Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fundamentalism as the Source of Homophobia

This graph is from the Atlantic Wire. We've been aware of this information for some time now - that disparagement and demonization of gay people comes overwhelmingly from religious sources. But now we have more precise figures. And we need to make some important distinctions. It's not "religion" that makes one homophobic. It's fundamentalism.

The majority of Catholics and the majority of "mainline Protestant" church people have no problem with gay marriage - by more than a ten percent margin. (And I believe a greater percentage yet of Jews have no problem with gays, although those figures are not shown here, and the divide is between the Jewish equivalent of “mainline” – Reform and Reconstructionist Jews on the one end, and fundamentalist, literalist Orthodox on the other.) Also missing from this chart is the fact that Roman Catholicism is divided into two camps, the traditionalist, authoritarian hierarchy-focused (Vatican I) Catholics who are the most homophobic, and those seeking to restore charity, not power, as the central focus (Vatican II). But even when the two are averaged, as they are here, it is clear which camp is in the majority.

Among Protestants, the real resistance to seeing gay people as normal, healthy people stems largely from a literalist, cherry-picked reading of scripture that ignores divorce, and says nothing about spousal abuse or adultery when discussing "traditional marriage," but zeros in exclusively on gay people.

How screwed up is that?

I need to point out that the tables deal only with same-sex marriage, and not attitudes toward gays in general. But gay marriage has always been the final step in gay acceptance. When you ask people about gay rights, most people now agree there should be no discrimination in the work place - that's one end of the spectrum, and gay marriage is the other. It's not precise, but it's fair to say if people believe gay people have the right to marry, they believe in all the "preceding" rights, as well. As the figures show, people unaffiliated with religion approve of those rights almost three to one.

One source, Wikipedia, gives these figures for 2001, a full decade ago:

• 76% of the general public think that there should be laws to protect gay and lesbian people from job discrimination,
• 74% from housing discrimination,
• 73% for inheritance rights,
• 73% favor sexual orientation being included in the hate crimes statues
• 70% support health and other employee benefits for domestic partners,
• 68% support social security benefits, and
• 56% support GL people openly serving in the military.
• 47% support civil unions,
• 46% support adoption rights.
• 39% support same-sex marriage.

The bottom line, that the percentage of "OK by me" voices in favor of the right of gays to marry has jumped from 39% to a neck-in-neck tie in ten years, well, I'd call that progress.

Just one thing, though.

I'm with those who argue a citizen's rights ought not to be up for grabs, so we should not get too hung up on social attitudes, as much as we want to celebrate movement in this direction. Ultimately, it's for the Supreme Court to determine whether there is a constitutional reason for limiting marriage to non-gays. This is not a debate over whether to build a new sewer system. And remember, in 1958, when Gallup first started polling attitudes toward interracial marriage, 94% of Americans were opposed. It took the courts to turn the tide, and when they did, people followed.

But I'll say it again. It's nice to know that slowly but surely attitudes are changing dramatically.


Who’s In, Who’s Out

Ernesto Cardenal, the ex-priest, poet and liberation theologian from Nicaragua, was featured on the News Hour last night and I have been thinking about him all morning.

This tends to happen when the subject of liberation theology comes up. It has always fascinated me how much these folks get under the skin of those who run the official Catholic Church. Even the hierarchy’s most adamant defenders must have trouble explaining what’s wrong with liberation theology and its assertion that the poor really ought to be the starting point for Christian theology. Even if you don’t agree with it, I mean. Even if you think the Resurrection is the starting point, or the Eucharist, or some other “mystery” as these leaps of imagination are called. But for me, the real mystery is how successful Christians are at ignoring Christ’s focus on the poor.

I remember a conversation with a priest years ago. I asked him if he wasn’t embarrassed by the Crusades and the Inquisition. “No,” he said. “What embarrasses me is not the mistakes of the past. It’s the lack of humility in the church in the present. We think we’ve made all the mistakes we’re going to make and everything we do today is right. It’s the infallibility doctrine that embarrasses me.”

I liked this guy. Father John, his name was. I was sixteen, and in the hospital in Nova Scotia for a month alone and away from my family. He used to come over from the college where he worked and visit “the boy from ConneKticut,” as he pronounced it. I was still a Christian at the time, and interested in god talk, and I must have seemed ripe for conversion. He knew his visits were the highlight of my day. The only thing I had to look forward to, actually.

I was pretty strongly grounded in a religious tradition that might have been better labeled protesting than protestant, very much an active verb, not a descriptive adjective, however, and not all that convertible, actually. We were still actively angry at what the Catholic Church had done to Christianity, and to me it was as if the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg had happened just a few weeks or months before. Still, if anything would have cut through that resistance, it would have been this man’s natural humility. His focus on the love and compassion of Christianity, not the doctrine.

Father John still pops into mind from time to time. Being able to discuss great ideas at that stage in my life is a memory I still treasure. I would love to know if he’s still around, and what he thinks about the exoneration of Galileo, the child abuse scandal, the hardline stance on women and gays. And I’d love to ask him about liberation theology. Something tells me I know where his heart would be.

Why do so many children live in pain and die in agony? Why does God make the lame walk again but never make an amputated limb grow back? Why does God have some people born in Saudi Arabia where they grow up Muslim and others in Tibet where they grow up Buddhist? Why do priests have no shame wearing jewelry and dressing in fancy vestments when the man they say they follow allegedly said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God? I had lots of questions.

For reasons I can no longer remember, I got interested a few years ago in Hans Küng. It may be that I read somewhere the Vatican had taken away his right to teach because he had questioned papal infallibility, and I remembered Father John. In any case, for several months I wrapped myself up in his two volume autobiography – then read his book on infallibility and several others of his as well.

That brought me into the world of dissident theologians in the Church, and I went off on what some of them were up to, as well. Leonardo Boff, in particular, the Brazilian theologian who, like Küng, was silenced by Ratzinger for his criticism of the hierarchy. Ernesto Cardenal is only the latest of many to feel the sting of the official church for their protesting ways.

Cardenal differs from Küng and Boff, though, in that he has achieved considerable fame as a poet, and I’m developing an interest in his ability to combine art and poetry with history and politics.

I’m also fascinated with how men like these take defeat. Küng, I note, remains inside the Catholic Church despite all efforts to kick him out, and has dedicated his life to ecumenism, to bringing all Christians back under one roof. Boff has written over sixty books and his awards continue to pile up. Cardenal is compared to Ezra Pound and Pablo Neruda. None are worse off for their expulsions. In fact, they seem to wear their expulsions with pride. (In Boff's case, he withdrew after he was "condemned to 'obsequious silence'," taken back after protest, and then threatened with expulsion again.)

Cardenal is not the only Latin American priest I have devoted some time to. The one who captured my attention the most would have to be Christian von Wernich. [See past bloggings from 2007 here and here. The second of these is about Garino Olaso Zabala, a priest beatified under the watch of Ratzinger, despite the fact he had participated in the torture of a fellow priest. ]

I had made a close friend with an Argentine back in the 70s, during the time of “El Proceso” as the dictatorship in Argentina was called, the one that lasted from 1976 until the junta was booted out after they lost the Falklands War. Today I consider him and his family part of my chosen family, and in 2007 I went to live with them in Buenos Aires for several months. While I was there Christian von Wernich was put on trial. von Wernich, like Zabala, was accused of participating in torture, and for the same reason – an alleged greater good. (You gotta love that Christian ethical system, utilitarianism.) In von Wernich’s case, it was fighting communism.

Argentina had evolved sufficiently to be able to deal with its fascist past. I was reading Página 12, Argentina’s leading leftist press every day, and had followed through on the writing of one of its founders, Horacio Verbitsky, who has documented the story of the dictatorship, including von Wernich’s participation, so when von Wernich’s case came up I was primed, and, because the trial was televised, I followed it from start to finish.

As detail after detail came out, I felt sicker and sicker at the revelations of the church’s participation in this period of Argentine history. Just as priests in more recent times were found guilty of child abuse and then shunted from parish to parish by church officials, when the dictatorship ended, von Wernich was given a new identity and hidden by the church in a parish in Chile. To the very end, the church defended its position. It and it alone had the authority to decide the fate of any of its members. Civil notions of justice be damned.

All this got churned up yesterday when I listened to Cardenas tell of his expulsion from the church, and watched him shrug. No matter, he said. I was meant for the contemplative life, not for saying mass and baptizing children.

Maybe so. But that’s a wise old man’s take on the situation. He’s letting the church off the hook by embracing his fate. The church might have said to him, “Why don’t you sit over here, where you’ll be more comfortable.” Instead, they said to him, “There’s no room in here for you. Get out and don’t come back.”

Contrast that with the fact that Christian von Wernich still celebrates mass to this day in Marcos Paz prison, near Buenos Aires.

He was convicted as an accomplice in the murders of seven members of the Peronist guerrilla organisation Montoneros, of 31 cases of torture, and 42 cases of deprivation of freedom during Argentina's war on its own citizens. Two years later, the court of appeals upheld the verdict of genocide. von Wernich was the first Roman Catholic priest ever to be charged with such a crime, to my knowledge.

Jorge Bergoglio, Buenos Aires Archbishop from that time to today, has declared this to be “a case of political manipulation by the court in La Plata,” and continues to defend von Wernich. The dictatorship’s state terrorism, he says, was needed to combat "Marxist" guerrillas. Bergoglio was made a cardinal in 2001, and is known to be “papabile” – eligible for election to pope. And, as cardinal, he was among those choosing the pope when Ratzinger was elected, and could have a say in the next papal election as well.

Bergoglio’s not alone in this school of thought. He had good company in Marcel Lefebvre, for example, the founder of the Society of St. Pius X. Lefebvre too supported the Argentine junta, and the Pinochet regime as well. Lefebvre was sanctioned for his work with the society and when directed by the pope to stop consecrating bishops, he ignored the order, stating the pope didn’t have the authority to give it. One of those bishops was Richard Williamson, who later became infamous as a holocaust denier. Check out their stories if you have time. (Williamson later went to Argentina, but was kicked out for continuing to deny the holocaust.) The point is these men were later received by the current pope back into the church. Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany, but not in the Vatican, after all. There’s room for everybody.

Well, almost. Not Küng. Not the liberation theologists. Not priests like Boff and Cardenas. They no longer have the authority to give you the body and blood of Christ, to baptize your children, to forgive your sins.

For that you’ll have to go to somebody like Christian von Wernich.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Family Tragedy

Laugh out loud story of the week has got to be this guy Hinkle, in Indiana.

Phillip Hinkle apparently went on Craig’s List and found himself a male companion to rent for an evening, offering $80 and a nice tip if he was satisfied. When the guy showed up and found out it was Indiana’s District 92 representative in the state’s House of Representatives he was dealing with, he decided to call the whole thing off. Hinkle got mad and the guy called his sister who came and rescued the poor 18-year-old and phoned Hinkle’s wife to tell her to call her now angry hubby off.

A great story for the scandal sheets. Picked up by the gay press, of course. And the not so gay press.

And the details have made it into Hinkle’s Wikipedia page.

To wit,
Though Hinkle co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, in 2011 he was identified as the man who paid an 18-year-old man for "a really good time" in a hotel room. The man stated that when they were in the hotel room, Hinkle "grabbed him in the rear, dropped his towel and sat down on the bed — naked."[4][1] Several of his fellow GOP lawmakers debated whether Hinkle should resign.[5] Governor Mitch Daniels called the situation a "family tragedy".[4]

I’ve been having a debate with a cousin of mine lately over whether all this gay stuff should now fall under the rubric of "who cares." She, being a reasonable sort, thinks it should. Who cares, indeed?

Well, I think the people of Indiana should care for starters. This guy Hinkle, if you look up his voting record, has argued that Indiana should not only pass legislation that would ban gay marriage. He’d like to ban “any relationship ‘substantially similar to marriage,’” as well.

As for Hinkle’s little adventure, well you gotta love the Bill Clinton logic. “We didn't do anything. We just talked baseball and commented on the view.”

And it follows, ipso ergo flopso mopso, as the day follows the night, that I'm totally innocent. Like the T-shirt says, “I’m not gay, but my boyfriend is.” Or, in this case, the guy down on his knees in front of me.

Once again (how many times, Lord, how many times?) what we have here is a fine family man, member in good standing at St. Christopher Catholic Church, and republican politician (oh dear, did I contradict myself?) taking family values seriously and working on legislation to prevent gay marriage. Not only gay marriage, though. Did you get that "any relationship 'substantially similar to marriage'" bit? No domestic partnerships. Nuttin'.

Nice piece of work, this guy.

And while we're on the topic of Indiana Republicans (ah, yes, remember that guy who couldn’t spell potato?), what's with this Governor Mitch Daniels and his take on the situation as a "family tragedy"?

I understand Daniels came to power on the strength of the 2010 republican sweep. And he capped state property taxes at 1–3% of their value, and this led to a budget shortfall, which led to major spending cuts on essential services. And that he got stronger abortion laws passed and state funding withdrawn from all healthcare providers who offered abortion services. All this while lowering corporate income tax rates. None of this affects families, of course.

Family tragedy, my ass!


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Coming Out – Still a Big Deal

I got into a fit of organization the other day. Went through my closets and storage and put a little order in my life. One of the things I found myself doing was untangling a bunch of telephone cords. How did I every collect so many?

That came to mind this morning when I came across a YouTube video of a young soldier. He’s 21 and he’s gay and he’s coming out of the closet.

Not all the way. He speaks, and you see him talking with his hands, but you don’t see his face. He is beginning to reveal his secret to his friends, but will not show his face until September 20th, when the DADT policy is officially reversed.

Most of you, I suspect, will find this terribly boring. Who needs another coming out story? Who needs a long drawn out coming out story, especially?

But there is something terribly touching about this. It’s one guy to whom this is a major life event, and he reveals in a nutshell how the world has changed and how young people live in a different media environment from those of us who still keep miles of land-line telephone cords in storage.

The reason I stuck with this young man (besides an esthetic appreciation for a well-built male upper body, I mean) is that I am fascinated with what a profound cultural phenomenon this sea change in attitudes toward homosexuality is and how powerful the forces of condemnation have been that even now, after all the progress in gay liberation, a young man’s coming out is still a big f’ing deal.

He’s from a conservative family, he says. Right. People from liberal families have it easier. That’s not rocket science. But just look at what this says about the thousands of folk only today getting rid of the onus of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. While one half of our nation moves comfortably now through the process of demystifying and mainstreaming their gay friends and neighbors, the other half is still sturming and dranging all over the land. If that doesn’t tickle your sense of the absurd, your absurdity meter is probably overdue for a checkup.

Watch it if you have ten minutes some time. Appreciate the cuteness. Or marvel at the laboriousness. Or perhaps the big ego. That was my first reaction. A big ego.

But after watching, I don’t think so. I think it’s more about being young and finding yourself. And I was struck at how night after night I watch the PBS Evening News Hour and end up aching at the photos they show at the end of the program of all the 21-year-olds who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There you see only their heads. Here the head is missing, but he’s still alive. It’s an image of a young man not dying but just beginning to live.

And using the latest technology to do it.

The brave new world of YouTube. I hear and read that young people today are flashing each other, posing online, having sex on video and sharing it with the world. There’s something off-putting about that. Something you know you don’t want your own kids to do. It feels like they’re falling down somehow.

But this use of the new online networking media is different. This guy is coming out. Getting up off the floor.

And he’s symbolically bringing the army, the navy, the air force and the marines with him.

The army is coming out. Now that’s a big deal, actually. Polish your champagne glasses. On September 20th, this young man is going to show his face. We all should join the party.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Al-Saadi’s Wallpaper

I had a friend back in the day (he’s still my friend, but he’s not like this anymore) who used to want to believe gays were everywhere, and that made him a hilarious bore. “You know, I think X might be gay,” was one of his most common conversation starters. “Brad (not his real name),” we used to say, “You think the damn fire hydrants are gay.”

This was back before coming out of the closet was commonplace. Most gays, with good reason, were still super cautious about who they revealed their sexual persuasion to (always loved that particularly silly expression), and most revealed it to absolutely nobody.

That shame – let’s call it by its proper name – was held in place by the folks who today are saying things like, “We don’t hate gay people; we just believe marriage should be between a man and a woman,” or “There’s nothing wrong with being gay; it’s acting on it that’s the problem,” or “We should hate the sin, but love the sinner.”

Fortunately, like the anti-Semites of yesterday – who remembers when Jews couldn’t join country clubs or move into certain parts of town – these nice-guy homophobes look less like the Ku Klux Klan every day. There is progress. Coming out is in and every day some other football player or stockbroker gets tagged as “one of them.”

Yesterday, the news was that Tim Cook, Steve Jobs successor at Apple, is gay. And that’s dandy, say the gay liberation shock troops, who want every gay in the world identified as such, “so that children can grow up with proper role models.” And that’s nobody’s business, say the nice people who believe homosexuality is all about sex, and it’s not nice to talk about sex. And that’s really a bore, say most of the rest of the folks who would simply like to get on with making a living and getting the weeds out of their garden.

Remember when there were no black people in Hollywood? And then there were? Remember the black people in the balcony in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, every one presented as a kindly mother or grandfather? Remember how long it took before the pendulum swung and there were black villains?

Gays are like that. They’re still being presented as really cool guys. Hilarious sense of humor. Great sense of style. Wish more straight men were like that.

So every time somebody says the Tim Cooks of the world need to be pressed into service to demonstrate to gay kids that there are no limits anymore to being both out and successful, somebody else throws in some line like, “Well, actually Tim Cook is a bitchy queen who is quite vicious if you get on his wrong side.” And that’s fine. People are simply shaking these stars of the moment down into normal folk.

The decision to close down cell phone service at BART made national news recently. BART police had killed a homeless man coming at them with a knife, and that was too close to the last killing to escape notice. People stormed the platforms, and BART shut down cell phone service for safety reasons. A huge First Amendment protest followed. The Bay Area transit agency's chief media spokesman, Linton Johnson, then got nailed by Anonymous, the group leading the protest, for being gay. Well, to be fair, not for being gay, but for being caught with his pants down in a gay bar. Johnson’s Johnson was showing, evidently. And what did BART do about it? Came out 100% behind their employee. BART employees might lose their job over their decision to shut down the phones, but not because they like to dance naughty.

Now, in this morning’s paper comes the news that in the looted apartment of Moammar Gathafi’s son, Al-Saadi Gathafi (that’s the now official spelling of Gaddafi), they found a gay porno tape, Boyz Tracks. Yeah, I checked it out on Google and then on a guide to gay porno sites and couldn’t find it. But AP usually gets its facts straight.

One porno tape does not a gay make, obviously, and let’s not forget that the number of real gay men may be less than the number of men who are curious. Remember my friend Brad, the one who thought even the fire hydrants were gay? Another of his lines was “At the right time, in the right space, there are precious few men who aren’t at least a bit curious.”

As these stories spin their way through the gay gossip press, their very ordinariness now suggests the gay liberation train is, if not pulling into the station right on time, at least heading for it at a respectable cruising speed. Eat your heart out, homophobes.

And Al-Saadi, by the way, that wallpaper and couch? OK, so it's a tent, not wallpaper. But still. What were you thinking?


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Fear the wrath

There are several reasons the official Catholic Church gives me heartburn, the main ones being that:

1. They have defined homosexuality as a “disorder” and would limit sexuality to reproduction, if people didn’t tell them to fuck off;
2. They have structured the world so that men come out on top, and women on the bottom;
3. Their arrogant insistence they are the sole arbiters of truth seems to know no bounds;
4. They have made sexual behavior, not compassion or justice, the central focus of morality.

The pope is planning a state visit to Germany next month. If the pope were not such a dick, nobody would give a damn about his comings and goings. But as his letter telling every bishop in the world to hide all knowledge of priest abuse made evident, he can, from time to time, and right before your eyes, turn into a complete dick.

And as was demonstrated when his representative in San Francisco, Bishop Niederauer, acting on the pope’s orders, talked his Mormon friends in Utah into helping him launch Prop. 8 to remove civil rights from Californians, it’s clear the man can do great harm well beyond what should be the limits of his reach. The man can really ruin your day. He bears watching.

Although this is his third trip to Germany as pope, it’s only his first official state visit. For that reason, he will start in Berlin, on Thursday, the 22nd, where he will shake hands with its gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit, with Germany’s Protestant Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and with the federal republic’s Catholic but divorced and remarried president, Christian Wulff. All folks on their way to hell, in other words.

He will say mass at the Olympia Stadium, which lives on in infamy since Hitler was embarrassed there by the African-American sprinter Jesse Owens in 1936. From there, the former head of the Inquisition (the institution was renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1965) will travel to Erfurt, the capital of the state of Thüringen (Thuringia, if you prefer it in English), where he will cost the taxpayers half a million euros per hour for the eleven hours he’s in town. Because this pisses some Erfurters off, they have organized into a group known as Heidenspaß statt Höllenangst (Having a ball beats the fear of hell) and applied to authorities in Erfurt for permission to protest the pope’s visit on the 23rd and the 24th.

I used to get Thüringen and Tübingen mixed up. Tübingen is in the West and it is where Catholic theologian and thorn-in-the-side to Ratzinger, Hans Küng, once invited Ratzinger to come teach with him at the university there. Since then, Ratzinger has forbidden Küng to teach any more because of his tendency to want to open up the church and let too many people and ideas in. Küng landed on his feet and has now devoted himself even more earnestly to ecumenical efforts, working to bring all Christian folk back under one roof. Ratzinger holds out that that’s not possible unless they all swear loyalty to him and the Roman hierarchy and accept its teachings as the sole path to heaven. So imagine my surprise to read that in Erfurt Ratzinger is scheduled to participate in an ecumenical service with other Christians. Assuming it’s not already too late, with the church on the skids in Germany, Erfurt would seem to be a good place for that. It’s the seat of a great Catholic cathedral, the one where Martin Luther was ordained, and it’s also the place where he went to university. Ecumenism is definitely not one of this pope’s goals, though, and it’s likely this is just one more lip sync number he does to show good will.

The diplomats are hard at work. He is meeting with Jews on the first day and with Muslims on the second day (he’s got his priorities straight, in other words) and you can be sure he has been warned not to repeat the mistake of a previous visit, when he described Islam as a violent religion.

From Erfurt, the pope will go to Etzelsbach, Lahr and Freiburg im Breisgau, that wonderful part of the country with names like Dingling, Kippenheim (kippen = tip over), Schlauch (garden hose), Sulz (cured meat in gelatin), and Kappel-Grafenhausen.

Relative to the number who will turn out for these large-scale circus events, where the pageantry will no doubt be interpreted by the media as an outporing of affection for this German pontiff on his first official visit to his Heimatland, the number of protesters is likely to be pretty small. But the number of the pope’s fans, whatever it is, will not be able to mask some important facts about the disillusionment inside the church and the ever increasing opposition externally. From inside the church, polls show trust in the pope is at a new low of 29%, and faith in the church is even lower, at 21%. 180,000 German catholics left the church in 2010, 40% more than in 2009. 80% of the church is clamoring for reforms, and so far Ratzinger has shown himself to be a hardliner holdout against change.

That’s actually understated. Benedict is head of a hierarchy working full time to try to undo many of the reforms of Vatican II, which sought to spread the authority of the church more evenly among the “ecclesia,” another word for the “body of believers,” or the church at large.

Many of those 80% inside the church have banded together for more effective action, often with links to catholic organizations internationally such as Call to Action , which an American conservative catholic website calls “the mother of all dissenting groups,” or Voice of the Faithful , an organization of over 30,000 started in response to the child abuse scandals, or We Are Church. Nor are these faithful entirely lay folk. The German organization, Nackte Sohlen (Bare Feet), calling for real changes, is headed by members of religious orders.

Because the pope is officially the head of a theocratic state, many troubled by official religion are downright hostile to the pope’s visit. Volker Beck, head of the Green Party, is protesting his visit to the Bundestag. And he’s not the only one.

Since 1875, Germany has had a church tax, deducted from one’s income along with taxes to the state. For years, most people went along with it, even if they stopped going to church, because it seemed like too aggressive an anti-church statement to de-register, and it required active steps to take your name off the rolls. Since around 1990, however, groups such as Der Internationale Bund der Konfessionslosen und Atheisten (International League of Non-Religious and Atheists): have become more visible, and a campaign was launched in November of last year, named the Kirchen (Year of Leaving the Church) campaign, sponsored by the Giordano Bruno Foundation, a group of outspoken secular humanists, and the Bund für Geistesfreiheit Bayern (Union of Free Thinkers of Bavaria). Then there’s the Bündnis gegen die menschenfeindliche Geschlechter- und Sexualpolitik des Papstes (Alliance against the misanthropic sex and gender policies of the pope) abound. They have a rather neutral sounding website,, (the pope is coming), compared to the organization mentioned previously, Heidenspaß statt Höllenangst (Having a ball beats the fear of hell) with the website (Get rid of the pope).

Have a look at their website, actually. Scroll down and you’ll see two videos. I’d skip the first one, and just watch the second one on YouTube. It features the pink Spaghetti Monster. The message at the end, by the way, “Fürchtet den Zorn des rosa Spaghettimonsters (Fear the wrath of the pink spaghetti monster)” is more my cup of tea.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Minamata Revisited

I wonder how many people remember Minamata. That town in Kyushu where the Chisso Corporation released all that mercury into the water between 1932 and 1968? Where even though they discovered it was killing and maiming people as early as 1956, it still took the government twelve years to make them stop? And where it only stopped because some outsider – in this case, an American photographer named Eugene Smith – made the dirty secret public? Where they poisoned the rivers with mercury and got away with it because they were corporate entities and government officials know who butters their bread (or in this case pickles their cucumbers)?

The more you dig into that story, the more you lose confidence in the whole human race. Eugene Smith was attacked by a Chisso employee and never totally recovered. Local people shunned the victims and that led to victims keeping quiet. Outsiders came in and ran lab tests, the company itself sponsored research, and then both sat on the results for ten years while the polluting continued. All this was justified much as the right wing in America now justifies dismantling the environmental protection agency in order to keep jobs – by which they mean, of course, keep dirty corporations afloat. The loss of Chisso as a local employer was simply too high a price to pay. They were too big to fail.

Because they sat on information that would have prevented the spread of such environmental pollution practices, a second plant, this time in Niigata, was found to be causing the same kind of pollution in 1965. This time the plant was not the sole local employer and lacked the power to make the truth disappear. As a result, the connection came out and this caused people to want to go back and reopen the research in Minamata. That’s the good news. The bad news is law suits are still pending today, over a half century after the crime against humanity was first exposed.*

Then there is the example of Midori Juuji – Japan’s “Green Cross” Agency, a private pharmaceutical company, despite the suggestion it might have something to do with the red cross. When I hear someone on the right speak of government incompetence, and insist the private sector and the free market and deregulation is the way to go, I want to grab them by the scruff of the neck and force them to read the history of the Midori Juuji.

Midori Juuji was originally founded five years after the end of World War II as a blood bank, and many of its original founders were members of Japan’s Unit 731, the unit that performed medical experiments on 10,000 Chinese and Koreans to develop biological warfare weapons. Limbs were amputated to measure the length of time it took to die from blood loss, vivisections were performed, female prisoners were injected with syphilis, and on and on – all in the name of a scientific approach to winning the war. In order to get life back to normal, General MacArthur decided not to prosecute these guys in 1948 and they went back to business as usual.

Some of them founded Midori Juuji and business as usual included persuading Japan’s hemophiliacs that their HIV-tainted blood was safe, well after they were in possession of information to the contrary. Nearly half of Japan’s hemophiliacs died as a result.

I remember the shock I felt when I began getting involved in Japan’s efforts to deal with the AIDS crisis back in the early 90s at discovering the degree to which government agencies were involved. Focused as I was on analysis of cultural behavior, I understood in principle how a Confucist paternalism could be channeled into cultural practices, but seeing it nose to nose was another thing. I remember once having a doctor refuse to speak to me directly: he would speak only to his nurse and his nurse would talk with me.

Over and over I began to take note of how often when people in authority made questionable decisions they routinely took the utilitarian argument that it was for “the general welfare,” or “the greater good,” in places where I would have expected them to observe the rule of law or some individual’s civil or human right. Japanese defended the practice of doctors telling family members of a cancer diagnosis, rather than the cancer patient himself – on the grounds “it might make him depressed and give up the will to live.” If I left something on a train I would almost always get it back – that was the good news – the bad news is I would get scolded. The train management felt it had an obligation to teach me to be a better person. Signs in parks in America cite the city ordinance for not being a jackass. In Japan, the sign is apt to say something like, “Let’s love the flowers.” Everywhere you looked you found evidence that one lived not as an individual among individuals but as a member of society with social obligations governing your every decision. And that meant surrender to authority, if you were at the bottom, and overreaching authority if you were at the top. And a fear of not being able to read the social signals at the bottom and a fear of taking too much individual responsibility at the top.

Much of the time outrageous paternalism (to our non-Japanese eyes) stayed at the level of anecdotal evidence of cultural difference, and we always concluded, after exchanging such stories, that we had the obligation as anthropologists (even if we were only very amateur anthropologists) to take a relativist position on cultural values, and not impose our own.

This all broke down, of course, when you began to sense there were times when paternalism was used as an excuse to mask cowardice and greed. When what it was all about, in the end, was not some local cultural oddity but universal human weakness.

All these memories are back with me today because I just finished reading in The New York Times an article by Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, who reveal that Japan has done it again. They have been withholding information, it turns out, on the degree of the severity of the nuclear fallout following the disaster at Fukushima. Bureaucrats in Tokyo, “operating in a culture that sought to avoid responsibility and, above all, criticism,” are now exposed as having lied by omission. And they are defending their decisions as having been made with the best of intentions – to keep the country from panicking.

This is a story to watch. There’s no telling what will come of this. Change comes slowly most of the time to Japan. It’s possible nothing will come of this. But cultural values do change, and one of the ways of researching cultural values is to see what happens in cases of cultural conflict or in moments of stress. What once was touted as Japanese cultural practices, the refusal to accept personal responsibility, the acceptance of authority, may turn out to have been merely holdouts from a more innocent and pre-democratic time.

Democracy now has a firm hold in Japan, and one can hope Japanese will exercise their rights to make demands of their political leaders.

Of course, there’s a third possibility. They could dumb down and begin believing, as Americans do, that the world is whatever we choose to see. Japanese may not go the route of insisting Darwin was wrong, and the world is only 6000 years old. Or that Obama, not Bush, began the first stimulus package, probably because he was born in Kenya just as you know when Santa Claus comes down from the cross and sees his shadow we know we’re going to have twelve days of Christmas. But they could easily come up with another form of tailor-made reality, parallel to ours.

The tragedy in Japan continues to unfold, and every day I ache a little more for what’s happening in my adopted country – I still have not found the courage to give up my permanent residence, my Japanese “green card.”

I wonder. Can they find a way to hold these lowlifes responsible?

There’s an interesting sidenote to the story. Naoto Kan, Japan’s current prime minister, whose career is now on the skids for not managing the disaster (his popularity is at about 18% at present), is the guy who finally stood up to Midori Juuji and exposed the complicity of the Health Ministry’s Abe Takeshi in covering up the HIV-tainted blood scandal.

Plus ça change…

*Correction: A friend just informed me the Chisso case was finally settled in March of last year. The point can still be made it took half a century, but I apologize for not checking that fact before posting.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Love is So Yesterday

There has been no escape in the past few days from news about the Tea Party victory over sanity and the Democratic Party’s complicity in murdering the baby that was job creation in the crib. If government policies were a baseball game, the score would be something like tax relief for the rich 10, education 1. A professor of mine in the 60s once joked that he could not support those of us looking for careers in the great War on Poverty, because “there’s no money in it.” Today, those looking for ways to put people back to work, wanting to extend unemployment benefits or provide tax relief for the folks on the bottom find compassion is not the in thing these days. It’s an “I got mine” world out there. You guys, well, you guys are not my problem.

This lack of compassion seems to be part of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. I was just reading a commentary on recent events by a catholic theologian whose writing I have been following lately. His complaint is that faith communities, liberal as well as conservative, seem to have “gutted the love ethic” and replaced it with a slavish surrender to obedience to authority.

It prompted me to write this response:

Someone once said if you asked members of the three abrahamic religions the first word that came to mind when they thought of God, for Jews it would be justice, for Muslims submission, and for Christians love. When I was a kid, living in a Christian environment, it was a truism that “God is love.” But some time ago channel surfing one day, I happened to tune into Pat Robertson’s 700 Club just as he was saying, “Christ came in love the first time, but the next time he will come with the sword.” I don’t know how many evangelicals take that idea to its logical conclusion, but the number isn’t small.

It’s not just the authoritarians running the Catholic Church who treat the Sermon on the Mount as quaint and largely irrelevant; the entire religious right is populated by people with compassion fatigue, if they ever had it to begin with. It’s the zeitgeist. It’s what enabled Catholics to team up with Mormons and Evangelicals to launch Prop. 8 in California and embrace reverse-Robin Hood Republicanism. To many a politicized American Christian, God is about anger and condemnation, not love. When I was a kid and I met a person who identified as Christian, the first question I wanted to ask was “Catholic or Protestant?”. Today, a more salient question would be “Love Christian or “Obedience to Authority Christian?”. In the Catholic Church you can ask “Vatican II Catholic” or “Vatican I Catholic” and get pretty much the same breakdown.

It’s a nostalgia for a time that never actually was, a sad longing for moral certainty, a magic diet for those who don’t want to exercise their thought processes. It’s what happens when you become more concerned with your own soul than the welfare of others. You make certainty and acceptance your gods, and love goes out the window. It’s ironic that the pope and the bishops claim to worry so much about the threat of the modern world to church doctrine. It’s making obedience the chief virtue and leaving love out in the cold that has made the church so unappealing to the modern world. If the churches made love central again, I have no doubt that many who have wandered away would find their way back.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

David and Goliath – A Same-Sex Love Story

Here in America, where wacko religion and the political right have joined forces, we are subjected to a daily diet of nonsense claims – that America was founded as a Christian nation, that hurricanes are brought about by lesbianism, that it’s only right that a governor of a state like Texas (I know, I know – there is no other state like Texas), should use his time and energy and the taxpayers' money to organize a national day of prayer.

As Australians like to remind us – “we got the prisoners; you got the Puritans” – lucky Australia. When some people think religion, they think peace and love and charity and forgiveness and nursing and teaching and smiling a lot. When Americans think religion, we have to deal more often with hellfire, self-righteousness and condemnation. Here in the USA, the Bible is a hammer in search of a nail.

While things have gotten incredibly much better for gays, this hammer still comes down on gay heads more than on most other people's. If some of us want to hit back, you shouldn’t have to ask why. Virtually all of the homophobia in the land is traceable to organized religion and the inculcation of the notion that non-reproductive sex is a direct affront to a wrathful God.

How is one to respond to the soul-killing influence of authoritarian hierarchical Catholicism and reason-free evangelical Protestantism in this country? How does one fight back against these bastards?

One source of comfort for me has been to look out at what is happening in other places in the world. Fortunately, American religious provincialism is not the only way to go.

I take enormous pleasure in tuning in from time to time to what is going on in Germany, where the fight for gay rights and against religious oppression appears, at least in my eyes, to be a tad further down the road. Let me give you one example.

Unless you are gay and or German-speaking (and maybe even if you are) you may not know the German comic artist, Ralf König.

I first came across Ralf König back in early gay liberation days in the late 70s when his gay characters with their Knollennasen (potato-like noses) were a rare treasure, wonderfully cutting edge, clever, hilariously funny. König’s talent as an artist was exceptional. Particularly appealing was his “take no prisoners” attitude. While most of us were wishing the drag queens would cool it (because we thought “they were giving us all a bad name”) König was in your face with graphic images and a total absence of euphemisms.

König has since published some forty books. Some have been translated into fourteen languages and are available in seventeen countries. Here's a YouTube about him in Welsh. Two of his books have been made into films. One of those films, available online in its entirety on Hulu, is Der bewegte Mann, (Maybe, Maybe Not, in English). It has the added benefit of a soundtrack by Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester.

But I digress…

In a recent interview Ralf König says a young woman asked him recently why he continues after all these years to be so gay-centered. Isn’t it time he took a been there/done that attitude and spread his wings. And he has done just that. Recently he has branched out and is spending more time on another interest of his – bashing religion. He’s been so good at it that he has even been invited to join Germany’s Giordano Bruno Foundation, a group of leading thinkers, artists, movers and shakers dedicated to making it acceptible to speak out against religion in a country that still taxes you to pay the salaries of catholic and protestant clergy and to maintain the churches.

König appeared in Düsseldorf not long ago, a city which is 32% catholic, 19% Lutheran, 4% Muslim and 45% “Free of Religion”, to address a group of atheists who have organized to fight back against the church tax.

They meet once a month and every year actually have an ‘Enlightenment Service’ as opposed to a regular religious service. This year, as part of that service, they invited König to read several of his comics aloud.

König’s appearance is evidence that not only has religion receded in Europe generally, as LGBT rights have come to the fore, but the gloves have come off, and gays are letting the church and their sacred cows have it right between the eyes for their centuries-long homophobic policies. What is particularly noteworthy is the way the mainstream is beginning to throw their support behind gays in ever more concrete ways, as straight audiences become far more comfortable with gay humor than ever before, enabling gays and non-believers to join forces to fight back.

Düsseldorf is hardly alone in growing its “religion-free” population. In Dresden recently a “religion free zone” was organized alongside the national “church day” celebration in June. Seven of the German states, Hamburg, Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern have non-religious majorities. In Saxony-Anhalt, where Martin Luther was born, only 19.7 percent of the population is Catholic or Protestant.

Those with religious beliefs (30% of German youth in their teens and early twenties believe in a personal god and another 19% believe in some kind of supernatural power) are outnumbered by atheists (28%) and agnostics (23%).

Gay culture has moved into the mainstream here in the States as well. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City has been made into a musical, Glee is one of the best things going on television, gay characters are now routine in soap operas, the presence of a lesbian talk show host like Ellen is old news. But few of these programs and personalities have taken steps yet to expose the harm done by religion to the gay community they represent. They work hard to entertain, and remain cautious about taking on a political stance, and religion continues to get away with murder. Apparently we still lack a critical mass of folk willing to take them on.

How much longer will it take, I wonder, before we find the courage to do the kinds of things they’re doing in Germany. How about it? Can we have a Giordano Bruno Foundation USA? Can we populate it with leading thinkers and artists and people from the business world? And then can we have them invite gay comics to poke fun at the church and at religious belief?

Can we?


P.S. Here’s a sample of what Ralf König is up to these days. Here is a YouTube video of him reading his version of David and Goliath from a non-biblical perspective. It’s in German, but I’ve provided a translation, and if you copy it into a word file, you can put it in a separate window next to the window with the YouTube, and follow along in English.

Hope you get the same charge out of it that I did…


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tomorrow is another day

I have spent hours in the past two days reading about the Tea Party victory and commiserating with friends about what has happened to the optimism we had when Obama came into office. Hours trying to make sense of how and why the democrats couldn’t do anything but give in to the muggers or help toss the entire global economy into a tailspin. I tried to write about it but I just couldn’t come up with anything to say. When I started in, I realized I was simply spouting the leftist line, that the right is crazy and Obama has no balls, and I immediately trashed what I had written and went back to reading other people’s commentary, hoping for some new insight and perhaps some suggestions for lighting a candle in the darkness.

There are reasonable people who are not totally pessimistic. Unfortunately, they seem to come across the way Robert Rubin did last night on Charlie Rose. Rubin was Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, you may recall, and somebody you can assume would be way more knowledgeable than the average pundit. He was, actually, but if I had to sum up what he said, it would be that things will be all right “if both sides can learn to work together.” Sure. And the war will end if both sides will simply lay down their arms. And the crime rate will go down if people stop stealing and mugging.

This only added to the feeling of helplessness that came when I realized we had in power people willing to sink the economy in order to prove their power and to assure the rich continue to get richer as the poor get poorer in this country. Their argument is that you should take from the poor and give to the rich, because to do anything else is to steal from the entrepreneurial class, and thus cripple the job creators. The economists I look to for advice, Robert Reich and Paul Krugman in particular, argue the opposite and most informed commentary zeroes in on evidence to the contrary. Rubin, for example, points out that the right went ballistic when Clinton wanted to raise revenues, but Clinton, unlike Obama, got his way, and that led to the greatest period of prosperity in modern American history.

Today, people in thrall to the free market fundamentalists, folks like Grover Norquist (and their dumbhead hangers-on like Sarah Palin, Allen West, and Michele Bachmann), still insist “trickle down” will work – despite thirty years of evidence to the contrary – because that serves the interest of the superwealthy who have given up any pretense of willingness to share a national society, a community of folk from the land of the free and the home of the brave, a commonwealth.

That’s the norm in this country now, evidence on one side, ideology on the other. And, to twist the knife, we are told by the ideologues that fact-finding is just another ideology, so we’re even.

The stock response to the taboo of pointing out the greed that runs America these day is the charge that one is “fostering class warfare.” But that’s sloganeering and name-calling. There is that pesky evidence that we have become a nation of rich getting richer as the poor get poorer, so here we are again with evidence on one side, manufactured truth on the other.

No one ever has all the evidence, obviously. Most of us are limited when it comes to economic theory and we are all capable of falling for the temptation to believe what we want to believe. But some of us at least know there’s no shortcut, and we have to continue to struggle for more evidence, less ideology. We just need to find the willpower to dig for more and better information.

The media are now largely useless, in that they are far more about generating controversy and setting up two sides without regard for imbalances in factual information. But there are fortunately other sources, and one can seek them out over time. And one can always hope that with things this bad, people will develop better bullshit detectors. And who knows, there is a possibility we will not fall prey to more Tea Party candidates in 2012, and might get a congress that can right this wrong.

Then again, of course, it might be just as hard to right this wrong as it now seems impossible to right the wrong the Supreme Court did in granting corporations the power they need to maintain the wealth of the land in their hands. After all, when you approach a person with a gun and suggest we all sit down and talk reason, the person with the gun – particularly if he has been known to use it – has the upper hand.

Frankly, I don’t see how we get out of this mess, short of some kind of rioting in the streets that wakes Americans up and gets them to the polls to vote the right-wingers out. No all that likely, given that rioting in the street generally leads to more votes for right-wingers. Democracy is painfully slow. It takes an eternity to get informed, then vote, learn you’re being misled and vote again. Meanwhile we sit helpless at the evidence that our government and our economy are broken, and we are next to powerless to do anything about it, given the inherent flaws in democracy – people get lazy when they have enough to eat, people are easily duped, they prefer bread and circuses over justice and equality, and altruism is rare in a politician.

Still looking for the bright side. How about this idea?

If the right is right, and eliminating all taxes on the rich will force government to get leaner and meaner and cut entitlements at long last that are unfair, and if giving money to the rich will indeed generate more jobs, then we will all have to write notes of apology to the likes of the Koch Brothers, and sit in the sunshine that has come over the land. And if the right is wrong, and eliminating taxes means that future generations of Americans get a lousy third-rate education (and the very poor get none at all), and if research and development in America crashes and alternative energies and economies based on environmental protection are developed exclusively by competitor nations like China, and if the corporations beggar the middle classes so that they can’t afford their products anymore, and if the poor get desperate and we have to spend even more money on guards for our gated communities, and if Obama’s health care plan gets dismantled and even more Americans go bankrupt when they get sick, and if the wealth gap increases, so that the top 1% go from owning merely 50% of the wealth of the nation to 75% of the wealth, maybe then things will change.

That’s the worst case scenario. We’re moving in that direction, but we’re not there yet.

But we will get there if we don’t turn things around, and how are we to turn things around if people don’t wake up to what’s happening? Does anybody see any evidence that people in the future will be different from people today? We call ourselves a democracy, and that means each citizen has the right to vote, regardless of how uninformed he or she is. We can never get better than the average Joe, and the average American believes in a God who looks, thinks and acts like a white male Republican, and an even greater number of Americans believe in extra-terrestrials than in God.

Maybe that’s where we should start. We should remind ourselves we are not a democracy. Take the rose-colored glasses off. We are a plutocracy. We are governed and our minds are largely controlled by the super-wealthy for the benefit of the super-wealthy. Some of us aspire to democracy, but I don’t see us getting there anytime soon. We’re like the Soviet Union in that way. We are like spiders caught in a web of significance we ourselves have made. We’re not living in a democracy any more than they were communists. They simply aspired to communism, just as we aspire to democracy sometimes. We had no trouble spotting the gap between their aspirations (which looked to me a whole lot like Christianity – “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs”) and the corruption of those ideals. Why can’t we spot the gap in our own neck of the woods? The fact, for example that our Christians, instead of turning the other cheek and sharing their cloaks, are actually enabling the plutocrats to rob them (and the rest of us) blind. They are more concerned with telling the world that sex is dirty than they are in making room at the table at lunchtime. Talk about corruption of an ideal.

Time to call a spade a spade. Democracy? In your dreams. Trickle down? Read your history. Christian nation? Pure bullshit.

I want to think positive. I just don’t know how. I want to say things like, “Well, when you’ve fallen down, you can always get back up,” or “Nice thing about being down, the only place to go is up.”

But at the moment, I can’t stop thinking we may be only half way down the slide.

The space metaphors aren’t working.

Let’s try time.

Like “Tomorrow’s another day.”

That’s it.

See? I can be as positive as the next guy.