Friday, December 30, 2011

Buggery - a brief history

The Buggery Act of 1533.

It has a nice rhythm to it. da DUDdily da, da DA da DA da DA.

Thought up by ‘Enery the Eighth, I am I am, apparently as a means of getting around the law that said you couldn’t execute monks and steal their property.

Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall as Henry and his Councillors sat around scheming a way around that limitation?

Henry: Damn Buggers. No way to get at ‘em.
Councillor: There’s got to be a way. Damn Buggers, indeed!
Henry: Right. What do the buggers do that we can get them for?
Councillor: Besides buggery, you mean?
Henry: That’s it! We’ll make it illegal for the buggers to be buggers!

So down came the Buggery Act of 1533, which reads:
...the offenders being hereof convicted by verdict confession or outlawry shall suffer such pains of death and losses and penalties of their good chattels debts lands tenements and hereditaments as felons do according to the Common Laws of this Realm. And that no person offending in any such offence shall be admitted to his Clergy....

That’s really got to smart. First you are sentenced to death. And on top of that you are not allowed to become a clergyman?

Seems Henry was not the first to come up with this. Two hundred years earlier, Philip IV of France (aka Philip le Bel, or Philip the Gorgeous) had pulled this trick on the Knights Templar, to whom he was deeply indebted.

One of the benefits of being king, obviously, is that if you are in over your head in debt to your bankers, you can have them executed.

With Henry, too, it was all about money, and not the story you get from the religious people, who would have you believe the act was a moment of righteousness, when evil was brought down a peg.

Now right away there’s something fishy about this law. Almost nobody seems to get prosecuted by it. The first case didn’t come about for seven years, when one of Henry’s squires, a man named Walter Hungerford lost his head for buggery. But the real reason seems to be that the man he was buggering (if indeed he was) was in cahoots with the enemies of Henry, a bunch of Catholic sympathizers in York.

Another man executed for buggery was John Atherton, the Anglican Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, in Ireland. In his case, it is likely he really was a bugger, although he would most likely have been left alone if he had not been a lawyer as well as a clergyman and sued to regain some of the land that once belonged to the Anglican Church in Ireland, thus pissing off the rich landlords who then conspired to zap him. To put icing on the cake, they charged him with incest and with sex with cattle, as well.

Then there is Mervyn Tuchet, 2nd Earl of Castlehaven, executed for buggery in 1631. Poor fellow didn’t play it all that cool. He brought his chums to the dining table and handed his greedy wife and heirs, who feared disinheritance, a reason on a silver platter for offing him and laying claim to his wealth here and now. He was beheaded on orders of the Privy Council, once a kind of English Supreme Court.

The point is few people care a rat’s backside who or what you diddle with, unless, of course, your diddling can be used as a means of getting their hands on your wealth.

But I digress. Back to the Buggery Act of 1533. What I find so interesting about it is that it was repealed twenty years later by Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary” to her father’s Protestant friends), the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and granddaughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, who were responsible for getting Columbus to America, where gays would one day drink Bloody Marys at their institutional meal, brunch, no doubt in honor of this repeal.

Not that it did much good. A mere ten years later, Elizabeth reinstituted the buggery law when she succeeded to the throne and had her Catholic half-sister beheaded. The fact that in the next hundred years fewer than 100 cases of buggery were prosecuted suggests there was no longer a whole lot to be gained by going after buggers.

And here is where homophobia begins to play a real role. While buggers didn’t get executed all that often, they did frequently end up in pillories, especially if they were Mollies (Molly was the Elizabethan word for nelly queens or female impersonators), where any thug could do them serious harm with stones or brickbats. It’s hard to make the case that the average Joe was out for blood. The law against buggery remained a capital offense until 1861, but the last execution took place twenty-five years earlier. In 1885, the law was expanded to include other sexual acts besides sodomy under the rubric of “gross indecency” not long after the word “homosexuality” came into being.

Most likely it remained on the books because of some deep-seated sense gay sex “per anum” was too yucky to let pass. Until 1967, that is, when all laws in Britain against such goings on among the buggers were finally repealed. Bugger at will.

Unless you’re a citizen of someplace which still conserves these British traditions, like Nigeria, which has been in the news lately over its harsh treatment of gays. At least one poor fellow is concerned that the gays are going to form churches and these churches are going to go to war with the anti-gay churches, and lordy, lordy, what will become of Nigeria?

Or Zimbabwe, where legislation against homosexuality was implemented only in 1995, thus causing terrible embarrassment to President Mugabe’s predecessor, the Reverend Canaan Banana, who went to jail for his buggery habits. Oh, and was kicked out of the priesthood, as well.

And lest we create the false impression in this terribly abbreviated history of buggery that only the Africans are caught in a time warp, consider too the current focus here and here on Ron Paul’s delight (at least his Iowa campaign manager’s delight) at getting the endorsement of that troglodyte preacher from Nebraska, Phillip Kayser, who still actively advocates the stoning to death of gays.

It really was all about greed, initially. If Henry had been able to keep his greed in check, or if he had come up with some other way to snatch what he wanted from those hapless helpless subjects of his, whose only fault was a desire to keep warm on English winter nights in those cold stone monasteries.

As inheritors of British traditions, here in the US of A, we’ve brought Henry VIII’s brilliant combo alive once more. It’s not just Ron Paul who’s willing to overlook a stone thrower when it is only buggers he’s throwing them at. Virtually the entire list of Republican Party candidates for the job of controlling nuclear weapons and the power to push the red button are outdoing each other going after buggers (nowadays they use the more cheerful term – gays – and they have added women and transgendered folk, who didn't register on Henry's radar, to their number of people to scapegoat with their anti-Buggery attitudes du Jour.

Rick Santorum is perhaps Homophobe-in-Chief. (And if you think the Flying Spaghetti Monster is letting him off scot free, google his name to see his own personal connection to buggery). Michele Bachmann and her husband Marcus (you can call him Molly for short) are close seconds. I won’t mention the others, because, like Henry, it’s likely they have no personal animus, and are only on this trail for reasons of political expediency.

Whether you’re reading history and the fascinating machinations of Henry the Eighth, or tuning in to the Republican caucus race in Iowa, it’s clear the lust for power and wealth and the sanctimonious assumption of the role of Servant of the Lord on Earth is one of the most effective tools for getting ahead since the invention of the wheel.

Henry went for the Buggers. The Republicans go for the Gays.

It's just politics.

Don't worry your little head about it.


Friday, December 23, 2011

The War’s Over – Who Cares?

I just came across an article in that Gary Kamiya, executive editor and one of its founders, wrote a week ago on the end of the war in Iraq. Kamiya articulates so well the absurdity that the United States went to war for all the wrong reasons and ten years later our attitude is clearly one of national shame. We are pretending it didn’t happen.

We followed a third-rate president into war led by neo-con dreams of empire. Two administrations fought it with other people’s children, killing nearly 4500 Americans, beggared the economy with a three trillion dollar cost, denied or ignored the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, played into the hands of the Iranians, probably set back the Arab Spring by many years, and now we’re pretending it never happened.

We have a plutocracy where a democracy once functioned, a Congress that barely one in ten Americans thinks highly of, one of our political parties has become proto-fascist in its thirst for power at the expense of truth and the national welfare, and we’re eating the seed corn, shutting down schools and other educational activities, ignoring the decaying infrastructure, rescinding health care reforms, and dragging our feet on protecting the environment. We’re an I’ve-got-mine, screw-you society where our idea of good news is that it turns out the claim that 50% of Americans live below the poverty line is false. It’s only about 30%.

While the war was going on, Americans at home were going on with business as usual. Police around the country are called in to fight crowds lining up to buy the latest Michael Jordan shoes, the Air Jordon 11 Retro Concord. It might be worth getting pepper-sprayed over, of course, since word is you can then sell them on e-bay for $605.

That example of American lust and greed on the micro level is nothing compared to the macro level where the banks who screwed us all financially now own the government and can get the Federal Reserve to authorize the purchase of nearly three billion dollars (it can’t be “trillion,” can it?) of worthless mortgage-backed securities. Just checked the original article I got this from. It does say trillion. That's got to be wrong. That's the same as the cost of the ten-year war, and the amount of money it would take to make us rich and happy once again, giving all kids a universal education, providing health care, yada yada dream on...

The rich continue to get richer. Dark Chocolate truffles are on sale, 25 for $463.65. Or you can save if you buy 250 for $4,213.86, if you have a big family. Choice of gold or silver gift box. Allow 9 business days to process order. Choice of layout id. Choice of style. Choose a typestyle for your company name.

Marks and Spencer’s $1500 Christmas basket (that’s what it cost in 2007), can now be had for just $1000. Looks like they’re aiming to reach some of us now in the 99%.

And while we go about our business, war facts continue to be ignored. How many Americans can tell you how many war casualties there have been? And how many can go beyond the war casualties to the other, sometimes hidden, effects of the war? Besides those with lost limbs and long-term psychological damage, there are the nearly 4 million uprooted Iraqis, nearly half of whom became refugees outside Iraq, including some 40% of the middle class. It doesn’t include the 360,000 American troops with traumatic brain injuries. And if you dig a little bit into the way the war was conducted, other casualties appear. We couldn’t have a draft, for example. Americans wouldn’t have it. The result is we had to use National Guard forces, thus putting the states at risk in an emergency. And we had to keep sending the same troops back for another tour, which resulted in an unusually high number of suicides and mental disorders.

It’s not that people haven’t tried to get Americans to recognize the harm inflicted on the world in their name with this war, and with their treasure. Ted Koppel devoted one of his Nightline programs to reading the names of 721 troops killed, back in 2004, long before it reached the 4500 number of today. The program was shut down. Censored. Nobody saw it.

But I’ve drawn attention away from Kamiya’s article, which I really wanted to recommend to you.

Let me repeat that link here. The last word, I think, should be his.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A sobering week

We got some harsh reminders this week that life doesn’t go on forever.

It started for me with Christopher Hitchens. I knew he was failing, but I still took his death like a kick in the stomach. He was a man I took a dislike to when I first heard him talk at a debate on the UC Berkeley campus with the dean of the business school. He had voted for Bush/Cheney and he was in favor of the Iraq War, and the audience, being a Berkeley audience, was probably 90% against him. He seemed to revel in the boos and hisses, and won the debate, in my view. I left that session with so much more respect than I had going in, and that respect has only grown over the years as I have become more familiar with his ideas and his way of being in the world.

He was brilliant. And he was a master of the putdown.

“I can’t understand a word you’re saying,” one of his interviewers once said to him.
“I’m not in the least surprised,” he responded.

A friend of his tells the story of being in a restaurant with him when they realized they were going to be asked to move to make room for a larger party. “You’re going to hate us for this,” the waiter said to them.
“We hate you already,” he responded.

Of Jerry Falwell, he once said, “If you gave Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox.”

At the same time, he was, in my view, the most articulate of the “four horsemen” of atheism in the English-speaking world, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. These men seem to be riding the waves of reaction to American right wing religion and priestly child abuse and any number of other things nudging people out of their religious security blankets.

Many writers become incoherent when asked to speak, and many speakers are lousy writers, but Hitchens was a master of both the spoken and written language. Read any of his writing, see almost any of his speech events, and you will see what I mean. Listen to his debate with Tony Jones in Sydney, for example. I doubt a better articulation of the folly of religion can be found.

Then came Vaclav Havel, who brought an end to communism in his country without a bullet being fired, and demonstrated that there are places in the world actually willing to be led by playwrights instead of crooks and gangsters. Unlike Hitchens, he was shy and often inarticulate in person. He had trouble looking people in the eye, so scarred was he psychologically from five years in prison and sixteen more under constant police watch. And yet, he held out and remains everybody’s idea of a man of courage.

Then, to go from the sublime – Havel’s Velvet Revolution – to the ridiculous, there was the death of that silly little tin man in North Korea who ran a government based on extortion, starved his people, and made Stalin look good. Hitchens did wonders for your mind, Havel lifted your spirit. Kim Jong Il gave you a taste of bile in your mouth. And he leaves us now with a 27-year old four-star general with a different bad haircut from his father’s and possibly the silliest puffed-up title ever invented – the “Great Successor.” At least it would be silly if it were not so tragic. Look at the juxtaposition of this video of starvation in North Korea: with this one showing public mourning. Or the TV announcer showing the official model for crying out loud. Or this one, of the many models of weeping hysterically in formation.

On a more local level, San Franciscans learned of the death yesterday of philanthropist Warren Hellman. Among his many accomplishments, he saved San Franciscans billions by helping reform the city’s pension system, funded the city’s Free Health Clinic, helped form a new local paper in this age of dying newspapers, and brought Blue Grass to San Francisco bigtime a three-day free concert in Golden Gate Park every year. Free concert.

And finally, more sad news with the death of Cesaria Evora. If you don’t know her music, treat yourself. YouTube has 100 videos of her.

Start with Sodade (or the more “upscale” version she did in Paris. Or this one. Or this one.

The thought she won’t be making more is very hard to bear.

One guy who demonstrates how low the human race can sink. Several others who demonstrate how high they can fly. A sobering week, in both cases.

Stay healthy. Stay strong. Stay connected.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Alex and me

Do you know my friend Alex?

He is famous for these sayings:

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” (1)

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” (1)

“Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.” (1)

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” (2)

We have so much in common, Alex and I.

We were both born in May (me in 1940, he in 1688). We both like poetry (he writes it; I read it), he grew up in Berkshire (England) and I grew up in The Berkshires (New England). He translated the Odyssey and the Iliad, I watch Homer Simpson. And, my all time favorite comparison… He would never go walking without his dog, Bounce, and I never go walking without my dog, Bounce. (I don’t think he had a second dog named Miki.)

Here he is with his Bounce,

and me with mine.


Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

(1) An Essay on Criticism, 1709 (for the full text, click here)
(2) An Essay on Man, Epistle I, 1733 (for the full text, click here)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Shame, shame, shame on Japan

For most of my eighteen years as a professor in Japan I taught graduate and undergraduate seminars on culture theory. My focus was on cultures in contact, since my seminar students were largely kikokushijo – students who had lived abroad for many years, many of them taking on non-Japanese identity to some degree and in some cases even losing their proficiency in Japanese as their first language.

I consider it a gift from the gods that my view of Japan and Japanese was largely colored by this experience working with people struggling to find a both/and understanding of personal identity against a still prevalent Japanese view that the more “foreign” ways you pick up the more you betray your Japanese roots.

Japan became my home. If I needed to, I could still go back and live out my life there, so rooted did I become over those many years of life among the sushi-eaters, teeth-suckers, and smiling folk of such extraordinary kindness and generosity. I have a love of Japan that will never die. It breaks my heart that I am going to have to surrender my permanent residence card one day soon, because I have chosen to stay permanently in my home in California.

So please put what I am going to say in that larger context. Just as Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck do not represent the United States of America, the right wing of Japan, which is overrepresented in the Japanese government, is not Japan. At the same time, just as I feel shame to be an American each time I hear the word Guantánamo, or think of the latest defense bill which, if Obama signs it, will make it legal for American citizens to be detained without trial indefinitely – just as I feel shame at times like this, I feel shame at Japan’s inability to recognize the misery it inflicted on its Asian neighbors in World War II. And just as the pope is not the Catholic Church, the jingoist invaders of Iraq are not the United States and Japanese war revisionists are not Japan, these people are speaking in an official capacity, and as long as they do, the people in whose name they speak must bear some shame.

I was recently discussing the inevitable comparisons one finds oneself making between the Japanese and the Germans in processing the dark side of their 20th Century history. De-nazification was not a total success, as recent events in Germany reveal, but the Germans can boast of having at least one post-war chancellor whose actions spoke volumes about the change in Germany since the war. Willi Brandt fell on his knees, overwhelmed with emotion, at the monument to the Warsaw ghetto one day, a gesture, whether planned or spontaneous, that did much to persuade Germany’s neighbors that this was a new Germany. I spoke to a Jew once who told me it was that moment that made it possible to return to Germany to live, and enjoy at last the full benefits of his German cultural home. Where, I have to ask, is the Japanese analogue?

Compare the Kniefall (falling on one’s knees), for example, with the ongoing battle in Korea and China for recognition of the Japanese policy of sexual slavery. An article in this morning’s New York Times, about a monument in Seoul to the women who were enslaved during the war to provide sexual services to Japanese occupiers of their country reveals that this ugly wound still bleeds right up to the present moment.

In Japan, almost invariably, these women are referred to as “Comfort Women,” an insidious euphemism which to this day frames the issue from the viewpoint of the rapist invaders. Even among my sophisticated and enlightened students and colleagues, my use of the term “sex slaves” was considered inflammatory. “That’s not the word we use,” one colleage reminded me with a smile. “We call them (military) ‘Comfort Women (従軍) 慰安婦 (jūgun) -ianfu.’” When I asked him what word he thought the women involved would use, he seemed generally perplexed. “We see things from the Japanese perspective,” he responded. “Do no Japanese see things from the Korean women’s perspective?” I asked him. He said he hadn’t thought about that before, so universal is this term in the Japanese media.

The Koreans have been struggling since 1945 to get the Japanese to recognize the harm done to these women. The official Japanese line to this day is that a) it was wartime (and therefore different rules should apply); b) the motives were good (to prevent rape and the venereal disease that comes from unsupervised prostitution); c) it was a lesser evil than to have randy soldiers get restless and lose focus on the war effort. Never mind that it was systematic rape of an occupied people, and that women were actually taken from their homes kicking and screaming in front of helpless family members.

Official documents presented at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial revealed that in some cases the daughters of Korean dissidents were especially selected for “comfort duties.” Three-quarters of these women died and most of those who survived became infertile due to sexually transmitted diseases or sexual trauma. Some were raped thirty times a day, seven days a week, and beaten in between sex sessions.

For years after the war, Koreans considered the fact of sexual slavery too shameful to broadcast, and a code of silence prevailed. As time went on, though, women began to come forward and demand recognition and restitution. The Japanese response was to deny sexual slavery ever took place and insist these were illegitimate demands for money from a now rich nation. As recently as 2006, Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister from 2006 to 2007, denied there ever was such a thing as sex slavery during the war and insisted South Korean criticism of the lack of mention of sexual slavery in Japanese history textbooks was “foreign interference in Japanese domestic affairs.”

In recent years Koreans have kept up the pressure for an official apology and restitution. Two days ago, they erected a statue of a young girl across the street from the Japanese Embassy as a means of keeping the issue alive.

The Japanese just don’t get it. They finally caved, in 1995, and agreed to set up a billion dollar fund to pay victims still alive. At that time, the number was 234, and this figure would appear to be extraordinarily generous. The women turned it down because the money was to come from private sources. They wanted official recognition, and clearly an apology meant more than money. Today only 63 remain. And the Japanese response?

Chief cabinet secretary Osamu Fujimura called the installation of the statue “extremely regrettable” and said that his government would ask that it be removed.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hillary’s Hair

You’ll have to pardon me. I’ve gone all gaga. I’m bouncing around like my dog, who likes to make like a helicopter when she sees me after a long time. (Hence her name, Bounce.)

I’m bouncing for Hillary Clinton and that speech she gave in Geneva on Tuesday, urging the world to do something about the failure to grant LGBT people safety and equality around the world. A first-ever proposal to fight human rights abuses against LGBT people globally. A speech for the history books.

I know this is going to look like raining on our own parade, but hear me out. I want to focus for a minute not on this momentous event, but on Hillary Clinton’s hair.

Once I picked my jaw up off the floor after hearing this speech the first time, I checked out what people were saying about it. I skipped over the Fox Network and Bachmann/Santorum knee-jerk reactions. I wanted to see what ordinary people were saying.

One of the first comments I read was from a gay person wishing she would do something about her hair.

Now it’s possible this comment was made ironically. And I don’t want to suggest this was representative of gay people’s reaction, but gay people are good at deflection and their humor is sometimes deliciously subtle. I’m guessing this comment was made by a person speaking faggotese. Being bitchy is a mechanism of the powerless, and gays do putdowns at the Olympic level. So I know I’m risking missing the point entirely of this bad hair comment, but let me run with it.

I might mention the obvious, that people don’t make comments about men’s hair, but that wouldn’t be true any more. Think Rick Perry, for example. Or Donald Trump. But what I want to do is argue this comment by a gay bitch-queen is not only breathtakingly off the mark, considering what Hillary was doing at the moment for gay people, but also just plain misplaced in its criticism.

To make this great speech Hillary wore a pony tail. Not a Madame Grande Dame hair-do, as Maggie Thatcher used to do, but a friggin' pony tail! If I didn't love her for all the other reasons, I'd love her for that. To me it signalled she has her priorities straight. Serious business now, hair later. And, just maybe, not even later. She’s signalling, whether intentionally or not, that she’s got better things to do right now than take the time to preen.

To be honest, I’ve made snarky comments on Hillary’s hair myself in the past. I’ve often wondered why she can’t find an hour somewhere to have a good hairdresser tidy her up. Her hair really can look scraggly at times.

But Jesus, girls and boys, now? You want to make an issue of that now?

The hair remark was only one of dozens of remarks by her detractors. Rick Perry said fighting against the persecution of gays in Uganda, Nigeria, and elsewhere was worth “not a dime of American taxpayer’s money.” But this is a man who prides himself on the number of criminals his state puts to death. Why should we expect anything else from this lowlife?

Lots of people complained she should have put her own house in order before asking others to change their ways, apparently unaware that no democratic nation can ever be expected to speak in just one voice. The question should be which of their many voices are they using when they address the world – the voice of a leader who threatens war and says things like "Bring it on!" – or a leader who admits we have not lived up to our own expressed ideals and announces specific measures for turning ourselves around.

It's possible, of course, I'm barking up the wrong tree here. It's possible Hillary's choice of hair-do doesn't stem from carelessness or lack of concern. Consider this. When Hillary appeared with Aung San Suu Kyi last week in Burma, the two of them looked like teenage girls who had decided to dress and make themselves up, hair included, to look alike. And that would mean Hillary taking her cue from Suu Kyi, since Suu Kyi has never changed her hair style in years, as far as I know.

In any case, when you see a picture of the two of them together in Burma it makes you think the hair choice was deliberate, and their affection for each other appeared to be genuine. What a high that must have been for both of them. Hillary may still be riding high off that encounter, as I am off her speech in Geneva. What a powerful message she conveyed in making the effort to stand on the same plain as this heroic figure of Burma, a message that would have gone astray if she had gone all Maggie Thatcher or Madelyn Albright for the occasion. How much more elegance these two women had in their simplicity. Maybe she's decided to hang onto that a while.

There's another possibility, that Hillary thinks she looks good in this hairstyle, and all this speculation is based on nothing. But I can't imagine somebody in her position wouldn't have advisors telling her she's too important for a pony tail. I'm going with the deliberate choice explanation, and - pardon me if I repeat myself - that makes me look upon her with even greater respect and appreciation.

If you haven’t actually listened to Hillary’s speech in Geneva in its entirety, please do. It’s a totally different experience from reading the words. Hillary speaks slowly, deliberately, in plain American English. The speech was perfection. Well written, well delivered, unadorned, and from the heart.

If only this were the image of itself America portrayed to the world all of the time.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Reinventing the Wheel

Here’s another exhange with my cousin Betty.

This morning she sent me the following message about male-female differences and asked me if I agreed. Here’s the message, and my response:
In an evening class at Stanford the last lecture was on the mind-body connection - the relationship between stress and disease. The speaker (head of psychiatry at Stanford) said, among other things, that one of the best things that a man could do for his health is to be married to a woman whereas for a woman, one of the best things she could do for her health was to nurture her relationships with her girlfriends.

At first everyone laughed, but he (sic) was serious. Women connect with each other differently and provide support systems that help each other to deal with stress and difficult life experiences. Physically this quality "girlfriend time" helps us to create more serotonin - a neurotransmitter that helps combat depression and can create a general feeling of well being. Women share feelings whereas men often form relationships around activities. They rarely sit down with a buddy and talk about how they feel about certain things or how their personal lives are going. Jobs? Yes. Sports? Yes. Cars? Yes. Fishing, hunting, golf?

Yes. But their feelings? Rarely.

Women do it all of the time. We share from our souls with our sisters/mothers, and evidently that is very good for our health. He said that spending time with a friend is just as important to our general health as jogging or working out at a gym.

There's a tendency to think that when we are "exercising" we are doing something good for our bodies, but when we are hanging out with friends, we are wasting our time and should be more productively engaged-not true. In fact, he said that failure to create and maintain quality personal relationships with other humans is as dangerous to our physical health as smoking!

So every time you hang out to schmooze with a gal pal, just pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself for doing something good for your health! We are indeed very, very lucky. Sooooo... let's toast to our friendship with our girlfriends. Evidently it's very good for our health.

Forward this to all your girlfriends - and stay in touch!

Thanks to all the girls in my life who have helped me stay healthy, happy, and feeling very loved.

Life isn't about surviving the storm; but how you dance in the rain.



No, I don’t agree. Or, more precisely, I feel like the researcher's findings, even if true, could well lead to some wrongheaded thinking.

Whether I agree or not is not the question you should be asking and my answer should make no difference to you. If you have good friendships with women and you find them of higher quality than your friendships with men, what would it matter what some study has to say about whether or how women form friendships? The issue is not how most women can or should do it but what conclusions you should draw from the claim that women make better friendships than men do.

Even if it is true women make better friendships with each other than they do with men, I would hope no one would pass up a chance to form a friendship across the gender line. One needs to recognize that the conclusion is at such a level of generalization that it masks the complexity of life, where life is actually lived. In my own experience, nothing in the world has mattered more to me over the years than my friends, and I would never be persuaded by any study that suggested others have better friendships. For that reason I find the conclusion a silly one. Even if it is true that women in general make better friendships than men in general, individuals all make their own friendships, and how you live your life has little to do with these generalizations, unless you are foolish enough to stop following your own instincts and try to match all your behaviors to the behavior of others.

In my experience, the strongest friendships are formed when two or more people share a life-changing event. Some events, like fighting for your life in a foxhole, are more dramatic than others, but even living side by side and talking across the fence about trivialities for thirty years can build an unbreakable bond, if you’re open to letting one form. The latter example is as life-changing as facing a common enemy. It just takes longer to develop.

I understand there are individuals out there who have deep-seated psychological problems which keep them from trusting other people or seeing the value in other people. I’ve known people I would have to define as evil. And many more who are so totally self-centered I am convinced they don’t begin to understand what friendship even means. But most people I know, male or female, are capable of reaching out to others and trusting them with their lives. Gay men have their “fag hags” (and pardon the political incorrectness, but I’m of a generation that associates that word with some really fantastic cross the gender friendships.) Popular culture is full of male-bonding and female-bonding stories – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Thelma and Louise come to mind. Gender has no claim to ownership here.

After breaking up with somebody I’d been with for a dozen years, I hit a low spot in my life. Eventually, I found myself attracted to someone again. He became aware of my feelings and said to me, “I’m so sorry I can’t return your feelings. I wish I could do more for you.” I said to him, in all sincerity, “If this had happened to me in my twenties, I would be devastated. But it is happening to me in my fifties, and I’m coming from a place of believing I could never love again. You’ve proven me wrong, and given me the greatest gift anybody could give me.” I spent no time at all mourning that relationship that never got off the ground. I reveled in the fact that I was still alive, life being defined by the ability to love. I thought I’d used it all up. To my utter delight, I learned that it can actually grow with time and you can come to realize only the very young and the very foolish worry about finding someone who can love them. The rest of the world gets out there and finds people to love and reasons to love them.

Because that’s how I see the world, this alleged study of how men and women form friendships strikes me as largely irrelevant, and something akin to a lie by omission. The generalization overlooks not only individual differences, which have nothing to do with sex or gender, but also differences in how one responds to the layers of life built on experience.

I hope that speaks to your question.

Now let me turn, though, to a separate issue that your question brings up. I’ve been focused a lot lately on the phenomenon of things going viral on the internet. Don’t know if you’ve been reading previous blogs, but there was the story of the hard of hearing grannie and the lady who called the cops to complain about her loud neighbor playing music so loud “it knocked the plates off the wall.” A whole new phenomenon, the urban legend, has sprung up since the advent of the internet. Most of these stories fall under the rubric of entertainment. People pass them to friends the way they tell jokes to their friends. Others have some kind of didactic value, and I suspect this “head of psychiatry” tale is one of those.

I’m guessing this is an urban legend. (It's an educated guess, because the letter says the head of psychiatry is a man, but the Stanford website says the actual head is a woman.) I have to assume "the head of psychiatry" would not be making claims like this without research, and you didn't give sources for this claim, so I went looking. I found one link after another to affirmations of the alleged study’s conclusions here, here, here, and here. But they are all from women who are chiming in and agreeing from personal experience, not from women who have read the actual study.

Don't get me wrong. I trust that when all these women rush to agree with "the head of psychiatry's" conclusions that they're telling the truth as they know it. Why would anybody want to question this good news?

I know from personal experience that women can bond tightly and wonderfully with each other. I've also read a lot about how women act collectively while men act individually, how women seek to find solutions to problems where men seek to be king of the hill, how women look after the entire brood while men tend to prefer the strongest, etc. etc. It fits our notion of how men are lone warriors above all else while women work on the motherly instinct to protect all their children equally and choose security for all over the success of one or a few. And these are stereotypes all.

This view is stressed on yet another website by a woman who apparently makes a living confirming "the head of psychiatry's" conclusions - no doubt because they resonate so strongly with women and women want to make sure they are building a better life on those same conclusions.

By now I'm intrigued. Why can't I find the actual study? Even if it rings true, why is this beginning to look to me like an urban myth?

I went eventually to, of course, the source of the best information on urban myths. There is no mention of this Stanford study, so it can't be confirmed or denied that way. What I did find, interestingly, is a Facebook page with other people discussing going to snopes and finding the cupboard bare.

In this case, one doesn’t need Snopes, of course. It's easy enough to find out who the head of psychiatry at Stanford is. She is Dr. Laura Roberts. One could easily phone the department and ask if Dr. Roberts actually did make this statement and how she drew her conclusions. Their phone number is: (650) 723-6643.

But I'm not going to call. Not just because I suspect they are bombarded with calls from people wanting this story corroborated and don't want to add to their burden, but because I'd prefer to look at the story gone viral from what I think is a common sense perspective. As I’ve said, I think it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. If it inspires you to take a second look at your women friends and value them more highly, there’s no reason to give it a second thought. When it comes to “truth value,” it hardly matters whether it’s true or not and it matters even less whether somebody agrees. Perhaps especially if a man agrees or not.

One last note, though, on the potential didactic value. The older I get the more I marvel at how many times we invent the wheel. Back in the 60s when women’s movements got off the ground, one of the more important messages that came from them – I can’t remember whether it stems from Betty Friedan or Simone de Beauvoir or elsewhere now – was that women are programmed to identify themselves across many world cultures in terms of the men in their lives, and will readily abandon a friendship with another woman if it gets in the way of a chance to hook up with a man. For at least fifty years ago, women in America have been teaching each other to value each other as much as they value any man. And this has gotten easier to do as women have sought and gained the right to work outside the home and access to social resources and the independence they need to live unattached to a male breadwinner. Look to Afghanistan for the monstrous “before” picture. We don’t have a perfect “after” picture, and that would explain why this message resonates so strongly.

This “study,” if it actually exists, has the didactic value of preaching this important lesson once more, that gender roles and relationships are socially constructed and can be deconstructed and reconstructed when they are found wanting. And since most people don’t live their lives on the basic of research data, an urban legend should do that job just as well.

I could dismiss this as just another attempt to reinvent the wheel. But perhaps that's not fair. It's more a reminder that when cultural values change, it can take much longer than a single generation.


Friday, December 2, 2011

What would we do without religion?

Came across three items in the morning paper just now, all having to do with “values” derived from religion.

Item 1:

Afghan President Karzai just pardoned a woman in jail for twelve years for adultery. (She was originally sentenced to three, but got twelve when she appealed.) She’s been in jail since she was raped in 2009 (being raped means she committed adultery), along with the child she bore as a result of that rape, and Karzai is commuting the rest of the sentence. Not only that, they’re now saying she won’t have to marry her rapist.

We need to go easy on this guy Karzai. He’s a regular Abraham Lincoln.

Item 2:

“I am not a racist,” says Melvin Thompson of the Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church in Pike County, Kentucky. “I just don’t think we should allow interracial marriages.” His church agreed with him and voted nine to six in favor of a ban. A number of people abstained.

That’s like the Roman Catholic Church’s “I am not homophobic. I just don’t think we should allow gays to marry.”

If this line of reasoning is good for the goosey Catholics, shouldn’t it be good for the gandery Baptists?

Item 3:

And let’s not forget the evangelical Lutherans:

As Americans we all have the same civil rights,” Michele Bachmann noted the other day. “That’s really what government’s role is, to protect our civil rights. There shouldn’t be any special rights or special set of criteria based on people preferences. We all have the same civil rights.”

“Then why can’t same sex couples get married,” asked someone in the audience.

“They can get married, [if] they abide by the same laws as everyone else. They can marry a man, if they’re a woman, and can marry a woman if they’re a man,” Bachmann said.

(Men have no right to pregnancy leave, why should women have such a right? Left-handed people should be expected to write with their right hand just like right-handed people do.)

Where would civilization be without the moral guidance of religion?


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Happy Birthday, Matthew

It's December 1st.

On this day in history…

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama (1955), Ford introduced the Assembly Line (1913), Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met together for the first time (1943), Papua New Guinea gained independence from Australia (1973), construction workers drilled through the final wall in the Chunnel, linking Britain and France (1990), Ukraine voted for independence from the Soviet Union (1991), the Archdiocese of Los Angeles settled sex abuse claims for forty-five of its cases pending for $60 million in 2006. That left five hundred cases still outstanding. And on December 1st in 2008 Hillary Clinton was nominated Secretary of State and Venice was flooded.

On this day in 1935, Allen Stewart Konigsberg was born. He later called himself Woody Allen. Today is also the birthday of Bette Midler, Treat Williams and Sarah Silverman and the death day of Ben Gurion. On this day in 1963, the Beatles’ first single, “I want to hold your hand” was released in the United States. In 1913 the Buenos Aires subway started operations, and in 1918 Transylvania united with Romania, following the incorporation of Bessarabia and Bukovina, creating the modern nation that today celebrates its National Day. Happy Birthday, Romania.

Today is Freedom and Democracy Day in Chad, Fullveldisdagurinn (Self-Governance Day) in Iceland, Teacher’s Day in Panama, Women’s Day in Bahrain and World AIDS day all over the world. Today in 2004 Tom Brokaw signed off for the last time as anchor of the NBC Nightly News.

But for me this is a day for remembering Matthew Shepard. He was born on this day in 1976 and would be 35 years old today if he had not been beaten to a bloody pulp, tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyoming two months before his 22nd birthday and left to die, because he was gay. His killers, Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney, tried first to use the “gay panic” defense – the argument that one is driven to temporary insanity by unwanted gay sexual advances, but ended up claiming it was a robbery gone wrong. Never mind the logic of robbing somebody by leaving him to die on a fence overnight.

Happy Birthday, Matthew.

We haven't forgotten you.


What were you thinking?

Sometimes the United States of America parodies itself. Reduces itself to a Saturday Night Live skit.

In this morning’s paper is an article, accompanied by the picture you see here of a bunch of kids in Scottsdale, Arizona posing with Santa. They’re all carrying guns. One of them is an $80,000 machine gun. Another is an AR-15 with grenade launcher.

I don’t remember when I first began noticing how militarized everything around me seemed to be getting. The National Rifle Association is one thing, but this is quite another. In this picture with Santa, the kids are not carrying hunting rifles. They’re carrying weapons intended to kill large numbers of people with a single pull of the trigger.

I blogged yesterday about the challenge to laugh “with” somebody and not “at” somebody, which involves being able to see yourself in folks making fools of themselves at any given moment. The two examples I used were a hard-of-hearing old woman and a woman who evidently never learned self-control. Whether the cause of her problems was a lack of education or just a low IQ was never made clear. The point was the world was laughing at them, and the world includes me. And it took me some time to make the laughing with/laughing at distinction. The instinct was to laugh first and analyze later. Some will say justify later.

How we determine what is funny is culturally determined. Values change, and nothing marks cultural gaps the way humor does. Taku looked at those two examples and asked, “Is there something wrong with Germans that they laugh at people like that?” Non-Germans often see German humor as slapstick. I argued that there was nothing particularly German about laughing at the hard-of-hearing or at a crazy lady, that it was modern culture which all modern people share. Differences that once existed among people of European culture have fallen away, and we are all much more like each other and getting more that way all the time.

But this picture of kids with Santa holding guns popped off the page at me this morning as if to remind me not to go too far with that generalization. It’s hard to imagine the people of any other modern nation, European, Asian, or otherwise, coming up with the idea that it’s “fun” to have your picture taken with Santa holding a grenade launcher.

I get e-mails all the time with sloppy sentimental stories of “our heroic boys” fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, pictures of the flag waving and people with their hands over their hearts and a military band playing. Eisenhower’s warning clearly went unheeded, and the military industrial complex was allowed to take control of the culture.

If you doubt this, look at the faces on these kids. They’re smiling. Only Americans smile like that.

Back during the Vietnam War I went to an anti-war rally in Japan featuring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, held in a large arena near an American military base. Halfway through their act, some guys stopped the show shouting, “If you don’t fight them in ‘Nam, you’ll be fighting them in your own back yard.” My friend, a Welshman, loved it. “Great act you Americans put on.”

“That wasn’t part of the show,” I told him.

“I’ll never understand how Americans think,” he said.

I thought of him this morning for some reason. And I heard the granny voice in my head (the one I want to foster before my hearing goes) saying,

“What on earth were you thinking?”


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Laughing at Grannie and Crazy Aunt Christine

Schadenfreude is the word for the kick one gets from watching somebody fall down the stairs. But what’s the word that describes the mixed feelings you have watching a fellow human being look foolish and sympathetic at the same time? When you laugh at somebody you know could be you?

I sent round a YouTube piece yesterday of a 99-year-old woman calling the cops to find out if the big storm that had hit overnight had affected her daughter in another city, whom she hadn’t heard from. (For the English, see below.) It was clear she was worried.

She was also hard of hearing, and the poor cop at 911 couldn’t make her understand there was nothing to worry about. With each new “eh?” the situation got funnier and funnier until I was rolling on the floor. I had to e-mail the link to friends.

I don’t know whether the fact that the piece was in German had anything to do with it – I think the situation should be obvious despite a language barrier (and I provided a translation) – but I got back some interesting responses, all sympathetic to the old woman. Doesn’t social services provide hearing aids? Doesn’t this make you sad? Don’t you realize this could soon be you? Nobody else so far has found it amusing, much less rolling on the floor funny.

That makes me think that I’ve done a good job surrounding myself with friends with a greater sense of decency than I have myself. Always nice to be able to pat yourself on the back for your ability to select people of character as friends.

But what am I to do with my gut reaction, which is to laugh. Even now, just thinking of that interaction and hearing the cops laughing in the background brings a smile to my face. I’m just going to have to admit I like to laugh at people’s weaknesses. If I laugh at others when they’re down, I’m inviting them to laugh at me when I’m down. So be it. We’ll go through life this way. We all end up dead and gone. My goal is to go with a smile on my face.

I came across this YouTube video, incidentally, while checking out the story of a woman named Christina Zehnbauer, in Mannheim, Germany. The story never traveled outside the German-speaking world, evidently, although it was big news for a while inside. It involves a woman who calls the cops to complain her neighbor is playing his music so loud that her “plates are flying off the wall.” The cop does a masterful job of calming her hysterics, and the call ends well, with the two of them laughing together, as he promises to send a car around to investigate.

The problem is, somehow this conversation got out and found its way onto the internet. One of Frau Zehnbauer’s neighbors told her about it, and next thing she’s got a lawyer and is suing the cops for insulting her civil liberties.

These bare facts do not tell the real story, however, which is that for a brief while Frau Zehnbauer was the talk of the nation. TV channels picked it up, one of Germany’s most famous cabaret comedians goes to meet her with TV reporters recording the event, and Frau Zehnbauer goes along and plays smoochie-smoochie for the camera with this most famous of her many fans. The uploaded YouTube 911 call (it’s 112 in Germany and most of Europe) is picked up everywhere. Children memorize it and recite it. A rock group uses it as lyrics to a song.

And for a while everything Frau Zehnbauer does is national news. The power company turns her lights out, and cameras are there to film her plight. She has a fight with her ex-husband and all the neighbors – and all the cameras – are there as witnesses. A neighbor claims she was injured in a fight with Frau Zehnbauer and the cameras film the reconciliation. Her sister-in-law with the same last name complains her life is hell. She is featured in another video titled “Frau Zehnbauer against the world.” and the camera films her reconciliation with the entire neighborhood she has pissed off – including Mr. Ellenburger, the man she originally complained about who was playing his music so loud the plates were “flying off the wall.”

If you speak German, what may well first tickle your funnybone is the fact that Christina Zehnbauer is speaking in dialect. Germany, like many places, has a history of snobbery about regional dialects, and they are often used in joketelling for the added bumpkin effect. When Christina Zehnbauer shouts to the rooftops in Kurpfalz Dialect (the area around Heidelberg/Mannheim), it’s funny. Never mind this may be a woman in distress.

Bülent Ceylan, the comedian who shows up at Frau Zehnbauer’s doorstep with a rose in his hand and cameras turning, is also from Mannheim, as it turns out, and in one of his TV appearances he goes into character as Harald, the local who is incensed at the way people make fun of people from Mannheim just because of the way they speak. The skit is hilarious because the reference is to Christina Zehnbauer. And the TV special is clearly squeezing every ounce of humor out of the situation it can, making the story into one of “love at first sight.” Ceylan, like most comedians, who reserve the right to laugh at absolutely anything, makes fun of Christina, but you have to believe she is enjoying the limelight. And he’s totally charming, and I’m not so sure I wouldn’t enjoy being in Christina’s place at the time.

If I had stopped with the original telephone call to 911 gone viral, as most people would, I would have simply enjoyed the laugh and moved on. And probably I should have. Amusing situations seldom bear analysis. Unfortunately (or not), in this era of YouTube videos, a whole bunch of other videos have been uploaded of Christina making a fool of herself as well. I watched in fascination, until I realized what I was looking at was a troubled soul living on welfare, unable to run her life with any sense of balance. She has no off button, lets invective fly at will, and is capable of turning half the world against her every morning before breakfast and the rest by noon. She has two daughters who suffer from her excesses, and who have lost a whole lot of dignity with Christina’s “fifteen minutes of fame” – only this time it was notoriety and weeks, not fifteen minutes. To watch it all is to stop laughing. And maybe even start feeling a little sheepish.

And if you didn’t feel sheepish watching a fellow human being self-destruct, maybe you would when you read that Christina Zehnbauer died this week of unknown causes. They think it was a heart attack, but she was only 47. I’ve searched for the reason, but find only one local paper, the Wormser Zeitung, with even that much information. It looks like she’s yesterday’s news, and we’re all moving on.

In a totally unrelated event, I happened across an essay by a Lutheran minister on the subject of the ethics of one of America’s most outspoken sex columnists, Dan Savage. Savage breaks all the rules of our traditional sources of cultural authority in religion, which places sex at the center of morality and paints virtue in terms of sacrifice, celibacy, and control. Savage’s ethical code is focused on honesty, trust and an acceptance of human appetites which must be accommodated. Needless to say I’m with Savage. For me, sexual loyalty is way down the list of virtues, and honesty is at the very top. Perhaps that’s why, as I’ve reflected on the plight of Christina Zehnbauer and the grannie worried about her daughter, I’ve decided I’m going to continue to laugh heartily and without guilt when faced with human failure. If I can do that with my own failures, why should I not do the same with the failure of others? To laugh in someone’s face is usually unkind, and you have to be sure you’re laughing at yourself when you see another’s fumbling and not kicking someone when they’re down. But as I age I recognize more and more each day how dignity falls away in time. The solution is not to pretend something isn’t funny when it is. The solution is to recognize you don’t have to be dishonest when looking at the human condition in its entirety.

I’m not suggesting that sympathetic laughter is the only laughter I would allow myself. Derision and ridicule are honest responses to arrogant fools. I feel no guilt deriding the Roman Catholic hierarchy for their hypocrisy in claiming exclusive control over the definition of morality. And I feel no reason not to ridicule the likes of Newt Gingrich when he speaks of family values.

But I also know smiling while watching old people shuffle and cup their ears is not derision or ridicule, but a way of recognizing we’re all on the way to losing it.

And we might as well go down laughing.

For transcript and translation to Frau Zehnbauer 911 call, click here.
For transcript and translation to Grannie call, click here.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Reductionist Game

I just got another of those letters from a cousin whom I hold in great esteem. She’s a dear lady. Only today, unlike on many days when she reveals her warm and gentle nature, she has her head where the sun don't shine.

Here’s the letter she sent me, with the one-line comment, “I have to agree with this!”
Some Belated Parental Advice to Protesters

Call it an occupational hazard but I can’t look at the Occupy Wall Street protesters without thinking, “Who parented these people?”

As a culture columnist, I’ve commented on the social and political ramifications of the “movement” – now known as “OWS” – whose fairyland agenda can be summarized by one of their placards: “Everything for everybody.”

Thanks to their pipe-dream platform, it’s clear there are people with serious designs on “transformational” change in America who are using the protesters like bedsprings in a brothel.

Yet it’s not my role as a commentator that prompts my parenting question but rather the fact that I’m the mother of four teens and young adults. There are some crucial life lessons that the protesters’ moms clearly have not passed along.

Here, then, are five things the OWS protesters’ mothers should have taught their children but obviously didn’t, so I will:

• Life isn’t fair. The concept of justice – that everyone should be treated fairly – is a worthy and worthwhile moral imperative on which our nation was founded. But justice and economic equality are not the same. Or, as Mick Jagger [2] said, “You can’t always get what you want.”

No matter how you try to “level the playing field,” some people have better luck, skills, talents or connections that land them in better places. Some seem to have all the advantages in life but squander them, others play the modest hand they’re dealt and make up the difference in hard work and perseverance and some find jobs on Wall Street and eventually buy houses in the Hamptons. Is it fair? Stupid question.

• Nothing is “free.” Protesting with signs that seek “free” college degrees and “free” health care make you look like idiots because colleges and hospitals don’t operate on rainbows and sunshine. There is no magic money machine to tap for your meandering educational careers and “slow paths” to adulthood and the 53 percent of taxpaying Americans owe you neither a degree nor an annual physical.

While I’m pointing out this obvious fact, here are a few other things that are not free: overtime for police officers and municipal workers, trash hauling, repairs to fixtures and property, condoms, Band-Aids and the food that inexplicably appears on the tables in your makeshift protest kitchens. Real people with real dollars are underwriting your civic temper tantrum.

• Your word is your bond. When you demonstrate to eliminate student loan debt, you are advocating precisely the lack of integrity you decry in others. Loans are made based on solemn promises to repay them. No one forces you to borrow money; you are free to choose educational pursuits that don’t require loans or to seek technical or vocational training that allows you to support yourself and your ongoing educational goals. Also, for the record, being a college student is not a state of victimization. It’s a privilege that billions of young people around the globe would die for – literally.

• A protest is not a party. On Saturday in New York, while making a mad dash from my cab to the door of my hotel to avoid you, I saw what isn’t evident in the newsreel footage of your demonstrations: Most of you are doing this only for attention and fun. Serious people in a sober pursuit of social and political change don’t dance jigs down Sixth Avenue like attendees of a Renaissance festival. You look foolish, you smell gross, you are clearly high and you don’t seem to realize that all around you are people who deem you irrelevant.

• There are reasons you haven’t found jobs. The truth? Your tattooed necks, gauged ears, facial piercings and dirty dreadlocks are off-putting. Nonconformity for the sake of nonconformity isn’t a virtue. Occupy reality: Only 4 percent of college graduates are out of work. If you are among that 4 percent, find a mirror and face the problem. It’s not them. It’s you.

I wrote back.

Dear [name deleted]:

You say you agree with this article by Mary Beth Hicks of the Washington Times. I don’t. Let me tell you why.

It’s one of the best examples of missing the woods for the trees I’ve seen in a long time.

To start with, look what she’s done with this now global phenomenon called “Occupy Wall Street” – she has reduced it to the worst features of some of its least representative members – the whining self-centered smelly folk who provide the media, always looking for the outrageous and the controversial, with a demon to glom onto. The thousands of people protesting the abuse of power in the United States are reduced to people with “tattooed necks, gauged ears, facial piercings and dirty dreadlocks.”

Where in this “report” is the big picture, the full extent of what the movement represents and who all is involved?

I won’t pick apart her arguments one by one. Others have already done it in the commentary to her article.

But just let me say this. Ms. Hicks’ putdown of this cry for help in America is no different from watching a power-hungry bureaucrat turn back an application for food stamps because, contrary to the rules, it was filled out in pencil. Or a plea from a mother wanting her child out of jail because her English is ungrammatical. We often miss the injustices done by people claiming the high ground because they know how to make reasonable arguments and focus the story on the mud on a fireman’s boots while he tries to keep your house from burning down.

The right wing in America is pulling out all the stops trying to discredit the OWS movement, to hide the fact that money has so thoroughly corrupted our political system that there is widespread and increasing consensus that there is no reason anymore to work within the system. To help the democrats and work within the system, they believe, is no longer a viable option. Democrats too, they say - and I think the evidence isn't hard to find - write legislation on the basis of who pays them, not on what is good for the country.

Life isn’t fair, says Ms. Hicks. Kids should accept that. Really? We should accept without a whimper that between 1979 and 2007 the wealth of the richest 1% of Americans increased by 275% at the same time as the bottom 80% saw their wealth decline? And since the Supreme Court has decided there can be no limit to secret contributions to officials by wealthy corporations, we no longer have recourse to the usual channels to fix this inequity. Banging pots and pans (what Ms. Hicks dismisses as a “civic temper tantrum”) has become all that’s left.

It’s true that ultimately one cannot make changes just by making noises. Ultimately these cries of protest will have to be translated into action. The cries are not the solution. But they are the wake-up call. Ms. Hicks is blaming the alarm clock for not getting out of bed and going to work. She’s blaming the young for not being clean and polite. Fine, but while you're nodding your head in agreement, be careful you're not still nodding when she blames the unemployed in a time of 10% inflation, for not working. And when she ignores the 10-12% figures when stressing on the 4% figure for college graduates, as if college kids should take their money and run and not see the plight of those is worse shape. One wonders why she would go to this length to twist and filter facts to make an argument.

I wondered why, until I realized she was writing for the Washington Times, the right wing Washington newspaper, which historian Thomas Frank of Harper's has called "a propaganda sheet whose distortions are so obvious and so alien that it puts one in mind of those official party organs one encounters when traveling in authoritarian countries." Hicks is endorsed by the likes of Michelle Malkin and touted for being on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club.

Mary Beth Hicks is the voice of the folks interested in keeping the wealth in the hands of America’s superwealthy, the republic of the people, by the people, for the people, be damned.

Hope you’re well,

Your cousin,



Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Matches to Kindling

The UC Davis story has staying power. In fact, it may still be growing. The headlines in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle read "UC Davis chancellor tearfully apologizes" and has a picture of Chancellor Linda Katehi, looking like she hasn't slept in 48 hours, being escorted by two burly guys to her car. And the online edition, SFGate, has a picture of the pepper spraying incident attached to the story of the “tearful” apology four days later.

Poor woman. You have to wonder if this isn't being overdone. But the rage has to go somewhere. Earlier there was a picture of her walking to her car at night past students lined up, watching in stone-cold silence as she passed. The paper called it a "perp walk." There are pictures everywhere of signs, "Resign, resign!" Interesting that both the chancellor and the police chief are women. How times have changed.

Charlie Rose had two especially interesting interviews on last night, one with Dov Seidman, and the other with David Brooks. If you go in the next couple of days, this link will work. After that, you can still find the interviews, one more fascinating than the other. Seidman's going around giving big corporations lectures on being ethical. Brooks is talking about how government is broken but the country is very healthy because, he says, "Americans still trust strangers and can build organizations” while most of the world is still wary of outsiders." Interesting social analysis, even though most analysis on that level often misses the devils in the details.

One of them mentioned the power of single individuals to either change the world or represent change of some kind, thanks to the internet and the fact that things regularly go viral now. And nothing illustrates that better than this Davis story. Davis is a kind of out of the way school, very much a country cousin to UC Berkeley and UCLA. Known for its School of Veterinary Medicine and its Department of Viticulture and Enology (and how many of those do you see around?) A place that suggests earthiness, and calm and steady hard work. Now you hear people criticizing the administration for forgetting its educational purpose and being all about management and control. They're taking a beating.

I just got off the phone. It rang before 9 o’clock this morning and it was somebody from the DCCC – the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the folks working to get Democrats into office nationwide. I usually hang up quickly, sometimes complaining about telephone solicitations, usually asking them to take my name off donor lists. The last time somebody from the DCCC called I went on at length about how I’ve decided not to send another nickel to political campaigns as long as the system stays broken. This morning the young lady was way ahead of me. “And just who’s going to fix it?” (she stopped before she actually said, “Mr. Smarty Pants.”) We talked a full fifteen or twenty minutes. Not smart on her part if she’s serious about fund raising. But in the end, she got fifty bucks out of me, not because I’ve changed my mind about the broken system, but because I couldn’t not reward a bright eyed young woman who talked about daily arguments with her grandparents who feel as I do about the failure of the system in the United States. I immediately regretted it, when the next item in my inbox was a solicitation for funds from AlterNet. “Please support AlterNet’s coverage of OWS,” it says. Precisely the kind of thing I told the woman I wanted to send my pocket change to, instead of things that keep the system going.

In the end, my small contributions won’t make any difference, except that they do hold off despair and cynicism for another day. The letters to the editor are filled with complaints about how smelly and stupid and destructive the occupy movements are. And they all miss the point, which is that things are stirring and there’s no telling where they will go. The cops with their batons and their pepper spray are already iconic images of the system gone wrong.

Now I’m wondering if the rage can lose Ms. Katehi her job, or if it should. I know the buck has to stop somewhere, and too often it stops before it gets to the top. But on the surface of things, it would seem counterproductive to push Linda Katehi aside.

I just checked her background. Turns out her full name is Pisti Basile "Linda" Katehi-Tseregounis, and she’s fourteen years younger than me. She was born in Athens and was raised on Salamis Island, which, I am told, was mentioned by Homer. She’s an electrical engineer and computer scientist, holds nineteen U.S. patents and has authored some 650 publications. Doesn’t sound like one of the bad guys. But she may take the blame. Particularly when it gets out that her salary is $400,000, paid directly by California taxpayers. The same ones that send their kids off to college to study winemaking and to research leukemia in cats.

The images of two UC campus police forces, one at Berkeley, with police punching kids in the gut with their batons, and one at Davis, with the vivid color of red pepper being sprayed directly into kids’ eyes, were matches to a pile of dry kindling.

There’s so much to this story of unrest in America.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Working, working

Are all these Occupy Movements working? I think they are.

To say that right now, as they are closing down encampments in Oakland and San Francisco as well as in Zuccotti Park in New York and elsewhere, may sound unduly optimistic. But I really think they are.

Yesterday I blogged a quick impression of the goings on at Sproul Hall at the UC Berkeley campus and the start of the march down Bancroft to downtown Berkeley. I’ve said before that I think this movement is too big and complex for neat and tidy summaries, so let me continue with some more pieces, without tying them together, necessarily.

After my snapshot of the happy crowd yesterday getting their start at Telegraph and Bancroft I note with pleasure that by later in the evening they had swelled to five thousand by police estimates, up to ten thousand, by organizer estimates. They remained peaceful, and focused on information exchanges after they had circled back, including a speech by Robert Reich on the steps of Sproul Hall, made famous around the world by Mario Savio, and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. Reich’s message was that when the Supreme Court can make corporations equal to citizens we all lose, and when there are tuition increases as sudden and as steep as there have been recently, equal access to information and to power disappears. The threat to democracy is the same now as it was then. In that moment Reich became the voice of the Occupy movement.

It’s part of the story that those steps were officially named the Mario Savio steps in 1997 and everybody who gathers there today gets to stand on his shoulders. Today the events in Berkeley are part of a larger movement centered in New York, even though the heart of the protests here are the radical increases in tuition at UC and California State University campuses.

While this was going on, a man at the Haas School of Business, a five-minute walk away, pulled a gun out of his backpack and a cop shot him. He died in hospital a short while ago. Unlike the killing last week at the BART station near Occupy Oakland, this story didn’t even make the front page of this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle. (It was there, but on page 14.) As with the Oakland killing, there doesn’t appear to be any connection with the protest march. Just random acts of violence, the Oakland one apparently a gang related thing, the Berkeley one apparently a nut case. Nothing new there. Just more evidence of social decay.

Among the information being generated – whether the Occupy movements are responsible for this consciousness, I can’t be sure, but it seems likely – is the heightened awareness of how many of our leaders are in the 1%. Mayor Bloomberg, for example, the man shutting down Zuccotti Park. And Nancy Pelosi. The paper this morning reported that her family has assets of some $43.4 million, and that includes holdings in Alcoa and Dow Chemical Company, among other big corporations.

I sent Nancy Pelosi $50, and have a thank you note with her alleged signature to show for it, when the health care bill passed. Now I’m seeing her in the same light I see Diane Feinstein. She’s another local democrat who does so many things I admire. But they both work for the system and the system is revealing itself to be not just broken, but for all intents and purposes, unfixable. The fact that Diane Feinstein’s personal fortune was a mere $23 million in 2003, but by 2005 was, by some estimates, as high as $99 million may be no reason to rank her with the greedy bankers of Wall Street, but we’re wondering now. How does this system work, where her husband gets award after award for being a philanthropist, but the state she represents is about to stop educating many of its children and taking care of many more of its poor.

I know she’s fighting a good fight – and so is Pelosi - to turn this around, but as we move into the Occupy Wall Street era, when the argument that if you’re rich you earned it has started to make people’s blood boil, we’re going to want to hear a lot more people asking the kinds of questions Steve Croft of 60 Minutes just asked Nancy Pelosi. 60 Minutes ran a piece this week on the way Congress has made it possible for its members to do insider trading legally. She may have a better answer to the question than she was able to come up with at the spur of the moment, and I’d rather be governed by a philanthropist than a Scrooge, but the questions of wealth distribution are beginning to take shape.

After years of battling with my friends who voted for Ralph Nader, years of arguing our system leaves us no choice but to vote for the lesser evil, I’m no longer buying the argument. Like many who represent the heart of the Occupy Movements, I see the valiant efforts of Feinstein and Pelosi as ineffective. It’s not that the system once was equitable and has now become inequitable. It’s that when everybody was moving on up the inequities were masked. Occupy Wall Street has forced us to look at the system, and we’re beginning to see more clearly it was broken all along.

It’s an unanswered question how many people have started seeing the superrich in a new light, and asking questions they haven’t asked in a while, but it’s clear that’s just what’s happening. Money, like fire, is both necessary and a two-edged sword, and I think maybe the fact that Diane Feinstein’s wealth can go from $22 to $99 million in two years suggests the country is burning down.

Look almost anywhere and you find more evidence. Behind the scandal at Penn State is a story not just about child abuse but about big money and a university defined not so much as an educational institution but as just another piece of corporate America.

Occupy Wall Street may not be the only reason for this sudden focus on the corruption of big money and America’s plutocratic government, but it's got to be the main reason.

When the nice young man from the Democratic Central Committee asked me why I had not sent in my contribution to the party this year, I was able to tell him I’m not a Democrat any more. I’m with the Occupy movements, I told him, hoping to take our political life to a higher level of effectiveness. He gave me a good argument. You need clear goals you can implement, he said. Right, I said. And your implementable goals are...?

OK, so it’s pretty much all consciousness raising at the moment. But it feels like the right path, at least. America’s two-party system doesn’t seem to be taking us anywhere.

Every day I see criticism of this attitude in letters to the editor. Like the folks in the coffee shop yesterday asking, “Do they even know what they want?” “What ARE they after, anyway?” Lech Wałęsa spoke out yesterday and offered the advice that you can’t just ask questions, you have to provide answers. He says his Solidarity Movement that began at the Gdansk Shipyards worked because they had a plan and Occupy doesn’t.

But what he is missing, I think, is the fact that by the time he got Solidarity started the will to fight the tyranny of the Polish leadership and Soviet imperialism was already there and well developed. His supporters had watched their colleagues shot and killed by gunfire raining down from helicopters.

The American situation is radically different. Americans are just beginning to realize how fat and lazy and uninformed we are. We are still coming to terms with the fact that what we learned about our great democracy in high school simply isn’t true. Sometimes it’s harder to fight the naïve than it is to fight the tyrannical. And it gets even more complicated when you see how naïve the Occupy folks themselves can be, with their insistence on a complete lack of a power structure, for example. Warren Buffet is making their case, and so are, I suspect, Pelosi and Feinstein, whom I just sort of scattered some anti-glitter on for possibly not the best of reasons.

Dig a little deeper for detail and some interesting things show up. The fact that a judge ruled that the Boston Occupy could not be shut down, for example. Or the fact that one of the Occupy cities is Salt Lake City, of all places. Or the fact that in Berkeley a city councilman sent out an e-mail urging Berkeley citizens to support the Occupy movement. And then it turns out that an Oakland city councilwoman tipped off the Oakland demonstrators about Monday’s police raid on their encampment. Support is coming from a broad front, including from within the system, in other words.

Stay tuned. Occupy, despite its name, isn’t about territory; it’s about an idea, and it’s pretty clear the time for that idea has come. They’re being dismantled at the moment, but they’ll be back. Have a look at their website, if you have any doubt. And at the other places in Spain, Germany, and Belgium where the spark has been kindled.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Piano, piano

Gorgeous day in Berkeley today. Temperature in the high 60s. The mood is copasetic.

I walked up to campus because I got an e-mail from one of the city council members urging people in the community to show their support for the students rallying today, and hell, when government calls, I answer the call.

As I approached the campus I expected to hear some crowd noises, but all I saw was people going about their business. There was in fact a crowd in front of Sproul Hall, but the mood was festive, not angry. How can one be angry on a day like this, with the sun shining down. New England has been without electricity for a week, but we’re still running around in T-shirts.

I took a few pictures of the signs and the crowds and settled in for a coffee and a scone. When I want to guilt myself, I describe myself as somebody who, when the revolution comes, will be complaining either that there’s no public transportation to take me there, or that it’s late, or that there’s no bus stop right in front of a coffee shop.

Two students were at the table next to me. They were using words like hegemonic and commodify, but they were discussing philosophy, not politics. When the crowd paraded by, they stopped what they were doing. One of them commented, “Do they have an agenda? Or are they just angry?” The other one answered, “Who knows what they want. I think they don’t even know what they want.”

It was hard to keep my mouth shut. Here were two students who evidently had so much money they didn’t seem to realize, or care, that most of the signs had to do with a 60% tuition raise. They were dead wrong. The students knew exactly what they wanted. They wanted to pay a whole lot less for their education. And how dare you use words like hegemonic and be so friggin clueless?

They left before I could poison their coffee, and a woman sat down with earphones in her ears. Good, I thought. I can get back to my reading. But she didn’t seem to notice I was reading. “What’s the protest all about?” she asked. “Did something happen?”

God, another one, I thought. How are we ever going to fix the world with everybody so damned detached. I explained that this was both a protest over tuition hikes and a march of solidarity with the Occupy movements now spreading around the world. Turns out she was a professor. And her question said more about her fear that there might have been more violence than that she was as clueless as the philosophers.

I walked home and apologized to the dogs for not taking them with me. Don’t want them anywhere near an unruly crowd, but today they would have been completely safe.

So often I get angry that people aren’t angry. When Harvey Milk was killed and we marched down Market Street with candles, I remember a guy standing and watching the mass of folk march by, shouting, “Where is your rage? Where is your rage?”

That was not a time for rage. It was a time for sadness.

And today was not a time for rage, either. As city administrations move to clear out the Occupy Movements because they have in large part been hijacked by violent outsiders, and as people in the Occupy protests themselves work out the next steps, this little corner of the world did its thing in a very slow and peaceful way. A little protesting. A little sign carrying. A whole bunch of smiling faces. A couple conversations in the coffee shop. And then home to feed the dogs and think about dinner.

Piano, piano, si va lontano. Easy, easy, if we’re to go a long way.