Sunday, May 30, 2010

Two ways of saying crazy

In response to a “list of random adjectives” I sent around to friends the other day, while playing with the notion of semantic range, one of my two friends named Bonnie asked me about the difference, in German, between wahnsinnig and irrsinnig. Both translate “crazy” in English.

I thought I’d share my response:

Dear Bonnie:

To answer your question, I went to two sources:

1. me
2. Paul Hemetsberger, a guy at or very near the top of my list of favorite geeks of all time.

“Me” says – “There’s no difference. Use them interchangeably.”
PH (or, more precisely, PH’s online dictionary) suggests there are nuances.

PH is the moderator for a perfectly marvelous online dictionary, aka “” It’s an open source dictionary, free to the public, and dependent on their contributions, which he organized and now moderates, apparently from his home in Vienna.

According to, irrsinnig covers the semantic range of English “insane, crazy, lunatic” or “stupid,” and, if used together with komisch or witzig (funny), covers the English “zany,” and “hilarious.”

Wahnsinnig covers the semantic range of English “insane, demented, delirious, mad, crazy, incredible, manic, paranoid, bedlam, psychotic, raving, mind-boggling” and “frantic.”

and, when used as an adverb, together with beliebt, komisch, langsam, schlecht, or teuer
(also komisch, witzig) translate to wildly (popular), hysterically, uproariously (funny), excruciatingly, extremely (slow), and ruinously (expensive), respectively.

Now what to make of this “difference.” That is, is it a difference that makes a difference? lists the combinations irrsinnig + komisch/witzig and wahnsinnig + beliebt, komisch, langsam and schlecht, suggesting a different semantic range, BUT, a quick google check will reveal that both irrsinnig and wahnsinnig work with all of the words on the list, i.e., that they are completely interchangeable. The word combinations on seem to be random, in other words, a product of multiple sources of entry, perhaps.

Next question in a search for difference would be frequency.

If you google each word and their derivatives, here’s the number of entries you get:
irre – 4,790,000 (of which 4,780,000 are also listed on
irr – 11,600,000
irrsinn – 441,000
irrsinnig – 163,000

wahn – 2,100,000
wahnsinn – 4,290,000
wahnsinnig – 1,660,000

At first glance, this would seem to indicate that wahnsinnig is overwhelmingly more common than irrsinnig, and that would mean we have, in fact, found a “difference” (Not that I would lay claim to any authority here, but this fits my own experience – I feel more comfortable with “wahnsinnig teuer” than with “irrsinnig teuer.” But, I want to stress, that’s little to nothing to go on. And, experience shows, you won’t get a more authoritative answer from German native speakers necessarily, unless you are sure you’re talking not only to a native speaker but to one who can be objective about his/her own language.

And there is an even bigger reason to use caution in assuming you are onto something here, and that is the unreliability of using google frequencies. Whether or not the frequency numbers are telling in this instance (my instincts tell me they probably are), when you type in something for google to count, google doesn’t stop with any single language. If there is a word “irr” in Estonian, for example, those tokens would be counted as well as the German tokens. (I use Estonian as a randomly selected language, incidently. Have no idea what other languages, if any, may have “irr” for a word.) To try to eliminate those, you might be tempted to go to the German google ( and try, and if you do you see 20,000 fewer entries. But remember is not necessarily tapping into German-only sources either!

Sometimes, you can trace the modern day meaning of a word back to its historical origins.

Wahn is a noun meaning “delusion” and
irr(e) is an adjective/adverb meaning “insane”

but that doesn’t help you, since the average person cannot distinguish between what is insane and what is delusional, and even if they could, there is no arguable difference in common usage.

If you’re still determined to find difference, there is much more you can do by pursuing word associations. One could fill pages this way. I’ll just give a couple examples. Wahn not only implies madness, it is the word chosen by the translator of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury – Schall und Wahn. We’re getting a bit too far afield here, and ought to stick to irr-sinnig and wahn-sinnig, the words of your original question, but there is always the possibility that the average person’s understanding of word meaning is affected by the range of associated words. Irr may originally have meant insanity, but it also now means “error”, as in irrige Ansicht (misconception) and Irrfahrt (wild-goose chase) and Irrgarten (error-garden, i.e., maze, or labyrinth), and Irrlehre (false doctrine/heresy). Whether that’s “two different words” doesn’t really matter; it’s the association in people’s minds that matters.

So that’s it. It’s entirely possible I am missing something terribly obvious and important here. By all means, if you learn that’s the case, please let me know so I don’t continue in ignorance. But, to answer your question, I would modify what I said originally (“There’s no difference.”) and say “There’s no difference that makes a big difference” except that wahnsinnig is probably used with greater frequency.

Thanks for the ride around the block.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Arizona and the Two Catholic Churches

Don’t know if you’ve been following what’s going on in Arizona these days. I have, in part because my dear friends Ed and Ann live there, and I can hear their teeth grinding here in California.

Such a gorgeous place, Arizona. The Grand Canyon alone makes it pretty much heaven on earth, in my book. And if you want to build up gradually to heaven, there’s Bryce and Zion to marvel at just across the border in Utah. The desert. The cactus. The red sand. So much beauty came along with God’s grace shed on Arizona.

And in the clutches of such wrongheaded people. Consider just a few of the biggies:

There’s Republican Governor Jan Brewer, for example. And Senator Russell Pearce and Sheriff Joe Arpaio and their new push for police power to question and detain anybody looking suspiciously like a Mexican. Won’t go into this here. You can google them, or “Papers Please” or any number of sources, to get started on the story.

Then there’s this footnote to the good news that Obama has stepped in at long last to overturn Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. Nancy Pelosi says the numbers are there in Congress. 78% of Americans concur. And what does Arizona’s Senator John McCain have to say about this? Remember him? Ran for president with Sarah Palin? Easily mistaken for a dinosaur? Well, he’s planning to filibuster the amendment. Even his wife doesn’t agree with him on this. But beating up on gays is a tried and true Republican vote-getter, and McCain is desperate enough to shed whatever shred of integrity is left to his sad career.

But top of the list of candidates the good citizens of Arizona might want to wish away has got to be the Most Reverend Thomas J. Olmstead of The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.

What’s he done? Check out Nicholas Kristof’s article in this morning’s edition of The New York Times. Read as many of the comments as you can. They add to the story.

The story is getting real old by now, and even bringing it up makes me worry I’m over the line again into beating dead horses.

But this strikes me as a new low for the wretched carcass of the patriarchal Roman Catholic Church and the strongest evidence yet that there are two now increasingly distinct catholic churches. One lays claim to authority. It centers on the pope and the curia and the princes in their splendor and their bureaucratic loyalty to the principle of male dominance. The other, that wonderful motley collection of teachers and nurses and village priests catering to the needs of the world’s poor and needy. You know, the Christ-like kind.

Well if you want to see a poster boy for the authoritarian segment of Mother Church, (aka the “ultramontaine” faction or the pre-Vatican-II Church - it was at Vatican I in 1860 when Pius IX declared against great opposition that henceforth popes would be infallible) – take a look at Tommy Olmstead. Don't want to embarrass him by showing his face. Here, on the right, is his coat of arms.

Back when the church began to fight the charges of child abuse, Tommy realized he could help by incorporating local parishes individually. Can’t say this guy isn’t crafty.

He banned then Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano from speaking on any church property because she wasn’t anti-abortion. He scolded Notre Dame publicly for inviting President Obama to give the commencement address, for the same reason – that and for his support of stem-cell research.

If you’ve checked out Sheriff Joe Arpaio, you’ve discovered he reinstituted chain gangs, advocated raids on Hispanics to separate illegal alien mothers from their children, kept cameras out, told deputies not to give their names and to wear ski masks. What did Tommy have to say about this? OK by him.
All of this is a digression from the Kristof article in the Times, however, about a nun named Sister Margaret McBride. She has just been bounced out. Excommunicated.

Why? Because she took a stand, as probably most Catholics today would, and argued that if a woman’s life is in danger, and an abortion could save her, an abortion is called for. Catholics even ground their argument not only in current humanistic values but on St. Augustine’s argument that a child does not receive a soul until it is “viable.” The case in question concerns a woman in the eleventh week. Still in the first trimester, that is.

No matter, says Tommy Olmstead. If God wants her to die, she will die. Modern medical practice be damned. Rules are rules.

And sister, you knew the rules when you joined the church. Don’t like them? Get the hell out.

Here’s a picture of this lady.

Sister Margaret, what can I say? So glad you there are people like you out there, doing what you do. Thank you for caring. Thank you for your beautiful smile. Thank you for being there when people need you.

Don’t know if you’re interested, but the address and phone number for the Episcopal Diocese in Phoenix is

114 West Roosevelt Street
Phoenix, AZ 85003
(602) 254-0976

I can’t speak for them, but if I were in their shoes, I’d welcome you with open arms.

As for you, Tommy Olmstead…

If I were you, I’d worry about the possibility the church will get its shit together and figure out who the real followers of Jesus are. If they do, I suspect you’ll be out of a job.

I sure hope so. All those schools and hospitals…

And you, Arizona, do you remember when you were part of a country that led the world in pursuit of universal human rights?

In your case, you don’t need to fight centuries of corruption to get back there.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Surveying the Troops

Good news. Ever since Inauguration Day, the Obama Administration has had to listen to complaints that he is not acting fast enough to bring full civil rights to gay American men and women. Well, now he has stepped in and endorsed a proposal to hurry up the process of getting Congress to overturn Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. He actually took some initiative on the issue.

Of course, the fat lady singing moment won’t come until the troops have all been surveyed and given their OK. As CNN reported this morning:

A senior U.S. military official with direct knowledge of the review process said that the Joint Chiefs of Staff remain committed to taking the time to get views from troops. That process has already begun, the official said, noting that a survey will go out shortly to about 70,000 troops and families to solicit their views. In addition, town hall meetings already have been held around the country, and more are expected, while a website provides a place for troops to write in their views.
As always with surveys, the entire thing depends on what questions are asked and how they are worded.

Many people are popping the corks. I am still taking a wait-and-see approach.

Here’s one possible set of survey questions, for example:

1. Do you believe it’s OK for fags to wear the uniform which thousands and thousands of heterosexuals have died for?

2. Do you feel safe sleeping with a fag right next to you?

3. Do you believe it’s reasonable to expect you, if you drop the soap in the shower, not to bend over to pick it up?

4. Do you believe it’s fair to ask you to go out drinking with guys who wear dresses in their free time?

5. Do you believe adding lace curtains to the barracks will enhance troop morale?

6. Do you believe children will be safe if gays are allowed to wear the Purple Heart?

7. Do you think the USO should show movies like Milk, Torch Song Trilogy, and Brokeback Mountain?

8. Do you think it is appropriate for God Bless America to be sung in falsetto?

9. Do you believe thousands of years of Western Civilization should be overturned overnight?

10. Do you believe God wants you to betray the ideals that made your country the best country in the world?

We’ll see how it goes.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lesbians Stand Back, Atheists Step This Way

According to the Boston Globe,
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, commenting for the first time on a Hingham Catholic school’s decision to revoke admission of the 8-year-old son of a lesbian couple, said yesterday that “the good of the child’’ must be the church’s primary concern and recalled that he once invited the daughter of a brothel manager to attend a Catholic school.
A cardinal boasts he once found a place for a child of a prostitute in a Catholic Church.

Be still, my heart. And ears, will you survive the roar of acclamation for this spectacularly selfless act on the part of Mother Church?!

And why is Cardinal O’Malley committing the sin of pride and letting us in on this bit of his personal history? To demonstrate that, when the negative of rejecting the child of lesbians is cancelled out by admitting the child of a prostitute, the church is even? Maybe even ahead in the morality department?

I know being insensitive to anything but the reputation of the church gives you the kind of head the mitre was designed for. But do they now require prefrontal lobotomies? Does this O’Malley really think the world believes he’s acting in the best interests of the child here? And does doing the obviously right thing in one instance allow you to do a wrong thing elsewhere? What is this, like selling indulgences?

And could somebody pull this guy aside and whisper in his ear that perhaps it might not hurt to hold off on declarations about “best interests of a child,” until the dust has settled. (And a few more of the abuse cases.)

On another front in this battle, one might also want to try to persuade the lesbian parents of this child that they should consider a school where children actually do come first. Or not. I understand that lots of Protestants, Jews and non-believers (there are overlapping categories here) send their kids to catholic schools these days because with our public schools being roundly neglected they are often the best schools in the area. I rather imagine if I were faced with that decision, I’d take a good catholic school education for my child over a bad public one if I could afford it. Countless thousands have met the challenge of surviving the mind melt and come out with better math and science and literacy skills than they would have in schools with lower academic standards.

I don’t know how many non-catholics this school takes in. Or even if this child is a non-catholic! My understanding is that doesn’t matter to the school.

All wise-assing aside, I can imagine what O’Malley must be thinking – when you take in the child of a prostitute, you can at least get the prostitute to admit sin. When you take in the child of loving lesbians, your guilting vibes bounce off.

So it’s not hypocrisy as you first thought, right? It’s because the child is living in a home which refuses to recognize the error of its ways.

Kind of like the homes of Protestants and Jews and atheists, come to think of it.

Damn. Just when I thought I had figured it all out.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Consistent? You betcha!

Fine man, Mark Souder. Congressman. Republican. Christian. Friend of Charles Colson.

OK, by now you can smell a rat, so I’ll stop being coy.

Mark Souder takes money from the taxpayers of Indiana to make the world a better place. (I just can’t help myself. Sorry.) He goes after the Smithsonian because it fired Dr. Richard v. Sternberg for giving the OK to intelligent design. And his website gives a link to intelligent design.

OK, so because of the way things go in polarized America these days, if you are a supporter of intelligent design, you’re far more likely than not to be for all the other right wing crap. We’ve already got him down as Republican and Christian. Let's just go down the list to make sure we're not too hasty in thinking we've got his number.

Pro-life, right?

In the words of American’s favorite Alaskan hottie, “You betcha.”

Abstinence education? You betcha again.

Social security? “Americans deserve the freedom to invest their Social Security taxes how they wish… It’s their money, after all.”

The list goes on and on. Hard to find a better example of consistency than ol’ Mark Souder.

And family? What do you suppose (sorry – there I go again with the sarcasm) he thinks about family issues?

One last quote and I’m done.
I believe that Congress must fight to uphold the traditional values that undergird the strength of our nation. The family plays a fundamental role in our society. Studies consistently demonstrate that it is best for a child to have a mother and father, and I am committed to preserving traditional marriage, the union of one man and one woman.
Let’s see. Anti-abortion, anti-evolution theory, anti- “Obamacare…social security…gun control, pro prayer-in-school, Republican, Christian, one-man/one-woman marriage, “just say no to the Obama agenda,” voted against equal employment protections, hate crimes laws, increases in HIV/AIDS funding, and same-sex couple recognition…

Have I got it all?

Anything missing?

Ah, yes.

This item.

He just resigned this morning because he was caught diddling a part-time staffer – working out some details of the abstinence program, no doubt.


Guess that completes the list.

Parabéns, Portugal!

Remember when you first learned that once upon a time the pope drew a line from north to south through Latin America and told the Portuguese they could have all the land east of the line and Spain could have the rest? Wow, what power. Here you go, fellows. No need to fight any more. There’s plenty for all of you.

Times have changed. Last week the pope was in Portugal telling everybody how important it was for them to stand up and fight against the idea of same-sex marriage. Right up there with abortion as two of the most “insidious and dangerous threats to the common good.”

With the words barely out of the pope’s mouth, what does Portugal go and do? Legalize same-sex marriage. Just the way their neighbor, Spain, did, in 2005. Signed yesterday and due to take effect in a few days. Signs that the power of the church ain’t what it used to be. Sort of makes you want to say a novena, doesn’t it.

Slow but sure world-wide recognition of the legitimacy of same-sex relationships actually seems to be speeding up. It’s in the wings in Ireland, Iceland, Nepal, Slovenia, and Luxemburg. Estonia's Social Democratic party has endorsed the idea and the Centre and Reform parties have stated they will tolerate it. The idea has gotten off the ground and is becoming impossible to avoid. To date, it has been considered in some fifty countries, legalized in eight countries, and in parts of three more. It is recognized, though not performed in Israel and Holland’s former colonies. Civil unions and registered partnerships are now recognized in some twenty countries and performed in some jurisdictions of Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela – all traditionally catholic countries, by the way.

Sometimes, civil rights for gay people seem to involve a dance where you go one step forward and two steps back. And Portugal and the United States look like they’re dancing like a couple. Portugal leads, having approved of same-sex marriage, but not of the right of gay couples to adopt children. In California, we have the reverse – the right to adopt, but not the right to marry, a fact which says much about how confused and contentious the issue is.

And so it goes, in fits and starts. But keep your eye on the prize. It’s out there.

Not a major issue to most people, this extension of rights to gay people – and with it a long-overdue recognition of their dignity. Portugal and Spain may follow Greece into financial ruin, the volcanoes of Iceland are bankrupting the airline industry, Iran won’t give up its nuclear development program, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the conflict in the Middle East go on and on and on…

Not a major issue, no. But a ray of sunshine through the clouds is always welcome.

Parabéns, Portugal!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Racism Is As Racism Does

If you’ve ever studied semantics, you know how unstable word meanings can be. Words change their meanings over time, as old speakers of a language die and new speakers construct the world differently. Anybody who translates from one language to another is familiar with how arbitrarily the world is carved up from place to place and how the range of meaning can vary. Asking people to use words precisely is, in the long run, a losing game.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try to impose some order on the world of meaning by asking our contemporaries to “mean what they say” and “say what they mean.” That is, to use words “correctly” even though at some level we have to admit this is an impossible goal.

I sent a link to some friends recently to a South Park skit which satirized the Japanese for their intransigence as whale hunters. One friend wrote back that he didn’t like it because, among other things, it was “racist.”

He would not be alone. I live in the same culture as he does and I have no doubt many, possibly most people of good will, especially those with a progressive life philosophy, would find cause to label this skit racist.

But I do not.

To explain why I think this way, let me start not with the word racist, but with another word, which, like racist, I think is routinely used imprecisely. Such imprecision, I think, takes us off on a tangent to no good purpose. Let me start with the word arrogant.

Arrogance is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions.” Most people focus on the first part, the “attitude of superiority” and ignore the second part, the “presumptuous claims….”

If you blow our own horn and announce to those around you without humility what you know and what you can do, at least some people will not hesitate to slap the label arrogant on you. But arrogance is only arrogance when the claims one makes are false. Just putting it out there that you can do things or that you know things doesn’t make you arrogant, if you’re right. The worst thing you might be accused of is a lack of humility.

From an ethical perspective, the distinction between arrogance and lack of humility is a difference between an objective and a subjective wrong. Arrogance is made negative by the attachment of misinformation. The worst that can be said about a lack of humility is that one is not following social expectations that one should hide one’s light under a bushel. In fact, ironically, false modesty can do more harm than good, as well, when one withholds useful information or assistance.

Racism is defined, again by Merriam-Webster, as a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. Like arrogance, it is a word used without concern for useful distinctions. A racist singles out an “other” on the basis of physical attributes and makes judgments about that individual which make no allowances for variation in the arbitrary category to which the racist has assigned them. That’s part one. Part two is the assumption of superiority on the part of the racist and the alleged inferiority of the “other.”

Without the second part, the attribution of inferiority, the so-called racist is merely being foolish or fearful. Race cannot be defined objectively, because it has been shown that there exist greater differences among members of any given so-called “race” than between racial groups. Race is as subjective as things get. Race is a social construction, and as such contains no more objective truth than any other social construction – the belief that the earth is flat and was created in seven days a few thousand years ago, for example. All alone by itself, such foolishness is harmless. Racism only becomes harmful when one moves to part two and begins taking action that derives logically from the division of people into superior and inferior categories. Discrimination against a racial other in the head is no worse than preference for a skinny lover over a fat one. And discrimination for selfish purposes that does not lead to dominance and destruction of the other is also not racism. A Japanese mother who doesn’t want her daughter to marry a white American who might take her daughter out of the country and raise grandkids whom she can’t speak with is not a racist. She is a woman who understands the cost of things. Lots of things look like racism, but are not because the animus is lacking.

The lack of precision in the use of these two words has muddied our ability to outline two things that plague society on a daily basis. If you want to take a stand against lying, the thing that’s really bad about arrogance, you should not weaken your case by watering it down by blending it with lack of humility. And if you want to take a stand against racism, you should not dilute the serious potential for harm with silliness or timidity or fearfulness.

South Park’s skit on whaling does appear at first glance to be racist. The Japanese are portrayed in the most outrageous stereotypes imaginable. They run around grunting instead of speaking, and confusing their l’s and r’s when they do speak, they act like herd animals, and they show absolutely no variation. “Natives” in matsuri happi-coats and headbands, carrying spears. We’re for all intents and purposes back with the buck-toothed Tojo-glasses-wearing bowing cowards of World War II. If one wanted to be racist, this is definitely what Step 1 would look like.

But the test is in the judgment of intent. Just as there’s a difference between arrogance and lack of humility, there’s a difference between trashing a race or ethnicity and satire. Arrogance and racist ridicule are methods of domination and weapons of destruction. Satire breaks taboos and runs counter to political correctness in order to stimulate thinking and discussion. When done right, as I think it was in this skit, the real object of derision is human folly, not racial, cultural, class or religious criticism outside the larger human context.

Furthermore, the real focus in the South Park skit is not on the comic characters with the spears – Japanese with their racial characteristics – but on the West’s stereotype of Japanese who kill animals for pleasure, simultaneous with the bumbling incompetence of those out to stop the practice of whaling. Also barbed, in case you missed it, are those who join a cause only after it achieves some success and those in it for the money. Larry King is satirized and the ease with Americans can be led away from dedication to a cause if offered a little bit of media fame. Even the solution is satirized – deflecting the kill, as opposed to stopping it outright. And the arbitrariness of the line between killable and unkillable animals which the West and Japan draw differently.

Racism without intent to do harm is not racism. A satirist is by nature impatient with the routine of reasonable debate and the slow give-and-take of diplomatic negotiation. A satirist understands that more can be gained through humor and that cutting to the chase usually works. One of the appeals in this South Park sketch is the reference to racial stereotypes of an earlier age which no longer carry weight. One is far more likely to want to ask, “What on earth are you thinking?” than “Die, you Toyota-driving sushi-eating pig.” Toyota-driving sushi-eaters are us.

It’s true that it’s often hard to find the line between satire and ridicule. And people making jokes about other people probably ought to check more to see whether those people are laughing too. When that Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, carried the cartoon of Mohammad with a bomb in his turban, the issue got out of hand because what started as a joke at the expense of radical extremists got reframed as a Western secularist lack of respect for Eastern religious culture. The Muslim world felt justified in claiming injury because of the unequal power relations between West and East, and satire got recast as ridicule.

The question then is whether this is an analogous situation. Are the Japanese in this skit being satirized? Or ridiculed? An important question, since ridicule would be the negative that would justify the charge of racism.

For ridicule to work, one must have power over another. Bullies ridicule the weak and vulnerable. When the “ridicule” goes the other way, it’s something else. Satire, if it’s clever and artful. Flailing about, if it’s not. “Nigger” has more power then “honkey” because the former word is historically interwoven with slavery and segregation. Honkey is a word used by the historically powerless to ridicule and dismiss. Nigger has been used with far more devastating consequences. Knowledge and understanding of power relations are essential to the definition of ridicule and racism, just as accuracy of claim is to the definition of arrogance.

Japanese have no need any longer to defer to the American way of doing things and they know it. They’re in no need of protection from the barbs of an American satirist. They are today a powerful people with international standing, free to give back as good as they get. They have a culture admired by all the world. Their art, their cuisine, their economy, their film industry, their fashion industry, in fact, all contribute to putting Japan out ahead of most of the rest of the world. Interracial marriage, always a marker of social equality, is now commonplace between Japanese and non-Japanese. They are second to nobody.

When it comes to whaling, they are out of step with most of the rest of the modern world. Nobody’s going to war with them over this difference. Nobody’s advocating indiscriminate action against Japanese individuals. They are out in the world making choices. Just as Americans are generally well-received in Latin America and elsewhere despite near-universal disapproval of American foreign policy, there is no danger that Japanese individuals are at risk as the objects of satire in this South Park anti-whaling message. Just as arrogance requires false claims to complete its meaning, racism requires the power to ridicule, humiliate or worse. If the Japanese ever lose their position of power in the world, we may have to lighten up. Until then, there should be no holds barred.

My grandmother used to refer to our bedrooms, my sister’s and mine, as “Sodom and Gomorrah.” She exaggerated.

I once heard someone refer to the loss of a basketball game as a “holocaust.”

Metaphors enrich language, but they have to be used artfully. Words like holocaust and racism describe evil in the world. They should not be used lightly.

Meanwhile, the debate over whaling rages on.

Friday, May 14, 2010

I guess I'm sorry

So the pope flies to Portugal to visit Fatima and acknowledges that the current problems the church is having come from sins within the church and not from without.

What, we’re supposed to feel grateful? Forgive, forget and move on?

Not so fast.

When an apology comes from someone backed into a corner, it carries very little weight. Look how long this admission has been coming. The latest round of scandal goes back to charges made at the Jesuit High School in Berlin. But that’s practically yesterday’s news.

Where was the apology when Father Gilbert Gauthe pleaded guilty to eleven cases of sexual abuse of altar boys and boy scouts in 1985?

Where was the apology when U.S. bishops admitted in 1992 that some of them tried to hide abuses?

Where was the apology when, the following year, in 1993, James Porter, a priest in Fall River, Massachusetts, pleaded guilty to abusing children in five states?

Where was the apology when five years after that, in 1998, John Geoghan, a priest from Boston, admitted he had been fondling boys for thirty years in half a dozen parishes?

Where was the apology when, in 2004, a study sponsored by bishops of the church found 10,667 complaints against 4,392 priests between 1950 and 2002?

Where was the apology when in 2004, instead of looking back on this history of abuse within the church, the Catholic League announced that Protestant clergy were “slightly more likely” to commit child abuse than Catholic priests – and don’t forget about parents, family members and teachers?

Where was the apology when Paul Shanley, a priest from Boston, was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison for child rape in 2005?

There’s hundreds, possibly thousands or other turns in the road when an apology might have been forthcoming. Where was it?

Earlier this year, virtually a full decade after the scandal exposed by the Boston Globe*, another scandal breaks out, this time in Germany. And another, in Ireland. And another, in Brazil. Ten years ago it became evident that the real problem in the church was not a handful of men suffering from sociopathic sexual urges, but a handful of men like Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who were enabling these men to prey on youth again and again. The whole world figured out by now where problem lay, and still, the first loyalty of these bishops and cardinals was not to children in their charge but to the institution that refers to them as “excellency” and “eminence.” These guys are even referred to as “princes.”

In Brazil, a video of a priest sexually abusing a child appears on television, and the number of abuses in Ireland, it turns out, has topped 15,000 children.

Still no apology.

Instead, we get the pope’s personal pastor, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, speaking at a Good Friday service of an attack on the church by outsiders. It reminds him, he says, of the "more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism."

Two days days later, on Easter Sunday, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals addresses the pope during Easter Sunday Mass, and says "The people of God are with you and will not let themselves be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials that sometimes assail the community of believers." Sodano, by the way, was a protector of Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a man known to have fathered as many as six children, at least two of whom he abused sexually.

A week before, on Palm Sunday, Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, urged “solidarity with ‘our earthly shepherd now suffering some of the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob, and scourging at the pillar, as did Jesus.’"

Finally the pope steps up – not after calling a press conference, not speaking to a crowd assembled at St. Peter’s, but almost casually, in the aisle of his airplane, with a question planted with a reporter – to say, effectively, all these loyal prince of the church friends, bless their hearts no doubt in the right place, are wrong – the problem lies within and we should all do penance.

That’s it. We should all admit we were wrong and get down on our knees.

You know an apology when you see one. This ain’t one. This is bullshit. An apology comes with contrition, with a sign of recognition. It comes unforced, and it comes with some indication of how the wrongdoer is going to put things right. This is a man saying what he has to say, and not a syllable more.

After getting off the plane in Portugal, Ratzinger goes to Fatima and expresses delight that all these lovely Catholic people are still coming to church.

Well yes. They’re sick. They’re hurting. They’re looking for comfort any way they can get it.

What is Ratzinger doing at a place like this? His mouth makes plain that one should not see in the three secrets at Fatima an ability to tell the future. But where does he make this statement? In Fatima. Lending support to the notion there is something ongoing about miracles – the ability to persuade God – or persuade Mary or one of the saints to persuade Jesus to persuade God – to change the laws of nature and make them (but not the guy next to them) whole again. He doesn’t deny that Mary is appearing at Fatima, you’ll note.

And while we’re at it, remember, my children, liberalization of legal abortion in Portugal in 2007 and the imminent approval of a gay marriage law are "insidious and dangerous threats to the common good."

Really? You get to use the word “insidious” with a straight face? You want women to avoid the pill, and to have sex with their husbands on demand without a condom? And bear children that come not only after closing one's eyes and thinking of England, but even in cases of rape and incest? You want people unable to marry to do without sex? Why, because you and your fellow princes tell them to? And you think you’re NOT a “dangerous threat to the common good?”

And, while we’re asking questions, can you tell me why, when lesbians send a kid to one of your schools, you refuse the kid an education because you don’t like their moms?

OK, that’s not your fault. That’s that Cardinal in Denver’s responsibility, Charles Chaput – yes, the very same one investigating the Maciel case. And who’s Chaput defending? That priest, Breslin, who didn’t want to kick the kid out, but said he had to. And why? Because of “his priestly vows of obedience to his bishop.”

Do you kick Protestant kids out? Kids of divorce? No? Only kids whose parents are gay or lesbian?

Dangerous threats? You kick kids out of school not for what they’ve done but for what their parents are but you don’t kick priests out of the priesthood for raping other kids?

Ratzinger, sometimes you and your princes can be such dickheads.

* Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church, by the Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, New York and London, 2002

Monday, May 10, 2010

Looking for Clues

Is Elena Kagan a Lesbian? And if she gets on the Supreme Court will she be a sure thing in helping the cause of civil rights for gay people?

The gay blogosphere is full of people asking that question. And they’re not the only ones. Enquiring minds...

But in the land of four-story high American flags (in churches, for example) where we fight each other over whether my daddy’s a better defender of free speech than yours, we are not allowed to ask those two questions. When Elena Kagan goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee the surface “truth” will be that she is to be grilled on her qualifications. The other “truth”, though, is that they will do everything in their power to knock her down if her political ideology does not pass muster. Another thing we can’t say out loud.

I don’t think one can say this often enough – one of the best reasons for voting for a progressive in the White House is that presidents appoint Supreme Court Justices for life. Because America put Obama into the White House in 2008, there is a real chance that for the first time in history we will have three women on the bench. This is good news not just to women, but to anybody keeping track of the gradual transfer of power in this country from white Christian males to people who represent America’s diverse population groups. If nominated, she would be only the fourth female justice in history and the eighth Jewish justice.

We all give lip service to the position that identity must always take second place to merit qualifications for the job. Right. It’s true, diversity is a legitimate goal only when all other things are equal. When the candidates are among the most qualified people in America, regardless of sexual, racial, or other identity. Anything short of that would lead to a backlash that would put the concept of equal rights in jeopardy. But if you’re a Jew, tell me you’re not delighted to see a second Jewish person on the Court. If you’re a woman, tell me you’re not delighted to see a third woman.

And if you’re gay?

How are you supposed to feel if you’re gay?

We can know she’s Jewish and female. We can know her age. We know so much else, like whether she fits the unstated expectation that justices attend either Harvard or Yale (she does). But we are not allowed to know whether she’s a Lesbian.

Why not? Because we are not free to be openly gay and lesbian yet in this country. For her to acknowledge being gay, if indeed she is, would be to sabotage her appointment. Closetedness is fast becoming a thing of the past, but not at the top levels yet. Nobody can trash you openly for being Jewish, female or black anymore, but gay? Hang on. We’re getting there. Just not today.

Elena Kagan is a Barack Obama kind of person, known for having a consensus-building style. Some of her positions are arguably right wing-looking. She is in favor of increased power to the Executive Branch, although there are suggestions people calling her conservative here haven't fully understood her argument. More clearly conservative is her support for “battlefield law” – the argument for detaining terrorist subjects indefinitely without trial - which showed up in her confirmation hearing for her current job as Solicitor General.

Mostly, however, she appears to favor progressive causes. While dean of the Chicago Law School, she led efforts to rescind the Solomon Amendment, which forced colleges to allow military recruiters on campus. Because the military has this discriminatory Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy, she argued, they should instead be barred. Actually, she went further than that. She called the Solomon Amendment “…a moral injustice of the first order.” In writing, no less. That puts her solidly on the left, and makes her a hero to gay people.

In a perfect world, the question of whether she is a lesbian or not would be at the level of gossip, and no decent person would touch it. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in the United States of America, a democracy still in the making, where homosexuality has replaced communism as the issue nearest and dearest to the hearts of conservative America, now firmly in the hands of religious fear-mongers. The Berlin Wall fell and both the Soviet Union and China embraced capitalism. Communism no longer worked to get Americans to support authoritarian rule. One day it’s better to kill Viet Cong in their own country “so we don’t have to kill them in our back yard.” Next day it’s, “Oh, look, Martha. It’s the homosexuals coming to destroy Western Civilization.”

With any luck, most mainstream Americans will follow the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy still in force with the military. They will consider poking around in her private life a no-no. Not something nice people talk do. Ironically, given Elena Kagan’s outspoken opposition to Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, this should make her life a lot easier, since she has made it known she has no interest in discussing her sexuality or her personal relationships. Like with Condoleezza Rice (whom the right left alone, of course) we are left to wonder what exactly the difference is, actually, between a lesbian and an unmarried female workaholic.

Also jumping on the is-she-or-isn’t-she bandwagon is Gordon James Klingenschmitt, the chaplain drummed out of the Navy because he didn’t like the military’s insistence that public prayers should not exclude non-evangelical Christians. He has issued a “Conservative Action Alert” on Kagan.

The American Family Association, one of the religious right’s major mouthpieces, has declared: “The stakes are too high. Social conservatives must rise up as one and say no lesbian is qualified to sit on the Supreme Court.” Another mouthpiece, the Americans for Truth, is actively pushing for her to be interrogated on whether she is a lesbian, since “(i)f Kagan is practicing immoral sexual behavior, it reflects on her character as a judicial nominee…”

Now this means there are three horses in this race: the “classic liberal” one, ridden by both progressives and conservatives who insist Ms. Kagan’s sexuality is nobody’s business but her own; the gay liberationist one, by people who agree with the liberals in the classical sense but are secretly hoping she’s “one of us” so we can feel optimistic about getting this country to climb up out of this hole where the “lie about who you are or we’ll fry your ass” policy has pretentions of decency under the name of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. And the horses climbed up on by fine American gentlemen like Gordy (Action Alert) Klingenschmitt and this George (how was I supposed to know the guy I picked up on was a hooker) Rekers, co-founder of the American Family Association, who see the homo-sek-shu-wells as Satan’s Storm Troopers. Even when they are ladies in professor drag at Chicago Law School and working as a dean at Harvard.

Pack a picnic basket, come early and get a good seat, it’s going to be one hell of a circus.

But don’t assume what you hear the Senate inquisitors say will be what they mean. Proponents of the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell deception can hardly demand Ms. Kagan tell all, now can they? Consistency is not a game too many politicians play, but if they don’t play it here, they’re going to look like witchhunters. Going on about the link between homosexuality and immorality will get votes, no doubt, but it’s also a great way to make an ass of yourself in front of television cameras.

Those fellows aching to get their Confederate money out of storage may be dying to ask “You’re a middle-aged chubby woman who has never married. I guess that means you’re a Lesbo?” But they can’t. Can they?

Such a delicious irony that the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy applied to the military, which Ms. Kagan has spoken out against so articulately, may now be working in her favor. Indirectness is the order of the day. Don’t nobody say nothing that gives him away. Hide. Dissemble. Scatter dust in their eyes. “Tell the truth,” said Emily Dickinson, “but tell it slant.”

We’ll be listening closely to the testimony and looking for clues.

I’d like to think Obama is finally getting around to doing gays the favor he promised so long ago. Wonder if that’s what he has in mind, the old fox. Sphinx. All that hotshot rhetoric, but you never know what he’s really thinking.

Clues. Keep your eyes out for clues.

Wonder what color his tie was when he made the announcement about putting this maybe Lesbian on the court…

Friday, May 7, 2010

Dadeus Grings

Behold Dadeus Grings.

What is it about these guys with the pointy hats? Does the mitre work like a lightning rod in reverse and draw all the intelligence right out of the brain?

This guy has concluded that society is pedophilic.

There. Now we can stop molesting the church. It's not the church. Not even individual clerics with their sexuality tied in a knot. It's society.

And boys are naturally homosexual because, after all, they prefer to play with other boys instead of girls unless they are properly taught.

This isn't some bumpkin who went straight from raising goats into the seminary, mind you. This is the friggin chancellor of the Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, in Brazil.

And what should we do about all those priests that have been abusing children?

Leave the police out of it, he says. Let the internal punishment be sufficient.

Has this guy ever read a newspaper? Turned on his TV set?

This guy is a bishop?

Man Ratzi, I knew you had some housecleaning to do, but you need more than Mr. Clean, fellah.

Gay rights? Ask old Dadeo whether gays should have rights and he slips right into that Slippery Slope song - you know, give them their rights and the next thing is we'll be giving rights to pedophiles.

This guy is positively wicked.

One good thing about him, from the church's point of view. He's a good Catholic. Always looking out for catholic interests.

Like when he pointed out that far more Catholics suffered in the Holocaust than Jews.

And why don't we all know that?

Ask him. He'll tell you.

"Because the Jews own the world's media."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Dresden Frauenkirche

I grew up Protestant in a town that was 80% Catholic. Religious affiliation was the primary identity. From a Protestant perspective, I suffered from multiple personality disorder - Baptist, Congregational, Lutheran, Episcopal in turn. I prefer to say simply that I was “searching.” Others would say (they'd be wrong) I was simply climbing the social ladder.

I also went to mass every morning in lent with my Catholic friends before school, was fascinated by the Latin, and actually had the mass memorized at one time. I felt the switch to the vernacular as a personal attack, even though I had left organized religion behind by that time. Not so much a religious thing as an aesthetic one. Like replacing Meissen China with Melmac.

Religious differences were often discussed. We spoke of Baptists as people who wouldn’t have sex because somebody might see them and think they were dancing. Of Methodists as working class, Episcopalians as ruling class, Presbyterians as people who were Episcopalians from the waist up and Baptists from the waist down.

One of the things all the protestant denominations agreed on was that the papists were wrong wrong wrong about their worship of Mary. Catholics insisted they didn't "worship" Mary, they merely venerated her. But that explanation just didn’t fly. The Italian women I worked with in the factories of my home town would wear garlic around their neck and crawl under tables whenever we had one of those fierce New England summer storms, clutch their rosaries and whimper for Mary to save them.

"Our Lady" was a quintessentially catholic thingie. No Protestant worth his salt would have any part of it. Our Lady of Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima, the Black Madonna of Poland, Catholic examples of the corruption of Christianity all. There’s even a word for it: mariolatry, parallel with idolatry.

I kind of like the idea that you can get to a boy through his mother, but even as a kid, one of the reasons I couldn’t follow my friends into the Catholic Church despite wanting to wear gorgeous dresses and sniff the incense was a sermon I heard once by a priest who was telling kids how smart it was to get Mary to talk to Jesus for you. Curious, that. Is that because women are easier pushovers than men? What strange birds, these Mary worshippers.

If you grew up in a more cosmopolitan world, perhaps with Zoroastrians and Wiccans and worshipers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you may have more sophisticated ways to circle the wagons and create a “them” to disparage. But in our small cultural New England island all we had was Catholics and Protestants to work with. So we made the most of the distinction. And if all this is alien to you and you think I’m making it up, check out this book by a guy named G. P. Dwyer called Protestants and Our Lady. Evidence of Protestant aversion to the veneration of Mary is not hard to find. There’s the question, “Does concentrating on the Virgin Mary distract us from God and from Jesus?” on a defensive catholic site, for example, and the answer begins “This is a common complaint of Protestants, but…

And for those of you who like religious soap opera, there is this literary gem which illustrates how the veneration of Mary can convert Protestants.

I was in Dresden soon after the East opened up, sitting in a Starbuck’s – or maybe a McDonald’s, and looking out at a pile of rubble, directly across the street. I saw a sign saying that they were collecting money to rebuild the cathedral, something unthinkable in the days of the DDR. The rebuilding has an interesting history. Among its sponsors are the people of Coventry, in Britain, and the son of one of the British bombers responsible for the destruction of Dresden on February 13, 1945 made the gilded cross that went on top of the dome of the new cathedral. All this against tremendous opposition. Many argue the money would be better spent, in this now largely secular country, on other things.

The February 1 edition of The New Yorker has an article on Dresden by George Packer, who refers to Dresden as “the Blanche DuBois of German cities – violated, complicit in its violation, desperate to recover its innocence.” The Germans made a TV serial in 2005 called Dresden where the final scene in Part I takes place in the cathedral in Dresden. It’s a big deal, this rebuilding.

But, to get back to the Protestant/Catholic divide I grew up with, what do I find when reading about the reconstruction of the cathedral in Dresden? It's called the Frauenkirche - Church of Our Lady. A Lutheran church! How is that possible? And while I was looking for an answer, what should pop up but the fact that the also very Lutheran cathedral in Copenhagen is also called Vor Frue Kirke – the Church of Our Lady. And I learn that it's a "sister church" to the one in Dresden.

The explanation for the name “Our Lady” is simple. The church was built and named before the Reformation. The question is why the name wasn’t changed in the Reformation. All the information I can find on the subject was some comment in passing that “the name was retained.” No discussion of the theological implications.

This will mean nothing to modern people who couldn’t give a rodent’s posterior about the whole subject. As my friend Jerry once said, “Oh, look. The Catholics and the Protestants are getting back together now that it no longer matters.”

For me, it turns out, it's sort of like finding out Jesus was an African-American or Santa Claus was gay. Not a problem. But definitely a surprise.

I say again, not the most consequential issue in the world. Not even close. But a nice little illustration that new things pop up all the time and the learning goes on, even in these advanced years.

If you’re still reading, click here for the German site Frauenkirche in Dresden and get a little Bach in your life. Plus a view of what was lost by the bombing of Dresden – and has now been regained.

And for a touristy view of the peculiar Dresden architectural style, click here.