Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Look Who’s Drawing the Parallel

What is it about this guy, Obama?

He has so much power.

He shows up our need to have a father-figure in the White House, a moral leader, an embodiment of American values. Not at all like the prime ministers of Japan and China and Europe who approach their jobs more like a CEO.

Gays were taking it personally that he seemed to be breaking his promises to them. All over the internet were statements of bitter cynicism – “looks like he’s just another politician,” “why were we so easily duped?” and the like.

Less pessimistic voices cautioned that if he was not necessarily for us at the moment it didn’t mean he was against us. But it was so much easier to see his dragging his feet on gay rights as just another of so many examples of his unwillingness or inability to keep his promises. Can’t close down Guantánamo, can't tone down the war in Afghanistan, can’t get health care to work, the bailout to work. It was looking so much like part of the grand disillusionment, the post honeymoon, the clay feet of the saint.

For gays, at least, all that seems to be water under the bridge now. Obama gave a talk to gay rights advocates yesterday in the East Room in which he said all the right things. He supports the overturn of DADT and DOMA. He said “I’m with you” in at least half a dozen ways. It was unexpected. And it was thrilling.

Plenty of people remain sceptical. Talk’s cheap, they say. We’ve heard it before, they say.

I, too, am waiting for the fat lady to sing. But I heard something that really packed a punch for me. Aside from naming the hate crimes bill after Matthew Shepard, I mean.

"It's not for me to tell you to be patient any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half-century ago."

Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places, but did everybody miss that in all the excitement?

This is where the president of the United States has real power. He sets the tone. He lets people know whose views in the power structure are in the ascendant, whose are passé.

Bush let it be known anybody not in support of corporate America was a socialist. Had prayer breakfasts where evangelicals prayed for Bush’s continued moral leadership against abortion, stem cell research and gay rights. For eight years one felt the need to have a waste basket at the ready next to the bed or chair after watching the 11 o’clock news.

And now we have a president who says – in so many words – “You guys remember back when blacks were being told to cool it and wait another 150 years? Remember how the wise leadership of the country counseled patience? And how it took a Martin Luther King to remind us that justice delayed is justice denied?

And you know all those black folk now dragging their feet because their church leaders tell them this is different? These are not civil rights we’re talking about here?

Well I, Barack Obama, am telling you now…

"It's not for me to tell you to be patient any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half-century ago."

This is the president drawing the parallel, folks.

Hope you didn’t miss it.

Hope also you didn’t miss the fact that “it’s not for me to tell you to be patient” was his way of asking us to be patient.

OK. It’s not a perfect world.

But gee, the man can talk pretty.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Juice for the Stewing

Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina has a girlfriend named Maria in Buenos Aires.

It’s only because Michael Jackson died that this story is off the front pages, I’m convinced. And it’s still all over the rest of the paper. The media really love to talk about politicians getting a little hoochy-coochy on the side – apparently because so many people like to read about it. I don’t know. Chicken and egg, I would think.

The story goes on and on. This morning, the San Francisco Chronicle had an article about a bunch of journalists camped out at an apartment house on Republica de la India Street in Buenos Aires trying to find out which of the five Marias who live in the building is the Maria.

I know where that is. It’s the street facing the Zoological Garden, between Las Heras and Libertador, one street in from Sarmiento, which runs down from the Plaza Italia. Fly me down (business class, please – no more of those excruciating eleven hour flights in the back of the plane) and I could take you right there.

See how easy it is to get caught up? Everybody’s got a hook. Mine is a love of Buenos Aires and pride in knowing my way around.

But it turns out there’s another hook. My first reaction to the story was give the guy a break. Why this eternal infernal fuss over the fact politicians have sex urges and the power to act on them? On top of that, as a friend pointed out, it sounds like a real affair of the heart. The man is in love. Why not let him divorce his wife and start over with Maria. Tell the kids it has nothing to do with them, stay in close touch and get on with it. Tell the media to go suck eggs and put your life back together. Or tell Maria it was a lovely run but it’s wife and family that count and just get on with it.

Especially poignant, in my view, is the fact that somehow they got hold of his love e-mails to Maria. Now why are we reading other people’s mail? I asked that question right before clicking on the link, of course, to read his mail. Wow. Looks like this guy is in love. Maybe we should cut him some slack. Mind our own business. Is there ever enough love? Shouldn't we embrace it when we see it?

Then I read that Mark Sanford was a big supporter of the Defence of Marriage Act.

Oh. Republican politician. Defence of Marriage.

Yeah, right.

Stew, Mark Sanford. Stew.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Life’s Little Dilemmas

Man, it’s been a rough couple of weeks.

First I get into an argument with a good friend over whether to express my anger at Obama for turning his back on gays. (If you don’t know the story, Wayne Besen has a good summary on the Huffington Post.)

My friend wants me to see the glass half full, see Obama as by far the lesser evil, etc. Obama’s got too much on his plate. Give him time. Let him call the shots. Trust him to support you in the long run, yada yada. Give up on Obama and you’re giving the Republicans a foot in the door.

A head vs. heart dilemma. Should we reason that putting gay rights on the table only furthers the interests of the anti-Obama forces? Or should we take the damn-the-torpedoes approach? Should pure reason always prevail? Is this pure reason? Are you sure it’s not faulty reasoning? Is one never to listen to the heart? What are the larger consequences here to giving up the battle so one doesn’t lose the war? How is giving up justified? Does it not encourage others to give up and if everybody gives up doesn’t that make losing all the more certain? You’re making me dizzy, girl.

Then I got into an argument with another friend over whether to hold out and demand single-payer be put back on the table in the health care debate. Obama finking out again. No, says my friend, you’ve got to trust Obama. He knows politics. He’s a pragmatist. You would insist on something undoable; he’s going for the doable.

OK. I’m convinced. Obama is screwing gays, yes. But he’s not really screwing gays. He’s just not keeping his promises and allowing others to screw gays while he’s busy with more important things. He’s screwing the American public on health care, yes. But he’s not really screwing the American public on health care. He’s just allowing others (like Congressmen bought and paid for by the insurance companies) to screw the American public on health care because he’s choosing the least of many evils that he can get through Congress. Can’t fight big money.

Why is that not going down the gullet?

Just got a call from the Democratic Party. The guy went on, as they do, with the "we need to do all we can to support the health care initiatives, and..."

"Stop right there," I said. "I'm convinced you're going to fail. Health care reform is not going to work because you're still prioritizing corporate profits over individual care by taking single-payer off the table. Now you're asking for money from people who need every penny to pay for health care the government won’t provide. You want them to send it to you so you can give it to the insurance companies.

What kind of idiot do you take me for?

And now that I’ve got your attention…

I might be persuaded to help support Obama's health care plan because it's the lesser of two evils. Might be. Not sure yet.

But you are not getting another nickel out of my pocket until Obama stops screwing his most loyal supporters, the gays. The man has broken promise after promise. I know he's got a lot on his plate. I'm not turning Republican. I'm just not sending any more money to the democratic party. It's going to gay organizations to fight the fights Obama won't fight for us.

Sorry. Just the way it is."

The guy on the phone was very friendly. "At least you won't turn against us."

"No, I won't," I said. "It's not 'me' vs. 'you.' The 'us,' I think, still includes me. And I'd rather be raped by a handsome distant cousin who kisses me once in a while than an ugly stranger from out of town who calls me a slut when he's done."

A bit over the top, of course.

But what the hell. He called me. I didn't call him.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Which Way to Turn?

The battle rages on over the speed and direction of change in the struggle for rights of LGBT Americans, and whether “the system” will continue to allow religious prejudice to call the shots or whether we will once and for all remove all impediments to equal treatment before the law.

Each society fights homophobia in its own way. The United States context includes the battle between federal law and states’ rights and the conflict inherent in the balance of powers doctrine. Since Truman integrated the military by executive order, we want Obama to get rid of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell by executive order. We rejoiced when the Supreme Court of California allowed same-sex marriage on May 15 of last year and celebrated the fact that gay marriage in Iowa was decided in the legislature on April 27 of this year.

There is no single definition of gay liberation, and no single clear way to get there. For the first few decades of my life the focus was on simply getting started by raising consciousness in the gay community. Now that internalized homophobia has been mortally wounded (it is not dead, alas), most of us have moved on to focus on social and political change. The failures in the political realm – I’m thinking of Prop. 8 in particular – are making many want to go back to working on the social level. Change the hearts and minds and the votes will follow, goes the reasoning.

Others are convinced most non-gay people don’t really give a hoot about gay rights (and God knows even many who do never tire telling us to be patient), and once we convince those in power to change the laws keeping us down, the vast majority of people will go with the new flow.

I followed the story of the Supreme Court decision this morning to reject the right of a petitioner from Alaska to sue for DNA testing, and a chill went down my spine. Scalia, Roberts, Alito, Kennedy and Thomas all agreed that a man condemned to death does not have a constitutional right to have DNA testing. They think this is a states’ rights issue, that each state should decide in its own way and in its own time whether to admit DNA testing. If your state doesn’t want to help you, we won’t either. Roberts wrote the decision. There is no reason, he decided, “to suddenly constitutionalize this area.”

But there is. We’ve always known lots of innocent people go to jail and some even to their death in our criminal justice system. We now have the means of cutting down those failures in the system. Why, I want to know, would the justices choose to allow an innocent man to languish in jail when proof of innocence is within grasp, and why would they not see this as an individual right and therefore a constitutional right? The answer lies in the historical battle over states’ rights. In the view that some things are more important than the individual and that states need time to work things out. Progressives argue that this is precisely when the Supreme Court should step in – when there is a jumble of confused and conflicting legislation at the state level. Conservatives say no, and conservatives run the Supreme Court.

And here’s where the rubber hits the road. It’s bad enough we have to watch a man who may be innocent sit in an Alaska jail. And it’s also scary as hell to consider what Olson and Boies are doing in taking gay rights to federal court. California’s own Supreme Court decided it had to listen to the majority of the people when they took away the rights of gays the court once clearly found in the state constitution. What chance do we have with the Roberts court?

Hope I’m wrong about this. Olson and Boies will probably not be deterred, so it may not be long before we find out.

What’s your take?
  • Justice delayed is justice denied.
  • Discretion is the better part of valor.
  • Piano, piano, si va lontano (Go slowly if you’re going a long way.)
  • Please, sir, may I have some more?
  • Faint heart never won fair lady.
So much stuff to chew on…

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Read Your Bible

I have been wondering aloud with several friends the last day or two since Obama decided to go back on a promise he made to get rid of the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell requirement, which forces gays in the military to bring their sexuality in line with biblical principles, what the hell is with this guy?

Given half the chance (are you listening, Home Security?) I’d run right over to the White House and kick the man in the shins.

Wouldn’t want to do any more harm than that, but I’d like to kick him in the shins.

I’m back to where I was when Obama invited that turd Rick Warren to the inauguration ceremony. I’m trying real hard not to get pissed at Obama, the man who reaches across the aisle. We used to have The Decider. Now we have The Compromiser. In principle, it all sounds so noble, so wise. So necessary.

Trouble is, down at street level, there’s so much about compromising important principles that really stinks. The Republicans aren’t giving anything in return for what he’s giving them. They’re too busy picketing CBS to get rid of Letterman. They're not compromising their principles.

And I’m less and less sure every day bailing out those thieving bankers was a good idea. But I’m trying hard to stay on Obama's side. I remind myself every day of the week how much better off we are since the last guy went back to Texas.

