Friday, August 24, 2012

Savage meets Brown: A Review

I just saw something I never thought possible – two people from opposite ends of the universe sitting down and talking to each other.  And actually being civil about it.  In America.

It’s being called “The Dinner Table Debate,” a meeting between Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, and gay rights spokesman Dan Savage, on August 15th, nine days ago.  For how this came about, see Mark Oppenheimer’s article in the New York Times on some background to the story.  Oppenheimer moderated the debate.  You can watch it in its entirety here

Let me put my cards on the table and tell you there is probably no way I can write with objectivity about this event.  I want to try, though, and you decide whether I’ve succeeded.   I am by no stretch of the imagination a neutral observer.  My starting point is the same as Terry Miller’s.  He’s Savage’s husband, and he has described Brian Brown’s position as a form of cruelty.

Virtually no one involved saw even the slightest change in anyone’s position.  Neither man was in the least persuaded.  But that, given the nature of the issue, could never have been a realistic goal in the first place.  The fact that these two men from opposite poles of the debate over gay rights actually sat down and talked about their differences with civility is worth something.  It was an astonishing meeting, and I came away with more respect for Brown than I thought I could ever muster.  In that sense, at least for me, it was a success.  In other ways, it was less so.

Oppenheimer, the moderator, tried in vain to get Brown to explain how same-sex marriage was a greater threat to so-called traditional marriage than divorce or adultery.  He also asked the two to explain what new information or turn of events might persuade each man to change his position.  Savage said if it turned out same-sex marriage harmed children; Brown said basically nothing would change his mind.

If it had been a real debate, there would have been a judge determining who won the day on the basis of cogent arguments and effective rebuttals.  We don’t have those debates except in the confines of academia, however.  What we are more used to in America is watching one side talking for a limited time, and then the other side doing the same, usually without reference to most of what the other has just said.   In that sense, this was a typical American “debate.”

If you listen carefully to this exchange, you hear Savage taking on Brown’s points and actually refuting them.  Brown, on the other hand, follows the pattern of our presidential debates and other political confrontations.  Instead of effective refutation, the respondent says, “That’s not important.  What really matters is…” – and then brings out his or her talking points.

Brown and Savage ranged over a number of topics, starting with the impetus for the exchange, their difference over Biblical literalism.  Savage had addressed a group of high school students and let it be known he thought there was a lot of “bullshit” in the Bible.  When pressed for an example, he mentioned the approval of slavery, in both the Old and New Testaments.  They also took up the Regnerus study, and also Brown’s claim that allowing same-sex couples to marry would destroy the institution of marriage, and by extension, society itself.

When Savage spoke of “bullshit” he meant more than approval of slavery.  He meant the Bible was full of errors and nonsense.  “Bible-based” is a code-word in America for literalism – taking every word in the bible as factually true exactly as it is stated, without regard to metaphor or rhetorical effect.  Brown had no comeback except to show annoyance at what he saw as Savage’s lack of respect for religion.  And right off the bat, there in a nutshell, was what keeps the two men talking past each other.  If you see things through Savage’s eyes, how is one to show respect for something one considers untrue and unworthy?  And how, to see things through Brown’s eyes, is one to talk to a person who fails to see truth when it stares him in the face?  Truth, of course, being established by unquestioned embrace of an ideology.

Savage makes the point that those who argue the Bible is to be taken as literal truth reveal that they have never even read the Bible.  Not if you define reading as taking in information in context, and not lifting it and putting it into a modern-day context and making it mean what you want it to mean, or what makes sense to us today.  Literalists never read critically.  Instead they determine what they want the message to be first, and then read the text and try make it fit.  Cinderella’s sisters’ fat feet come to mind.

You don’t have to go very far into the Bible to get Savage’s point.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Chapter 1, narrates the story of creation.  Then right away in Chapter 2, you get another, different version of the world’s beginnings.  Biblical scholars understand the obvious here, that these two accounts (which they refer to as J and P, by the way) come from different sources.   Savage jokes it is as if God were saying, “Here.  We’ll start with two stories.  You have to decide what to do with the fact one cancels out the other.”   When Brown takes his turn, he ignores Savage’s point entirely.

