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.