Saturday, January 24, 2009

A more nuanced approach

Interesting how the discourse over same-sex marriage has evolved. Increasingly, cooler heads are prevailing and the focus now seems to be on developing a strategy for talking with all those frightened folk who voted for Prop. 8. One thing is sure. We need to recognize these people are not all of one mind. We need a more nuanced approach.

I’m working on it.

Here’s my current thinking. I trust you’ll understand it’s a work in progress.

As I see it, there are three types of arguments made by Prop. 8 people. Let me list them one at a time and suggest an appropriate response in each case.

Argument 1:
I don’t know why, but I just don’t feel right about two men or two women kissing each other.
Response 1:

Note this argument seems to be made far more often by men than by women. Women seem to understand that two people kissing each other is a pretty good sight when you consider all the ways people have of insulting, threatening, battering and eliminating each other. Remember also that heterosexual men comfortable with their own sexuality usually find gay sex somewhere between curious and amusing. And hot, if it's between two women. And that means you’re probably
dealing with the other kind.

Suggest there are different strokes for different folks and ask them if they have ever watched two men really go at it.

Argument 2:
I have to take steps to stop you people from doing it and from having your so-called relationships approved by the state, because that’s what God wants me to do.
Response 2: (this one is physical, and requires no analysis)

Remove your shirt, or do this fully clothed if you are shy. Lean forward and bend your knees as if you customarily walked on your knuckles. Rub your fingernails up and down your ribs on both sides, jump up and down and make jungle noises.

Argument 3:
I don’t know why you people should have special treatment. You have the same rights we all have – to marry a person of the opposite sex.
Response 3:

Recognize this is a person trying to be logical. Avoid all suggestion that there is a special place reserved in hell for people who make this argument. Remember all the “Intelligent Design” people out there, forced to get all pseudo-scientific because it’s simply too embarrassing to make Argument 2.

Remember also that while intelligent design is often put forward by the people who wouldn’t know the scientific method if it bit them in the ass, this argument is characteristic of a much craftier sort - lawyers working for the Catholic Church. Click on Catholic Answers in Support of Proponent Interveners on the Amicus Briefs list, about three-quarters of the way down the Jan. 16 list. On page 9, you'll find:
Proposition 8 is not discriminatory because it applies to all men and all women equally.
Since they are trying to be reasonable, try reason in return. Inform them that there are people called homosexuals, distinguished from heterosexuals in that they tend to relate sexually to people of the same sex. Inform them that these people sometimes go completely insane if their sexuality is twisted and they are psychologically programmed to believe they should hate themselves for how they feel. And even those who don’t go insane tend to roam the world poisoning the wells and ruining your hair by leaving it under the dryer too long.

If that doesn’t work, ask them if they think it would be fair for the law to require crucifixes in synagogues on the grounds that everybody has an equal right to worship the Messiah.

If that doesn’t work, use Response 2.

As I said, it’s a work in progress.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Born Again

I can’t remember feeling like this. Ever.

I must have had moments like this. I know when I was younger there were lots of thrilling experiences.

But it has been a long time.

I want to be cool, not to say anything that will make me feel like a fool later. I want to hold to the Buddhist Middle Way, keep my healthy cynicism. But it's not working. I'm being swept away.

My eyes started filling with tears at 8 o’clock in the morning yesterday, and I still feel myself choking up. Barack and Michelle dancing, Sasha giving her father a thumbs up after his speech, Sergeant Caleb Green singing the national anthem, Aretha's hat. Practically everything seems to be choking me up the past thirty-six hours.

This was always going to be exciting, Lord knows. We've gone from segregation to a black president in my lifetime. Washington, D.C., is for the the first time in history – at this moment, at least – a cheerfully integrated city. And so, we want to believe, is all America at the moment.

But the tears. The oceans of tears. Jesse Jackson bawling. Not just tearing up, but actually bawling. The woman from Oklahoma being interviewed who just can’t finish the interview because she loses control. Juan Williams of Fox Network breaking down. What's with all these damn tears!

Obviously a whole lot is going on beside the celebration of a black man in the White House. For me nothing matches the relief, the sense of liberation from those eight years of darkness, and the hope that America might be getting back on track.

With it comes the revelation of this embarrassing secret that so many of us have who see displays of patriotism as the sign of a weak mind and dangerous politics. It turns out we love our country. We just couldn’t say so, because it was not a time to say so, but a time to be ashamed. We had lost faith and we've got it back and it's making us peculiar.

It's not unlike being gay and being afraid to say so for years. The day comes and the secret rushes out and the sense of liberation is like a wrenching pain in the gut leaving the body and you can't believe the relief.