In discussing the Regnerus study, by University of Texas at Austin professor Mark Regnerus, each side rehearses the issues widely covered when the study first came out, and which I covered  here, and here.  Savage stresses the criticism of the study by Regnerus’s peers and the fact it was funded by right-wing funding agencies.  Brown points out that there is no proof the right-wing funders affected the findings, and Savage has nowhere to go in rebuttal.  But Brown then makes the claim, citing the study’s critics themselves, that the “proper procedures were generally followed.”  Savage, again, because of the absence of strict rules for statement and rebuttal, lets this go by when he might have come back that “generally” may refer to some procedures, but the entire foundation of the study – that children raised by gay parents do poorly – is entirely bogus because of confounding variables and the near total absence of examples.

The one time that Brown tries to refute Savage’s assertion that there is “bullshit” in the Bible is when Savage points out the endorsement in both the Old and New Testaments of slavery, and Brown claims that there were not really slavery among the Hebrews, but a kind of “indentured servitude,” as if servants did their work through contracts and were routinely freed when they paid off their debt.  Savage doesn’t engage in this argument, but brushes it off as absurd.  He might have mentioned that when Sarah was supposedly too old to bear a child she offered Abraham her maid servant, Hagar.  And when we tell this story, we talk about how the Jews are descended from Isaac, Sarah’s son (when it turns out she could bear children at the age of 90 after all) and the Arabs come from the maidservant’s line.  What we never seem to pay any attention to is the fact that nobody bothered to ask the maid if this plan was OK with her.    One might want to make the point that all this quibbling over the definition of slavery really illustrates is how foolish it can be to get into arguments over Biblical literalism in the first place.

At one point, the moderator asks Brown if he's in favor of making divorce illegal. Brown answers, "Because you believe something is wrong doesn't mean you make it illegal."  Savage then asks him why this shouldn’t apply to marriage equality?  What is the logic of allowing one wrong but not another?  Brown dodges the question.  “Because gay marriage cannot exist,” he says, ignoring the fact that it does indeed exist in eleven countries and seven American states.

Ultimately, extending full civil rights to gays and lesbians will depend not on Dan Savage’s ability to defeat Brian Brown in a debate, of course.  It may depend, however, on how many people there are willing to listen to this kind of exchange.  Dan Savage feels he was at a disadvantage because he felt an obligation to treat Brown like the guest in his home that he was.  And here I disagree with Savage.  I suspect that the civility of this exchange will do a lot more to get people listening and thinking about the ideas both men put forth than any amount of ranting and raving by either side against the alleged cruelty or wrong-headedness of the other.  How much better it was to listen to the two men talking to each other directly than enduring all the hostile barbs of the guy you don’t agree with in news briefs and pronouncements when they speak in isolation.

The next step, it seems to me, ought to be a return invitation.  Brown should invite Savage to his home to continue the conversation, hopefully with Oppenheimer continuing to moderate.

Some time after Brown’s wife finishes giving birth to their eighth child, of course.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

When do we start using the word fascism?

There's something terribly off-putting about people who cry wolf.  And in that category are people on the left, moi included, who are wont to rush to the worst possible interpretation of events and see fascists under every rock.  Usually we point out something fascist-like and hedge by labeling it "proto-fascist" or "moving in the direction of fascism," but that, like most hedging, is a coward's way of eating your cake and keeping it too.  Not honest.

The smart course of action is usually to be conservative with hot-button words, I think.  Simply don't surrender to the temptation to use the word fascism to describe what's going on in America today.

But that isn't quite right, either.  There are lots of fascist tendencies out and about.  And I'm defining fascism as the ideology that suggests you can have what you want and you don't need to worry about telling lies and smearing and any other nefarious means to get what you want.  It's not just when you march into Poland that you become fascist.  It begins when you knowingly misrepresent the truth and when you begin to take more pleasure in winning against a foe than you do in being objective, generous, compassionate or fair.

Fascism is generally defined as “a radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology” but also as:

    1. An authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization.
    2. (in general use) Extreme right-wing, authoritarian, or intolerant views or practice.

By that latter definition we’re already there, in the now mainstream Republican party and the Republican theocracy they are working toward.  Many of the people in the once conservative, now reactionary, party of the right, right up to the top with Romney and other Republican contenders like Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum, have endorsed the view that the Bible should supersede the Constitution.  And leaders of the Roman Catholic hierarchy such as New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and his right hand at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Joseph Kurtz now openly insist it is their religious right to take actions that would overrule the wishes of non-catholic Americans – and they are endorsed not only by those on the right but many in the middle, as well.  Evangelicals have been arguing openly and loudly for a long time that the separation of church and state is a myth, and you know what kind of theocracy they would establish if they were able.

The danger in suggesting there is something fascist about these moves by newly emboldened and  heavy-handed religious bullies is that one can lose credibility.   We're not ready to think of our religious leaders in that light.  And, to be fair, it would also not be technically correct.  Whatever the rightists in our midst are up to, we as a country are not yet fascist.  Only some of the country leans in that direction, and because our media are now so unreliable we have no way of really knowing how much of the country is actually in that number.  And we need to distinguish those who are genuinely fascist by nature from those too dumb to realize the work they perform as fascist enablers.  People who routinely throw their support behind authoritarians because they promise they will keep you safe better than the other guy - and for less money.  People who might, with some effort, be persuaded to become better informed.   Polls are fingers in the wind, and not reliable measures of people’s convictions.

We have to be careful not to speak of fascism as a fully-formed American value system.  But we also, I think, need to keep an eye on fascism in the making.  Right Wing Watch  does that.  Others do, as well.

What makes me queasy, though, is the evidence that the institutions necessary for democracy to work are breaking down.   We don’t know how to evaluate this phenomenon we call the “dumbing down.”  We just note how often people say wild and crazy things, things that cannot be proven, and how often lies are put out there, and not just by politicians, and exposed – and then things go on as if the exposure never took place.  People act as if the truth doesn’t matter.  The postmodern theory has become reality – we believe not what is, but what we want things to be.

In this morning’s news is the story of well-known Scottish historian Niall Ferguson’s blatant disregard for facts in a Newsweek article.   Here you have a Harvard/Oxford/Stanford professor of history who writes for a popular American magazine without a fact-checker and flings factoids out there to serve political purposes.  It’s little bits like this that scare me and that bring to mind the concept of proto-fascism.  Fans of Ferguson would probably call it just another illustration of his “interesting” non-traditional approach to history.  I suspect Ferguson would sneer at any suggestion that his British contrarian ways – one has to remember Christopher Hitchens this way, as well – could ever be associated with fascism, even indirectly, and I think he’d be right.  But there’s still the disregard for facts to contend with.

The examples of media distortions are legion – from FOX on down.  But even more troubling, to me, is the evidence that the educational system is breaking (or has broken) down.   A friend called my attention to an adjunct professor in Philadelphia who blogs her complaints about the state of higher education, with special focus on the gap between the folks in the trenches – the adjunct professors – and the corporate executives who now collect six, sometimes seven-figure salaries paid with funds that once might have gone to students, faculty, research or curriculum.   The Chronicle of Higher Education also regularly carries stories of this breakdown from other perspectives, such as this one

Check out the web page of a documentary being made to call attention to the plight of higher education in America.  As a member of this class of folk, I can attest personally to the veracity of the claims.  In fact, the main reason I made the choice to teach in Japan was that I couldn’t see myself living on an annual salary of $24,000 teaching in America.  True, full professors get much more than that, and if I had gone into computer science, law or medicine, rather than education, I might have made it here in this country.  But isn’t that the point.   We don’t value the field of education as a professional calling.  Even at Stanford, the School of Education was referred to as “the low rent district.”  We didn’t mind, because there was something terribly satisfying about just being there in that lofty environment and about thinking lofty thoughts about joining a noble profession.  But that was before our careers started.   The dreamy naïveté didn’t last.

In any case, check out this teacher’s lament.

And check out the documentary in the making. 

The blurb from that reads:

Political Scientists and Policy Analysts are saying that American public higher education has entered a "death spiral", which signals not only the ruination of the American university system, but of democracy itself.   Gone are the days when public higher education was viewed as a public good; the entire system has been under attack by the same elitist powers that have been causing a wider ruination of the middle class. 

Media, education, the political system itself…  Once democratic institutions start breaking down there is little to nothing left to resist fascism.  Citizens United shows we can’t count on the Supreme Court.   Sheldon Adelson can make billions from gambling by teaming up with Chinese gangsters in Macao and then funnel that money into one-man support for Newt Gingrich’s candidacy for president – and now he pools it with other funds for Mitt Romney.  And Obama has spent a third of a billion dollars as well, just on the campaign, and we’re not close to done with the fundraising.  How many other examples do you need to show corruption of government is now virtually total?

So be careful, I tell myself, about using the term fascism in regard to the shambles of American democracy.

But keep your eye on the trajectory.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Something's rotten in the State of Missouri

What is wrong with Missouri that they should send a bum like Todd Akin to Congress?  Are that many folk in the “show-me” state that dense?

It hurts me even to ask that question, since some of my nearest-and-dearest live in Missouri.  I’m feeling for them right now.  Don’t want to even bring the subject up of this would-be senator of theirs.

Todd Akin, in case you missed the news, was recently asked in a television interview whether he was against abortion in cases of rape.  His immediate answer was to argue that “if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Get your mind around that one.  A legitimate rape.  Won’t bother to ask how many classifications of rape this guy runs around with.  (Fellow-Republican Ryan uses the term forced rape – as opposed, maybe, to the nice kind.)  It would seem he’s trying to distinguish between unwanted assaults and cases in which women tell you they were raped when they actually weren’t.  Like how many of those have you experienced lately?  As Ilyse Hogue points out in The Nation, we need to be aware of what’s behind the very concept of a “forced” or a “legitimate” rape – the fact that there is another kind.  Statutory rape, for example.  If we only punish “forced” rape, then thirteen-year-olds seduced by their twenty-year-old boyfriends cannot get medically treated and the crime goes unpunished. 

Then there’s the body-shutting-down business.  Close your eyes and think of England, ladies.  It’ll all be over in a minute or two and we can get back to more pleasant things – no need to make a big deal out of this.

How in the name of heaven does this man’s mind work?

No need to panic.  The body shuts down. 

So there’s no rape?

The guy gets asked a question about abortion and misses the point that it’s also a question about rape.  He minimizes the abortion part and ignores the rape part entirely.

You know why, of course.  If you are driven by a right-wing absolutist ideology in which you commit to the idea that all life is sacred from the moment of conception, this is the outcome.  Akin isn’t mad.  He’s following an ideology the Roman Catholic hierarchy and most evangelical born-agains among us push day and night to its only logical conclusion.  He is mainstream America – what mainstream America has become, that is.

This man Akin is a rotten son of a bitch, in my opinion, for inflicting this ideology on women (and through women to the men who care for them as well, remember), an ideology that encapsulates – if not the abstract we know as evil – a patriarchal mind control notion straight out of the Middle Ages that leads to misery and needless untold suffering.

The man has a master’s degree in religion.  A Master of Divinity degree from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis.    He has an A-rating from the National Rifle Association.   He opposes stem cell research.  Last Thursday at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, he said he didn’t think the federal government should fund school lunches.  He’s against the morning after pill.  

Why am I not surprised he’s a master of religion?
Because we live in society we have to contend with each other’s ideologies and make room for them the best we can.   I walked into a room once where a Roman Catholic archbishop was being fussed over.  I remember well wondering if I had the capacity to walk up and slap his face.  I decided I did, and it gave me the chills.  I also decided I wouldn’t (I actually thought it through), not because he wasn’t in the same category as a drug-pusher for his stance on birth control, abortion and homosexuality – he was – but because I am committed to the notion that we have to change hearts and minds, not blow people away.  Not even slap them.  Not even spit on their shoes.

But it’s hard.  It’s really hard to listen to racists and homophobes and anti-semites and men who put women down.  And it was really hard getting through the movie, The Help, recently, and watching how Americans in Mississippi came home from fighting Hitler in Germany to abuse their black servants in a manner that would make a Nazi proud.  You really want to slap people, and not be constrained by social convention, sometimes.

We live in a time and a place where we are not challenged morally by such things as concentration camps.  We don’t have to compromise with evil to survive, don’t have to be enablers of genocide, or slavery.  Not us.  Not here.

But we do have to listen to men like Todd Akin and think of all the women who have been raped and not go all ballistic.  One out of six women in America.  Think of the statistics, the fact that women who are raped are three times more likely than other women to suffer from depression.  Six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Thirteen times more likely to abuse alcohol.  Twenty-six times more likely to abuse drugs.  Four times more likely to contemplate suicide. 

And we have to smile, and say, “I differ with you, Congressman.  May I freshen your drink?”

We have to smile and not spit at those who hold that their hands are clean when bullies beat you up because you’re gay because they were urging them to “love the sinner,” and are “as shocked as you are” that some people can’t distinguish between the sinner and the sin.

Akin, like any politician, speaks for millions and not just for himself.  He was re-elected to Congress six times.  And six times to the Missouri House of Representatives before that, if Wikipedia has their facts right. 

The fact that people like him get this far, instead of being run out of town on a rail, tells you how desperately retrograde American society has become.  He won the Republican primary by a comfortable margin.  He’s also clearly the evangelicals' great hope.  At least 100 pastors endorsed him in that primary.  When you say “Christian” in the American context, this is what you mean now.   Akin’s their man

Akin has taken note of the uproar his statement made, and has made the usual politician’s bullshit substitute for an apology:  “I misspoke.” 

Really, Congressman?  You misspoke?   If that’s the case, how come you don’t specify what part of what you said fits the notion of “mis-speaking?”  The part where you suggested women shut down and don’t get pregnant when they are raped?  Did you mean to say the opposite?  I don’t think so, somehow.  I don’t think you misspoke at all.  It sure looks for all the world like what’s really going on it is that you just wish you hadn’t said what you really think.

Rape, Congressman Akin, in case you hadn’t thought about it before, often involves something other than vaginal penetration.  It involves anal penetration.  Penetration by a foreign object.  Some rapists wear condoms to avoid DNA detection in case the victim has the savvy to get a rape kit immediately after being attacked.  Some victims are too old to get pregnant.  Often rape victims are on the pill, or are not fertile, so the fact they do not get pregnant can often be due not to “the body shutting down” but to other things going on.  Their trauma, in any case, can be just as real. 

How come you don’t know that?  How come you don’t think of these things before you speak, instead of preaching the word of your toxic religion first and taking the coward’s line – you “misspoke” ­– when all other options close down?  (And if you don’t think he’s a coward, consider his dismissal of those remarks as “off the cuff” – even though he was on television, speaking on a topic he has addressed countless times before.)

Todd Akin, according to Nate Silver in this morning’s New York Times, has had the edge until now against Claire McCaskill to win the senate race in Missouri.

Let us hope Silver is right in suggesting this foot-in-mouth event showing Akin’s true colors gets Missouri voters off their butts to throw this bum out. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Left and Right in the Eye of the Beholder

Once again, when gay rights are set back here in the US of A, I try to look at the big picture and keep focused on long-term gains, remembering that sometimes, as the French say, “il faut reculer pour mieux sauter” (you have to take a step back to get a better jump).  I remember, for example, the sick feeling I had back in the 70s when Anita Bryant was having so much success persuading Americans that gay men were all child molesters at heart.  And then the surprise and welcome backlash from that when her backwardness provoked the kind of outrage that launched the careers of many a gay rights activist, who ultimately helped get us the rights we have today.  A dark cloud with a silver lining if ever there was one. 

More recently there was Prop. 8, this nasty push by some in the official Roman Catholic hierarchy and their Mormon bandwagon jumpers to remove the rights to marry gays had for a time in California.  That has turned out to be another cause to rally around, and the courts have looked at its content and its consequences and spotted the bigotry.  And this has helped to raise the consciousness of many more Americans about how big the problem is.  The battle isn’t over, though.  News came of a setback the other day in Hawaii.  And then there was the word today that what seemed recently like a clear path to same-sex marriage victory in Maryland may be premature optimism.  And, of course, there was that Chick-Fil-A event.  Can’t hide the fact that was a real challenge for the glass-half-full folk.

I have to wonder, though.  All those smiling faces at Chick-Fil-A, all that righteousness, all that smug conviction as the godly American right bellied up to eat fried chicken for Jesus.  I hope America is watching and not shrugging it off as I wanted so much to do at first.  It too could be the kind of catalyst Anita Bryant was and Prop. 8 seems to be.  One can hope.

Meanwhile, I am greatly encouraged by what is happening in Germany.  In case you don’t follow these things too carefully, Germany is going places these days, in terms of civil rights.  They did not follow Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden in Europe and other countries elsewhere in granting full marriage rights to LGBT folks, but they did institute a civil union arrangement in 2001 (following France in 1999), granting them most of the rights heterosexual couples enjoy.  “Eingetragene Lebenspartnerschaften” (registered life partnerships) have enabled gays to enjoy pretty much all rights except joint adoption, pension, and tax benefits. 

Over time, the injustice of some of those exceptions has been mitigated.  In 2004, a new law was passed that permitted a partner to adopt his or her stepchild, and alimony and divorce laws were also simplified, and in 2008, transsexuals were granted the right to stay married to the partners they had before transitioning.

Germany has the same kind of right/left distinction, the same divide between conservatives and liberals the United States has, but it has a very different center.  As you would expect, notable resistance to change came from the conservative parties, the CDU/CSU unions (Christian Socialists in Bavaria, Christian Democrats elsewhere), the parties historically tied to organized religion, and the market-centered deregulation-oriented FDP (Liberal Democrats).   An especially egregious imbalance remained, after the pro-gay reforms, in the tax laws.  If you were the survivor of a married couple, you paid between 7 and 30% in inheritance (specifically land-transfer) taxes.  If you were in a registered life partnership, you paid between 17 and 50%.

Then things began to change.  First off, just over a month ago, on June 28th of this year, the Green Party submitted a proposal in the Bundestag to fully legalize same-sex marriages.  That would have cleaned up the still nagging fact that gay couples could not adopt and were paying inheritance taxes at a higher rate.  It failed 309 to 260 with 12 abstentions, with the dividing line, as usual, between the conservatives, CDU/CSU and the Liberal Democrats on the right, and the progressives, the Left Party, the Socialists and the Greens on the left. 

This fact must have been on the mind of Christine Lambrecht, of the socialists, when she complained that it is “unacceptable for registered partners to have to ask for their rights piece by piece.” 

Then, more notably, apparently out of nowhere (at least it seems that way to me as an outsider), thirteen members of the CDU registered their displeasure in writing that “time and time again policy makers have to be ordered by the Federal (Constitutional) Court to abolish inequality.”    Angela Merkel’s Health Minister, Kristina Schröder, soon joined them.  And Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economics, Philipp Rösler, followed suit.  Cynics will tell you there is a political motive behind all this, that none of this stems from personal conviction, but what else is new?   Ms. Schröder reasoned – don’t miss this – that extending the same rights to gays that straights now have “enhances conservative values.”

What is so mind-blowing about all this from an American perspective is that these are all conservatives.  Which is to say the terms we use here for progressives (not to use that word the right is trying to turn into a bad word and the left is letting them – liberals) and conservatives don’t match up.  Their conservatives are left of our center by some considerable amount.  Which is another way of saying we have allowed our center to move so damned far to the right we’re like the frogs in the boiling water – dying and not even noticing it, most of us.

It’s still in the works, in Germany, this boring tax system modification which means a whole lot if you’re the survivor of a gay life partnership.  But it would seem to be on its way, and Germany will be the richer for it.

We will take a little longer, sodomized (and not in the fun way) as we are in this country by the worshipers of the Golden Idols of Scriptural Literalism and Big Daddy Catholicism.

Nothing much to do but tend the garden, listen to Bach and Mozart, clean the bathroom sink and wait for the day the U.S. catches up with Germany.  And most of the rest of the modern world.  And not just in gay rights, either, but I won’t beat two drums at once just now.

And if all else fails, you can always say you learned a new German word: Ehegattensplittung.

Quick and easy German lesson:

Ehe is German for marriage, and Gatte is the word for mate – not in the buddy sense, traditionally, but in the make-babies and “other half” sense.   Put them together and you’ve got spouseEhegatte. Then put this word together with the English word splitting, and you’ve got Ehegattensplitting.  Don’t worry about the n.

That leaves you with a strange word – “spouse splitting” – which makes no sense until you realize that Germany, like California, is into community property notions and filing taxes jointly.

The problem has been that that option has only been available to you if you are in a regular marriage.   If you are in a same-sex partnership, you have had to file separately.   Since Germany’s income taxes are graded, if your incomes are unequal, filing jointly can be a big advantage, since the one with the bigger income gets pulled down into a lower tax bracket.

In today’s Süddeutsche Zeitung I came across this:
“Fraktionschef Frank-Walter Steinmeier kündigte einen fraktionsübergreifenden Antrag zum Ehegattensplitting im Bundestag an.”
Literally, that’s
“Faction chief Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced a faction comprehensive proposal for Ehegattensplitting in the Bundestag.”
Steinmeier is a lefty, to be sure, and leader of the opposition, but this suggests he is forcing the hand of the conservatives, insisting they put their money where their mouth is.  And that means, after some grunting and groaning and reading between the lines, I decided there was good reason to translate it this way:
“Frank-Walter Steinmeier, leader of his party’s faction, filed a motion in the Bundestag on behalf of a number of political groups to give life partners the same option to file jointly that married couples now enjoy.
That’s a pretty free translation, of course, but then I’m a liberal.  

My point is not that German has big words.  It is that Germany's conservatives, many of them, are looking pretty cool to me at the moment.   There seems to be consensus that the conservatives have come around and will stop holding back full rights for gays and lesbians, virtually opening the door to full and equal marriage.  Some are looking forward to the day they can entice more gays into the conservative parties.  We won't go there.

I’d still vote Green, probably, if I were a German, or at least social democrat.  But, as an American, I’m green with envy that Germany has a political scene I could only wish we could import as readily as we do their Audis and Volkswagens and Mercedes.  Mercedeses.  Whatever.

You know what I mean.


Monday, August 6, 2012

I ♥ Mars

I’m surprised people aren’t jumping up and down everywhere about the Mars landing.  I happened across a news item some time ago about how they had figured out a way to land a one-ton piece of equipment, this rover robot, within a few meters of where they wanted it in a crater on Mars.  A mind-boggling accomplishment.  

First they have to fling this thing the size of an automobile into space.  Then they have to wait eight months while it travels 350 million miles.  Then they have to sit through “seven minutes of terror” as it goes through some seventy-odd steps to set itself down just right.  If any one of these steps had gone wrong it could have turned itself into a multi-billion dollar piece of junk and slammed into the surface, leaving thousands of people at the Jet Propulsion Lab and elsewhere looking like fools.  What a risk they took.  What an adventure.

How could we not get caught up in this?  We take technical accomplishments for granted these days.  But this was at a whole new level.  Just one example:  Here’s a picture taken from a satellite which they fashioned to be able to be in just the right place at the time the rover robot was landing.  One second too soon or too late and they would have missed it.  Let’s hear it for mathematicians!

Fortunately, thanks to other technical advances, I was able to watch the landing live.  (Me and all the mission controllers and the 1,400 scientists, engineers and dignitaries at JPL and the 5,000 people at the  California Institute of Technology, and all the other people who had found their way to this event).  Facebook had a link.  Others, as well, allowed you to go to your computer and watch the folks at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena bite their nails and sweat it out. Lots of sites are carrying on with related information.  Great drama.

And, because it worked exactly as planned – it was a total success – you got to feel the excitement.  Imagine working on a project for eight years, going from one disappointment to the next, one trial and error experience to the next, and then getting to the last moment and having to sit for those seven minutes when you couldn’t know whether the landing plan was working – having to wait seventeen minutes for the data to reach the earth at the speed of light after it had either worked or not worked.  Adam Steltzner, the head of the landing team, described the team as “rationally confident, emotionally terrified.”

Quite a show.  Lots of tears.  Lots of hugging.

And lots of politicking.  The head of NASA, and the president’s man, his science advisor, John Holdren, all had to get in on the inevitable rah-rah USA stuff.  We are Number One.  Don’t you wish you were us?  Where does this come from?  It’s not just the grunts in the stands shouting U-S-A, U-S-A at sports events.  It goes all the way to the top.  To the political folk, at least – I do get the impression the scientists working at JPL were more intent on doing their job than in politicking.

Fine.  It’s a great American moment.  We spent billions on this voyage of exploration, and this time I don’t feel like complaining that the money should have been spent on school lunch programs instead, as I do everytime the pentagon spends that sort of pocket change on killing foreigners with drones.  I’m hoping, as the scientists themselves said, this will inspire kids to study mathematics and engineering and chemistry and physics.  I’m hoping they will see themselves in the seats of these men and women at the JPL some day, with tears of excitement running down their cheeks too at some magnificent accomplishment as this, and get cracking.

