Friday, July 31, 2015

Jerusalem is Us

What a world we live in, I keep saying to myself.  I’m getting old and every day brings a new experience that makes me marvel at how the world is not the world I grew up in.  Not better, not worse.  Just different.

I found myself staring just now at the photos from Jerusalem  of the people involved in the stabbing by the fanatic fundamentalist who believed he was doing a good thing by sticking a knife into the bodies of gay people as they marched down the streets of his Holy City.  Maybe as a defense mechanism, so I wouldn’t cry, or so I wouldn’t throw things, I found myself marveling at the high quality of the photos.  Getty Images, it says in the bottom right corner.  Wow, I said.  Somebody took some really good pictures.

This is Jerusalem.  Gay Pride.  Future shock.  Progress.  What progress we’ve seen.

OK, so there is resistance.  Of course there is resistance.  The Abrahamic religions have it in their scriptures that there is something wrong with homosexuality and those who take those scriptures literally have to have this reaction, that in order to remain loyal to their faith they have to disparage gays and lesbians.  “It is written!”  We try to let religion off the hook, but there it is.  “It is written.”  This poor old man with the long scrawny beard, dressed in black from head to toe, this Yishai Shlissel will be dismissed by his own kind for going too far.  Killing is wrong, say the Haredi, Israel’s radical right religious folk.  You don’t kill people.

But Shlissel read the scriptures.  He knows “It is written!”  Seen from afar, this is just another example of social change, progressives looking to extend the rights of folk, conservatives cautioning against rapid change.  It just gets a little rough around the edges, that’s all.
Israel is a place of such ironies, to me.  I have never been there.  Not sure I want to go anymore.  Wouldn’t go for religious reasons, and certainly not for political ones.  But it figures large in the lives of my Jewish friends and I’ve always had an interest.  It was born on my birthday, in 1948.  When Israel celebrates its birthday, I celebrate mine.  Silly little detail, but life is made up of such silly little details.

80% of Israelis are secular, as are most Jews around the world, I’m told.  It was son of Jewish immigrants Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg who uttered that quotable saying, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

Israel illustrated the aptness of that quotation today, just as it did when the ultra-orthodox killer of Yitzak Rabin shot Israel’s hope for the future down and set the possibility of negotiations back who knows how long, possibly decades.  Apparently the country will remain in the grip of religious fanatics for the foreseeable future.  They have control over the right to marry.  They keep this insane occupation of the West Bank and Gaza going.  They are a dangerous force.

I blogged yesterday about the mistake I think we make when we confuse religion with its adherents.  A similar error of cognition is made when we confuse Israel with Jews.  I would hope that gay people, particularly at this time, recognize what an exception Yishai Shlissel is, both to Judaism and to Israel.  Reform Jews in America were one of the first religious organizations to embrace gay people and take them in without condemnation.  Not just tolerate them, but celebrate them.  It would be a tragedy to mistake the actions of a fanatic for the whole – even of the Haredi – although they are a very closed-minded bunch when it comes to gay liberation.  Women’s liberation.  Any compromise toward peace in the Middle East, for that matter.  I think it’s important, when events like this attack yesterday in Jerusalem take place, to remind ourselves that the whole consists of very diverse parts, and that generalizations are particularly self-defeating at this point.

You don’t often see a drag queen in tears.  When the drag queen is an old man, who then looks like an old lady, there is a double incongruity.  Drag queens are satirists.  They’re supposed to make you smile.  They poke fun at our arbitrary distinctions of male and female, at the tyranny that gender classification often goes to. You’re not supposed to see them with mascara running down their cheeks.  To see them as tired, worn-out old ladies. You’re not supposed to watch a drag queen mourn. 

But there they are, those photos, chronicling yet another future shock event, the long hard struggle for gay liberation in far off places that turn out to be not so far off at all.   This is one of those times when we come to understand that “they” are “us.”   Good for you, Getty Images.  Good for you internet, that brings us an up-close look at the world beyond our doors.

