Monday, October 31, 2011

How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?

For the past several weeks now, I’ve been slogging through Unholy Trinity, a book by Mark Aarons and John Loftus that was originally published as Ratlines, that documents the role of the Vatican in helping thousands of Nazi and Ustaše genocidal killers escape to South America after the war.

I want to save a review of the book, and the whole story of the church’s role in fighting (or not fighting) first the fascists, then the communists, for another day. For now I just want to tie it together with two other pieces of information that caught my attention this morning. One is a review by Glenn C. Altschuler of Alan Wolfe’s latest book, Political Evil: What it is and how to combat it. The other is a blog entry on Alice Walker, by theologian Bill Lindsey.

Wolfe’s point in Political Evil, if I’ve understood it right, and if the reviewer has done the book justice, is that our inclination to set the world up in absolute black-and-white terms leads us away from justice and keeps us from finding political solutions to conflict. By his frequent labeling of America’s enemies as “evil doers,” George W. Bush got us nowhere. And in a separate example (not Wolfe’s), our demonization of Milošević in Serbia blinded us to the genocidal policies of the Croatians against the Serbians, which we ought to have considered more carefully in understanding the recent breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. Or, to say it more plainly, the war crimes of the Croatian Ustaše are not cancelled out by the war crimes of Serbians under Milošević.

The importance of context should not be minimized, if the ultimate goal is reconciliation, not blame. One needs to know the whole story, in all its detail, in order to know what we have to work with in building a solution. And “if we're not careful…” Wolfe is suggesting according to the review, “…and we don't temper moral absolutism with ethical realism, we're likely to become smug and self-righteous. We may well forget that foreign policy ‘is always about politics and that politics demands flexibility.’”

Ah...but, I want to add, is “flexibility” just another word for moral cowardice?

Because my mind is still filled with the claims made in Unholy Trinity – namely that Pius XII and the official church remained largely silent while the Holocaust was going on, and then further abused the memory of Jewish victims of the Nazis by arguing the utilitarian ethical argument that letting the killers go free (nay, helping the killers go free) was necessary in the fight against communism, the purportedly greater evil – because those events are still fresh in my mind, I can’t help but filter Wolfe’s argument in favor of “flexibility” through the more black-and-white lens used to judge the church (and other institutions) in Unholy Trinity.

The problem with political institutions is that they cannot act as moral agents, since they inevitably find they have a higher obligation to self-preservation. Israel is an apartheid state with a brutal policy toward the Palestinians, and it’s not the racists among the Israelis one gets angry at, but the “good folk” – those who have built the only democracy (for Jews, anyway) in the Middle East, because they have let the tribe (and the rest of us) down. Jews taught the world about justice. If Israel is being held to a higher standard than its neighbors, it’s because one remembers that fact, and feels let down to see it betrayed.

In similar fashion, one knows that the church not only claims to be the embodiment of the love of Christ, the builder of schools and hospitals, an agent of charity, compassion, generosity and kindness, but actually is, in many of its manifestations. It is also a vicious institution governed by a Realpolitik which led it to support the fascists of Croatia, merely because they were catholic, against the orthodox Serbians, their neighbors. The church was behind the Intermarium movement, a force that wanted to build a third political reality among the catholic nations of Eastern Europe, to stand between fascist Germany on one side and Stalinist Russia on the other. An arguably worthy political goal. But one that would require moral compromise. And just as Palestinians feel a sour taste in their mouths when they hear Israel tout itself as a democracy, Jews and others may feel disgusted when they hear the cherry-picked information about how Pius aided the Jews of Rome – as if Klaus Barbie, and Adolf Eichmann got to South America entirely on their own power and resources, and if the thousands who escaped justice were of no concern anymore.

So what is the “real story,” one wants to know. Were the pope and his bishops the bad guys or weren’t they? The point is that in any great ethical dilemma involving large numbers of people, there is almost never going to be a line drawn beneath the list of good deeds and bad, so that one may add up the columns and reach a conclusion “the church (or any other entity) is innocent” or “the church is guilty.” In a court of law, one reaches a verdict of guilt or innocence, but in real life it’s always going to be a mixed bag and we’re going to be talking more about degrees of guilt or innocence and whether there is responsibility to begin with. There are no bottom lines.

Which brings me to Alice Walker and her book, The Color Purple.

When I read Bill Lindsey’s account of the role the book played in his life, I wanted to tell him that the book (the film, actually) had had a powerful impact on me, as well. I had heard somewhere that when she was criticized for being so hard on black men, in The Color Purple and elsewhere, her response was “You tell your story, and I’ll tell mine.” I seized upon it as an excellent rule to live by, especially when people try to simplify complex moral situations with bottom-line conclusions that would force you to say what you don't believe - that in the end, if there's more good than bad, then we'll call it good. I had included that quotation without attribution in two of my own blog postings, one in 2004 and one in 2005.