I’ve been distracted all week by this tragic display of American foolishness, this lining up at Chick-Fil-A to show solidarity with a perfect jerk who turns his profits over to people like the Family Research Center, a group the Southern Poverty Center calls a hate group.  Watching Americans who are either downright nasty homophobes lining up for crap chicken or clueless suckers campaigning for their Best Friend Jesus, can make you sour indeed on your fellow citizens.

But then, suddenly, I was looking at some fellow citizens with tears rolling down their cheeks, grown men and women, thrilled to the bone that their engineering project had worked, and we were now in for an unspecified period of months and years of learning about another planet in our universe.

A rare and wonderful ride from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Color me a big big fan of the folks at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab.  And the California Institute of Technology.  And teachers of math and science everywhere.

photo credits: Mars landing

for best photos, see the NASA website at:

Friday, August 3, 2012

Biblical Marriage

These gays have got it all wrong.

They’re all pissed off at this fast food chicken guy for looking to the Bible for inspiration. 

That just isn’t right. 

I mean if tons of kids in Britain these days are being christened William and Kate, and given that the most common male name in the world is Mohammed, why can’t this guy Cathy go to the Bible for answers?

If you turn to Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 19 on to the end of the chapter, for example, you’ll read:

And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah.  And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle.  And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.

It goes on then about Zillah’s kids, the brass and iron workers.  No explanation why old Lamech needed two wives.  Just that he had two at the same time.

Or, in Genesis 26:34 you read:

And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite.

Two Hittite girls in one year.  What a way to thin the blood of the Hebrews.  That can’t be right.  But it’s in the Bible!  I do wonder why three wives, though - at forty, you have to assume he already had at least one more wife.  But they don’t tell you.  Guess it wasn’t important.

And you remember the story of Jacob and his sister-wives Rachel and Leah who he went in unto one after the other.  Leah first gives birth to Reuben.  But she doesn’t stop there, and when she gives birth to Simeon and Levi as well Rachel gets really pissed “because the Lord had opened up her sister’s womb” and not hers, and she says to Jake (Chapter 30):

Give me children or else I die.

Now this kindles Jacob’s anger against her, we are told, and he lashes out: “Is it my damn fault you can’t have kids?”  (We know it’s not his fault, because Leah is so very productive, you see.  We’re also told the Lord opened Leah’s womb, and one has to wonder what he had against Rachel that he didn’t open hers, but that’s another story.)

Whereupon Rachel says to Jacob, (30:3)

Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her…

I won’t go on.  I’m sure there’s a Bible you can find somewhere if you want to hear how it ends, this race to see who can get Jacob, with the Lord’s help, to give her the most children – using slave girls when the original equipment is faulty.  Don’t you love it how readily Jacob goes along with all this going in unto business, by the way?

The whole damn Bible is full of great shit like this.  All about begatting mostly.  And it’s not just two or three wives, either.  Check out II Chronicles 14:21 and you’ll read:

But Abijah waxed mighty, and married fourteen wives, and begat twenty and two sons, and sixteen daughters…

Really.   Check it out.  The Bible’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s better than science fiction sometimes.

I think that’s all this Chick-Fil-A guy with the strange last name – Cathy – was after when he suggested we should support biblical marriage.  Don’t know how many wives he was suggesting, and I hope he wasn’t suggesting we name our girls Zillah and Bilhah, but it’s good the guy has a hobby of reading the bible for inspiration, I think.

And what’s wrong with that?  Those gay people jumping around at his junk food outlets have got it all wrong.  Leave the poor guy alone.  He’s making his millions and feeding the masses just as Jesus did.  What’s wrong with that?  Fish,  chicken, food is food.

I know, I know.  Gays have their tits in a knot because he went and told some Southern Baptist guy that he supports "the biblical definition of the family unit." 

So what if he did.  Just because the Southern Baptist Church was founded by splitting from the Baptist Church over the issue of slavery.  That’s no reason to hold out resentment against the Baptists.  I mean if black people can forgive and forget – they’ve even elected a black man as head of the Southern Baptists, if you don’t believe me – why can’t the rest of us?

That’s what the gays are all upset about, right?  The fact that the Baptists have their origins in support for slavery?  I mean it can’t be because this man Cathy would seem to be in favor of shtupping his wife’s sister, can it?

I get so confused.  Maybe somebody can fill-A me in.

Joke.  Get it?

picture of Jacob and Rachel: