethnic struggle on both sides of the power lines.

And then there is always the special case of the Jews.

I am an American leftie. That means when Alistair Pennycook writes of English and the Discourses of Colonialism, I jump on the bandwagon and show my credentials as a liberal by talking the anti-orientalism talk – (orientalism is Edward Saïd’s theory that, in a nutshell, Westerners have created the concept of the “oriental” in order to have an “other” to feel superior to.) I dismiss theories like Robert Kaplan’s, big in the 60s, which suggest “those Chinese (Japanese, whatever)… they don’t think rationally, they plagiarize because they can’t understand (or value) originality, they sit silent in classrooms because they lack the ability to do anything but copy others and are waiting for instruction, etc. etc.) I’m in there with the current wisdom in the field of Applied Linguistics, in other words, that this is all cultural imperalist baggage that has to be tossed out. Politically correct as hell, I am.

The problem with political correctness (or ideological blindness, to give it a name that doesn’t make you sound like a neocon) is the absence of nuance. Polarization in American politics has made it hard as hell for lefties to go along with anything the Republicans come up with, so urgent is the need to disassociate from the Bush war and government by corporate power. If you are white, and you hear Bill Cosby tell blacks their biggest enemy is themselves and their ongoing desire to portray themselves as victims, you sit silent, hoping nobody sees you nod your head in assent.

Imagine what it feels like, then, to sit in a theater and hear a man with sterling leftist credentials tell you that after fifty years it’s time for the colonized to stop blaming the colonizers for the mess they are in. Get your act together, Arabo-Muslims, he says. Get up off your asses.

The documentary was made to stress Memmi’s independence of mind. My lockstep liberalism, my academic training as a sceptical analyst of discourse makes me say, “Whoa! This guy must be a conservative. A sellout.”

When you realize it is a Jew talking the thought crosses your mind that we are possibly working here with a man with survivalist blinders that make him think the only salient consideration is “What is good for the Jews?”

But is this indeed a ‘Jewish’ perspective? This begs the question of who it is making the documentary and why they are insistent that Albert Memmi is a man who has “transcended” religion, ethnicity and ideology.

This is where it gets interesting.

What speaks to me directly and personally is Memmi’s claim that culture is destructive. Or, more accurately (to stick with Memmi’s ideas and not project mine prematurely), that one needs to understand that culture, like religion or ethnic identity, despite its grounding force, can be (often is) dangerous to free thought.

Memmi found a home in France and in the French language. They gave him passage from the local to what he perceives as the universal. He found not only a personal freedom of movement and intellectual challenge in France he could not have found in Tunisia, but an opportunity to be Jewish and Tunisian in a way he could not be in a Jewish ghetto in Tunisia, ironic as that sounds.

I remember a conversation with a Haitian friend some years ago. He was struggling mightily with the sense that he had betrayed his home because he hated the idea of living there after living in Paris. He was a philosopher and Port-au-Prince was a prison. I suggested to him that maybe he could be a better Haitian in Paris than he could be in Haiti and he burst into tears. I had got it right.

I believe that is what Memmi is getting at. I have, remember, only just run across him. There is a place where the universal is possible and the universal, rather than standing in contrast to the particular, can actually enhance the particular. Memmi became a strong exponent of francophonie, the political-cultural union of French-speaking people, as the mechanism for meeting this universal goal of liberation from the constraints of culture. Somewhere in the documentary an Arab (I didn't catch his name) is credited with saying something like, “The French came and took us over. But we won our independence. And we escaped with booty. That booty was the French language.”

In Japan I spent many hours arguing with people (ironically, most of them Japanese teachers of French) who dismissed me as a purveyor of English cultural imperialism. My cynicism told me they were squawking about limited resources. I could never prove their true motivations. For every university position that goes to a teacher of English, one fewer goes to a teacher of French (or some other foreign language). They couldn’t make such a self-interest claim without sounding petty, of course, so they phrased it in terms of “linguistic imperialism.”

In one faculty meeting the head of the German language department suggested we split English into two departments, one to be taught by native speakers of English who would teach “the language and culture of the English-speaking peoples” and one to be taught by Japanese, who could relate to the learning experience of the Japanese student learners of English.

I protested that the field of applied linguistics taught native and non-native speakers of English alike how to teach the English language, and such an arbitrary division served no good purpose. It could only lead to the conclusion the two groups had little to say to each other. “Of course you feel that way,” he said to me, “you are a native speaker!” (Translation: You are a cultural imperialist!)

The discussion had to be halted. It was clear we were talking on one level but understanding each other on another and hostility was not much below the surface. I was faced with somebody who lived by the conviction that English was the language of imperialism. I never got to say how much of my life had been spent with non-native speakers of English who used the language to articulate anti-American thoughts, to express Muslim faith, Chinese philosophy, Greek resentment of Turks and Turkish resentment of Greeks. That English was a liberating force, not an imperial force. Those who confuse language with those who use language make a serious category error, and the destruction to the potential for liberation is a tragic squandering of resources.

Such discussions of language and culture and imperialism should have taken place in my workplace. The lines of power never permitted it, alas, so it only got touched upon in occasional brief moments, and never to my satisfaction. I wish I had been in possession of Memmi’s arguments of francophonie – that he, as a Tunisian, as a Jew, as a colonized man, had the gift of the French language with which to fight prejudice and the French analogue of orientalism and the reduction of third world peoples into row upon row of “others.”

But we are not done with the question of whether Memmi has succeeded in what he set out to do – escape the limitations of culture (religion, ethnicity, ideology). What if, as some (call them vulgar postmodernists) argue, Memmi is the classical product of a French enlightenment tradition and a French education. That is, what if he is simply putting on, in his claim to have found a universal good, the arrogance that comes with all universalist claims. Christians claim their religion is universal – and everybody needs to accept it. Ditto the Muslims. Ditto the Communists.

The French Enlightenment claim to universality, say its postmodernist critics, is just another of these phony tricks by adults playing king-of-the-mountain. My way is the universal way; you guys are stuck in a primitive yesteryear.

To advocates of enlightenment values, of course, this is a mistaken notion, since the difference is not between equal systems but between an attitude of openness to possibility on the one hand and closed systems of blind adherence to arbitrary authority, such as scripture, on the other. An open system is eternally self-correcting. Like the definition of truth in science (the sum total of all knowledge so far), enlightenment truth can be – is – modified constantly. Particularist systems depending on “eternal authority” are like the oak tree. They suggest permanence and strength, but in a tempest they crack faster than the more flexible willow.

I had an argument with a rabbi once who took issue with my claim that his orthodox religion was just another of many absolutist ideologies. What I was failing to understand, he told me, was that Jewish orthodoxy, by its very nature a program of endless reinterpretation, was in fact an open system. Who won that argument is not the point here; my point is that the (vulgar version of ) postmodernist thought suggests we are all limited by our positions, all blind men feeling the elephant and making unfounded claims to universal knowledge.

To make this assumption (and the reason I take issue with it) is to accept that one is doomed to work with blinders. Memmi is a Jew. When he tells Muslims that they need to get their act together, it’s the Jew in him speaking. Nonsense, I say. It’s the universalist in him speaking, the advocate of openness critiquing a false consciousness, a false ideology. Nonsense, say the postmodernists. I am simply taking sides with Memmi because I have bought into the same ideology (what is enlightenment but an ideology, they claim). There is no escape from the vicious circle.

Now what of the claim by so-called liberal progressives that any hesitancy in blaming the traditional power structures of Europe for the misery of the third world (today, as well as fifty years ago) is tantamount to toying with fascism. What of Jews, both in France and in the United States, who have expressed fears of Iran which often come out as a wish the U.S. had taken them out, rather than Saddam Hussein. They – Lieberman is only one of many – are quicker to see the Iraq war as a good idea badly managed. Memmi, despite his embrace of his Tunisian home and his Arabic language home, has not hesitated to criticize the Arab world for religious excess. Is this the Jew Memmi? The French Memmi? Or the independent Memmi? Are there no progressive Tunisian Arabs?

What is implied in Memmi’s philosophy is that the universalism he learned in France has made it easier for us to recognize that there is no reason to take any particular Jewish position too seriously, even if one exists, and even if it stems from a rationally arrived at survivalist mentality. We need to note, of course, that positions are arrived at that suit the majority of survivalist Jews by no small number of non-Jews as well. There are reasons outside of group survival for advocating positions. Memmi’s views do not necessarily need to strike fear among Jews, in other words, when he takes a position above and beyond any allegedly Jewish position.

It is reasonable to question the common practice of slapping a cultural category adjective (like Jewish) onto an ideological position. Memmi’s gift (or so say his fans) is the ability to turn on the categories when perhaps least expected. Memmi’s point is that the categories themselves are woefully inadequate and that they should serve us, and not the other way around.

Still, there is an irony in a Jew taking this allegedly independent position of defense against the charge of Jewish groupthink. I had been moved a few days before (See my November 9 review of Out of Faith on this website) by the story of a Slovakian survivor of Auschwitz who understood that the annhiliation of the Jews that Hitler started was being finished in places like the United States and France, where Jews were marrying out of the “faith” at a rate of 50%. For the first time I understood emotionally what I had only understood intellectually (and rejected totally) before – that Jews must go all out to assure their children marry in if they are to continue as a people.