In preparing to write this article this morning I googled the quotation to tie down the attribution, and, to my chagrin, the only articles that came up in response to the quotation were my own. Either Alice Walker never made that remark, or the book or film review I took it from is not accessible without digging deeper. I’m confident I have not misquoted her – it fits her work perfectly as a womanist writer and her courage in telling her story, damn the torpedos. But if anybody knows where it came from, I’d appreciate being made an honest man.

My point is only that in struggling in my assessment of Unholy Trinity and the church’s guilt in letting/helping genocidal killers go free, I have reached the same conclusion here that I came to in teaching a university seminar in ethics for a dozen years or so, when students would invariably ask me, “Well, which one of these many systems you’ve told us about – religious (Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas), Kantian, utilitarian, virtue ethics, Rawles’ theory of justice, situational ethics - which one do you hold to?

My answer was that right and wrong, in my view, is neither absolute, nor relative, but negotiated. I hold that while one has to make decisions for practical reasons in politics and law on the basis of codes carefully worked out over time, one never stops the consideration and reconsideration of those codes as time and new information and changes in cultural values come to play in giving us lenses to see the world through. That may sound relativist and postmodernist. It may sound like one value is as good as another and there is no objective position from which to make form a final conclusion. But that would be a misinterpretation. What it does mean is that our moral conclusions should be guided by the greatest possible inclusion of life narratives. We’re well on the way toward making that a universal starting point. A mere couple hundred years ago most of the world lived by the divine right of kings. Today we see the world moving slowly but surely toward universal democracy and the goals expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The church's claim of infallibility is one of the great absurdities of history. The case against it is simply too strong. Its errors have been too numerous and of such enormity as to be unforgivable. It can have the credit it deserves when it lives out its mission of charity, but the majority of its own followers have come to reject its claim to exclusivity in matters of truth and morality. It was not merely wrong during the ages of the Crusades and the Inquisition. It was wrong when it kidnapped Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish family after his catholic nurse had him baptized and refused to give him back. It was wrong more recently when there was active participation by some of its clergy and failure to speak out on the part of the rest, when war criminals made their way on funds laundered by the Vatican Bank to places where they would not have to face justice. And when it repeated that pattern of criminality on the part of some and cover-up on the part of others in the child-abuse scandal. And it is still wrong today in other ways, such as in its destructive take on human sexuality and the place of women in the world.

People persuaded that life is “nasty, brutish and short” can take heart. As long as there are people to tell their stories, as long as we have people to remember the Holocaust, and people like Alice Walker to remind black men that while they have just cause to rage against racism, they do not have cause to foster sexism, as long as we have books like Alan Wolfe’s Political Evil to remind the George W. Bushes of the world that the assumption of self-righteousness does possibly as much harm in the long run as do the workings of allegedly evil people, as long as we have journalists with magnificent obsessions pointing out the clay feet of our hallowed institutions – that’s how long we need not surrender to total cynicism.

My friend Harriet once told me she hated documentaries because they were invariably about what’s wrong with the world. She preferred comedies and escape literature. We shared so much, but parted company on this issue. I take heart from books and films about the miseries of the world because they demonstrate there are people who have not sold out or gone to sleep. As long as they are on the job, and as long as people tell their stories, no matter how horrific, I thought – still do – we have reason to look forward to better times. If the whole world some day starts dancing to “Look on the Bright Side of Life,” that’s when I’ll cash in my chips.


Thursday, October 27, 2011


There’s a picture in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle showing some kid crying because his school’s closing down. Well, boo hoo. Who says kids call the shots around here. Stick him in another school. Hell, make one big central school in the middle of the city and make all the kids go there. We can increase class size to between 50 and 100 and assign a cop to each classroom to keep kids in line. There’s too much vandalism anyway. It will be a whole lot cheaper in the long run, and a hell of a lot more efficient.

I’m tired of hearing people complain when we close down schools. Some people have no sense of reality. So Oakland had a meeting last night to announce that it was shutting down five elementary schools. Big deal. We’ve got wars to complete, and elections to get ready for. Wonder how much money was wasted calling that meeting. They could have just announced it from the mayor’s office.

Where is the election money to come from if we don’t shut down some schools? Rick Perry’s war chest against Romney starts at $15 million and is apparently up to $17 million in the last quarter, depending on which sources you use.
Obama’s come up with $70 million in just the last quarter. USA Today has another set of figures.

And that’s chicken feed compared to the money it costs us to keep America free. The Iraq war has cost us $800 billion so far and the total cost when all is said and done will be in the vicinity of $4 trillion, more than the entire cost of World War II. And that’s only because Obama is wussing out, as Michele Bachmann says, and surrendering all our gains in Iraq, that land of ingrates. If he were to do it right, it could be another bunch of billions.

And if that were not bad enough, also on the front page is the news that the Occupy Oakland movement is in trouble because some bad guys have infiltrated the peaceniks. Well, what did you expect? The whole idea began with people thinking they had a right to protest in the first place. Probably got that notion from going to one of those lousy Oakland schools they’re now shutting down.

And that money isn’t all that we need to close down schools for. The average net worth of American families now is only about $120,000. But the average net worth of American congressmen is $912,000. It doesn’t come cheap to keep the ruling class in there ruling.

These are smart people. You know they’re smart because the ten richest members of Congress all voted – 100% of them – for the Bush tax cuts. They know that the best thing for everybody is to give more money to the rich so they will create more jobs for the rest of us. OK, so that hasn’t been proven by the events of the last thirty years, but that’s the problem with Americans, isn’t it? They never think long term.

We’re well on our way to success. Can’t stop now.

So you screamin’, bawlin’, whinin’, moanin’, cat-callin’ parents and teachers at that meeting at Oakland Tech last night boo-hooing because we’re closing some schools on your lazy-ass kids, get a grip.

Get some perspective.

Get your priorities straight.

All together now, say it with me, “CLOSE MORE SCHOOLS! CLOSE MORE SCHOOLS!”


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Why blog?

I am very fortunate in having a number of thoughtful literate friends to correspond with. Many who have written in response to something I have put on this blog have expressed themselves so well I have urged them to start blogging themselves. I've had this discussion a number of times. Just today I tried again to persuade a friend to offer his thinking more broadly, and he came back with the usual objections - I don't have anything that would interest anybody, I find blogging narcissistic, I don't have the time or the inclination to edit and don't want to look like an ignoramus, etc. etc.

I wrote back. Since what I have to say to him I would also like to say to a number of others as well, I've decided to post my letter to him, removing, I hope, all references to things he might not want to share.

Here's the letter. Let's assume he's Russian and he's from Krasnoyarsk. He's not Russian and he's not from anywhere near Krasnoyarsk. But it will do:

Dear Svyatoslav:

There are so many ways to spend your time well, gardening, eating, napping, looking up the history of Bessarabia on Google. I can see why you feel there are no good reasons you should tear yourself away from productive activity to assemble your thoughts in writing. Have been there myself with the thought that it’s far too arrogant a move to make for anybody with high ambitions to humility. Why would I do such a thing to my friends? And why would I do such a thing for people who don’t know me from a tree, either?

I do it for two reasons. First off, I learned a long time ago that I was a terrible thinker. I read somewhere that Bertrand Russell sat down and figured out everything he had to say about mathematics, then simply wrote Principia Mathematica at one go, without once going back and changing anything. Whether it’s true or not, it’s not the way my brain works. I wrote a couple term papers like that in college, but for the most part I never know what I think until I actually say it or write it down. Now, whenever I stew over something – a decision, or just a way of looking at things – I write, and inevitably decisions get made before I’m finished writing, mushy notions separate themselves from clear notions, and I get a whole bunch of “aha!” moments, sometimes in rapid succession. Things I know I would never come up with just lying in bed and contemplating the rotten state of affairs in these interesting times.

Saying what I think works too, but writing actually works much better, probably because it slows me down and forces notions out in a linear fashion. And because I have no expectations of order or organization when I speak, but, having taught writing for so many years, I do have such expectations when I write.

I also have a tendency to bullshit myself. I live dangerously close to the Sea of Delusion. And when the bullshit comes off my fingers and just sits there on the page, I can see it, often (perhaps not often enough), and strangle it before it grows too big and gets away from me. Writing keeps me from wandering too far into those territories I really want to avoid, where the line gets lost between reality and imagination, and where assumptions go unexamined.

Writing is thinking. Everybody who wants to keep the brain alive reads. But unless the thoughts that come in response to reading get aired, the brain never actually gets challenged. If people really want to keep the brain alive, they will write, as well. Not just record things, but actually write. Creatively, imaginatively.

If you were lucky, somebody got you to keep a diary of your comings and goings as a kid. If you were lucky, somebody then told you there was something even better you could do, move beyond an account of events to a telling of stories, observations, complaints, examinations of the world around you. I never taught a writing class where I didn’t insist students keep a journal to supplement any class assignments, a place to capture the fugitive thoughts that interfered with the focused thoughts required of assignments. And of all the things I was ever complimented on as a teacher, probably the most rewarding was the gratitude I got from students who discovered what writing could do for them.

People often say you write diaries for yourself and you share your journals with others, but I see the distinction slightly differently. I see a diary, like a log, as something you do when the world requires you to keep track of things, and a journal as a means of recording the things that really matter, whether they matter to others or just to yourself. Everybody needs to show some self-respect at regular intervals. For me, writing is the single best way of saying to yourself that you respect yourself. You cut through the false modesty, the notion that “little ol’ me has nothing to say” and simply say what’s on your mind.

Of course you have something to say. You weren’t born yesterday. You’ve seen a lot of things come down the pike. Get them down, if only to remind yourself who you are.

And if you’re doing it right, I think it will become obvious to you that much of what you write simply to help yourself think has some practical use outside yourself, as well. Out there are people who think as you do and will really appreciate finding a person working on the same issues, and it won’t matter all that much which one of you is further down the line. Sharing of like-mindedness is essential to keeping from despair at times. Its value should never be underestimated. And sharing in order to provoke argument is, if anything, even more valuable. If you want to sum up what’s wrong with the America we live in today, it is that nobody seems to know how to argue anymore. People preach, or they talk to win points, not to help themselves and others clarify or correct misunderstanding.

Blogging is the internet extension of journal keeping. It’s more than an extension, obviously, because it puts greater emphasis on sharing. What’s so good about blogging is that you don’t need to share with anybody who doesn’t want what you have to offer. You just put it out there. People pick it up or they leave it alone. Some people read you regularly. Some read you once, decide you’ve got nothing they want, and never come back. Others dip in now and again, write and tell you what you should have said instead, suggest things you ought to be focusing on, or simply write to say, “Amen.”

I’ve found that I write a whole lot more when I’m struggling to make sense of something, or when I can’t stay focused on what I’m reading. When I’ve got a good book going, or more than one at a time, I go silent for sometimes weeks at a time. There’s a line between blogging and writing professionally to a deadline. I could never do the latter. Not that I don’t read opinion pages of regular columnists with great interest, but because I think there is something to writing only when the spirit moves you.

It took me time to figure out how to blog. I read blogs that are highly polished, by people for whom form is as important as content. I do fuss over spelling and I edit to get the right word, but I decided a long time ago I would just let things come out as I think them. The result is my writing is terribly wordy, repetitious, often contradictory. Sometimes I start off on one topic and wander to another. Since my primary purpose is thinking aloud, I don’t apologize for that. I’ve told people who ask about my blog that they should never apologize for using their delete button.

Some bloggers are highly focused. One friend blogs on the political situation in Japan. Another is a catholic theologian who has a number of regular readers who write back. Their discussions suggest they are a closed circle, sometimes, but outsiders can watch ideas take shape and the commentary is always greater than the sum of its parts. And my friend admitted to me just today that he sees blogging very much as a collaborative writing activity. I don’t get a lot of commentary, so I can’t call what I do collaborative writing, but I do get lots of responses through e-mail, and I value these messages.

I write more about gay liberation issues than about other things, but I don’t want to limit myself to just one topic. As I say, I think people should write what they are thinking, and blogging, for me, is staying alive and involved. Even the theologian I just mentioned sometimes writes family history and recipes. I read those with avid interest, as well. My point is only the blog can be whatever it turns out to be. You don’t need to spend a lot of time planning before you start writing.

You’ve got a way with words that makes your writing jump off the page. Your challenge, if you start blogging, will be to make sure you don’t give in to the temptation to be clever, but let what’s clever in your brain come when it will. Fear not. It will come out. You don’t have the power to contain it.

I share your revulsion (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) of the self-promoting, narcissistic stuff lots of people put out on YouTube or Facebook. I know why you don’t get anywhere near that bandwagon. But just blogging your thoughts is not the same as self-promotion if you keep in mind that, try as you may, you can’t get into the minds of others, and will never know whether they find what you say worth reading or not. I suggest giving up entirely trying to answer that question. You don’t want to overestimate your own wisdom, but don’t assume you have nothing to say, either. Just put it out there. When somebody finds it worth repeating, they will pass it on. When you’ve been silly or mundane, unduly alarmist, or when you’re just plain wrong, they will pass you by. Your job is to put it out there. Once it’s out there, it’s not yours anymore. It belongs to anybody who picks it up.

Many’s the time I’ve sent out notification of a blog and gotten not one response. If you have smart folks in your circle of friends, they will have lives. I’ve got friends who don’t hide the fact they see my blogs as repetitious rants. They’re still friends, and I pat myself on my back I have the kind of friends who are unafraid of telling me what they really think.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve written something that has provoked an argument. Sometimes people who write back make me change my mind. That’s the way it’s supposed to go. Sometimes I come back and engage in a back-and-forth that can go on for days or weeks. I get up every morning hoping I will find one of those. Often I realize I’ve been badly misunderstood and misrepresented. That goes with the territory. People don’t read carefully. They read to quickly confirm or deny their own thoughts much of the time. Sometimes I get to correct misunderstandings. Most of the time, of course, I never know how well I’m understood, or whether I am appreciated. Sometimes I hear from total strangers who have had things passed on to them. Those are very rewarding.

But even when nobody writes back, I’m OK, since, as I said, I write primarily to clarify my own thinking.

I urge you to give it a try. Set a few rules. Decide, for example, your ground rules will be “Never apologize, never explain.” Or that you are “Not responsible for misspellings or awkward phrasing, or for partial understanding of complex issues.” Maybe you will have to write a number of blogs first before the rules you want to go by become clear to you.

If it makes it easier, come up with a number of categories like “Saying the nastiest things I can possibly think of about Michele Bachmann,” or “Life in Jokeland/Oakland,” or “Memories of my earlier life in Krasnoyarsk.” You know, wherever you find the shoe pinching. Put it out there, and tell a select number of people you trust with the information. Let them pass it on and the list of readers will grow. Or not. Remember, this is about preventing hardening of the brain plumbing, not about teaching the world to fly.

Count me in as your first guaranteed regular. I’ve been doing it for some time now already, and can make that promise with confidence.

With lots of affection and an equal amount of respect for your writing abilities,



Friday, October 21, 2011

Putting faces on the 1%

Those pesky lefties, like my friend Ed, are at it again. Churning up the waters with all this class war yada yada.

Ed sent me two links this morning, one to the news that Walmart has decided to cut the insurance benefits of its employees, and one to an article about six people who inherited a total of 93 billion dollars of the Walmart fortune.

Turns out if you only work at Walmart between 24 and 33 hours a week, under the new belt-tightening rules, your spouse will get no benefits whatsoever. If you work there part time less than 24 hours a week (four hours a day, Monday through Friday, and only three on Saturday, say) you get no benefits for yourself, either.

This is America. Who says you have a right to benefits? What are you, in a union?

Look at it from Walmart’s perspective. They’ve got more than two million employees to keep track of and Walmart would not be able to show a $16 billion profit this year if it worried about them all.

I know, I know. You’re going to tell me there would be no $422 billion in sales if the employees were not at their jobs, but that’s no excuse. In this day of high unemployment in the American market economy, if an employee has to quit to take care of a sick spouse, there’s always another one who will apply for the job. One has to work the system, after all. And fair’s fair. Other companies don’t do much better, most of them. Why are you picking on us?

The inherited fortunes of Christy ($24.5 billion), Jim ($21.1 billion), Alice ($20.9 billion), S. Robson ($20.5 billion), Ann ($3.3 billion), and Nancy ($2.7 billion) may seem like a lot, but a billion dollars doesn’t go nearly as far as it once did. And although they inherited their money, and didn’t work for it, if we had not allowed Bud and Sam Walton to give this money to their kids, they might have operated out of Mexico and put those 2.1 million Americans out of a job. Ever think of that?

What are you, a democrat?

OK, so they put their competition out of business, destroyed the downtowns of thousands of towns across America, took their manufacturing base to China, made the taxpayers of the states where they located their stores carry the burden of benefits for their employees like educating their children and paying for their emergency room visits. OK, let’s say they had used some of that $93 billion that went to the kids for employee benefits, you know human nature. Give an employee an inch, he’ll take a mile.

Why are we even listening to this criticism from socialists?

American values.

Just imagine a world without American values.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Mischief Makers

Now they’ve gone and done it. They being the Evangelical Republicans and Maureen Dowd. They’ve tossed the doodoo right directly into the fan. We’re actually looking at religious doctrine in the context of the next presidential election.

First came Perry’s man, this guy Jeffress. He runs one of these giant megachurches with thousands of members, part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant Church in America, formed originally when the Baptists of the South didn’t want to go along with their Northern brethern in getting rid of slavery. Right up there with Henry VIII ripping his national church away from Rome so he could kill a few of his wives in the contest for most ignominious beginnings.

Jeffress, when he's not Mormon-bashing, can actually be quite affable. But, as a visit to the Mormon Center in Salt Lake will show you, Jeffress has no trouble getting traction when he needs it among his fellow evangelicals. Mormonism is a whole lot cheaper than Disneyland, but provides the same fantasyland experience, and they too, like the Lutherans, Anglicans, Southern Baptists and a whole lot of other folk, have shady beginnings. Their scriptures tell you people of color are cursed, men should marry lots of wives, the Garden of Eden is in Missouri, Christ spent some time in North America and when you die you can become a god and have a planet of your very own.

Jeffress conveniently ignores the Mormon claim that all that stuff is history and Mormon doctrine can turn on a dime when it’s politically expedient to do so – just as he conveniently ignores the fact that his own church was founded on some pretty shitty values.

True, a lot of Mormon B.S. has not been discarded. Like their conviction that Jesus was Satan’s brother, that Anne Frank is a Mormon (because we baptized her after her death), that God appeared in the flesh once alongside Jesus in the flesh – two separate bodies, that the Hebrews came to North America on little boats – and so did Jesus – although word has it he came by air.

Anybody can see instantly that these are wiggy beliefs. Not sensible ones like God makes women suffer in childbirth because she listened to a snake instead of him – and the snake once had legs, but now crawls on the ground in punishment for his actions. Or that he, God, wanted a sacrifice to himself, but the usual lambs or camels of the day wouldn’t do, so he took human form and sacrificed his own self (how come all these centuries the church blamed the Jews, or Judas? Were they not just carrying out God’s plan? – so God sent his only-begotten Son…) before coming back to life. Mary’s conception was “immaculate” (i.e., God blames the billions of children of Adam and Eve for thousands of years for sins their mother and father, but not they themselves, committed when they couldn’t control their desire to have knowledge God didn’t want to give them, but he made an exception and allowed Mary to be born herself free from sin so that when God (who obviously plans ahead) was ready to find a pretty lady to reproduce himself with she’d be not only a virgin when she gave birth but free from sin as well. And she went bodily into heaven. How much time have you got? The list is long…

If you ever decide to learn Japanese, there is a useful phrase right up there with please and thank you and can you please point me to the bathroom, without which you will make an ass of yourself in Japan. Repeat after me, “Ah, so desu ka?”

“Ah, so desu ka?” (dwell on the “so” and slap a look of delighted surprise on your face) means “Oh, is that so?”

You use it every time you strike up a conversation with new people. You even use it with old familiar people, certainly with neighbors across the fence, and absolutely with all people in authority. Its sociolinguistic meaning is, “I hear what you are saying and you will never ever hear from me that I think you are full of crap because I am well brought up and know to smile and pretend interest and convey the impression that what you have just said has enlightened me and made my day.”

Japanese people developed social skills way before most other people. All people who live close to others in small villages learn these skills. In America, by way of contrast, we still bash about with the mistaken notion that our real opinions on things are worthy of expression.

Gay liberation couldn’t get off the ground for years in Japan, not because Japanese think they should interpret the Bible to say gays should be stoned to death, but because they perceive that the topic of what people do with their weenies is not fit for the salon. You can’t have a revolution with people who think it’s impolite.

We had a bit of that here, too, actually. We Americans, like the Japanese, had a kind of distinction between “tatemae” (the “truth” that it is socially acceptable to express” and “honne” (the “truth” that matches your actual thoughts and feelings) and until recently we pretty much stuck to it in the national discourse. We didn’t remind Catholics that their pope enabled 30,000 Nazis and Ustashis to escape to South America after the war. At least not at political conventions. We didn’t tell Lutherans we had come across the writings of Martin Luther who advocated burning Jewish synagogues and attacking the Jews with "sulphur and pitch." We spoke instead of “complexity” and “changing with the times” and spouted silly little aphorisms like, “You go to your church and I’ll go to mine,” and had a tacit understanding that “I won’t comment on your bald spot if you keep quiet about the space between my front teeth.”

The world of completely insane varieties of voodoo is manageable only when we focus on the stained glass windows and the schools and hospitals and Mozart’s Requiem and the kindness of old Sister Agnes. Only if you keep a lid on the ugly truths of how many ways there are to tell the story of an imaginary friend who lives in the sky and, as George Carlin said it,

...who watches every thing you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things that he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry for ever and ever 'til the end of time...but he loves you.

The church people I knew as a child avoided people like George Carlin as much as they could, and when they couldn’t they would pronounce he was a man “probably too angry for his own good.”

We need our drugs. Our conventions that make no sense. Our grease for the wheels that make the world go round.

We simply can’t have people discussing religion on a stage at a political convention. Much less in our newspaper of record.

It could lead to somebody actually revealing our deepest social secret, that we live at peace with religion for the most part only because even the religious among us don’t take the doctrine seriously. We all pick and choose, call Judaism the religion of justice, Christianity the religion of love, Islam the religion of peace only because we’ve whited out all the information in the sacred texts to the contrary. And because we’ve seen what happens when other cherry-pickers pick the nasty bits to dwell on.

We had a deal, in America. We didn’t bring up certain things in polite society.

Unfortunately, the fundamentalists are not highly schooled in the social graces and didn’t get the word. They once kept their handwaving and hallelujahing to themselves and didn't scare the horses. But this is the new America and they've come into the mainstream. They’re appearing at political conventions with the social equivalent of wearing bowling shirts and scratching their crotches while toasting the bride. They’re talking about the actual religious dogmas espoused by the institutions to which their political opponents swear allegiance.

That’s really dangerous. Just as the approval of interracial marriage led us to believe gays ought to be able to marry, and letting gays marry will lead us to sex with animals… (I don’t believe this – I’m just trying to get into the fundamentalist frame of mind to make an argument.) Just like doing one thing leads to another, like sex among Baptists leads to dancing and bingo leads to adultery, life is just one gigantic goddam slippery slope.

Unless we put this religious stuff back in the box, there’s no telling where the slippery slope will lead to.

A discussion, maybe, of the United States as a money-grubbing killer of people around the world who do not serve the interests of our corporate directors.

You get my drift. You see the mischief we could get into.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Things go better with Tchaikovskim

When I lived in Japan I spent an inordinate amount of time talking about living in Japan. I’d get together with my friends on weekends and one of us would ask, “Do you think we made the right decision coming to live here?” I kept that up for some twenty years before I bailed out. And they’re still doing it.

And now I’m asking the same question about living in Berkeley. We live six blocks from the Oakland city line and I met an Oakland cop the other night at a dinner party who I asked about the latest political flap where mayor Jean Quan fired the police chief because he wouldn’t follow her party line. “If you had any idea how many seriously dangerous criminals there are roaming the streets of the city, you’d run like hell,” he said. I got the feeling it’s not just a policeman’s perspective. There’s stuff seriously wrong with this place, and much of it has to do with our inability to deal with poverty and crime and with our belief that we have enough money to fight unjustified wars, but not enough to give every American kid the kind of access to education that might help head off this misery. Rent Waiting for 'Superman' sometime.

But don’t get me started, as they say.

Taku bought a beautiful vine some time ago. A passion fruit. It grew and grew and grew and before we knew what happened it had completely taken over the loquat tree in our back yard, and then jumped over and taken over the neighbor’s trees, as well. For the longest time we didn’t do anything about it. It had such beautiful flowers and I used to just go to the window to stare at it. Taku had to shake me out of this vale of ignorance and remind me if we didn’t pull the vine off the trees, they would die.

So we finally got around to hiring a handyman who worked like a team of oxen pulling this vine down. Hours, it took him, and when he was done we had a mound on the back patio that covered more than half of it. I spent so much money on the handyman I decided we had to finish the job ourselves, so Taku and I spent the day (he took maybe two breaks in eight hours; I took twenty-five) stuffing that damn vine into plant debris bags. What a day’s work. Taku could barely stay awake that evening, and I got exhausted just feeling his exhaustion.

It didn’t help that I had woken up some days ago with a kidney stone and had Taku take me to emergency where I wailed the whole day through except when the drugs knocked me out or except when I was doing things with my body no person with an ounce of dignity ought to be caught dead doing. Good news is the stone appears to have passed and the day in hell was but a 24-hour sojourn. Not that I didn’t use it as an excuse to take naps for several days afterwards.

So there’s my existential state, living in Berkeley. Crime, sirens, thugs, loud student parties, overgrown vines, kidney stones, disillusionment with the world at large and the United States in particular. What’s a guy to do?

The answer is to walk up the street till you get to Zellerbach Hall, walk in and say you want two rush tickets to hear Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra do Tchaikovsky’s 2nd and 5th Symphonies, thank you very much.

Then walk across the street to the coffee shop that does fancy shmancy dinners on concert nights, have some polenta with crimini mushrooms and a glass of white before settling into the orchestra seats you’ve snagged for fifteen bucks (senior, rush - Taku paid more) and surrender yourself to this glorious music by a passionate Slav my gay chauvinist friends always want to lay claim to despite the fact he probably viewed his sexuality the way I view kidney stones.

But why be distracted by such nonsense. There you are, sitting in row 7, looking at this bunch of gorgeous young men and women – some actually appear to be in their 30s, pulling their bows across their violins and cellos and making me forget all about plant debris and crime and democracy gone off the rails. I have never enjoyed a concert more.

My mind went back to army days, when I was at the Russian Language School. It helped that I had read conductor Valery Gergiev was a friend of Putin’s and godfather to his son. Never mind that he has ardently denied that. It helped that the people to my left and right and front and rear were all speaking Russian. I was a few feet from a stage filled with world-class artists from the Kirov Theater in St. Petersberg, and they were beautiful men and women and they were making such beautiful music I never wanted it to stop.

At the language school there was a prince of the Romanovs. He had the tremors. Whether it came from drinking too much – we were sure that was the reason – or whether it was a nervous disease, the poor man vibrated constantly. We began calling him Shakey Jake. Young people have always been cruel, and the man deserved better. But we never underestimated him. We laughed when Minnie Mouse would curtsey at him and call him “prince” and make him scowl and look like he was about to swat her one. She was the wife of the Russian Orthodox priest and would go on endlessly how happy people were before the Bolsheviks took over and disturbed the peace.

Shakey Jake was an expert on Tchaikovsky, and by the time I had been there nearly a year I was able to enjoy his lectures, even in Russian. Didn’t do all that much for my music appreciation, but I got off on the fact that the world was in the middle of a cold war and here we were listening to somebody who was related to the Czar somehow and he was telling us about one of these composers I loved at the time and making it sound as if he had known him personally.

The thoughts just kept coming. The music flowed, and I studied the faces close up of kids not even born when I was listening to this Romanov prince tell me about the composer of this music they were now playing. They could be dying in Afghanistan or Chechnya, but they weren’t. They were playing beautiful music in Berkeley, California. Shakey Jake might have lost his head when his relatives did. Instead, I got to watch him walk across the campus at the Monterey Presidio, always wearing a blue blazer and an ascot, always looking like he might fall down at any minute. But safe to grow old and lecture about his great love, Tchaikovsky.

Пётр Ильич Чайковский. Tchaikovsky. The name ends in –ski. That means it’s an adjective, even though it’s a proper name. That means it’s declined like an adjective. I love the music (of) Tchaikovskovo - I know some secrets about Tchaikovskom – have seen a memorial (to) Tchaikovskomu – would like to go on a picnic with Tchaikovskim. And that’s only the singular guy. If he’s with his brother, or that other composer named Boris Tchaikovsky (no relation), there are other endings. Like the house of the (three) Tchaikovskikh.

I sat there surrounded by Russians and remembered musing about how brilliant Shakey Jake was that time when I was sitting in his audience and grooving on the fact that he could reel off a bunch of Russian composers' names in the dative - Tschaikovskomu, Shostakovichu, Rimskomu-Korsakovu, without a declension chart in his hand, and how when he went from Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka in the nominative to Mikhailu Ivanovichu Glinke in the dative he knew how to switch from masculine adjectival endings to feminine noun endings at the last minute for Glinka/Glinke and never skip a beat.

And I sat there last night and I marveled at how I remembered not a word about the content of that lecture nearly fifty years ago on Tchaikovsky, but I do remember marveling at Shakey Jake's ability to handle the grammar of his native language, and then I was reflecting on how I could reflect in a nanosecond on what a tragic world we live in that Russians who looked so beautiful and played even more beautifully could have ever been anybody's enemies – and in the next nanosecond how I could remember a thought so impossibly trivial after all these years, when I realized Taku next to me, who wasn't even born then, was now sleeping through some truly gorgeous stuff and missing the fact that the first violinist's bow was coming apart and how happy I am to be alive now, post kidney-stone, in this crime-ridden city only a fifteen-minute walk from where the Kirov Orchestra, now the Mariinsky, could play such beautiful music and make me feel all's right with the world.

Now this is, of course, 2011 and you don't need to go to Zellerbach to hear Valery Gergiev conduct the Mariinsky. You can go to YouTube. It ain't live, but it's lovely all the same, and remember while you watch this man's funny hand movements that he's a brilliant pianist and that may explain it. Remember also that there was once a Cinderella type working as a janitor at the Mariinsky who somehow found her way to Gergiev, who became her voice coach. Her name is Anna Netrebko, and if you've never heard her sing, you don't know love. Just get a small idea of her, if you don't know her already, singing "O mio babbino caro" or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu.

And that man right there up on the stage tonight not twenty feet away from me with those fluttering hands helped make that happen. Watch this trailer. And maybe this one, too.

Some days are just better than others.


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Heading North on I-95

The latest crapola viral e-mail that landed in my inbox, thanks to a well-meaning and very dear member of my family, has to do with Florida’s new plan to test welfare recipients for drug use. "Hooray for Florida," the message crowed. "I-95 will be jammed for the next month or so........Druggies and deadbeats heading North out of Florida..."

Like most of these right-wing pieces, it’s designed to make your blood boil. And low on factual information. First off, it claims that Florida is the first state to do this. It’s not. It was tried in Michigan. But that’s the least of its misrepresentations.

According to an Associated Press report last week, about 2.5% of those applying for welfare in Florida are actually using substances. The true number is slightly higher, since 2% refused to take the test, but that number still pales in comparison to the 6% of Americans over the age of 12 who use drugs. In other words, welfare applicants are less than half as likely to use drugs as the average American.

One of the arguments Florida’s Governor Rick Scott uses to justify the testing is that it will save the state money.

But would it? There are some 2000 people on welfare in Florida at the moment. 2.5% of 2000 is fifty people. Does it really make sense to test 2000 people to find out which 50 are using drugs? It would appear cost effectiveness is in a race with abuse of civil liberties to see which is the greater reason for calling this a bad policy.

Why would anyone single out an entire class of people for testing? Why should the 97.5% of people on welfare be subjected to such treatment when they are already on the down and outs and have few resources to fight back with? Is this not a clear case of “unlawful search?” The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and Warrants shall not be issued, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Because they have no political clout, like all people without the money to buy power, they make great scapegoats, and there is never a shortage of politicians willing to feed the mob and keep the fear of evildoers alive.

At the same time, there are organizations like the ACLU that will fight back. The ACLU has already filed suit. And how much will it cost the Florida taxpayer to fight this suit in court? And has anybody stopped to check what happened in Michigan when they tried this? I’ll tell you. It was struck down in 2003 by a Michigan appeals court.

Laws like this one that claim to punish bad guys are covers for politicians who want to look tough. When you dig beneath the surface, you realize the claim that they are saving taxpayers money turns out to be bogus, and in fact, these punishment-based policies are often very costly indeed.

But there’s another reason to reject this law – the smell test.

Ever notice how easy it is to scapegoat? Something wrong with having all these illegal aliens? Punish them. Never mind the guys giving them jobs. Punish the ones who can’t fight back.

This is no different. This is the same old story making the rounds once more. Back in the early 90s we were passing laws to punish women on welfare for having too many children. And then riding around in Cadillacs on their welfare money. Or so the popular understanding went – a complete lie, but one which showed up behind the poll numbers favoring “getting tough” on criminals and other evil doers. Nobody stopped to ask why if you had to choose between an occasional abuser of the system and cutting off some child’s food, one would want to punish the abuser.

I’m not making an excuse for abuse of the system or saying abusers should get off scot free. But jumping on a bandwagon to get “deadbeats” on the highway out of town is bumper-sticker sloganeering. So much easier than doing the homework of digging out the details, so you have half a chance of addressing the problem effectively.

But who's got time these days to do homework? It's quicker and easier to show a bunch of losers the highway.