I wish you a speedy recovery, you guys who got the worst of it. 

Get better, and march again next year.   There’s still more work to do.

A note on the photos:  I have copied and pasted the photos into this blog entry without permission. They all come from a single article in today's Advocate magazine, whose authors I assume had permission to publish them from Getty Images.  If I have overstepped the bounds, I will immediately take them down and urge viewers to go to the original sources instead.  I hope that making it clear that I have no financial gain from passing them on here and that I credit the original sources is sufficient. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Satirizing Religion

I saw this satire on religion on Face Book earlier today, and even though I'd seen it before (it comes in several versions) it felt like a fun way to start the day, so I passed it on to my friends.  What landed in my e-mail inbox were several ha-ha’s from like-minded friends, and one comment which I think is worth giving some thought to.  This friend suggested that the slam against Islam was “in a different vein.” 

What he’s getting at is obvious.  There has been a whole lot of anti-Muslim prejudice expressed lately.  Since 9/11 Muslims have been under attack and saddled with the terrorist label by people who don’t know what they are talking about.  It’s cruel prejudice and very ugly.

But here’s the thing.  The satire in that list on the left is directed at “religion,” and not at “religious people.”  It has always been hard to separate people from their ideas.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.  I think people who actually vote Republican have their heads where the sun don’t shine.  But I would never wish them any harm.  They are so much more than their bad ideas.  And just because you love dogs and children does not mean you’re a saint.  I might enjoy being with you more than with a Republican, but you don’t get a free ride from being decent in other ways, either.

Religion is a portmanteau word.  It is used to mean a set of doctrinal beliefs, an organization of like-minded people, a set of cultural practices, a source of inspiration for art and music, and much much more.  It’s not a word we use with precision.  Even the names of particular religious denominations are overly broad.  If you tell me you’re Catholic, the first question that comes to my mind is, “What kind of Catholic – a Salvatore Cordileone kind of Catholic or a Nancy Shea kind of Catholic?”  Cordileone, the San Francisco Archbishop, would have it that in order to be a good catholic you have to believe that gay people are “inherently disordered” and masturbation is a grave sin.  The second of those claims is just laughable, but the first isn’t so funny. I know kids who killed themselves because they had had inculcated in them the self-loathing that logically follows such claims.  The idea that a person with same-sex desires is inherently anything (other than sexually attracted to the same sex, I mean) is wrong. 

I think the idea that a god can come to you by means of a religious ritual in which you eat his actual body and blood in the form of bread and wine is also wrong.  But it does me no harm.  My friend Nancy left her church when her priest told her she should not vote for a democratic senator because he had not voted correctly on the issue of abortion rights.  But she quickly found another church because, as she told me, “I can’t give up going to mass.  Participating in the Eucharist is the meaning of life for me.”  She’s gone now, but she was a wonderful lady.

Satire is by nature reductionist.  It takes something complex, like religion, and reduces it to one of its salient features.  We do this all the time.  We even have a name for it – synecdoche, letting a part represent the whole.  Gays are called artistic because lots of gay men are in theater and fashion.  Never mind that lots are dentists, accountants and ditch diggers, as well.  (And yes, I think it’s possible for a ditch-digger to be creative.)

Hamed Abdel-Samad is a secular Muslim.  His father is an imam.  Hamed emigrated and now lives in Germany.  His latest book bears the title, Islamic Fascism.  His claim that Islam is inherently, by nature, fascistic has made a big splash in Germany, as you might imagine, given their direct personal encounter with deadly fascism.  But he refuses to back down.  The great age of tolerance that permitted religious people to live in harmony, and made what Muslims claim was a golden era, was accomplished not because of Islam, he says, but despite it.  The Islamic religion stemmed from Mecca and Medina, which never produced anything of grace and beauty, he says.  The glories attributed to the culture of Islam are misplaced.  They came because of political regimes characterized by tolerant rulers, motivated by things other than religion.  His suggestion is that one can admire the cultural accomplishments of a secularized Islam without confusing them with religion.

