Saturday, December 26, 2009

Different mental illnesses from your neighbors

Two nights ago, when that young woman knocked the pope down just before Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican, I got an e-mail from a friend which read:
The woman who pushed the pope down has been declared "mentally disturbed" on the PBS newscast tonight. Is it possible that she was merely tired to death of that awful dress he always wears on these occasions?
I wrote back:
The dress, yes. White after Labor Day. The shame.

But never mind the dress. This is a guy who believes there is a man who lives in the sky who came down and took a man's body and was born to a virgin. And walked on water. And came back to life after he died. And this guy also believes this man in the sky has given him the authority to decide who goes to happy happy joy joy land when he dies and who doesn't.

And they call her mentally disturbed?

That was originally a private exchange between two gay men who share the view that the Catholic Church is a predator organization which spends massive amounts of time and money and moral energy removing the rights of gay men and women around the world. We joke about the pope to relieve the tension so the anger and resentment doesn't get the best of us.

I stepped on the toes with this remark of a couple Catholic friends, who wrote to complain.

My first instinct was to apologize, but I value these friendships too much to be insincere. I can only hope they will understand and cut me some slack.

I think it's bad enough the bishop of Rome and his hand-picked curia need to insult all things bright and beautiful by turning love into sin and desire into shame. That, we could ignore. But recently they went further and took steps to remove civil rights of American citizens, including many who do not share their peculiar take on the human condition. It bugs me no end they think they should be able to do this with impunity.

OK, maybe "predator" is too harsh. How about "bully."

It is Archbishop Niederauer of San Francisco and his Mormon buddies I should be aiming at, but Niederauer takes his orders from the man in the dress knocked down by the woman in the red hoodie, and I was struck by all that was left out as the story hit the news sites. Their slant was that the woman was mentally disturbed and the pope was a heroic figure for getting up off the floor. No mention of his delusions. Only hers. I was reminded of the definition of insane as "having different mental illnesses from your neighbors."

His Holiness has the power to inflict damage; Susanna Maiolo's power is limited to knocking old men down. She'll get medical attention (and a facebook page, of course). He'll get a free pass and go on to business as usual, making saints out of Hitler's collaborators and scraping the last of the reforms of Vatican II off his red shoes.

It isn't 1618 any more and we're not in Prague. We no longer throw Catholics out of windows onto piles of manure. We Non-Catholics live alongside Catholics in pretty good harmony most of the time.

But believing you have the right to declare you're the sole executor of the estate of a guy who walked on water and brought the dead back to life, and that this guy wants you to sabotage the condom industry and oversee the verification of bona fide miracles of candidates for sainthood, and wear white dresses in December, well...

I think that's just nuts.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Keeping an eye on the bumblers

There’s a wee small part of me that is feeling sorry for Rick Warren.

He’s such a bumbling twit.

I mean first he does his duty as he sees it and comes out for Prop. 8. This pisses off large numbers of people and destroys his image as Mr. Arms of Jesus. Committed to this image, he can’t hardline it and insist he’s doing God’s work so you guys go and pollute yourselves. So he insists he was misquoted. That doesn’t work, because The Flying Spaghetti Monster has given us YouTube and we can actually see he said the exact opposite of what he just said he said.

I’m not trying to generate sympathy for the guy. He doesn’t need any. He’s got fans galore. Plus he earns more money than God from his The Purpose Driven® Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (note the ®). And given how many people’s lives his naïve fundamentalist Christianity has messed up I’m not really inclined to give this sucker an even break, especially after he rolls out the red carpet for his Ugandan buddy and fellow pastor, Martin Ssempa, of condom-burning fame. That alone would earn him title of douche-nozzle extraordinaire. But he did, remember, finally distance himself from Ssempa. The question now is whether he can undo the harm he accomplished in his African mission. (See below for link.)

Watching him try to justify himself after the inauguration snafu and now watching him try to come across as a simple country preacher doing his best to do God’s work and backtracking on Uganda, I am persuaded the guy is sincere. Not the wiley sleazebag many consider him to be. Just not very savvy. He’s not a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson (the truly pernicious) or a snake oil salesman like Jimmy Swaggert or Jim Bakker. He’s a little boy who loves knowing that Daddy in the Sky is taking care of him. You just have to do exactly and only what Daddy tells you to do.

But what do we do about the fact that the human race has not agreed on exactly what that might be?

The more unkind bible-thumpers have an easier time of it. They, like the pope, tell you this is the way it is, and die like a dog if you don’t believe me. But Warren, like other American right wing fundies who have gotten political, needs to soften the blow of truth to keep his numbers. And regain the mike again and again to insist his remarks have been taken out of context.

I went to an interesting talk at the Jesuit Center (the event had nothing to do with the Jesuits) on campus the other day by a Ph. D. in sociology who had just completed her dissertation on the parallels between this group of fundamentalists who want you to open the door to Jesus and not the door to your refrigerator (What would Jesus eat? Could Jesus have walked on water if he had been 300 lbs. overweight?) and the Exodus people (Jesus will cure your homosexuality). There are two big questions these people deal with. One is whether you have to actually lose weight or your homosexuality before God will love you. Warren is among those who believe you don’t. You come to God as a sinner.

But that leads to the second question: Are some sins worse than others? You have to say yes if you want to point fingers at others and legislate sinners' behavior, since you obviously cannot outlaw the really bad sins and pick the right sermon topics without consensus on what they are. But the only people seriously interested in these questions are the literalists, and they know the Bible also tells you God, not you, judges these things.

So this kind of puts you up a tree, doesn't it.

Someday Rick Warren may come to understand how offensive it is to have others define you as a lesser being. And then join together to pass legislation to make sure you lesser beings don’t try to pass yourselves off as equals because no matter what I say I really do think your sin is worse than my sin.

For now, he remains clueless.

Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster people are on to this guy. Max Blumenthal’s got it on the Daily Beast, and even NPR covered the story recently of his backtracking.

But the real hero of the story is Rachel Maddow. She has been following Rick Warren’s bumbling inconsistencies for some time. Currently she is trying to do what I’m trying to do – give credit where credit is due, and at the same time not be suckered into thinking all Warren’s past follies should be overlooked. The guy may be a pussy cat, but that pussy has a lion’s claws, and whether he uses them aggressively or affectionately, they still draw blood.

If you aren’t familiar with the reign of terror legislation in Uganda, by the way, please have a look. Although the latest news is that, like Rick Warren, the Ugandans and Senators Inhofe and Grassley (and you thought maybe there was no connection between fighting America's culture wars in Africa and health care reform?) are back-pedaling now too, it's worth seeing what transpired before world attention to this vicious homophobia forced them into retreat. The history of the story is sobering.

Did I tell you that Rachel Maddow RULES!!!?

Friday, December 4, 2009

No Afterlife, No Honor

It appears that the left is finally fighting fire with fire and learning to match the right in its flair for public displays of patriotism. And that's got to be confusing.

Just saw this YouTube piece with three Fox newscasters pushing God and Country. In this case, bewailing the fact that once again, as happens each year at Christmas, Christians are being asked to keep religion out of the public arena, even though we all know this is a Christian country and non-Christians need to learn their place as Also-ran (did I say Second-Class) Citizens.

One of the Fox people confused is Ainsley Earhardt. More on her later.

First, a little sociocultural context.

Ever since Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and their ilk were informed by the Holy Ghost that it was time for them to stand up for Christianity as the only true religion and take their faith into politics, we seem to be bumping heads over whether my Christian daddy can beat up your non-Christian daddy. Listen to the rightwing Christians and they’ll tell you the country is going to the dogs, and you know why. All you have to do is read your Old Testament and you will see that the nation that turns its back on God ends up in the flames of hell (a Zoroastrian concept, by the way, but let's not get distracted).

This view apparently leads you to ignore what you learned in kindergarten. That you are supposed to share your things. Not so, say the Christianists. Not when it comes to a definition of the one and only Big True Daddy.

It’s that damn Establishment Clause. We can’t get agree on what it really says. Is this or is this not a Christian country? Have we not always loved the Baby Jesus? And hated Scrooge? At least till he came around.

Tradition. You know how tradition works. The pope doesn’t want Turkey in the European Union because, he says, it will threaten the dominance of the Christian religion. Unfortunately for this Rip Van Winkle of an inquisitor-pope, Europeans have been reading their Christian history of late and aren't as keen on recreating the world as it was before he went to sleep. And modern Americans are equally unenthusiastic about the Disneyland version of America with its villages and its happy little cobblers and its blacksmiths and its little churches in the wildwood, oh come come come.

Ask a modern-day Archie Bunker. “You could see this coming,” he’ll tell you, “Once you damn fools snatched power away from white American males and tried to make this your country, it was bound to come to this. Now that the blacks, the women, the gays and the atheists think they're as good as the people who used to be what this country is all about” you’ve got the mess we’re in today. Listen to Sarah Palin. She'll tell you. The handful of old boys advising the modern-day equivalent of “save your Confederate money” have retreated to Idaho and a few southern states. And to Fox Network.

