Saturday, September 28, 2013

As long as you do it al dente

Don’t you absolutely love this kerfuffle over what Guido Barilla said the other day?  His before-your-eyes pitch into the abyss?

Mr. B, the “Colosso dello spaghetto” is eating humble pie.

One Italian newspaper referred to it as Barilla committing harakiri.  "Mai una famiglia gay nei nostri spot.  (Never a gay family in our ads)."  Superhunk Ahmed Shibab-El Din at HuffPost brings an Italian journalist in to explain the Italian boycott of Barilla - and the hashtag #boicottabarilla.   She declares the story "quite a big deal" in Italy.

Barilla opined as to how his noodles really are intended for one man/one woman couples.   At least he said last week that he would not include gays in the company’s ads “because we like the traditional family.”

“For us,” said Mr. B., “the concept of the sacred family remains one of the fundamental values of the company.”   He also had some negative thoughts to let out on the topic of gay adoption.  

“If gays don’t like it,” he said, summing up, “they can always eat another brand of pasta.”  

Other pasta makers recognized a fantastic PR moment when they saw one.  In no time flat they were out there posting gay-friendly ads.  Garofalo's (left) reads (in both standard Italian and in an Italian dialect) "It doesn’t matter to us who you do it with; the important thing is that you do it al dente!"

Buitoni (right) made it very clear their idea of "mangia bene" customers come from all walks of life.

Bertolli (left) shows happy noodle couples dancing on a spoon, playing with the male/female shapes in the same way Garofalo does.

And, speaking of ganging up on poor Guido, even Guido’s brother, Luca, threw him under a bus.  “In the past ten days,” Luca announces, “dozens of our clients around the world have asked for clarification over the words pronounced by (my brother) Guido.”   “All I can say,” says Luca, helpfully, “is that the agency is not responsible.”  


Still others let fly their negative take on Barilla more directly, from Barilla in the pot (left) to putting the bigotry into Barilla's traditional bigotoni (right) - "al dente homophobia in 12-13 minutes."

 An article in the Sydney Morning Herald says it in a single Italian word - "homophobes":

So much for casual remarks uttered when you think the world is not watching.  Just like the pastor in New Brunswick I blogged about the other day, Guido gets up and tells you how much he just loves them gays – some of my best friends, etc. etc. – never meant no harm, yada yada.

This gives us an opportunity to show some class and some grace and accept his apology so we can all now move on to more important things.  Like watching Antonio Banderas talking to a chicken, maybe, in another ad for a Barilla product.  

Or not.

If you listen to the guy, he’ll break your heart.  Sounds sincere as hell.  Really really sorry, guys, he’s saying.  The tone is just right, the facial expression is humble and looks sincere.  Watch for yourself here.  And then read the commentary.  Most of it is in the nature of “Never liked your rotten pasta, anyway,” and "See if I ever buy Barilla again."  Like this one:
NOTICE: the camera only recorded him from above the waist to disguise the fact that his pants are on fire.
Like most things that go viral, the commentariat quickly goes off the rails.

“I’ve emptied my kitchen cabinets of all his pasta,” writes one commenter.

Nice going, moron, says the next commenter.   Use the head for something beside a door stop.  The trick is to not buy any additional Barilla products, not throw away what you already own.  How’s that going to hurt his pocketbook?

But people need to vent.  And venting, if this case is any indication, sometimes works.  Yet one more poor sucker is learning the risk of living in the instant information age.  How many people are going to be tripped up by Twitter before we all realize nobody is safe to say what they really think anymore.  Not, that is, if they want to get elected to political office or, like Mr. Barilla, to make a buck.

I’m delighted that gays and their allies are getting smart and using their clout to call people on their bigotry.   Glad to recognize how far we've come in fighting homophobia.  To see that ordinary citizens have power, if they only know how to focus on the right places and use that power.  

That's the glass half full perspective.  I’d love to think of it as a way of seeing the evolution of an ethical consciousness.  But I also see it from the half empty perspective.  I’m pretty sure this is less a learning moment and more a story about risk mismanagement.   To do business these days, you definitely have to keep your finger up testing the wind.  Capitalism is, of course, neutral here.  If the winds were blowing in a homophobic direction, all sorts of gay-friendly corporations would get gay-unfriendly.  That’s no secret.

A third aspect of the story is what’s actually going on inside Mr. Barilla’s head.  Is he simply eating crow because a whole lot of his employees and family member investors need him to fix this mess?  Or is he listening to the words coming out of his mouth and thinking, “Hey, I guess I really was wrong.  Probably should have thought that one through a little better.”

We may never know, and in the end, if fear of being exposed as an asshole prevents people from being assholes, I’d say we've come out ahead.

The long slog toward gay liberation began with some very small steps long ago.  And we’re not there yet.  We’re still getting there, one noodle at a time.

(The devil made me say that.)

Just to show there are no hard feelings, I believe you, Guido.

I’m going to buy me some Barilla this very day.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Need for Air and Light

What goes through your mind
when you hear somebody has lost his job
because he's not to be trusted around children?
Looks like the Christians are trying to eat the lions again.   Pastor Mark Brewer and youth pastor Nathalie Estey of Crosspoint Wesleyan Church in Frederickton, New Brunswick have gotten rid of a twenty-year old college kid named Colin Briggs who had been volunteering with their kids the past two years because – are you ready for this? – some parents might object to the fact that he is gay.

That’s the story that Briggs tells, anyway.   Pastor Brewer is suggesting there is more than meets the eye and we need to show a bit more “tolerance” of the church’s perspective and not be too quick to cast them in a bad light.

Fine.  Let’s hear the story and then we’ll judge.

I’m looking for objectivity but I’ll lay my cards on the table.  Whenever I hear of folks seeking to draw connections between gays and child molesters, my blood goes to instant boil.  I can think of very few injustices greater than this one that gay men were routinely subjected to in the past – and apparently still are.  It’s a tired old story and nobody should pretend surprise when this gets our back up.

But let’s hear them out.  Here are the voices on the two sides.  First there is Colin Briggs’ version, told on Canada’s Global News website (text and video).   He doesn’t even need to make the case.  The pastor makes it for him. “Briggs’ dismissal,” the pastor says, “would avoid any potential uproar that may be caused if families were to find out an openly gay male was working in the children’s ministry.”

Say what?

Potential uproar?

Church people would be in an uproar to discover somebody gay had been working with children?

You’re kidding, right?

OK.  So how about the pastor’s side of the story.  That’s available on the church’s own website.    I don’t know how long the video will remain, but it’s currently at the top of the page. 

Mark Brewer, the pastor, starts out claiming he will “briefly discuss what’s happened.”  He then proceeds to ignore entirely what has happened and make a pitch instead to be allowed to avoid discussing the details of the case.   He’s preaching to the choir, obviously, and his remarks are met with regular applause.  “All people are welcomed through the doors of Crosspoint Church,” he says (Applause).   Regardless of who you are – sexual orientation included, he says.   “Love and acceptance has been one of our defining characteristics,” he says.  

OK.  If that’s true, there should be no problem.

After much prayer, he says, this person was let go.  These decisions, he says, “often have deeper and more complex issues than what appear on the surface.  We rarely divulge that information (so) as to protect everyone involved.”  He bewails the fact this firing has hit the internet.  “As usual,” he says, “much of what we read on the internet is not true.”

Point well taken.   But what the good pastor seems to be missing entirely is the fact that by hiding the details about this young man he casts him into the shadows.  One can only wonder what sort of mischief Briggs might have gotten up to.  Did he approach some kid sexually?  Say or do something to suggest he might?  What exactly happened here, pastor?

Instead, the pastor then launches into a lengthy complaint about how all the good deeds of the church have gone unnoticed.

Wait, pastor, I want to say.  Are you really saying, “Why does the world look only at the bad things we do?   Why don’t they look at the good things we do?”  Don’t you realize that going there to make your argument you are in effect admitting there is reason to criticize your actions?

Pastor Brewer starts in on all the good the church has accomplished.   Food bank contributions…  clothing the needy…

By the time he gets to “battling poverty” I’m getting really pissed.  Why are you talking about battling poverty when the topic is casting aspersions on somebody who has worked with the kids in your church the past two years?  Come to think of it, “battling poverty?”  Really?  You’ve actually been “battling” poverty?

The pastor is on a roll.  They collect school supplies, he tells us.  They send mission relief across the planet.  Come on.

When he finally leaves off ticking off the evidence for seeing Crosspoint Church as the center of the moral universe, he finally gets back to the issue at hand.

And here’s where he gets downright sinister.  “Tolerance,” says the pastor, “is supposed to be a two-way street.”   My mind rushes to the Catholic Church’s insistence that we have to tolerate their choice to prevent women from having access to birth control information, as if it was just a conflict of opinion, and not serious harm being inflicted. 

He then brings out what he thinks are the big guns.  “We respect the rights of people to make their own personal choices in these matters.”

In these matters?  What matters?

What choices are we talking about?  The only possible conclusion to draw from this appeal for tolerance – correct me if I'm wrong – is that the Pastor just let the cat out of the bag.  It’s young Colin Brigg’s homosexuality that is the matter.  And we are being asked to tolerate his decision to dismiss a volunteer on the grounds some unspecified people might worry about having him around their children.

The real story here, I’m convinced, is cluelessness.  I am pretty sure if I met this Pastor Brewer he’d be, for all appearances, the really swell guy he obviously sees himself as.  Generous to a fault.  Kindly.  Hard working.  And absolutely clueless about what he has just accomplished in tarnishing the reputation of somebody who has likely done no wrong.

I’ve blogged recently about two recent events involving Christians and their take on gay people , the story of the pope’s urging his flock start paying less attention to the pelvic zone and more attention to folks living in poverty, and the story of “Not All Like That” – that group of Christian folk urging their fellows to stop demonizing LGBT people.”  

I don’t know the whole story behind the dismissal of Colin Briggs.  It could be he’s the bad guy here.  But that remains to be seen and until Pastor Brewer and company show there was something going on to justify Briggs’ dismissal, we are left with what looks for all the world like yet another nasty use of Christian power to demonize gay people.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day”  is the handy cliché to be tossed in here.  Just because the pope says something cool, it doesn’t mean the bishops will take the hint.  And when some people insist they are “not all like that,” we have to remember that many are exactly like that.

The ball is in Pastor Brewer’s court.  Show your hand, Mr. Fine Christian Person Feeding and Clothing the Poor.  You’ve trashed the reputation of what on the surface appears to be a decent young man and made him look like a threat to children.  Nice going, fellah.

How many Christians do you represent, Pastor Brewer?  

And what manner of Christians?

Picture credit

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Habemus Licentiam

Let’s hear it for Alameda County.

Getting married, it would appear, is not for sissies.  Taku and I decided to tie the knot when it finally became legal again in California.  You may remember we had that right there for a while before some Mormons in Utah and Roman Catholic Archbishop Niederauer in San Francisco got together and organized a misinformation campaign to convince California voters to take that right away.  Too few of the people on the side of marriage rights took these muggers seriously and they actually got Proposition 8 passed, removing our right with an amendment to the state constitution.  Then we had to wait for this mess to go to court. 

You know the story after that.  Another court, and then another court, and finally the Supreme Court decided the folks with the religious reasons for keeping us from getting married did not have the right reasons for us to lose our rights as citizens.

Marriage became legal for same-sex couples in California once more.

So then came all the questions.  Do we really want to do this?  Yes, we decided.  We had already made a life-long commitment to each other and registered as “Domestic Partners.”  Why not go all the way and announce it to the world, get rings, have a party, and start the happily ever after?  As best we could arrange it.

Taku insisted we do the ceremony at San Francisco City Hall.  Why settle for St. Martin the Miserable when you can do it at St. Peter’s was his reasoning.  Never mind that every gay couple west of the Mississippi was thinking along the same lines.  We’ll just hop across the new Bay Bridge we’ve yet to experience and get ourselves officialized.

Not so fast.  You need to go online and register for a wedding date weeks in advance. 

We had decided to wait till Amy got back from Pakistan in October (and then we could do it on my parents’ anniversary) so I paid my fees (up to $75 now) and signed up, date and time.  The marriage license was a separate thing, and I had seen two other couples walk in off the street and get one in five minutes, so I gave that no further thought.

Just to allow plenty of time, though, Taku and I went to City Hall yesterday to pick it up. 

Brick wall. 

I’m sorry, sir, but you need an appointment to get a marriage license.

What?  There is nothing that suggests that on your website.

“The first date we have available is November 11th.”

“November 11th?  We’re getting married on October 11th!”

“I’m sorry sir.  Perhaps you can get a license in another county where they have walk-ins.”

Which county would that be?

All of them.  Only San Francisco requires you wait six weeks to get an appointment to get a marriage license – after which you can marry in a back alley with a Universal Life licensed friend, if you choose.

I see, I said.  The gods are reminding us this is serious business and we are not to take it lightly.

So this morning we drive down to the Alameda County Registrar’s Office in downtown Oakland, where my friends Jerry and Karl got married a couple years ago.   We walk in and are told we need to find a computer and fill out a form.  I tell the guy we already have the form filled in – I got one online, to save some time.  Taku had taken time off work yesterday and was taking more time off work this morning.

Still need to do the form on the computer, he tells us.

We are ushered into the computer room where the three women working there are talking about hamburgers.  One tells the others “I like hamburgers but they don’t like me,” as she ushers us to the computer where we are told to fill in the form.  The MC in my name must be a capital, because the machine is set to do caps only.  And there has to be a space between MC and the second C, because I’m using my passport as identification and that’s the way my name is given on my passport.

We sail right over that hurdle. 

Mother’s full name at birth.  I struggle for a minute.  Do I use the German spelling?  Do I use the name she used all her life, including on her naturalization papers and her passport and her death certificate, Clara Louise?  Or do I use the name I discovered was on her actual birth certificate
which my cousin Daniela dug up last February – Klara Bertha?  I decide to go with the English version – Clara Louise – she never used the Bertha.  I do wonder, though, if our marriage is going to be invalidated if they ever discover that on her original birth records in Celle in 1915 it’s listed as Klara Bertha.  No mention of Louise.  I decide to go with the name she went by and if anybody wants to haul me into court and tear our marriage apart on technical grounds, our twenty years together will probably ride it out.

Next problem is where I am to list the state of her birth.  The form allows only for birth within the United States.  I ask for help.  “Leave it blank,” the hamburger lady tells us.  She and her friends are now onto the topic of pantyhose.

Taku, too, leaves a couple of blanks, since neither his mother nor his father were born in Alaska, Hawaii or the lower 48.

We get the number we are to enter on our application form and take it to the clerk. 

“Sorry,” she says.  “This form is only for the County of San Francisco.”  We have to go back and do another one, this time the County of Alameda application form.  So much for preparing in advance.

Please check the box to indicate whether you are “bride,” “groom,” or “neither.”

I thank the gods and the U.S. Supreme Court for the “neither” box, which we both check.

“This is a copy of your souvenir Marriage Certificate.  You will have to have the person solemnizing the marriage fill it out and then you can frame it and keep it.  The original marriage certificate should be sent to us in the enclosed envelope.”  Here is a booklet for you to keep entitled, “Your Future Together.”

“Your Future Together” is filled with useful information.  In case one of us gets violent, the other is to phone the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.

I’m impressed.  The state is looking out for us and what’s wrong with that?

There is also information about choosing a birth control method, lots of HIV/AIDS information as well as what to do to prevent giving our babies herpes, syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, flu, rubella, chickenpox, whooping cough, cytomegalovirus, listeriosis, toxoplasmosis.  It also tells us:

If you have a cat:

  • Have someone else change the cat litter box daily.
  • Don't feed raw or rare meat to your cat.
If we would like more copies of this booklet, we can get them by calling 510 412-1542.

“Ninety-six dollars please.  Check or debit card.  Credit cards are not accepted.”

I pay by debit card.  The nice lady and the lady in the next cubicle next to her, who is not working with anybody at the moment, stand up and congratulate us. 

San Francisco was not exactly rude, but the cold realization that I did not know to ask the right questions left me with a sense that somebody was throwing tacks in the path to marital bliss.  Alameda County, despite the hamburger/pantyhose distraction, turned out to be a total turn-around.  A clerk with a friendly smile can really make your day.  Two of them can make your whole week.

Wedding ceremony, here we come!

Friday, September 20, 2013

The world lies in between

I’m slowly making my way through books by and about Hannah Arendt, since that fascinating biopic on her came out recently.   Possibly it’s because the film was focused on the Eichmann trial, but I am quite taken by her insight into the nature of good and evil.  She made a lot of enemies when people misunderstood her to say Eichmann wasn’t a monster, but just an ordinary Joe.  They were looking for a way to keep an awareness of the Holocaust alive and thought having a monster like Eichmann would do the job.  She didn’t really argue he wasn’t a monster; she merely suggested we were looking for evil in all the wrong places.  Evil, she said, stems not from violence so much as it does from thoughtlessness.  And by that she meant not careless thinking, but lack of thinking.

Eichmann was able to do evil things because he didn’t think for himself.  He was the ideal Nazi follower.  His strength and his pride were in his own ability to follow orders.  Once he had found the perfect authority figure in the Führer, his work was done.  From then on, all that was required of him was to do what he was told.

Arendt had formed her notions of good and evil from a lifetime dealing with the problem of totalitarianism, first directly, in the flesh, then the rest of her life philosophically.  She was a Jew who left Germany when the Nazis took over in 1933, and she devoted much of her life thereafter to the contemplation of evil.   Before her coverage of the Eichmann trial in Eichmann in Jerusalem, which made her famous, she had already decided that real evil is perpetrated by enablers, those who go along with the crowd, become part of mass opinion, seek out authority figures to follow uncritically.

Her embrace of critical thinking began long before her study of twentieth-century authoritarianism, but the advent of Hitler and Stalin and the vision of the mindless crowds surrounding them in adulation could only confirm the importance of open-ended thinking.

A study of semantics will reveal just how arbitrary is meaning.  Postmodern philosophy goes further.  It suggests that not only is meaning negotiated constantly anew, but so is truth itself.  Or at least our understanding of it.  What this means in ordinary language is that what matters is not the so-called eternal truths, but how we live in society, matching our own personal experience against the experience of others to establish what is good and what is meaningful.

To authoritarians, this is anathema.  To religious authoritarians, it is heresy.  Truth must be eternal and unchanging.  This struggle, between conservatives who would foreground the constants and background the trivial (for what else would we call something that is not eternal?), and those who would see the essence of life in the flow of life, is one of the great philosophical issues of all time.   What can we count on?  Is life to be lived moving from whim to whim?

To non-authoritarians, change is the very nature of life.  One never steps into the same stream twice, say the Buddhists.  One lives not in the night; one lives in the time “becoming day.”   One lives in the hope things will get better.  And one knows from experience that with new knowledge, new perspectives, new insight, it actually often does.

Arendt once had this to say about how to view the world and the people in it:  “The world and the people who inhabit it,” she said, “are not the same.”  “The world lies in between people.”  Although Arendt was referring to feeling at home in the world again after years of alienation, I take her declaration that the world lies between people to mean that it moves forward in everyday human interactions.   What matters is not so much the status of birth, or wealth, or accidents of nature, or any of the other externals that we credit or blame for the human condition, but what we do with these givens and events.  Life is what we make it, and reality changes as human interactions make new experiences.  With each new experience we have more to go on in making wiser choices than before.

Another way to say the world lies “in between people” is to say that meaning is constantly negotiated anew, and this implies there is no meaning without constant movement, constant questioning of assumed truths, and revisiting of the values we live by.  Without such openness, we would never have gone from being a slave-holding society to where we are now.  We are still trying to remove the scars of slavery and segregation, but slavery to virtually all Americans today is unthinkable.  We would not have decided it is inappropriate to tie seven-year-olds to machines in factories rather than give them a basic education.  Or that our understanding of race was arbitrary and unscientific and there was no justification to forbidding people of different races to marry.  We routinely look back at our history and wonder at the folly we once took for truth and common sense.  Without this openness, past wrongs can never be put right.

These thoughts flooded in the other day when I read the stunning news that the pope had made a move that I suspect will change the world.   Or at least a good segment of the human population which still looks to the Roman Catholic Church for answers and those affected by their decisions.  Ever since attempts to open the church under Pope John XXIII in Vatican II, succeeding popes have been trying to move the church back to where it was when the pope lost control of the Papal States and compensated by claiming sole infallible authority over the minds of the faithful.   The Roman Catholic Church in recent years has been notorious for its embrace of tradition, the old ways such as a return to the Latin Mass, the idea that the pope speaks through the bishops and priests for God and the prime duty of a catholic is obedience.

While the clerical arteries were hardening within, those in the Church in touch with the world outside have recognized the damage done to the institution by its authoritarian patriarchy.   These “folks in the pews” have gone along, as most people have, with the progress of human rights outside its walls, where women are increasingly finding a voice and substituting sexual equality for patriarchal domination, where lesbians and gays are finding dignity and social approval, where Catholic priests working with the poor in Latin America are demonstrating that followers of Jesus can be primarily about compassion and not power, authority, and self-interest.  For the majority of Roman Catholics, both those leaving the institution in droves and those working with extraordinary patience within, having to watch the hierarchy attending banquets with the power structure, joining forces with dictators – and more recently with right-wing Republicans known for taking away food stamps to enable tax benefits for the rich – has been a heavy burden.

Now, in one fell swoop, Pope Francis seems to have lifted the burden from their shoulders by declaring the moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.  “We have to find a new balance,” he said, and by that he meant it is time to give up the preoccupation with abortion, homosexuality and birth control, and look at the more essential Christian doctrines stressing love and compassion.  “This church…” Francis declared, making a sharp contrast with his predecessor who once suggested he’d be perfectly happy with the church shrinking down to a smaller group of true believers, “is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.”  

It’s important to note in passing that the pope has not made any sudden changes in doctrine.  He has not come to embrace abortion, homosexuality or birth control.  He has only criticized the church’s preoccupation – not with adultery, or greed, or deception or gluttony or any the many other sins out there worthy of condemnation, but – with issues of sex, including birth control and abortion.  His criticism has been leveled at what one person has aptly called a “pelvic zone orthodoxy.”  The sins in question still stand.

In so doing, he is inviting all within the church, gays, women, priests sanctioned for their work as Liberation Theologists, to the table.  Just as orthodox rabbis can say to their gay members (or anybody else they consider a sinner), “You’re always welcome at shul,”  Catholics, Francis is suggesting, can keep coming to mass and should expect to be embraced. 

This will be possible, of course, only when the focus is not on the rules, not on the status quo, but on the dialogue.  What has to matter is the on-going nature of human relationships, the exchange of views.  The church, like any other network of human relationships, must live in the spaces in between.  In the language of progressive Christians, one has to stop putting a period where God has put a comma, and God has to be experienced not as a noun (truth, authority, censure), but as a verb.

When you embrace this option of remaining open, you are faced with a constant need to revise as you go along.  You are required to think.  Hannah Arendt saw evil in thoughtlessness.  Having to think doesn’t mean you always reach the right conclusions.  But not thinking takes away your power to stand up to what is wrong.

“Who am I to judge?” Francis said, when asked recently about his stand on homosexuality. 

I take that to mean, “I’m keeping an open mind.”  (I don’t imagine he would give the same answer to “What do you think of rape and murder?”)

He has opened the doors of the church and let in some fresh air.  He has not shed the concept of infallibility, but he has taken the notion from himself and placed it where he thinks it belongs, on the body of believers as a whole.  They will have to work out their differences, in other words.   Don’t wait for me to give you the answers, he is telling them.  Think for yourselves.

There are a lot worse things than a pope who encourages thinking.

If you are interested in the pope’s interview, it’s available here.
And if you are interested in some of the discussion about the impact of the pope’s views, Bill Lindsey’s blog is a good summary and place to start. 

photo credit