Then along comes Albert Memmi who celebrates the fact that his children have married out. “These children of mixed identities,” he says, “are the hope of the future.”

Yes, that’s what he would he say as a Franco-Arab-Jew whose encounter with the ‘universalism’ of the first of these three identities has led him to argue embrace of all three should not allow any of the three to prevent independence of mind?

The words civilization and culture have an interesting history. Today they stand side by side, but they used to represent differing world views. Civilization is associated with the French, the statist folk who believe themselves to have inherited the Roman Empire with its universalizing impulses. Culture was the German Romantic analogue, a notion stemming from Herder and others who argued that each Volk has its own genius, and expressed that genius in its distinctive language. Surrender the language (and the cultural space in which it lives) and you surrender the culture with all its attending virtue and contribution to humankind.

The Germans saw the French as arrogant and decadent and themselves as living treasures. (Herder saw other language groups as parallel living treasures; Hitler took the notion into a hierarchy never intended by Herder.) The French, in contrast, saw the Germans as tribal and primitive people held in thrall to premodern religion, and themselves as the avant-garde of universalist philosophy. The words and the people who engendered them have evolved considerably since those days, but the division between the goals of universalists and particularists has not gone away.

Where does Memmi fit in? Is he just another francophonie advocating Frenchman? An advocate of the notion that civilization should be defined in contrast to barbarism, rather than an advocate of the notion that all cultures have their own justification for being and their own inherent values? Or is he truly one of a small number of thinkers who have moved beyond the no-longer productive dichotomy?

And is he right that mixed race, mixed religion, mixed ethnicity children are the hope of the future? I want to think so. What more exciting solution to the problem of endless prejudice and tribalism can there be but for us all to marry each other, love each other and have each other’s children together?

Should the 50% of Jews who marry out be faulted for their disloyalty to culture or praised for their participation in a universalizing civilization? Can one be a Frenchman and a Jew or is the “universalizing” principle and the “survivalist” principle in complete and perfect opposition?

I suppose anyone who knows Memmi well will find my questions foolish and premature. Read him! Then we’ll talk!

Fair enough. I will be reading Portrait of a Jew with great interest. And his novel, Pillar of Salt, on the dilemma of Tunisian identity. And his work on the colonial experience.

Now where do I find the name of the people who organized the Jewish film festival in Buenos Aires? Must tell them how impressed I am to have seen first Out of Faith and then Albert Memmi only a couple days apart.

That’s what I call a thinking person’s film festival!

ALBERT MEMMI, El Nómada Inmóvil

(Albert Memmi, Le Nomade Inmobile)
Francia, 2005
Dirigida por Soraya Elyes Ferchichi
Duración: 45 min.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Out of Faith - a Review

Out of Faith is a documentary, produced by L. Mark DeAngelis and directed by Lisa Leeman ( It is about the lives of Leah and Eliezer Welbel, two Auschwitz/Birkenau survivors who find their way to each other after the war. After a failed attempt to make a life in Israel, where their children are born, Leah and Eliezer end up in Skokie, Illinois. Once in America, they become, to their great sorrow, part of the statistics that reveal 50% of Jewish families have children who marry outside the faith and 30% of the next generation stop defining themselves as Jews. The filmmakers started out telling the story of a concentration camp survivor but soon realized they had to tell the compelling outmarriage story as well. The film has been around for a while and is making the rounds at Jewish film festivals: .

If there is a better subject for a case study of the dilemma of outmarriage, I can’t imagine where you would find it. Eliezer is a man so tortured by his memories that as he ages his nightmares, awake and sleeping, suggest he is approaching insanity. Leah is a woman driven by the conviction she was spared for a purpose. She was in Birkenau when Mengele came to close down the camp in November 1944. For reasons of efficiency, he determined it was best to kill most of the inhabitants. He lined everybody up to decide, quite arbitrarily, who had the strength to be useful, and stopped the woman in front of Leah. While he was engaged with her, Leah sneaked ahead in the line and escaped the examination. She then learned the woman behind her was shot on the spot as well. Even tougher on Leah's memory was the death of a cousin by a beating which took place in front of her eyes. She returns to Birkenau decades later to beg forgiveness.

It's brutal stuff to watch. I’ve seen and heard countless narratives of concentration camp experiences, since 1960 when I first went to live in Munich, but I’ve never been brought so close emotionally to the experience before. I went because of the theme of outmarriage. I’m not sure I would have gone if I had known so much of the film would be on the concentration camp experience and the torment that nags for a lifetime. (How many people run down a list, see “Holocaust movie” and say “Let’s have a pizza and then go to see that?”)

Leah is a classic Jewish mother. Lives, and believes her entire family lives, for her latkes. Hounds her son for not calling her. Grabs her granddaughter and hugs her like a long-lost soul she thought was dead, each time she comes to visit. Fiercely matriarchal.

Survivor guilt, which elsewhere gets bandied about in terms academic and sociological is painstakingly portrayed as a central driving life force. They tried to kill us, Leah says. Did kill us, Leah says. Not me, Leah says. I’m here for a purpose and that purpose is to keep Judaism alive. It's not the religion – I don’t go to synagogue – it's the family, being Jewish is. And in my heart.

Leah illustrates, for those who have not reflected on this before, that the American practice of labelling Judaism a faith is a cognitive error. An error which is not corrected because it is useful to go on speaking of ourselves as having a tradition of "three faiths" (and we are now adding Islam as a fourth). It provides a national justification for extending the space we allow for religious identity to ethnicity (and never mind this is not a perfect match, either -- we need another word, something like "peoplehood"). But while academics and politicians struggle with categories, the efforts for a people to survive are played out in all their apparent contradictions, in the narratives of people like Leah and Eliezer.

One of their sons marries a Christian who converts to Judaism. The boys are raised as Jews. Jewish Family is preserved. But the son of one of these boys has relatives who are catholic and grows up with a tolerance of difference, and an affection for his cousins, that enables him to see catholics as "us" and not "them." This, we suppose, opens the path for him to marry a Christian who, unlike his mother, does not convert. Leah does not recognize the marriage. Cannot. The family agonizes. Understands, sympathizes and agonizes. Then another daughter marries out. She keeps the relationship with the Jewish granddaughter but never speaks to the non-Jewish daughter-in-law.

The story makes plain the reasons for Leah’s obsession. You cannot help, no matter where you position yourself in the spectrum of thought on outmarriage, but see the world through Leah's eyes. The filmmakers' have captured something on screen that would not readily persuade otherwise just in the telling.

At one point in the story, a rabbi comes to counsel Leah. He tells her this story (I have added names to make the telling easier):

Moshe and his wife Sarah are having a marital problem. They seek advice, one at a time, of their rabbi. “I see your point,” says the rabbi to Sarah. “You’re right.” Then he meets with the husband. “I see your point, Moshe” he says, “And you’re right.” David is listening to the rabbi tell the story. “But rabbi,” David says, “They can’t both be right!” “You’re right!” says the rabbi.

Keep an open mind and an open heart, the rabbi tells her. It’s not like back in the old country where you didn’t know non-Jews and if by some awful chance somebody married out, you sat shivah and never spoke of him again. Here, where the attractions of outmarriage are strong, you have to work harder to keep the family together. Keep your arms open. Keep your house open.

It doesn’t work. Leah is a realist. She understands the statistics (whether or not she knows the statistics). The 50/30 numbers mean that, if the pattern continues, there will fewer than a million American Jews by 2075.

The gruesome nature of the concentration camp details – and the even more gruesome look at its aftermath in the souls of its victims decades later is not gratuitous. It forces respect for Leah’s obstinacy. There is considerable discussion of the phenomenon that for many years after the war the topic of the Holocaust was taboo. Leah wore a bandaid over her tattoo. Now she and her husband are committed to a life of telling the story, working against the tide they know will come when there are no longer eye-witnesses to call the lie to the Holocaust deniers. All of this gives weight (and no small amount of pathos) to the otherwise seemingly irrational argument that Jews must subordinate individual desire and happiness for Jewish community survival. It provides the framework to counter the enlightenment value which stresses the rights of all individuals over the tyranny of groupthink. To this individualism, it provides a parallel universe. If Jews choose voluntarily to marry "in," the enlightenment value kicks in and the individual is supported in his or her choices. But, just as it has become fashionable of late to raise the question of the universal value of democracy, here’s another question – to what degree should one support the right of a community to survive at the cost of individual choice? How far can one go with social pressure?

The film will not likely find much of an audience outside of Jewish film festivals. It ought to have one. The battle over the survival of a world community of Jews is a question non-Jews may have a right to ignore – or dismiss as a distraction in the quest for universal human rights. Serious exploration of the possibility of a “parallel universe” should not be. Societies have formed to avoid “language death.” Instinctively we understand the tragedy in the story of Ishii – the “last of his tribe.” We know what it can mean when species die out and we celebrate the fact the whooping crane has returned from the brink at 19 creatures and is now up to 300 and rising. Should we not deal with respect with the alarms being called by the Leahs of the world?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Caucasian Terrorists Step This Way Please

Japan has decided it will henceforth stop all non-Japanese people except for Koreans born in Japan (who are not Japanese citizens by birth, remember) each time they enter the country. And fingerprint them. (See link below.)