In Berkeley and San Francisco there is dancing in the streets. We’ve got a president who might actually come to visit some day. The last one couldn’t because nobody could guarantee his security and they didn’t want to have the world hear the boos that would have drowned out anything he might have tried to say in public.

Africans, too, are dancing. In Obama, Japan, they are dancing. And we're doing a lot more than dancing. We're coming out as “born-again Americans.”

So many things came together. People who say Jesse Jackson tried but the time wasn’t right miss the point that it’s not just the timing; Jesse represented black pride, but not a whole lot more. This is a mixed race man who represents kids raised by single mothers, this is a man who gave up black ward politics and provincialism after his loss in Chicago to Bobby Rush and set his sights on the bigger pictures, making progressive whites and progressive blacks his base. It’s not just time for a black man; it’s time for a black man who can play politics effectively. A young man who managed to get the tone just right to transcend race and represent black America simultaneously. A man who might well disappoint us with his inexperience, but we trust will not make us ashamed to be American.

Your inner skeptic still wants to say, “OK, here comes the manipulation, here comes the stuff that masks the imperialism and the American provincialism and arrogance.” But it seems to be cracking all the defences, this belief that this is a good man, a smart man, a hard-working man as well as (at long long last) a black man, and that we may actually have a chance to start over. It feels so good to have hope again. To hear trumpets and not smirk.

Gay people are all over this man Obama for his decision to give Rick Warren a place of honor at the main event. The paranoid fringe is making lots of noise about how Gene Robinson’s inaugural prayer wasn’t included in HBO’s broadcast and other news coverage and about how the Gay Men’s Choir singing backup to Josh Groban and Heather Headley was not identified as such.

Good. I like that. Keep it up. Keep their feet to the fire. That’s your job, you young gays. Don’t give an inch.

But me, I’m going to focus on the glass way more than half full. On the fact that “non-believers” were actually included, along with gays and lesbians in Obama’s big tent. On the fact that for all the rage, we got through Warren’s prayer with great civility and a sense he needed to be allowed to do his thing. On the fact that when George Bush and Laura got on that helicopter we saw not just W. buzzing off, but a dignified farewell of one president to another, complete with American hugs. Wow. Obama asks us to look back at our better history and then goes and shows us how it’s done.

I will be very surprised if I ever feel this kind of elation again. Perhaps when the religious homophobes are forced at last to take their hands off the civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans. Maybe then I’ll cry with joy like I cried today.

In the meantime, though, there’s lots to feel good about.

Today, on President Obama’s first day, there’s a hold on Guantanamo.

See, it wasn’t just a dream.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Not such a Miracle on the Hudson

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Yesterday we watched an amazing event, the rescue of US Airways Flight 1549 passengers and crew from the freezing cold Hudson River. Today we watch the morning talk shows gush over some of these folk, stick a microphone in their faces and ask, “Did the whole thing change your life?” “Did you think you were going to die?” Geraldo Rivera gushes, “This landing will go down in history along with Lindburgh’s flight across the Atlantic!”

But that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is that the story is now being flashed across the screens and newspapers of the land as The Miracle on the Hudson.

It wasn’t a miracle. It was a stunning, beautiful, inspiring example of people doing their jobs well.

Consider what might have happened:

• Captain Sullenberger could have made the wrong decision, crashed the plane on Manhattan, killed everyone on board and God knows how many on the ground. Instead, he takes it onto the Hudson, ditches it just right, gets everybody off and walks through the cabin – twice – to make sure everybody is off safely. Couldn’t find a more professional competent man if you tried.
• the helicopters could have gotten too close and blown the passengers into the water. But they didn’t. The pilots understood the physics of air and wind and made things work the way they are supposed to.
• the rescue boats could have gotten in each other’s way and run over people in the water, but the pilots understood the complexities of moving these lumbering beasts on the water.
• the rescuers could have failed to supply their boats with diving suits and snorkel and other equipment, but they didn’t. They were ready.
• the word could have gone out wrong leading to a mixup or lack of coordination in getting the necessary ambulances to rush the people from the cold water to hospitals. But they were there lined up and ready by the time the people got to shore.
• the fuselage could have been badly constructed and broken apart when it hit the hard surface of the water, but it didn’t. It was designed by people who knew how to get the most out of the lightweight construction.
• people could have panicked and trampled over each other to get out; mostly, they left in an orderly fashion, some stepping up to take charge and calming people down; some with an old-fashioned gallantry, urging that women and children should go first.
• the guys sitting at the exit rows could have delayed getting the doors open. But they didn’t. They did it right. Everybody, it seems, got it right.