It’s called the Culture War. Ugly, but terribly interesting. You have to understand "tradition” as a cover term for power. Will we hang on to it, or will the new kid on the block get some?

Now you've got atheists wanting to erect monuments to atheist soldiers who died in Iraq.

Atheists getting together and demanding a little respect for their own kind.

What’s next, the folks in Pennsylvania are wondering. Will the Muslims come in and build their minarets? Will we look like fools when we vote them out like the Swiss just did to their Muslims? Will the Hindus come in and give kids the idea that there can be lots of gods (or gods with lots of faces, rather than just three, as we know is actually the case?) So much to think about.

Will we have Flying Spaghetti Monsters on the green in every village in New England? And in the town square in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania? No, say the local authorities. Best to cut out all displays and head this problem off at the pass.

Not if Fox News has anything to do with it.

Republican traditionalists can rejoice that we have Fox News to fight back at this attempt to disestablish Christianity as the default (we're not allowed to say established) religion. Fox covered the exact same story last year, in Washington State, where Foxcaster Dan Springer reported oh so objectively that Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus were “not welcome at the Rotunda at the Capitol.”

To keep the balance in “fair and balanced” they of course interviewed the atheists last year who put up their “provocative” signs saying there was no god.

Taking pot shots at Fox over fair and balanced is unworthy shooting of fish in a barrel, but I couldn’t resist because of what came next from this guy Springer. At minute 2:56, Springer tells of a tree that is a (I blush to even say it) “Holiday Tree” and not a “Christmas Tree.”

And you actually doubted there was a plot to destroy Christianity and its symbols…

But Springer isn’t the dumbest of the bunch. That honor goes to Ainsley Earhardt,
graduate of the School of Journalism in Columbia, South Carolina.

When presented with the information that the atheists wanted to honor their fellow atheist veterans, Ms. Earhardt’s response (minute 1:55, if you don’t want to watch the whole thing) was,

"My question is, if they want to honor the veterans who have passed away, but they’re atheists, they don’t believe in life after death… who are they honoring?".

Can’t argue with that.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Darwin Awards for 2005 - a Proposed Amendment

I want to propose that the Darwin Awards for 2005 be amended to include the State of Texas.

In 2005 they amended their state constitution.

Here's the proposal they adopted:

Prop. 2 - The constitutional amendment providing that marriage in this state consists only of the union of one man and one woman and prohibiting this state or a political subdivision of this state from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage.
Outcome: Adopted
Election date: 11/08/2005
Votes for: 1,723,782
Votes against: 536,913
Look at that carefully. What they were after, of course, is evident in the first part - a way to kill any hope of marriage for gay folk. And not only marriage, but domestic partnerships, as well - hence the "identical or similar to" bit.

Now read the second part, starting with "prohibiting," and you'll see that what they actually got was a prohibition of marriage entirely.

This means, of course, is that all marriage became illegal in Texas in 2005, and all children born since 2005 are officially bastards.

The challenger for the post of State Attorney General, Barbara Ann Radnofsky, is making hay of this.

Wish Molly Ivins were still alive to join in the chucklin'.

For a fuller report, check out:

Monday, November 16, 2009

Nice to see you again, Mr. Hobbes

I saw in this morning’s paper that Hobbes’ Leviathan has just been translated into Hebrew.

I might have put that with my collection of things like “pieces of string too small to use,” but for the fact that Israel and I share a birthday (even if mine came eight years earlier). Maybe that’s why I’ve always had some interest in what goes on there.

In any case, I’m aware that for most of my lifetime Hebrew was spoken by too few people to warrant a translation of something this esoteric. You publish a book, somebody’s got to want to pay to read it. Norway has figured out it’s easier to have all their university students learn English than pay for everything to be translated into Norwegian. Hebrew, too, not that long ago, had only about a million speakers. If you wanted to read Leviathan, you read it in a European language.

Native speakers of Hebrew now number nine million and the scales have shifted. A Hebrew edition of Leviathan is now financially viable. Practical linguists take note and move on. Few others even do that much.

But this is no ordinary applied linguist you’re talking to. I’m also a sucker for conspiracy theories. I live by the maxim that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. I anticipate foul play. I’ve known nefariousness. My shortwave is constantly tuned to trouble and scarcely a day goes by that I don’t exclaim, “Aha! I just knew it!”

My aha moment this morning came when I read the comment that the real reason Leviathan never saw Hebrew’s affectionate embrace was that the people who founded Israel wanted the young theocratic nation never to doubt that they, the children of Abraham, were carrying out God’s plan, and Hobbes, as we know, was concerned about keeping religion in its place.

The aha didn't last. That can’t be right about the initial motives for not translating Hobbes. 80% of Israel consists of non-religious folk, and the Zionists were overwhelmingly secular. Still, one has to consider that since its founding and despite its secular origins, Israel functions very much like a theocratic state. No non-orthodox marriage. No busses or trains on the sabbath. And not much luck in turning back the takeover of “Judea and Samaria” (i.e., the West Bank), an idea which would never have gotten off the ground and become the stumbling block it is to Jewish-Arab relations without the power of religion.

You might argue I’m making too big a deal of Hobbes. He’s the big daddy of political science because of his notion that we need to form social contracts and govern ourselves lest our lives remain “nasty, brutish and short” as they were in the pre-civilization wild. But others have surpassed him in furthering human rights and the pursuit of happiness. And his idea that it’s better to put up with an autocrat’s abuse than surrender to chaos doesn’t sit well. But we know that he wrote Leviathan during the English Civil War, and from his perspective, keeping men’s passions in check was the greater challenge.

And what makes my ears perk up is the information that in 1666 the House of Commons went after Leviathan for its “atheism, blasphemy and profaneness.” The guy had something going for him, obviously.

Hobbes was not an atheist, actually. All he was doing was urging that, for the sake of proper governance, we needed to keep religion in check. “They who have no supernaturall Revelation to the contrary,” he wrote, (Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. 40) "… ought to obey the laws of their own Soveraign, in the externall acts and profession of Religion…. "

Thanks to the Enlightenment and modern democratic thought, we have come to understand “the people” as our sovereign. Otherwise, the principle stands.

As one commentator to the Hebrew Leviathan story in this morning’s New York Times has pointed out, it was the polytheists who invented democracy. (See comment #7.) (And for more of this guy's ideas, see his blog.

The trouble with monotheism, Hobbes understood, is that those who buy into it believe they have to knock down your god and put theirs in its place. Check out the works of Papa Ratzi. You and I worry about health care. Benedict XVI has his tail in a knot over relativism.

Unlike the apparently trivial issue of how many folk speak Hebrew, whether we run our country on relativistic values or absolutist ones is no small matter. The universal golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is relativistic. It doesn’t say, “Do only the right thing.” It says, “Make judgments on the basis of what feels right to you.” Not what the Almighty or the College of Cardinals says. What you say.

I, for one, am delighted Hobbes will now be read in Hebrew. It is unlikely to hit the best seller lists, but it never hurts for the foundational texts of modern democracy to be revisited and distributed more broadly from time to time.

Here in America, we struggle constantly against religion. We’re losing at the moment. George Niederauer, the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, riled up his Mormon friends in Salt Lake City and together they organized the campaign to remove the right of gays in California to marry. The Catholic Church then made it happen again in Maine.

They haven’t stopped there, of course. Now they’re working with another set of absolutist religionists holding health care in America hostage over abortion.

Well-intentioned folk, for the most part. All convinced their universal God wants them to step in and take away your rights as a citizen to decide for yourself how you will be governed.

Hobbes’ Leviathan is far too heavy going for the average person today. But, even if we get him now mostly in the Wikipedia version, it’s good to be reminded from time to time how much we owe to the the father of modern political theory.

Without his urging that we keep religion in check, just think where we might be.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Whom Cares?

A friend wrote to tell me I was wrong-headed to fuss over the difference between who and whom. Who cares, he asked. No meaning is lost when the wrong form is used. Change is inevitable, he says. Let it go.

Who cares?

Who/whom cares indeed?

He chided me for being such a prescriptivist. Aren’t linguists supposed to be descriptivists instead?

Well yes and no.

Here’s my response to his note:

Dear X:

Just because there is no way to achieve complete sterility in the operating room doesn't mean you operate in a sewer.

I'm not asking for their heads to be removed. I'm expressing an esthetic preference. If you want to put beautiful china plates on Mickey Mouse plastic place settings, be my guest. But don't ask me to call it pretty. Or pretend I didn’t notice.

Descriptively speaking, there is a difference between written and spoken discourse. We are less fussy about the spoken language because we allow for all kinds of idiosyncratic verbal expression. And it's tacky as hell to interrupt somebody while they're talking to hound them on their grammar or word choices. If you want to say, "I spoke to all the people who I had been previously introduced to" instead of whom, it won't even register on my radar.