But here we are again. First Rick Warren. Now this. What is it with you, Mr. President? Are you really convinced selling out to the religious right will get us anywhere we want to go? Why do you cave in so easily?

My niece pointed out to me that in talking about abortion recently Obama mentioned this is an issue a woman should talk over with her pastor. Pastor? Why not her acupuncturist? Who says we have to talk about things with (protestant, by the way) pastors? Whatever happened to separation of church and state?

I know, I know. Leave the guy alone. He’s struggling with health care. Robert Reich was on Bill Moyers Journal Friday night telling the world that after health care Obama needs to deal with the meltdown. The bankers are not cooperating. The lobbyists are back to business as usual. The country is a basket case, and we can’t afford to be distracted by things like homophobia in the culture. You can see where Obama is getting pressured and why he might want to screw decency, promise-keeping, civil rights and keep his eye on the donut.

OK. How about this. How about we join hands and ask the right to go along with Obama on fixing the health care system in the U.S.? In turn, we can do a little Bible study. How about that? Joseph and his coat of many colors saves the family. Daniel survives in the lion’s den. Jephthah keeps his promise. Great stuff, those Bible stories.

What say? Don't know that last one?

Open, please, to Judges 11:29.

This guy Jephthah goes off to war for Israel and splatters the brains of every man, woman and child among the Ammonites after “the Spirit of the Lord” comes upon him. Jephthah makes a deal with YHWH. Give me victory and I’ll kill the first thing that comes out the door for you when I get back home, he says. The Bible doesn’t get YHWH’s exact words in response, but it makes it clear YHWH’s spirit was with Jephthah.

Well if you know your Bible, you know the first thing out the door when Jephthah got home was his daughter and apple of his eye. Remember Isaac, whom YHWH told Abraham to kill? Well this time YHWH did not stay Jephthah’s hand.

There’s an interesting twist to the story. The daughter, whose name is never mentioned, curiously, seeing her father is all broken up about this obligation to kill her and turn her into a burnt offering, assures her father he has to do what he promised YHWH he would do. Only please, daddy, could I take some girlfriends up to the mountain to bewail my virginity with?

I’m not kidding. “…and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had made.”

Don't stop there. It’s in the next chapter where the word shibboleth comes. You know, that story linguists love because it’s all about slaying your enemies because of bad pronunciation. And the chapter after that has this Nazarite fellow who can’t cut his hair if he wants to beat the crap out of the Palestinians for Israel. So much to learn, so much to understand.

Stephen Prothero has a book out called Religious Literacy He claims we owe it to ourselves to know the Bible as a way of joining forces to support a common culture. He's got a point.

I mean think of it. If you saw a bumper sticker with things like "My son played Jephthah in his school play. (We really miss our granddaughter.)" And "Get rid of your virginity now before your father gets home," would you catch the reference?

Let's get back to the Bible.

Compromise is always possible. You just have to know where to look.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pico Iyer on Money

Pico Iyer has an article in today’s New York Times on the simple life.

I'm not a great fan of Pico Iyer's. Have read some of his stuff. Did not leave a lasting impression.

This piece, in which he tells us he's found happiness in having less, not more, is a good example of why I have not found him particularly insightful. It's the kind of writing that allows those who agree with you to say "right on" and the very small number of people who don't agree with you to go their own way.

The life experience of others is frequently worth listening to. All of us are looking for others to show us the way. But other's experience has to be filtered through one’s own experience before it takes on any meaning. We share a great deal as individuals with the rest of humanity. But old men with advice are sometimes not all that different from vacuum cleaner or used car salesman. Useful as what they are selling might be, there are lots of ways to suck up dust and get from A to B.

Life, it seems to me, is way too complex for anyone to speak in general principles about how to live life. Not only are there the ages of man, where goals and reflections change according to one’s own level of maturity, but there are the seemingly infinite number of variations in the opportunities and constraints of time and place all controlling what you see and how you feel. It’s folly to attach formulas to the pursuit happiness, as far as I can tell. It seems far more likely to come to you while you’re working on other goals than when you’re plotting its acquisition. And I’m not sure that’s true for everybody, either.

One thing that always gets to me when I read that someone has concluded money isn’t everything is that if you take off the lid to see what’s in the pot, you’re almost certain to find they have been lucky financially to have lived above the threshold of poverty. It’s true you can live happily in poverty and many people do, but mostly when people like Pico Iyer speak of embracing the simple life they mean something like he does – that you don’t need to take four trips a year to New York. Three will do.

I’m old enough now too to think I can share my wisdom with the world. Give them little nudges, little suggestions. I'd start where the Greeks started, with “Know yourself." Know your strengths and weaknesses. To that I’d add be unscrupulously honest, even if it means hurting feelings. Select friends who are kind and trustworthy, not people who entertain you or get you to where today you want to go.

That's just the beginning of a long list. We could all makes lists of smart ideas, and I don’t want to suggest it’s a waste of time to do so. Beats robbing banks. And I know we can learn from our elders. But much of the time we think we are pursuing wisdom we're merely demonstrating loyalty to the tribe. Most of us believe what we want to believe and we want to believe what those around us want to believe. How often do we ask who the advice giver is and whether his or her truth is whole or partial?

Money advice is particularly iffy. A third generation member of a wealthy family is free to pursue Hittite linguistics or Renaissance music if he or she chooses. A kid in the ghetto is not, in almost all cases. Some people should be advised to marry for money. For some it's a great way to become generous and charitable and to cultivate a rich personality. Others would come to loathe themselves as whores.

What bothers me about Iyer’s advice is that it is only a partial truth and I’m not even sure he has the emphasis on the right part. “Though I knew that poverty certainly didn’t buy happiness, I wasn’t convinced that money did either,” he says. Fine. So what’s the conclusion? That we should stop the pursuit of money altogether? There’s a logical flaw in there of confusing sufficiency with necessity. Money may not be sufficient, but unless you’re the Dalai Lama or similarly constrained and supported, it is necessary. In celebrating the fact one has enough (for what else is Iyer really saying), one should not ignore the fact that poverty can lead to terrible unhappiness. Iyer is not giving universal advice; he’s giving bourgeois advice to the bourgeois.

“My heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted,” Iyer says, “But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down.” Oh really? Not sure?

And how does he back this up? His next sentence is, “The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends.”

He’s beating a dead horse here. Do people really need to hear repeated that money does not buy happiness? Do we really not understand the correlary – Nothing buys happiness, and money buys almost everything else?

I’m glad Iyer has found happiness in a simple life in Kyoto over a complex life in New York. I am never jealous of another's happiness because I don't for a minute believe it comes in limited quantities. But I also think you would not have to look too hard to find someone who has found a simple life in New York over a complex life in Kyoto. And any number of people who left a simple life behind for a much richer one elsewhere.

Some people like package deals. These people keep publishers of how-to books in business. Other people insist on endless exploration into the distinctiveness of their own lives and the lives of the interesting world around them. The former reach conclusions like “money isn’t everything.” The latter, I think, are more likely to say things like “I seem to know less and less every day. But I still can’t wait for the next day to begin so I can face the fascinating prospect of having to change all the conclusions I have come to thus far.”

I’ll take the second course, thank you.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor But Keep Thy Powder Dry

Proposition 8 passed because religious people in California acted out on their belief there is something wrong with homosexuality. Gay people were stunned by the loss of their rights. We have come so far. How could there still be such animus against us?

We were confident that our fellow Californians would not remove civil rights that our Supreme Court had declared were to be found in our state constitution. Early polls showed the referendum failing by a large margin.