All this is debatable, of course, and I don’t want to debate it here.  I bring it up only to make the point that there is no justification for holding religion beyond criticism.  I am more inclined, actually, to view it as inherently pernicious.  Many think it is the chief source of morality and that it brings out the best in humankind.  We differ on what it means, that’s all.  Whatever it is, it is not synonymous with the people who buy into it.

I appreciate the impulse my friend had to defend Muslims and propose that the implied criticism of Islam was “not in the same vein,” and I think his point is well taken – the satire on Islam has a meaner touch the satire on Catholicism, Hinduism and the rest.   Perhaps I should have modified the list (I did not invent it; I merely passed it on).  But let me explain why I don’t think that is called for.

I don't think I should be intimidated by the fact that people commonly confuse a religion with the people who adhere to it.  They do those people an injustice by reducing them to some of their half-baked ideas.  I'm with those who think of religion primarily as a force for bringing out prejudice, clannishness, silliness and all manner of folly.  Yes, there are decent Muslims, maybe even 99% of them, just as maybe 99% of the adherents of any religion are decent folk.  But decent folk use religion despite its perniciousness, in my view.  It is usually not religion that makes them decent.  It is the love of caring parents and teachers that makes them decent, and possibly their own good human nature.  If they use religion to help that decency along, they do it only by cherry-picking the elements of their religion that match their inclination toward kindness and generosity and tossing the rest of it on the trash pile.

I feel under no obligation to respect a belief in angels and demons and holy spirits, any more than I should respect the belief that trolls live under bridges.  It’s people who deserve my respect.  Not the figments of their imaginations.  The right of human beings to dignity and equity is absolute, in my book.  Religious notions, on the other hand, are subject to analysis, and if they enhance the well-being of our lives in the here and now, help us foster community and lead to justice and fair play, they should be praised.  If they do the opposite, they should be subjected to ridicule and dismissal.

Islam produces great poetry, love of one's neighbor, and some say it has inspired amazing art and architecture.  I'm with Hamed Abdel-Samad in thinking they give it credit that actually belongs elsewhere, but that’s a topic for another time.  I’m willing to allow that Islam has a positive side to it.  It also has produced madmen by the thousands.  I get to satirize it.

Christianity, in that satire, was reduced to "Send money."  That ain't nice, either.  Wasn't meant to be.

We need to keep the distinctions.  Jews pray to a god who advocates bashing the heads of the children of their enemies against a rock. Screw that guy.  Screw that notion.  Most Jews have also learned to white that part of their scripture out and focus on community building instead.  And justice and fair play and decency in their interaction with others.  The religion in and of itself is not what counts; it’s what its adherents have done with it.  I should love a religion that celebrates the drowning of all those young Egyptian boys God lured into the Red Sea in pursuit of the Hebrews and then closed the waters on them?  Did their mothers not ache over their loss?

I should “respect” the stories people make up about how their God loves them better than their enemies?  This is 2015.  I respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Time to put tribalism to bed as a pernicious notion.

As I write this, the news comes in that an ultra-orthodox Jew has stabbed six people in Jerusalem at a Gay Pride March.  That’s the power of gay people to regain dignity on one side, the power of religion to generate fear and loathing on the other.  I’ll take the people any day.

Up with Catholics who feel a connection with their God through the Eucharist.  Down with a Catholicism that generates an erotophobic misogynistic deity who visits the sins of a man upon his children for seven generations.

Up with Muslims who love and care for each other and sacrifice so that their children can have a better life than they did.  Down with an Islam that urges death to those who leave the faith.

Up with Baptists who become great dancers.

The satirical poster "Religions of the world" was copied from a blog from the Philippines.  I have never met its author, Laon Laan, and I have no way of knowing if he shares any of the ideas expressed here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Hillary just because

Just wrote a letter to one of my extended chosen family nieces.

She's the older sister in the photo.

Doesn't look like that anymore, now that she is potentially grandmother material.

She lives in the Bible Belt, bless her heart and soul, yet votes Democratic and has written a book on why she left the church.  Lots of strength of character here.

Thought I'd share.


I’ve been following Face Book lately, and I noted your frustration when dealing with somebody down on Hillary Clinton.  You are a loyal and engaged Democrat and I share your sense of concern that the country could be thrown back again into the clutches of the Republicans.  An unmitigated disaster, in my view, given that Ruth Bader Ginsberg is likely to retire during the next administration and appointing yet another of the ilk of Scalia, Roberts, Alito or Thomas to the Supreme Court would mess us up even worse than we are now, with Citizens United and all power going to those who support the wealthy ruling class and corporate America over the rest of us.  I think you are right to worry Hillary might not get elected, assuming she is the only real person who might make it to the White House on the Democratic ticket.

I’m watching Bernie Sanders with fascination.  I can’t believe he’s doing so well.  What’s going on, and I think this is obvious, is that the left has been left out for so long that they can’t help but get a little optimism back, now with his candidacy, that the country might actually be able to correct its course.  And he speaks to the left in a way Hillary can’t.  She clearly represents the established middle.  (And from where I sit the “middle” is center-right, compared to the rest of the world’s democracies.)  She represents the wealthy.  Those who bailed out the too-big-to-fail banks and put a band-aid on rapacious corporate America, instead of fixing things.  We have not had anybody around who could actually fix things.  Ralph Nader was never somebody who could appeal to large numbers of people.  Bernie Sanders is much better, because he walks and talks like a politician and makes people think he might know how to work the system, if elected, unlike Nader.

I listened to an interesting interview with Cornel West recently in which he expressed the worry that in the end Bernie Sanders might throw his weight behind Hillary, instead of holding out to the bitter end for the interests of marginalized Americans.  That’s kind of where I am.  I’m not sure Bernie Sanders is a wunderkind or a savior.  I’m too convinced the system cannot be adequately dealt with by any single individual, that the only way America can right itself is for people to recognize how really bad off we are, how much we have surrendered to the imperialists among us, to the liars, the propaganda machines, those who defend torture and the hypocrites who run the show, both Democrats and Republicans.  Without a revolution in thinking, a revolt of people fed up who don’t want to take the lies anymore, I doubt any individual in the White House could make a difference. 

I will vote for Hillary, if she gets nominated.  I will vote for Bernie Sanders with much greater enthusiasm, if he gets nominated.  I will vote for the two of them if they share the ticket.  I will vote for Mickey Mouse, provided he’s the candidate on the Democratic ticket against God, if God runs for president on the Republican ticket.  I don’t want another conservative on the Supreme Court.

People say those of us on the left are making a mistake running “against” Republicans, instead of “for” a clearly articulated program of progressive goals.  I agree that this isn’t the best way to go, but it’s the cards we have to play with at the moment.  Any democrat is likely to be better than any republican.  That’s overstated, but essentially how I feel.

If I were king of the world, I would get more people to listen to Noam Chomsky.  I know he drones on endlessly and refuses to engage in debate and discussion, preferring to see himself as the only one around who really understands things.  But he’s so good at pointing out the history that gets hidden, the facts that we should have on hand for making decisions.  I think if we listened more to people like Chomsky and Cornel West we’d begin to see Bernie Sanders for what he is, a reasonable man, and not a crackpot socialist.  We don’t get enough perspective.  We get people in the media who point our heads toward the centrists posing as progressives, those who make the fallacious argument that the truth always lies in the middle, rather than pointing out that when you are arguing with somebody who makes up his own facts, you’re arguing with a liar and the debate is rigged.  If we had a more knowledgeable citizenry, we would know more about what Chomsky and West are all about – never mind how much we may find their takes unbalanced at times.  We'd see the line between Bernie Sanders as a fair-minded man and Hillary Clinton as a tool of Wall Street.

I repeat, I will vote for the tool of Wall Street, because I still believe not to vote is a sign of incoherent thinking, of throwing the baby to the wolves instead of making them tear it out of your hands.

I hope you can make a case for voting for Hillary.  It’s not the least of all evils in my view.  But it’s practical.  We have to be practical.  We have to work with the doable.

I wish you success.  And you know I’ve always thought you must be some kind of hero for enduring life in the Bible Belt, in any case, so please know that my admiration continues.



Monday, July 27, 2015

Rolling through time

The McCornick-Gundelach wedding, October 1938
I’ve finally finished going through several boxes of old photos, some of which I’ve schlepped around with me for fifty years.  Don’t know how I managed to hang onto them, since I went through several periods when I thought the best thing I could do was to simplify my life and shed all unnecessary accoutrements.  Like old memories.

It took me four days.  Three of those we had no dining table to eat on, because the photos were spread into fifty categories.  The drive across the country with “the good little boy” and “the bad little boy,” two students of mine whom I allowed to talk me into taking them with me.  Big mistake.  Pictures of students in Japan from the 1970s whose names I couldn’t recall on a bet but whose faces still bring a smile to my lips. And loads of family photos.  Loads of “before” (when our hearts were young and gay) and “after” (when our hearts were still gay, but what happened to the hair and is my belly really that big?).

My mother died young.  She had a heart attack at 60, in 1975, and died three days later because we were people who didn’t go to the doctor.  Take an aspirin.  You’ll be fine in the morning.  My father lived on until 2001, and I remember writing at the time he died that I was not going to mourn just yet, that there would be time, once his passing had sunk in.

Being able to see the course of one’s life laid out in photographs across the dining table gives you a sense not only of time but of connectedness.  I never mourned that much, but I did develop over time a much stronger awareness of what a good man my father was and how glad I am that we are connected.  I come from a particular place.  I have an inherited set of identities.  I can now go back in time and see how those identities were formed, point by point, or I can stand back and wonder at the trajectory, and the realization that those of us in these photos saw none of it coming and that it’s hard not to see life as one long drawn-out curious accident.  Not train wreck accident, although there were some difficult moments, but accidental chain of events in that they all now seem so terribly arbitrary.

Nova Scotia, Summer 1947
I wonder if people living in the digital age, people who don’t take photos and stuff them in cardboard boxes, aren't missing out on something. Will you pull out a digital photo a half century from now and take note of the little things?  I mentioned earlier that I was fascinated by the fact that in a photo from the first of many many summers we spent with my father's Aunt Carrie and Uncle Charlie (pictured) in Nova Scotia, my father had his arm around me.  I lived with the notion that my father was not one for affection.  But there it is.  His hand on my arm.

Then there is the announcement in the Torrington Register in October of 1938 about a young lady named Clara Louise Gundelach, who was employed “at the Standard Plant,” i.e., that she was a factory worker.  She was marrying a young man named John Stanley McCornick, who was employed as a clerk at Mubarek’s Grocery Store.  They were 23 and 22 years old, respectively.  Working class kids.  And yet, there’s my mother in a white satin gown complete with veil and long train, carrying a bouquet of white snapdragons.  The wedding was obviously a big deal, and the newspaper printed the names of all the guests who motored down from Massachusetts and up from Hartford.  Hartford is 28 miles away.  Belmont and Malden and Stoneham and North Quincy, Mass, are all of two hours’ drive.

And Walter O. Stoeckert played the organ.  Even the organist is mentioned, complete with middle initial.  The bridesmaid will also carry snapdragons, but she will be wearing ruby red satin and a silver turban on her head.  She would later marry the best man, my father’s older brother and I would come to know them as Uncle Tom and Aunt Elizabeth.  All these people are long gone, of course.  But I can see them in the church on that splendid red carpet.  And at the reception afterwards at the Germania Singing Society Hall, which the bride’s father (Vati) managed and where I used to have to sit in a chair and be quiet as the bride’s mother (Mutti) mopped the floors.  To this day, I can feel the rage filling my face and my lungs at having to sit and be quiet when I wanted to run free.  None of this is in the announcement, of course, because it would all come four or five years later, long after my mother and father left for their wedding trip through New England, she in a “fall outfit of brown with rust accessories.”

I was born two years later, and we still called St. Paul’s Lutheran Church the “German” church, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised the wedding announcement identifies it as “St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church.”  After all, the town of some 25,000 souls had a Finnish and a Swedish Lutheran church as well.  And an Italian Catholic and an Irish Catholic and I don't know where the Poles and the French Canadians went.  Oh, and a Lebanese Maronite Catholic church, still running strong today.  The Lutherans combined and lost their old world identity over the years.  The Catholic churches, I think, still hold onto theirs.

Grossmutter, my mother’s birth mother, is not mentioned in the announcement.  I can only wonder what she was experiencing. And where she sat. She had given my mother up because, as a single mother in the middle of a war in 1915, she decided her sister and brother-in-law, people everybody called “Mutti” and “Vati” could do a better job of it.  Grossmutter went and got a job as a stewardess on the Hamburg-Amerika Line and only saw my mother again twelve years later when she jumped ship in New York and came to Connecticut and reclaimed her.  But I see from this wedding announcement that my mother still had the Gundelach name (Vati’s name) when she married and it was apparently Vati who gave her away.  Who else?  He was, in fact, her adoptive father.

What they all made of this emotionally was never passed on to me.  I saw only harmony all around.  They were all remarkably close, and perhaps they did manage to put aside the pangs of regret and the misgivings that must have plagued them.  Or am I just projecting from a point in the future when we no longer feel constrained to sit on our feelings?

Kurt and Willi Schultheis
I tracked down the ship that brought the Gundelachs, Mutti, Vati and their son Paul, to America in 1928.  I never would have found them because in the Mormon records in Salt Lake City somebody had copied their name off the ship's manifest wrong.  They hit the "s" key next to the "a" key and typed in "Gundelsch."   It was by pure chance I was able to find them.  “What if my mother was still traveling under her birth name?” I asked, after exhausting all other possibilities.  And she was.  There is was, big and bold, Clara Schultheis, travelling with Paul and Johanne Gundelach.  She was not officially their daughter, in other words, but their niece.  The adoption must have taken place in America.  But when?  Without my grandmother’s permission?  I thought I had answered all these questions, but just looking at this wedding announcement, I realize there are many more.

Like why, for example, did my grandmother have photographs of my Uncle Willi and my Uncle Kurt, whom my mother never knew, two sons my mother’s birth father had from a second wife.  Did they stay in contact?  They must have.  My grandmother insisted I meet Willi when I was a student in Munich, in 1960.

Here’s Kurt and Willi, in their German uniforms in World War II.  I kept this photo hidden when I applied for the Army Security Agency two years later.  Even then it was touch and go, since any German connection at all was still suspicious.  One look at those uniforms, and I would never have made it to Berlin to spy on the Russians - and later the East Germans.

Here’s another photo of my mother and father and my sister Karen, who came five years after me, and me, taken at Mutti’s house, where I failed to pat my hair down in time for the photo.  I love the fact that nobody thought to throw this photo away.  In it went, with all the others, chronicling the march of time.  And here's one of me with Karen and her husband Joe, and my father, in the last year of his life, no longer looking all that chipper.  We don’t always march with time.  Sometimes we have to roll through it in a chair.

I found the photo I was looking for – of an old friend from college days I managed to locate on Face Book after fifty-four years.  And the rest of my photos got organized in the process.  Four days out of my life.

But four of the best days I’ve spent in ages.