It is not news that Japanese bureaucrats frequently act for the sake of appearances, rather than on a carefully reasoned basis. This bit of nonsense is small potatoes in comparison with some of the things governments do to their people. It amounts to inconvenience for travellers, and not much more.

Still, it gets under the skin of longterm residents of Japan, because they are singled out on the basis of their race, rather than because they provide evidence they are a threat to Japanese national security. No doubt the robotic Japanese bureaucracy is trying to impress the Bush Administration by copying their anti-terrorism tactics. Evidently they have not figured out the Bush people have other motives for generating fear; in the U.S., it's not about catching bad guys so much as it is making sure Americans feel the need for aggressive leadership, as opposed to what the wussy democrats have to offer.

Fingerprinting everybody has a purpose for criminal detection. It will not stop a terrorist attack, but it may speed up tracking someone down, if the terrorist is stupid enough not to wear gloves when committing a crime. Seen in that light, keeping millions of travellers getting off ten or twelve hour flights a couple extra hours at the airport, before they board their trains for a three hour ride home, makes sense.

But only if none of these terrorist acts are committed by Japanese. Or South Koreans. Or North Koreans. But by French people. Luxemburgers. Next Finn who comes in with evil intent, man we're on your ass!

Anyway, one lights a candle or one curses the darkness. Here’s my substitute for the day for “Goddam son of a bitchin’ stupid world!”



General Affairs Division, Immigration Bureau, Ministry of Justice
1-1-1 Kasumigaseki, Chiyoda-ku,
Tokyo, JAPAN

November 3, 2007
Dear Immigration Bureau Officers:

I am writing you to protest the implementation of new airport security laws on November 20, 2007, which will discriminate against residents of Japan while doing nothing to enhance security on any rational basis.

I am a permanent resident of Japan. I travel frequently in and out of the country, and your new airport security laws concern me directly and personally. I think you are making a terrible mistake, and here are my reasons:

1. Permanent and other long-term residents of Japan have been through a careful vetting in the visa application process – far more careful than can be done at even the most thorough of airport checks, and repeat this process at regular intervals. If I am not mistaken, every terrorist incident in Japan since 1945 has been caused by a Japanese citizen, not a foreigner. They are, in other words, as a class of people, safer than the Japanese people as a whole. You are targeting the wrong people. To apply new security measures against all foreigners, regardless of their similarity, in civic terms, to Japanese, shows you to be thinking in racist categories as opposed to effective ones.

2. If, nonetheless, you insist on creating a suspicious class of people on the basis of national origin, one would assume you would target people of North Korean heritage and provenance. Yet you specifically exclude these people. This suggests you are responding to political pressure rather than making a sincere effort to be effective.

3. You are following in the path of the United States in substituting the spread of fear, rather than implementing careful and effective policy, and stretching, possibly even breaking, your own laws to do so. I refer to the 2003 Personal Information Law, in effect since April 1, 2005.

To impose such conspicuously ineffective measures only makes you look like someone who would argue, “To keep the house safe from burglars, we cannot lock all the doors and windows. So let’s do what we can. Let’s lock the ones in the kitchen. And make the maid come in the front door.”

Government measures to enhance security must be effective. Please, I urge you, do more than simply look busy. Keep Japan safe!

Thank you for your attention.

Alan J. McCornick
Professor Emeritus
Keio University

Friday, November 2, 2007

Rendition: A bleedin' heart liberal review

A British court decided today to fine London’s police force over a million dollars for shooting a twenty-seven year old Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, 27 in a subway train, because they had erroneously identified him as a terrorist.

He wasn’t. They killed an innocent man and endangered countless others.

There are what can be called extenuating circumstances. If the police had itchy trigger fingers, it was because, only two weeks earlier, four suicide bombers killed themselves and fifty-two others on the subway. Tension was about as high as it could be.

Interesting to me is the fact that the court called the system the problem, rather than the individual cops. I think they got that right.

Now why can’t the United States get it right? I just saw Hollywood’s latest frontal attack on the Bush Administration – the film Rendition. Came home upset. No surprise there. Are there people who don’t get upset after watching lengthy scenes of torture?

I went to to see the range of takes on the movie, knowing that with something this controversial it would be impossible to untangle the political from the artistic. But I still found myself getting steamed over the number of critical reviews. Turns out lots of people thought it wasn’t hard at all to discuss the artistic and ignore the political. Or did that just mean they couldn’t see their own blinders?

Here’s the story: Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally, who played Ali in Munich) who immigrated at age 14 to the U.S. from Egypt, now lives in Chicago with his wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), young son and mother. He goes to a conference in South Africa, and on his way home is pulled off a plane in Washington and “disappeared.”

His name is removed from the plane’s manifest, and all efforts on the part of his wife to locate him are in vain. He is flown to Morocco, but no charges are ever made and all traces of him are wiped clean. Isabella turns to an old boyfriend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) now working for a Senator (Alan Arkin), who refuses to touch the case. Smith tracks responsibility for the disappearance to Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) but ultimately surrenders to demands by his superiors to drop his efforts to help locate the missing man he knows to be innocent.

The other major character is Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is pressed into service in Morocco as American liaison to the torturers, despite his lack of experience (“This is my first torture,” he explains to Whitman when she presses him for quicker results) when the guy who was supposed to do the job gets killed.

A subplot involving Al-Qaeda operatives serves to provide motivation for the tortures.

I found the performances compelling. In this I am out of step with the majority of rottentomatoes reviewers. I found the story believable, many did not. I experienced the story politically, in other words, and because I felt the rage I knew the film would tap into, I assumed the artistic values were there. Else how would it have this power over me?

Clearly I was out of step with most reviewers. One reviewer, Michael Sragow of the Baltimore Sun, charged director Gavin Hood with “grab(bing) hold of a super-charged subject and squeez(ing) all the life out of it.” There’s worse, and in some cases, I have to assume their views were not being dictated by their politics. “Allegedly topical” Stephanie Zacharek of calls it. Allegedly? Man, what a cut from a friendly face. “A bust as persuasive drama” says Peter Travers of Rolling Stone.

Pity, methinks. Unlike some of the harshest critics, I found Meryl Streep’s cold-hearted bitch up to her usual standards; not as much fun by any means as The Devil Wears Prada, of course, but nonetheless powerful in her icy resistance to appeals. I disagree totally that there was something wrong with Jake Gyllenhaal playing his emotions entirely in his eyes; and I think anyone who suggests Metwally’s agony was “dull” needs their head examined. Heart too.

But OK, so I can’t build a strong case that this was the best of artistic attempts to handle a hot topic. I have to remain satisfied it was good enough to recommend anyway, even if you share the view that the topic carried the day more than the production as a whole. I hate to take this line, having made the anti-message movie pitch so often. I know there is no way to satisfy a viewer who hates any and all message movies. But yes, Rendition, is more like a Michael Moore documentary than most political movies – Munich, for example, or the George Clooney repertoire – Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, or Michael Clayton.

So I'll cave on the art for now (and possibly come back to defend it another day). On to the politics. Rendition takes up the debate between those who argue the utilitarian ethical stance that the ends justify the means and those who argue that without practicing what we preach, the United States can only continue its nosedive from its once secure self-image as a morally superior Zion on a hill.

Whitman (the Meryl Streep character) is the voice of the neocons. Our methods, she informs, saved 7000 people in London. If we went a bit over the top in a couple cases to save 7000 people, are you going to tell me it wasn’t worth it? (One negative reviewer called all the lines soundbites. Watch this scene and decide for yourself.)

Freeman (Gyllenhaal) makes the case for the other side. Torture not only doesn’t work (never mind that in this case the man being tortured had no information to give); it is counterproductive because for every man tortured, thousands spring up to fight the system that imposes the torture.

What comes through the debate is an image of an America out of touch with its own humanity. A human approach would have involved getting to know the man turned over to the Moroccan torturers. Would have gone into the town and poked around among his family and friends. Would have formed a picture of his character. Instead, we have a bureaucrat making policy decisions on the basis of a theory – lifted out of the every day life of warm-blooded people – that rendition will work more effectively as an information gathering mechanism than a legal method would. And without taking the time to question the possibility that the evidence for his guilt (that phone calls were made from known terrorists to his cell phone) had an explanation other than their assumption of the worst. To say nothing of the possibility this kind of thing is just plain wrong.

As this film shows around the world, America’s friends will only shake their heads. America’s enemies (Latin Americans who laugh out loud when America talks about self-determination, for example) have no illusions. But here, with films like Rendition, the scales are falling from the eyes of America’s friends, including a whole lot of Americans. The film paints a picture of the world’s most powerful government at work. The people who make the world go round are cowardly, self-serving, arrogant and immoral.

Paul Tibbets died today. He was the pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. He got all the way to 92 without ever doubting publicly that we did the right thing in dropping that bomb.