Random House’s first definition of a miracle is “an extraordinary occurrence that surpasses all known human powers or natural forces and is ascribed to a divine or supernatural cause, esp. to God.”

I prefer the second definition: “a superb or surpassing example of something; wonder; marvel.”

For so many years now in this wretched Bush era now passing, we have watched systems fail, greed and selfishness and incompetence carry the day. What a relief, what a joy to see competence in action.

Go to school, kids. Study physics. Study engineering. Study how things work. Do your homework.

Parents, give your kids a good home so they develop a sense of responsibility and discipline, so they know how to put others first in an emergency.

Miracle? I don’t think so.

If you go out my front door, take Highway 24 to 680 and head toward San Jose, exit on Sycamore Valley Road, which runs into Tassajara Road, turn right on Parkhaven, and left on Greenridge Place in Danville, you’ll find yourself at US Air Captain Chelsey Sullenberger’s house. It’s just over a half hour away, and I feel like bopping over there and shaking his hand, but I suspect he’s too busy contending with all the other people wanting to worship a hero.

May he enjoy his moment in the sun. And so should all those other people who cross their Ts and dot there Is, do their homework, show a little discipline and do their jobs.

You can go on about miracles, if you wish. Attribute this to some force who knows when every little birdie falls from the sky (but apparently not how to keep them from flying into jet engines). I want to wallow for a while in competence and responsibility.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Two of Calvin’s Chillun

The current issue of Newsweek (Jan. 19, 2009) carries an article chronicling the return of a slightly older and, at least in his own eyes, much wiser Ted Haggard to his home in Colorado.

Two of Haggard’s recent observations popped off the page at me. “I was born an evangelical,” he says, and “homosexuality is a learned behavior ‘like alcoholism.’"

“Gays (and many straights) will undoubtedly scoff,” the article continues (now how did they figure that out?), suggesting that he is simply working hard at being honest.

Possibly so. But honesty is not his problem. His problem is a virus in the brain called Calvinism.

At first sight, it appears he simply got the two reversed. Homosexuality, more new evidence suggests all the time, is in the DNA; beliefs, religious or other, are chosen. But take a minute to consider how much power religion has over this man. Even after all he has been through, no matter how harshly (according to him, anyway) his church hopped his butt, it still lingers in some corner of his brain and infects his reason.

Haggard is reflecting a Calvinist truth. Your are born in God’s grace (i.e., an evangelical) but nothing you can say or do will alter God’s plan for you. No amount of good works can get you into heaven, if he has abandoned you. Your postmortal destination is carved in stone. You are also born a sinner with free will. Which means you can rape, murder, pillage, extort, torture, slander, pilfer or make love to a person of your own sex if you choose. That, too, will not alter your celestial or, as the case may be, infernal destination. Your inclination to do one or more of these things only gives you a glimpse of God’s intentions for you.

Since Ted Haggard did one of those things, I think somebody should whisper in his ear that perhaps there are signs he is not destined for the Pearly Gates.

Man, writes Calvin, is a son of a bitch.

…having been corrupted by his fall, (man) sins voluntarily, not with reluctance or constraint; with the strongest propensity of disposition, not with violent coercion; with the bias of his own passions, and not with external compulsion: yet such is the pravity (depravity) of his nature that he cannot be excited and biased to anything but what is evil. . . .
If you are not one of the chosen, your ass is fried.

When the will of a natural man is said to be subject to the power of the devil, so as to be directed by it, the meaning is, not that it resists and is compelled to a reluctant submission, as masters compel slaves to an unwilling performance of their commands; but that, being fascinated by the fallacies of Satan, it necessarily submits itself to all his directions. For those whom the Lord does not favor with the government of His Spirit, He abandons in righteous judgment to the influence of Satan. . . .
To sum up…

… (God’s) foreknowledge extends to the whole world and to all the creatures. Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which He hath determined in Himself what He would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others.
Lutherans have to carry the cross of Luther’s anti-Semitism. This crap is the Presbyterians’ cross. As well as that of most American Protestant sects.

One of the great mysteries of life is why so many people not only carry these crosses, but actually climb up and nail themselves to them. I mean, couldn’t they sober up for a moment and turn Catholic? Jewish? Episcopalian? It’s not like this is the only game in town.

As for the struggle with homosexuality, many I know think Ted Haggard should embrace it. I think it’s more likely he’s predestined to be an asshole.

Haggard’s persistent need to wallow in his own sinful nature is not the only evidence that old-fashioned Calvinism is not dead, but simply in remission. Have you heard of Mark Driscoll? Driscoll has decided it’s time to take Jesus back for the bikers. Too long captive to the “weepy worship dudes” who have turned him into a fairy, Jesus’s time as a macho man has come. Mainstream Christians, he says, have turned him into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”

This guy Driscoll is destined for heaven, and he’s going to ride in on a motorcycle. And you're probably not, if you don't know how to slap your wife around, Calvinistically speaking.

I’ve been reading Olivier Roy’s new book, Holy Ignorance. He’s arguing that religion these days has been separated from its cultural origins, that we have surrendered to “religiosity” and given up doctrine.

His focus is on Islam in Europe, primarily, and his point is that young European Muslims are seeking a home in religion, not the one which comes with the culture of their parents, but a new designer religion, infused with the resentment of other disenfranchised immigrants like themselves. The parallels in America are the lost souls who don’t know where to go with crime and chaos and political greed and corruption, want to feel power in numbers, want Big Daddy to tell them what's right but find mainstream religion for wusses. Two birds of a feather, these refuge seeking Muslims and their Christian counterparts, they find their way to quick-fix religiosity, as opposed to religion, which usually takes more deep thought. Out with theology, in with pop culture.

Roy's got a point, methinks. But it’s not the whole story, and maybe not even the heart of the story of religion in America. A lot of the megachurches and the TV God salesmen are simply reflecting the follies of the dumbing down age, a descent into emotionality and "truthiness" after so much disillusionment with reason and impatience with objectivity. Like the markets which ebb and flow, sometimes the human race gets rational and logical, sometimes it just rocks and rolls and feels real good. Sometimes science, other times poetry. Sometimes head, other times heart. Can’t do without either one, but either one without the other can kill you.

True, Episcopalians have made Jesus over into somebody to golf with, Pentecostalists have turned him into somebody to have a beer with, and the entire right-wing has turned him into an American general who wants us to save the world through our war technology. But they are not all just reducing him to a god of the heart to suit their own tastes. They are also quoting scripture as if there were no tomorrow. And reading it through the lenses provided by people like Calvin.

A recent poll shows one out of four Americans believes in witches, one out of four believes in reincarnation, one out of four believes in astrology. Scoffing at American credulity is shooting fish in a barrel. But we’re not talking about kookie minorities here. 82% believe in miracles, 85% believe in heaven and 92% believe in God.

I don’t want to make too much of that last figure. God can be anything from the force behind a fresh breeze to the man who had sex with Mary and lives on a planet near the star Kolob (to pick two beliefs at random, my grandmother’s and Mormon doctrine, respectively). It’s easy to imagine that these folk rolling in the aisles speaking in tongues and caught up in the Holy Spirit are folks who don’t read, don’t think, don’t debate or analyze or reflect deeply. But that would be a mistake. Sometimes, these hand wavers with the tears rolling down their cheeks are in fact grounded in some very solid belief systems.

Identifying those beliefs is not the end of the story by any means, since cherry-picking scripture is a way of life for all religions – some Muslims are high on salaam, others on sticking it to the infidels; Pat Robertson is a little heavier on Christ coming with a sword next time than he is on all the Jesus-wants-me-for-a-sunbeam stuff, and hetero Bible-thumpers find it easier to legislate against homosexuality than against divorce. And Calvinist preachers, too, often softpedal this embarrassing predestination business while talking about their faith. But don’t miss it. It’s usually right up there in the psyche when they project their fear of not being loved by God onto the rest of us, with sometimes devastating consequences. And it doesn’t help that they shoot themselves in the foot more often than they shoot you. Their gun is still a lethal weapon.

Lucky us, say the Australians. “We got the prisoners; you got the Calvinists.”

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Letter to the Desert Sun

In the Palm Springs Desert Sun, January 10, 2009, I found this letter to the editor:

Maybe I'm confused, but didn't the people of California elect Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown as state attorney general to represent us in the courts? Why then is he now advocating against Proposition 8?

Didn't the same constituency that elected him also pass the proposition?

If my attorney, defending me in a court case suddenly started arguing for the other side, I believe it might be grounds for disbarment, at least grounds for firing that attorney and hiring one that would represent my interests and not those of my advisory.

Mike Cappi
La Quinta

I wrote back:

Yes, Mike, you are confused.