But when you're writing, and have time to edit your work, I'd really like you to capitalize the days of the week, make the sign on your door say Accounts Receivable and not Recievable, and learn not to say "between you and I...less people today than yesterday...the smoke went up the chimbley" and "irregardless."

I repeat. I don't want to remove your right to satisfying sex if you do these things. I just want to feel free to think of you as a lazy uneducated dolt.

I’m not asking you to join me in kvetching about the current tendency to use it's for its or day's for the plural of day. But why are you asking me to turn away from this slop?

What’s wrong with expecting young people to give up their seats to old people, children to learn please and thank you, and the next generation to see some value in learning a variety of spoken and written registers in their native language and follow the conventions? If you make the effort, a whole world of possibilities opens up to you when you understand the effect you have on the world around you when you follow the rules and when you break them. And what the difference is between breaking the rules for artistic effect and breaking the rules because you never bothered to learn them.

I love the fact that the English language has both...

"Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done: and there is no health in us…”


“Jesus, I fucked up.”

Two different registers. Both good. But imagine how the first one would sound if it ran:

"Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheeps... and there ain't no health in us..."

The Chickens Don’t Feel Much Like Dancing

I’m fully aware that politics is the art of the possible. It’s not about doing the right thing, except when you can get away with it, but about doing the doable thing. Not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Not holding out for the full loaf when you can take half and run.

I also know that when you begin to lower your expectations, you begin celebrating small victories as big victories. They’re dancing in Washington at the moment, and calling this health care bill the House just passed a big victory. Biggest thing since social security. Whopper of a turn-around on the public care option.

You know that classic example of “mixed feelings” – when your mother-in-law goes over a cliff in your new Mercedes? That’s how I feel about this victory. (I’ll leave off the quotes. Let’s call it a victory.)

Finally, one half of my brain says, finally finally finally you democrats now allegedly running the country have done the right thing. You passed a health care bill and you supported this man Obama we all love and want to look good. Millions of Americans will be covered. Nobody kicked out for “pre-existing conditions” or for losing their job.

The other side of my brain is with Dennis Kucinich. Most democrats who voted no, along with all the Republicans-but-one, bought the Republican argument that this land with its 350 billionaires and its 2.5 million millionaires and its 44% of the world’s wealth and its endless billion dollar wars can’t afford to cover the uninsured thirty million folk. Dennis Kucinich voted no because he says it’s a lousy phoney bill, designed to make democrats look like they’re doing something when they’re not.

That old dilemma. Do you follow your principles? Or do you get practical?

I’ve been known to pass up half a loaf only to have to eat crow in the end. I want gay people to have the right to marry, not because it’s the most important thing in the world but because the frigging Mormons and frigging Catholics tell me we can’t. And I want not just the public option in health care. I want to throw the bums in the insurance industry out in the street and their hired hands in Congress with them. I’m with Dennis Kucinich here. Bring on the friggin revolution! You ain’t got principles, you ain’t got nuttin.

Have to pause briefly here for a quick aside. Is this all a moot point? Once this gets into the Senate, will they vote to allow states to opt out of the public option and gut the plan? Probably, given the number of senators who are insurance company whores. Maybe Dennis understands that and that’s why he’s decided to shout fire in the crowded theater. I really don’t know.

Then there’s the no-abortion provision. Great. Here we go again, America. The goddam catholic church is up to its old tricks again, trying to keep women barefoot and pregnant. No healthcare funding for abortions? Why are we still fighting this? Mr. Wall Street CEO sends his daughter off for a skiing vacation in Switzerland where her real purpose is a safe abortion in a first-rate hospital. His janitor’s daughter can jolly well do without. Government funding is a clerical matter for the rich; for the poor it’s the difference between getting to the shore and drifting out to sea. Why are we still allowing the rich to screw the poor like this?

OK, some of you catholic folk get annoyed at my catholic bashing. You want to remind me that the majority of catholics are in favor of abortions being covered by healthcare. It’s only the church fathers who are agin it.
In your pews/bulletins today, you’ll find a special flier/bulletin insert from the US Bishops Conference asking you to please contact your Representative and Senators immediately and urge them to fix these bills with pro-life amendments...
15,000 of these messages went out in your churches. If you’re not going to stand up for the living church, the one that’s all about love, charity, generosity and compassion, and kick these infallibility-junkies in the butt, who will?

The Stupak Amendment, it’s called, not only prevents new programs from providing health care to women needing abortions; it takes away rights they currently have by forbidding even plans patients would pay for with their own money. The pro-lifers had the democrats by the cajones and they squeezed. And the democrats, believing it was this bill or none at all, caved.

I mean seriously. No access to health care, even in the case of rape or incest? Try to go abroad (like in a Greyhound Bus) for an abortion and you go to jail. No IVF. No contraception. No treatment for ectopic pregnancy or medical anomalies during pregnancy.

The country is celebrating a great victory. Historic, they’re calling it. Obama may not lose the 2012 election after all. Whoopie.

We’ve kept the Republican foxes from the henhouse by tossing them a few chickens. Reasonable solution if you’re not a chicken.

Go ahead and dance, you guys that did all the work. I’m really happy 30 million Americans will now at long last have healthcare maybe.

Party on.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Give a Little, Get a Little – Not

OK, so it’s going to take a little longer. The good people of Maine – and growing up in New England I came to love Maine with a passion – have decided to take back the right of gays to marry. It’s a devastating setback. A clear majority win for the homophobes. In a democratic state. I don’t have the religious affiliation breakdown, but Maine is largely secular, I understand, even though the Catholic Church ran the show. It brings to 31 the number of states with anti-gay statutes. And it really feels like a kick in the gut.

Most gay organizations are accentuating the positives, the gay wins in the rest of the country. They are considerable. But I can’t take my eyes off this train wreck. Did I tell you it smarts?

All those young people who went to Maine to knock on doors. All those people who gave up mileage to help fly them there. All that money that could have done so much good in other places, all to fight a fear of sexual difference sanctified by cherry-picking religious folk. It’s all so damn senseless.

Gays and their growing number of allies are reduced to saying things like, “Well, we have to wait till the geezers die out.” Keep focusing, they say, on the stats. The 18-35 crowd. The future lies ahead.

For the nth time, yes, yes, yes. Homophobia will pass, just as racism and sexism are passing. But that’s true only if we keep up the pressure. Pick up and fight some more.

Which brings me to the real question. Since the result is pretty certain, we need to focus on how we get there. And there’s work to do there. There is so much infighting among gay groups. Won’t list them all, but I do want to mention one battle I used to be on the fence about, but no longer am. That’s the battle between the incrementalists and the hardliners. You know, those who want to “be sensible” and work this one tiny step at a time, giving a little here and hoping to gain more there in the end. And the hell-freezes-over folk.

That’s me. Cold day in hell camp. I am tired of reading that since we lost both in California and in Maine because people are afraid their children will be taught in schools that homosexuality is OK, we should work harder to convince the good Christian folk that we’re not after your children’s hearts and minds. We’re after equal rights.

That’s such a mistake. Of course we’re after your children’s hearts and minds. You don’t want your children to hear there are gay people? Well, tough shit, Sheila. We’re here and we belong and we are not going away.

I went to a medical center yesterday to pick up some forms for my partner. “Is this for you?” the nurse asked me. “No,” I said. “For my partner.” “Well tell him or her to be sure to …” She didn’t need me to be specific. “Him or her.”

Do you have any idea how good that feels? Back in the 60s I once wore a button, “How dare you assume I'm heterosexual?” That form of aggressive behavior doesn’t suit me any more. I don’t want to slap the faces of people I haven’t met yet.

I do, however, when I’ve been slapped, want to slap back. If the Christians can toss out the “Turn the Other Cheek” embarrassment that Jesus slipped into the Bible somehow, and advocate preemptive bombing of Iraq for God and Country, my advocating a little slapping back doesn’t seem like asking too much.

I remember when blacks used to walk up to me in the 60s and say, “I’m black and I’m proud.” It was a kind of initiation right into a club dedicated to ridding itself of internalized racism. Blacks had to go through that. Once I figured that out, my attitude changed from “Why are you pushing your black liberation in my face” to “Black and proud! Why the hell not! You tell ‘em, Jack.”

Please, please, please, can we sit at the big people’s table? Please, Mr. Catholic/ Mormon/ Southern Baptist Person, can we? We’ll promise to say nothing about being gay in the schools. Your children will never know who we are. You can go on teaching your children there is something wrong with being gay. Only please let us have the right that you have to form a civil union with a person of our choosing? Please?

Man, even joking about it makes me want to retch.

Please let us send our Jewish children to public schools. We’ll tell them to pray to Jesus. We’ll make them hide their star of David necklaces.

Please let us send our little Negro children to public schools. We’ll straighten their hair first and make them whiten their skin.

Please let us gay people send our kids to school with yours. We’ll make sure they never let out the secret they have two mommies or two daddies.

