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: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karin_Wolff

Monday, July 30, 2007

Which way to Neanderthal?

OK. Here’s one for you.

Germany is one of those countries where

a. they don’t have the death penalty
b. they have universal health care
c. gay people have full citizenship rights and can even have their foreign partners accorded those rights as well.

Color me green with envy.

Not like the United States of America, where gays and lesbians are labelled sinners by the fundamentalists and straightjacketed as people seeking to destroy the family and bring down Christian civilization, right?

A whole bunch of gay people I know think longingly of places like Germany, where when you say culture wars you think of Bismarck and those silly people living a hundred years ago. The Germany of today has come through fire, left behind racism and sexism and all that crap and embraced the modern world.


Well if you bought that, then explain to me what makes this Karin Wolff character tick.

Unless you make a point of following news in Germany, she has probably not entered your radar.

Let me give you some background.

She is, among other things, Minister of Culture for the State of Hesse (you know, that place which produced those little soldiers that nearly kept us British).

And she is, among other things, a Lesbian.

So far so good, right? Nothing wrong with lesbians or with ministers of culture, all other things being equal, right?

If you’re so inclined, read about the lesbian romance of Karin Wolff. It’s a sweet story. If you read German, it’s available at http://www.bild.t-online.de/BTO/news/2007/07/04/cdu-politikerin-liebe/karin-wolff-heilpraktikerin,geo=.html (And if you don’t, you can always click on “Translate this page” or go to Alta Vista http://babelfish.altavista.com/, paste in the article and English it.

But before you get all smarmy and awwwwwww all over your shoes, you’ve got some more reading to do.

This one is Englished for you by Deutsche Welle: http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,,00.html

If you don’t have time for that, either, here’s the bottom line.

This nice Lesbian lady is throwing her support behind the teaching of the Biblical version of creation alongside Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in the schools in Hesse.

Lordy lordy lordy. Haven’t had this much cognitive dissonance since Dick Cheney told us he was proud of his lesbian daughter and her new baby.

Let me see. The Hessian Culture Ministry is in Wiesbaden. Luisenplatz 10, to be exact. And that’s how far from the Neander Valley (Neanderthal, in German)?

193 kilometers. Less than two hours by car, the way they drive on the Autobahn.

But if you happen to be in Wiesbaden, just knock on Karin’s door and you're already there.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Just an Ordinary Jew (Ein Ganz Gewöhnlicher Jude): A Review

One of life’s more painful contradictions is that we are taught to seek the truth and to get along with others simultaneously, usually without preparation for the fact that these goals often conflict.

When they do, most give priority to getting along. There are some, however, who bear the lonely burden of an inability to surrender truth to what passes for common wisdom. God help them if they also happen to have a thin skin.

Akin to the problem of being right in a world of people who are wrong is the problem of being alone in your identity. It leads to a similar kind of loneliness – the loneliness of knowing something that others don’t or can’t know. It too requires a thick skin.

Imagine yourself a Jew in Germany. A German Jew. A person who has grown up in post-fascist Germany, where the common wisdom is that the holocaust was a shame that cries for recognition, restitution and reconciliation. Where people look at you as a means for them to demonstrate that their heart is in the right place. If you have trouble setting this up, translate it to being a liberal white inclined to demonstrate to blacks that you are not now nor ever have been a racist. And imagine how the black person must feel.

I tried to explain to a black person back in the 60s that “we” were simply wondering why so many black middle class people were moving out of the ghettos without looking back and without taking responsibility for those left behind. I’ll never forget the sneer. “Where do you get off thinking the problems of East and West Oakland are mine any more than yours?”

I went quite on the spur of the moment to see Ein ganz gewöhnlicher Jude (Just an Ordinary Jew) at the Jewish Film Festival yesterday. It’s a one-man show, a strange kind of contrivance – more dramatized essay than performance – that strikes some as artificial and dull. What could be worse than talking heads except possibly this, a movie made almost entirely with only one talking head.

To make things worse, it’s a rant. And if that were not bad enough, it’s a rant that has to be deciphered in subtitles, unless you happen to know German.

There. If that doesn’t keep you away, I can’t guess what will. But if you stay away, I think you’ll be making a mistake. It should not be missed, although you’re probably going to have to really hunt to find it outside of Jewish film festivals, unfortunately.

Emanuel Goldfarb is the only child of a Jewish father who returned to Germany after the war “because it was home.” Emanuel prospers, has native talents which enable him to shed the shopkeeper family history and move among the elite, share in the cultural treasures, and reach a place in life most people envy. Financially secure. Respected. Apparently unlimited.

It all breaks down one day when asked by an eighth grade social studies teacher to come talk to a class about being Jewish. Seemingly out of nowhere comes rage.

I watched this man on the screen rage for eighty-eight minutes at the cards he was dealt, and felt exhausted at the end, in the recognition that the burden he was saddled with felt to him as mine does to me, a hell with no exit.

I am drawn to rage. Rage is personal to me. Many years ago a friend said to me, “If you don’t control your rage, you will go on forever losing battles, because all conflicts will end up being defined as your inability to come to terms with anger.”

The friend was right, of course, and I have a long string of anecdotes to support her contention. Rage, the tiger some of us need to ride to keep from surrendering to despair, takes us to the edge. One false move, we fear, and it’s over.

I want to avoid comparisons. Comparisons suggest a hierarchy of ills in a case like this – my injustice is greater than your injustice. My rage started with being classed as a pervert, evolved into a rage at society for being so wrong about homosexuality, and now sits largely contained, but capable of bubbling to the surface at times without warning as the world gives evidence that it doesn’t understand or care what it is like to live “differently.” In fact, it gets worse. The word comes down that many like me have managed to accentuate the positive, see the glass as half full, stress the shared values, appreciate the progress in tolerance. “What the hell is wrong with you that you haven’t?”

Emanuel Goldfarb is hit with the same charges. The same internalized critique. And that’s the rub, the fact that the charges come from within. The film is shown almost exclusively at Jewish film festivals because it is about being a Jew and about German-Jewish relations. Like any well-done creative work (and this is brilliantly done, in my view) it can be read in different ways by different people. Some will see in it a reminder that Germans need to suffer for generations more for having committed genocide. Some will see pathos in the fact that Emanuel Goldfarb is a tiny minority within a very small minority – Jews in Germany are 90% Russian. A “genuinely German Jew” is indeed a rare bird.

Others will feel sympathy for Germany and give credit for efforts at Wiedergutmachung. Love that word. It means restitution, but German builds words from German, not Latin roots, and the word itself says it all: “making good again.”

Like most people, Goldfarb has lived by distractions. A secular Jew, he has not sought out community. But as heir to the holocaust (ironically both as German and as Jew), the shedding of an identity which few others share (because they have been scattered or murdered in massive numbers), the cost of not living up to one’s parents’ (and their community’s) expectations, comes at too high a cost to the psyche. Goldfarb wants to be “ordinary” but history does not permit it. To be a Jew in Germany is to be anything but ordinary. To be a Jew is to represent whatever it is in the minds of others that Jews are supposed to represent.

Be good in school. It means Jews will get more respect. Fall down and the Jewish people fall down. Rules he learns from his mother. Here’s another lens through which to see the film. One of the main reasons a long term relationship I was in with a former Vietnamese lover came to an end was that he couldn’t come out – because it would alienate him from his Vietnamese community and to betray his community would be to betray his family and to betray his family would be to lose his soul.

All in his head, I told him. Precisely, he told me.

In the end, it’s a race between those out to get you and those trying to kill you with kindness. Some go through life programmed to be different. They seek uniqueness in tattoos, in dress, in acting out. Others go through life programmed to be ordinary. They come up with rules for passing on that value to their children like the Japanese saying, “It’s the nail that sticks out that gets hammered down.” It’s like a blood type. At the same film festival was Dani Levy, who just created a huge uproar in Germany by breaking the taboo against portraying the nazis through comedy. Another Jew in Germany, apparently not even close to suffering the pains of an Emanuel Goldfarb. Jew in Germany Type A; Jew in Germany Type B.

In the end, the film will appeal more to other Type A people, people for whom the life of the mind takes precedence over action. To them it will say less about the truth of anti-Semitism than about the cost to some of us of Socrates’ well-examined life. Not a task for the faint-hearted.

The book is by Swiss author Charles Lewinsky, the role is played by Ben Becker, and the film was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Hirschbiegel made his international reputation in 2004 with Downfall, the film about the last days of Hitler, played by Bruno Ganz, which won him an Academy Award nomination.

Just an Ordinary Jew plays once more in the Bay Area – on Wednesday, August 1 at 4:30 at the Roda Theater in Berkeley.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Diddling in Perspective

Did you notice how easily the Church was able to pay its bill of half a billion dollars their priests have burdened them with for all that diddling? Sold a few buildings in L.A. and moved on. Like stopping at a Texas stop sign – slow to 40, build a new cathedral, and resume speed.

Now if they had just posted a sign on the rectory. Free rectoring. (Donations always accepted.) That way it would be voluntary and you’d know what you were walking into. Instead, the church had to get all sneaky.

Very unseemly for the institution that owns the truth – no other denominations need apply.

Well, some denominations are OK.

Tens and twenties are favored denominations.

Somebody’s got to pay for the diddlin. Can shuffle those diddlers from Peter to Paul just so long.

And speaking of shuffling…

At least we don’t have priests working for the government, as in the days in Argentina when government used to pull folks from their beds in the night and disappear them. Drop them from planes while fully alive into the ocean. After checking with the church to be sure they were using torture methods that were “Christian…and less violent.”

The Church, as always, was happy to comply. Appointed Father Christian Von Wernich to the post of Chaplain to the military and security forces.

For a while there he got away scot free, because after the government fell, they implemented an amnesty and got down to reconciliation. Didn’t work. Somehow people whose family members had been dropped from planes didn’t feel all that much like reconciling, and the law protecting these priests and others was lifted. Von Wernich, still a priest, was using the name González, and administering the sacraments in Chile.

Christian Von Wernich is on trial in Buenos Aires as we speak. A trial referred to by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as "a slanderous persecution of the institution." Remember Bergoglio? He was on the list of "papabili" ("popeables") this last time.

Maybe we ought to count our blessings. Here in the U.S.A., the worst they do is hide Diddlers and lie about the Diddling. Beats advising the military on Christian forms of torture.

1. Source for:
To find a Christian and less violent form of death…
(“para buscar que fuese una forma cristiana y poco violenta” de muerte)


a slanderous persecution of the institution ("una persecución calumniosa a la institución")

Página/12 Web :: Buenos Aires, Argentina, domingo, 08 de Julio de 2007, “El rol de la iglesia católica en revisión” http://www.pagina12.com.ar/diario/elpais/1-87812-2007-07-08.html

2. The Von Wernich story: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=38468

3. See also the trial watch on the subject: http://www.trial-ch.org/en/trial-watch/profile/db/legal-procedures/christian-federico_von-wernich_456.html

4. Other sources (some in Spanish only, unfortunately) include: Maldito Tú Eres, by Hernan Brienza, the journalist who found Von Wernich’s hiding place; and Ezeiza by Horacio Verbitsky, well-known Argentine journalist (at Página 12) and author of
The Flight: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior, and The Silence, an extract of which is available at http://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-protest/catholicchurch_2709.jsp

5. Or type in “Horacio Verbitsky” at Amazon.com for a list of books available.