In today’s Buenos Aires daily, Página 12, is a report by one of its journalists, Santiago O’Donnell, of an interview he had a few years ago with Tibbets. According to O’Donnell, Tibbets told him, “I don’t like minorities, because there are more and more of them and they come and take work away from the gentiles. They are people who don’t defend this country in war. We have lost our balance, and today the balance is in favor of the blacks, the Mexicans and the Ethiopes… (Our enemies fear us because…) they envy us… I am afraid they will come if we let down our defences. Khadafi could attack us, even the Swiss could attack us… Everybody wants to attack us because we have more natural resources than any other country besides South Africa, which has uranium…There will never be true peace. Only the peace of fear. For that reason we have to carry a big stick.”


The ravings of a lunatic, right?

Well, no. Except for the ridiculousness (Ethiopes?) and racism of the rant what you have is the mainline view of the neocons running the ship of state – you know, those guys the democrats have not been able to knock of their perch.

What are Americans to do who take exception to torture and fearmongering? Who are pushing for international law. Who have not given up on the idea of a United Nations? Look at the alternatives, for Christ’s sake. We are still in thrawl to the neocons. People who, after all the astonishing failures of policy, speak openly of the possibility of war with Iran.

Where do we go to make the appeal against torture? We did what you’re supposed to; we went to the polls and voted for democrats. So?

So Hollywood gets in the act and makes movies about the way the U.S. has taken to practices we once saw only in Stalin’s gulags and SS interrogation rooms. And movie reviewers call the movie “over the top” and “dull” and “pandering to the left,” as if it is just another movie to review before moving on to the next.

I can take refuge in the thought that perhaps keener critics than I have the movie right. Not the best cinematic take on the issue of torture. Perhaps it is merely a third-rate movie. And shame on me for imagining it was good only because it catered to my leftie slant on the world.

A better one will come out, maybe. With better actors than Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon and Alan Arkin and then we’ll get the message.

That’s it.

Let’s wait for a better treatment of this theme.

Let’s wait. What else is playing?

Pagina 12 article by Santiago O'Donnell:

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Clooney and Ibsen

Michael Clayton, with George Clooney. Great movie. Hollywood at its best. Great acting, great casting, great story. Happy Hollywood ending. Little guy against the system. You can watch it and think Kant and the vicissitudes of the Age of Enlightenment. Or you can watch it and think George Clooney is a cool guy. Something for everybody.

Then there is Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Bizarre play. Very old Europe. Anything but a Hollywood ending. Little guy against the system. You can watch it and ponder Kant and the limitations to the human capacity for morality, but you can never watch it and think the main character is cool. Definitely not for everybody.

Perhaps because I saw the two on consecutive nights, these differences seemed minor to me in light of the similarity. Both are morality plays – one American, set in 2007, one Norwegian, set in the 1860s. Both tell the same story of a man, one a bit of an egotist (Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann) and one (George Clooney’s character, Michael Clayton) a kind of a loser caught up in making ends meet and dealing with a gambling habit. Both ride their destiny when the gods lay a moral choice on them.

Michael Clayton is the greater hero (a comparison such as the one between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King) because he has the farthest to climb out of degradation. But both are the moral heros we understand the world cannot do without, if we are not to surrender entirely to despair and cynicism.

Ibsen, I understand, wrote An Enemy of the People in response to the bad reaction from the public he got to Ghosts, the play in which he takes on the subject of syphilis. The public wasn’t ready to have this tabu broken. Ibsen wasn’t ready to have the public turn on him, so he writes a story about a character who loses faith in the democratic masses and takes refuge in the thought that a moral minority of one is the only hope against man’s weakness.

In Michael Clayton we see modern-day America where money is king and it is no secret that anybody who is anybody is both rich and ruthless. There are still lines we won’t cross – murder – but when others cross them, we understand why and stand idly by. This is an America run by and for corporations aided by lawyers and supported by the American taxpayer, an America where the rich not only get away with murder, they get impatient with their lawyers who don’t help them get away with murder fast enough. A completely cynical view of the human race. Only the hero, at the end, and a small bunch of small people come out clean. The parallel with Ibsen’s play is almost perfect.

I have to take note of the vehicles in which these two stories came to me. I watched Michael Clayton in a comfortable theater in Buenos Aires, was annoyed at the habit people have in Buenos Aires of talking through movies in loud voices, played with the Spanish subtitles, and nonetheless remarked when I came out that I found the two hours had flown by. The story is tight, and despite the kind of convolutions you find in a Grisham novel and other tension-filled thrillers involving high technology, the writers have you in the palm of their hand the whole time. It’s the kind of entertainment people go to the movies for.

An Enemy of the People, or Un Enemigo del Pueblo, as I saw it at the Teatro San Martín (Argentina’s National Theater), was anything but easy theater. I had to work for it. I have seen enough Spanish-language theater now to realize if I don’t work at it, too much escapes me. So I got an early English translation and read it before going. Whether I would have found it as rewarding if it had come packaged as a modern-day movie, it is difficult to say. I suspect going in with lowered expectations from the limitations of the script meant I came out ahead in the end. Experiencing this possiblity of live theater added to my pleasure immeasurably.

The story, briefly, is this. Dr. Thomas Stockmann lives in a small town that is investing all its resources in building a spa. Trouble is, there is a tannery leaking pollutants into the water, and visitors to the spa will be at risk of serious illness, possibly death. He gets proof of this from the lab and decides to tell the story to the press. However, Thomas Stockmann’s brother, Peter, the mayor, persuades everyone that if they listen to Thomas, they will all lose their fortune. The mob goes with the mayor, and Thomas is reviled. The play ends with stones coming through his window and Thomas huddled with his family, insisting that he cannot deny the truth. Highpoint of the drama is Thomas’ speech to the mob in which he tells them he has lost faith that people are ever anything but ignorant mobs.

The English play version I got hold of was written in 1906 in a style that was hard to take. A British English upper class mentality takes the story from the comical to the absurd and, as a result, the characters lack any warmth, their actions feel ridiculous, and Thomas Stockmann has almost no appeal. The Spanish stage version was done in modern Buenos Aires vernacular. All of the characters, Thomas especially, come easily to life and in the end the audience was on its feet. It was hard to determine whether they were applauding the actors (most of the cheering went, naturally, to the very sympathetic Thomas Stockmann character), or the morality play speaking to a nation which has known so much political corruption, and seen such evidence of how willing people are to go along with power. One need not doubt why the play was selected in the first place. Nobody in the audience could miss the message.

The gap, in other words, between a script in black and white and a play brought to life on stage, couldn’t have been greater. You understand what Ibsen was after, and you can see both the craft of those who put the play on and the potential that was there (and which I missed in the reading) in the first place.

That I should have seen these two productions so close together was coincidence. Stockmann is an innocent and the enemy is the ignorant mob; Clayton is anything but innocent and the enemy is the greedy manipulative mob, but at heart, both are old fashioned morality plays of Everyman confronted with a moment of truth. Stockmann’s character is an abstracted moral hero; Clayton’s character is vastly more complex. There is much in the comparison that would provide evidence for anyone arguing modern-day cinema is a richer medium than 19th Century drama – but I’ll leave that for others to take on.

After all is said and done, each in its own way makes great theater, because the themes are classic ones. If you are ever faced with the protagonists’ moral dilemmas and you manage to do the right thing, you will know the satisfaction of having lived a great life. You also know, sitting in the cinema and in the theater, that chances are, if this happens to you, you might very well not be up for it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Garino Olaso Zabala

Fact 1: Augustinian Father Gabino Olaso Zabala was among 98 Augustinian priests and seminarians executed by Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939.

Fact 2: Some 43 years earlier, in 1896, Father Zabala participated in the torture of a Filipino priest named Father Mariano Dacanay. According to Dacanay, Zabala (and a handful of other Augustinians!) encouraged guards who were administering the torture. At one point Olaso himself kicked Dacanay in the head, hard enough to leave the suffering priest semi-conscious.

Fact 3: Filipinos see the 1896 rebellion against Spain in the context of a war of liberation from colonial powers. The Augustinians involved in Dacanay’s torture were working in the interests of the Spanish imperial forces sponsoring their work of spreading Roman Catholicism to the heathens of Asia.

Fact 4: Father Zabala was among 498 Spanish religious beatified in St. Peter’s Square in Rome last Sunday, October 28. Pope Benedict XVI, noted for staying aloof from such ceremonies, appeared on the balcony, to the delight of the Spanish catholics who had come to Rome for the occasion.

Why does a priest with a record of torture get to be beatified? Remember, the victim was another priest, and the church has never denied Dacanay’s testimony nor taken steps to remove him from his priestly office. It accepts the story as true, in other words, and seeks to move on. The beatification is appropriate, according to spokesmen for the church, because Zabala died a martyr to the faith.

Remember Hamlet? How he didn’t want to kill his uncle when he had a chance, because the uncle was praying and thus his soul would fly straight to heaven? You gotta love these catholics and their ways of thinking like God thinks. The idea that you can torture your enemies, but not only escape hell and bypass purgatory, but sit in the first balcony of Heaven, just because you had the fortune to be offed by one of the church’s enemies – well ain’t that a gas!

