Monday, January 31, 2011

So you voted against single-payer healthcare?

A Federal judge has just ruled that our new health care plan is unconstitutional.

Well, I could have told you that.

If we had single payer healthcare – that’s another way of saying a national health care plan, where every person in the country has access to medical care and we all share the burden of the cost, each according to his or her ability to pay – we'd be more like the rest of the world where "compassionate conservatism" is not just an empty slogan. We would live less in fear of getting sick. We would not have to listen constantly to that little voice in our head that says maybe Calvin was right and rich is the same as smart and favored by God and we’re not rich because we’re lazy and stupid and who are we to tax the rich, anyway?

If we had single payer healthcare we would be of a mind to remember that our founding ideology was a humanist one, where each individual counted, instead of having to live in a broken down democracy where those who interpret the constitution tell us corporations, who no longer even have to be made up of Americans, by the way, can use their wealth unhindered to influence the election of people who make the rules.

If we had single payer healthcare we wouldn’t have to stand by as our congress actually votes to return us to the day when thirty or forty million people are without any health care at all, when you can be refused coverage simply because you need it, where you can lose it if you actually use it.

We don’t have single payer health care because our president, who went to the wall over healthcare instead of closing Guantanamo, instead of getting out of the treasury busting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, instead of fixing the runaway greed of Wall Street, said he could never get it through congress. And why? Because the insurance industry owns Congress.

We don’t have single payer healthcare because too many Americans believe liars like Michelle Bachmann who call it socialist and are too stupid to realize that it’s no more socialist than public schools, public libraries, social security, state issued marriage and driver’s licences, a national post office, and government regulation of how much arsenic you are allowed to put in children’s school lunches.

What we do have is a law, which when it goes into effect, will require citizens to make already wealthy private insurance companies wealthier still. By making them buy their insurance plans.

And now, a federal judge, has declared that that law forcing citizens to make wealthy people wealthier is unconstitutional.


It all makes sense in the end.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Der heilige Schein (The Holy Illusion) - A Review

A brief preface to the reader:

I am aware that writing a review in English of Der heilige Schein,(1) a book available until now only in German, may strike some as premature. And the fact that many sources referred to are in German as well may also add frustration to the experience. But I trust English readers will share my appreciation of the timeliness of the topic, and join me in pressing for a translation at the earliest possible date. The book is a window into the current struggle going on in the German Catholic church over homosexuality and church policy, with implications for the church world wide. Its relevance to the gay liberation struggle is unmistakable and its challenge to organized religion argues for debate and discussion of its content even before all the details are made available beyond the German-speaking world.


David Berger is a German Roman Catholic theologian who is gay. Until April of last year, he lived his life according to the church’s policy of silence in regard to its gay and homosexually inclined members, a policy not unlike the U.S. military’s policy of “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.” His devotion to the church awakened in him an interest in its guiding moral philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, and his scholarship on Thomas Aquinas was sufficiently well received that he was offered the job as editor of the journal Theologisches (Theological Issues), a forum from which he articulated his support for conservative catholicism. This put him in good standing even with arch conservative organizations such as the Pius Brotherhood and gave him entrée into conservative circles in Germany and abroad.

All this came to an end last April 11 when Berger turned on his television to hear Bishop Overbeck of Essen say on a talk show that being homosexual is a sin because “homosexuality is contrary to nature.”(2) As a theologian, Berger understood that the church’s official position was to “hate the sin but love the sinner,” to split being from doing, make sexual acts sinful, but speak of gays themselves with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”(3) Two days later, Tarcisio Bertone, second in command in the Vatican after the Pope, announced that there was no connection between celibacy and child abuse in the church but that the abuse was a result of homosexuality.(4) In rapid succession, others were coming to the defense of the church and its decision to protect itself above all other goals and its insistence that the church, not the state, had priority in dealing with child abusers.

