Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Recuse your own damn self

The minute the San Francisco Chronicle published the fact that Judge Vaughn Walker was gay, the question of whether or not he should recuse himself from Perry v Schwarzenegger was brought front and center. Never mind that it’s the folks who didn’t like the judge’s ruling who are now going for the judge’s throat. And that folks like me, who have strong personal reasons for supporting the judge’s decision, will jump to his defense. It’s always good to stand back and have a look at who is judging us. Always good to ask whether the job is being done fairly. And always good to question the motives of everybody involved in the discussion. Talk is good if people don’t stop thinking and listening as they engage in it. The challenge here is, as always, to separate the good talk from the nonsense.

I’ll be honest with you. When I heard the judge was gay, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least he won’t buy into the “mentally disordered” thesis, and quite possibly he will let his own life experience influence his decision. I bought into the view that it’s good to have women on the Supreme Court because women might just have different biases from the ones men have, biases which might be enough, in a pinch, to push a case favoring the interests of women.

That was my first, my gut, reaction.

It was followed almost immediately by a sense of panic. “Oh no,” I thought. He’s a Republican. Appointed by Reagan and rejected by democrats and liberals until he finally made federal judge under Bush Senior. The man screams “self-loathing homosexual.” He’s going to decide against gay rights and the world is going to get to say, “See, even the gays themselves know they have no right to ‘special favors.’”

I carried that sense of dread for some time. And I remember the exact moment when it lifted. I was following the trial carefully and when the pro-Prop. 8 side brought in the argument that marriage was for procreation and I heard Walker say he had just married and 80-year-old to a 90-year-old and he doubted they had procreation on their minds, I jumped out of my chair. This guy is not only reasonable; he has a sense of humor. We may just be OK.

Turns out we were. His decision came down with all the nuts and bolts firmly tightened, all the t’s crossed, all the i’s dotted. It was a brilliant summation and the complete absence of evidence to the contrary suggests it’s going to be hard, if not impossible, to overturn without a strong argument that anti-gay animus has a legitimate state interest. Not to say Scalia and the boys might not go that way. At least they’ll have their work cut out for them, thanks to Vaughn Walker.

It also turns out that the anti-gay rights people were mirroring my thinking process in reverse, from Oh good he’s a Republican to Oh damn he’s gay.

Think about how often you hear people say we have to elect more Republicans, more Democrats, more women and minorities, more whatever. We all think like that. We all buy into the view that our identity will seep into our politics. If you are Jewish, who would you rather see representing the State Department, a Jewish American or an Arab American? If you are a foe of any and all abortions, who would you want to represent you on the Supreme Court, a judge who follows what he calls “traditional” Catholic teaching or a judge who tells you church and state must be kept separate? We all lean in the direction of getting our way by any means necessary. When judges go our way, we accept the decision as good fortune. When they don’t, we worry aloud about the objectiveness of the judiciary.

When a friend wrote recently raising the issue of Walker’s objectivity, I responded:

And Justice Thomas should recuse himself every time a racial issue reached the Supreme Court so only the white people could decide, since we know white people are the only objective people.

And Judge Ginsberg should recuse herself every time a Jewish issue reached the Supreme Court so only the Christians could decide, since we know Christians are more balanced than Jews.

And when a black man is killed by a white man, there should be only whites on the jury. Same reasoning as above.

And when a woman kills her husband who has been abusing her, there should be no women on the jury, because we all know women are emotional and cannot put reason and a sense of fairness ahead of their emotions.

Shall I go on?

The friend took my sarcasm in stride, bless her heart, and I felt the issue was now a settled no-brainer. We could move on to other things.

But then, in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle, there’s this claim by law professor John C. Eastman, who takes the charge against Judge Walker to a higher level. Eastman argues it’s not only that he’s gay, but that he may well be in a gay partnership and might benefit personally from having his right to marry back. That, Eastman says, is precisely the kind of vested interest that argues for recusal.

Setting aside the curious facts that Eastman is working not with facts but with innuendo, and with the fact that the recusal demands are being made after the decision, not when the allegation of Walker’s sexuality first came out, a cynic might wonder whether Eastman would have written this article if the judge had been an adherent of a religious body, or if, like Eastman, he taught at a Christian college? Would it have been OK if the judge had been a gay man who spent his time cruising the bars night after night for new flesh to rub up against? A guy with no interest in ever getting married? A bisexual happily married to a woman who has sex with men on the side?

Would it have been OK if the judge had never met a gay person in his life who wasn’t closeted and reached the conclusion that gay people were too fragile from years of oppression to be allowed to marry just yet?

In short, should we have tests to see what judges’ views are on anything and everything to do with the cases before we let them get involved?

Or should we proceed as we always have, trusting that informed people out in the world, as we certainly want our judges to be, tend to have opinions on most things of importance. And they also have a commitment to enforcing the law which is subject to close scrutiny, and if found wanting, they can be impeached. Their degree of objectivity is on record, and if it turns out to be a good record, then we trust that they are more likely than not to be applying their standards in the case at hand. The first thing Eastman should have done before suggesting bias on Walker’s part is examine the three decades of Walker decisions. Curious that no mention of his record was mentioned.

I’m not faulting Eastman for raising the question, even if it comes late and isn’t without bias itself. I’m suggesting that Walker worked on the same honor system all judges are expected to work on. He would have recused himself if he had doubts about his own ability to be objective. The proof is in the decision, not a word of which includes the kind of baseless assertions which characterised the defence’s case.

Furthermore, Judge Walker’s decision was not made in a vacuum. The claim of the uninformed that he “single-handedly overturned the will of 7 million California voters,” ignores the fact that it’s precisely the job of a federal district court judge to overturn the will of voters if he determines logically and carefully and openly and with documented evidence that the voters have not acted within the framework of the Constitution. Not only should he not be faulted for doing his job; he should be commended for doing such a good one. Which is what the American Bar Association just did. And as the democratic politicians running for office in the next election in California just did. And as the republican governor of the state just did.

It’s hard enough to fight off the waves of ipse dixit claims, claims from those folks who make a “because I said so” assertion and expect it to stand while a counterclaim based on facts and evidence should be swept away. Now these same folks are sending in the troops for the ad hominem attacks.

America’s Culture War is a war on multiple fronts. The right of same-sex couples to marry has multiple dimensions. One set of questions is philosophical. How do we prioritize religious traditions in a secular state? How do we know which of our traditions are worth maintaining and which have lost their foundation through new knowledge and the reframing of values? Another dimension is moral. How do we treat minorities? How do we prevent the tyranny of the majority? Still another is political. How do we grant power to judges? How do we interpret the Constitution and retain a balance of power in our three branches of government?

The issue at hand is the legal dimension. How do we assess and enforce neutrality? How do we assure that the law functions as it should when a significant portion of the public seems to have forgotten what they once learned in civics classes? Or never learned because we no longer teach civics in schools? How do we know when the law is working? Which leads us back to the philosophical questions. How do we conceive neutrality? How do we know which of our religious leaders (if any) to listen to for advice on the meaning of life? And which legal professors to listen to when the law is open to interpretation and cases are not about justice necessarily but about the rules of process?

I admitted at the beginning that I have no more objectivity here than those attacking Judge Walker ad hominem. I don’t have the kind of certainty those of fundamentalist religious faith claim to have.

What I do have is a conviction that people who engage in discourse with an open mind, and a lack of fear over where they might end up, reach better conclusions than those who start and end with ideology. I, for one, will not fling things at Professor Eastman for asking questions. As long as he doesn’t mind my asking things like why he appears so often on Fox News and less often elsewhere. Or why he clerked for Justice Thomas. Or why he focused on Walker the man rather than the legal decision itself. Or whether the fact that it is a Christian college that pays his salary affects his opinions?

In the meantime, let’s hear it for ongoing open-ended discussion. And for our secular American legal system and its conservative judges who on occasion make liberals happy when they think that's what the law requires of them.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Antarctica - A Film Review

Tel Aviv is the unchallenged gay capital of the Middle East, a gay presence right up there with San Francisco and Sydney. It hosted a sex festival in 2008, sent nine athletes to the 2009 World Outgames in Copenhagen, hosts an annual LGBT Film Festival, and was able to draw 100,000 to its 2010 Gay Pride Parade. So I should not have been surprised by Antarctica, Israel’s latest film depicting its gay subculture. But I was.

I’ve never written a review of a porno film before. I’m not doing that this time, either, but I’m getting pretty close. Antarctica is all about sex and it is very graphic, right down to the weenies. OK, they are flaccid weenies, but weenies nonetheless. Guys masturbating in their shorts and sex that might actually be not simulated. If this is how you define pornography, this is probably it. If, on the other hand, you feel that the porno quotient goes down as the story line goes up, well, this is just a sexy story. In any case, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I don’t know when I’ve had quite the reaction to a film I had to Antarctica. The first time I watched it, I found it boring. Silly. Occasionally offensive, full of superficial characters you don’t particularly want to know, doing self-destructive things. It’s Yair Hochner’s second film, and I wasn’t crazy about Yeladim Tovim (Good Boys), his first one, either. He’s still getting his feet wet, and in my view is not ready for prime time. There were moments when I wanted to fast forward, and when it was done, I went to bed thinking I’d give it the Netflix rating of two stars. The “Didn’t like it” rating.

By the following morning, I realized I had not been able to get it out of my mind. Probably it was the Omer character, I said to myself. Really liked looking at Tomer Ilan, who played the role.

One character is not enough to carry an entire film, however, especially an ensemble piece, and I realized it was the look you get into the gay subculture of Tel Aviv that most fascinated me. And more than that, the very fact that a film like Antarctica could be made at all. Americans sort of expect gay-themed films to be still to some degree about the problems associated with being gay. In this one, the latest in an ever growing number of gay-themed Israeli films, the characters deal not with the challenges of coming out but with what to do with the freedom of being out. That, in the end, is the film’s main appeal. The fact you find yourself asking questions like whether there is a connection between life lived on the edge and this degree of sexual abandon.

One of my all time favorite gay movies is Big Eden. Big Eden shares three features with Antarctica: it is an ensemble movie, where the team works together to create a self-contained community that is greater than its individual members, and that world is pure gay fantasy. A romance (spoiler alert) where everybody lives happily ever after. In Big Eden, it is the home town that every gay man who ever ran to the city recreates in his wildest flights of fancy. In Antarctica, it is a world made up of gay men and women and the straight family members who are behind them 100%, with absolutely no concern for other people.

Antarctica differs from Big Eden in quality. The latter is tightly scripted and flows. Antarctica is disjointed as hell, has way too many characters to keep track of, too many subplots, and goes off the tracks into badly acted camp, cynicism and absurdity. Besides Miki, who falls in love with Ronen who prefers Omer, who likes Danny, who is still in love with Boaz, who loves only the chase, there is Michal who loves Shirley, Omer’s sister, two singers, who make you wonder what they're doing there other than to give the film a theme song until you realize they must have meaning to Israeli audiences that eludes non-Israelis. Plus Eitan, friend of Shirley’s, whose function is to show us how fast track gays can have sex with each other and not remember they have met before. And Tzachi, who is part gorilla and pure ego and comic relief. And if this too rich a diet of characters were not enough, there is still the two/three totally wacko characters at the center of the plot: Matilda, a woman who leads the subculture of folk who believe they have been abducted by aliens, and Shoshanna/Amran. Shoshanna is a drag queen stereotype of a Jewish mother (she is Omer and Shirley’s mother) who lives to feed her children and drive them insane with endless appeals for grandchildren. Amran is her lover, whom her son mistakes for a troll (gay stalker). Both roles are played by Noam Huberman, aka “Miss Leila Carry,” a character I understand is known to everybody in the Tel Aviv gay subculture.

Omer is turning thirty, and to the pretty boy set, that’s the gateway to sexual irrelevance, so naturally Omer is looking for love. But so is everybody. Except Boaz, who starts the story off by tricking with them all one at a time, and then throwing them out.

I decided to watch it again, if only to get a handle on who’s who, and to figure out what, besides the eroticism was making it grow on me. What could be compensating for Shoshanna’s hamfisted acting? For the desperate need for editing?

A second go led me to conclude that underneath the rough edges writer/director Yair Hochner’s stretch was working. The acting is quite good and that has to do with the fact that the cast includes professionals like Guy Zo-Artez (Ronen), who appeared in Munich, and Rivka Neuman (Matilda), who has at least fifteen movie and TV credits to her name, as well as both Tomer Ilan (Omer) and Yuval Raz (Miki), both of whom appeared in Hochner’s earlier Yeladim Tovim (Good Boys). But even the first-timers, Yiftach Mizrahi (Danny) and Ofer Regirer (Boaz) are quite good as well. And even the one misfire, “Miss Laila,” who plays the mother, Shoshanna, should probably be given some leeway for channeling Divine, the “filthiest person alive” lead character in John Waters’ 1972 raunchy (OK, disgusting) classic, Pink Flamingos.

The plot is well crafted. It opens with a kind of “rondo,” the plot device used by Schnitzler in 1900, where the characters are all introduced two by two and present a cross-section of society. It is centered on getting everybody together for Omer’s thirtieth birthday party, where the wheels are put back on the cart and everybody who’s going to, gets matched up. And it ends in a blaze of light. I won’t tell you what that’s about – I’ve given away too much of the plot already.

If you plan to see it, allow enough time to see it twice, as I did, to get the characters straight. And expand the horizons of your friends who spend their time arguing over whether it’s San Francisco, Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Sydney which deserves the title of the world’s most gay friendly city.

Print out the cast of characters and a guide to the opening rondo, soak up the eye candy and the eroticism. And be thankful you’re not in your twenties again and don’t have to live with all this angst.

(If you are in your twenties and do have this much angst, well… You can at least enjoy the suggestion that happy endings are sometimes in store.)

And whatever your age, get in line behind all the gay men who have seen this film and run right out to buy tickets to Israel, where apparently nothing, if this movie is to be believed, gets in the way of sex.

Cast of characters:

1. Boaz – ballet teacher; center of opening rondo; the Peter Pan who never quite makes the transition from yearning for new flesh to somebody who can give enough of himself to attract a partner in life; a minor character in the end
2. Ronen – journalist, just back in Israel from London; interviews Matilda, the alien abductee; shares an apartment with Danny
3. Miki – works in a clothing store, yearns for a man who will control him
4. Danny – ballet dancer, looking for a relationship with Boaz, the man in his life least likely to establish one with him; shares an apartment with Ronen
5. Eitan – runs an appliance store, hangs out at Pola’s, Tel Aviv’s hotspot run by Mihal; also a minor character
6. Omer – son of Shoshanna, brother of Shirley, librarian, friend to Miki
7. Shirley – sister of Omer and daughter of Shoshanna, whom she is no longer speaking to, struggling to repair a relationship with Mihal, uses the question, “Would you follow me to Antarctica?” as a means of testing the strength of a relationship
8. Mihal – owner of Pola’s, in love with Shirley
9. Yaeli – singer #1, whose real name is actually Yael Deckelbaum, popular singer in Israel
10. Shirly Solomon (not to be confused with Shirley, Omer’s sister), singer and songwriter who provides the musical score for the film
11. Tzachi – a Russian gorilla who measures refrigerators for use in holding dead bodies; meets Omer on a blind date. Appears only in those two scenes
12. Shoshanna – Mother of Omer and Shirley; puts on a birthday dinner for Omer’s 30th; also plays Amran, her secret lover.
13. a handful of minor characters: women at the hairdressers; Danny’s dancing partner; others.

Opening rondo:

1. Boaz tricks with Ronen
2. Boaz tricks with Miki
3. Boaz tricks with Danny
4. Boaz tricks with Eitan
5. Boaz tricks with Omer
6. Danny returns and asks Boaz to let him move in temporarily

The rest of the film begins three years later. To figure out who’s dancing (yes, that’s a euphemism for doing the dirty) with whom after that, you’re on your own.