Not all Spaniards are in sympathy with their countrymen in St. Peter’s Square. Some are pissed as hell that the church is choosing to beatify only the victims of the Republican forces, and not the victims of the Franco regime, with whom they were in cahoots. Opus Dei, the most rightwing of sympathizers of fascist regimes within the church, and others such as the “integrista” forces in all the Latin countries, are having a heyday. More of “us” going up a notch in heaven.

How you frame this story depends on where you sit. If you look at the martyrdom, there is no doubt somebody offed these priests who had it in for the church. The priests and nuns did die for the faith, if you limit the discussion to a “did they or didn’t they” question.

But to tell this story and leave out the fact that the rage against the church, and their henchmen (or dupes – not all were of malicious intent) comes from very real experience with an oppressor power, is to insult the intelligence of progressive forces all over the Third World and beyond.

The parallels are there to the Bush invasion of Iraq and the astonishment on the part of the American invaders that there are people in the Arab world that hate us.

Bad guys do bad things. Go get bad guys.

Teacher, what makes bad guys bad guys?

Shut up and put your hand down. Your questions are not on the curriculum for today.

(And they are on the curriculum for what day?)

It’s no secret I am watching this event in Spain through the eyes of someone gathering information in Argentina on the participation of the same church in the period from 1976 to 1983 known here as the “dictadura” – the fascist dictatorship that became world famous for kidnapping young rebels and “disappearing” them. Just how many exactly is uncertain; the mothers of these kids, who made history by their weekly march in front of the presidential palace to call attention to their plight, set the number at 30,000. The debate today, now that Argentina’s bad guy priest, Cristian von Wernich, has been sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in the torture, kidnapping and killing of dozens of young people, is whether von Wernich was an outlier or the voice of the church itself.

Pagina 12, the leftist daily of Buenos Aires, insists he was and is the essence of the church in those times. The church, as always, is seeking to deny by silence, insisting that this is a time for reconciliation, not incrimination. (Imagine how bad that suggestion stinks if you are looking for justice.)

The facts remain that von Wernich was whisked off to Chile, given a false name, and those looking for him, when they called his parish in Buenos Aires province, were told that the church had no information as to his whereabouts. To this day, even in prison, von Wernich has not had his priestly collar taken from him. The prison doesn’t allow him to say mass, but the church has not removed his authority to do so, as they have with priests of the liberation theology group and others who advocate a woman’s right to an abortion.

Von Wernich’s whole case involved two arguments: he was working for the church and against communism, and no court on earth can judge him, because the only justice that counts is divine justice. You had to be there to appreciate the power of his conviction, as he pointed to the cross on the wall in the courtroom, called the witnesses against him liars, and listened to the sentence without emotion.

All authoritarian regimes from Franco to Hitler to the Argentine junta have justified their methods as realistic and necessary to stop the advance of communism. All insisted that they were fighting chaos, as well, since resistence to established authority virtually always leads to chaos. Kissinger and the CIA overthrew Allende and replaced him with Pinochet, and other dictators ruled in Paraguay and Uruguay at the same time. The time was right for making the case against chaos and communism, and the church argues today it was on the right side.

I would argue it was not. Pinochet’s name is now shit, and one of his victims now is president in Chile. The current regime in Argentina, too, for all its limitations, is cleaning house of the dictatorship. As this gets done, it is time to look at the costs to the church itself of complicity with the dictatorships of Spain, Germany, Italy and Latin America, and ultimately with European imperialism altogether. Making saints of victims of regimes of the left but not of the right is not accomplishing that. The church has the option of continuing to defend support of the fascist line under the guise of fighting evil or cut out the cancer that provides priests like Zabala with the justification to kick heads and enables priests like von Wernich to suggest dropping people from airplanes is somehow a “more Christian” form of torture and get sent with a new name to a vacation paradise in Chile for his efforts.

This Sunday’s celebration in St. Peter’s Square made a lot of Spaniards happy. A great day to be catholic. A celebration of the fact there are those willing to die for the privilege.

But is that the only story you want to be telling? Why? Because the other one isn’t as much fun to tell?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Children Lost; Children Found

Just watched the first in a series of Argentine television dramas of some of the children of “desaparecidos” (“the disappeared”) whose origins were brought to light thanks to the dogged efforts of their grandmothers. A five-handkerchief experience.

You’ve got to admire people finding the courage to dredge up the past and look it squarely in the eye. It isn’t easy to do. You’ve got enemies in powerful places – in this country, in the church and in a number of (other) conservative circles – and you’ve got your own natural desire not to dwell on things that can pull you into depression. History of the state terror is still fresh on the minds of anyone over forty in Argentina.

On March 24, 1976, there was a military coup in Argentina that lasted until the fall of the junta led government, on October 30, 1983, brought about by their abysmal failure in the Falklands War.

Liberation was in the air in the 60s and 70s, and restlessness in virtually all of the cone of South America led to rightwing crackdowns – Pinochet in Chile, the junta in Argentina, other dictatorships in Uruguay and Paraguay as well. (See Operation Condor, on Wikipedia, for more.) My interest here is with Argentina, but much of what went on here went on elsewhere, as well, particularly in Chile.

The crackdown got considerable support from those, including the American government in the person of Henry Kissinger, who saw danger in chaos. Where one man sees chaos, another man sees first steps to ridding the world of oppression, and the debate will not soon end on just how great the threat of communism was in places like Argentina. In any case, the Church and the junta joined forces and brought about a reign of terror in which up to 30,000 lost their lives. Some say things just got out of hand and others say it was in the nature of the beast to begin with. And I need to acknowledge, in passing, that the term “the Church” inevitably carries a lie by omission. There are two Latin American catholic churches, one represented by Liberation theology – a priesthood and lay populace on the vanguard of the struggle for liberty and dignity, and one represented by the establishment, the “integristas.” The term translates as fundamentalist, but carries much more of a connection of papal authoritarianism than of doctrine, as fundamentalist normally suggests in the protestant American context.

In any case, when the junta staged a coup, they called their program the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional – the National Reorganization Process. The episode is referred to, sometimes as El Proceso, sometimes as La Dictadura, (the dictatorship), sometimes as La Guerra Sucia (the Dirty War). For more, see (in Spanish) or (in English) .

If you read the English version of the Wikipedia entries, note the reference to Kissinger. It goes a long way to explaining anti-American feelings on the part of people coming out of this dark history.

I won’t discuss the facts of the dictadura; it is dealt with at great length in any number of places. I only want to note in passing that to read the papers on a daily basis – even the conservative ones – and to watch what comes across the TV screen – is to see a country slowly coming to terms with the horror of the period. If I were an Argentine, I’d be proud of what is happening. I am developing a profound respect and affection for the place from these events.

Cristian von Wernich, the priest just sentenced to life for his complicity in the terror, held out to his final day in court that he was simply working to impose divine truth on Argentina, suggesting that could only be done by the church and not by the human truth of the courts. That he continues to show absolutely no sign of contrition demonstrates the strength of the conviction people in his position have, inside the church and out, that fighting communism made it necessary for them to do some of the things they did.

The parallels with Americans justifying torture and invasion are there to be made, if you choose to, although Americans get to excuse themselves because the misery we create still falls outside the U.S. and not on American lives, except more indirectly. The justifications are the same. In a black and white world, there is nothing to prevent you from using techniques most people once associated with Nazis and the gulags of the Soviet Union. Realpolitik and utilitarian ethical thinking will never go out of style. The Argentines are being reminded in this retrospective on such justifications what can come of them. When, if ever, the majority on the American right gets to look at this picture is an open question.

The kind of television I saw last night brings home the reason this notion of “necessary evil” is so corrupt. The program was about children who were left behind when their parents were whisked away without a trace – and probably ended up being dropped into the La Plata River so they would not be able to identify their torturers – and adopted by strangers. These kids were taken in by good people; often it was members of the military themselves who took kids in, and one can only imagine the horrors of discovery that your “parents” were murderers of parents you did not know existed. You can see the stuff of TV drama potential on this, the thirtieth anniversary of the Madres and the Abuelas (grandmothers). The children involved now have children of their own pushing for more information on their family history.

The episode is a gash across the Argentine consciousness. It would be easy to run with the times and lash out unthinkingly. I am still looking for clearer proof of von Wernich’s complicity than has come from witnesses against him. I think we all could do more to consider how guilt is assessed in a world gone mad. Political correctness is an ever-present risk and there is a challenge to getting the history right.

Last night, however, I decided was a time to sit and listen to the grandmothers tell the happy story of having found some of their lost children, and watch the children deal with the circumstances of their adoption.

Makes you want to weep. Or strike out. And get a stiff drink. Not necessarily in any order.

Good, I think, that people are talking.

Monday, October 22, 2007


The presidential election is coming up in a few days in Argentina. Cristina Kirchner is likely to win. She is Nestor Kirchner’s wife, and you can see how easy it is to draw analogies. She has been called a cross between Hillary Clinton and Evita. Granted my knowledge of both Evita and Cristina is limited, but this seems to me like a comparison of trivial surface features and nothing more. The bookstores are full of books on Cristina, and one female journalist has referred to her as “Queen Cristina,” the new Evita – so the comparison has to be dealt with. This is what happens when people buy books by people like Barbara Walters and believe they are getting some insight into things.

