Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tough Love for Papa Razzi

There was an interesting article today in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Munich newspaper that is doing for the child abuse scandal in Germany these days what the Boston Globe did for the parallel scandal in the United States a decade ago – holding their feet to the fire and showing no mercy.

It’s working. The resignations are coming from all directions. People are leaving the church in droves. For someone like me, whose experiences with the church militant engendered a rage I have nurtured all my life, this turn of events has generated no small amount of satisfaction.

Anybody motivated by anger runs the risk of making highly unjust assessments, of course. To avoid that, despite my conviction that religion is bunk, I have tried to make a sharp distinction between those who “listen for the still small voice of God” and those for whom religion is a political instrument. In the Catholic Church, that means there are two kinds of folk, the Vatican I, authoritarian, types – those who center the church on the authority of an infallible pope – and the Vatican II, pastoral, types – those who would channel the energies of the hierarchy into care and compassion. It’s not hard to see where most catholics line up. The two German contemporaries, Hans Küng, and Josef Ratzinger, serve as illustrations. Küng has devoted his life to ecumenism – pulling first all Christians back together and ultimately all people of faith. Ratzinger has let it be known he’d rather have a small group of diehard conservatives in the church than too wide a tent.

I’ve never hidden where my rage against the church comes from. It is the insistence of authoritarian religion (obviously not just of the Roman Catholic variety) that homosexuality is a sin, and same-sex relationships are inherently disordered. Add to that the church’s recent insistence that a nine-year old girl must face excommunication if she aborted the baby she was carrying after being raped by her father – and her mother too, for helping her - and other similarly loathsome directives stemming from ideological certainty and, frankly, I don’t understand why everybody doesn’t want to beat the church with a stick.

As the abuse scandal rages on, and the bishops fall like bowling pins, the Süddeutsche Zeitung continues as the paper of record. Day after day we get facts to feed the view the church is corrupt, and quite possibly stupid. Certainly absurd. Definitely arrogant. Today, I was pleasantly surprised by a change of tone in an article by German historian (and regular SZ journalist) Gustav Seibt. Up till now, most people have framed this as a story about sexual abuse. Seen this way, one is led inexorably into discussions of celibacy and the church’s approach to sex as something to be avoided. Or at least rigidly channeled. I have argued this story should not be about sex at all, but about abuse of power. Any organization with hundreds of thousands of members is bound to have some bad apples. I have argued that what is really rotten is the role of the church as enabler. And I have seen this enabling as derivative of arrogance and love of power.

Seibt comes at this from another direction, and brings a refreshing reframing of the story – one I’ve heard before, but not so clearly articulated. His is the approach of a cultural anthropologist. He doesn’t write in the jargon of a cultural anthropologist, but he performs the work of one. He sets two cultural worlds side by side, each with their own attitudes, values and beliefs. One is medieval, hierarchical, patriarchal and authoritarian. The other is almost a mirror image with all the features in reverse – modern, non-hierarchical, non-patriarchal and non-authoritarian. One culture’s chief value is the salvation of souls. The only real offense is an offense against God. And if offending God is the only real sin, a child abuser can beg forgiveness and the offense against God goes away. The victim is not at fault and, as an innocent, is of no real concern to the church, whose only real function is the elimination of sin. With values such as these, exonerating priests, even moving them after sufficient penance to other locales with the admonition to go and sin no more, the church is acting out its cultural values exactly as one might predict.

Framed this way, the problem for those of us who share the values of the other culture becomes one of culture conflict. Do we allow the church to continue to function according to its otherworldly values? Or do we impose our own, those of a modern democratic society committed not to helping citizens gain entry into the next world, but keeping citizens protected in this one.

We don’t need to see the church as bad guys committed to selfish interests at the expense of children. We can embrace them as a culture committed to values which are at odds with modern values. This may seem like some kind of mindfuck, but only if you think putting yourself in another’s shoes creates illusions and not sympathy.

The German state has taken a stand with culture conflict recently. Turkish fathers in Germany who insist their daughters not go to school are told “Sorry, sir, but your daughter will not be deprived of an education as long as she lives among us.” And we make it happen without further ado.

The Church, too, needs to be told, “Sorry, folks. You can go on with your concern for the next world if you like, but you must stop now, once and for all, protecting abusers of children from the law of the state.”

That is slowly but surely what is coming to pass. What Seibt has done for me is he has given me a way to approach the church more as the anthropologist I am and less as the angry gay I can be.

I’m more gay than anthropologist, alas, so this is not a perfect cure.

But it’s a step in the right direction.

And when you separate the person from the screwed up values they hold, all sorts of good things can happen.

Yes, Johnny, I know you think that knife is fun to play with. But I’m going to take it away from you. Now brush your teeth and go to bed.

Yes, mugger, I understand your father beat you and made you what you are today. I’m willing to spend money to get you into treatment, a good home where people will love you, and a good school where you can build a better life. But I’m not going to let you mug me. I’ll jail your ass if I have to.

Tough love, I believe it’s called.

Time to give Papa Razzi some tough love.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A History of Things

When I went to Berlin with the U.S. Army in the fall of 1962 I was assigned to the 78th USASOU (United States Army Special Operations Unit) to listen in on the phone calls of East German Communist Party officials. I was one of some 40,000 spies active in Berlin at the time. A heady experience and one that provides a steady stream of good-old-days memories.

I’m going to tell you about one of those memories that has nothing to do with spying.

Because Berlin was at that time still an occupied city and the armies of France, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States were ever present, the orphanages were filled with the castaway kids of relationships with German women. Our unit had adopted one of those orphanages as a way of countering some of the callousness of the lack of concern for those children.

Each month, the orphanage held a birthday party for all the children with birthdays in that month. My first experience was at one of those birthday parties.

I walked into a large room, glanced around, and saw there was a kid eyeing me from afar. It didn’t take long before he walked across to me, climbed up on my lap and said, “My name is Hajo. What’s yours?”

“Alan,” I said.

“Alan," he repeated. "That’s a nice name.”

I was hooked. Totally hooked. Couldn’t believe what had come down on me in less than a minute.

I went back every week, usually with friends who had also made some kind of connection with one or more of the kids. We took them ice skating in the winter, out for ice cream in the summer. It was the highlight of the week for us, and we threw ourselves into it, innocent and naïve of the consequences.

There were consequences. If we missed a week, we were told the kids would cry. Sometimes they’d act out. We had raised expectations and were clueless about the fire we were playing with.

Hajo is short for Hans Joachim. He was the most beautiful child I think I have ever seen. What they called a Negermischling. A “Negro half-breed.” Giant eyes straight out of a Margaret Keane painting. Fearless in his declaration that he was my special friend and nobody else’s. The kid’s instinct for finding a daddy was overpowering and it led to some serious heartbreak.

By the time we got a lecture from the staff about not getting too close to these kids if we didn’t intend to follow through, whatever that was supposed to mean to a bunch of 23-year-old GIs who had yet to launch lives and careers, it was too late.

After almost a year, I saw the writing on the wall. I was not going to be able to adopt this kid, and I was even going to leave Berlin at some point. Better make a clean break, people were telling me. Against all my instincts, I listened to their advice.

At first, I thought I might ease off and come to visit less often. I’d skip a week, sometimes even two. Each time I got word Hajo was crying himself to sleep. One time he found the courage to ask, “Magst Du mich nicht mehr?” “Don’t you like me anymore?” What could I say? “Of course I still like you. It’s just that I can’t come to see you from now on. But I’ll write you and always be your friend.”

I heard the words as this five-year-old must have heard them and felt a sense of betrayal I’ve never felt before or since. The memory of it still burns a half century later.

I didn’t write him. I asked about him all the time and was told he had become quite despondent. I kept hoping I would hear somebody else had come in and taken my place. He was, after all, just a small child, and would bounce back. Right?

Hajo today, if he is alive, is about 52-years old. Very possibly a grandfather. If I had been able to adopt him, I might have great-grandchildren today. Of all the roads not taken, this is one that stayed with me in dreams the longest. I spent countless hours making excuses for myself. The people in charge should have headed this off. I should have sought advice before getting attached. Should have stayed with him till the end of my stay and not been so foolish as to kill the time we might have gotten even closer. Should have found a way to make the connection continue. Should have, could have. Didn’t.

Fifteen years later, while living in Santa Cruz, gay men were beginning to adopt children, and when the State of California made it possible I began to pursue the idea. I reflected long and hard on my motivations, whether I was simply trying to right a past wrong or whether I was now finally ready to be a father. If my job had not turned to dust, pushing me into graduate school and a whole new career, who knows what I might have done. It just wasn’t in the cards. For the second time.

Once back in graduate school I began a twelve-year relationship with a Vietnamese man. The relationship was doomed from the start, but it took a decade for me to figure that out. I was too wrapped up in getting my doctoral degree to see what I was up against. I chose to let it run its course.

We talked occasionally, he and I, about adopting a child. We even went so far as to imagine going to Vietnam for one, since he was already eighteen when he became a boat person, and his sense of connection to Vietnam and its misery was still strong.

But we didn’t stay together. And that idea, too, came and went, only to show up in what-might-have-been moments in the wee hours of the morning.

Every now and again those memories are ignited. Movies will do it. Dumbarton Bridge hit hard. A low budget movie about an alcoholic black soldier whose life is overturned when his Vietnamese daughter suddenly shows up on his doorstep. A Chinese-American friend of mine, a single gay man, flew to Vietnam some years ago and adopted a Vietnamese child.

And just the other day I came across this article on Germany’s newly appointed health minister. I posted a blog on him – the post before last, titled Philipp Rösler – and explained my interest in him on the basis of years of working with cross-cultural identity issues and on frustration with having to watch others do health care reasonably well when the U.S. does it so badly.

But those were not the real reasons for my interest. It’s as if Philipp Rösler broke a dam and the memories are flooding out and the imagination, the might-have-beens, are washing over me.

It wasn’t his Vietnamese face. It was reading that his father had studied in America, had gotten so disgusted by what we had done in Vietnam that he needed to throw himself bodily into the events of the day. He went to Vietnam and adopted a child.

How proud he must be. How good it must feel, looking back on that hippie impulse, if that’s what it was.

People with greater sophistication than I have may be offended by this, but my contact with Germany goes back a long way, back to the time when war memories were strong and German racism was still active. Native speakers of German with African features were something to comment on. Much as we might wish it were otherwise, Caucasian speakers of Japanese like me still make people stop and stare (this topic comes home to me from several directions at once), and so do black and Asian speakers of German. But those are things one gets past quickly.

The racial features of that little five-year-old with the big eyes and the black curly hair who stole my heart in 1963, and this Vietnamese fellow who speaks the German my family spoke – they, too, were from Hannover – they were hooks for capturing attention at first. Now they are reminders of how many turns in the road I did not take.

Philipp Rösler is a doctor. A man with a good education. Highly articulate. Good looking. The attention on him is positive. Just the kind of attention I would hope a kid of mine, adopted from Vietnam, might be experiencing, were he a real person.

I have been reading with total fascination into Rösler’s history. His rapid rise in government has people talking about him as a wunderkind. YouTube videos of him taking his seat in Parliament. He’s a little nervous. Feeling his way. I found feelings rising up in me like those of a parent watching their kid at a piano recital. I want him to do well.

At dinner last night, Taku and I were recalling my favorite play by my friend Sharmon. It’s called A History of Things That Never Happened. A delightful fantasy tale of reconstructed memory. And a notion I keep coming back to. A way to have your cake and eat it too. Turns out you can, if you try, add to your repertoire of happy memories. Fate forces you to take only one turn in the road, but it does not prevent you from walking the other paths from time to time, when the spirit moves you.

Recently, I came across a video of Philipp addressing a party meeting in which he was joking about having to come to terms with the media. He is no longer a curiosity in government, a smart kid who says and does everything right. No longer that tentative new member of the Bundestag. He is now fair game and facing serious political opposition to his efforts as health minister. He’s moving on up.

I like what I see of his politics. I like what I see of him. His family. His twin girls.

He’s part of my life now. Part of my history.

A history of things that never happened.

I’ve adopted him. And I’m watching him from afar.

I don’t expect ever to meet him. That would strike me as a bit too weird, somehow, and I’m not at risk of confusing imagination and reality. This is my history. Not his.

But if he ever needs anything from me, all he needs to do is ask.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What’s happened to the news?

There’s an interesting article in the March/April 2010 edition of the Columbia Journalism Review by Terry McDermott, a former reporter for the LA Times, which sums up nicely what has happened of late to American television news.

It’s titled “Dumb like a Fox” and carries the leader: “Fox News isn’t part of the GOP; it has simply (and shamelessly) mastered the confines of cable.” (All quotations here are taken from this article.)

McDermott argues that people like me, inclined to speak of Fox News as the Ministry of Propaganda of the Bush Administration, or, to update things, the voice of the radical right, have been fooled into thinking it deserves to be listed along with the other news networks (he focuses particularly on MSNBC and CNN in addition to Fox News), when in fact it is primarily best compared to radio talk shows.

I wish McDermott had included ABC and PBS in his survey, rather than limit his coverage to just these three, but his intent was evidently to make this point rather than cover the field.

Many wish the Obama administration had not gone after Fox as it did last fall when its director of communications, Anita Dunn, called Fox News “either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party…” “Let’s not pretend they’re a news organization like CNN is,” she added. All she accomplished, they say, was to provide Fox with dignity it didn’t deserve. Perhaps, but she got it just right and made the point McDermott is making.

Everybody and his uncle have gone after Fox for its claim to be “fair and balanced.” The claim is, in the minds of most people I know, a national joke, and proof positive that a significant number of Americans are dumber than their shoes. We’ve made a mistake there, McDermott claims. We’ve missed the important fact that Fox News, once you accept that it is rightward leaning, is not all that unbalanced, although you have to accept that Neil Cavuto is a “news analyst” rather than a newscaster, despite the way Fox sells him, to buy that. What is unbalanced are the talk shows – Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and their regular use of the Limbaugh/Coulter/Malkin ideologues.

With newspapers shutting down left, right, and center in America, and Americans unwilling to pay for news when they think they can get it free on Google (forgetting that somebody has to pay reporters, and good stories can take months to collect), this exchange of objective news reporting for commentary is an obvious outcome of that lack of appreciation for the need to know what is actually happening. Rather, that is, than the desire to be entertained by people you believe you have a right to listen to because they confirm what you already believe.

Newspapers usually have one page of editorials and news on all the other pages. The way to look at Fox, McDermott says, is to see it as if it were a newspaper where that division is reversed. And, by the way, MSNBC is an entirely news-free organization, as well. No reporters at all. True, it does have NBC to draw from. The point is these are not TV news programs; they are TV opinion programs. Which makes sense of the fact that CNN has three times as many reporters and editing staff as Fox. (CNN also outdoes NBC as well.) And helps to explain the drivel on so-called news programs on American television these days.

McDermott gets in some good digs at Fox, and in doing that actually joins in the game of entertaining in a medium where one expects to find more traditionally objective reporting. OK with me. I’m always delighted to have someone say out loud there’s something wrong with lying on television.

McDermott, fortunately, avoids the suggestion I see in many commentaries on the news, that “there is bias on both sides.” “What is Rachel Maddow, if not a voice for the Democratic Party?” they say. What these folk miss (and, I repeat, McDermott did not fall into this trap) is that facts can be verified and that objectivity does not rule out slant. One can stress the merits of one side and the demerits of the other, so long as one is careful to include all the facts – not lie by omission – put them in the proper context, and get them right.

In suggesting that Rachel Maddow or Jon Stewart are as much purveyors of the democratic party line as O’Reilly or Hannity are of the republican party line, I think they’re missing the important point that the quality of truth-telling is not parallel. One of the things we were taught in kindergarten turns out not to be true after all. That truth “often lies in the middle.” Because that misconception is an American cultural belief, we trip over it all the time. I’ll never forget the day I saw Donahue put gay bashers on a panel to “balance” gay rights activists. And Nazis to “give their side” against concentration camp victims. If even a clever fellow like Donahue can make such mistakes, so can many of the rest of us.

One last point McDermott makes is worth mentioning. Until MSNBC gave up its more quietly objective news reporting style and took on the confrontational style of its competitors, it trailed far behind Fox. It went where the money is. People want to see gladiators more than they want objective news reporting when they turn on their TVs, evidently. And since money rules this country, getting away from the new format hardly seems likely.

And one last point to set this story in a larger context. The advent of the internet has brought this topic out of schools of journalism into the public arena and the evolution of news into entertainment is not limited to the United States. Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung happens to be running a series at the moment on the future of journalism and taking up such questions as how to make content entertaining, as well as informative.

Walter Cronkite is dead and gone, and so, apparently, is objective news reporting. So now what?

Fox comes out all smug and righteous when it insists its news program is in fact “fair and balanced.” Not our fault, they say, you can’t see the difference between our news reporting and our news opinion and analysis. But they are dishonest. They use the word news in ways that further that deception.

But the real problem isn’t Fox. It is a populace that says, in effect, “Bring on the gladiators. Make me laugh or make me gasp. Just don’t bore me with the news.” Whether Fox is a source of that problem or merely a symptom of it I leave for others to argue.

I think a good question to ask people you talk with about current events is whether they got their information from a news program or from a talk show. That distinction has been getting buried of late. We’ve got to dig it up, polish it and make it shine.

And then go right on to the next question. Is that true? I mean really true? Or are you just putting saddles on dinosaurs because something deep down inside of you tells you they had to be there?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Philipp Rösler

This morning, I came across an article about Germany’s new Minister for Health, the German equivalent of Surgeon General. His name is Philipp Rösler.

Turns out he was adopted from a Vietnamese orphanage when he was nine months old because his father had studied in America and become so horrified at the Vietnam War that he wanted to take some kind of positive action to compensate. Today, Rösler describes himself as “German through and through.”

At age 37 he has an impressive record of accomplishments behind him. In 1992, the same year he graduated from high school in Hannover, he joined the FDP, Germany’s centrist liberal party, the Free Democrats, and became its secretary for the state of Lower Saxony in 2000. Meanwhile, he joined the army and got them to pay for his medical degree while working as a medic. After years of working in politics at the local (Hannover) level, he rose, in July, 2007, to become his party’s main candidate in the Lower Saxony state election. Not long after that, in February 2008, he was appointed Minister for Economy, Labor and Transport as well as Deputy Prime Minister for the State of Lower Saxony. Less than two years later, in October of 2009 he was appointed to his current position as Minister for Health.

His wife is also a doctor, and they have two-year-old twin daughters.

You can reach him at his office at
FDP Landesverband Niedersachsen
Walter-Gieseking-Str. 22
30159 Hannover
Tel. 05 11 / 2 80 71 -0

Or you can just watch him go. He was in the news recently when, barely on the job, he took on the German pharmaceutical industry.

One news video shows him taking up the question of passing a law requiring the industry to negotiate prices for new medications. Also seen is an industry speaker who claims that he’s making a mistake. They keep Germany’s economy strong, she says, and ought not to be messed with.

Much as I’d love to draw parallels with America’s health care situation, and make snarky comments about the pharmaceutical industry, I know too little about the facts to say anything about the wisdom of his choices. I have to limit what I say to comments on outward appearances.

That said, I cannot help but comment on the difference I see between the focus of health care issues in Germany and the United States at this moment. While we’re dealing with having to accept a woefully inadequate Republican health care plan over a universal health care plan universally rejected by Republicans in Congress in order to bring down the government at the cost of improving health care and the economy, here’s Germany appointing a 36-year old man who jokes about living among people who cannot understand why he’s lousy at karate, and about looking in the mirror and wondering who that slant-eyed flat-nosed German is, to oversee the healthcare of 80 million of his fellow citizens. It feels like I’m watching satellite TV coming from two different planets.

Our concerns, when it comes to health care, include whether or not we can pay for it, whether or not we can ever get it to cover every citizen – never mind every resident – and whether we can keep the Republicans from snatching an American child’s right not to be thrown off the health care plan for a “pre-existing condition” back away from him or her.

We have a centrist president who throws in the towel on the pharmaceutical industry before he even gets started dealing with health care. Germany has a centrist Surgeon General who takes them on in his first few months on the job.

There are some good parallels, at least. Both men are getting a lot of attention for their racial characteristics, in countries with a terrible racist past. Both demonstrate that single parents can do a bang-up job at times. Rösler was raised by his father, Obama by his mother. And while it may be unfair to lay Wunderkind expectations on them, as many are doing, they do seem to be making it on their merits. Which says a lot about them. And a lot about the countries they grew up in and want to give something back to.

How nice to have something in the political sphere to feel good about.