Monday, May 23, 2011

Poor old Harold

I live in Berkeley, in the San Francisco Bay Area, not far from Alameda, where Harold Camping lives. When channel surfing late at night sometimes I would stop and listen to him for a minute or two, each time shaking my head in disbelief at the sheer goofiness of this guy. His appearance demands your attention. He’s a very skinny old man, dresses mostly in beige, sits in a chair surrounded by fake flowers, speaks slowly and deliberately and like all Bible thumpers has a great deal to say and absolutely nothing to discuss. His program is a call-in called Open Forum. Almost all callers have a question about scripture, and he flips through the dog-eared bible that sits permanently in his lap, and tells you how to interpret things. He has an answer to every question.

Occasionally he gets away from scripture and lectures you on his brand of Calvinist theology. Unlike the Catholics who believe you earn your way to heaven by doing good, or the Lutherans who argue it’s not good works but faith alone that will get you there, Camping takes the Calvinist line that God has already made the decision as to who has been saved and who has not, and just in case you’re one of the chosen, you’d better get your act together or you’re going to blow it.

His particular line of religious silliness would normally appear to be pretty harmless, and no goofier than any other. Most of us feel the urge to yawn and move on. But recently Camping left his world of fake flowers and beige silliness to capture his fifteen minutes of fame. He predicted the world would end two days ago, on May 21st, with earthquakes and fire starting at the International Date Line and moving around the world until sometime in October, by which time the saved would be raptured and the rest of us would end up as meat sizzling in a frying pan. He was adamant. Absolute. No doubt whatsoever.

Now the best thing his followers can hope for is that he was wrong by a few days, and it’s still going to happen. He himself answered the door just now looking like somebody had just stolen his blankie and he didn’t know where to turn.

After years of laughing at this silly old man, I am overcome (well, OK, just a little bit) with a sense of pity. I’m getting old myself, and I see my faculties slipping. I’m beginning to worry about walking downstairs, about losing my memory, about dribbling, stumbling, and making an ass of myself as old people so often do as they begin to lose their balance, and with it their dignity. I’m now looking at this old man and wishing I might find words of encouragement.

Pity is no virtue, and worrying about what happens to Harold Camping is pretty far down my list of priorities, but there, but for the grace of God, as the saying goes, go I. (Why did God spare me this embarrassment, Harold, and screw you, by the way?)

Normally I revel in every opportunity to gloat when another religious blowhard hits the dust. They do such harm, some of them, because they manipulate the vulnerable through fear and guilt. When they expose their own hypocrisy, or greed, or arrogance, you want to celebrate another victory for sunshine and light.

But this time, I’d kind of like to have old Harold over for tea and tell him everything is going to be all right.

This end of the world bullshit, this too shall pass.

Update: The links above to Harold Camping once had a video of him coming to the door, and it was the look in the eyes of this lost soul that prompted this reflection. Between the time I started writing and just now, that link has been taken down. The article is still there, but not the video. Another one, though, is available from some clown with a Rock Talk Radio program who says he’s talking with one of Camping’s friends who insists God has delayed the end of the world, so “we’ve got to hit up some more people” for contributions to get out the word.

Ah yes, the world goes on. Turns out Harold was wrong about the world ending and I was wrong about the bullshit ending.

It seems it’s set to go on for a while longer.

But Harold, I’m still willing to put the kettle on.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Three Different Squeaks

Our birthday bash for the dogs yesterday seems to have made an impression on my good friend Garren. He lives in Japan and writes what is for me the first source of information on the Tohoku disaster and breakdown of the Daiichi Power Plant at Fukushima. Not a happy picture, all told. As with all disaster stories, there seems to be a shelf life, and many are ready to pretend the problem has gone away and buy into the government plan that we all cool down and get back to normal.


Back here, we watch American democracy unravel, watch the foxes on Wall Street tending the hen houses increase their salaries on top of all the chickens they can eat, watch immigrants demonized, women's rights disappear, gay rights dry up, medical deductibles and co-pays get so high you can't go to a doctor, investigations of abuse by American troops in Iraq erased from the files, college tuition leap to new heights and kids everywhere turned away from college. Teachers maligned. Firemen and policemen de-unionized. Watch Planned Parenthood, Head Start and NPR demonized. Watch Senator Hatch argue we should continue to subsidize Exxon Mobil Conoco Phillips because Americans, he says, want to drive minivans and SUVs. They have kids, he says, and need the space. And the Wall Street Journal says we have to pay the oil company executives big bonuses because if we don’t they’ll take their companies off shore. And probably lower his salary. (He didn’t say that last bit.)


