Monday, December 31, 2012

Growing up (almost) with Ralph

I grew up in Northwestern Connecticut, in a small town called Winsted, and in high school I used to hang out after school with friends at a restaurant called the Highland Arms.   Like Ralph Nader, who also grew up there, and whose father ran the Highland Arms.

I’m a total fan.  Have been since he made a name for himself with Unsafe at Any Speed, and blew my mind.  How could anybody who grew up where I did be so smart, I wondered.  Didn’t seem possible.  My admiration went off the charts when he not only got General Motors to make safer cars, but then sued them for snooping into his private life and trying to prove he was a homosexual.  He won nearly half a million dollars and used the money to launch a lifetime of worthy causes.

Ralph has a totally different perspective on Winsted.  He never seemed to see it as provincial, as I did, and apparently spent a whole lot less time aching to get away.  On the contrary, he romanticizes the hell out of it as a place where people could walk to work, where you could hear the cows moo one minute and drink their milk the next, and where people gathered regularly for vigorous exchanges of opinion.

Pryamid_Toilet_Pins_New_England_Pin_Co._Winsted_CT_OM.JPG (55926 bytes)Come to think of it, we did have those exchanges in my family, too.  My father and his brothers were Republicans, their father a Democrat, and all our family events – Thanksgiving and Christmas and the 4th of July, were shouting matches where the atmosphere got so hot somebody always had to leave the room to cool off.  That part I liked.   I liked school, too, now that I think of it, and I remember Civics as an important course that involved all of us in town government, where we actually attended town meetings when I was in junior high school.  It’s just that I never thought of that as something to compensate for all the lonely hours feeling like an outsider.  Ralph seems to be an exception in his boosterism.  Others, such as this blogger, who have written about Winsted see it as I do, and far less through rose-colored glasses. 

The Nader family was exceptional.  I doubt anybody would dispute that.  Ralph’s mother, Rose, became an activist in her own right.  His sister, Laura, made a name for herself as an anthropologist and teaches here at Berkeley.  She never ran for president, but with 280 publications to her name, she’s no also-ran Nader.  And their older brother Shafeek turned the high school we all went to into Northwestern Connecticut Community College, so he was no slouch, either.  Nor, for that matter was the fourth sibling, a sister, Claire, who was once chairman of the board at the Council for Responsible Genetics, and has a Ph.D. in political science.  Obviously those conversations around the table at dinnertime when the Nader kids were young had a powerful effect. 

Shafeek was born in 1926, Claire in 1928, Laura in 1930 and Ralph, the baby, in 1934.  That means Ralph went through Central Junior High School and The Gilbert School before me and I can’t claim him as a classmate.  I just got a call from my friend Mary Ann, however, who mentioned that he was often at their house, because he and her brother were friends.  Ralph was also friends with David Halberstam, another Winsted notable I get to lay claim to.  Halberstam was the New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner for his work on the Vietnam War and author of a book that pissed off JFK so badly he wanted the New York Times to fire him.  The Best and the Brightest, if I remember right.

Not bad for a town of about 8000 people, don’t you think?

My admiration for the man lost its lustre when he looked and felt for all the world like the spoiler in the Bush/Gore contest.  I’m getting it back again, just listening to him, still at it after all these years, still ploughing away at a hopeless situation, complaining about people like me who throw up their hands in despair at the loss of democracy.  We can get it back, he insists.  We just have to work locally and keep at it.

I recommend you give his arguments a good listen, if you haven’t lately.  Start with the interview he gave with Christopher Lydon, who actually went to Winsted to walk around with him.  

Then, if you’d like more, read what he writes about growing up in Winsted and in a family which has to be one of the all-time best known success stories of child-rearing.  We should all have been so lucky.  It’s called The Seventeen Traditions.   I urge you to buy the book and give Ralph the royalties.  But I have to admit I read the book on line and wouldn’t blame you for doing the same, since I didn’t want to wait and it was offered gratis.

And then to get an idea where Ralph’s mind is now, listen to the common sense that he delivers so casually in an interview about his latest book Seventeen Solutions

One could do worse than share a home town with Ralph Nader.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Coloratura Oscillations

I studied music as a kid, but about all that did for me was make me aware my whole life long how much I don’t know about music.  My mother paid my piano teacher $1.25 for the hour she would spend with me each week from just before my 7th birthday till somewhere in my mid teens.  Actually, she may have upped that to $1.50 there at the end.

I’m struggling to remember my piano teacher’s name.  Usually, while I almost invariably forget what I came downstairs for ten minutes ago, I have tons of details in vivid memory about people, places and events that happened in the 1940s.  But this name – for the moment, at least – escapes me.

I remember all sorts of other details.  I remember the embarrassment I felt when she caught me picking my nose.  “Please don’t,” was all she said.  But she said it with such disdain that it was enough to keep me from ever doing it again unless I made damn sure the coast was clear first.  I also remember her complaining loudly that her nephew, who had come back from the war in the Pacific with a Japanese war bride, actually wanted to bring her to visit.  “Such nerve,” she told me.  “I told him in no uncertain terms I would not have that woman in this house.”

She was always booked up, so I could never get her to play for me.  One time, when I arrived a little early, she was playing the Warsaw Concerto.  It totally blew me away.  I had no idea she could handle that kind of challenge and wondered ever after what her story was, what came before that lonely life, just her and her sister both living out their lives in the small-town New England house they grew up in.  How wretched it must have been having to sit, hour after hour, listening to the kids of the village bang out their Für Elise numbers and demonstrating they had barely touched the keys in the week between lessons.

I remember how hard she tried to get me to practice my Czerny scales, to develop my ability to race up and down the keyboard.  A total flop.  I did well enough, even became a church organist there for a couple years, although that was pure chance, when nobody else would do the job for $15.00 a Sunday and I could sight read pretty well and hit all the chords with moderately good accuracy.  But I never had the discipline to seriously go places.

Music theory I put in the same category as mathematics.  Something to do with puzzles, like crosswords, except less interesting because it didn’t involve real language.  I remember toying with the guitar at one point and realizing if I had done my homework when I was younger I would already know all this augmented fourths and diminished fifths stuff.  But it was not to be.

So when somebody asked me the other day how to tell the difference between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano, and I heard myself say, “The mezzo’s voice is lower,” I felt myself squirm.  All those years up close to music and that’s your answer?!

So I dug into things a bit and had a ball yesterday for a few hours, trying to get away from the talk of the fiscal cliff and other evidence that I spend far too much time as a news junky, filling in some gaps in my musical knowledge.  As a result, I now know that the typical soprano voice ranges from Middle C to High C.  Most people know middle C because it’s in the middle of the piano keyboard.   You can spot the Cs, in case you never studied any music at all, because they are immediately to the left of the two black keys.   On an 88-key keyboard, Middle C is the 4th C from the bottom.   So that’s why it’s often referred to as C4!   Man, what you can learn if you just start paying attention.  At any age.

Bet you didn’t know that Middle C resonates at 261.63 hertz.  A hertz (Hz) is a unit of frequency, specifically the number of cycles per second, which you can see animated, if you like, by clicking here

A clock ticks at 1 Hz, the human heart beats at 1.2.   When orchestras tune up, they match their instruments against A4 (the A above Middle C), which is 440Hz. 

While we’re at it, you might be interested to know that while “pitch notation is intended to describe audible sounds, it can also be used to specify the frequency of non-audible phenomena. For example, when the Chandra X-ray Observatory observed the waves of pressure fronts propagating away from a black hole, the one oscillation every 10 million years was described by NASA as corresponding to the B fifty-seven octaves below middle C (or B−53).” 

But I digress.

A soprano’s “tessitura” (most comfortable singing range) is, as I said, between C4 and C6.  A typical mezzo-soprano ranges from G3 to B5.  (And, since you asked, a contralto’s range is from A2 to E4.)

Sopranos and mezzo-sopranos divide into three types.  There are coloraturas, the ones who do all the pyrotechnics with the high notes and trills and things most of us can’t believe the human voice could possibly produce – check out Edita Gruberova  singing Queen of the Night, from Mozart’s Magic Flute, for instance, which many consider the supreme test for a coloratura.   Or listen to a series of coloraturas here.

Then there are lyric sopranos.  A voice is described as lyrical when it is soft and melodious.  The third type are the dramatic voices, those hearty enough to sing over big orchestras.  If you’re a witch, you’re probably a soprano drammatico.

All of this background technical stuff?   All for the head.  For those moments when the head wants to know stuff.

I do this from time to time out of habit.  Or when, like the other day, I am embarrassed by not knowing stuff, like how to describe the difference between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano.

Most of the time, though, I revert to the pleasure of listening to these glorious voices and marvelling at the personalities behind them ­– Dmitri Hvorostovky is still one of my favorites.  No need to name them all.  Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs.  Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Lieder.   Jussi Bjorling, Marian Anderson, Beverly Sills.   Just for starters.   And most of my gay friends still think there’s nobody like Maria Callas (an opinion I don’t share.)

Time to stop with all the names and facts.   I have to admit I was fascinated to learn that somebody had actually measured one oscillation every ten million years and that there are people in the world who actually believe fifty-seven octaves below middle C is a concept.  But I’d rather listen to Edita do Mozart.  Or anything else, for that matter.

Which brings me to how I got onto this shtick in the first place.  A friend sent me a link to a lovely documentary on Edita Gruberova which I want to share with you.     Hope you can find an hour sometime to learn her story.   You won’t be sorry.  

picture credit

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Thinking Things Through

You can’t beat the logic.  Wayne LaPierre made the case yesterday.  “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said.    It’s true.  If somebody’s coming at you with a gun, he’s got all the power.  If he’s willing to use it, you’re dead.  By that logic, we need to have every school in America guarded by a good guy with a gun. 

Everybody’s all upset about that.  They’re not looking on the positive side, and they haven’t thought this through.

Here’s the deal.  There are approximately 125,000 schools in America.  Putting a guard on each one of them would immediately create 125,000 jobs.  The problem, though, is that LaPierre didn’t go far enough.  Some schools are big.  You will need more than a single guard on each school.  You should probably have as many guards as there are entrances, actually.   Let’s say six on average.  That would make jobs for 750,000 men and women.  And there’s a wonderful spin-off, as well.  That means lots more gun sales and ammunition sales.  Who knows, this could be the booster to the economy we’ve been waiting for.  Obama keeps harping on wanting to extend unemployment.  This would make a dent in that.

There’s another problem, of course.  Once it becomes established that there will be a man or a woman with a gun at every school, anyone wanting to shoot up a school will quickly figure out where that person is, shoot them down and get on with the job at hand.  To be totally effective, we really should put guns in every classroom.  That seems excessive, though, so we will probably have to make do with training the guards at the doors to be watchful at all times.  Keep them supplied with coffee and other treats.  But not allow kids to engage them in conversation, or do anything else that might distract their attention.

I know, I’m not taking into consideration that kids stay after school and teachers sometimes stay late too, so that means we really ought to have more than one shift, in some cases.  Probably, though, for practical reasons, we will have to consider kids who stay after school collateral damage, if a shooter is stupid enough to miss the opportunity of getting a full contingent.

Ideally, we should give every school child, every teacher, every janitor, every visiting parent or other guest an automatic weapon, but that’s not practical either, since there are probably a number of kindergarten teachers and the like who might hesitate to shoot a crazed teenager in the face when necessary to save lives, so let’s stick with using armed guards and putting one within sight of every entrance.  That way we have some control over training and things like mental stability.  There will be bad guys that slip through the cracks, of course, but most likely fewer school massacres than the norm, at least.  And even there, we can cut the odds by placing metal detectors at every entrance, as we already do in many urban American schools.

Of course, once the schools are fully armed, would-be shooters will target the school buses, and that means even more jobs to fill.  480,000 of those, 10 billion student rides a year.  All manageable.  It only takes the will to put the plan in place.  And a little imagination.  In states where there are teachers still teaching evolution, for example, the guards could be used as a reminder that the state forbids such things.  One look at the authority figure with a gun will remind the weak-willed who pays their salary.

Then we can move on to the other sources of problems with guns in America.  We have been distracted by school shootings and we’re focusing all our attention on guns in schools at the moment, forgetting that the massacre in Colorado on July 20th took place in a movie theater and others have taken place in malls.  There are reported to be some 1500 malls in the U.S., and they should all be guarded.  Some are small, and one guard will do.  Others, like the Mall of America in Minneapolis, with its 11,000 people, would require considerably more.  Ball park figures, let’s say, 20 armed guards on average and you’ve got another 220,000 more people put to work.  Possibly less, given that there are probably already armed guards at some malls.  But let’s say 220,000.

That leaves movie theaters.  According to the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) there were some 38,974 movie screens in America in 2011.  One guard should do for most of them.  Let’s add another 10,000 for the bigger theaters just to make sure and round that number off to 50,000.  That’s not counting the 606 drive-in theaters, but there I figure the average American carrying a gun with him at all times could cover that.  Besides, we have not yet had trouble with massacres at drive-ins, although that could start once all the other venues have been closed to the bad guys.  But I digress.

We really owe Mr. LaPlante a debt of gratitude for getting the ball rolling on this.  A bit of logic, a bit of putting our heads together, killing two birds with one stone, so to speak, and we have created a safe new America, and put a million and a half people to work (750,000 + 480,000 + 220,000 + 50,000 = 1,500,000).

Without half trying.

Sikh temples.  I forgot Sikh temples.  I counted 171 of those on the Wikipedia page but they say this might not be a complete list.  Let’s round it up to 200.  That brings our figure of new guard jobs to 1,500,200.  With a number like this, we are sure to cut down on gun massacres, and will be in place to start training guards to man all the churches and synagogues in America, should that too become necessary.  There must be a half million of those.

When logic meets American inventiveness, the whole world is ours.

picture credit - a school in Israel shows how it can be done 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Americans and their Guns

9/11 was probably the last time Americans – and many others around the world – were so totally shattered by images of sheer horror, and I think this moment rivals it.  Newtown for many, because it has been such an up close and personal look at the death of specific children with names and faces, is possibly even more devastating.

Much of the news coverage, as it was happening, struck me as obscene.  I absolutely hated watching the reporters milking it for every ounce of emotion and sympathy, as if the events couldn’t speak for themselves.  Now, at least, the shock and horror and grief are giving way to something that desperately needs to be discussed, a story of human folly, the story of Americans and their guns.  Right now the discourse is white hot.   One can only hope it will continue after it cools down a bit.

In a sense, our folly goes back to the struggle between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson over the place of religion in America.  Adams wanted the State to be run on religious principles.  Jefferson, on the other hand, saw danger in not keeping them separate.  The separation idea won out, and ironically, allowed religious groups to spring up everywhere.  While in much of our cultural homeland, Britain and other nations of Europe, state-run religious institutions have driven folk away from religion, in America, religion, unfettered, has flourished.

The religious impulse is so strong, in fact, that even when we are not bopping each other on the head with the superiority of our own various religious paths, we are sanctifying “God’s country” and treating our constitution as if it were Scripture.  Just listen to how often we hear the phrase, “defending the constitution.”   At least one right wing conservative group,  The National Organization for Marriage,  uses the word “sacred” to modify “constitution” in their website.   We are now reading the "sacred" constitution before each session of Congress, much in the way we once prayed.   Not the whole thing, of course.  We leave out the slavery parts.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ll take the Constitution over anybody’s scriptures any day.  I love the idea that we put our hands on a bible and swear to defend the constitution and not the other way around.  But when the defense of the constitution meets American fundamentalism awful things can happen.  Like moving from the right to raise a militia to the right for an individual to own assault weapons, for example.   Our problem with guns is that we sealed off the Bill of Rights as sacred, and gave the Supreme Court the power to interpret the Second Amendment in a way that serves the Gun Lobby, and not the people.  We have rot in the constitution, and we have made ourselves impotent to do anything about it.  That said, there is light in the darkness, at least.  Justice Scalia hinted last July that there may actually be limitations to gun use.  That remark should encourage more, not less, discussion on gun control.

I'm not after specifics here.  Many others are in a better place than I am to take on the particulars of assault weapons and the issue generally, and no doubt they will, as they always do whenever we have an American gun massacre.  I’m only making the observation that we have come to a place where we should use the pain of the images from Newtown to get involved in the gun debate at some level, at least.  We don’t care about Iraq and Afghanistan any more.  Few of us ever did.  We don’t care that we torture people now and George W. Bush, the man who made that possible, is a free man, instead of sitting out a thirty-year sentence as a war criminal, as is his lacky, John Yoo, a professor at the University of California, who wrote the justification for it.    We don’t care that we have tossed aside the Geneva Conventions, that Obama has maintained “extraordinary rendition,” a policy sometimes referred to as “torture by proxy,” as government policy.

But thanks to the close media coverage of innocent little children in a quaint little New England town we like to think of us as quintessentially American (population 27,000, median income $110,000), possibly this time we can get enough people to care about the fact that we are a very sick society indeed, and it’s time for those singing America’s praises to channel some of that optimism into serious efforts to counter violence, insanity, greed and guns as a symbol of masculine strength. 

To what degree guns are the problem, I can’t be sure.  I don't know that guns are the problem; I'm working from my gut.  I understand that in other places people have more violence with fewer guns.  I understand that in China recently, a man went crazy with a knife and stabbed twenty-two children at a school.  The difference between the attacks in the village of Chengping and the village of Sandy Hook is in a line that jumped off the page at me.  "All the children were in stable conditionDeng Pei, a doctor from the hospital, said on Tuesday."

My gut tells me guns are a big part of America’s violence problem – at least free access to assault weapons screams for attention, it seems to me – but I really think the problem lies in human weakness.  We don’t have the courage.  We don’t have what it takes to find a solution to America’s viciousness, its propensity for violence.  We are too easily bought off with money and too readily jerked around by our faith in miracles, in a Big Daddy who will take care of us so we don’t have to take care of ourselves. You know.  The guy we're now telling ourselves has "called those little children home."  

Ruben Navarrette, Jr., who writes for the Washington Post, wrote this morning of taking his kids to church and asking the priest to bless them.  As they walked toward the altar, he tells us, “I whispered, ‘This is to keep you safe.’”

Right.  The title of his article is “No easy answers to guns.”  In a rant against those who would use this moment to rally for more gun control, Navarrette says, “Have you no decency?  How about giving a horrified and heartbroken nation a chance to mourn and bury the dead?” 
His solution?   Pour a little poison in your child’s ear.  Tell him God will protect him – no need for gun control – if you just get a priest to bless you, since after all we know God is stupid enough to listen to these clowns in dresses and interferes with the normal laws of nature if you just ask him right.

I’m not the only one listening to his gut these days.  Conservative Republican Joe Scarborough, now host of the  MSNBC TV program Morning Joe, has had a change of heart and delivered a moving appeal the other day for others of his ilk to rethink the gun issue.  Give a listen, if you haven’t already. 

And then listen to Piers Morgan attack first gun lobbyist John Lott  and then Larry Pratt.
One may wish for less incendiary rhetoric than Morgan’s – he got his training, after all, with Rupert Murdoch – but you’ve got to admit he’s reflecting the zeitgeist of the moment – extreme sorrow now turned to rage.

A friend of mine pointed out to me just now that you have to show your driver’s licence to a pharmacist to get a dozen sinus decongestant tablets while you can buy an armor-piercing weapon without such stricture at any number of gun fairs around the country on a daily basis.

Those who advocate no gun control whatsoever, the folk who have led us to where we are today, where we can carry concealed weapons virtually anywhere, would have us believe that if the first grade teachers in Sandy Hook Elementary School had had guns, these deaths would not have taken place.  You have to sit down and take a deep breath when you hear those arguments, and test whether your eyes and ears are working.  Never mind the absurdity of the expense of training all our teachers to handle guns, or of the guns themselves.  Do we really not know that a significant number of souls who dedicate their lives to caring for young children simply do not have it in them to pull the trigger on a mentally ill teenager and “blow him out of the water?”  And do we really think we could live in a world where that passed as a solution to the gun problem?

Do we really not understand that Adam Lanza’s mother Nancy, from whom he got the weapons, had obtained them legally?  That there is no way to lock guns up in a house where a deranged member of the family could not find the key?

It’s good that we’re having these arguments at long last, absurd as they are.  Perhaps once we get past the outrageous lie that guns don’t kill people we can get to more useful discussions about the line between freedom and license, and to the heart of the safety argument and whether we really are safer with guns than without.