Nestor Kirchner, from what I can tell, is riding the crest of the wave of economic success since the disastrous collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001. Argentina is a bustling place and Buenos Aires is a sparkling jewel and the economy is growing at an astonishing rate of 8%. Kirchner has managed to keep the peso tied to the dollar, and the consequences of that are a stable economy, my sources tell me, and for that he deserves credit. But most of the people I talk to also tell me Kirchner is an opportunist who has done nothing to change the weaknesses in the political infrastructure. There are no political platforms and Kirchner is following in the path established by Perón. He runs the country on image, and there is no foundation, no ideological basis for enhancing democracy and the rule of law. He keeps the peso low, and that helps exports. Argentina has great beef, great wine, the exporters are happy as clams, and the country taxes those exports and uses the money to build supporters the old fashioned way: Kirchner buys them.

Cristina Kirchner will keep the ball rolling, and there is reason to believe the party will go on through the night and into the morning. Fine. What’s wrong with that?

Well, there are signs that all is not well. Kirchner managed to manipulate the figures to suggest he was controlling inflation – always one of Argentina’s concerns – when in reality he was not, and this hardly inspires confidence. He has buddy-buddied up with Hugo Chávez, and that ain’t pretty. Even less pretty is his support in Washington a few weeks ago for Bush's suggestion of a possible invasion of Iran. All of this suggests opportunism, as opposed to political conviction and a commitment to democracy.

But wait, I say. There is another side. Kirchner has the left solidly behind him. Página 12, the leading leftie newspaper, is a solid supporter. Página 12's founder and leading journalist, Horacio Verbitzky, is an leading voice for the Madres, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, those heroic women who refused to stay quiet during the dictatorship, but marched in front of the presidential palace, the “Pink House,” every week without fail demanding to know what happened to their "disappeared" children, for all the years of the terror. Verbitzky and his newspaper probably did the most to keep the story alive of the capture and trial of Cristian von Wernich, the priest accused of complicity in the kidnapping and torture and killing of leftist opposition to the dictatorship.

Página 12 is a dog with a bone. Philosopher Leon Rozitchner had an essay in the paper yesterday charging that human justice is still threatened by an Argentine Church position which uses the concept of divine justice to support military dictatorship. The debate has muscles and there is reason for optimism. When von Wernich was found guilty, the country was glued to the television – well OK, at least I watched the entire day – and when the sentence was read – life in prison for the crime of genocide – I felt like bawling my head off. And I wished I had found my way to La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires Province, where the trial was held, to join in the jubilation and enjoy the fireworks.

Kirchner is somebody for the country to rally round, in other words. When Alfonsín led the overthrow of the militarist dictatorship, he was still too weak to resist the imposition of two laws known as the Ley de Punto Final (Full Stop Law) and the Ley de Obediencia Debida (Due Obedience Law). These laws were essentially a pardon for some 1000 militarists against whom cases had been built for crimes against humanity. This surrender to pressure was voided by Congress in 2003 and that action was approved by the Supreme Court in 2005, both during Nestor Kirchner’s administration, and he thus feels justified in claiming full credit for it. The voiding of the two laws has already led to the conviction of Miguel Etchecolatz, the head of the Buenos Aires provincial police force during the terror, known here as the “Dirty War.”

It’s hard not to jump on the bandwagon. The mood is good, the trial of von Wernich was tremendously satisfying, and Argentina has moved in the past decade from being a fascist nation with a terrorist government to a leading Latin American voice in the struggle for human rights. A couple of days ago, Cristina Kirchner supporter Vilma Ibarra, Senator for the city of Buenos Aires, proposed in Congress a law which would move Argentina a step further toward full recognition of gay marriage rights, following the model of Spain.

I can’t be sure how much support this bill will have – the conservative paper La Nación came out with the usual catholic argument the next day in one of its editorials that this bill is an insult to the family, to Argentine tradition, etc. etc., but the fact remains it was proposed – and by a supporter of the leading candidate for president. The Kirchneristas have a case when they choose to represent themselves as human rights advocates.

One can only watch and see where this all goes. The election will not tell much, I suspect, other than it’s hard to unseat somebody who is in the right place at the right time – never mind whether he’s making the waves or merely riding them. But if dirty priests go to jail, and if the bishops who provided cover for them – von Wernich was given a false name and a parish in Chile with full support of the church – get their knuckles rapped at the very least, and if movies appear on television like the one coming tonight about the recovery of one of the kidnapped children, why not join the bandwagon?

Just keep your eyes open and know the bandwagon may run out of gas before long. Or collapse with the weight of too many opportunists who work without conviction.

But what else is there to do at this point?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Casamiento gay en Argentina

Elections are coming up in Argentina in less than weeks, and one senator supporting Cristina Kirchner’s run for president, Vilma Ibarra, is proposing today to change the Civil Code to enable gays and lesbians to marry. As I read the story in today’s paper, I was struck by two things. One is the thought that so often it is women who get right with the world first. The other is an awareness of the power of precedence. An argument Ibarra is making is that is was done successfully in Spain. Just as we look to England, if not as a model to follow, at least as an example of a country whose values we share, Argentina looks to Spain. It’s time, says Ibarra, to put right here what has been put right elsewhere.

The arguments are the same as in all the many countries where rights have been extended to same-sex couples. Marriage is a civil right, and when two people stand before the Civil Court and say “I do” there is no reason the church-state barrier should be broken, any more than it is with abortion or divorce. A straight couple’s rights are not infringed upon when gays are permitted to marry any more than a gay couple’s rights are infringed upon when straights marry.

Those who use the argument that same-sex marriage will lead to demands for the right to adopt need to examine their prejudices, Ibarra says. There is no reason whatsoever gays cannot raise children. They do all the time, with as much success as straights. It’s a non-issue.

What is different in Argentina is that the new law would challenge some of the hitherto unexamined limitations on women’s rights. For example, not only would there need to be language changes – “husband and wife” to “spouse,” for example – but the paragraph stating that a married woman “must not accept donations without the approval of her husband” would have to go. It is routinely disregarded anyway; now is the time to clean up the archaic text.

Ibarra is supported by some twenty organizations in the Federación Argentina de Lesbianas, Gays, Bisexuales y Trans, which has been working on this campaign since February. The organization’s president, María Rachid, and her partner, Claudia Castro will be first in line at the Buenos Aires Civil Registry to have their relationship recognized as a marriage.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

What's a little genocide among friends?

President Bush appeared on the South Lawn of the White House before the vote and implored the House not to take up the issue, only to have a majority of the committee disregard his warning at the end of the day, by a vote of 27 to 21.

“The issue” is whether to support a resolution condemning the Turkish genocide in Armenia during the First World War. Japanese rightists deny the Rape of Nanking, jingoist Americans hate it when we talk of slavery and the genocide of North American natives, there are holocaust deniers galore, and Argentina has taken more than twenty years to start putting right the wrongs of the 70s dictatorship. This is Turkey’s blind spot.

“Greater good” arguments are always powerful. Stalin killed a million Ukrainians for the allegedly greater good of farm collectivization and the priest, Christian von Wernich, found guilty yesterday for “crimes against humanity” in Argentina, stated that he was doing it all to defeat communism.

Bush’s argument has been used by Clinton and others. It’s not a republican stance, but a realist school stance. Realists make the claim daily that the good intentions of the left are naïve and seriously self-defeating. If we don’t fight the terrorists in [you name the place], we’ll have to fight them in our own back yard. Collateral damage? There is no free lunch.

Sure there is an argument to be made. Maybe saying shame shame to Turkey at this point is not good timing. They will get pissed and not rally behind us in Iraq. That’s Bush’s argument. He’s being a realist, you see.

But each time that line is taken and America comes down, as it does routinely with the Bush administration, on the side of the Jean Kirkpatricks and the Henry Kissingers, America slips a little deeper into the hypocritical mindset which prevails today, where we talk freedom but help take it away, talk self-determination, but work assiduously against it.

Pinochet, I once heard Kirkpatrick remark, was “muy amable.” Amiable perhaps, yes. But he also presided over a government in Chile which applied electricity to one’s gums and genitals. Kissinger suggested to the military junta in Argentina that they should hurry up and get this nasty business of torture over with because it could backfire. Well, too late Henry. History has caught up with you.

America, you are a dirty place these days. Habeas corpus gone. Geneva Convention gone. The Supreme Court which has just approved a law permitting the Americans to whisk bad guys off to countries where they face certain torture.

And now this dirty president of ours wants us to spit in the face of the victims of the Armenian genocide because he needs every bit of support from his rightist friends in his battle in Iraq.

But what's this? A little light shining through? Congress ignored his White House speech? They didn’t listen to him? They voted 27 to 21 in favor of the resolution?

The Foreign Relations Committee resolution is symbolic and non-binding.

But the American in me feels a little cleaner today than he did yesterday.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Christian von Wernich

Christian von Wernich is a big name here in Buenos Aires. People know him as the priest who participated in the torture and killing of a number of people during the Argentine military dictatorship of the 1970s.

The Roman Catholic Church runs the gamut politically between liberal progressive types, including the liberation theologists of Latin America and theologians like Hans Küng, to those on the extreme right, including the institutional Argentine church.