When you hire a lawyer, you pay him or her to manipulate the legal system to your advantage. The legal system is imperfect; sometimes mobs rule, sometimes majorities tyrannize, sometimes justice gives way to the person who pays the most. Our greatest safeguard against such abuses is the Constitution. As with the justices of the Supreme Court, Jerry Brown’s loyalty must be to that Constitution. Not your checkbook.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Episcopalians 1, Baptists 0

In 1534, the Church of England seceded from the Church of Rome, because Henry wanted a divorce. Then, in 1789, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America seceded from the Church of England, because the U.S. wanted a divorce.

Then, in 2004, St. James Parish in Newport Beach seceded from the Los Angeles diocese of the American Episcopal Church and affiliated instead with the Anglican Church of Uganda. Divorce again, but for very different reasons. This time the people of St. James Parish were unhappy with the church’s stand on gays. Apparently the Ugandan Church is still sufficiently Victorian to think birds who do it with other birds and bees with other bees are naughty and have kept the church in the pure state it was in under Disraeli. I’m referring to Disraeli the imperialist, of course, not Disraeli the Closet Queen.

Well, organized religion being in large part about property, the Church of Rome is still reeling from the loss of real estate up north, and the American descendants of the Anglicans are not going to give up one square inch of Orange County without a fight, so they sued. You guys can go. But hands off the crucifixes and those beautiful silken garments we wrap ourselves up in. And you take a screwdriver to lift those pews and I’m hauling your ass into court.

To understand how the California Supreme Court danced around the touchy issue of how to handle the case without getting involved in doctrine, thereby crossing the church-state line as the churches did in spending millions of dollars in the Prop. 8 campaign, read the decision on the Supreme Court website. (Click on Episcopal Church Cases 1/5/09 SC). Not to spoil the fun of reading the whole 38-page decision, they decided it as a contract and property issue.

In a nutshell, the local church, while it holds the deed to the local property, agreed when it formed to be bound by the authority of the larger church. Ah, the joys of being hierarchical! This would not happen to Baptists. Baptists could say we’re forming the First Baptist Church of Don’t Touch Yourself Down There at least while in Topeka, and the rest of you people can just fart your way out of town.

Orange County Episcalopians, however, now have to shop around for a new place to be homophobic.

Maybe the Mormons will rent them some space.

Interesting to me is the fact that the opinion was written by Justice Chin, one of the more conservative members of the court, and one of the three justices who opposed granting rights of same-sex couples to marry. One hopes gays who want to label him a homophobe for this earlier decision will take notice of this one – here he is coming to the aid of one of the churches most supportive of gay rights inside and outside the church. I don’t doubt Chin himself would tell you his views on gays are irrelevant and he is applying the law as he sees it. Bravo, say I, knowing this could be explained by an inclination to support traditional authority.

Equally interesting is the fact that Justice Kennard wrote a dissenting opinion. Well, kind of. Basically she agreed with the decision, making it unanimous. She just thought the reasoning was not what it should be and her dissent was over a procedural issue. Kennard, you may remember, was one of the four justices who found same-sex marriages constitutional, and then surprised everybody when she said no to taking up the case against Prop. 8.

When the Supreme Court takes up Prop. 8 in March, if the same three justices (Chin, Baxter and Corrigan) who voted no on same-sex marriage hold to that opinion and support Prop. 8, and if Justice Kennard’s thinking on taking up Prop. 8 indicates she may switch sides and join them – even if George, Werdegar and Moreno vote in line with their previous decision – Prop. 8 will not be overturned, and justice will be delayed a while longer as we wait for religion-based homophobia in America to melt away on a more glacial scale.

But Kennard is an original and usually progressive thinker, frequently at odds with other members of the court. Who knows what she will come out with when the decision is announced in June?

But all that is speculation for another day. Today the Supreme Court once again looks gay-friendly and who loses here? Uganda, maybe.

In other religious news…

According to a Center for Disease Control publication, data from a recent survey show teen birth rates were highest in the South and Southwest, with the highest rate recorded in Mississippi (68.4), followed by New Mexico (64.1) and Texas (63.1).

Teen birth rates in 2006 were lowest in the Northeast in 2006, with the lowest rates occurring in New Hampshire (18.7), Vermont (20.8), and Massachusetts (21.3). The only states with a decrease in teen birth rates between 2005 and 2006 were North Dakota, Rhode Island, and New York.

That’s curious. Since the Episcopalians outnumber the southern Baptists in New England and it’s the other way around in Mississippi and Texas (I don’t have the figures for New Mexico), does this mean “God wants me to save it for the head of the household to whom I must submit” isn’t working, and hierarchical church structure leads to proper birth control?

It’s so hard to understand where religion ends and politics begins in America sometimes.