But that was before the religious forces got organized, and we now know that concerted efforts from the pulpit to get religious folk to the polls the weekend before the election, along with gay lethargy, led to a 52 to 48 victory for Prop. 8. To rub salt in the wound, the same Supreme Court that once found freedom in the constitution now turned their backs on the gay minority, arguing that “the people” have the right to take away civil rights if they want to.

The Supreme Court are not the bad guys here. They will never again be seen as heroic defenders of minority rights, probably, but they were careful to point out that they felt OK coming to this conclusion because “only the word marriage” was involved – gay people had all the rights in domestic partnerships straights had in marriage. That’s sort of like saying Rosa Parks should not have won her case since, after all, one gets to one’s destination from the back of the bus as fast as one does from the front. But let’s keep the focus on homophobia, and not be distracted by one bad Supreme Court decision.

Homophobia is the right word. It is a phobia. A fear. You can see it in the eyes of religious people who tell you about the decay of Western Civilization, a fear that the world is changing too fast and all things sacred are being lost. The pope’s great enemy, if you have followed his speeches and writing, is “relativism.” The old certainties (like papal infallibility) are giving way to an attitude of “whatever.”

He’s wrong about that. It’s not “whatever” that’s the prevailing ethic. It’s a belief in fundamental human rights. Not the divine right of self-appointed leaders, but the right of human societies to act in their own self-interest.

But since the issue is fear, and not the agreement among reasonable people to differ reasonably, gay activists have changed tactics. They are going out into the heartland with personal stories, convinced that “if they just get to know us, they will love us.”

I’m not so sure. I’m a whole lot less sanguine about religious people.

I mentioned the case the other day of Fresno Baptist preacher Jim Franklin (http://hepzibahpyncheon.blogspot.com/ - May 22, 2009) who spoke of the “violence” of gay people in response to his political activity. The “violence” was throwing paint at a church office building.

Worse than this example by far is the case of former San Francisco Archbishop William Levada, who refused to allow catholic charities to place children for adoption with same-sex couples because doing so “would actually mean doing violence to these children.”

For this outrage, a statement absolutely contrary to the truth, Levada had to contend with a San Francisco city resolution condemning the policy. He chose to get out of the adoption business in San Francisco, as the church had done in Massachusetts earlier, rather than follow the guidelines against discrimination.

The church, incidently, took the city to court over this, but the court upheld the city’s right to protect its citizens against prejudice. A federal judge threw out the suit. The church appealed, and on Wednesday the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision.

Gays rejoiced when Levada was kicked upstairs (rejoiced that he left town, that is) to Rome to run what was once called the Holy Inquisition. As such, he is the highest ranking American in the church. But the joke was on the gays when the church gave us George Niederauer in his place. Niederauer, the former bishop of Salt Lake shmoozed some of his Mormon connections into joining him to launch Prop. 8 – and here we sit today in the mess that ensued. “To know us is to love us” may work for some people. But don’t bet the house on getting through to the church hierarchy.

Things are moving fast. Nevada just approved domestic partnerships, joining California, Colorado, D.C., Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington. Iowa, and now New Hampshire have raised the number of states recognizing same-sex marriage to six. No thanks to fundamentalist and authoritarian religious forces.

"We're very grateful for what God has done,” says Pastor Chris Clark of San Diego’s Southern Baptist Church, referring to the Supreme Court decision. Clark made no effort to explain why God made them decide gays should be allowed to marry before the people overturned that right. Or perhaps God chose not to step in that time. I can’t be sure whether he will see God’s hand in the overturning of Prop. 8 at the next referendum. Perhaps God will let the devil have the next one, just because it’s his turn.

I’m all for this person-to-person campaign. I think that’s the way to go.

But don’t let up on calling to task these alleged Christians who inflame with charges of violence when there is justified rage, however unjustified the vandalism. And who speak of violence where there is only love. And who see the hand of God in the removal of civil rights.

Love your enemy if you insist. Show them your family photos and give them a chance to love you back.

But know your enemy.

Don’t let him out of your sight for a minute.