A military takeover on March 24, 1976 led to a reign of terror which ended only on December 10, 1983, with the debacle of the Malvinas/Falkland Islands war. Thanks to modern communications, the world remembers this time because of the images of the ‘mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’ who marched in front of the Pink House, Argentina’s White House, every Thursday at 3:30, demanding an accounting of their missing children. Officially that number is 9000, but human rights organizations, including the mothers – and now, grandmothers – put it at over 30,000. Suspected “enemies of the nation,” including teenage students, were kidnapped, held in clandestine locations where they were tortured, and ultimately thrown from planes and helicopters into the La Plata River, so there would be no record of what they experienced. The word in Spanish, “desaparecidos,” ultimately created a novelty in the English language, an intransitive past participle used as a noun – “The Disappeared.”

While this was going on, Pope John Paul II visited Argentina but refused to acknowledge all evidence of the tortures and executions, thus setting the tone which the Argentine church followed, enabling ultimately the line of defence taken by von Wernich that the real enemy of Christianity is communism, and, in the words of the realist school, any means of fighting communism was justified. Evidence is plain for anyone seeking it that people like Kissinger and Jean Kirkpatrick, to mention two fighters of communism at random, understood and supported the dictatorship nonetheless.

In Latin America, with its history of political corruption, including military dictatorships supported by virtually all modern U.S. presidents with the exception of Jimmy Carter, it is not surprising that many young people should find marxism attractive. Nor is it surprising that at least some in the institutional church, like von Wernich, would believe killing and torturing these deluded youth, as they would see them, is a necessary evil. Von Wernich is quoted as actually saying at one point that sin can be overcome by pain.

The question here is how far up this all goes. John Paul II would not have approved of torture, one assumes, but his silence over the ruthlessness of the fight against communism (if indeed that is a fair description of what was going on) stands in contrast to his outspoken criticism of similar brutality behind the Iron Curtain. And his nuncio, Pio Larghi, was seen routinely in public with the leaders of the dictatorship.

For now, though, the court, which is finishing up his deliberations today in La Plata, capital of Buenos Aires Province, is quick to insist this is not a trial of the catholic church, but of one of its priests.

Maybe not. But this priest, once found out, was whisked off by the church to a provincial parish in Chile and given a new name.

Keep tuned for details. Channel 7 in Buenos Aires is carrying the trial live. Something tells me the Papal Nuncio, who lives across the street from me at the moment, will be watching.

Me too.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Rumsfeld's Day in Court

I have been reading around in the commentary on the news that Rumsfeld has been hired as “Distinguished Visiting Fellow” at the Hoover Institution. And about how the decision has provoked a protest involving some 3000 signatures, including 300 by Stanford faculty. And about how this, in turn, has led to the usual crapola charges of insincerity and hypocrisy on the left. The left only approves of free speech, says one of the commentators, when it is one of their own speaking. When it comes to conservatives, they aren`t having any.

Well, bullshit. This is not a free speech issue. Rumsfeld is free to pay for his next summer house delivering as many lectures around the country as he can get fools to pay for, telling those willing to pay how he made the world safe for democracy. Nobody is shutting him up. They’re saying that giving this sinister man the label “distinguished visiting fellow” dishonors the school. And it does.

The guy is right up there with Kissinger as war-criminal material. I know he has to be found guilty in a court of law for the label to be legitimately applied. OK, so let’s bring him to justice – and Kissinger too, while we're at it.

I know, I know. You don’t bring Americans to justice in international courts. We’re too powerful. We don’t have to go to court. We get Nobel Prizes for our international efforts – Kissinger did, remember – even though it’s no secret Kissinger gave the go-ahead to the Argentine dictatorship in the 70s. And to Pinochet. For starters.

If you listen to what people in Argentina and Chile have to say about Kissinger, people who know first hand what it is like to have a terrorist government supported by the U.S. steal your children, rape them, electrify their genitals, gums and eyelids and then drop them from airplanes into the sea, listen close, and you will look at things differently.

Whether enablers are in the same league as those actually applying the electricity is a tough ethical call. And Rumsfeld can still hide behind the excuse that he really believed, as did Cheney, the Iraqis would welcome us with flowers and not see us as invaders. But have you heard an "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it? I didn't intend for all you people to die waiting for electricity to come on in the hospital, for the police to protect you from rapists and thugs. I didn't mean for you to have to run to Syria and Jordan, really I didn't...."

Maybe he's not really war criminal material, as Kissinger is. I'll wait for argument. I know it will come.

But distinguished?

Hell, no.

Note the power of the United States to determine who labels and who gets labeled. Rumsfeld is not a terrorist, because the terror he brought to the lives of millions of Iraqis isn’t defined by us as terrorism. It’s defined as bringing democracy to the world. Torture of obsessively enraged Islamists isn't as bad as torture of communist kids. Removal of habeas corpus isn't as bad as a knock at the door at midnight.

Really? Who's calling the shots on this? Could we have some judicial clarification here?

Note, by the way, that it is not just angry leftist bloggers making the case for Rumsfeld’s appointment. John Bunzel, a Democrat, and former President of San Jose State makes the case today in the Sacramento Bee.

He argues that Condaleeza Rice is going to be similarly protested when she returns to teach at Stanford. Well, how about we cross that bridge when we come to it? It is possible she and Colin Powell and a whole host of other members of the Bush Administration can make the case they are not in the same camp as those who tricked the nation into war. We’ll have to see. Bunzel should not be lumping these people together. Everybody should get their day in court.

But isn't that the whole point? Let’s bring the man to court.

Not to Hoover Tower.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Family Flaw

Unless you’ve got all the time in the world, love anything that is Italian, including hysteria, have no objection to 100% predictability and to plotlines that depend on outrageous coincidences, and deus ex machina solutions, don’t rent the movie Family Flaw (Un difetto di famiglia). In case you don’t trust me to tell you how bad it is, consider that five years have passed since it was distributed and has yet to post a single review.

Nicolà and his wife are marrying their daughter off to some rich guy and are praying nothing goes wrong. And what are the chances nothing will go wrong? Zero, right? (Else where would we start the story?) Grandma – Nicolà’s mama – drops dead as the ceremony is about to start.

Scene Two. Same crowd. The wedding’s been called off, of course, and they’re all at mama’s funeral. Church door opens. Grand entrance time. It’s Francesco, mama’s other son, Nicolà’s brother, whom he hasn’t spoken to in forty years. The reason? Francesco is a flaming queen. Not the mincing kind, but even if you could miss the scarlet scarf, the dog in his arms would still be a dead give-away.

What are the chances this is going to be about something other than reconciliation? Zero again, right? So now you know the story. All the rest, as Rabbi Hillel put it, is commentary. In this case a journey together with mama in a hearse to take her home to Case Bianche, the full length of Italy from the hip to the heel of the boot.

All those reasons to pass this movie up, and I still haven’t given you the biggie. The tears of reconciliation piled onto the speechifying over the importance of tolerance. Like a three-week diet of nothing but See’s Candy pressed into a whole hour and 48 minutes.

So why did I sit through the whole thing and play back whole scenes? I’m a sucker for non-Hollywood filmmaking and for farce as only Mediterraneans can pull it off. Like singing all the songs at sing-alongs, you know there are times to pull the shades and enjoy the ride. With things like this, you can also, of course, celebrate the fact that history has brought us to this point. Mr. Mozzarella Cheese Magnate holds up his daughter’s wedding (when it finally takes place) because his gay brother isn’t there yet – he always requires an entrance. And testifies in the meantime to the error of his ways all these years.

It won’t make you cry, necessarily. But if you’re gay or gay-friendly, it might make you smile and feel good all over.

Just before you go write a letter to your friends insisting your standards are too high to recommend it.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Letter to Rabbi Lamm

Noah Feldman published a piece in the July 22, 2007 edition of the New York Times Magazine which outlined the path he took away from Orthodox Judaism while holding fast to his sense of himself as a Jew. The article was taken as a frontal attack on Orthodoxy by some, as a breath of fresh air by others, and while most people lined up on one side or another, the ongoing commentary contributes to the important question of whether Jewish identity and American identity are mutually exclusive.

The bit of Jewish wisdom that has entered the common culture from Ecclesiastes 1:9, that “there is nothing new under the sun,” was illustrated for the nth time when the well-known chancellor and former president of Yeshiva University took to wagging the finger at Feldman for washing dirty Jewish linen in public and for being just plain wrong.

The conflict between universalism and particularism in the Jewish context existed when the Hebrews met the Greeks. The battle today between orthodoxy and universalism in the enlightenment tradition is arguably the same battle a couple of millenia later.

Looked at that way, jumping in to a never-ending battle on either side can get you nowhere but tired. And, in my case, asking one of the leading voices of Jewish particularism to consider the possibility of joining the enemy (in his eyes) is a ridiculous waste of time.

But I’m retired, and it feels like the right thing to say.

Rabbi Norman Lamm
Yeshiva University

Dear Rabbi Lamm:

I read with great interest your letter to Noah Feldman (Jewish Daily Forward, August 2, 2007) admonishing him to fix the damage you suggest he inflicted on the Jewish community and on a certain Daniel of your acquaintance, in particular.