I told Garren I had so much fun at the dogs' birthday party yesterday, I am wondering if I could make a go as a dog party planner.

Beats reading the news these days.

Cake and ice cream and balloons and chocolate for miles…

The love in a pooch's gaze…

And you want us to worry about radiation?

Come on by. We didn't manage to get to the cupcakes. They're in the freezer with the leftover ice cream. And if that runs out, there are three grocery stores within a ten-minute walk.

And Bounce and Miki have a full box of toys they’ll be happy to share. One of them is an alligator that squeaks in three different places.

Each one a different squeak.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Wizard Wanted

“I love my mom, but I don’t have the right to marry her.”

That was Timothy M. Dolan who said that, archbishop of New York and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Hope he was just having a low-IQ day. It would be terrible to think of him going around this dumb seven days a week.

Seriously, folks, does being a doofus go with being a bishop?

What he’s talking about, obviously, is the fact that millions of people want to marry people of the same sex. Dolan, in line with Vatican teaching on the subject, has decided this is analogous to marrying your mother.

Didn’t he go to school? Don’t you have to have some kind of education to be a bishop? Was he behind the door when they talked about analogy, that wonderful tool for understanding, where you clarify concepts by showing how they work like other concepts?

Marrying mom is qualitatively just as obnoxious an analogy as marrying your pet – another thing same-sex marriage opponents have come up with to ridicule the idea.

The reason these analogies are so off the mark is that millions of people find people they would like to share their homes, their finances, their bodies and their fates with who happen to be of the same sex, and there are not millions of people clamoring to be able to marry Fido. Or the lady who carried them for nine months before they began slogging through this vale of tears.

There is an anology, of course. You fall in love with your high school sweetheart and the two of you can’t imagine life without each other – I fall in love with my high school sweetheart and we can’t imagine life without each other, either. The only difference is your love interest is the opposite sex from you, mine is the same sex as me. The way we intend to live out our lives together is otherwise identical. We’ll take care of each other when we are sick. We’ll work at give-and-take so that when we differ the relationship is not threatened. We’ll pay each other’s bills, rub each other’s back and feet, make the decision to pull the plug when the end comes.

My dog might pull the plug, but she wouldn’t do it intentionally. And there may be guys out there who would like to sleep with their mothers, but they don’t form civil rights organizations and raise crowds of hundreds of thousands of supporters from San Francisco to Sydney. If such a thing should ever arise in the future, we’ll have to deal with it. Nobody I know is holding their breath.

The suggestion that marrying a life partner is like marrying your mother doesn’t contribute to the discussion of how soon we can change the laws of the land to reflect a newer deeper understanding of the human condition. It attempts to derail that process through ridicule. It sneers at the possibility that two people could love each other enough to commit to each other for life.

I leave it to you to decide whether Dolan is just stupid, or whether he’s just mean. Or whether stupidity and meanness are working together here. Dolan could, if he wanted to, simply take the Vatican line and say, “It’s wrong. I’m going to use my influence to keep people from doing it.” But instead he gets mean.

There has been a sea change in America in regards to same-sex marriage. Every day that goes by more and more people are recognizing that it’s an idea whose time has come. There will be continued resistance for a time, but it’s here to stay. And everywhere it is already in place, nobody is hurt by it. The number of straight people who demonize gay people correlates with the number of straight people who don’t know gay people very well – if at all.

The need to put gay people down is lifting. Sneering Timothy Dolan is a retrograde figure without much heart. And, I suspect, without much of a brain. Millions of catholics have learned to think for themselves and come to see the hierarchy of the church does not serve them well. They are leaving the church in droves. Only 35% of Catholics go to mass now, compared to 78% back in the 1960s. Only half marry in the church.

Others seem to find the courage to stay in the church and work as best they can to change it. Keep the faith. Toss out the bigotry and the tendency to govern by fear and guilt.

And what does Dolan plan to do about this challenge? Go to Ireland and write a report for Rome on whether priests were being prepared for a “healthy, happy celibacy.” No shit. You can’t make this stuff up.

Sounds like Dolan has been to too many Wizard of Oz sing-alongs. He’s taken on most of the roles for himself. And the whole damn Conference of Bishops has been lying in the poppy field too long.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Catholic Chutzpah

Chutzpah is murdering your parents and then throwing yourself on the mercy of the court on the grounds you’re an orphan. Chutzpah is asking your teacher to correct your essay directly at the online source you lifted it from, so you won’t have to take the time to copy it. Chutzpah is the Catholic Church refusing to allow kids needing homes to be adopted by gay people because gay people are no good, and then suing the City of San Francisco for calling that discrimination.

American ideas about race and gender and other identity differences have shifted dramatically, even in my lifetime. When I was born in 1940, there were still people alive who had been slaves in this country, blacks could not serve with whites in the military, Jews could not join country clubs, women could not have their own checking accounts and evangelical preachers could advocate the stoning of gays with impunity.

We’ve come a hell of a long way from those dark ages, no thanks to the catholic church.

The official church, I mean. The hierarchy, up the line from bishops to the pope, who claim that when they speak, the world’s millions of catholics rally behind them so that they speak with one voice. Today the secret’s out. Since Vatican II, the majority of catholics in modern countries see their institution as a large tent which includes those for whom compassion and caring are the primary obligation of a catholic, and those for whom nothing less than blind obedience to authority will do. And everybody in between who identifies with the church. Since well before Vatican II, these two poles have been at odds, and although the battle rages on, more and more people now admit that blind obedience is a thing of the past.

Blame it on the larger American culture, if you will, this prioritizing of conscience. The risk of living so intimately with protestants and other non-catholics for such a long time, maybe, and coming to see other ways of being that are good. Or seek an explanation elsewhere. The fact remains the overwhelming majority of American catholics do not follow the church’s teaching on birth control, do not agree with their stand on gay rights, do not believe the church holds the only keys to heaven. When “the church” speaks, chances are a whole lot of catholics are no longer listening.

Unfortunately, while reality dictates that “the church” is “the whole body of believers,” most people continue to accept the understanding that “the church” is the pope and his bishops, and that leaves a lot of people explaining the discrepancy with phrases like, “I guess I’m not a very good catholic, but…” A lot of these people caught between doctrine and their own sense of right can be guilted for their stands. The power of the official church has waned considerably in recent years, but it still has tremendous clout.

With apologies to all those good catholics out there who might find this offensive, let me continue here using “the church” in this “official church” sense, except where otherwise noted, and move on with the discussion.

The history of discrimination in this country falls into three phases, or stages. In the first stage, an outsider minority group is brutalized, dehumanized, physically and psychologically attacked. In the second stage, one comes to see the humanity of its individual members, lets up on the violence, and replaces it with mere disparagement, shunning, and eventually, with reluctant tolerance. In the third stage, one wonders what the fuss was all about. The lines are erased, barriers are removed, and differences, while still noted, are often spoken of as “interesting” and even “socially enriching.”

A friend wrote recently of looking at newspapers from the 1930s and noticing how often he found pillars of the community in his southern town speaking openly of the mental limitations of the African race. Slavery had given way to segregation, but the impact on African-American lives was still one of violence and cruelty. Much of America today is still stuck in Phase II when it comes to race. There are fewer in Phase I, considerably more in Phase III, but racism still exists and all three phase categories are inhabited.

We have to go outside the United States, fortunately, to find men who argue they have the right to beat a women who belongs to them with impunity with no questions asked. We know there are places in the world where this goes on, but mostly we feel proud that we are pretty much in Phase III when it comes to gender rights. Not entirely. Some Phase II attitudes remain, but we’re getting there.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of gay liberation knows that attitudes toward gays are slowly but surely following the path of racism and sexism in America. Homosexuality, until the latter decades of the twentieth century, was pretty much defined by religious people as a sin, and by the rest of the population as a mental illness. That meant that the thuggish among us were effectively licensed to brutalize those they thought might be gay, and the response by the “good people” (“the church,” for example) who would never think of brutalizing anybody themselves, carried the implication, “Well, if you wouldn’t walk/talk/act that way, you wouldn’t be asking for trouble.” And sometimes not just by implication, but quite specifically.

Gradually, both the religiously and the scientifically enlightened (those two categories have considerable overlap), moved out of Phase I and through Phase II into Phase III. The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental diseases in 1973 and the American Psychological Association followed in 1975.

Some religious groups insist there was corruption in the decision making process and homosexuality should still be defined as a mental disorder, but these groups are routinely recognized as working not from any scientific basis, but from the animus to be found in their reading of their holy scriptures.

There are signs everywhere that Mainstream America has entered Phase III in regard to homosexuality, from the presence of gay characters in film and on television, to the anti-discrimination laws, laws permitting gays to marry and adopt children, campaigns to eliminate bullying like the “It Gets Better” campaign, and countless other spaces.

There is also no shortage, alas, of institutions and individuals digging in their heels. One notorious example of such a heel-digger is the Catholic Church. Catholics themselves, polls show, are among the most accepting of gays in society. Only the church official demands gays continue to be treated as sinners and not healthy people.

If you stand back and look at this situation from a distance, describe it objectively instead of evaluating it, you may want to call this a culture clash, a clash between two values. If you are a member of an oppressed group, you will naturally want to ask how your group is any different from other oppressed groups. Is telling a woman she cannot be a bank executive because women’s brains are not as developed as men’s, particularly for mathematics, a simple clash of cultures? Are Nazis and Jews simply working on a level of culture?

To ask that we “keep an open mind” and debate whether blacks should sit at the back of the bus may make you look like a reasonable person. But we’re not there anymore. Some people kill whales. We, most of us, think that’s wrong. Some people think there is no danger to smoking. We have evidence that attitude (prevalent until quite recently) is uninformed. Some of us believe there is no evidence for global warming, that the earth is only 6000 years old, that your personality depends on where the stars were at the moment of your birth. Most of us believe our thinking has evolved and have no time for such nonsense. Some of these issues are more consequential than others. We may differ over their relative importance. But we all want to think there is movement away from prejudice and self-interest and toward democracy, consensus grounded in reason, and universal well-being.

Some notions – astrology, for example – would seem to be innocent nonsense. Astrology neither “picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But others, that gay people are child molesters at heart, for example, are products of an earlier phase of our thinking, and we need to speak out loudly and clearly on reasons why such retrograde notions should be done away with. We particularly need to see that it’s not “a simple clash of cultures” when one group labels another group in negative terms and then acts on that prejudice to enforce self-serving prophecies. Sometimes one has to speak up, point the finger, and say stop.

That’s what the San Francisco Board of Supervisors did when Bishop Levada decided that he would no longer allow any of the children under his care to be adopted by gay men and women. Despite the fact that a third of all lesbian households in America have kids as well as more than one out of five households headed by two gay daddies, Levada decided this was, in his words, a form of violence against children. No kidding. His word. Violence.

Children can be adopted by gay people in all fifty states. Despite the retrograde laws such as DOMA still on the books, and the fact that only five states plus D.C. allow same-sex marriage so far, all fifty states have determined gay families are good places for kids to grow up in. Despite what anyone might say about gay people, the data are in. Children in gay families are OK. Levada is absolutely in the wrong here. If he has his way, children will stay in foster homes rather than find two mommies or daddies to take them into their lives and their families. Violence? Could you find a better example of pot-calling-the-kettle-black chutzpah?

On March 13, 2006, Levada, explaining that he was following the dictates of the Vatican, announced there would be no gay adoptions allowed because of the violence to children. The city of San Francisco within days responded with a non-binding resolution that the Church be censured for discrimination. Actually, Levada was not the first to use “violence” in connection with adoption by gay men and women. That honor goes to John Paul II, the man currently being redefined as “blessed” in the Vatican.

Fortunately, the church is commonly recognized for the retrograde institution it is. When Levada tried to sue the City of San Francisco, the case was thrown out in Federal Court. He appealed, and yesterday, the Supreme Court decided not to even hear the case.

Officially, as far as the courts are concerned, San Francisco’s use of “discrimination” to characterize Levada’s resolution was not actionable.

The church’s response is to play the victim. Why are they picking on us? We should be free to do as we please and you should not be allowed to call our discrimination discrimination. You’re being anti-catholic.

If you like to stand on my toe, and I tell you it’s wrong for you to stand on my toe, I am not maligning you when I describe you as “Somebody who stands on my toe.” But when you try to sue me for because I spoke up and called you “Somebody who stands on my toe,” well, now, that’s chutzpah.

As for the charge that what the Board of Supervisors did was “anti-catholic,” well consider the fact that the resolution was led by then Supervisor (now Assemblyman) Tom Ammiano. Tom is opposed to discrimination. He also will tell you he’s a practicing Roman Catholic. One more example of the gap between “the church” and the body of believers.

When Levada left San Francisco, he went to Rome to be made a cardinal and head up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A big promotion. Being prefect to this organization, formerly known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, effectively makes one head man of the Curia.

There is no escaping how central a role homophobia plays in the church. Levada’s successor, Niederauer, was the prime mover behind Proposition 8, which removed the rights of gays to marry in California. But active oppression of gay people is not the only indication of how far the church lags behind in the struggle toward full and universal human rights. A bishop in Australia has just been ousted for even suggesting the possibility of women priests. Not for taking action, but simply for urging dialogue. And the church still today has not explained its decision to rally behind abusive priests and leave abused children to fend for themselves.

The church no longer carries out the violence they once did when dissenters were burned at the stake. They are out of Phase I. The progress from burning faggots (the wood, I mean – which is where the word came from, you may remember) and roasting heretics alive, to merely asking some of them to hide in the closet in shame is actually a great leap forward.

One hopes the day is not far off when the church finds the strength to leap the whole distance. Out of the Middle Ages entirely.