Sunday, January 31, 2010

Et tu, Berlin?

Don’t know whether this news item from Berlin has crossed your radar. Hitting the papers the past couple of days across Germany are reports of a scandal at the elite Canisius Gymnasium (Canisius-Kolleg), one of Germany’s ruling class private catholic high schools, alma mater of many of Germany’s movers and shakers. Seven students have come forward with charges that they were sexually abused in the 1970s. And – why am I not surprised – that they reported this in a letter to authorities in 1981 to no effect.

This is 2010, though, and this time the current rector, Father Klaus Mertes sent out 500 letters to former students urging anybody with anything to add to come forward. Since then fifteen additional students have confirmed they, too, were victims of sexual abuse by the same two priests.

Apparently only two priests are involved. Both have long since retired. Peter R. vehemently denies the charges. He still lives in Berlin but reportedly travels regularly to South America. Wolfgang S., the other accused (who lives in Chile, by the way), has fessed up. But things are stirring and word is apparently coming from Essen and Baden-Württemburg and Hamburg of similar cases.

The Berlin District Attorney’s office is trying to figure out whether anything can be done legally to prosecute these two men. Sex crimes have a statute of limitations of ten years after the victims turn eighteen. They are now 40, so the priests would likely go free, even if they could be found guilty.

Most interesting to me is the fact that Mertes is pointing a finger at the church, charging it with keeping homosexuality in the closet and giving no guidance to priests with homosexual feelings. He has lashed out at sex education policies in general and complained of a too authoritarian relationship between teachers and students. Lost in all this, of course, is the way it fuels the old canard about a tie-in between homosexuality and child abuse. We overlook the need to separate out the homosexually inclined priests with no way to handle their sexuality other than through abusing children from the larger issues of celibacy and sexual desire generally. Canisius Kolleg was a boys school at the time, remember, and child abuse is a crime of opportunity.

That aside, and since this particular incident does apparently involve homosexual sex, we are left to wonder whether Mertes' approach to the problem is a reflection of Germany’s more open attitudes toward homosexuality and sex in general, or whether openness is the only approach anybody can take these days after the example of the 15,000 abused children in Ireland and the more than 4000 priests found guilty of sex abuse in the United States.

Mertes is not yet entirely free from suspicion of complicity with the institution. It turns out he learned of abuses in 2004 and 2005. But, he maintains, he kept silent because the victims wanted him to, not because he was hushing anything up to protect the reputation of the church and the school.

The story is still breaking. How big a scandal it becomes remains to be seen.

The scandal of child abuse in the Catholic Church raged in the United States some eight or ten years ago already. Over time people came to realize the abuse of children was not the worst part of the story. Any large organization has rotten apples, after all, although four thousand priests and untold thousands of victims and counting in the U.S. alone suggests it’s not just the apples that are rotten. But to my way of thinking, the by far greater evil was the gut reaction on the part of the official church to throw the kids to the wolves, transfer the priests to other parishes where they could repeat their crimes against other kids, and put its energies into hiding the facts.

It is inevitable that people will compare what goes on in Germany with what went on in the several English-speaking countries. First, we will have to sort out whether the German kids suffered the same kind of long-term damage. Many students who admitted to abuse turned around and sent their own kids, I understand, to the same school. Outside Germany, this curious fact will no doubt lead to some snarking about Germans and their dedication to authority, but I think it is also explained on a more common sense level. Why throw out a good education because of a very rare rotten apple. If I were a parent faced with getting a good education for my kids, I might do the same. And I suspect they did what I would do and watch very carefully for any sign of hanky-panky.

While speculating on German love of authority, we might also speculate, in other words, that this decision could also mean parents were confident their relationship with their kids was sufficiently strong and their attitudes about sex sufficiently enlightened that any predator priest would be identified before damage was done. Many kids, remember, find the horny uncle just another adult jerk and think nothing of it once it's over with. Others internalize the shame and suffer their whole life long. Without the shame, it's just another bullying incident.

Tell that to the church. Remove the shame, and where's the control?

And here we go again, picking up the pieces.

Poor Papa Ratzi. It was bad enough when those unruly sex-crazed Americans messed up. This time it’s the Jesuits (Canisius-Kolleg is a Jesuit school) with their headquarters in Munich. That’s almost Ratzinger’s home town.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Doing it Legal

I’m trying to get up off the ground. I’ve cried wolf before, and I can’t be sure it isn’t happening again. But I’m trying ways to persuade myself this Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited corporate funds into the political arena isn’t the final nail in the coffin of America’s democracy. Really. Is this the final round? Is it Plutocracy 1; Democracy 0, game over?

The Supremes have decided that corporations, worth twice as much collectively as the U.S. GNP, long ago declared individuals from the legal perspective, should now run the race for political influence from the same starting point as individual individuals like you and me. Even though their fortunes are seventeen times bigger than what unions can generate (even if they could ever get together on a single issue), they can run the race from the same starting line as regular individuals. Picture me, with my arthritic right foot, my gut and my other 70-year-old old fart ailments running a marathon with a 20-year-old Olympic runner from Kenya.

Another image I like is “Vocal chords on a Cayman Island post office box.”

The wheels came off as my wagon rolled through the swamp of cynicism I pass through between Taylor’s of Harrogate tea and Danish strawberry rhubarb jam every morning and wine at dinner every evening, and I’m sitting here not knowing how to get up and out and back in the swing of things.

So what to do about this? Besides sit here, eat macadamia nuts, listen to Mozart and play free cell, I mean.

Have you ever noticed that when people die survivors spend a lot of time talking about the details of the illness that killed them? It’s like we don’t know what else to say and this is a way of making sense out of something basically senseless.

That’s what “picking up and carrying on” feels like with this Justice Kennedy decision. I’m calling it Kennedy’s decision because he wrote it and because he’s the one who disappointed me. I have no expectations of the other conservatives on the bench. I’m convinced Clarence Thomas is a rotten human being and Scalia is an old-fashioned bully. Alito and Roberts may not be monsters, but they are Bush II appointees with long records of coming down against individual liberties (except the right to own submachine guns, of course) and Roberts is pretty much the Republican Party’s ambassador to the Supreme Court. No surprises there. It was Swing Voter Kennedy that I feel let us down. Of all the times to swing conservative…

So why did he do it?

When same-sex marriage went on trial in the spring of 2008 (In re Marriage Cases (2008) 43 Cal.4th 757 [76 Cal.Rptr.3d 683, 183 P.3d 384],) I watched it like a hawk. In the process, I learned an enormous amount of stuff about the law, about how trials are conducted and legal arguments are constructed. I learned how very different the law is from real life.

I know that makes me sound naïve. I won’t argue that except to say I don’t think most people realize how often arguments are made in court that would suggest people are ignoring common sense and focusing on trivia and missing the woods for the trees.

We won on same-sex marriage. That trial with the very strange name: “In re Marriage Cases”. It was the most joyous feeling I had in years. It’s been pretty much downhill since then, of course. Prop. 8, and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Prop. 8. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was the coup de grâce. The shot in the head. We were dying pretty much anyway.

Of course, we’re still here. Wish I could be sure the image is of folk too ornery to die, and not chickens still running around with our heads cut off. Will find out in time, I suppose.

I know there are counter-arguments to my cynical conclusions. The one by this guy Kirkpatrick in the New York Times the other day, for example, actually argues money does not equal influence.

Until I get more information about the research he cites, it's going to be hard putting that in my mouth, much less swallowing it.

And then there is the ACLU. What's that all about? At least they've got the courtesy of being in a tizzy over their decision to follow Kennedy's reasoning.

OK, so back to switching our focus from the death to the illness that did us in.

There must be another reason for Kennedy’s decision. I know Judge Kennedy has a good record, and there is something not quite right about my conclusion that he would cancel it all out by being stupid about the First Amendment. Ditto the ACLU. Stupid can’t be it.

For now I’m going with the belief he knows this is bad law but he believed he had to make it anyway.

If you ever studied ethics, you will no doubt remember the Lawrence Kohlberg argument that the highest ethical value is loyalty to principle (above all other loyalties to self, to family and group affiliations), and society enshrines our highest principles in the law. The law becomes a summation of all other social values.

Kohlberg’s line of principled thinking leaves open the possibility of bad law. It’s a fundamental enlightenment way of thinking, one in which each individual has to determine for himself or herself whether the law is true to our highest principles.

Some people are strict followers of Kant’s “deontological” reasoning. Lying is wrong. If you’re hiding somebody running from a killer and that killer comes to the door and asks you if he’s there, you can’t lie, because of the principle lying is wrong.

Others evolve complex ways of modifying principles with other general principles. It’s wrong to take a life, except when you're defending your life or another’s life, for example. Because of the principle that life is of greater value than truth. (One can be just as principled and argue the other way around, of course.)

All my life I’ve crossed the street against the light if no cars were coming. I got in trouble for doing that in Austria one time and for the longest time decided I had found the explanation for why Hitler came from Austria.

My principle is one follows the spirit of the law, and not the law. To do otherwise is to be a fundamentalist. And one disobeys the law when it is an ass.

Is that what’s going on here? Am I seeing this claim to be defending the First Amendment a defence of the Law as an Ass? Is Kennedy’s view a “lesser evil” argument? Or does he really believe that money doesn’t corrupt (and that magnificent amounts of money don’t corrupt magnificently), and that he’s not flushing American democracy down the drain?

A friend asked me recently whether I wasn’t worrying too much about the Supreme Court failing to endorse the cancellation of Prop. 8, if the Good Guys win and Judge Walker decides Prop. 8 is unconstitutional and it goes to the Supreme Court? “Don’t they have to decide on the basis of the law?”

Yes, of course they do. But judges get their jobs because they are assumed to be good at deciding when to apply some laws over others, and some legal principles over others. Did the conservatives decide here on the basis of the law when that law contradicts common sense? Is common sense wrong here?

Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Stevens went the other way, remember. When intelligent (and one assumes conscientious) people disagree on fundamentals, we go beyond the issue of applying the law as one sees it. We illustrate the fact that we’re all fallible and limited human beings. And that the men and women we put on the Supreme Court can make some devastatingly wrong decisions. And when there is a five to four split, there is strong reason to think we may be facing a decision that can hurt us badly.

There is one more possibility. Perhaps the final decision came down the way it did because of the way the case was argued. You’d have to read the transcript of the trial and get the lawyers involved to tell you whether that was the case.

The time I spent on In Re Marriage Cases taught me that going to court requires a “When in Rome…” attitude. When in court, you jolly well follow the practices of the legal culture. Not just the rules. The practices. You look good. You wear the suit, you get articulate spokespeople. You dot your i’s and cross your t’s the way the arbiters of legal culture do it. Or you lose.

The real reason I’m so down on this decision, as anybody who knows me can tell you, is that the conservative victory and the display of animus I sense in the decision for the little guy does not bode well for victory in the current Prop. 8 trial now making its way to the Supreme Court.

But we’re hoping against hope. And we’re dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.

I say “we.” I mean the angels on our side running the show. I’m not at the trial itself, (because I can’t stand for hours waiting to get in anymore) or even watching it from home, because the Supremes shut down the possibility of watching it on YouTube or direct TV. But I am reading the transcripts with great interest and cheering and booing in the privacy of my own four walls.

It’s an uphill climb. The world has come to feel very hostile indeed.

But there are those angels, those lights in the darkness, those ports in the storm.

If you want to see one at work, here’s my currently very favorite lesbian lady, hands down, Jessica the Legal Eagle, at work crossing t’s and dotting I’s.

Keep the faith.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mysterious Ways

Today was a big day today in the Prop. 8 Trial.

Plaintiffs, one gay male and one lesbian couple seeking to marry in California, are charging that Prop. 8 must be overturned because it was driven by animus against the gay minority. How this is filtered through constitutional law is a complex issue which I don’t want to take on just yet, but the court has taken up the case, and - just in case you have not been following - the plaintiffs are being represented by Ted Olson and David Boies.

Ted Olson was the lawyer who argued for Bush before the Supreme Court in 2000 and won. Boies argued for Gore and lost. There is widespread agreement (and the transcript of this trial clearly demonstrates) these are two real hotshot lawyers, and the fact the two, one conservative and one liberal, are working together on this issue is a giant morale boost. Not everybody thought so at first. Most gay organizations voiced the fear that if we lost before the Supreme Court, it would further institutionalize homophobia, and we’d be set back perhaps an entire generation.

But that was before we got a good look at Olson and Boies. Since then, we have come to see them as genuinely passionate supporters of the cause. And since it was going to happen like it or not, pretty much everybody figured they had better get on board.

In my case, the fear has not lifted. My gut tells me we are going to win this case in the lower courts, but that when it makes its way to the Supreme Court, as most people agree is almost inevitable, Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito will find justification for shooting it down. The money is on Breyer, Ginsburg, Stevens and Sotomayor to go the other way. If this proves to be the case, the decision will fall on Kennedy, the man who commonly turns the tide in 5 to 4 decisions when each side votes along ideological lines.

What happened today is not a good omen. The fact that the Supreme Court, with Kennedy leading the conservative charge, determined that there should be no limitations on corporate spending to influence elections only adds to a sinking feeling we're dealing with a court not disposed to look out for the little guy. And to see any challenge to tradition in a negative light.

Robert Cruickshank discusses a chilling tie-in between the decision today and the Prop. 8 trial.

It’s hard to find good news, but my reason for a tad of optimism in the short term, at least, was William Tam’s testimony today. Tam’s charges that gays are twelve times more likely than straights to be child molesters and that their agenda is to turn children gay, plus the fact he could find no source for that “information” other than his left ear, should be all the proof Judge Walker needs to find the claims of animus credible. While the Prop. 8 people are pedaling as fast as they can to distance themselves from this poor bumbling idiot, there is no escaping the fact that Tam’s name was linked with Prop. 8 from the beginning – including in the voter pamphlet explaining the issue before the election.

The Supreme Court squelched Judge Walker’s plan to make the trial public. But people attending the trial picked up the pieces and organized a means of sending out daily (and sometimes hourly) summaries.

And now, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, AFER, the organization formed to support the case, has come out with full transcripts.

So much to be said about this trial. Its importance, in my opinion, is likely to grow as it sinks in that we have actually put homophobia on trial.

Sometimes God works in mysterious ways. To lighten our burden and make our job a little easier he gave us deep and abiding belly laughs in the form of Pat Robertson. To democrats, in the struggle to rid ourselves of the Bush Administration, he gave Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

Today, to further the cause of civil rights, he gave us William Tam.

Thank you, Jesus.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Beating the dead horse once again

This entry surely belong in the "beating a dead horse" category. I give it to you nonetheless.

Equality California called me the other day and asked me to come volunteer to make phone calls. I said yes and then chickened out. I really hate it when people call me out of the blue with a pitch, even when so many of the causes are worthy. How am I supposed to do that to others? To make up for my wussitude, I volunteered to go in tomorrow and do some clerical work. I hate just sitting here and not being able to follow the court case of Olson and Boies. Got to do something with this nervous energy. The Supreme Court has decided it would be a media circus and have shut down the cameras. Damn, damn, damn, I say. They may change their minds on Wednesday, but I'm not holding my breath.

In any case, I've been reading the reports of the case as they dribble out all day. The case made the lead news article on PBS News tonight and the front page of all the papers I've read. It should, of course. This is bigtime stuff.

But there is no new information. I've been round and round on the arguments so many times it feels like I'm in one of those "your call is very important to us" loops. Yes, yes. Heard it all a thousand times.

Never mind. All this is just throat clearing. I read this piece in a local paper and had to dash off a response.

Once again, to all y'all who find this been-there-done-that stuff, my apologies.

I just could let this one go by.

"Dude" writes:

I believe the defendants have a much stronger case. This is not a civil rights issue. Gays and lesbians have the same right under the law to marry as those with a hetero sexual preference. A gay man can marry a woman and a gay woman can marry a man. Just like a straight man can marry a woman or a straight woman can marry a man. It doesn't matter whether you are gay, straight, transgender, black, hispanic, white, asian... In this case, we all have the same right to marry under the law.

In our society, the fact is that nobody has the right to marry anybody they love. There have always been and continue to be certain restrictions on marriage. A thirty year old can't marry a fourteen year old no matter how much they love each other. A married man can't wed a single woman. Two women can't marry one man.

For the most part, the state needs to stay out of marriage but there are certain circumstances when it is forced to be involved. If the state has to be involved for legal reasons in the dissolution of marriage (e.g. when divorce courts determine child and property rights), it certainly has to be involved in the certifying of it. In those circumstances, it is necessary and common practice for the courts to decide what is the ideal circumstance under which the children should be raised. The precedent has overwhelmingly favored placing children in married homes. That is because there is a mountain of evidence that shows that boys and girls learn only certain things from men and certain things from women, all of which is important for their development.

I do sympathize with those individuals in same gender relationships, who have a strong love for each other, who wish to express their love by being married. However, I don't think they have a strong enough case to support their view that they have a right to get married just because they love that person.

I respond:

Not a civil rights issue? The California Supreme Court disagrees with you. So does the state’s Attorney General and countless others with a background in constitutional law.

Gays have the right to marry heterosexually? That’s like saying Muslims have the right to worship God in their own way as long as they pray to Jesus.

How do you see a parallel between two consenting adults marrying and an adult marrying a child? The issue is since two consenting adults have the right to marry heterosexually, two consenting adults should have the same right to marry homosexually. The only people who oppose this do so for religious reasons. The United States is, however, not a theocracy.

You do not have your facts right when you suggest gay people don’t provide the “ideal circumstance” for raising children. What an insult to the one-third of American lesbians with children! There is absolutely no correlation between one’s sexuality and one’s ability to nurture a child.

Children learn some things from men and other things from women, you say? Even if that were true, you would be missing the obvious fact that children live in society. If neither parent is good at math, or dancing, or argumentation, or cooking, it’s very likely a neighbor or an aunt or uncle may be helpful. We pick up information in all sorts of places.

You don’t think gay people have a case? Isn’t the question whether you have a case for taking away a right that the Supreme Court said was ours as citizens of California?

To the day when none of this needs to be said any longer...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Great Derangement - A Review

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine. If you don’t know who he is, take a little time to get to know him. His blog is a good place to start: A number of YouTubes are also available. He appears frequently on Bill Maher’s Real Time and shows up on all the usual news shows.

I saw him recently on Bill Moyers’ Journal and was totally taken by him. He has a sense of humor to match Molly Ivins. He also has what your grandmother would tell you is “quite a mouth on him.” He describes Thomas Friedman as “a genius of literary incompetence," for example, and David Brooks simply as “an asshole.” He wonders if Michelle Bachmann can write her name with a stick in the sand.

He has been called a “gonzo journalist,” one who mixes fact and fiction, chooses style over accuracy, and writes from first person experience. I think this is both unfair and inaccurate. In anthropology, this is called “participant observation,” and it is a given that your perspective is infinitely richer if you write from the inside rather than describe what you see through a window or on a television screen.

Taibbi has been a brick layer in Siberia and a born-again in Texas, but his interests are chiefly political. I’ve just finished Great Derangement, his latest (2009) look at the United States as a crumbling empire. The government is up for sale and in Taibbi’s view we are caught between a radical right of morons who blame the country’s ills on homosexuality and a radical left who see 9/11 as a Bush Administration plot to seize Iraqi oil. Taibbi covers some of the same ground here as in his 2006 book, Spanking the Donkey, where he describes Americans, once naïve idealists, as people now motivated by hatred and contempt for folks at the other end of the political spectrum. We vote not so much for our guy as against the other guy. And more of the same stuff as in his 2007 book, Smells like Dead Elephants, about corrupt politicians. The previous books were comprised of essays. In Great Derangement he makes a case that there is a unity in the dysfunctionality of our two wacko political extremes.

People who argue the country is in the toilet have to contend with the fact that this is nothing new. Remember the Teapot Dome Scandal? Remember New York’s Mayor Walker and his twelve years of open and extravagant corruption before FDR and LaGuardia took over and cleaned the place up? Remember Watergate? What’s the point of beating this dead horse?

For one thing, Halliburton’s profits from the war really are bigger, our media seem to be on their last legs and there is evidence everywhere that Americans are dumbing down as never before. A critical reader will wonder why he is focusing on the fanatical extremes and passing over the center, where most of us live, but he makes the case that Jeff Sharlet makes in The Family, that we’re in the clutches of a self-serving oligarchy on the right, while 36% of the folk on the left, according to a Scripps Howard poll taken in the fall of 2006, are persuaded 9/11 was either fostered, or at least allowed to happen, by the U.S. government. The fringe has become the mainstream, in other words. Whether the almost complete lack of faith in government started with George Bush’s lies about weapons of mass destruction or whether that was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back, we have now become a nation of folk running around like chickens with our heads cut off. As Time has pointed out, if it’s an idea held by over a third of the population, it’s a mainstream notion.

To make his point, Taibbi chose two groups to investigate, the dysfunctional Congress now running loose and unobserved, and the born-again idiots who follow John Hagee and his Cornerstone Church Christian Zionist ministry.

Even hardened cynics long familiar with the ways Congress sells its ass to its corporate donors will have trouble keeping their cookies down at Taibbi’s description of Texas Republican Joe Barton, who uses his position as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to build refineries the country no longer wants or needs and works to dismantle the Clean Air Act as part of the Republican agenda. And you’d be seriously challenged to find in fiction an example of brainlessness more hilarious than the sight of a group of people huffing and puffing demons out through their mouths at a revival meeting, the demon of cancer, the demon of human intellect, the demon of anal fissures.

Taibbi reveals a passion for his work when he goes undercover as a born-again and lets himself get sucked in, lulled by the hypnotic effect of the assurances of a community of lonely people seeking connection and measuring success by the degree of emotionality they can generate. One can find descriptions of the lack of discussion and critical thinking among these groups in any number of places. Taibbi lives the sadness even when he is being derisive and explains the attraction better than I’ve seen it explained before.

You yuck it up, you feel superior to the losers and their trailer park religion. And then you realize this John Hagee is a multi-millionaire welcomed with open arms by every Israeli prime minister, sought out by John McCain, the recipient of awards by U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Texas Governor Mark White and countless others, for his blind and unquestioning support of Israel. His influence extends far beyond a few sad nutcases in South Texas.

Taibbi braids together the Hagee story with the 9/11 Truth Movement, those committed to the notion that the government blew up the World Trade Center, and faked the plane crashes. For a time, because so many of these folk had decent lefty credentials, they drew in the likes of Ed Asner, Ralph Nader, Van Jones and many members of the families of 9/11 victims. In the end, Taibbi writes, the “Truthies” and the Christian End Time wackos are “both basically crude parodies of the same old left/right canned media Holy War.” (p. 302) Taibbi’s goal, he tells us, is to get us to back away from these extremes.

Amazon reviewers have criticized Great Derangement for being very funny at first and slow going afterwards, but that’s only because people like to see people lash out better than they like listening to reasoned argument and close analysis. Taibbi pulls no punches. “Reagan was the first president who was rewarded at the polls for the quality of his fictions.” Bill Clinton was “a bullshitter of Shakespearean dimensions.” If we don’t turn ourselves around, we’re going to end up being a “Bangladesh with fat people.” But to wish his biting wit went all the way through the book is to sell short the parts where there is some serious informative journalism going on. The book should be read for his description of how earmarks and “continuing resolutions” are written, as well as for the belly laughs.

After lashing out at corrupt politicians and religious Pied Pipers, Taibbi saves his strongest invective for his fellow Americans and their lazy self-indulgence. “No creature on earth,” he writes, “is more inclined to public verbal diarrhea than a modern American; whether it’s the AA culture, or the post-Me Generation emphasis on “finding yourself,” or all those neo-Woody Allens confessing to their therapists, or just too many damn people fantasizing about telling the audience of Oprah what influenced their latest album… we live in a country where people believe implicitly in their right to bore the living shit out of absolutely everybody within haranguing distance with tales of their miserable, lonely, and inevitably self-deluding searches for personal fulfillment in the emotional desert that is our crass commercial culture.” (p. 251)

OK, so he was having a bad day.

He’s still right. We’re not very civil, we don’t work collectively to fix things, we allow ourselves to be jerked around, we give corrupt and incompetent government a free pass, and we’re suckers for conspiracy theorists and almost anybody who tells us what we want to hear. We need to get our bullshit detectors back in working order, and get back in the swing.

My only problem with Taibbi is my problem with anybody who sets up the left and the right as if they were simply two poles of equal standing. Ever since I saw Donahue put concentration camp survivors on the stage alongside neo-Nazis, I have marvelled at how simplistic we can get in thinking “there are two sides to every story.” The right has the Ministry of Republican Propaganda in Fox News and the team of Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. The left took a while to respond to the steady flow of disinformation, but eventually came back with Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher and a number of others. Both sides slant. But the right actively misrepresents and keeps the left on the defensive. To say, simply, that we need to find a place in the middle is to assume both sides are equally interested in engagement.

Taibbi, while he admires Obama’s attempt to embrace both sides, is not urging we find the middle. He’s clearly more at home on the left than on the right. His point is that the center has decayed, and what once might have been a reasoned response to madness is now more than likely to be just more madness. And yet, American that he is, for all his cynical invective, he is remarkably upbeat at the end about our ability to face our fears and get to work.

Right. What’s the alternative?

Friday, January 8, 2010


I love Jeanne Phillips, who now writes the Dear Abby column. The morning paper is filled with death and destruction, accidents, failures, political malfeasance, the weakness of Chinese steel and the delay in building the Bay Bridge. I love finishing off with the suggestion there are people out there who can cut through all the crap and make life work.

99 days out of a hundred, I skim her column, nod assent, put the butter and milk back in the fridge, and get into the day.

This morning I hit the hundredth day.

I read:

Dear Abby:

I am a 5-foot-5-inch high school sophomore. I am small-boned and my voice is high-pitched. I’m terrible at sports, and physical education class is a nightmare. I have become friends with another guy, “Rick,” who is much like me, and it helps to have someone who has similar problems.

Because Rick and I hang out together, some of the macho guys have started a rumor that we’re gay, and now everyone in the school thinks it’s true. Our PE teacher has even made comments to this effect, which compounds the problem.

Rick and I are shunned and have even been physically attacked because of this. We are not gay. We are just good friends who share common problems. We are interested in girls, but they aren’t interested in us. When I try to say I’m not gay, they say, “Then who is your girlfriend?” When I tell them I don’t have one, they laugh at me.

Rick and I are both “A” students. We keep telling ourselves that we will succeed where some of the macho guys who are obvious losers will not, and we’ll have the last laugh. However, this is still a terrible situation for us, and we can’t stand the thought of another two years like this. Please help.

- Sophomore in Sacramento

And her response:

Dear Sophomore:

If you and your friend haven’t already told your parents what’s going on, do so immediately. Then you and your parents should pay a visit to the school principal to report that you have been attacked by other students and misidentified as gay not only by your peers, but also by a member of the staff.

It appears that both staff and student body in your school need to be educated about the fact that discrimination, assault and hate crimes are illegal. If the harassment is not stopped immediately, your families should take this matter to a lawyer.

And I wrote back (

Dear Abby:

Your response to Sophomore in Sacramento contains your usual common sense, but it troubles me that you lay out being “misidentified as gay” as a wrong parallel to being “attacked by other students.” How would it strike you to be “misidentified as Jewish” or “misidentified as black”?

I understand you might not want to add to the burdens of growing up these young teenagers already have the burden of defending gay people. But if white kids are “accused” or “suspected” of being black, shouldn’t the first (and perhaps only) response be “so what if I am?” and not “No, I’m not.”? Shouldn’t we all fight discrimination together and not leave it to the bullies to pick us off one at a time?