Yeah, right.

When hell freezes over.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Singing through the Swine Flu

I’ve long since given up trying to defend the German sense of humor. They make the Mercedes and the BMW and the People’s Car. They do Christmas like nobody else in the world. And nobody fries Bratwursts and roasts potatoes like the germanophones. So what if their humor tends to suck.

If you don’t know what I mean, let me give you an illustration.

You may remember Max Raabe, that guy with the skinny tuxedoed Fred Astaire look who sings with the Palast Orchestra reproducing the big band music of the 30s.

One of the songs in his repertoire is “Kein Schwein ruft mich an.” Which you can hear on YouTube, if you’re interested: Click here.

Translating it only adds to the misery of German relations with the English-speaking world. Literally it means, “No pig calls me up.” “No pig” is a crude way of saying “not a single damn person.” The second line goes, "Keine Sau interessiert sich für mich." (“No sow is interested in me.”) If this were done in English, it would probably go something like…
My phone never ever rings
Nobody, but nobody seems to care about me.
or some such.

To German ears, that’s a lousy translation. All the fun goes right out of it when you take out the pig as the subject of the sentence.

Different strokes for different folks.

But it’s not Max Raabe that I had in mind when I spoke of dumb-ass humor. Raabe simply provides the set-up. No, it’s a Swiss guy. A tenor by the name of Leo Wundergut. I understand he does a mean “Nessun dorma,” but for purposes of illustration, here he is yodeling with his buddies. Kind of.

Now that you know who he is, check out another YouTube piece where he sings “Kein Schwein steckt mich an.” (No pig gives me (the flu).) You’ll recognize the melody and you can hear it’s a deliberate play on words. Turns out there are all sorts of things you can do once you go down the path of putting pigs on the telephone.

Second line of the Swine Flu song is, “Keine Sau infiziert sich bei mir.” (No sow catches anything from me.)

Dumb. Pure unadulterated dumb.

The good news is it can’t last. As one commentator wrote:
ein paar monate groß in den medien. *puffff* und keine sau erinnert sich mehr an die schweinekrippe! (a couple months of big media attention and then poof – “no sow” will remember the swine flu any more.)
In the meantime, though, I guess there will always be people who, when presented with opportunity, will pick it up and smear it all over their body.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Woman in Berlin (A Review)

When A Woman in Berlin was first published in 1953, it caused such a stir that its author insisted it not be published again as long as she was still alive. Her recent passing, as well as a considerable culture change in attitudes toward sex, gender relations and war responsibility finally enabled its return, first in Germany in 2003, and in the English-speaking world in 2005.

A Woman in Berlin
is a diary, the day-to-day account of a 34-year-old woman’s will to survive the invasion of Berlin by Russian troops between April and June, 1945.

It’s not hard to see why it would not become a best-seller so soon after the war. Too many people were rebuilding their lives. If you were German, the last thing you needed was a reminder of a time when rape and pillage was the norm. If you were not German, there were too many other narratives calling for your attention. Why would you stop to focus on an account of German suffering.

All accounts of people in conflict situations are Rohrschach tests of their readers’ experience. German men, we are told, hated this story because it revealed them as weak, no longer able to defend their women. Russians justifiably complain there is too little background information on the rape of Russia by the German invaders. Such information, while not justifying the brutality in Berlin, would at least help to explain their rampage.

Had I read A Woman in Berlin thirty years ago, I would have felt obliged to tie it to the struggle between my German self and my American self and focused on the question of German guilt and responsibility. Time has put that struggle to rest for me, though, and I am a somewhat less subjective reader. I see the book as a powerful contribution to feminist history, and believe that’s true no matter where you’re coming from. (That's still subjective, of course, and the international women's movement, I suspect, was the last thing the author had on her mind.)

It’s about a woman who realized she could not escape the mass rapes in the first days of the invasion, sought out a Russian with power and paid with sex for his protection. I don’t have the filters that led people of earlier times to judge and condemn. On the contrary, she comes across to me as a person of remarkable intelligence and courage. Caught by surprise in a raging river, some people might accept drowning as fate. Others look out for paddles and something to float on, and aim straight for the rapids.

Not that all women need be judged by how well they imitated her course of action. Not all women had the resources she had - a smattering of Russian, a belief in entitlement to life and the initiative that comes with a sense of self-responsibility. But those characteristics, to push the raging river metaphor a bit, merely put her in the boat. She still had to face the rapids on her own.

If you are shocked or distressed by tales of rape, you might miss the fact that this story is really about coping with vulnerabilities, sexual vulnerability being only one of many. To read this woman’s story is to become convinced that if you survive it’s because you are able to gather enough nettles by the roadside, and make do with potato mash, and rancid butter, when you can get even that. You haul your water up several flights of stairs and live without electricity, and with soldiers entering at will, standing on the back of your sofa and defecating in your living room. The question, with all due respect for those who fear being duped again, as we once were with Hitler's diaries, is not whether this happened. Of course it did. The question is why write about it and why read about it in years to come.

The quick answer is you write about it if you are fortunate enough to be able to channel your grief and fear and misery that way. And you read about it if you are fortunate enough to understand that nothing about the human condition need be shied away from. You will have to provide your own answers, if those are insufficient.

To read a personal narrative of this nature is to face another question. To what degree does one judge it on its literary merits, to what degree on its utility as insight into the human condition. Those are never entirely mutually exclusive categories, but you find yourself at one moment focusing first on one, then on the other. I read the book in part because it is Berlin history and because I know the kind of people who inhabit the book, including women not that different from the author. It’s not unlike discovering a family album and realizing as you turned the pages that your family had secrets you never knew and were never supposed to know. Discovering the writer understood how to arc a story was icing on the cake.

Because I had read the criticism first, from the cruel and stupid “how dare a German seek sympathy” criticism to the fuss about whether the story was authentic, I found myself reading defensively. I wanted to like this woman. Once I realized how much I was coming to respect her, I began to worry I was being conned, and began to look for chinks in her hero armor. She gets a bit superior at times, dividing the world into people with class on the one hand and pig farmers on the other. But it doesn’t take long to realize she is using everything in her armory to survive. Also, to her credit, she admits her shame in once celebrating German victories in Russia with full knowledge that the Russian people were being brutalized. Her journalist’s eye spots the weakness in people and she is unforgiving, but ultimately she judges herself by the same standard. She manages to poke fun at the German propensity for following orders – “The soldiers had trouble storming the train station because they had not bought platform tickets first.” And at the same time she displays another German vice, Sachlichkeit (dispassion), and makes you see its upside. That’s an understatement. The dispassion revealed in her self-description is no doubt why she lived to be an old woman.

When I was in my early teens, one of our neighbors returned from the Korean War, and I had my first encounter with a person traumatized by horror. His wife used to come to my mother for comfort. He regularly woke up screaming, and she was afraid he might hurt her. I was not supposed to be listening, but ours was a very small house. And my mother used to relay the stories to my father. “Poor woman, she’s got it tough,” they would say to each other, not knowing how else to respond. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was not in anybody’s vocabulary. Eventually the couple divorced.

The guy became an object of fascination to me, and he would let me hang out with him whenever he was outside tinkering with his car. Once I drummed up the courage to ask him about the war. “You’re too young to understand,” he said. “Some things you just can’t talk about.”

By the time I met a concentration camp survivor some time later and saw the number tattooed on her arm, I had learned it was not polite to ask people to talk about things that might embarrass them. By age fourteen I had learned there were some things one either picked up indirectly or not at all.

I know parents have to do that to their kids or they won’t be able to take them out of the house. But because we live with those strictures, it seems to me, we ought to celebrate each time somebody crosses the line of taboo and reveals what we are told ought to be hidden.

The author wanted not to be identified. The title page reads: A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City – A diary – by Anonymous.

In recent years the Korean and Chinese women pressed as girls into prostitution by the Japanese military in World War II are crossing the same line Anonymous crossed. The time is right now for them to “come out.” Smash the closet door and force the world to stop shaming them for things they had no part in creating. You may want to say that Anonymous is more of an Everywoman than a member of an abused class. Or you may want to take the feminist stand that being a woman is being a member of an abused class. In peacetime, we can argue over where the line is between fact and rhetorical excess.

In wartime, though, just as when we say “doctor” most people imagine a male being, when we say victims of war, we ought to think first of the women.

* * *

261 pages in its Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt and Co.) First American edition, 2005. Translated by Philip Boehm with a foreword by Hans Magnus Enzensberger and an introduction by Antony Beevor.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Letter to Bernice King

Rev. Bernice King
Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Dear Rev. King:

I just read that you have been elected to head the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the eighth person and first woman to hold this position. Congratulations on this honor.

What a proud organization the SCLC once was. A great American institution. What a responsibility to fill the shoes of those like your father, your brother, and Bayard Rustin, who made the SCLC something we all came to look up to.

Unfortunately, there is a dark shadow that hangs over your election. While looking for some indication that as the first woman in this position you would be expanding this progressive tradition, instead I note that you have declared, "I know in my sanctified soul that he (Dr. King) did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage."

For many of us who hold your father and mother and Mr. Rustin in great regard, this is a stab right through the heart.

I’m glad you are convinced your soul is sanctified. You’re young, and self-confidence is always nice to see in the young, even if it crosses over at times into the hubris of believing you know the mind of God. With the passing of time, I hope you will come to understand that the battle gays are engaged in for same-sex marriage is only the latest of many struggles for rights and recognition. We are not lesser beings because we are gay. Your father knew that. Your mother was our friend and our champion. So was your sister, Yolanda.

Black Americans are not the only Americans who owe your father and mother a debt of gratitude. In the end, the rising tide of equality they worked for their whole lives long raised all our boats.

Please, Ms. King. Continue to bring the SCLC forward. Do not align yourself with evangelistic con artists like the Eddie Longs of this world.

Some are calling you the last nail in the coffin of a now irrelevent has-been organization. I hope they’re wrong. I hope you’re the person who brings it back to life. In the progress of history there were pro-women’s rights Christians and anti-women’s rights Christians, pro-slavery Christians and anti-slavery Christians, pro-segregation Christians and anti-segregation Christians. Your father knew how to choose the right side in these struggles. One of the last great divides in our society is between Christians who seek to demonize gay and lesbian people and Christians who understand making outcasts on the basis of sexuality is no more justified than making outcasts on the basis of race.

I hope you can find your way to help us rid ourselves of one of our society’s last lingering bigotries.

We will be watching your career with interest, and wishing you all the best.

Yours very truly,

Alan J. McCornick
Berkeley, CA

You have been terminated, Mr. Ammiano

I remember learning in civics class in the 7th grade that America had the best government in the world because people who differ, like Republicans and Democrats, could debate their differences and truth would come out in the end. Once the people had heard all sides we would vote. And that was called democracy.

But that was Connecticut in 1953 and this is California in 2009.

Connecticut was a pretty good place to grow up, but politically things never went into the red zone. Here they go there all the time.

Case in point…

Tom Ammiano is a California Assemblyman representing District 13, which includes the Eastern half of the city and county of San Francisco, including the Castro, where he is a hero to many. I remember him from the 60s when he was a small-time gay stand-up comic. If you’ve seen the documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, he’s the nelly elementary school teacher who talks about Milk’s assassination with tears rolling down his cheeks. A major issue in Milk’s day was the Briggs initiative, which would have fired not only all gay schoolteachers like Ammiano but even sympathizers of gay schoolteachers, as well.

Ammiano’s career took off in later years. Like many politicians, he started with the school board. Elected in 1990, he became president in 1994. He then ran for Supervisor, the job that Milk pioneered for gays, and won. Here, too, he eventually became president.

I mention the documentary because there’s a line in there that made me squirm the first time I heard it. Gays were furiously trying to distance themselves from the lie that we were interested sexually in children. Instead of watching his language to steer clear of the highly distasteful topic, Ammiano blurts out, “I’m not interested in getting my hand in their pants!” Man, does this guy never monitor what he says, I wondered.

Among his many accomplishments is the legislation he authored making San Francisco the first city in America to provide universal health care access.

He’s pretty much any Republican’s worst nightmare. He also authored measures to increase police accountability, he channeled millions to the public schools and millions more to subsidize child care and social service to San Francisco youth. He extended marriage privileges to domestic partners in the city when that was still a new idea. He assisted first-time home buyers and increased salaries for the lowest paid city employees.

You know he was cruisin’ for a bruisin’ with Governator Schwarzenegger. Just a question of time.

Following, unfortunately, in the footsteps of South Carolina’s Joe Wilson, who heckled Obama with “You lie,” Ammiano shouted “You lie!” at Schwarzenegger recently at a democratic party gala at the Fairmont Hotel which Schwarzenegger crashed, joking that he was entitled to show up because, as he put it, he slept with a democrat every night.

Ammiano didn’t stop there. He was heard to say, “Kiss my gay ass” as he was leaving the room.

In many places, this would have given the victim of such vulgarity the opportunity to bask in the light of moral superiority.

But this is California. What does the Governator do?

He vetoes AB 1176, the bill introduced by Ammiano and approved by the Assembly, that would improve Pier 70 and add to the beauty of San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

But he doesn’t just veto the bill. He sends a note back to the Assembly.

Here’s the veto letter. Read down the first letters of every line in the second and third paragraphs.

To the Members of the California State Assembly:

I am returning Assembly Bill 1176 without my signature.
For some time now I have lamented the fact that major issues are overlooked while many
unnecessary bills come to me for consideration. Water reform, prison reform, and health
care are major issues my Administration has brought to the table, but the Legislature just
kicks the can down the alley.

Yet another legislative year has come and gone without the major reforms Californians
overwhelmingly deserve. In light of this, and after careful consideration, I believe it is
unnecessary to sign this measure at this time.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Best part of the story, I think, is that most people I’ve talked to about this, democrats all, think the Republican governor is cool. OK, so he's a little Neanderthal, at times. Something about him is cool. And this is California, not the palace at Versailles.

And the heads turn, as at a tennis game, to see what fun might be had from the other side now.

I think we should not overlook the worthy effort of some staff worker with a sense of humor. It must have taken no small effort to line up just the right first words of each line while filling each line with just the right number of letters. True, it's pretty transparent. "...just kicks the can down the alley” is the giveaway, for me. Not the right level of discourse for the medium. “Overwhelmingly deserve” likewise. Definitely the wrong adverb. And “unnecessary” is not the word most people would have chosen in a rejection statement when the word they are after is “wrong.” But it’s an accomplishment for all that. So it's Sacramento pettiness on the taxpayer's dime. Beats watching legislators taking money to sink health care reform, I say.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

First and Second Class Citizenship in California

Dear Folks:

A friend of mine who is not from California asked me recently to explain just exactly how we distinguish among our citizens. He had heard a Californian say, “I’m tired of being a second-class citizen in the land of my birth!” and wondered what that meant.

So I explained it all to him. My explanation went like this:

We have two classes of citizens in California. We’ve always had two classes of people, and not one. We used to have first class citizenship for men but second class citizenship for women, but then came women’s suffrage and we gave up that distinction.

We used to have first class citizenship for white people and second class citizenship for black people, but then came the rejection of the separate-but-equal notion and we gave up that distinction, too. We used to have a first-class sexuality – heterosexuality – and a second-class sexuality – homosexuality – but then came the various laws allowing gay people to fight discrimination in housing and jobs so that there was no longer a way to distinguish who could live where they wanted and work where they met the qualifications from citizens without those rights, so gay people began at last to enjoy first class citizenship without having to pretend they were not gay. But in terms of who could marry, there were still two classes of citizens: heterosexual and homosexual.

Until the Supreme Court decided there was nothing in the State Constitution that prevented gays from marrying each other, and the second-class citizens who where gay became first-class citizens who were gay. Then Californians put that right to a vote, and a few citizens, mostly Mormons and Catholic citizens (including a great many outside of California), both groups historically second class citizens in their day, paid millions of dollars to put out a disinformation campaign to convince the voters there was something sinister and dangerous about gay people getting married (i.e., that God wanted them to be second-class citizens and God should be in charge in California and not the Constitution), so 52% of the people going to the polls in 2008 voted to remove the right of gays to marry the Supreme Court said they had, and second-class citizenship was put into the California State Constitution as it was once when people legally designated as black (i.e., polluted by 1% “black blood” even if they appeared white) were not allowed to marry people legally designated as white. Because the voters had decided this should be so, the Supreme Court let that stand, even though privately some of the justices thought second-class status for any citizen was a bad idea.

As a kind of compromise, they decided that those gays who had married when it was legal for them to do so should be allowed to remain married, which meant that now the picture was a little bit more complicated.

Now there are two kinds of citizens of California, heterosexual citizens, 100% of whom are first-class citizens, and homosexual citizens, some of whom are first-class citizens and some of whom are second-class citizens.

And until today, all of the married gay citizens of Holland, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway and Sweden, Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, i.e., countries or states which do not have two classes of citizens divided by their sexuality – became second-class citizens as soon as they entered California. Today, though, Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law the right of those citizens, first-class citizens in their home states or countries (because all of their citizens are by law first-class citizens), to be considered first-class citizens in California, too.

So only gay people who did not marry before their right to marry was removed, or who cannot afford to travel to another state to get married are second-class citizens. The rest are first-class citizens.

There. I hope that was helpful.



Monday, September 21, 2009

Sorley Boy Boulevard

Point Reyes, one of the nicest places to go in the Bay Area, is about thirty miles up the coast from San Francisco. Getting there, you pass Drake’s Bay, named after Sir Francis Drake, the English explorer who brought glory to Elizabeth the First by being the first “explorer” to “discover” the place for the Queen. Amazing how the choice of vocabulary controls our thinking. I grew up in New England in an anglophile culture and still remember the adventure stories I heard about him and his ship, the Golden Hind. There were suggestions he might actually be a pirate, but that only added to his hero status. Besides, it was the Catholic Spanish he was stealing from. Who are they to play the victim?

But times change. Spain and England are, to me now, equally wonderful places. Both have gay rights I can only dream of in my own country. And I know Drake now only from Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, which I take from time to time when I drive over the Richmond Bridge to Marin County. Oh yes, and there’s the Sir Francis Drake Hotel at Union Square in San Francisco.

But just as every year on Columbus Day there are a bunch of Native Americans and their sympathizers who want to change the name of Columbus Avenue to something else, and there were big protests at the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ 1492 arrival in North America, the suggestion pops up from time to time that we pitch Sir Francis to the sharks and move on.

In this morning’s Chronicle, letter writer Sean Murphy appeals to his fellow Irishmen in Marin County to remove Drake’s name from the boulevard. His reasoning is sound. Drake (aka “The Butcher”) is known for, among other things, the Rathlin Island massacre of hundreds of Irish. When Sir Francis took the island, it surrendered. He nonetheless massacred not only the 200 defenders but the 400 civilian populace as well.

Murphy suggests the name Sorley Boy MacDonnell, the “great Irish warrior” whose family suffered at the hands of Drake and his men in 1575. Thrown over the cliffs.

OK by me. Sorley Boy Blvd. trips off the tongue as readily as Sir Francis Drake. “I’m staying at the Sorley Boy” is somewhat less felicitous, but we could take this one place at a time.

Name changes are hard on old people, but one manages. I still remember Grove Street, but have no trouble calling it MLK. Cesar Chavez, not Army Street. I could even handle getting rid of the name Sather on Sather Gate and Sather Tower (which everybody calls “The Campanile” anyway). I know when they revamped it recently there was some dirt dug up on this guy Sather and people said it was time to toss him out. The university decided there was simply too much history now associated with the place and the name stays for now.

Supporters of Sorley Boy MacDonnell Blvd. will have to fight it out with supporters of Jerry Garcia Blvd., who would seem to have the edge. Jerry Garcia was a local boy, after all.

It could be disorienting, at first, driving visitors along Jerry Garcia Blvd. to Sorley Boy Bay.

As long as Pt. Reyes is there when you arrive, though, be my guest. And there is something appealing about cleaning up your history. Even if it takes 500 years.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dmitri Hvorostovsky

I saw Il Trovatore last night. When my friend Bobbi and I went to see Tosca last year on the big screen, simulcast at AT&T Ballpark, we vowed we would go again this year. This year we vowed we will go again next year, and if they can keep up the quality of these performances, I will want to go every year for the rest of my life.

I understand there are people who don’t like opera. I remember a time years ago when a colleague lectured me on how unnatural an operatic voice was. The human body was not meant to do such things. He preferred the blues.

My head is still spinning over that opinion. Nothing wrong with the blues, mind you. But not appreciating the operatic voice feels as dumb to me as not appreciating the talent of an Olympic athlete. Not appreciating the skill of a brain surgeon, not understanding a Mozart, a Picasso or a Shakespeare. It’s a skill which, when developed, makes you rise up out of your chair to applaud. An affirmation of life.

OK, so not everybody will want to include opera in this affirmation of life. Fine. But let me rave here, for a minute. I’m still reveling in the excitement I felt at the opera last night.

An even bigger reason most people don’t like opera is that the stories are so incredibly silly. About people who are all emotion and absolutely no sense. Romanticism on steroids. I’m talking about bel canto opera, Italian opera, opera of the Romantic period written for the heart (1815-1926), not Wagner, not modern opera, written for the head.

Il Trovatore is almost a satire of that kind of opera. Something Saturday Night Live would come up with to make fun of opera. The plot is formulaic:

Take a male lover (tenor, of course), add a female lover (soprano, of course), add a rival (baritone, of course) male lover. Mess ‘em up.

Manrico, a troubadour (trovatore), loves Leonora. Count di Luna wants to take Leonora from Manrico. You know before the orchestra even warms up they will fight, and somebody’s got to die.

There’s three of the big four characters. The fourth is Azucena (mezzo-soprano), mother to Manrico. But wait – the plot will surely thicken.

Turns out di Luna’s father burned Azucena’s mother at the stake for being a witch, and Azucena has devoted her life to (what else?) revenge.

Azucena’s first attempt at revenge went horribly wrong. Thinking she was throwing di Luna’s kid brother into the flames, she threw her own child instead. Her motherly instinct then led to raising the kid brother as her own. Manrico (who loves Leonora, remember), it turns out, is actually his arch-rival, Count di Luna’s kid brother. Told you the plot would thicken. The Count doesn’t know this, of course, and thinks his rival is actually the witch’s real son. Two reasons for di Luna to hate this guy, Manrico.

Manrico and di Luna are on opposite sides in the Spanish Civil War of the day (the 1820s one, not the 1930s one, obviously), so they go at it. Manrico is captured. His mother, Azucena, is captured also. Leonora offers herself to di Luna if he will free Manrico. He agrees. Leonora poisons herself. Di Luna then kills Manrico. Azucena says, “Aha! You have killed your brother. Mother, you are avenged!” Curtain.

It’s almost as if they made the story this hard to take (and there were giggles, even guffaws, all evening long) in order to create a contrast with the beauty of the voices. Sort of like medieval artists putting “beauty marks” on their portraits, blemishes which only heighten the contrasting beauty.

Enrico Caruso once said that all it takes for a successful performance of Il Trovatore is the four greatest singers in the world.

I am convinced I saw that performance last night.

In time, I want to poke around in the lives and careers of Leonora (Sondra Radvanovsky), Manrico (Marco Berti) and Azucena (Stephanie Blythe), but it will be a while before I can get to them, so totally enamored am I with the di Luna character. I had to start with the bad guy.

It turns out he’s world famous. I just didn’t know him. So much greater my delight at the discovery, I say.

His name is Dmitri Hvorostovsky /Дмитрий Хворостовский. His last name is too unpronounceable, and it feels presumptuous for me to refer to him as Dmitri, so let me call him DX – Roman letter D and Cyrillic letter X.
Dark, resplendent and sumptuously textured, his voice rolls forth like some majestic force of nature.
The San Francisco Chronicle understates it by a long shot. His voice is pure magic.

I was up till 3 in the morning YouTubing this guy. It’s entirely possible I will not find a single soul to share my enthusiasm, but I am posting this anyway, just in case.

Here’s a small part of what I came upon. (I fear I am already including way too much – but I have to find time to get on with other things…)

Here’s some stuff on the man himself. A bit of his history, and the history of bel canto in Russia. How DX grew up in the “gritty industrial city of Krasnoyarsk,” became a drunk and ran around with thugs. (What’s not to love about this success story, I ask you.) Then came to Cardiff in 1989 closely chaperoned by KGB agents and won a world competition over local Welsh favorite, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. Married, had twins, divorced, drank some more, and now appears to be serious (sober since 2001) about getting his act together for the big time he’s clearly got in him.

One of the exciting bits about probing into this guy’s background is reliving the excitement of a world I once knew, a Russian cultural world that exists, along with the Western World, on its own plain, almost like a parallel universe. The YouTube selections, if you follow them, will give you a flavor of that world.

He acquired the name, the “Elvis of Opera” from the fact that he has an incredible stage presence beyond the magical one I felt last night. Something about the way he stands. Fearless looking and strong. Report after report has him infusing his roles with an energy nobody expects to find.

Look at Beverly Sills, for example, gushing over his Eugene Onegin performance at the Met with Renée Fleming.

He has his own web page, of course. And there are a large number of his concert pieces. Here are a few of the classic ones, including one from Trovatore (but you’ve got to supply the white uniform and him all alone on an opera stage):
1. Handel's “ Ombra Mai Fu”
2. Rachmaninoff's “In the silence of the secret night” (Hymn for Lorca)
3. Verdi's "Il Balen del suo soriso" from "Il Trovatore" (Note the smiles on the faces of the orchestra when he finishes.)

Just as the three tenors have taken opera to the masses, DX has given concert after concert in Russia of popular music, including Russian folk songs. Hence the sobriquet, the “Elvis of Opera.” (Elvis, in terms of popularity. I trust the resemblance stops there.)

Before you watch a couple of these, take a look at an interview he gave. Even if you don’t understand Russian, watch it, at least for a bit, and have a look at the charm this guy exudes.

And here are two Russian popular songs.

The first is a popular song of the 1960s or 70s called the Unexpected Waltz, "Случайный Вальс."
I can’t find an English version, so I’ve given a translation the old college try. Don’t hold me to 100% accuracy.

Ночь коротка, спят облака,
И лежит у меня на ладони
Незнакомая ваша рука.
После тревог спит городок,
Я услышал мелодию вальса
И сюда заглянул на часок.