I hope he will do as you did, write back, and make his remarks public. This is an issue of tremendous importance to Americans and to all people living in a modern pluralist democracy.

Your differences line you up in the current culture war between those inclined toward one or another authoritarian tradition on the one hand, and those inspired by enlightenment notions of universal human equality on the other. You may prefer to keep this Jewish, but as long as you are in America, the larger culture, I believe, will frame the questions and invite outside participation as well.

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent call for Roman Catholics to renew their conviction that access to heaven is limited to his narrow gate will be rejected by most of us, Roman Catholics included, for the parochial view it is, and his prayers for your conversion, now that his church has lost its teeth, will come across more as pitiful than insulting. How can your claim to have the keys to a narrow Jewish truth help but come across similarly?

Just as you suggested Noah Feldman benefits from the orthodoxy he criticizes, you benefit, unless you close yourself off from it, from the fresh air of the Enlightenment. The freedom from Roman Catholic oppression which once created considerable misery for Jews and other non catholics is the same freedom Professor Feldman has sought and found – from ways of being Jewish that shut out an embrace of the benefits of experience. He is not rejecting Judaism; he is exemplifying what makes it universal. Defining your tradition as Jewish Orthodox, but not as simultaneously Jeffersonian and Spinozan is analogous to embracing your father's wisdom and denying your mother's.

What a shame you should throw in your lot with authoritarian Catholicism and authoritarian Islam. Whatever wisdom has been generated by religious traditions, no one has resisted the temptations for corruption that come with the institutionalization of conviction. One wonders if Jewish Orthodoxy has been less of a threat only for lack of numbers.

Theoretically, it ought to be possible to espouse a moral universality while holding fast to a social particularism. The Jewish experiment which has become the tragedy that is Israel, however, suggests this may be no more readily accomplished than was the American experiment in Separate But Equal.

As you conclude in your letter to Professor Feldman, Judaism will survive in spite of human error, yours, his or anybody else’s. Acceptance of outmarriage is the first step to the dissolution not of Judaism but to the mindset that Jews have nothing to learn from others. America has shown that Jews can influence as much as they are influenced and we are all the richer for it. If your fears of extinction as a people mean rejecting love, respect and emulation, then what have you to offer the world?

Obviously blacks who want to marry other blacks, and Greeks other Greeks, have a human right to do so. But when they choose to cross interracial or interethnic lines, should we not see this as a sign of human progress? Or is it only Jews that you want to live on islands? Is that why God put us together on a single planet? There is evidence that the misery of racism, that greatest of all American evils, is crumbling at last. Is it wrong to see Jewish outmarriage in the same light?

Growing up among Conservative, Reformed and Reconstructionist Jews has made me understand that culturally, I am Jewish. To the same degree I am Italian and I am Japanese. Your disparagement of those Jews who taught me to see Judaism as an integral part of my civilization strikes me as a destructive force. Your implication that they are lesser Jews than you may satisfy your sense of righteousness, just as the pope's belief praying for the conversion of the Jews supports his faith. But adhering to a logic of isolation, tribalism and apartheid should not be the only way to be a Jew.

You read Professor Feldman's complaint as a self-indulgence and a betrayal of community. I read it as a confession of a man conflicted by multiple identities who describes his life as a work in progress. You want him to come back to where the wagons are circled. I hope he will continue to articulate the ways in which his worldviews and values are inspired, but not limited, by his Jewish origins.

With respect,

Alan J. McCornick

original Feldman article in the New York Times: (Late Edition - Final, Section 6, Page 40). It is also available at:

Rabbi Lamm’s letter to Feldman is available at:

Chancellor Lamm’s e-mail address is:
Noah Feldman’s e-mail address is:

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Neanderthal Lady A Day Later

Yesterday, I went at the idea with a baseball bat that creationism was being furthered in German schools, and suggested anyone responsible for such shenanigans was trying to take us back to the Middle Ages. Actually, I drew a comparison with Neanderthals.

After poking around some more, I am finding (no surprise!) a more nuanced explanation for what is going on.

Some time ago, I attended a religion conference at the UC campus in which several historians, politicians and others from Germany participated. One of the interesting things that came out of that conference was the suggestion that Germany fills a spot somewhere between France and the United States in the way it handles religion.

In France, where the concept of laïcité, roughly translated as secularism, is a fundamental civil cultural value, religion simply has no place in the public sphere. In the United States, the two sides engaged in a cultural civil war bash each other over the head, one side demanding we live up to our tradition of church and state separation, the other side insisting this is a Christian nation and if there were such a thing as a Christian Sharia, it should supercede the U.S. Constitution.

Whether Germany is between France and the U.S. or simply a third point on a triangle when it comes to religion, it is more like the United States in its public embrace of religion than France. Its churches are supported by taxpayers, it has prayers before public or parliamentary events, and people don’t hesitate to speak openly of going to church and of wanting to keep Germany a Christian nation.

No sooner do I say that when I feel I need to back up and start over. There is considerable complexity in the details. Here's a sample:
  • For one thing, there is the question of numbers; far fewer Germans than Americans go to church. And while religious people are now careful to call Germany a Jewish and Christian nation, and not just a Christian one, many think that adjustment is of little consequence.
  • Willy Brandt was an atheist – and an atheist president is unthinkable in the United States.
  • There is lots of opposition to any suggestion that the Leitkultur – the “traditional German culture” (and that, presumably, includes religion) should be first and way ahead of the cultures of immigrants.
  • The belief by the German pope that Turkey must be kept out of the EU because it would dilute the christian identity of Europe is by no means universally shared.
But those are digressions for another day. The point here still holds that Germans are closer to the Americans in their inclination to let religion slip into the body politic now and again, as long as it doesn’t scare the horses.

But with a major difference.

The main speaker at that conference, Karsten Voigt, leading Socialist Party figure and German-American Cooperation coordinator in the German Foreign Office, claimed that Germans tend to see religion less as dogma requiring action and more as something quietly woven into the fabric of German culture, the source of the moral side to culture. His description of German Christianity would apply equally well to what we are now calling “Mainstream Christianity” in America. People who have no trouble with ambiguity, who see scientific truth and spiritual truth as complementary, not contradictory.

If Karin Wolff is coming from what we Americans understand as "Mainstream Christianity" and not wingnut Christianity, we need perhaps to lower the alarm. From Condition Orange to Condition Yellow, maybe. Mainstream/German Christianity is not about religious support for the war in Iraq. It's not about males telling their women to hush up in church or about looking at gays as people who have chosen sin over God's plan. Or about casting Charles Darwin in the role of the Anti-Christ.

Religion in Germany, says Voigt, is about being nice, not about doing anything in particular to control others who don’t share your beliefs. Certainly there is no plan to infiltrate the Supreme Court, take over Congress and foster Christian fundamentalist beliefs in the schools or through home schooling.

Seen in that light, it behooves us not to see Karin Wolff’s efforts as a religious Christian working for a religion-affiliated political party – the Christian Democrats –through an American lens. Or so the argument might go. I’m not too sure yet.

She is head of the religious education committee of the Lutheran Church in Germany, and matching that role with her politician role (she is also Deputy Prime Minister for Hesse) can’t be easy. As these recent headlines indicate, suggesting some kind of moron is running the Ministry of Culture in Hesse, it’s a minefield, when seen against the American experience. And the protests from all sides, religious as well as scientific and political, for this claim by Ms. Wolff that there is something to be gained by bringing religion into biology classes, only further my suspicion that this lady is a crazy lady, and that the American experience is not entirely irrelevant.

But the cognitive dissonance of discovering she has gone public with her love affair with a touchy-feely massage lady type, suggested I might ought to dig around for more.

So here we are a day later and I take back what I said about Karin being the roaming ambassador for the Neander Valley.

Today I’m thinking she’s just one of those naïve folk who think locally, can’t bear to have their country go too far beyond the world of her childhood, and didn’t do her homework on the implications of casting the same shadow as some no-doubt-about-it nut cases in America. And I think the focus of the story has switched – at least it has for me – from a story of stupidity to a case study in the sociology of knowledge – how we all live in separate containers of our own reality.

What she said in connection with the case is worth a second look. She is urging the teaching of the Biblical creation story in biology classes, “…so that you don’t just confront students with the theory of evolution in biology and the Bible teaching on creation in religion classes. But rather that (they) see that there are oppositions and convergences.”

So that they see there are oppositions and convergences? Now what’s wrong with that? That seems like a dandy pedagogical tactic.

But in the end, it’s all about context. She is speaking out of idealism, or naïveté, possibly both. I wish she had read the Kitzmiller v. Dover court decision, in which conservative judge John E. Jones III brought the monkey trial up to date and let it inform her decision. Read it some time and be proud of the American judicial system. When she’s bad, she’s horrid, I know. This time, though, she was very very good.

I’m following what happens to Karin Wolff’s goofy foot-in-mouth move with great interest. I want to see what the Germans and the EU do with this. So far all sorts of people have been dumping on her – the Green Party, the Federation of German Biologists, the Federal Minister for Education and Research, even the Roman Catholic Diocese of Limburg. But are they (we) all wrong? Is she just a nice Church Lady who wants to make kids think?

opposition and convergences: