Friday, December 26, 2008

The Jew in Me

If it weren’t for the religion, I’d probably be a Jew.

A highly selective Jew, mind you, but a Jew.

Let me tell you why.

Religion is a bundle of things. It’s doctrine, it’s the institutions it throws up to define and control the community of believers, the art and music of its historical traditions, and more, not relevant to this discussion.

I can’t be a Christian because I can’t buy into the myths. Virgin birth, walking on water, a God who answers the prayers of some by setting aside natural laws and ignoring others. It’s all too much to swallow for me. And once you throw those out, what is Christian about you?

Many people succeed in remaining Christian, if they start there, and continuing to identify themselves as such because they can’t bear the loss of the community they sprang from, and saying they are no longer catholic, or whatever, would tax their Italian, Irish, or other ethnic identity. So they apologize for being “bad Christians” but don’t let go of the identity.

But if you do find the courage to say, “You know, I just don’t find any reason to accept the authority of an institution that requires me to believe I inherited sin and now am obligated to worship the guy who paid off that debt, well then, you're out.

With Jews it’s a different story. It’s hard to discuss Jewishness and Jewry without including religion, that aspect of religion involved with myths and doctrines, I mean, but if you try, you can manage it. The State of Israel, in fact, was founded by people who decided they could pretty much do without it. If they had had the luxury of being able to take in only others like themselves, and not the religious ones as well, many of whom then stomped all over the land shouting God loves me, me, me and not you, in fact, who knows what might have been.

But that's another story and beyond what draws me to Jewishness. So is the fact that for most members of any group, what counts is whether they take you in and not just whether you want in. Either way, Israel doesn't define Jewishness and I would not be an Israeli, even if I were to become a Jew. It's all academic, anyway, since the only way to become a Jew is through the religion, and that isn't going to happen.

In this multicultural world, where we are not just exposed to but actually live on quite intimate terms with cultural "others," there are lots of groups with which we can come to identify, sometimes superficially, sometimes not so superficially. I felt a rush of Japaneseness when I got my permanent resident visa for Japan. I feel a rush of Italianness every time somebody puts a plate of pasta in front of me, but I understand I can eat the fettuccini and the sushi, light the candles on shabbas, and enjoy the fact the English language is full of words like kvetch and shlep and concepts like Mensch, without seeking out anybody's licence to a new identity.

But then, there are times, when I would almost do more. I would go back to those early days when it first occurred to me that I might put on the mantle of Jewishness and wear it.

Thirty years ago, when Harvey Milk was shot, I went to his funeral in that gorgeous Temple Emanu-El on Arguello Street in San Francisco and sat in the pew right in front of Diane Feinstein. When the service started, first the cantor came out and sang the Mourners’ Kaddish. If you’ve never understood the power of music to communicate more powerfully than words, then listen to a good cantor chant the kaddish some time, particularly if you’re feeling the pain of loss.

Then came a sermon by the rabbi. “We are not here to mourn Harvey Milk so much as to feel sorry for ourselves.”

What?! Did he really say that?

If you were raised in a tradition of “pie in the sky bye and bye” and “gone on to his reward” and “smiling down from Heaven” stuff, this frank honesty can blow you away. It did me, at any rate.

Any man who could speak honestly like that was one of my kind. Coming right on the heels of the kaddish, all I could think of was where do I sign up?

It was an emotional moment and it passed and life went back to normal. But something remained from that one-two punch, the music from the depths of your soul and a religious leader who said it like it was.

What I drew from that, obviously, is not that I ought to join the religion, but that these were people who knew how to say things that were worth listening to. Things I saw as true. Never mind there were Christians who might do the same. Never mind there were ways of being Jewish that might not appeal to me. This was a moment of my personal history that has stayed with me.

And I thought a lot about that moment this week when I heard the news of this guy Bernard Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme has cost people an astonishing fifty billion dollars.

A white supremacist or other anti-Semite might want to make the case this is just another Jewish banker at work. It would not take much to see the exact opposite is true. The Jewish response to Madoff is a rush to isolate him from the community, and I find a parallel in that rush to the opening remark at Milk's funeral. I note, with admiration, two ways of being different from the christian culture in which I was raised. No "he's better off in Heaven." And no "God has already forgiven him, and we must too."

Madoff is a Jew who used his Jewish identity to con other Jews into investing with him. The decision to do so is shutting down all kinds of programs and institutions, but Jews are particularly hard hit. Israel's Technion Technology University has lost $72 million. The Yad Sarah Organization, on whom countless numbers of sick and infirm depend, can’t pay its $20 million operating expenses. The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity lost $15 million, and the list goes on and on. It hurt many beyond the Jewish community, of course - diabetes research, the New York Public Library, countless after-school programs are effected. But the bitter irony that so many Jews were harmed is what I want to focus on here.

There are Bible stories like the one of the prodigal son and how he is welcomed home after his years of profligacy. I like that story. Joseph and his coat of many colors, and the brothers who tried to kill him but now, it turns out, are dependent on him to save their lives and their whole nation. All kinds of great moral lessons in the Bible. I loved these stories as a kid, and have not thrown them out with the bathwater. What I didn't hear, and wish I did, was the more practical savvy take on some of those Bible stories that I keep uncovering in the Jewish tradition.

Just a quick aside here. At a local Congregational Church where George Lakoff was talking, a woman in the audience, clearly unaware she was talking to a Jew, asked Lakoff how she might get her fellow Christians to focus on Jesus' message and less on the Old Testament. Lakoff responded by telling her about the story of Abraham and Isaac, where God tells Abraham to kill Isaac and at the last minute lets him substitute a lamb for his son. "When I was growing up in the Talmudic tradition," he told the woman, "We understood God to have said, while snatching the knife from Abraham's hand, 'Schmuck, don't you know when I'm having you on?'"

One rabbi in Connecticut is urging Jews to launch an ex-communication program to oust Madoff from the community. Another rabbi from Los Angeles, David Wolpe - my kind of guy, again - tells the story of Jacob and Esau and reminds us of a rabbinical tradition which includes sayings such as, “When Esau kisses you, check to make sure your teeth are still there.”

There are all sorts of places one can go with this. If you seek out the Bible verse in Malachi, you’ll eventually get around to the interpretation that Jacob = Israel and his nasty brother Esau = Israel’s enemies and this is just another story about how “God loves us best.” But that’s where religion gets political and toxic and as far as I’m concerned, sometimes a banana is just a banana and this is a story about the fact there are bad guys out there and here is a group of people unafraid to call things as they see them. Rabbi Wolpe has decided there are some sins that are simply unforgiveable.

In the first case, we have a rabbi who wakes you up to the fact that wailing to the skies about the pain of loss is a more honest way of being than smiling through the tears and pretending it isn’t all happening. In the second, we have a rabbi who has decided that since Madoff could never fix the damage he has done between now and the time he goes to his grave, maybe there’s no point in pretending he can be forgiven.

I know there are lots of people in this touchy feely Buddhist world we live in here in California ready to lecture me on the dangers to my soul of carrying a grudge. Hatred, I fully understand, eats away at the hater more than it harms the hated. But I’m not talking about hatred. I don’t feel hatred for Madoff, although I might if I had suffered the consequences of his greed up close. I just think we should get real and stay real about the responsibility the world requires of us.

There is a powerful moment at the heart of the film Munich, which I wrote about some years ago now where one of the characters has a crisis of conscience. He is one of the members of an assassination team Golda Meir has put together to hunt down the killers of the Israeli Olympic Team at Munich. At the moment of truth, he finds he doesn’t have what it takes to pull off an assassination and he is going to have to let his friends and his country down.

And why, exactly, can he not do this thing they are all requiring of him?

Because it isn’t Jewish.

Ever notice how much human behavior, even in the modern world, is tribal? And how much time people spend trying to identify their tribe? In Japan, because I worked with kids who had lived their young years outside of Japan and were now back and learning with varied success how to fit in, the question “What is a Japanese?” was a daily existential question. Jews, too, can fill volumes looking for an answer to what it means to be Jewish in the modern world.

For me, perhaps because I don’t have to carry baggage I choose not to carry, I can say the answer is not so complicated. It goes like this: You can leave the shtetl behind, the Yiddish language, the latkes and the gefilte fish and still be Jewish. (I’m using Ashkenazi examples; one could use Sephardic or modern Israeli examples just as well). You can even leave the religion behind, and still be Jewish. But if you leave behind the ethical way of being in the world, if you rob and cheat and slander and kill, will the gefilte fish still make you Jewish ?

One could do worse than be a member of a group that asks questions like that.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Shoot the Rider, Not the Horse

In Issue 1096 of the Gay and Lesbian Times, published December 25, 2008, the editorial reads, in part:
In contrast to the half-hearted fight led by the No on 8 campaign, led in large part by out-of-state Mormon money and seven out of 10 black voters, Yes on 8 mobilized 52 percent of voters to pass Proposition 8, thus defining marriage in California as a union between a man and a woman, and writing hate into the state Constitution.
I wrote back:

While I agree with you that Prop. 8 wrote hate into the California State Constitution, I have a bone to pick with you over your comment that black voters voted 70% against gay rights. You are right to lay blame on Mormons, who contributed most of the money that bought deceptive ads, but why are you singling out “black voters”?

Blacks who voted yes were probably no more than 4% of the total.

But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is you’ve got something badly wrong. The adjective “black” in front of “voters” suggests there is something about these particular voters being black that made them vote a certain way. There is little doubt the black voters who did vote for Prop. 8 voted not because they were black but because they were adherents of a religious ideology that says there is something wrong with gay people. (And the corollary, of course, is true also – blacks who were not adherents of this ideology, but were among those with no church affiliation, are likely to have voted with the 90% in that category who voted no.)

It was the “Baptist” or the “Pentecostalist” or some other homophobic religious ideology in these people, and not their race, that prompted them to vote yes on 8. And they deserve no more blame (or credit, if that is the way you look at it) for this than any white or Asian person who voted yes. Stop blaming the race and put the blame where it belongs. To blame the race is not only racist by definition; it is also bad science. Bad construction of categories. Bad cause and effect reasoning. Later we can talk about how it wasn’t even the “Baptist” or whatever in them, but the particular (dominant but still not universal) school of thought within this religious domination, and go for the real culprit – closed-minded religion. But for now, since nobody is having at the Baptists but they are having at the blacks, let’s deal with that conceptual error first. Stop with this “70% of blacks” business.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dialogue Yes, Honor No

Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has joined the majority of liberals in supporting Barack Obama’s decision to invite Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration (San Francisco Chronicle, December 22, 2008, p. B5). Where Cynthia Tucker goes, there, almost invariably, go I. And I have promised friends I will not work to undo Obama’s efforts (a power I don't have and would not dream of using if I did) to crank up an administration we are in desperate need of, to lift us out of the Bush pit and possibly even bring back some pride and dignity in being American out in the world.

Here we go again. Yes, Obama is the king. He’s a wonderful man. Love him. Love his daughters. Love his smarts. Approve. Approve. Approve. Yes, we’re lucky we’re not listening to Sarah Palin tell us the world is only 6000 years old and we should visit the Creation Museum near Cincinnati and see the saddles men used to ride the dinosaurs. Yes, we’re lucky we have a president who supports stem-cell research, the right of women to control their own body. Yes. Yes. Yes.

In the Vietnam War days there were these endless discussions when people used to ask me, “Well, do you want the communists to take over the world? Go live in a communist country, and see how long you go on thinking the United States is the bad guy in Vietnam.”

You gay people who would criticize Israeli policy in Gaza and the West Bank try living in an Arab country and see how long you survive.

What is it with people and this “if you’re not fer us, you’re agin’ us” crap?

Cynthia Tucker is not making that mistake, but she is trying to provide a place for us to go so we can be in the "for" camp again, and leave the "against" camp behind. She does not see that in suggesting gay protest is misplaced she is actually putting too much into black and white terms an issue that needs to remain what it is, in all its complexity. In her column this morning she, like the majority of people on the left, sees in Obama’s invitation to Rick Warren a “striving for a spirit of bipartisanship.”

“Among Obama’s several admirable qualities is his ability to sit and converse – debating, but also listening – with those with whom he strongly disagrees…. Obama seems to be sincere about looking for ways to revive not only bipartisan cooperation but also ecumenical cooperation. He’s right to try.”

“Some (gays),” she says, “even seem to think that Obama agrees with Warren’s offensive rhetoric…”

That’s true, they do. But that’s a red herring. Most don’t believe that for a minute, although you can’t blame them for wondering. They’re not turning on him, they are protesting his decision. Now that we’ve got that lousy bunch replaced with “our guy” we’re supposed to like everything he does? Justify his moves? March behind him and be his yes-men?

Tucker, and the rest of the left, have a good point in arguing that “there’s no reason to believe broad consensus can’t be reached on other (issues), such as broadening the social safety net for children from poor families. Or intervening to stop genocide in Darfur. Or helping victims of HIV/AIDS.”

Of course we should work for broad consensus. But do you really think Rick Warren would suddenly stop working on HIV/AIDS (a cause he deserves a great deal of credit for) or turn around from his belief that evangelicals ought to care more for the poor than they do, simply because Obama invited him to lunch at the White House instead of giving him this position of honor at the inauguration? Come on. Gays are not going to abandon Obama for this wretched decision, and Warren is not going to stop being Warren if Obama missed this alleged opportunity to build bridges.

I used to watch Donahue back in the days when we placed such a high value on “balance” that every time we had a Jew talk about Auschwitz, some people thought we ought to have a Nazi there to “give the other point of view.”

We had lynching in this country as a form of national culture terrorism to keep blacks in such fear they would not get “uppity.” When we tell that story today, do we have to have representation from the Ku Klux Klan?

This man Rick Warren preaches to the 20,000 people who come to his church every week (and the 80,000 who belong and fill his coffers) that gay people are in the same category as those who commit incest. And he suggests they are like those who prey on young children. This man actually gets up in America today and says things like that, and reasonable good people like Cynthia Tucker think we can get away with calling that a “difference of opinion over social issues.”

It’s hate speech. When gay people get their brains bashed in by thugs, they have the spirit of Rick Warren to thank for what drives them. We still have anti-Semites, but they are now forced to live on the perifery of society, as the mean-spirited fools they are. Most non-Jewish people today let them have it and they are marked as indecent.

Someday that will be true for people who suggest that gay people prey on children, that gay people are sick in the soul and in desperate need of change, that gays given their rights by a state here and a Supreme Court there should have those rights taken back from them, because there is something fundamentally flawed about them. Think about that. Really think about that. It is socially acceptable in America today to say that this group of people, because they are morally flawed (because I tell you they are morally flawed), should be treated as a group apart. Not like us.

Someday gays will not have to endure public pronouncements on their inferiority any longer. Just not today. Not yet. On the contrary. While Obama would never invite a Ku Klux Klanner to see if maybe “broad consensus can’t be reached” he still invites this homophobe to a place of honor.

OK, maybe he would sit down with the Klan. He’s really quite good at reaching out. But the issue at hand is not reaching out; it’s bestowing honor.

All these words will have to be sautéed à la chinoise and eaten if it turns out Rick Warren is so moved by this invitation that he falls away from his soul-killing homophobia.

I’ll invite you to watch.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Step on one foot at a time

Early on in my teaching career, when every new choice bit by a student working in English as a Second Language would pop off the page at me and delight me, I knew I had found my home in the teaching profession. One Chinese girl wrote in an essay one time that she had just seen her uncle off “through the San Francisco fog in my eye” as he flew back to Hong Kong, leaving her behind, the treasure of the family, to do them all proud. In another student paper I found, less touching but no less poetic, “the first mile of a long journey begins by stepping on one foot after another.”

I think of that kid from forty years ago and wonder how he’s expressing himself in English now, at age 60. And I wonder if he knows how useful it was for me, not just professionally, but personally, to see that teaching and learning was going to be a two-way process, not a lesson in dictation. He hit me, as it turns out, at a “teaching moment.” For me, I mean, not him. I was ready to meditate on the need to slow down and let things happen at their own pace.

For the past several months, since the passing of the same-sex marriage right in California, its overturn in Prop. 8 and the thousands of blogs, letters and discussions that followed, I’ve been glued to the computer screen. Enjoying the highs (Jerry Brown deciding he could not, in good conscience, do what the law required and support Prop. 8 in court) and wincing at the lows (Barack Obama giving a place of honor to a man who uses his considerable influence to persuade people homosexuality is no different from incest and child molestation), and trying to hang on to my patience as homophobia rages across the United States like a wildfire.

Measuring each step. Do I go to another candlelight parade? Do I send another check? So many individual decisions. Engage here, let this one go…

Here’s a sample of the kind of thing I usually let go by, but this morning, maybe because the sun is out again, I decided to have a go at:

This letter appeared in a New York news and commentary website. I’ve read the same argument countless dozens of times, but this morning I had to write back.

I think gay men or lesbians should be given ALL the rights that heterosexual couples get, but it can not be called 'marriage'. Isnt that a good compromise? I have no problem at all with everyone having the same rights, whether financial, medical..whatever, but its not 'marriage'. Marriage is a man and a woman. Its like calling an apple an orange.

One other little important point, Marriage is not a right. I challenge anyone to find any language in the US Constitution or any state constitution that says you have a 'right' to marry. Its not there. You dont have a 'right' to drive either. That is why you have to get a LICENSE. You dont need a license for freedom of speech, b/c its a right. Marriage is not a right.
I responded:

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution says, in part, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” How we should interpret words like “liberty” and “equal protection” is not left up to popular vote, but to judges appointed to do just that job. That’s what the California Supreme Court did on May 15 when it said they could find no injury to the state in allowing two people of the same sex to marry. We licence marriage and we license the right to drive, but for different reasons. We want people to know whether the people they are marrying have diseases, and we want people who drive to demonstrate they know how. The purpose in both cases is the protection of the individuals involved. In neither case is the state entitled to withhold the license on the basis of race, creed, religion, gender or any other identity marker.
Most people I know, I suspect, will wonder why I don’t have better things to do. This guy is not likely to change his mind.

I don’t know. Step by step. Forget the giant slaying, I say. Work instead on keeping the ants out of the sugar bowl.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Feeding the Beast

Question: What do Albania, Romania, the Republic of Montenegro and Gabon all have in common that they do not share with the United States of America?

Answer: They signed a UN Declaration yesterday opposing human rights abuses against gays and lesbians.

The United States didn’t want to sign because, they say, “there are some legal issues to be worked out.”


It’s a non-binding resolution. It’s symbolic. Nobody’s going to hold you to it, America, if you go on stabbing gays in the back, so stop worrying this law might come get you for your insistence that gays in the military must lie about their identity.

Every last country in Europe signed this resolution. Japan signed it. 66 countries in all.

The Vatican at first refused, but after heavy criticism from human rights forces, even they changed their mind and decided maybe it would be a good idea after all to “call for repeal of criminal penalties for homosexual conduct.”

That leaves the Muslim nations, Russia and China. And the United States.

Land mines. The Kyoto Treaty. And now this.

You don’t have to dig very deep to find the reasoning behind America’s foot-dragging. With land mines, it was the fear of hobbling the military. With the Kyoto Treaty, it was kowtowing to big business. And with homosexuality, it is this pathetic need to throw bones to Killer Religion, that monster that eats us alive at times. OK, I exaggerate. It doesn’t eat us alive; it simply nibbles away at our feet and keeps us from walking right.

Currently gay people are trying to calm themselves down over the invitation to Rick Warren to open the guts of the ox on Inauguration Day and read the entrails. Our American version of the practice, anyway.

Why Rick Warren? To reach out, says the President Elect. To show he is welcoming “a wide diversity of opinion.” Horseshit. Gays, and others who take the time to think on it, are not unaware there are no white supremacists in the crowd. No obvious anti-Semites. Just this guy who likes to tell us that gay people are in the same category as child molesters and people given to incest.

But anti-Semites are un-American, say the defenders of this decision, and so is the Ku Klux Klan. Well, yes. Precisely. It is un-American to say black people are mentally deficient. Used to be able to say that. Cain’t no more. Used to be able to say Jews were sneaky bastards who plotted ways to take your money. Can’t say that either, any more, at least not without looking like a bigot.

But you can still say gay people are like child molesters (hell, some actually say they ARE child molesters) and get invited to lead the coronation.

Oh, America. We are such a great nation. So broad. So open. So diverse.

Everybody is welcome here.

Tell me about it.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Truth into Falsehood

When I got out of the Army in 1965 and came to live in San Francisco, I was still young, and still reeling from a rude awakening. It would take me a decade before I had any real sense of balance again. I’m not talking about a serious breakdown. I’m talking about the growing up that took place as the comfortable world view of my youth was ripped out and replaced by a cynical mindset I still struggle with, but then overcame me entirely.

In those black and white days I went directly into the Army Security Agency from high school and found myself in Berlin, where Americans were still heroes and the bad guys were just over the wall. Our unit, the 78th USASASOU, was one of those military strategists recognized as indefensible if ever the Russians decided to march in. At 23, I found that exciting. Kind of like eating blowfish in a Japanese restaurant. A way of sneering at death without actually facing it.

My job was to listen to Communist Party members talk to each other on the phone. We were a spy unit and this was where West stood up to East and freedom faced down tyranny.

Problem was, the folks whose voices we heard in the earphones were very ordinary sounding. As the months went by we got to know them. They talked about their kids, about birthday parties, laughed at their weaknesses and at getting old. They even, on occasion, talked about music and theater. It became increasingly difficult to maintain the view these were monsters, particularly when the sergeants who ran our lives, and whom we referred to as orang-utans, lashed out not only at the East Germans, but the West Germans as well. A Doobie was a Doobie. No good Indian like a dead Indian in those cowboy days.

Trouble is I was part Doobie myself (the name, I understand, came from the sound of the police and ambulence sirens, which we heard as low-high, low-high-low-high-low-high (doo-BEE…doo-BEE-doo-BEE-doo-BEE) and for the first time I was exposed to the possibility that “my people” were perhaps not really “my people.” And the map of where the good guys were and where the bad guys were began to frazzle.

I began to get other indications, when things I would learn would appear in the newspapers in twisted form, when stories would filter back of abuses by the U.S. military, when the suicides in the barracks began to affect morale, that maybe this adult world wasn’t all I thought it was. Kids in my position lived protected lives in the 50s. No inner city crime and drugs and prostitution in my high school. No need to lock your doors. No preparation for what I would find once I put on a uniform, once I got a glimpse of how power worked, and once there were no rose-colored glasses that fit my new prescription any more.

When I got to San Francisco seething with anger and resentment after the military experience, the Vietnam War was in full swing. I was certain about two things. One, I had lucked out by having been “essential” to the Cold War effort in a way that would keep me out of Vietnam, and two, the world was full of shit from top to bottom.

It was still before the war protest marches began in earnest, during a Chinese New Year’s parade, when a military band went by. Spontaneously, I heard myself shouting at them, “Paid killers! Paid killers!”

A women next to me turned and said, “How dare you! My son is in the military.”

I didn’t skip a beat. “Your son,” I growled at her, “is a paid killer.”

I always got an A in American history because I knew America won the Philippines in the Spanish-American War fair and square and our great country was expanded when the Southwest and California decided to become English-speaking and wasn’t that a lucky turn of events. Now, three years later, I was standing in the streets filled with rage and unconcerned with the feelings of anyone who disagreed with me.

The woman’s son was not a paid killer. He was a product of the age like the rest of us. The woman, in a perfect world, would not have been subjected to a smart-ass like me. Now, over four decades later, I still wish I could find her and apologize.

But the Vietnam War was wrong. I was on the right side of history. I just lacked the skills to fight American aggression with flair and efficiency. I could only swing like a punch-drunk fighter at anything that looked like an opponent.

Ten years, it took. Ten years of marching in the streets of San Francisco, while the rest of the country went on “fighting them over there so you don’t have to fight them in your own back yard.” Dropping napalm and lying with words like “containment” and “pacification.” The rest of the country eventually did come around and the troops came home. Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam started picking up the pieces. And we began asking if it was all worth it.

For a while there, it appeared we had learned the answer was no. We had learned that good people (us) could do bad things and that we might ought to work a little harder to find alternatives to war. Hell, even ordinary Americans began to wonder out loud if we were not just a tad imperialistic.

The seas changed over the years, however, and we forgot all about Vietnam. George Bush taunted, “Bring ‘em on!” and we put ourselves in the history books as an illustration of Santayana’s maxim, 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'

On November 4th, the shoot-first Bush American administration was voted out of office, and the joy and relief are still fresh. After the Vietnam War, the shame took years to sink in, and we were never quite sure whether it was because we did the wrong thing, or simply because we lost. Now, with Afghanistan and Iraq, we are still justifying and hoping we can fix the mess we made.

Can we fix the mess, I wonder, if we don’t face the shame. We tortured people. We imprisoned people without charges, without access to a lawyer. We ignored the Geneva Conventions and put in a yes-man Justice Department that could defend pre-emptive war, in the Nixon tradition where “nothing the president does can be illegal.”

Can we put things right if we don’t wonder why we didn’t do more to stop this? We who gave the world the Nuremberg Trials, where we held each individual responsible, not the collective.

We forgot who we were. Which is another way of saying we discovered we could be something quite other than what we said we were.

What brings these reflections to mind is an article by Bill Ayres that appeared this morning in the New York Times.

Bill Ayres was what I was in the Vietnam years. But he was more than a voice of conscience. Instead of merely standing on the sidewalk reducing the mothers of our men in uniform to tears, he was out there trying to be more effective. He was up against the same frustration, the fact that most of his countrymen would not or could not see the evil of the American military war machine.

He tried harder than I did, and it cost him.

Read his story. And when you do, consider the narrow escape we just had on November 4th. Consider what might have been if Sarah Palin and John McCain were now stepping up to represent America in the world. Imagine being led by these folk who took this man Ayres, a foolish idealistic (and patriotic) youth, and framed him as a “domestic terrorist,” and then used him as a means to smear their political opponent.

I think the Christians are right. There is a hell. Only it’s not a place to fear after death. It’s always just inches away in the here and now. Sometimes in crude form, as when people abuse children, when the poor sell their organs to survive, when young girls are sold into prostitution. And sometimes in more refined form, as when people turn beauty into ugliness, and truth into falsehood.

But this is a time to celebrate, not a time to dwell on hell.

We missed it by inches.

But we missed it.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Christmas Greeting to my Sister

My sister sent me a lovely Christmas message today, on the first of December. It was a bit early, but that’s OK. She wanted to make the point that, as she put it, “political correctness” is preventing people from saying Merry Christmas, and that was a bad thing.

Here’s what I wrote back:

Dear Karen:

Nobody is taking away your right to say Merry Christmas.

Say it all you want. Say it to everybody you meet. Say it for your own reasons, shout it from the rooftops that you are a Christian and wish the whole world were Christian.

And I hope people say Merry Christmas back to you, just as I know you will say Happy Hanukkah back to Jews and Happy Divali back to Hindus when their holidays come around.

Nobody in America has the right to take away from people their freedom to express their religious feelings and beliefs.

It's not your fault that historically Christians did so much damage to others in the name of Christ, and so many people today, when they see a cross around somebody's neck, remember those awful times, and fear their return.

It's not your fault that so many people who identify themselves as Christians today insist their religion (not just their religion, but their particular understanding of it) should dominate all others in America, as they did in California recently when they bullied others with the view that the Bible should trump the Constitution and that non-Christians should be required to follow Christian rules – and that they have inspired an all-or-nothing political correctness backlash which supports the view that maybe it's better if all expression of religion is restricted in public places in order to avoid possible conflict.

I'm with you. I think Hindus and Muslims and Zoroastrians should be encouraged to be chaplains in the army, and say the opening prayers in Congress and at presidential inaugurations. I think that Jews should be able to stand up in State Legislatures and other public places and say Christ is not the Messiah, and people should listen with polite attention, even when they do not agree. I think Mormons should be able to insist publicly that Christians who believe Jesus was God are wrong, that God lived in human form on a planet near the star Kolob, had carnal sex with Mary and produced Jesus and his brother Satan. I think they should be able to say prayers reflecting that view in the public schools, and say publicly that portions of the Bible are wrong because they were mistranslated by corrupt catholic priests, and those who do not agree with them should pray quietly in their own way.

Then, when all the religious bullying has stopped, and we are all free to be fully religious, or fully non-religious, each in our own way, there will no longer be any objection to public displays of "Merry Christmas." Then we will have complete religious freedom at long last in this country, and not just freedom of religion for those who outnumber the rest.

Meanwhile, don't be too hard on those well-intentioned folk who believe we should keep our religious expression to ourselves. They are sincere and practical people and they are working as hard as they can to assure we don't return to those days when we routinely tortured and killed people who did not worship God in our way. Their advice for everybody to stay cool is not the worst advice we could take.

Merry Christmas to you. And Merry Christmas to your Christian friends.



Sunday, November 16, 2008

In Each Other's Moccasins

You lost your leg at the hip. I merely lost mine at the knee. Do we have to fight over which one of us deserves more pity?

Sometimes, there are hyperbolic claims that should be shot down. Imagine how a concentration camp survivor feels when hearing the religious right call abortions a “modern day Holocaust.” Screw that noise. An insulting insensitive trivialization of a 20th Century lowpoint in human degradation.

But when you hear people complain that gays have no right to call the same-sex marriage issue a civil rights issue, because they are white boys who’ve always had it made in the shade, well, do you wonder why gays start increasing the volume from any orifice that will make noise?
"Blacks used to be slaves in America. How does that compare to Homosexuals?”
one innocent writer asks. (At least he gave us a capital letter.)

[Can't seem to get that link to work: it's ]

Since you asked, I’m going to tell you.

If you’re only interested in making a gotcha point, you can set things up so that you have black men hanging from trees on the one hand, and bourgeois urban white boys having to return their wedding gifts to Tiffany’s on the other. Then you can smirk away while your friends marvel at your insight and your genius.

But you’re comparing apples to oranges when you do things like that. You might also compare the hate crimes against gays or the death of Matthew Shephard, the young man tied to a fence and left to die in the Wyoming cold with a black family (or an Arab family or a Chinese family) shunned at a church picnic.

Many of these inept and insensitive comparisons are not done maliciously. Just as lots of Catholics really do not know the history of anti-semitism in Catholic Europe over the centuries (and Jews do), lots of straights are not aware of the statistics of gay teenage suicide familiar to virtually any gay man with a consciousness. We all remember the self-loathing and the wee hours in the morning when we had a moment of recognition that there but for the grace of God… OK, maybe it was Ganesha.

If we seem a tad hypersensitive to homophobia, there’s good reason. Most whites still don’t know about Tuskegee. As black history gets taught to whites as well as blacks, that lacuna will be filled. Some day, one hopes, gay history will be taught to straights and they will come to understand in their gut what it feels like to face a person with a smile on his face who he tells just because he hates the sinful life you’ve “chosen” doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you the sinner.

And you're not supposed to spit.

Just because you’ve chosen to be black doesn’t mean you can’t change your criminal ways.

Just because you’ve chosen to be Jewish doesn’t mean you can’t come to Jesus.

Just because you’ve chosen to be Hindu doesn’t mean you can’t convert to an American religion.

Man, if we could only get into each other’s moccasins for a day!

Why can’t you gays just let these religious people have their word marriage? Take your legal right to be in a civil union and we can all go back to more important things.

Why can’t you blacks just stick to your separate-but-equal schools?
Your perfectly fine black neighborhoods?

Why can’t you Jews form your own country clubs?

Why can’t you Chinese stay in Chinatown instead of buying up all the best real estate in San Francisco?

When I had to sit on the floor and you offered me a chair, but not the couch, I said thank you.

When I was not allowed to learn to read and you let me go to a colored school but not a white school, I said thank you.

Why are you people fighting over one little goddam word?

Calm down. Calm down, gay people. Stop fuming and just answer the question.

It’s not the word, it’s the right to be equal partners with you who would take a right for yourselves and keep it from others.

It’s the right to live in a fully equal society, not a separate-but-equal condition, especially in a country which has had decades to learn that separate is never equal.

It’s the right to be fully American, fully human. Not an “other,” not a “you people,” not a “sinner” to be tolerated.

Did you really think we would buy into your claim that you are “protecting” marriage? You protect good things from bad things. The nation from terrorists. Villages from tigers. Children from predator priests.

We are not terrorists. We’re not tigers. And, damn your eyes, we’re not the kind of people your children need protecting from, no matter how hard you try to work that vicious old slander.

If anything, it’s our children who need protecting from people who would try to persuade them their families are not real, not good, not ready-for-prime-time families.

We’re your fellow citizens. Live in the same neighborhood. Eat at the same table. Ride in the same bus. And not in the back, either.

When the Supreme Court overturns this unjust attempt to both cut the pie and then take the biggest piece, some will dismiss them as irresponsible “activist” judges. Those who remember their civics lessons in junior high school, however, will recognize them as the third branch of government besides the executive and the legislative – the branch entrusted with the duty to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority. Men and women looking out to ensure there are no first class, and no second-class citizens.

God bless you, as the politicians say.

And God bless the United States of America.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Letter to Tracy L. Hickman

Tracy L. Hickman has an opinion piece in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle, entitled “Tolerance deserved for all.” I know nothing about her other than the fact that she is a Mormon, lives in Redwood City, California, and might benefit from a vaccine against misuse of the passive voice.

Read it if you can find the time. It pretty much states the case the Mormons are making these days, as they wake up to this protest against them which they think came out of nowhere.

Such nice people, the Mormons. Always invited them into my house in Japan when they came to the door. Bright eyed earnest youngsters who wore name tags on their impeccable suits and ties identifying themselves, at all of their twenty-three years of age, as Elder Potter, Elder Smith, Elder Young...

For me, they have always defined the word naive. Well intentioned. Clueless.

And now rich. And increasingly politically involved.

Anyway, I wrote back to Ms. Hickman:


Dear Ms. Hickman:

Thank you for expressing your views on Prop. 8 in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle. It provides an opportunity for dialogue, and I hope you will take my response in that spirit.

Let me address your main points.

• “(P)eople like me have the right to support a definitional (sic) proposition that agrees with a core religious teaching.
You evidently buy into the argument that gays are trying to redefine marriage and the claim that they should not be allowed to, rather than extend marriage, a right the Supreme Court has determined they do have. In doing this, you turn a blind eye to the fact that marriage is redefined at regular intervals as society’s core values change.

When our society determined that women deserved the same rights as men, marriage stopped being the transfer of a young girl from her father’s household to her husband’s and began being a union of two lovers wishing to form a new family and commit to a lifelong relationship. When Mormons wanted to join the union, they redefined marriage as a union of one man and one woman. When we determined that slavery had to go (and with it the prohibition of marriage to slaves), marriage equality was extended to former slaves. When we came around to thinking that American citizens maybe ought to have the right to marry the person of their choice regardless of racial classification, marriage equality was extended to bi-racial couples. Anybody who thinks marriage should not be redefined because it is has thousands of years of tradition behind it is working from a false premise.
That said, Ms. Hickman, you do, of course, have the right to voice your support for the status quo ante of marriage between opposite sex couples only, if you wish. But this election was not a survey of preferences; it was a move to repeal the constitutional right of two adult Californians to marry each other regardless of sex. You chose to support that repeal, and that too is your right as an American. To assume that people would lie down and quietly accept that you and others could take those rights away with impunity, however, is naïve.
• people don’t like Mormons, much of the time without merit
The people most outspokenly anti-Mormon are the Catholics and Evangelicals whom you crawled into bed with to revise the California Constitution, people who, like you, would argue the right to base their opinions on their religious doctrines. Most of the rest of us think you are mighty fine people, as individuals.
And this suggests people are demonstrating against the Mormon Church out of prejudice, rather than out of outrage stemming from the millions of dollars spent at the urging of your church leaders to remove constitutional rights. Where is the evidence for this?
• there is the “perceived influence from Utah”
Perceived? The Mormon leaders who were a major force in making this happen were not citizens of Utah? All those phone banks for Yes on 8 were not in Utah?
• Mormons represent less than 2 percent of California’s population, so singling them out is unfair.
Do you really not understand that it is in overwhelmingly large part Mormon money that bought this campaign? Some reports put it at 77% of the total. The ads, pretty much everybody agrees, did the trick. The suggestion this was all about poisoning the minds of children, the lie by omission that said Obama was against same-sex marriage but failed to say he was also against Prop. 8, the false claims this was about taxing churches – over $20,000,000.00 of that paid for by Mormons!
• the Church itself gave no money to the campaign
The LDS Presidency gave the directive to donate "of your means and time." And the people followed their leaders.
• “We exercised the most sacred and individual rights in the United States for which many people have given their lives”
This was not a vote to issue bond money to build a bridge, or change zoning laws. It was a vote to remove the rights of California citizens the Supreme Court determined, after three months of careful deliberation, was in the Constitution. It was an attempt at an end-run around the judiciary, whose function it is to help protect the rights of minorities against mob rule. Those who gave their lives for American freedom died for all of us, not just some of you.
• it is wrong to take aim at our churches and our sacred places of worship because of those beliefs
When churches enter the political arena, they can hardly claim they are sacred places any longer. You can’t have it both ways.
Tolerance for all? Prop. 8 will go down in history as a model of intolerance. You stepped on people’s toes. Now you want them to show tolerance of your right to put your foot anywhere you choose without saying ouch?

Not going to happen.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why not blame African Americans?

I saw a letter in the Contra Costa Times this morning which read:

While Mormons represent a small minority of voters in California, protesters appear to be targeting them for special retribution.

Funny, African Americans voted 70 percent in favor of Proposition 8, yet no one is protesting against them.

You would think if gay marriage were such a fundamental civil right, African Americans would be first in line to vote no on Prop. 8.

Since they have won their rights, do they now want to limit others? Are they just not clever enough to see through the lies of the "religious right"?

Maybe the people who fought and bled the most just aren't convinced that gay marriage is so fundamental after all.

I wrote back:

One of your readers is surprised nobody is protesting against African Americans for their support of Prop. 8. But they are. Just not their skin color. It wasn't skin color that made that 70% vote against Prop. 8. It was religion. If they were 70% Quakers, or Jews, or Congregationalists, or Episcopalians, or agnostics, you know that figure would never have reached 70%. It's that African Americans tend to belong to churches that read the Bible selectively and literally. Selectively, because they ignore the parts that tell you to stone adulterers (that's too much like "us") and stress the parts that tell you to stone gays (that's "them"). And literally, focusing on the "Thou shalt not" parts instead of the "Ye have heard it said…but I say unto you…" parts. The problem is not race; it's a narrow reading of Scripture and failure to recognize the state should not have to take its orders from the church.

What I didn't comment on, so as not to confuse the issue, is that the attention the Mormons are getting is because most of the money for this "they're after your children" campaign came from them. Some estimates put it as high as three-quarters of the money. Claims that the money came from individuals and not the Church itself are equally disingenuous, since the Church put out an official letter, read in every Mormon church in California in June, asking members to "do all you can to support" the proposition by donating "your means and time."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Letter to Scott Eckern

Mr. Scott Eckern
Artistic Director
California Musical Theatre
1510 J Street, Suite 200
Sacramento, CA 95814
November 11, 2008

Dear Mr. Eckern:

I have just come across the news that a boycott is mounting against the California Musical Theatre because of your $1000 contribution to the Yes on Proposition 8 Campaign.

I went to your website at and found this highly personal account of the place of the Mormon Church in your life, alongside your love of the theatre. I read the sentence, “I am engaged in a life long pursuit of becoming a better me.” with great sympathy. I don’t doubt your sincerity, just as I don’t doubt you believed you were on the side of God when your threw your support behind Prop. 8.

My guess is that the California Musical Theatre, in order to survive financially, will want to disassociate themselves from you. I am a great fan of local theatre and hope they succeed in this. They should not have to suffer because of a political misstep by their artistic director.

But it was a misstep, Mr. Eckern. A terribly hurtful one. Yours is a perfect example of the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. You showed a devastating lack of civic responsibility in pushing your Church’s doctrine at the expense of your fellow Californians’ civil rights. You have forgotten that your religious freedom might not last long in the face of so many people like me who believe your doctrinal beliefs are pure idiocy, but does exist because we support your right 100% to live by them and act on them. It’s just that you failed to remember that your rights, like mine, end where others’ begin.

I hope you come to understand just what harm you have done, good intentions notwithstanding. I hope your theatre survives and prospers.

I hope you do, as well.

But please, Scott. Don’t hit me with your doctrine again. I don’t live by Mormon rules.

And I shouldn’t have to.

Yours sincerely,

Alan J. McCornick

Monday, November 10, 2008

An old old story

It’s an old old story. Some group is bullied for a while for being different. They manage to come to power and instead of moving from sensitivity and awareness, they move from power to become bullies themselves. Catholics were once second–class citizens in Calvinist America. Mormons were even lower down the scale. Yet today, Catholic Archbishop Niederauer can selectively call on his tradition, get the Mormons to join in and open their wallets, and push through a proposition to overturn the rights of citizens of California who should not be expected to march to the beat of Catholic or Mormon drums.

Get the Evangelicals in on the deal, and tacitly agree to put aside their views on who’s going to hell and who isn’t, open the Bible to the parts that condemn homosexuality and white-out the parts that assign the same penalties (death) to adulterers and divorcees, and have a grand old time enjoying the recently acquired power to bully.

You are a secularist? Get away from me. A Congregationalist? Keep it to yourself. We three powerful religion folk are on a roll. We’re going to roll back your right to marry because our religion doesn’t like it. There was a time we couldn’t do this, but times have changed. Constitutional rights? My religion tells me there are things more important than your constitutional rights.

Homosexuality still makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and not just for religious reasons. But everyone who has read a newspaper, watched TV or walked out his or her front door in the last twenty years can tell you homophobia is dying off, as more and more people get to share their lives with gay people and come to realize what years of scorn and derision can do to the psyche and how unworthy it is to institutionalize such animus in law and public policy. Little by little the homophobia has lifted. Only in conservative religious communities does it still really hold sway.

Nomadic tribes cut off thieves’ hands because they couldn’t stop for trials and had no jails. Onan spit his seed into the sand and got zapped because the Hebrews needed to follow Monty Python’s law that “every sperm is sacred” if they were going to survive as a people. Many religious people today read these stories as literature and metaphor in a historical context and have absolutely no trouble with equal rights for women, for all people of any hue, for people who, try as they might, simply can’t found families with a single member of the opposite sex. Only those still worshiping the Golden Calf of literalism seem duty-bound to make us live by their notion of eternal verities, and some of them even tell us with a straight face their religious rules should trump our constitutional ones.

I am hopeful this goes back to the courts, as Governor Schwarzenegger and others have suggested it should, and that the Supreme Court of California, who saw no benefit to the state in letting the Catholics, or Evangelicals, or Mormons – or, for that matter, the Congregationalists or the Unitarians who are their polar opposites on the topic of homosexuality – determine above all others how we should live our lives as citizens of a Republic.

If it does, and if Prop. 8 is overturned, the champagne corks will pop once more. New gay families will form alongside the always more numerous traditional ones. Those of us who pray, pray that day comes sooner rather than later.

The problem of homophobia will remain, but we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that the progress of history is toward greater civil freedom, not less.

And this lumbering monster religion with many arms and twice as many elbows will sink back into the sea again.

Let’s hope that happens soon enough to head off the folly of boycotting the lovely state of Utah. Sorry, all you Mormons who voted No on 8. All you Sundance people. All you non-Mormon Utahans.

Forgive us our anger. The monster scared us there for a minute.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Letter to George Niederauer

Most Reverend George Niederauer,
Archbishop of San Francisco
1 Peter Yorke Way
San Francisco, CA 94109

November 8, 2008

Your Excellency:

I am writing to urge you to right a great wrong.

You have used your influence to amend the California Constitution to remove civil rights the Supreme Court found there, and imposed on Californians a heavy burden they should not have to bear.

I understand perfectly well that your Church teaches you marriage is an arrangement between one man, one woman, and God, a sacrament that goes back to the Council of Trent. I respect your right to follow that tradition and urge Catholics in your care to do the same.

I know of your work in caring for those whose self-loathing has led them into drugs and prostitution, for those who have fallen victim to AIDS, for those seeking a way to stay in the arms of the Church despite its insistence there is something fundamentally sinful about them. I know you are a good man trying to be a good priest, and on a personal level I share with Catholics and other non-Catholics of the San Francisco Bay Area respect for your good works.

But something terrible has just happened with the passing of Proposition 8 that makes me see you in a very different light.

Surely you must be aware that the Yes on 8 Campaign was founded on deceit. It suggested Barack Obama was in favor of the proposition when he was not. It based its entire pitch on protecting children – a homophobic trope since the days of Anita Bryant. It railed against “activist judges” when anyone who took the trouble to follow the May 15 decision knows how earnestly these good men and women lived up to their role as guardians of the Constitution and behaved honorably. It encouraged people to vote their fears and suspicions, not their understanding of the great American tradition of equality under the law. How could you have put your reputation on the line with such as these?

You might have done as Obama did, and let it be known your views differed from those who were opposed to Proposition 8, but simultaneously recognize that this does not entitle you to subvert the spirit of the laws of the state in which we live.

Instead, you got into bed with Mormons and Evangelical groups known for insisting real Americans are Christians and others are merely to be tolerated, to impose your will on those outside your faith traditions – unlike Quakers, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Reform Jews and others, whose love of God does not make these demands of them.

What will come of this decision remains to be seen. My guess is your parish at Holy Redeemer will lose much of their Catholic heart, and many will seek spiritual guidance elsewhere. You can chalk this up to the cost of doing business, if you will. Elsewhere hearts will surely harden against the notion that churches should have tax-exempt status. Bitterness, anger, and rage will be expressed until the gay community finally learns to channel once again these powerful emotions into constructive rebuilding of the edifice of freedom you have knocked out from under them. Your church may ride this out; this may also accelerate its evident decline as it sinks in around the Bay Area just what you have accomplished.

You are not solely responsible, of course, for this outpouring of grief, despair and anger. But you surely bear a good portion of responsibility. One may forgive those whose knowledge of the history of the separation of church and state was weak, and whose understanding of democracy and the voting booth ends with the expression of selfish desire, those who do not understand their freedom ends where others’ begins. One expected more of you.

I write you in the hope that you might come to see what harm you have just done. You live where you can see the beauty of gay and lesbian families up close, the ways they raise their children, the way they struggle to make life meaningful and good, the way they seek God. I was encouraged to write when I read that you were able to separate priest abuse from homosexuality, and saw Brokeback Mountain as being about the destructiveness of not being honest with yourself. Your experience, one hopes, might enable you to speak to power of the truth of the evil of institutional homophobia.

But, more importantly in the present instance, you could do so much good if you were to come forward and admit that removing the constitutional rights of California citizens was not an appropriate act for any member representing a religious body.

Please, Your Excellency, right the wrong in which you have just participated.

Respectfully yours,

Alan J. McCornick

Letter to Jasmyne A. Cannick

Lesbian activist, Jasmyne A. Cannick, has a letter in today's Los Angeles Times - eEdition.

I have reprinted it here, followed by a response I posted on her blog.

No-on-8's white bias
The right to marry does nothing to address the problems faced by both black gays and black straights.
By Jasmyne A. Cannick
November 8, 2008

I am a perfect example of why the fight against Proposition 8, which amends the state Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, failed to win black support.

I am black. I am a political activist who cares deeply about social justice issues. I am a lesbian. This year, I canvassed the streets of South Los Angeles and Compton, knocking on doors, talking politics to passers-by and working as I never had before to ensure a large voter turnout among African Americans. But even I wasn't inspired to encourage black people to vote against the proposition.

Why? Because I don't see why the right to marry should be a priority for me or other black people. Gay marriage? Please. At a time when blacks are still more likely than whites to be pulled over for no reason, more likely to be unemployed than whites, more likely to live at or below the poverty line, I was too busy trying to get black people registered to vote, period; I wasn't about to focus my attention on what couldn't help but feel like a secondary issue.

The first problem with Proposition 8 was the issue of marriage itself. The white gay community never successfully communicated to blacks why it should matter to us above everything else -- not just to me as a lesbian but to blacks generally. The way I see it, the white gay community is banging its head against the glass ceiling of a room called equality, believing that a breakthrough on marriage will bestow on it parity with heterosexuals. But the right to marry does nothing to address the problems faced by both black gays and black straights. Does someone who is homeless or suffering from HIV but has no healthcare, or newly out of prison and unemployed, really benefit from the right to marry someone of the same sex?

Maybe white gays could afford to be singularly focused, raising millions of dollars to fight for the luxury of same-sex marriage. But blacks were walking the streets of the projects and reaching out to small businesses, gang members, convicted felons and the spectrum of an entire community to ensure that we all were able to vote.

Second is the issue of civil rights. White gays often wonder aloud why blacks, of all people, won't support their civil rights. There is a real misunderstanding by the white gay community about the term. Proponents of gay marriage fling it around as if it is a one-size-fits-all catchphrase for issues of fairness.

But the black civil rights movement was essentially born out of and driven by the black church; social justice and religion are inextricably intertwined in the black community. To many blacks, civil rights are grounded in Christianity -- not something separate and apart from religion but synonymous with it. To the extent that the issue of gay marriage seemed to be pitted against the church, it was going to be a losing battle in my community.

Then there was the poorly conceived campaign strategy. Opponents of Proposition 8 relied on an outdated civil rights model, engaging the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People to help win black support on the issue of gay marriage. This happened despite the warnings of black lesbians and gays that it wouldn't work. While the NAACP definitely should have been included in the strategy, it shouldn't have been the only group. Putting nearly a quarter of a million dollars into an outdated civil rights group that has very little influence on the black vote -- at least when it comes to gay issues -- will never work.

Likewise, holding the occasional town-hall meeting in Leimert Park -- the one part of the black community where they now feel safe thanks to gentrification -- to tell black people how to vote on something gay isn't effective outreach either.

There's nothing a white gay person can tell me when it comes to how I as a black lesbian should talk to my community about this issue. If and when I choose to, I know how to say what needs to be said. Many black gays just haven't been convinced that this movement for marriage is about anything more than the white gays who fund it (and who, we often find, are just as racist and clueless when it comes to blacks as they claim blacks are homophobic).

Some people seem to think that homophobia trumps racism, and that winning the battle for gay marriage will symbolically bring about equality for everyone. That may seem true to white gays, but as a black lesbian, let me tell you: There are still too many inequalities that exist as it relates to my race for that to ever be the case. Ever heard of "driving while black"? Ever looked at the difference between the dropout rates for blacks and for whites? Or test scores? Or wages? Or rates of incarceration?

And in the end, black voters in California voted against gay marriage by more than 2 to 1.

Maybe next time around -- because we all know this isn't over -- the gay community can demonstrate the capacity and willingness to change that America demonstrated when it went to the polls on Nov. 4. Black gays are depending on their white counterparts to finally "get it."

Until then, don't expect to make any inroads any time soon in the black community on this issue -- including with this black lesbian.

Jasmyne A. Cannick is a writer in Los Angeles.


Dear Jasmyne:

You say, “I don't see why the right to marry should be a priority for me or other black people.” But nobody is asking that you make it first priority. Just that you not vote to remove it. No one with an ounce of sensitivity would ask you, if you had to choose between fighting for the rights of gays and lesbians and fighting for racial equality, not to prioritize racial equality. What Proposition 8 asked people to do – and what 52% of California voters did – was remove the constitutional right of gay and lesbian people to marry. It wasn’t about either/or. It was and remains both/and.

You are angry that whites have not come out in the numbers they should have to work for racial equality, including gay and lesbian white people. That is a just criticism. They/we should be ashamed of ourselves for not working harder.

But consider that the overwhelming majority of people who voted for Prop. 8 were white people who are far less likely to support equality for all Americans than gay people are in general. You are giving in to the divide-and-conquer strategy of those who work against all minority groups when the latter try to find common cause against injustice.

African–Americans should not be collectively blamed for the outcome of Prop. 8. Those who voted for Prop. 8 did so on the basis of their religious identity, not their racial identity. It was religious folk, black, white, Samoan Mormon and others who thought they were simply expressing a personal preference for heterosexuality who turned the tide, not people who understood the devastating consequences of writing discrimination into the constitution. Not black people or white people, but people who carried their gut reaction to homosexuality into the polling booths.

We are tripped up once again in attributing behavior to race when we ought to be finding motivation in wealth-based class distinctions, or levels of education and degrees of experience with the larger world outside of American culture. When one group of people abuse another group of people, they do so not because of their racial classification, but because they are not fully developed moral beings. We need to be very careful about creating a category, labeling it, and then thinking we understand something we actually don’t.

I am truly sorry the weaknesses and failings of your white gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have made you believe you must work for racial equality at the expense of universal human rights.

What you say needs saying - particularly, in my opinion, your suggestion that by-passing people to work with agencies like the NAACP is the wrong way to go. We need repeated reminders that racial equality in America has been a story of justice long delayed. But when you continue to reflect on the need of white people to step up to the fight for the rights of their black brothers and sisters, please remember where the numbers came from that put this black family in the White House – and continue to feel the thrill of victory. It is not the end of injustice, unfortunately, but it is a mighty big step toward that end.

And consider how gays and lesbian white people voted. We deserve your scolding, but we are on your side.

Don’t make us wait till we are all on the right side of history before we engage in the battle against homophobia.

With all good wishes,

Alan McCornick

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Democracy in America – a Mixed Bag

If you’re not familiar with California geography (and even if you are), go to:,0,1293859.htmlstory?view=8&tab=0&fnum=0
You can run the cursor over each county and see the tally of yes and no votes on all the propositions on the California ballot.

To ward off a serious case of the blues, I’m trying to get analytical about the apparent passing of Proposition 8. I have found contemplating the cultural divide in the state of California helpful – if only to remind myself why I live where I do and not in one of the even more beautiful (Yosemite, for example) parts of the state.

Here are the stats on how the Bay Area Counties voted on Prop. 8:

County...................... # yes.....% yes.......# no........% no
Contra Costa............163,059.......45.1....198,588..........54.9
San Francisco............54,321.......23.5.....177,036..........76.5
San Mateo..................79,541.......37.6.....131,746..........62.4
Santa Clara..............216,630.......44.4.....271,359..........55.6

total yes and no.......852,365................1,331,848
average of yes.............................38.75
average of no................................................................61.24

And here you have the culture war, in starkly graphic form. Two-thirds of the folk who live in the nine Bay Area counties voted to maintain the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry. And we lost out to the inland counties. Compare San Francisco and Marin Counties on the one hand with Kern County (click on cities – it’s where Bakersfield is) and Modoc (the Northeastern-most county), and Tulare County, the nation’s second-most agricultural country and the county at the opposite pole from San Francisco with the greatest percentage of yes on 8 votes. Madera County, Fresno’s northern neighbor, is not far behind. Madera’s largest city is Madera, the geographical center of the state, with some 50,000 people. Then comes Chowchilla. Population 18,780. That’s 10,682 town folks and 8,098 residents of not one but two Chowchilla prisons for women.

But I’m turning into a bottom feeder here. Let’s lift this back up to the strictly analytical.

Note that the cultural divide extends all the way up the coast, and that rural Humboldt (Eureka) and Mendocino Counties, the largely rural Northern Coastal counties, voted in pretty much the same proportions as the Bay Area. The same goes for Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, the two coastal counties to the South of the Bay Area.

Santa Barbara is to L.A. what Marin is to San Francisco in terms of wealth (and I leave you to play with the correlation between wealth and education or culture), and the fact that San Francisco is the most gay-friendly county in the state and L.A. is merely 50-50 should surprise no one.

In addition to the fact urban Californians are far more comfortable with the idea the law should not distinguish between same-sex and opposite-sex couples in terms of granting legal rights, many have noted the correlations between literalist religionists (fundamentalist evangelicals, authoritarian Catholics, and Mormons), especially when combined with less formal education on the one hand, and members of non-literalist religions (Quakers, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Reform Jews, for example) and higher formal education on the other hand.

But this is a democracy.

One man (and, in more recent times, no thanks to the historical social conservatives in our midst, one woman, as well), one vote. You don’t get points for being well educated. Nor for knowing the historical division of church and state in the history of the United States.

You go to the polls, you vote your feelings, your hopes, your fears.

The rest of us have to take solace in the fact that things in a democracy can always change. Even get better. Unfortunately, this is a moment that illustrates why somebody once said of democracy that it is not the best form of government, simply better than all the rest. This is kind of what they meant by “not the best form of government.”

It’s a bitter pill to swallow that while the whole country seems full of hope, and maybe we won't torture prisoners any more, and racism took what many believe to be a death blow, and thousands, if not millions, cried tears of joy and relief, in our little corner of the world this wonderful state went red and retrograde in part and old-time religion put the brakes on culture change.

We’ll hear the screech, remember the sparks, and continue to smell the smoke for some time to come, I fear.

Fortunately, gay people have wonderful coping mechanisms. Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow,” for example.

In this instance, it’s back of hand to forehead, and the quote from Gone With the Wind.

Remember Scarlett O’Hara?

"Tara. Home. I'll go home, and I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day."

Broken Bones

I feel like I’ve been in a burning building and I’ve jumped.

Good news. I’m alive.
Bad news. Most of the bones in my body are broken.

Reading the L.A. Times online this morning ...

The voices of some of my fellow Californians…

• YES on 8! No to judicial tyranny and sexual perversion!

• Yes on 8 ! I don't hate gay people but I believe we have to draw the line here!. Freedom is good but it has to come with responsiblity.! How about if one day a son wan to marry his mom? or a dad that want to marry with his daughter? Could you say that they are free to do that? Is that the right thing to do? Just think about it clearly in your heart.

• I think its a Joke. I am straight yes. But I am a Christian too. God states that we shouldnt allow this. Its coming to the end of days. Gamor? remember. Plus its agains the costutution and we are falling away from the very rights that we left England for. If you believe in the right for Religon then you would vote yes. Because we all have the right to our Religon and your not going to teach my children something that I believe with my whole heart is against God.

• I have nothing against gays and lesbian but why do they have to change the whole soiety and teach our children that it is normal. It is not normal, it is definitely not mother nature. If same sex marriage is legal, then it is okay for brothers and sisters to get marry? Why do gays and lesbian what to get marry anways? They can't have kids naturally. If they just want to live together and spent the rest of their lives together, that is fine, it is totally their business that no one else should denies their rights, but why make it legal which will totally change the way our society functions. I definitely do not want to let my kids think it is normal, although I think it is okay, BUT definitely NOT NORMAL.

• I am a 22 year old male person. Yes on 8 for sure! Marriage is a tradition that does not include same sex couples. I am not a conservative, not republican, I just know for a fact that it is wrong to use a timeless tradition like this. What is the world coming too??? are you kidding me?

• Get prepared people, Judgment is Coming and there is nothing you can do about it.

• i have nothing against gay ppl, in fact i'm friends with some. but it actually is gonna be taught in schools & churches are gonna be forced to perform gay weddings. its redefining the whole constitution. look at europe. they've legalized gay marriage & thats led to polygamy and now even siblings can marry. they're already messed up and i dont want america to end up that way.

• If it does not pass, would a married couple, say two 40 somthing gay guys, be allowed to adopt say a 13 year old boy ?

• When 8 passes, gays will still have the same marriage rights as anyone else. Men can marry women, and vice versa.

• I voted yes on prop 8 and so did my sis, and friends. equality- as they call it , in this issue- is damaging. i don't want my children to even 'understand' what this is. i hope it passes. i will continue to fight this, how does one say......'non-sense'. people remember- sodom and Gomorra are the only 2 cities in history that God destroyed with his own hands and without a representative of Israel. God doesn't like it, and cause he bought my life- i follow my master.

• … NO HOMOSEXUAL will enter the kingdom of Heaven. How can you deny that ? It's written ALL throught the Bible. This is not my opinion, it's Gods!

And there we are. And apparently there is where we are going to be for a while.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Letter to the Authors of Proposition 8

Mr. Ron Prentice, President
California Family Council
1107 9th St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

Ms. Rosemarie Avila
Santa Ana Unified School District
1601 East Chestnut Avenue
Santa Ana, CA 92701-6322

Bishop George McKinney
St. Stephen's Cathedral COGIC
5825 Imperial Avenue
San Diego, CA 92114

November 1, 2008

Dear Mr. Prentice, Ms. Avila, Bishop McKinney:

In less than 72 hours now, California Voters will go to the polls to decide, among other things, whether to take away the rights of a number of California citizens granted to them by the California Constitution. This move is opposed by California’s Republican governor, by the probable next president, Barack Obama, and vice-president, Joe Biden, by former president Clinton, by both of California’s Senators, Feinstein and Boxer, by dozens of religious organizations, the California NAACP, the California Teachers’ Association, the California Federation of Teachers, the California Labor Federation, the United Farm Workers, the California Psychiatric Association, the California Psychological Association, the Hispanic National Bar Association, the National Black Justice Coalition, the mayors of its biggest cities, and by virtually all of California’s major newspapers.

You, on the other hand, are the voice of Proposition 8.

In reading what you put forward in argument for your case in the California General Election Official Voter Information Guide, I found myself increasingly incredulous line by line as I read what you had to say.

Because I believe you are people of sincerity, I hope you will read what I have to say in response to your comments. This is a terribly important issue. If there is even the slightest chance of a dialogue between us, I would not want to pass up the opportunity to talk with you across the divide.

Here is my understanding of the weaknesses I believe I have found in your argument. I have reproduced your words in boldface, and added my comments.

Proposition 8 is simple and straightforward. It contains the same 14 words that were previously approved in 2000 by over 61% of California voters: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
The California Supreme Court found that ruling unconstitutional, and unconstitutional it would be if 99% of the voters had supported it. Secondly, it cannot have escaped your attention that this Prop. 8 race is running neck and neck, and that the 61% figure has not represented California opinion for some time now. ABC News reported in May that the number of supporters of gay marriage had risen to 51%.
How people will vote on November 4th still remains to be seen, but, win or lose, if you want to impress us with numbers, the 61% number is way out of date.

And, dare I ask, if it is the will of the California voter that is your concern, why are you seeking and getting so much support from the good people of Utah?

Because four activist judges in San Francisco wrongly overturned the people’s vote, we need to pass this measure as a constitutional amendment to RESTORE THE DEFINITION OF MARRIAGE as a man and a woman (sic).
What, exactly, do you mean by “activist” judges? The Supreme Court has the duty to review legislative and judicial decisions and determine whether they are in tune with the Constitution. That’s their job. That’s why we have three branches of government, each put in place to maintain checks and balances. For a judge to rule badly, he or she would have to violate the constitution, ignore precedent, or show a consistent lack of judicial restraint (i.e., overturn an excessive number of laws passed by the legislature). None of this applies in the May 15 ruling, or to any of the judges in question, and that suggests your notion of an “activist judge” is little more than a judge whose decision you do not agree with. Wrongly overturned the people’s vote? You have not demonstrated that at all.

As for “restore the definition of marriage,” marriage remains what it always has been – a joining of two people, traditionally a man and a woman, but increasingly in modern times (starting in the Netherlands in 2001) extended to same-sex couples. As the Supreme Court indicated, it is not the state’s responsibility to define marriage, but it is its responsibility to assure the rights of its citizens.

Proposition 8 is about preserving marriage; it’s not an attack on the gay lifestyle. Proposition 8 doesn’t take away any rights or benefits of gay or lesbian domestic partnerships. (Details in next three sentences deleted.)
To preserve means to keep. Marriage isn’t being lost. On the contrary, it is being embraced by a much larger number of people than before. “Gay lifestyle” is a phrase gay people find both stupid and offensive. Imagine a “Jewish lifestyle,” an “African-American lifestyle.” It dismisses a highly complex population, including doctors, lawyers, senators, airplane pilots, farmers, priests, PTA parents and rocket scientists and reduces us all to people who spend all our time in bars seeking sex, eating brunch or decorating other people's apartments. It is a term which reveals an unkindness on your part and a lack of information.

As for not taking away any rights, if that were true, then there would be no harm in removing your right to marry, and replacing it with a legal contract limited to property rights. If that were to happen (if you were no longer allowed to marry) you would find a number of your rights had slipped away, including the following (and the list is not exhaustive):
  1. Your relationship would not be recognized outside your home state. If you were to move to another state, you could not dissolve that union without returning to your home state;
  2. If you created a domestic partnership with a foreign national, that person would not acquire the right to immigrate to the U.S., as he or she would if the two of you were marrying;
  3. You could not file a joint income tax with the federal government;
  4. You would not acquire social security benefits from your partner’s social security, even if you lived together and shared a domestic economy for fifty years, with your breadwinner partner paying into the system.
If you wanted to share tax breaks, insurance policies, the right to visit your dying partner in the hospital and make the decision to pull the plug, you might get these rights by having a lawyer draw up a contract, but married people get them automatically without having to pay the thousands of dollars domestic partners have to pay for the same thing. You are simply wrong in stating there is no difference between marriage and domestic partnerships.

YES on Proposition 8 does three simple things:

It restores the definition of marriage to what the vast majority of California voters already approved and human history has understood marriage to be.
Human history? For much of American history women were subject to the coverture law, often described this way: “Husband and wife were one person as far as the law was concerned, and that person was the husband.” Each time you cite history, you open the door to all sorts of examples of patriarchal abuse in marriage. Marriage is what any given society says it is at any given time; the institution of marriage, as any social historian can tell you, has never been a single set of practices throughout all the ages. I’ve already addressed the “vast majority” part.

It overturns the outrageous decision of four activist Supreme Court judges who ignored the will of the people.
You said that before. Outrageous? Many of us danced and drank champagne. We do not all go to the same church, eat the same rice and beans, support the same causes. America’s strength is its diversity. The majority of Californians did not find the decision outrageous.

It protects our children from being taught in public schools that “same-sex marriage” is the same as traditional marriage.”
Lots of non-Catholic kids go to Catholic schools nowadays, because of the generally high quality education. When little Rachel comes home from school and says Sister St. Paul of the Cross told her Jesus died for her sins, Rachel’s Jewish mother can say, “We don’t believe that, dear.” Anybody living in a pluralist society (do you not want to live in a pluralist society?) needs to know how many different ways people have of arranging their lives. Keeping information from your children is not protecting them. It is keeping them unaware and uninformed. Having a teacher reveal to your child that the law allows two people of the same sex to marry in California (or elsewhere) is not the same thing as saying, “And you must approve of these marriages.” Do you also not want your child to know that people of the same sex are allowed to marry in Canada, just across the border? If not, why not?

Proposition 8 protects marriage as an essential institution of society. While death, divorce, or other circumstances may prevent the ideal, the best situation for a child is to be raised by a married mother and father.
That may be true; it may not be true. In either case, it is not relevant here. What is at stake here is the civil right of a California citizen to marry the person of his or her choice. Every citizen now has that right. You would take it away from one group and allow it to remain for another. If you have your way, children will still be raised in single parent families, in gay families with two mothers or two fathers (plus virtually always a considerable number of other relatives and friends who provide care and education for the children), and in abusive heterosexual parent families, as well as in families you might consider ideal. This law would take away rights without helping children one bit.

The narrow decision of the California Supreme Court isn’t just about “live and let live.” State law may require teachers to instruct children as young as kindergarteners about marriage. (Education Code § 51890.) If the gay marriage ruling is not overturned, TEACHERS COULD BE REQUIRED to teach young children there is no difference between gay marriage and traditional marriage.
We should not accept a court decision that may result in public schools teaching our kids that gay marriage is okay. That is an issue for parents to discuss with their children according to their own values and beliefs. It shouldn’t be forced on us against our will.
There is nothing in the education code that requires children in kindergarten or any other class to be taught anything about health and family issues without their parents’ permission. Parents may review class content at any time and remove children from instruction they disapprove of. As for teaching “no difference between gay marriage and traditional marriage,” you clearly mean you want your children to learn gay marriage is wrong. If that’s what you want, you are free to teach them that, just as you can teach them that playing with “African-American/Arab/Catholic/Jewish children” is wrong or speaking Spanish is wrong, if that is your belief. Your children, like anybody else’s children, will learn from their peers that there are different ways of looking at the world. There are two obvious differences between gay marriage and what you call “traditional marriage” – the sexes are different, and gay marriage reflects a change in attitude toward gay people. Kids already know that and talk freely about it. Withholding information from them accomplishes absolutely nothing. You need to talk with your children and tell them what you think about these changes, not pretend they are not happening.
This is a civil rights issue.. We are making an effort to keep rights intact that have been found in the Constitution. These are ideas. Nobody is forcing you to do or say or believe anything against your will. It is you who would force us to live as second-class citizens again, as we did when homophobia was the rule, and not a dying prejudice.

Some will try to tell you that Proposition 8 takes away legal rights of gay domestic partnerships. That is false. Proposition 8 DOES NOT take away any of those rights and does not interfere with gays living the lifestyle they choose. However, while gays have the right to their private lives, they do not have the right to redefine marriage for everyone else.
In the American legal tradition, that which is not expressly forbidden is allowed. You say we have no rights here. Where in the Constitution (or anywhere else) is that right to define forbidden?

CALIFORNIANS HAVE NEVER VOTED FOR SAME-SEX MARRIAGE. If gay activists want to legalize gay marriage, they should put it on the ballot. Instead, they have gone behind the backs of voters and convinced four activist judges in San Francisco to redefine marriage for the rest of society. That is the wrong approach.
Californians have not had to vote for same-sex marriage. It was people like you who were opposed to same-sex marriage that put the issue to a referendum that led to the decision in 2000 which the Supreme Court found unconstitutional. Gone behind the backs of voters? Convinced four activist judges? Nobody went behind anybody’s back. The Supreme Court took up the issue and listened to lawyers on both sides debate the issue as they debate any issue, in public, with thousands of people looking on. Their probing questions revealed the scope of their thinking. They invited and read dozens of amicus briefs, listened to three hours of legal reasoning citing legal precedent, and then took three months to reach their decision. To suggest that four Supreme Court judges would all allow themselves to subvert the law or be “convinced” by gay activists to ignore the law might just well be the greatest insult these honorable (majority Republican, by the way) men and women have ever been subjected to. You have no reason to fault any part of their decision other than the fact you do not agree with their decision.

This is the second time you mention San Francisco. Why? Is there something wrong with San Francisco? San Francisco is where the Supreme Court is located. Where else would they meet?

Voting YES on Proposition 9 RESTORES the definition of marriage that was approved by over 61% of voters. Voting YES overturns the decision of four activist judges. Voting YES protects our children.
Please vote YES on Proposition 9 to RESTORE the meaning of marriage.
The definition of marriage will remain the same. The benefits of marriage will remain the same if Proposition 8 loses. If Proposition 8 passes, those benefits will be taken away from people who now enjoy the benefits of marriage.

Your children are not at risk. The only thing at risk is the right of adult California citizens to marry. Shame on you for using children as a tool to gain your ends.

Yours sincerely,

Alan J. McCornick