Хоть я с вами совсем не знаком,
И далёко отсюда мой дом,
Я как будто бы снова
Возле дома родного…
В этом зале пустом
Мы танцуем вдвоём,
Так скажите хоть слово,
Сам не знаю о чём.

Будем дружить, петь и кружить.
Я совсем танцевать разучился
И прошу вас меня извинить.
Утро зовёт снова в поход,
Покидая ваш маленький город,
Я пройду мимо ваших ворот.

The night is short,
the clouds are asleep,
and in the palm of my hand
lies your unfamiliar hand.
The town sleeps away its troubles
and I hear the melody of the waltz.

Although we are strangers
And I am far from home
It’s as if were once again
near the place I was born.
In this empty hall we dance
just us two
Though you speak
I know not what you say.

We will grow close, will sing and whirl
across the dance floor.
I have forgotten entirely how to dance
And ask you to forgive me.
The morning calls me once again on my way,
I must leave your little town
I will pass your gate again.

The second is called На Сопках Маньчжурии (Na sopkakh Man’chzhurii - On the hills of Manchuria). It is one of Russia’s most popular songs. Different versions have developed over the years. It is a song about the Battle of Manchuria (the Battle of Mukden, to the Japanese), the final battle in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, in which the Russians lost 89,000 of their 330,000 men. The Japanese, incidently, also lost 71,000 out of 270,000, but won the war. The Japanese then took the victory as impetus to become a military power, but that’s another story.

Just for the sake of contrast, here’s a version of the original song (with subtitles) done by a kid named Maksim Troshin who died at 19. I’ve found him on Russian nationalist and anti-semitic sites. You can see how the song would appeal to the right.

And then listen to the way DX schmalzes it up (And don’t miss the audience eating it up) in the Soviet version: (Sleep peacefully, warriors. The motherland will never forget you.) I leave it to you to decide where the line is between Russian sentimentality and nationalism.

Ночь подошла,
Сумрак на землю лег,
Тонут во мгле пустынные сопки,
Тучей закрыт восток.

Здесь, под землей,
Наши герои спят,
Песню над ними ветер поет и
Звезды с небес глядят.

То не залп с полей долетел -
Это гром вдали прогремел. 2 раза
И опять кругом все так спокойно,
Все молчит в тишине ночной.

Спите, бойцы, спите спокойным сном,
Пусть вам приснятся нивы родные,
Отчий далекий дом.

Пусть погибли вы в боях с врагами,
Подвиг ваш к борьбе нас зовет,
Кровью народной омытое знамя
Мы понесем вперед.

Мы пойдем навстречу новой жизни,
Сбросим бремя рабских оков.
И не забудут народ и отчизна
Доблесть своих сынов.

Спите, бойцы, слава навеки вам!
Нашу отчизну, край наш родимый
Не покорить врагам!

Ночь, тишина, лишь гаолян шумит.
Спите, герои, память о вас
Родина-мать хранит!

(Again caveat caveat the translation!)

Night approached
Dusk lay upon the earth
Desert knolls sank in the haze, and
The clouds closed in the east.

Here, underground,
Our heroes sleep,
The wind sings a song above them
and the stars look out from the sky.

That’s not a volley flying across the field
It’s thunder. Two times
And again around all that is peaceful,
everything is still, in the quiet night.

Sleep, soldiers. Sleep the peaceful sleep,
May you dream of the fields of your homeland,
of your father’s house far away.

You perished in battle with the enemy,
your death calls us to the fight.
We will carry forward the banner
washed in your blood.

We will go forward towards a new life,
throw off the fetters than enslaved us,
the people will never forget the fatherland
and the valor of its sons.

Sleep, soldiers. Glory to you forever!
Our fatherland, the land of our birth,
will never be subjugated by its enemies.

All that is heard is the rustling of the kaoliang.
Sleep, heroes, the motherland will remember you.

* * *

There’s so much more to be had about this guy. There’s more popular Russian romance pieces
like Тёмная Ночь (Dark is the Night). (I’ll skip further translations.) There's Где-то Далеко (Somewhere Far Away). And here he is horsing around in “Tenderness,” and again, at rehearsal.

I could include a bunch of his stuff from before he turned prematurely gray, but since I think his greatness that isn’t already evident is yet to come, and I want to get back again, before we go, to opera

There's Ya vas lyublyu (I love you) from Queen of Spades, and here he is, with Pavarotti, doing “Le minaccie, i fieri accenti” from Forza del Destino. And there's a Charlie Rose Interview (It's halfway through the program, at minute 33) after the success of Prokofieff’s War and Peace at the Met in New York. DX talks about how he surrenders his own personality once on stage and becomes a different person.

Bless you if you're still reading this indulgent romp through the YouTube world. All I can say is there is so much more.

Let me stop with a curious side-note.

DX has embraced Russian music with a vengeance, and become a kind of Russian cultural ambassador, dedicated himself to familiarizing non-Russian audiences with Russian music, as the previous Charlie Rose interview indicates. Remember his interview with Beverly Sills during the performance of Eugene Onegin at the Met. And given his inclination to indulge Russians by taking on a kind of Josh Groban role and going whole-hog on popularizing the classical, and his embrace of Russian nationalist sentiment, I would have expected to find a true cultural conservative.

But then I came across this bit.

The Munich Opera House, under Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, produced what some came to call the Brokeback Mountain version of Eugene Onegin. The love story is between two men, and the famous Polonaise at the ball is danced by a corps of bare-chested gay cowboys. [This may be a little hard to access. Click on the link in this paragraph to Brokeback Mountain version..., then scroll down to 31 October, "Brokeback it is" and the click on "video trailer" in the 5th paragraph. You may have to open your Quick Time Player first.]

It was roundly booed, I understand, and some of the reviews are pretty vicious.

But here’s DX’s comment on the whole thing:
“I shall see for myself,” Mr. Hvorostovsky said. “These devoted friendships between Russian men at that time could be sexual.” Intimations of romantic feelings between Onegin and Lensky run through the source, Pushkin’s verse novel, he said: “It’s very tender, the way it’s written.”
What’s not to love about this man?

Wonder if I can change my name to Hvorostovsky?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dueling Perspectives

I once taught a seminar on the meaning of culture.

Often, when I told people what I did for a living, I got a look which said,

“How could that topic possibly be of interest to more than five or six people on the planet?”

My answer, which I usually kept to myself, was that I didn’t really care, so long as the five or six people in my seminar were interested.

I always started that seminar with a historical perspective, and that involved comparing the concept of civilization with the concept of culture.

The first use of the word civilisation came about by French thinkers developing an argument against Rousseau’s praise of the “noble savage.” “Civilized people,” these citified thinkers maintained, stood in contrast to rude, crude and unattractive people. Civilized people lived in cities and generated ideas. The rest were peasants digging in the earth with little to offer beyond potatoes.

In Germany, a bunch of petty states each too small to match the power of the French nation, the focus was on defending the language and customs of each small region, and “digging in the earth” was a positive metaphor for ‘cultivating’ one’s talents and skills.

For a long time, the French continued to talk about civilization while the Germans spoke instead of Kultur. Only in recent times have these two terms merged. Anthropologists have turned the German multiculture focus into a science, the French and Germans have kissed and made up, and most people use culture and civilization interchangeably.

I didn’t spend much time on this in class; there were too many other things to get to. But I did ask students to divide into two groups: one to develop the French view of civilization as a universal human quest, and one to develop the German (chiefly Herder’s) positive view of multiple cultures as opposed to the alien French notion of civilization. The debate that followed usually generated heat. If you are looking for trouble, you see the French as elitist and arrogant. And the Germans are romantic fools. Worse, you see in the French claim to civilization the seeds of European imperialism. And in the German romantic view, the seeds of fascist nationalism.

You can also see that, if managed right, both universalism and an appreciation for multiculturalism come out of the respective positions and you have two positives. It’s not about choosing either/or, but about tweaking each of them to make them fit together.

I taught that seminar three times in the last three years before retirement. What looked like a very small historical note to pass over quickly in a first class meeting continued to pay off, not only for the way it informed the goals of digging deeper into an exploration of culture, but because it set up the issue of perspectives and some basis for understanding how ideology and historical accident can lead you to those perspectives.

What’s happening today in America is an issue parallel to the French/German debate. We’re debating Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian political philosophy – Hamilton being the American founding father of the pitch for a strong central government, and Jefferson the voice of the little guy desiring nothing more than to be left alone to grow in his own way and follow his own dreams.

Two reasonable positions taken by honest informed people in large part as a result of personal experience with the strengths and weaknesses of each perspective. When people compare two cultures, they tend to compare the best of one (usually one’s own) with the worst of another. When Republicans (Jeffersonians) look at Democrats, they see ward bosses, greedy folk seeking entitlements they haven’t earned. When Democrats (Hamiltonians) look at Republicans, they see people born on third base wondering why the masses don’t hit more home runs.

These are only two examples of ideological conflict. I’m sure any reader of history can come up with dozens without half trying. There’s communism and capitalism, for example. The weakness of communism is how it can stifle incentive, reward the weak and lazy. The weakness of capitalism is how it can create a world devoid of compassion, for people, for the environment, for anything but capital itself.

What I think we miss, much to our discredit, is that the good points of each argument in which intelligent people can agree to disagree can lead to staleness, irrelevance and blindness. Jefferson’s states’ rights notion isn’t a bad notion, but it did lead to a defence of slavery. Don’t ask/don’t tell and separate-but-equal policies were improvements over what went before, but both turned out to be institutionalized abuse. We have no choice but to keep the conversation going, keep revisiting policies and seeing whether they still make sense, keep an open mind and a fresh sense of dedication. We need a healthy democracy.

When I read about this debate going on between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, I wonder if David Brooks is right (his article in this morning’s New York Times is what prompted this reflection) – that this is a healthy moment of debate, and we should not pay too much attention to the loudmouths on the perifery. If that’s what is happening – and it’s always tempting to believe the media are skewing the coverage too much toward the troublemakers and not giving us a balanced idea of what is happening – if that’s what is happening, these are not the worst of times.

Trouble is, I have lost faith in the American media and in Americans’ ability to keep their eye on the real issues – like the relative merits of republican virtue and democratic compassion.

Much as I’d like, I can’t help zooming in on such things as the loss of domestic partner rights in Arizona, the Senate’s decision not to give Amtrak any money unless they permit guns on trains, Nancy Pelosi’s tears of fear that the incivility of today is bringing us back to the days when Dan White shot Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone, and the fact that the Democrats, bought off by insurance company profiteers, are selling us down the river on health care…

And I’m not blaming the media for this coverage, either. These are important issues. It’s just that I wish somehow as these lesser issues arise we could up our debate on the larger issues in proportion.

How do we keep focused on fundamental debates in a world of Bill O’Reillys and Larry Springers? How do we make democracy a topic over which we debate, not duel. We’re now trying to extricate ourselves from Iraq, which we stormed into not so long ago, claiming to be bringing the gift of democracy. What do we have to do to get it to work here?

I know this question is of interest to more than five or six people on the planet.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What if it is broke?

One of my favorite sayings, one which reflects America’s pride in being a practical people, is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The corrolary is implied. If it is broke, then do fix it.

The health care battle raging in Congress and around the nation is bringing home the fact that not only is our health care system broken, but so, quite evidently, is American democracy. And fixing health care, alas, doesn’t appear to be in the cards at the moment. Nor do we seem to have much chance of fixing American democracy.

In Obama’s address to Congress the other night, now forever marked by Joe Wilson’s “You lie” outburst, Obama put out the good news that the Senate was coming up with a health care plan in a week’s time.

Well, it’s out. The Max Baucus proposal, aka “Obama’s blueprint” is on the table.

And sometimes you just want to throw up.

This joker who has collected almost four million dollars in contributions from the insurance industry since 1989 comes up with what? A proposal to enrich the insurance companies. Wow. I wonder how that happened.

And Max Baucus is a democrat. One of us.

Yeah. Right.

If this were not absurd enough, despite the fact Max Baucus’ Finance Committee has a bipartisan face, the Republicans, with the possible exception of Olympia Snow, are all expected to vote against it. Which means this is the friggin' DEMOCRATIC plan!!! The one we’re going to ram through despite Republican opposition.

Man, if you ever want an example of a broken democracy, I don’t know where you’ll find one better than this.

Look at this roadkill of a plan. It asks American families to pay 13.5% of their income in monthly payments. Oh, yeah. And then co-payments. Oh, yeah. And then there will be the usual deductables. It will extend health care to 30 million uninsured citizens. Whoopee. And the other 17 million? They’re supposed to get on their knees and praise the Lord for saving us from socialism?

Because this proposal would require all Americans to sign on, it would bring in additional billions in new business to insurance companies. Quite a windfall. Billions for the insurance companies that could have gone into a pool, if we had national health care, to lower the costs considerably more and pay for the seventeen million left out in the cold with this plan. As the Los Angeles Times reports, there’s joy in the boardrooms tonight.

Reminds me – just a quick aside here – of the time The Onion had a ball last year with the $700 billion payout plan:
Three thousand guests were reportedly flown on 750 separate private jets to the Caribbean, where they commemorated the last-minute financial aid package—which saved their companies from the subprime mortgage crisis that has left thousands of Americans without homes—with 4-tons of Beluga caviar, $250,000 bottles of vintage Dom Pérignon served over precious gems, a 36-hour fireworks display, an additional loan of $200 billion to cover the costs of the gala, and a private concert for each attendee with rock legend Rod Stewart.
And is it really supposed to be 13.5% across the board? If somebody grosses $100,000 a year, he or she can afford a reduction to $86,500. But imagine your income at $40,000. That means it drops to $35,000. That missing $5000 smarts a whole lot more than the missing $13,500 for the first guy. Countries with national health plans don’t tax the less affluent at the same rate as the more affluent. But this is the U.S., and Congress runs the country for the wealthy, so this will not surprise anybody.

And while you avoid seeing a doctor for fear of the deductibles and co-pays, your employer still pays through the nose. Money you might have access to, if your employer were not saddled with the obligation to pay for health care.

But is this the best Obama can do? Shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic? Shovel more business to the insurance companies, with their 20% + administrative costs instead of copying the national health care systems around the world with their 5%?

77% of Americans want a public option. Hell, even 73% of American doctors, once thought of as the self-serving bad guys along with corporate America, want some sort of public option. Instead we have representatives of 3% of the population come up with a plan we’re calling the Obama blueprint – which excludes the public option. If you’re not ashamed of that fact, shame on you.

Senators earn $174,000 a year. If they claim D.C. as home, they pay premiums of $336.03 every two weeks for health benefits. The government then reimburses $252.02 of this. (Click on non-postal federal employees for the full data state by state). Rates vary according to state, but they are all in this ball park. Think about this. They have access to a health care plan that requires them to pay about $672.06 a month. But the government reimburses them for $504.04 of this. They end up paying $168.02 a month. On $14,500 a month income. And then they come up with plans like this for the rest of us? This is representative democracy?

In eleven U.S. states the uninsured number more than one in five. In three states, Florida, New Mexico and Texas, they number more than one in four. Yet look at how these people are represented. Texas, with 28% of the population uninsured, is represented by Senators Cornyn and Hutchinson. Cornyn doesn’t like the Baucus bill because he worries it’s really about Washington handing out more “entitlements”. (Top Story as of today – this may change on his website). Hutchinson, pictured today speaking behind a “Free Our Health Care Now” no-public-option poster, is unhappy that the Baucus bill is not bipartisan.

To be fair, the figures for uninsured Americans are highly contested. Many Americans could be insured if they would only sign up, we hear. Many of the uninsured are only temporarily uninsured. But despite it all, we’re arguing about details, not about the fact we have millions of Americans without health insurance, no matter how you cut it.

And, the citizens of these fourteen states aside (and all states have uninsured in the double digits), as the government was originally conceived, each Representative was to represent his or her constituency, but each Senator was supposed to represent the nation at large. When you see how the Senate votes, you see that bubble burst a long time ago. Partisanship and self-interest are a stark reality. Put that fact together with the fact that the Finance Committee consists of three democrats and three Republicans – 40% of the Senate, but 50% of this committee in other words. And then combine that with the fact that together they represent about 3% of the population, and you can see the cracks in the system.

For me, the bitterest pill of all was thinking about Joe Wilson. We’ve satisfied ourselves that this guy is a lout. Jimmy Carter called him a racist. His wife and kids insist he’s a peach of a guy, never mind that he wanted to fly the Confederate flag over South Carolina not too long ago, and defended his racist boss Strom Thurmond, referring to his illegitimate black daughter's revelation of her origins as "unseemly." Name calling aside, the House, for the first time in memory, censured him for his outburst, and one hopes that might lead somehow to greater civility in the body politic. I continue to place great hope in Obama, but he’s wrong. Joe Wilson choice of "liar" is nasty - all politicians slant their stories. And his style may be "unseemly." But Obama lied by omission. He claims that the bill excludes illegal aliens. And it does. But they will go to emergency rooms and be paid for by taxpayer money. We can't demand IDs in emergency rooms – too many people, many of them citizens without birth certificates, would die.

We’ll figure out one day how to keep illegals from entering the country, but who wants to live in a country that tells people having a heart attack to do it on the steps of the hospital. And who send little kids with contagious diseases back to school to infect the rest of the population, rather than treat the disease under a public health policy.

We don’t hear much about that because the Obama supporters among us are trying too hard to disassociate ourselves from the Baucus blue dog democrats and the entire wretched Republican spoiler party and we feel we have to defend Obama right or wrong.

That makes us part of the problem of brokenness.


Shame all around.