With more guns than adults in this country, over 300 million in a land of 312 million men, women and children, it seems a virtual impossibility to rid ourselves of guns.  The best we can hope for at this stage is to work in the margins and get the gun lobbyists and the NRA to give some ground.  Bring the risk down a bit.   And wait for the next massacre so we can bring it down some more.  And the next, and the next, until finally we reach one dead child too many.   Then, possibly, we will come to see that sacrificing children's lives for the freedom of any fool to own a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle or a Glock 10 mm or a Sig Sauer 9 is not smart.

Next time somebody tells you it’s hopeless – and to me, at least, it certainly appears hopeless – remind them that not being able to achieve 100% sterility in an operating room does not mean we need to perform operations in sewers.

picture source

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Kauft auch bei Juden

Don’t know if you’ve ever seen those pictures of the Nazi thugs breaking shop windows and parading down the street with their flags and their Hitler salutes.  “Kauft nicht bei Juden!” the signs said.  “Don’t buy from Jews!”

Germans!  Defend yourselves!  Don't buy from Jews!
It was my first encounter with evil.  With bigotry.  And with the idea of scapegoating, something I would in later years come to study academically as “othering,” a concept from the field of group psychology that marked an ugly human tendency to divide the world into “us” and “them.”  The roots of war and genocide and the worst kind of unspeakable barbarism and human tragedy.

Because this could take place in Germany, a country filled with philosophers and musicians and artists and skilled workmen and people who loved to dance and sing and eat well, people who made good wine and cars and cameras, I have wondered from early on if it could happen here.

We’ve certainly got the raw material.  After all, we did pull off one of the great genocides in human history.  Most Americans know little about that story.  We know more about slavery and segregation, but even there we tend to see those things as aberrations, and not as part of the essence of who we are, just as the traditionalists of the Roman Catholic hierarchy talk about the Inquisition, the Indulgences, the long history of cooperation with dictatorship regimes as aberrations, ignoring the inherent tendency to go with the status quo and against the historical trend toward human rights.  We’ve all got more than a little fascism in us, just under the surface.

Every once in a while it pops to the surface, though.  We went to war in Vietnam and fought it with chemical weapons.  An estimated one million people suffer from the after-effects of Agent Orange, including 100,000 disabled children.  The people responsible for that war should be in jail for crimes against humanity.  Instead they enjoy taxpayer-supported pensions and the title of “elder statesmen.”

We did it again in Iraq, went to war against a people, scattered millions of refugees, killed tens, possibly hundreds of thousands, and the people responsible for this are being spoken about today as possible candidates for president.

I think, though, that the real cause for concern has never been those who come to power through ambition, but the rest of us who don’t do our homework and become the enablers of the Dick Cheneys and Donald Rumsfelds in our midst.  We watch the John Yoos of the world make law to justify torture and, instead of piling them on the trash heap of history, we give them jobs at the University of California.  We invite them on talk shows and make them into celebrities. 

In the long run, though, we are still doing pretty well figuring them out and keeping their power limited.  What worries me more than bad guys in charge is our own gullibility.  Our own cluelessness.  The fact that millions of Americans can be manipulated by their fears into voting for these guys.

It’s Christmas time again, and that means we get to watch the annual Fox News frenzy over the made-up “War on Christmas.”  Jon Stewart did a brilliant take-off on this phenomenon just recently.  

And just as I was yucking it up over his brilliant satire, I got one of those e-mails from a relative who sends me right-wing junk from time to time.  I usually toss it, but this time I took a look.  It was a YouTube link to “a new Christmas carol,” and it goes
If you don’t see ‘Merry Christmas’ in the window
No! You don’t go in that store.
If you don’t see ‘Merry Christmas’ in the window
Yes! You walk right by that door.

Oh, it’s all about the little baby Jesus
and my Savior’s day of birth
It’s the one and only reason
That we celebrate the season.
If you don’t hear ‘Merry Christmas when they greet you
When you’re walking through their store
Simply turn and say “It’s very nice to meet you”
As you walk right out that door
I remember as a kid the campaign against using X as shorthand for Christ.  “Merry Xmas” the signs said.  “No, not Xmas,” the good Christian folk responded, “Keep Christ in Christmas.”  We then went off on a silly argument about whether the X wasn’t suitable after all because in Greek Christ begins with an X and wasn’t the New Testament written in Greek?   Modern day arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Then there was the effort to get back to the baby in the manger and cut out the Christmas tree and the Yuletide log and the mistletoe and all that pagan stuff.  And to short-circuit the displacement of Christ onto Santa Claus and the commercialism and the partying with too much alcohol and on and on.  That all went nowhere because the Christians no longer had exclusive use of the holiday. It was now in the hands of the culture, which Christians often forget.

This song sheds light on how these arguments have evolved over time.  The fuss over the X in Christmas seems to have gone by the wayside.  And so has the objection to mistletoe and egg nog.  Now it’s about Republican party politics and the use of religion to frighten good Christian folk into thinking the liberal demons are out to destroy the faith.  Bishop Timothy Dolan says insisting women have a legal right to birth control information is an attack on the Roman Catholic church.  Given that an estimated 95% of Roman Catholics practice birth control makes this one of the most idiotic statements of all time, but you’ll have to take that up with Timothy directly.  And for Protestants, it's a line in the sand over creches in the public square.

There are two layers of manipulation at work here, one mean and sinister, the other merely clueless.  There are those who calculate ways to manipulate the vulnerable and see religion as a tool.  Nothing new about that.  Religion has always been a ready tool for political manipulators.  The clueless are the sweet LOLs and others who love this catchy tune and the thought they are doing their part to defend their faith against atheists and Muslims and Jews and Hindus and those ferocious Buddhists who would destroy their faith.

The clueless are misdirected on two levels.  First, they don’t see that the moves to prevent religious displays in public places are not an attack on religion, but a defense of religious equality.  Christians, no more and no less than members of any other faith, are free to practice their religion unhindered anywhere they like in private places, where others will not be made to feel like second-class citizens and there will be no suggestion of state endorsement of a particular religion. 

Secondly, they have no appreciation for history.   How soon they’ve forgotten the “Kauft nicht bei Juden” signs.

Don’t shop with people who don’t display signs of Christmas, the song tells you.

Jews, for example.  “Don’t shop at the Jew store.”  Walk right out that door, the song says.

I’m not going to make the argument that this is fascism lurking just below the surface.

It’s surely much more a case of cluelessness than of evil.

The problem in the song is its either/or world view.  We live in a both/and world.  People who know you’re Christian should wish you a Merry Christmas.  Hell, people who know you’re not Christian but enjoy the holiday should wish you a Merry Christmas.  For that matter, even Christians speaking to non-Christians, should wish them a Merry Christmas as a way of sharing their faith.  And in return, you need to allow those who think differently to act differently without having their stores boycotted.

The fascist way is "Kauft nicht bei Juden - Don't buy from Jews."  

Here, it's different.

Here we do a simple word replacement.  We replace "nicht" (not) with "auch" (also).

It's the American way.

Pardon my patronizing condescending tone.

But you really ought to know better, oh writer of catchy Christmas tunes.

Oh, and by the way...

Merry Christmas!

 photo credit

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Mensch of a Princess

Crown Princess Mette-Marit and Crown Prince Haakon
Mensch.  That’s the Yiddish word for it.  I’m sure there’s a Norwegian word, but Mensch will do.  A “Mensch” is a person who shows himself or herself to be a decent person by performing a caring act.

The Queen-to-be of Norway is a Mensch.  Her name is Mette-Marit and she is married to Crown Prince Haakon, who is next in line for the Norwegian throne.   One of the employees in the royal household of Norway, whose name has not been published, is a gay man who wanted a baby, but he and his husband couldn't get one in Norway, where surrogacy is illegal.  They solved that problem by going to India for a surrogate.

Unfortunately, that was not the last of their problems.  When the baby was born they found they could not get a visa to India, and there was nobody around to care for the baby.  News reports I’ve read do not go into the reasons the mother was not up for doing that until the fathers could get there.

A real dilemma.  You could beat yourselves up for not getting all your ducks in a row, guys, before the baby is born.  Or, who knows what kind of mix-ups there might have been with visas to foil your plans at the last minute.

Crown Princess Mette-Marit to the rescue.  The guys may not be able to get a visa, but she can.  She’s a Princess and she has a diplomatic passport, so off she goes.  When she gets to India she apparently tells nobody what she’s up to, but simply shows up at the Manav Medicare Center in New Delhi and somehow gets them to release the baby to her as its nanny.  Would love to be a fly on the wall and find out what she had to say and do to get that subterfuge going.  In any case, she was allowed to care for the baby until relatives of the daddies were able to get into the country and take over.

There’s several lessons to be learned here.  One is if you’re going to have a surrogate mother give birth to your baby in a foreign land, make sure you do your homework and get your ass over there for the birth.  Two, have a back-up plan.  Three, if possible, have your back-up plan be a princess.

Four – if at all possible, be a Norwegian, because in addition to having a Mensch for a Crown Princess married to a Mensch of a husband (he agreed to the whole business) you also have members of the press who catch wind of what is going on but withhold publication until the affair is resolved, because the baby and the others involved are not public figures and because all sorts of different people might have stepped in and stopped the process mid-way.  The birth happened in October, the gay married couple finally got a visa in November, and the story went public only days ago after they returned home to Norway.  One hopes that they will all be allowed to get on with their lives, although chances are somebody will sneak in from some tabloid somewhere for a story or two.

There are lots or worse things in the world, obviously, than being from Norway, where somebody in your royal family can become good friends with their employees.   And not be afraid to show it.

P.S.  Not part of this story is the fact that Princess Mette-Marit was a commoner.  Not only that, but a single mother, when she met and married Prince Haakon.  In case you had any thoughts that Norwegians were, as a whole, an up-tight lot.  She was also the child of divorced parents and had a step-brother named Trond Bernsten.  Bernsten was a policeman.  One of the 77 people massacred on the island of Utoya when Anders Breivik went on his killing spree in July 2011. 

picture credit

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

News from Plutocracy Central

Just noticed in this morning’s news that all the new GOP chairmanship appointments, nineteen so far, have gone to white males. 

Some people are surprised by that, as if they hadn’t heard that this is the party of white males. 

I understand many will want to keep the focus on gender inequity, but I hope in the fuss, which I consider fully justified, we won't forget it's more precisely the party of rich white males.  I thought it might be interesting to poke around and see just how rich these nineteen would turn out to be, so I checked. 

Using figures provided by Christopher Schnaars of the Center for Responsive Politics, I lined the guys up in order of wealth, as determined by their 2010 income tax returns (which are estimates, by the way, and do not include the value of their home(s) or other personal property – like yachts and planes. And car elevators, of course.)

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) - $448,125,017.00
Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX) - $380,411,527.00
Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) - $16,288,608.00
Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) - $7,292,073.00
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) - $4,420,525.00
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) - $3,925,560.00
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) - $3,683,841.00
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) - $2,067,050.00
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) - $1,884,522.00
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) - $1,841,512.00
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) - $1,214,516.00
Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) - $1,108,005.00
Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) - $962,006.00
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) - $650,501.00
Rep. John Kline (R-MN) - $471,006.00
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) - $345,007.00
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) - $263,505.00
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) - $223,501.00
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) - $117,500.00

Lest you get the false impression I think there is something wrong with being rich, I don’t.  The reason I own my own home in the Bay Area is that I once had an annual salary for a few years to match the poorest guy of the nineteen on the list (his net was my gross, however), and I can only say this good fortune should be everybody’s.

At the same time, it is interesting to note that 12 of the 19 had incomes in excess of one million dollars in 2010.  (And #13 was in the whites of his eyes range.)  Not that you have to be rich to run the country, but it sure does seem to trend that way.

I am also not suggesting there is a link between who gets appointed to committees and wealth.  I have no evidence of that.  I'm simply looking at a random selection of GOP politicians, as far as I know, and at their wealth levels.  If I wanted to look at the power center, I'd have to look at

John Boehner, Republican Speaker of the House, from Ohio - $4,092,053.00, and
Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader, from Kentucky - $27,213,024.00, and
Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader, from Virginia - $5,471,054.00

Whatever you have to say about the GOP, there does seem to be a very high correlation between wealth and power.  

And gender.  They definitely need to correct for gender.  Be more like the Democrats from California.

Senator Diane Feinstein - $69,046,622.00, and 
Nancy Pelosi - $101,123,032.00

Mama, tell me once more, what’s a plu-to-crat?

picture credit

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Gustl Mollath Scandal

A week ago I wrote about the fascinating case of Gustl Mollath, the man sitting in a psychiatric clinic in Bayreuth claiming he was railroaded by the Bavarian justice system.   Since then I’ve been trying to find a way to establish a neutral position and to understand what might be going on with the justice system in the German state of Bavaria.  It has all the makings of a major scandal, yet for reasons I can’t explain, nobody outside Germany seems to have picked up the story.  All links to references are in German, unfortunately, but I trust anybody who would like to poke around in the details can make good use of the Google translator. Translations are mine and I welcome corrections if they are needed.

Just to review the he says/she says part of the story, Bavarian Minister of Justice, Beate Merk, tells the tale this way.  Petra Mollath, of Nuremberg, takes her husband Gustl to court charging that he beat her and tried to choke her to death.  The judge, Otto Bixner, decides Gustl is delusional because he keeps ranting about some money laundering scheme, so instead of jailing him for wife-beating Bixner sends Gustl Mollath to a psychiatric clinic in Bayreuth.  A judgment call.   All on the up and up.

Not so, says Gustl.  First, I never beat my wife.  She made that up.  Second, I was never delusional.  What I said about the money laundering and tax evasion was all true.

Now if you were raised with Perry Mason and hundreds of films and documentaries about court trials, as I was, what happens next will strike you as something out of fantasy land.  The judge, all on his own, decides to lock Mollath up in a psychiatric clinic, without a single audible peep out of anybody, apparently.   I have to admit I am unfamiliar with German justice, but didn't Mollath have a lawyer?  Were there no investigations into Mollath's claims?

Apparently not.   Now move ahead six years to 2011.  Apparently out of nowhere, the Nuremberg Hypo-Vereinsbank where Petra worked suddenly reveals that, although the police never investigated Mollath’s charges of banking chicanery, the bank did do an internal investigation.  Furthermore, they found he was telling the truth, and fired her and a colleague she was working with.  A third colleague resigned.  The bank filed the report somewhere, but never apparently shared it with the police, because they saw no reason to. 

Now tell me this story doesn't have stink written all over it.  How could anybody believe the bank would fire a couple of its employees for breaking the law on money laundering and not call the cops.  Wouldn't this scream for an investigation into whether somebody else at the bank was involved in the scheme, and whether the clients Petra Mollath was working for didn't maybe step in and shut down further investigation?

It remains to be seen whether the stink is coming from separate sources, or whether they are all tied together.  Let's start with the judge who tried Mollath, Otto Bixner.  He’s now retired and still maintains he did everything by the book, a claim Merk backs him up on.  But this begs the question of what the book says.  Or should say.   How the hell does a judge get to put a private citizen in a mental institution without more to go on than his own view that the citizen is a raving lunatic?  Are there no expert witnesses in Germany?  No psychiatric evaluations that figure into such “sentencing”?   Does a judge really have that much p̶o̶w̶e̶r̶  discretion? 

Since Mollath was not charged with wife-beating, there is perhaps no point in belaboring the point that it was his word against hers.  But the judge should at least have asked for some evidence he attacked her, wouldn't you think?   Did she see a doctor?  Where there medical records?  Witnesses?  Nobody followed that up because the hospitalization sidetracked the criminal charges.  When asked to explain the hospitalization, Merk, to this day, says it was appropriate “because he was dangerous.”   But he had only Petra's word to go on, and she had apparently been heard to say that she knew she could claim he was crazy and "do him in."  

Now wait a minute.  He was hospitalized because he was delusional, not because he was dangerous.  Nobody pursued the question of danger, as far as I know.  And now it turns out the charges of paranoid delusion were false.  The judge never gave Mollath his fair day in court; he never checked his story.

I’m an American looking at a story of German justice.  It’s possible, since I’m going on news reports and not from personal investigation, that there is a whole lot of information out there that would lead me to conclude otherwise, but I haven’t found it.  I’m sitting here wondering what the hell is wrong with the German justice system that they haven’t snapped into action and let Mollath go.  Just the obvious evidence given in 2011 by the bank should have led to that.  Why is he still sitting in an institution?  And, perhaps the most serious question raised by this story, is there no oversight in Germany that would prevent indefinite incarceration on the basis of a single judge's opinion?

Another question that looms large is how come the people at the Clinic for Forensic Psychiatry in Bayreuth where Mollath is interned are not speaking out?  Do they think he belongs there?  Is it that they are speaking out and the authorities are ignoring their pleas?  Are they complicit in an unwarranted hospitalization?   Or are they persuaded Mollath was correctly diagnosed by Judge Bixner and that his continued open-ended hospitalization is justified?  I realize that these questions will give some people reason to think I’m inclined toward conspiracy theories, but a few clear answers from the right authorities would knock these questions right out of the water, it seems to me.

Here are some of the reasons I’m asking them:

1. First of all there is Gustl Mollath claiming he’s been falsely hospitalized.  And he’d like you to read that: imprisoned.

2. There are two charges pending against Beate Merk of obstruction of justice, false imprisonment and perversion of justice.  One of these was filed by the office of Rainer Schmid in Munich, and the other bythe “Arbeitsgruppe Recht und Psychiatriemissbrauch (Task Force for Legal and Psychiatric Abuse)” of Saxony, according to spokesperson Brigitte Schneider.   In a report to a Giessen (in the state of Hesse) newspaper the Task Force charged Merk with using the methods of the Stasi (The former East German Secret Police) to prosecute the case  and with lying to Parliament.  They are also urging Bavarian Minister-President (State Premier) Seehofer to fire her.  Further details are available at the site of the ARD, the German national broadcasting system, which broke the story.

3. The story is being carried with obvious sympathy for Mollath in a number of prominent German papers.  Here’s one in the Süddeutsche Zeitung titled “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” 

4. I’ve also found a petition for Mollath’s release with 701 signatures, several pro arguments and no contra arguments that was delivered to the Bavarian Parliament (Landtag) in December 30, 2011.  Lawyers associated with the case, according to the web page are Dr. F. Weinberger und R. Heindl, a retired judge.   (This may be irrelevant, but I also found a website which appears to be a blog by someone charging that this railroading into psychiatric institutions is not an isolated incident.)

This is the kind of information that leads one to ask questions about conspiracy theories, and I am in no position to assess the veracity of these claims, of course, but they are real questions, it seems to me, and should at least be addressed. The site’s owner, Rainer Hackman, makes some strong claims that the practice of false institutionalization as a means of disarming political or other opposition is widespread.  A curious twist in this tangent, irrelevant or not, is Hackman’s contextualizing of this process of institutionalizing one’s enemies in the field of ponerology, the “study of evil,” a field developed by Andrzej M. Lobaczewski.  Lobaczewski also developed the notion of pathocracy, rule by psychopaths.  Hackman, in short, places deprivation of liberty, as is charged in the case of Gustl Mollath, alongside other great evils covering the whole gamut from militant aggression, conquest and colonialism to other forms of oppression including not only genocide but ecological destruction, economic depredation and even domestic conflict. Child abuse, would be including, and bullying, but also all forms of waste and neglect.  You can see how easily one might spin this story into the end of the world.  All the more reason, it seems to me, to get clarification, and get it quickly.

5. To get back to possible evidence that Mollath has a case, there is the testimony by Wilhelm Schlötterer, a former Bavarian financial officer and a man with a reputation as a whistle blower.  Mollath, he insists, should be released immediately and Merk should be fired.   On May 3, 2011, Schlötterer gave a talk in connection with the publication of his book, Macht und Missbrauch: Franz Josef Strauß und seine Nachfolger (Power and Abuse: Franz Josef Strauss and his Successors) in which he used the Mollath case as an example of the abuse of judicial power.   He concluded:

We consider the institutionalization of Gustl Mollath in various forensic psychiatric clinics as illegal and completely out of proportion.  It constitutes a human rights violation which endangers all citizens subject to the laws of Bavarian justice.

Wilhelm Schlötterer’s presentation is available on YouTube.

6.  Merk insists charges against her are an “unprecedented attack on the Bavarian justice system.” And that she is being attacked not because she has done something wrong, but because her political enemies see an opportunity of piling on.  But if you look at what they are actually saying, they are giving reasons for calling for her dismissal – and they are calling not so much for her head as for clarification:  

First there were the “Free Voters.”  Then the Bavarian Pirate Party joined the fray, arguing that Merk gave false testimony to the Bavarian Parliament, thus discrediting herself and doing harm to Bavarian justice, a charge lodged by others, as well.   According to the Pirate Party website author, Patrick Linnert (who makes a point of declaring he is not speaking for the party),
 Whether any of the crimes have passed the statue of limitations is irrelevant.  Here it’s not just the entire justice system that has failed to do its duty, but all the experts, all the doctors and caretakers.  This scandal shows what can happen when a state is governed for fifty years by the same party.  It wouldn’t surprise me to find that among Mollath’s ex-wife’s customers are some big shots in the CSU.   We eagerly await further results.
In the article, worth reading in its entirety, Linnert says his purpose is “to give Mr. Mollath a chance at rehabilitation and to clarify the case completely."  He also maintains that "Ms. Merk’s resignation (is) absolutely essential.”   The commentary that follows is also enlightening, showing strong support for Linnert’s assertions.

7. Online news magazine Telepolis on November 23 published another story which raises questions about Beate Merk.   About three weeks ago, the “medical commissioner for human rights” in Bavaria, Maria Fick, filed a complaint against Beate Merk, charging abuse, urging a review of the case and demanding reparations.  Merk has yet to respond to the charges.     To make the story even more interesting,  Merk questioned Fick’s competence in a public session of the Bavarian State Parliament, despite the fact that Fick has twenty-two years of experience in private practice, plus ten working in a clinic, and was for four years vice president of the Bavarian State Medical Association, specializing in medical ethics.  

In an interview with a fairly aggressive ARD interviewer, Merk adamently insists she has done nothing wrong.   When the interviewer asks her to explain why the D.A.’s office never explored the charges Mollath made about phony bank accounts in Switzerland, Merk answers, “You’re mixing information from two sources.  The tax office can proceed without evidence of a crime being committed; the district attorney’s office cannot.”  This is not evidence, note, that Mollath was hospitalized with good reason.  It is evidence only that Merk played by the rules of the game.

Mollath’s case was reviewed by Dr. Leipziger, the clinic's chief doctor, but Fick found "discrepancies" in his findings and described them as “inconclusive,” raising the question how it is Mollath could have been institutionalized on the basis of such findings – to say nothing of his being held there indefinitely.  In the ARD interview, Merk refuses to address the evidence of Mollath’s paranoia, arguing that the D.A. acted on the basis of information available to it at the time.   The interviewer presses her, “If he was institutionalized on the basis of paranoia over taxes, how is it the taxes were not part of the investigation?”  Merk answers that he was institutionalized on the basis of his attack on his wife – because he was dangerous, in other words, not because he was paranoid.  She does not explain how people who are "dangerous but not paranoid" end up in psychiatric institutions, and not simply jails.

The interviewer persists.  In 2007 a separate evaluator of Mollath’s mental state reports no evidence of paranoia.  How is it, the interviewer wants to know, that Merk left that information out in her report to Parliament.  Merk repeats that it is not her job to comment on the decision made by the judge in the original case.

The entire interview is available here and is worth watching, if only to see a tough interviewer in action.  Whether Merk’s insistence that she is being bombarded by questions she should not be expected to answer (arguably that she is being bullied by a reporter) is a separate question.  The interview comes to an end because she finally decides she has had enough.  The interviewer asks, “Just one more general question.”  Merk responds, “No.  I’m done.”

The tide seems to have turned.  New reports come in daily suggesting there is something really rotten in the Bavarian Justice System.   Today’s papers are carrying the ongoing story.  For samples, see here, here, here, and here.

I still find no mention of the case in the non-German press, but I suspect that is about to change.  This is definitely a story to follow.

For further, more detailed information, one place to start is the petition being sent round to free Mollath and bring about Merk’s resignation.  It includes links to both The ARD report, “Report Mainz” and a chronology of the case put out by the working group as well as
several other parts of the story.

photo credit

Friday, November 23, 2012

Who Turned the Lights On?

I wrote the other day about silence as a response to the horror of the Holocaust, and how it extended into the next generation, which was taught there was no use asking questions because there would be no answers.  I mentioned in passing my lasting impression of Japan as a place where I ran regularly into walls of silence.  At first, I assumed it was my lack of familiarity with the place and with the language.  But over time, as my Japanese improved and I began recognizing more and more patterns, I realized there were simply things about which one was not supposed to speak. Period.

As I thought about what I had written, I began to feel a tad sheepish.  I heard a voice in my head saying, “What a foolish generalization.  You, of all people, ought to know better than to make generalizations about national characteristics.”  I spent my career exploring various aspects of culture, the intersection of culture and religion, culture and society, culture and civilization, the anthropological understanding of the concept as against the popular understanding, and the ways culture makes the individual and individuals make and change their culture.  Sure, silence, or “sitting on information,” if you will, may be described as a cultural response when it is widespread, and when it becomes a common response, justified by what people would describe as “common sense.”  But it’s unworthy of you to think of it as in any way peculiar to Japan.

Yes, but… yes but somewhere along the line I came across a way of contrasting how Japanese and others, including Americans, dealt with social problems.  “You Americans,” one of my Japanese friends once told me, “When you find a social problem, you like to blow it up and make a big stink about it.  You think by getting everything out into the open and talking it to death you can solve it, somehow.  We Japanese prefer to handle the situation quietly, privately.”  I later came to describe that phenomenon as watching the Americans “turn the lights on” and the Japanese “turn the lights off.”

I ran into difficulty once when teaching a course in argumentation.  To build debate topics, I naturally turned to controversial topics, insisting that one of the fundamental rules of debating should be that you didn’t waste your time with trivial issues.  One debated for a reason, to find ways to make positive change.  How could one effect change without a proper understanding of the issues, I asked.  And for that, one had to “turn on all the lights.”

We took up the plights of minorities in Japan – the Vietnamese refugees, the Latin Americans of Japanese origin, the long-term Chinese and Korean residents of Japan, many of whom spoke only Japanese and had no other identity but were still denied access to full participation in Japanese life.  And, of course, the extremely touchy topic of Japanese “untouchables,” the burakumin.  As we began to get into the topic, one of my students came to me in some distress.  She had to withdraw from my class, she told me, because her mother could not approve of what we were doing.

Later, I found a similar response when I brought up the question of the “comfort women,” women, mostly Chinese and Koreans, who were pressed into prostitution to service the soldiers during the war, allegedly to cut down on rape.  Each time I searched for social movements that might address these issues, I encountered the same resistance.  Some things, obviously, were simply “too sensitive.”  Things were being done about them, I was told.  But quietly.  Without fanfare.

Memories of those experiences came rushing back today when I heard on the radio the story of Hashima 端島, an island off the coast of Nagaski Prefecture, also known as Gunkanjima 軍艦島 (Battleship Island), about nine miles from Nagasaki itself.   From 1887 to 1974, the island was a coal mining facility.  Mitsubishi bought the island in 1890 for ¥100,000, and eventually built large concrete structures to house the employees in the mines, rather than have them make the journey from the mainland.  Concrete was used to protect against typhoons, and the buildings became the precursor of the concrete nightmares in industrialized countries everywhere.   People were jammed in, with six times the population density of Tokyo.

In 1974, suddenly the coal ran out.  Mitsubishi told the more than 5000 residents that there would be a few jobs for them on the mainland, but on a first-come/first-served basis.  Now the storyline shifted from the hellish life in the mines to the kind of labor abuse big corporations routinely inflict on their workers, when they no longer serve their purpose as money generators for investors.  The same story whether it takes place in Hashima or Flint, Michigan. 

But then the narrative took yet another turn.  A Swedish report on The focuses on the danger common to all mining activities as well as on the workers left stranded.  Another article in Der Spiegel, takes it further yet.  It is estimated, they say, that some 1300 workers lost their lives on the island by the end of the Second World War, most of these forced laborers, many of whom tried to escape in vain.   Sakamoto Doutoku. who spent his childhood on the island and remembers how radically things improved after the war, is trying to persuade the authorities to make the island into a world heritage site. 

And here is where silence comes in once more.   Not only does Sakamoto observe that “perhaps this is something I should not talk about,” but we learn that the effort to make this into a world heritage site is being held up by some Koreans, distressed that the story of forced labor is not being widely told.   And a Swedish filmmaker who wanted to make a documentary of the island's history reports, "We met a lot of embarrassment. We met a lot of hushed faces, a lot of people who would turn away as soon as we started speaking about the island, almost like it was a leper colony or something." 

Japanese politicians are notorious for their denial of abuse of the Koreans from the early days of colonization through the end of the war, and Korean resentment refuses to die.  Now here comes another example.  One I had not heard of before.

Wouldn’t you just know it.  As Japanese wait for “all this to blow over,” the Brits have to go and make another James Bond movie.  Skyfall.  And they get Daniel Craig to be James Bond again.  And they get Javier Bardem to play the bad guy.

And the bad guy has to have an island to live on.  And where would we find such an island?

You guessed it.  Hashima

Damn. We were doing so well.  We were starting up a tourist industry, talking about making some money off this ghost island.  Now MGM and Sony (Sony! yet) has to come in with its Hollywood extravaganza sound and fury - and all those lights - and tell the whole world the story of this guy Sakamoto and his plans to create a world heritage site.   And so now the Koreans suddenly have a much bigger audience.

Just as the comfort women story was blowing over.  Because the last of the women are now dying off and, with few exceptions, nobody talks of this any more.

Damn you, James Bond.

P.S.  It turns out they didn’t do any filming on Hashima, after all.   According to a background story on the movie, the actual island used was "(l) the coast of Macau...based on the real-life, abandoned Hashima Island, near Nagasaki, Japan."

Based on Hashima?  You mean you didn't even use Hashima?

Oh, the ironies.  The ironies.

picture credit

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Working from Within

I just watched a half-hour video on the struggle by lgbt members of the Methodist Church at their national convention to remove the homophobic language from their Book of Discipline,  the Constitution of the United Methodist Church and statement of its doctrinal beliefs.  The event took place a couple months ago, but the issue is still current.

The lgbt members and their progressive allies were trying to remove the statement, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”  They succeeded in committee, but failed when the delegates to their national convention in Florida voted at large because of a large number of solidly conservative African delegates. 

A thought crossed my mind while watching this video.  All those pennies I put in the collection boxes for the poor people of Africa when I was eight or ten years old.  How many of them ended up helping to teach kids to grow up and be homophobes?   Cast your bread upon the waters, they say.  I can just see the nightmares coming now,  loaves of bread rising up out of the waves like sharks and biting me on the ass.

This is a story for anthropologists.  One American church after another has evolved on the issue of homosexuality, as have churches in other places where once authoritarian religious institutions have felt the power of the Enlightenment.   To counter this force, reactionary forces within the church are reaching out to church members from Africa, where the evolution of consciousness is taking place at a slower rate.

I don’t have a dog in this race.  I left the church a half century ago, way before the gay issue became a divisive factor.   From where I sit, religion is a silly game of first creating an imaginary friend who lives in the sky and then making him say all sorts of things about how people who make you uncomfortable displease him.  As a kid I remember battles over whether the communion wine should be grape juice and whether it was sanitary for everybody to drink from the same cup. Quibbling seems to be a primary feature of organized religion.  Today the struggle is over whether gay people should be labeled sinners and excluded from communion, but it strikes me as the same pitiful struggle by silly people over who gets to speak for God and which biblical cherries go into the pie and which get left behind. 

Today, what I find so interesting is that all these interdenominational spats have given way to intradenominational ones.  What the Methodists are going through – whether to raise the consciousness about the harm done to lgbt people by a literal (and arbitrarily selective) reading of scripture – the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church and many other protestant denominations have gone through before them.  Increasingly, they have come down on the side of full acceptance of their lgbt members, without reservation.  Wikipedia lists some twenty denominations in the U.S. and Canada they identify as “LGBT-Affirming.”  The Methodists will get there in time, I suspect.

I’ve been thinking out loud with a friend facing the same struggle within the Catholic Church.  I am probably not very helpful to him, since I have long since cut and run, and since I have committed myself never to refer to people and institutions who espouse homophobia as “home.”   But at the same time I recognize the desire to hang onto a home that you feel you should not surrender to those who would misrepresent it and make it less than it should be.  It’s a heartbreaking dilemma.  I’m in the curious position of wanting him to stay and fight for an institution I have little use for, and I question my own motives. 

Is that because I’m hoping the institution will get better?  I suppose so.  I don’t think the Catholic Church is going to disappear overnight and I sure would prefer a gay-friendly institution to the homophobic one it is now.  Actually, there is hope for the Catholic Church.  With 90% of its members openly practicing birth control despite the word from the hierarchy, you see the church splitting down the middle.  The progressives may some day take control.  If it ever becomes once again Christ centered instead of papacy centered, all sorts of things are possible. 

With this in mind, and looked at from the personal level, I hope my friend finds the home he is looking for.

Some time ago I blogged about the documentary Tears of Gaza and reflected on the gap between rational discussion of international foreign policy and bombs and drones and whether, on the one hand, Israel’s retaliation in Gaza for the Hamas inspired rockets into Israel is “proportionate” or not – and whether it should be.    And on the other hand what it looks like to sit with maimed children whimpering, because they are too exhausted to cry, at the physical and psychological distress.

In a much smaller way, that’s what this video of the Methodists in Florida did for the me – take the heady discussion over whether the evolution of human rights is accelerating or not, and replace it with the up close and personal image of a few heroic progressive members of a religious institution handling disappointment and defeat, and finding the strength to fight another day.

If you’ve got a half hour to spare sometime, even if you can’t tell a Methodist from a Pastafarian, have a look at these folk trying to make their lives better.

And send them some good vibes when you’re done.

Or prayers, if you’re a believer.

 picture credit