The deflection of the problem onto homosexuality was especially galling. Archbishop Grings of Brazil urged the criminalization of homosexuality, and Tuscan Bishop Scatizzi claimed homosexuality was responsible for making the church effeminate.(5) Bothered by the discrepancy he saw between statements of this nature and indications that homosexuals in the priesthood might make up as many as 50% of the priesthood, possibly even more, Berger published an article in the Frankfurter Rundschau on April 23, entitled "Ich darf nicht länger schweigen (I can stay silent no longer.)"(6) That article has now been expanded into a book, published by Ullstein, entitled The Holy Illusion.(7)

How one reads Illusion depends on whether one identifies with the Catholic Church and, if so, how one understands its authority. Non-catholic gays’ first reaction is apt to be “told you so,” or “so what else is new?” And at the other end of the spectrum, arch conservative Catholics are calling the book a revenge work by a disturbed sinner. One does find oneself wondering at times whether there isn’t a bit too much made of the reinstatement of holocaust denier Williamson, the apparitions of Mary, and the influence of radical right organizations such as the Society for the Protection of Tradition, Family and Private Property (TFP), the Servants of Jesus and Mary, the Pius Brotherhood.

But that begs the question of whether Berger is right in claiming the church has moved so far to the right that it is beginning to resemble the fundamentalists of North America.(8) In any case, even a cursory look at the discourse on the book in two online German catholic websites, and, would suggest Berger has touched a very raw nerve indeed., a privately funded conservative catholic website based in Austria, continues to call him a liar(9) – and they have church support.(10), another privately funded German language conservative catholic website based in California, has referred to him as a “narcissistic sodomist.”(11) To be sure, the church has actually distanced itself from, no doubt because it frequently goes off the deep end, suggesting Berger may be planning a suicide attempt on the pope, for example. But with the pope’s decision to take a “big tent” approach by returning to the fold not only Williamson but previously excommunicated followers of French Archbishop Lefebvre, founder of the radical-right Society of St. Pius,(12) Berger’s view of the church as in thrall to the right can’t be too far off the mark.

The church mirrors the polarized political situation in the United States, with a far left, as represented by the liberation theologists of Latin America and others who focus on pastoral care and social welfare, and a right wing focused on authority and disciplined adherence to tradition.(13) Any discussion such as Berger’s in which a change of heart lifts one out of one camp and into the other opens up the question of who speaks for the church and what its role is across time.

Some of Berger’s claims – that the church has a problem with sexuality, that its antimodernist stance is self-destructive, that its decision to circle the wagons rather than accept responsibility for the priest abuse scandal has been a total disaster – are not controversial. What is raising eyebrows is his claim that up to half of all priests are gay, that the church welcomes them because they can be controlled by guilt and – his central point, and hence the book’s title – that the reason the church functions at all is because it has prioritized the appearance of things over reality.

One needs to distinguish between “gay” priests and priests who are “homosexually inclined.” (And this applies not just to priests, obviously.) “Gay” implies an embraced identity, “homosexually inclined” almost invariably suggests a rejection of that identity. Although gay activists often lay claim to the homosexually inclined (“he’s gay but doesn’t want to admit it”), Berger’s book cannot be understood outside a framework in which one makes a clear distinction between the two.

Berger embraced his sexuality early on, entered into a lifetime partnership with another man and took full advantage of the fact that as long as he didn’t do it in the road and scare the horses the church would leave him alone, once he had established his conservative credentials. Progressives, he says, might have bugged him until he came out. Conservatives were masters at don’t ask/don’t tell. While willing to hide the relationship in order to build a career as a theologian and make a name for himself as a Thomas Aquinas scholar and member of the Papal Academy, he was not willing to relinquish that relationship or deny it officially, which he would have had to do if he had become a priest. As it was, Berger’s use of the don’t ask/don’t tell policy gave him more than a decade as a rising young star within the church until his outing.

His detractors would have it that he was “exposed” when his association with gays was revealed on his Facebook page. Berger’s own version of the story is that such association was manufactured by those who were becoming concerned over his apparent slipping away from loyalty to an archconservative ideology, and that it was his disgust with the failure of Overbeck and Bertone to live up to the church’s own policy of “respect, compassion and sensitivity” that drove him to come out. Wherever the truth lies, Berger’s outing, forced or voluntary, exposes the polarization within the church between those who stand behind John XXIII and his policy of “aggiornamento” (updating) as expressed in Vatican II, and virtually all of his successors to some degree or other, who would return the church to where it was before.

Vatican II, or “The Second Vatican Council”(14) ran from 1962 to 1965 with the express purpose of “bringing in fresh air.” Translated into concrete policy, this involved seeking greater unity with other Christians (ecumenism), righting the wrongs of the past (particularly anti-semitism), stressing the entire “ecclesia” (all catholic believers) as the heart of the church and not the church hierarchy, a move marked by saying mass in local languages and abandoning Latin, and moving the altar out so that the priest faces the congregation and the ceremony becomes more like a feast around a table than a mystical ritual mumbled by a priest in which members have little part to play. The church hierarchy was arguably weakened as the emphasis moved from giving and taking instruction to negotiation of meaning through dialogue.

Opponents wasted no time trying to restore the authority of the papacy to where it was when Pius IX declared himself “infallible” when speaking “ex cathedra” (officially). One group at the extremes, the “sedevacantists” (from sede vacantis – “empty seat,” i.e., there is no pope on the throne), even denies the authority of the current popes.

Berger devotes much of his book to discussions of various traditionalist groups of which he was once a part, a move which can’t help but add to the suggestion this is a “work of revenge.” What suggests otherwise is his claim, widely shared by others in the church, that it is not homosexuality that is disordered, but the church’s irrationality when it comes to sexual issues – premarital sex, adultery, abortion, and birth control – as well as divorce and euthanasia. Berger notes that a conservative stance on these issues is virtually always taken by those who also take a conservative stance on to the Tridentine (Latin) mass, and those persuaded by the apparitions of Mary and other phenomena that tie the church to a bygone prescientific age.

Like many who take this view, Berger paints a picture of an institution where “the pious are dumb and the intelligent are not pious.” Beyond the claim that homosexuality and the church’s manipulation of it is a big part of what makes the church go round, there is a richness of detail in his argument that the church would lose nothing and gain much by embracing its progressive side and surrendering its blind faith in its own power.

Especially irksome to his distractors is the fact that in leaving the conservative camp, Berger, the neo-Thomist, wants to take Thomas Aquinas with him. He points out that Thomas was a man of forward looking ideas, not a blind follower of authority, that he stressed “the thing (itself) must speak, not the person.” A non-literalist reading of Thomas, Berger insists, would enable one to appreciate his original contributions while also recognizing his limitations as a man from a prescientific age.

Over and over again whether in dealing with the details involving the priest scandal in the German-speaking world, at St. Pölten, the prestigious Canisius-Kolleg prep school in Berlin, Ettal and elsewhere, or with reasons homosexually inclined men enter the church in large numbers, Berger attempts to show how a lack of openness is dishonesty plain and simple, and how that dishonesty is eating the church out from inside.

Many homosexually inclined men are drawn into the institution because it provides a place where the vow of chastity relieves them of the burden of explaining their sexuality to themselves and others. Others come seeking the benefits of a warm and welcoming brotherhood and the status it provides those who have lived their lives in a Catholic culture. Still others are drawn in because of a love of the traditionalist esthetic, the art, the ritual, the costumes, the pageantry. The church may like to think that its priests have “given their (hetero)sexuality” to God, but there is ample evidence, says Berger, that that narrative is more imagined than real and the motivations more complex. Once in, they discover there is a don’t ask/don’t tell policy in place and as long as they play along, they will get along. Many project their shame onto others and become the church’s strongest defenders of its homophobic policies.

Berger has been criticized for lack of evidence. speaks of “numbers he made up” and calls his analysis “pure projection.”(15) All he has to offer is anecdotal evidence, a priest who gazed longingly here, spoke too vehemently there. He provides no statistical data to support his claim. also throws back in his face that the lies he attributes to the church are lies he himself participated in. But such criticism is unfair. First of all, of course he participated in the lies. That’s the point of the book, that one day the lies became too much. As for evidence, how is evidence ever possible of closetedness, when closetedness is all about suppressing evidence? How can one reveal the discrepancy between what the church says and does when the church is committed to secrecy? Berger has stated his case. It remains for others to confirm or deny. Or at least provide additional perspectives. As with all qualitative research findings, the book’s strength is its suggestive power as well as the internal consistency of Berger’s examples. As pieces to be assembled at some future time with other accounts, they will become part of a greater whole. Whether its claims pan out, its validity as a tale of one man’s journey of discovery will hold.

Another criticism of the book is that Berger’s main point can be made in a chapter or two, and that Berger has padded the book with extraneous material. He has made the book more about himself, and the details and consequences of his coming out. Not that these details aren’t worth reading. On the contrary, the description of the stress of working around secrecy and having to lie by omission is thought-provoking. It’s just that it does appear to be two books in one: the first an indictment of the church’s homophobic stance, the second a tale of self-discovery, maturation, and moral development.

Berger’s right to teach at the Papal Academy has been taken away,(16) he is routinely savaged in such lay catholic websites as and, and many consider his breaking of the taboo of discussing sexuality within the church unforgivable treason. But Berger maintains sufficient humility to come across sympathetically. Progressives within the church and outside will have no trouble interpreting his efforts as merely shifting seats from the right side of the institution, where the traditionalists sit, and taking a seat on the left. On the right are those who favor the Latin mass, those who oppose admitting women to the clergy and many of the “homosexually inclined.”

On the left side of the institution are those, including partially or totally out gays, who are urging the church to modernize, take on a more ecumenical stance, and make pastoral care central focus rather than which robes to wear for which ceremony and season. One who reads The Holy Illusion to find support for bashing the church will be disappointed. Berger’s position is that of insider reformer, not iconoclast, or cynic. Just as some American political conservatives worry that any move toward the left leads directly to socialism, church conservatives often claim that any move in the liberal direction toward ecumenism starts one on the path to Protestantism and eventually secularism.(17) Both are misinformed. The pope, especially the current one, Benedict XVI, may have nudged the church back in the direction of Vatican I, but the large majority of church members themselves, like Berger, take their cue from Vatican II.

Benedict claimed his reinstatement of the followers of Lefebvre, including Williamson was done in the interests of church unity. But if increasing the size of the tent were really his goal, he might consider reinstating members from the left as well. Instead, he continues to reject much of the work of so-called liberation theologists, and has made no moves to reinstate theologians like Küng. There is no way for Berger to take on the homophobia of the right without denying the right of the pope and the curia to speak for the entire church. To the arch conservatives, that makes Berger not a reformer (and who needs reform anyway?), but a traitor.

Berger may simply want to clean house. But he has opened Pandora’s Box. If he is wrong about the percentage of potential gays within the church, the book will have little impact. And even if he is right, things could go on as they have before, with gays pressed by their own guilt into silence and homophobic complicity. But one has to assume there is at least a kernel of truth (and possibly much more than a kernel) to what he is saying, that without the homosexually inclined the church could not function. And that raises the question of how, if its “homosexually inclined” do follow Berger’s path and embrace their “gay” identity, the church will survive in its present form. Berger mentions only in passing the church’s decision to work harder to “weed out” gays before they join, but if he is right about the numbers, this will only drive gays underground further or diminish the applicant pool considerably.

Moreover, with homosexuality becoming more widely accepted in society at large, fewer and fewer men will seek out the priesthood as a place to hide. And those who do find their way in will not be as easily manipulated by guilt and shame. Something will have to give. Will the church change its attitude toward non-reproductive sexuality and its position on the role women have to play within the church? And, if not, where will the priests come from?


(1) Berger, David, Der heilige Schein: Als schwuler Theologe in der katholischen Kirche (The Holy Illusion: A Gay Theologian in the Catholic Church), Ullstein: 2010

(2) The popular television talk show hosted by Anne Will brought Bishop Overbeck together with filmmaker, and one of Germany's most articulate voices for gay liberation, Rosa von Praunheim. It is available on YouTube here.

The following exchange ensued at minute 2:04-2:10:

[German original] Rosa von Praunheim: Homosexualität ist keine Sünde.

Bischof Overbeck: Das ist eine Sünde. Wissen Sie ganz klar und deutlich dass es das ist. Das widerspricht der Natur. Die Natur des Menschens ist angelegt auf das Miteinander von Mann und Frau.

RvP: Völliger Quatsch. Das glauben Sie doch selbst nicht.

[English translation] Rosa von Praunheim: Homosexuality isn’t a sin.

Bishop Overbeck: It is a sin. We know with absolute certainty that it is a sin. It goes against nature. The nature of man is based on a man and a woman being together.

RvP: Total nonsense. You don’t even believe that yourself.

(3) Catechism of the Catholic Church: With modifications from the Editio Typica, Art. 2358, NY: Doubleday, 1995


(5) cited in Vorwort (Foreword), p. 14


(7) I am using the title translation from a Spiegel article,,1518,730520,00.html, the only one I have been able to find on the book in English so far.

(8) a point Berger reiterates elsewhere – see, for example,, ca. minute 2:20


(10) from the likes of Kurt Krenn, at least, former bishop of St. Pölten



(13) Besides the Liberation Theologists, for whom there is considerable sympathy in Germany, as elsewhere, there is the IKVU, for example, the Initiative Kirche von unten (Initiative of the Church from Below) – on the left, theologians like Hans Küng and Eberhard Schockenhoff, perhaps Germany's leading moral theologian (both men have lost their authority to speak for the church, incidentally). On the right, besides the Pius Brotherhood, the Sedevacantists, the TFP groups already mentioned, there is Opus Dei. Besides and, there is, the internet TV version of This list is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but to illustrate the range of thought even within the German catholic church. A separate issue is the degree to which the current pope has moved to the right.

(14) the first, where “papal infallibility” was proclaimed, was called by Pius IX in 1869-70



(17) See the Pius Brotherhood’s description of Vatican II, ecumenism and the shedding of the Latin mass as “protestantization,” for example:



Friday, January 21, 2011

A Bilingual School Turns 50

Yesterday, somebody made the mistake of asking me how I became a teacher, and had to then listen to my long version of how “It all started back in 1962…” when I was dealing with a desire to emigrate to Berlin. I had spent two very enriching years there during the Cold War, when I was still young and idealistic enough to believe I was part of the defence of Berlin against Soviet invasion. We understood, at some level, that they could march in whenever they chose to, but that idea, when you’re 20, only makes life more interesting.

I had two important connections to Berlin. One was a favorite aunt, who kept me coming back another thirty years before she died at 94. The other was the “school inspector” for Berlin, whose acquaintance also turned into a strong friendship in ensuing years. It was he who, upon hearing me wonder aloud if I might emigrate and spend the rest of my life in Berlin, suggested I try to get a job as a bilingual teacher at the John F. Kennedy School, which had just opened, and where he sent his daughter.

It became a plan. I would go back to San Francisco, sign myself up for a degree program in teaching English as a foreign language, and get myself on the JFKS faculty. And live happily ever after in the city that excited me enough to seriously give up my American citizenship – or at least give up calling America home. I never actually got to consider applying for German citizenship, and suspect because of the emphasis on both/and in the JFKS I might well have held onto my American identity.

All water under the bridge, since I went to Japan and made another life, opening up yet another bilingual/bicultural door and ultimately making a family with a Japanese man.

But Berlin continues to call to me after all these years, and the Kennedy School, too, although I’ve never been on its premises, remains an icon of a path not taken, a history of things that never happened.

I was in Berlin again last June. Some friends were away and their apartment was empty, and their generosity allowed me to spend a month there, at long last, catching up and getting better acquainted with the new Berlin, post fall of the wall. Another friend introduced me to somebody who worked at the American Embassy, and through her I met some of the current teachers at the Kennedy School. It’s always a challenge not to unplug that “history of things that never happened” and let it spill over, but I managed to talk less and listen more and marvel at my own inability to distinguish between Germans who speak English natively or Americans who speak Germans natively.

I worked in Japan with bilinguals, even taught a seminar for a while in bilingualism, and followed with great interest the research and the actual practice of teaching and learning in two languages and cultures. Sociolinguistics was yet another path not taken for me when I passed up a life of academic research for teaching, having decided early on I’d rather work at doing one well than both in some mediocre fashion. Many do do both, by the way. I just didn’t think I could.

One of the things that came out of that experience was a commitment to the both/and approach and a belief that I didn’t need to kill off the obnoxious missionary urges I seemed to be born with. I could simply direct them into a crusade against those who devoted themselves to the provincial faith in a single religion, a single set of cultural practices, a single language and a single homeland. The proudest moment in my career may well have been the time a young woman said to me, “I thought all these years I had to kill the American in me to become Japanese again after I came back here. You’ve taught me I can be American and Japanese at the same time.”

This morning, quite by chance, I happened across a video of the John F. Kennedy school’s fiftieth anniversary celebration this past October. I clicked on it with something more than idle curiosity, obviously, but never expected I’d be glued to the whole two hours before going down to breakfast.

It’s not of general interest, I realize. But if you want to have a peek, click here. Watch the code switching, the American ambassador whose wretched pronunciation actually makes him a model for those struggling for bilingual mastery. Listen to the speech of a former director telling anecdotes about introducing his German colleagues to the American world of guns and fear of terrorism. Watch the second graders in the last few minutes (you can push the button back and forth to advance or go back in time).

My colleagues in Japan, especially, will appreciate the fact that JFKS is a school that began as a way of bridging the enormous gap between kids of American GIs of the occupying American army and German kids whose parents wanted to do all they could to make sure the world of World War II never returned. And now, fifty years later, it has moved well beyond its idealistic “German” and “American” friendship base and become a seasoned model for how to live in the world as a both/and kind of person.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reading Huck Finn

I’ve been reading some of the discussions on the sanitized version of Huckleberry Finn due out in February, where 'nigger' has been replaced by 'slave' and 'injun' by 'Indian.'

I think the decision to sanitize, if that’s what it is, is wrong-headed in a number of ways. First off, 'nigger' and 'slave' are not synonymous. 'Slave' is an objective term. 'Nigger' is subjective. It’s a word so hot it practically carries the history of slavery, segregation and white supremacist bigotry all by itself in six letters. When Huck used it, he reflected the beliefs of the white power class of his time that blacks were lesser beings, and he was struggling with the cognitive dissonance. That struggle of conscience is at the very heart of the book. To take out a word essential to demonstrating and understanding Huck’s moral growth, is to cut the heart out of the book and subvert the whole purpose of literature – to broaden one’s experience and excite one’s imagination. And it’s bad enough that we obscure the past in every day life. To do this in an allegedly educational setting is shameful.

I’m not necessarily opposed to updating the language of great works of literature. Even sacred texts get modified. “Suffer the little children to come unto me…” is 17th Century English. Jesus speaking in 21st Century English would have said, “Let the little children come to me…” But the loss of the elegant sound of Elizabethan English is offset by better understanding, or so say the advocates of modern Bible translations. 'Let' is the modern word for 'suffer.'

But 'slave' is not the modern word for 'nigger.' The meaning of the text has been altered, and not for improved understanding, but to sell more books. The argument being made for the change is that teachers and school administrators will not use the book without the changes. We are urged to compromise so that more kids will know this wonderful book. And, of course, the sound of the coins in the coffers is a pleasant one.

Furthermore, the motivation behind the word alteration is also wrong, it seems to me. Somehow, changing 'nigger' to 'slave' is supposed to make the book more kid-friendly. But it’s not a kid’s book. It’s serious literature, and it’s filled with some unpleasant reality. If you think your kids are not ready for it, there are plenty of other books they can read instead. They can go on using nigger and bitch and fag on the playground, while harmony and innocence is the rule in the classroom. Thinking you’ve made this book into kiddie lit is really dumb.

As for whether kids are ready to read adult literature, somebody at The Christian Science Monitor thought to ask, "What would Mark Twain himself think of all this?" As you take note of his answer, note also how the answer will be understood one way if you take it literally, as many Americans these days seem to take most things, and another way if you are familiar with Mark Twain's talent for sarcasm.

What a tragedy that one would throw away an opportunity to educate. To point out that Huck Finn is a boy without much schooling who nonetheless has the wherewithal to spot the foolish cruelty of the world around him. That 'Nigger Jim' is a figure kids and adults alike have come to understand over time as heroic. An American hero. And a black man. How on earth does one justify closing one’s eyes to American history and culture at the very moment one makes the decision to teach Huck Finn?

The real issue is not the sanitizing/censorship, but the readiness of those we call to be educators. The real problem is not the text of Huck Finn, but the real or assumed inability of teachers to fasten their safety belts for the bumpy ride. This is it, kids. This is your country a century and a half ago. It’s about a white boy who has been taught to believe it’s his duty to return a slave to his owners, but whose gut tells him there’s something wrong with that. He’s not part of our world; he’s from another time. We have a hundred fifty years of experience on him, a hundred fifty more years in which to reflect on the evils of slavery, segregation and racism. Our experience tells us to avoid the n-word because it’s a white supremacist’s word. He had to work around the knowledge we now take for granted. Look closely at this story. What would you have done? Would you have had the courage to stick by Jim, the wisdom to see the folly of the world around you?

Of course there will be problems with immature kids and what they will do when the word 'nigger' is brought out in the open, rather than suppressed. You can be sure kids are familiar with hate speech. They know they can hurt a woman by calling her a bitch, a gay man by calling him a fag. There are times when people in charge have to focus on behavior and ignore the motivation. Like when kids are racing through the halls to get to class on time. And there are times when getting at motivation is what it's all about. In a class in American Literature, for example.

It’s not just that teachers lack courage and skill. It’s also, in many cases, that they lack institutional support to tackle challenges like this one. I know that many times teachers come home at the end of the day and say things like, “Today was a good day; nobody died.” But that’s not where the bar should be.

To teachers who insist the challenge is overwhelming, I’d like to say this. I know it’s hard to get things right. Give students materials that are too easy for them and you bore them and lose them. Give students materials that are too challenging and you frustrate them and lose them. You’ve got to do all you can to get it right.

But you’re not always going to get it right. You’re going to err in one direction or the other at times. At some point in the discussion of hate speech that would likely come out of a treatment of Huck Finn in class the students will learn that you took the word out because you thought they couldn’t handle it, or you left it in because you thought they could. Whatever you do, whether you overestimate them or underestimate them, they will find out, eventually. What would you rather say about your failure to get it right? That they didn’t rise to your expectations? Or that they didn’t sink to your expectations?


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Tommy made me do it

I was just reflecting on all the effort I’ve been spending lately knocking at the rusty doors of that anti-modern institution, the Catholic Church. “Leave it alone,” my friends tell me. “They’re history. We live in a secular state. They don’t count. Stop trying to lift them up off the rubbish heap of history.”

If I lived in Europe, I’d be more inclined to listen to that advice. But this is the United States of America, a nation still very much in thrall to institutional religion, and we are still fighting battles for human dignity against the retrograde forces of fundamentalist and authoritarian religion. As any Californian who followed the Prop. 8 debacle can tell you, when the Roman Catholic Church puts up the arrogance and the Mormon Church puts up the money, civil rights can be taken away, and those arguing this is a secular age have their argument pulled out from under them.

So “Ignore them” doesn’t strike me as the way to go. Which leaves us with two alternatives: fight them, or engage with them peacefully. Fighting comes more naturally. They are, after all, outrageous. Rage making. The image of this institution so filled with corruption and decay still laying claim to moral leadership still has the power to take your breath away. The arrogance of the claim of infallibility has never been matched.

But the long term solution, I think, is to dig around in what makes the church tick. The church itself is divided. To rage against “the church” is to reduce the complexity and allow the blindly authoritarian wing of the institution to speak for the entire institution. And that’s a cognitive, as well as a strategic error. There’s more to catholicism than silks and satins and ermines, and the claim of papal authority.

The German pope, Benedict XVI, is the latest and strongest example to date of restorationist popes, if you see what has happened to the church since Vatican II as restoration of catholic conservative forces, and you understand conservative as associated with papal centrality. Benedict is the latest and most ardent voice of resistance to modernity, or “aggiornamento” as John XXIII, the organizer of Vatican II, was urging. Instead of ecumenism, he has brought retrenchment. Instead of a forward looking attitude of humility in the face of a history of anti-semitism, he has brought a holocaust denier back into the fold and prayers for Jewish souls back into the mass. And he has bolstered up the notions of male dominance and sex for reproductive purposes only.

From a political perspective, “holding on to an unchanging tradition” or “supporting the status quo” to say the same thing in other words, is the best way to hold onto power, and making it doctrinal is the best way to convince others that what is is better than what might be. Standing firm within tradition ties you to those who have gone before, and numbers can be intimidating. Who are you to go against what has been held by billions of people through the ages?

Until modern secularism began taking hold, the greatest threat of all time to the Roman Catholic Church was the Protestant Reformation. And the greatest antidote, the intellectual grounding of the Counter-Reformation, has been Thomas Aquinas. Thomas was the first to set up for debate the natural against the supernatural, philosophical thought against theological thought, church against state and belief against science. Catholic theologians today may not all be Thomists, but they all acknowledge that Catholic thinking would not be what it is without this 13th century thinker. In fact, the previous pope Benedict actually declared at one point, “Thomas's thinking is the church’s thinking.” Leo XIII said pretty much the same thing and decreed that all Catholic seminaries and universities must teach Thomas's doctrines. Not only that, where Thomas did not speak on a topic, the teachers were "urged to teach conclusions that were reconcilable with his thinking" (the Encyclical, Aeterni Patris, of August 4, 1879). Thomas, now Saint Thomas, Leo declared, should be patron of all Catholic educational establishments.

OK, so now imagine you’re a woman who wants to become a priest. What does your patron saint of catholic thinking have to say about women? Women, he said, are a product of weak sperm. Women are deficiens et occasionatus (“unfinished” and “accidental” – occasionally translated, I’m told, “defective and misbegotten”). If, at the time of conception, the weather is muggy, the climate could have a negative affect on the sperm so that instead of producing a male, the pregnant woman produces a female. This makes it appropriate to treat her, not as a slave, because she is a creation of god, but, without question, as a subordinate. Looks like you’re out of luck, lady.

On the purpose of sex: Sex is for reproductive purposes only. Masturbation, oral sex and coitus interruptus are worse than rape. (No kidding. Worse, than rape.) Stick to the missionary position, because it’s harder to conceive when you go into other positions while doing it.

On animals: We have no duty to animals, because they have no souls. Cruelty to animals is not a good idea because it could lead us to become cruel to human beings, but there is no moral obligation to be kind to animals.

My purpose in bringing up these points is not to deny the genius of the man, nor argue against seeing him as a wise and learned man. But it does strike me that there is a danger in making a saint out of somebody who was obviously so terribly human, and limited by the ignorance and prejudices of his age.

If there is justification to resisting modern humanist gender equality, where is the Church coming from, if not Thomas Aquinas? And does one “correct” the man when he errs on the “weak sperm” theory? And if so, why not on the “naturally inferior” theory, as well?

All manner of pain and sorrow stem from unenlightened application of “natural theory.” Just listen to any discussion of gay rights in America these days. “It isn’t natural” is the number one homophobic argument. Ask the homophobe where he or she gets that idea from, and most can’t tell you. Mostly nowadays, that argument has become detached from the sex for reproductive purposes only argument, and is now spouted by rote.

But chances are, it’s from Thomas Aquinas. Whether it came directly from his writings, from a sermon in church, from discussion at the dinner table after church, from kids on the playground who got it from discussion at the dinner table after church, chances are, especially if you are a product of Western Civilization, it comes from Thomas.

We all have ways of separating truth from nonsense. Of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Robert E. Lee has thousands, possibly millions, of admirers, and not only among American Southerners, as a gentleman, a patriot, a man of honor. But he beat his slaves, and he fought and killed hundreds of thousands in a war to keep the federal government from taking away the right to hold slaves.

We make heros of all the wrong people because we’re all caught in the spirit of our times and blind to its evils. We need to let go of the need for heros, allow for the fact the Robert E. Lee loved his wife and children, but held ideas of an age we have excellent reasons to distance ourselves from. (And remember, by the way, that Goebbels, too, loved his children, without making other unnecessary comparisons between the two men.)

How nice if the Catholic Church could move on. Separate what Aquinas said that should endure and what he said that should not. How nice if it could recognize women are not a result of bad sperm.