Tuesday, February 28, 2017

When We Rise - the first two hours

from left: Bruce Cohen, producer of Milk; Roma Guy;
Ken Jones, Cleve Jones, Dustin Lance Black
What a blessed two hours.  The first two hours of the ABC Series When We Rise, I mean.  Cleve Jones’s book by the same name elaborated into an eight-hour TV series on the history of the gay liberation movement, at least the San Francisco contribution to it.

I am commandeering the word “blessed” from the evangelicals because it felt to me like a gift from the gods, despite the abominable commercials every six minutes or so.  To sit here and watch history unfold.  My history.  I wasn’t on the front lines, didn’t know Cleve Jones or Anne Kronenberg or Del Martin or Harvey Milk personally, although I’ve seen them at plenty of public events.  (And sat behind Anne K. on the streetcar as extras in the movie Milk, I just can't help boasting.)  But I’ll never forget the thrill of Harvey’s election or the agony of his assassination.  I was in Santa Cruz when the verdict came down that Dan White had gotten off after killing Harvey and went insane with rage.  I know if I had been in the city at the time I would have been in the crowd smashing windows at City Hall.

I came to San Francisco to live in 1965 and I know what it was to live in the closet, sneaking into gay bars hoping nobody would see me from my daytime life, sharing stories with friends who had been clubbed by policemen simply because they had not managed to get away when the bars were raided.  The whole trajectory from those days when my being gay made me suicidal to the day three years ago when a bunch of predominantly straight friends put on a wedding dinner for me and Taku, my life-partner, that’s all mine, and that of of my gay and lesbian friends. Watching it unfold on television last night was a blessed, blessed event.

Three more evenings to look forward to.

What a service Dustin Lance Black has done for the LGBT world.  First, the film Milk, for which he won an academy award in 2008, and now this.  And in-between that amazing play called 8, a staged reenactment of the Proposition 8 trial, when the court overturned that hateful anti-gay referendum on constitutional grounds.

The man's got his head on right.  He has been unafraid of showing racism in the world of gay white men.  And he knows the importance of setting the LGBT struggle in the context of rights for women and black Americans.  The awareness my partner Taku had when he told me he became a women's studies major in college because there was no gay studies program.  "It's OK," he said.  "It's the same struggle." That was a moment when I realized I had found somebody I could take seriously and would one day marry.

I would say this TV series and the accomplishments it celebrates are a dream come true, except that this exceeds the stuff of dreams.  I never imagined, during all those lonely fearful years, that we would one day be understood, and promoted, and welcomed, and loved, by what we call the mainstream of America.  Not the holdouts, of course.  They’re still there, firmly convinced they know the mind of their homophobic God.  But by and large, at least in the section of the country where I live, I have no fear of physical harm by gay-bashers.  Not that they’re not out there – just look at the recent threats against Jews the past couple of days to see the thugs are still out there – but because the world has come around and let go of a hatred of “the other” that once was a socially acceptable public value, one that could be displayed and carried into action without fear of censure.

Women's Center, San Francisco
The “mainstreaming” of gay history means that I get to see all these familiar character actors I know so well from other places. What a treat to see Rachel Griffiths, for example, playing the role of Diane, the wife, eventually, of Roma Guy.  I’ve been a fan of hers since the days of Six Feet Under, where she won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild and Emmy awards for her performance as Brenda Chenowith.  And Brothers and Sisters, that high-quality soap starring Sally Fields, I also got hooked onto.  Then there’s Mary-Louise Parker to look forward to in future episodes, playing Roma Guy, who went on to found the Women's Center in San Francisco.  You can see Roma in action today at the center's website here.

There’s Whoopie Goldberg playing Pat Norman, the first openly gay employee of the San Francisco Health Department.  There’s Rosie O’Donnell playing Del Martin, founder of the country’s first lesbian organization. There’s David Hyde Pierce, from the sitcom Frasier, the neurotic Dr. Niles Crane, Frasier’s younger brother.  He plays Cleve Jones’s father, who leaves his son out in the cold after Cleve comes out to him.  I love it that Pierce, whose Niles Crane character was such a clear gay stereotype on Frasier, is himself gay, and participated in the world of illusion that his eccentric marriage problems with wife Meredith were straight people problems.  And that in this series he plays the straight bad guy who represents the countless thousands of fathers who throw their children into the street rather than accept their gay identity.

Have thrown.  That’s the point.  They’re throwing them out less and less these days, one hopes.

AIDS quilt at Washington Monument
I love it that Cleve Jones is getting his due reward.  I felt the impact of his contribution to the world of gay liberation when I went to the March on Washington with gay friends back in October of 1979.  Officially known as the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, there were several life-affirming events I will hold close in my memory forever.  One was the candlelight event at the Lincoln Memorial, where I sat in silence with thousands of gay and lesbian strangers with a feeling of family connection I never knew was possible.  I went back again eight years later for the Second March.  In the interim, support for gay rights had grown to the point this one could be referred to as “The Great March.”  Earlier that year I had caught wind of a project Cleve Jones had started called The Names Project, a memorial quilt made up of hand-sewn memorials to loved ones.  I remember sticking my head in the Market St. office to see dozens of hands pulling needles and thread through cloth panels, channeling grief into what has become a great community effort to make beauty of tragedy.  At the AIDS march on Washington I remember hours spent listening the the names of AIDS victims being read off one by one by their family members and other loved ones, surrounded by the the ever-growing quilt which today is comprised of 48,000 3 by 6 memorial panels, too big now to be displayed in its entirety anymore.

I remember sitting there hypnotized by the endless list of names, recalling the fact that Ronald Reagan had taken four years to even mention the disease, and recognizing that most of the people affected by the devastating loss were straight people.  That feeling came back at the gala event at the Kennedy Center.  Most people hurting in this room are straight people!  This is not about cutting off an infected limb, as I once heard a southern preacher refer to the need for public rejection of LGBT Americans.

Cleve Jones I knew.  But I didn’t know Roma Guy, whom Dustin Lance Black has also brought front and center in this series.

Time to get out the history and brush up.

Time to feel proud.

And grateful.

Will want to see this program again.

Without the commercials next time.

Photo credits: five in front of SF City Hall from the Bay Area Reporter
AIDS quilt at Washington Monument

Women's Center Building, San Francisco

Friday, February 17, 2017

Aaron Swartz - A film review

Aaron Swartz
Am I the last kid on the block to know who Aaron Swartz was?

Aaron Swartz’s story was outside my radar entirely.  I know such names as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, of course, and could even name Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange, but the second and third tiers of computer nerds are largely unfamiliar to me.  I can’t recall now why I ordered Brian Knappenberger’s documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, from Netflix, but I’m very glad I did.

Five stars.  No hesitation.  This is a seriously outdated review – the film came out in 2014 and has has broad distribution and has met with considerable acclaim. But the film has not lost an ounce of its considerable punch in the past three years.  If anything, the story has even more relevance today, as our freedoms seem to be slipping away before our eyes.   It has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 97% and even the negative reviews, if you take a closer look, are essentially positive. It tells the story of a young man who just wanted to make a better world and got eaten alive by the government’s obsessiveness with secrecy, which began as an overreaction to 9/11.

Aaron was upset that private corporations had managed to assume ownershop of things in the public domain.  It’s analogous to the situation with the airwaves.  Originally they were considered public domain.  Today we have to pay billions to organizations who have taken control of them and politicized them entirely. Aaron directed his attention to those agencies, like Elsevier, who have managed to take control of academic research.  Science should be free, he insisted.  Science, after all, is knowledge, and the control of knowledge by money-making organizations is wrong.
But try to get that message across in capitalist America.  Aaron Swartz did.  And it got him killed.  He was under indictment for having stolen ordinary information – not trade secrets, not secret formulas, which corporations were treating as proprietary information, and made it public.  Not because he wanted to make a profit from it.  He simply wanted to make the statement that this information belonged to the world and not a private corporation.  He was facing thirty-five years in prison.  There’s little doubt he would not have survived that.  He was not a saint; in fact, he could be quite self-centered.  But he was, from all reports, an idealistic soul.  An innocent.  Cynics and bullies make their way to the top.  Some even become president.  But the tender souls who show up now and again on this planet can easily get crushed and thrown to the wolves. This is the story of one of them.
If you see parallels with Wikileaks, with Chelsea Manning, and with Edward Snowden and the work of Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras to back him up, that’s because the parallels are there.  Except that the good that has come from Wikileaks, the exposure of government malfeasance, is offset to some degree by the risk to national security.  At least an argument can be made that that’s the case.  With Aaron Swartz, the only harm done is the potential diminishment of corporate profits. 
You might also want to argue that what Aaron did was the equivalent of pirating the work of composers and musicians by making their work available to people without asking them to pay for it.  Or publishing copyrighted material.  Or forwarding news articles without paying the source.
Also arguments worth considering.  But Aaron didn’t abuse the rights of creative people to make a living.  He challenged the right of a corporation who wanted to appropriate information and then sit on it until you paid up.  The film makes clear that from this nerd’s perspective, this was intended as a prank.  To be sure, it had a political message, similar to the one made by folks protesting that the coastline should not be in the hands of private owners.  The film’s internet notables make the case for an open internet.  I simply can’t see any convincing argument for limiting the internet.
What is missing from the film is the prosecuters side of the story.  But they were invited to present their side and chose not to.  What can one say?
The specific charge was that he illegally downloaded five million scholarly texts from the JSTOR database.  He did that.  He was guilty of that.  In the end, JSTOR decided not to prosecute.  But the government went ahead anyway, in order to make an example of him and deter others from trying to inject themselves into the world of profit-making.  None of the material was sensitive, it is worth repeating.  And he earned not a penny for his efforts.
Anyone following the fate of Edward Snowden and the trial of Chelsea Manning, anyone interested in the increasingly harsh treatment of whistleblowers in this country, should see this film by all means.  I’d take that even further and say anyone interested in getting us out of the dark hole we have fallen into should, as well.  It’s a big story, and includes surprising details, such as how MIT’s refusal to step in on Aaron’s behalf illustrates the maxim that all it takes for evil to happen is for good men and women to do nothing.  And a whole host of characters whose unabashed grief tells it all about the impact Aaron had on people and colleagues.  These include Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World-Wide Web, and Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford professor known for his brilliance, for once clerking for Antonin Scalia, and for being an outspoken defender of net neutrality. Watching Lessig cry over the loss of this young life brings home the importance of making sure we get justice back into our justice system.

1 hour and 45 minutes.

Monday, February 13, 2017

How Germany does democracy these days

When Trump won the 2016 election, many of us sat up and asked, “Did anyone get the number of that truck?”  Words came to mind like flummoxed and flabbergasted (to say nothing of shocked and devastated.)  A great moment in history for reminding us of the folly of getting too sure of ourselves.

Great.  We learned our lesson.  Now can we go back to sanity?

Unfortunately not.  We have to live with the consequences of a Trump presidency for what could be years.  And one of those consequences is the endless Monday morning quarterbacking over how it happened.  Chief among these is the claim that we deliberately ignored the signs.  The country had undergone a terrible financial crisis in 2008.  The Obama government bailed out the sons of bitches responsible.  The taxpayer watched it all happen and realized the government was working in tandem with the 1% and we were just going to go on getting screwed over and over again.

So the manipulators of information simplified the message, making government the sole bad guy, and the Republicans were in like Flynn.  They liked to tell you that government was the problem and to get around government we needed to allow the business sector to run things.

Never mind that this only led to continued control by the 1%.  Americans like their explanations in plain language.  No need for facts.  We leave those to the Pied Piper to make up as he goes along. We are into self-indulgence, into entertainment, and we don’t like things that don’t make us happy.  So we manufacture facts to suit us.  Evil in the world?  No problem.  God will answer your prayers.    Afraid of dark-skinned people?  No problem.  We’ll just throw more of them in jail.  Or keep them out, if they’re coming from foreign countries.

Simple-mindedness is the way to go.  Allows time to watch Netflix.

I remember Robert Reich warning, long before we thought Hillary could possibly lose to Trump, that we had made a mistake not taking care of the folks in America who were out of a job because of globalization.  We needed a better safety net, better social protections for people thrown out on unemployment, better retraining for new jobs.  Better social welfare generally.

But we are Americans.  Strong individuals who can take care of ourselves.  Don’t need no damn government handouts.  So we didn’t do anything about the globalization safety net.  We just let the marketplace do its thing.  Got screwed, did you?  Tough.  Sorry.  Shit happens. Unions?  A minimum wage?  Universal education?  What are you, a socialist?

Enter the Pied Piper with an easy explanation and easy solutions.  He’s going to build a wall to keep Mexicans out so they can’t come in and take your jobs.  And you, my fellow Americans – not all of you, obviously, but a critical mass of you, believed that shit.  And were too stupid to realize that Mexicans can fly in as tourists and then just not go back, the way most illegals have always come in.  And the ones crawling through the desert are probably not taking your automobile manufacturing jobs, anyway.  And if you look at the actual statistics, you’d see that Mexicans are going home to Mexico more than they are coming in these days.  And unemployment is at a new low.  And the stock market at a new high.  Just more facts.  We're not into fact; we're into fears.  Don't care that it's robots, not Mexicans.  Can't stop the robots, so let's do what we can and stop the Mexicans.

Reminds me of the battle in 1978 over the Briggs Initiative. Orange County California State Senator John Briggs wanted to prevent gay men from becoming teachers because, Briggs insisted, gay men were child molesters.  Even after Harvey Milk demonstrated that most child molesters were heterosexual, Briggs persisted.  There are too many heterosexuals to go after, he said, so let's go after the gays.

If you don’t read, you don’t know that it’s not foreign labor threatening your jobs; it’s technology.  Robots, not Mexicans.  I think most people know that now.  But Trump's wall idea still resonates with his supporters.  And with all the Republican legislators who obviously know better.

I became a Bernie Sanders supporter early on because he was the one focusing on economic inequality as the real source of American discontent.  I thought he was right about that, and I thought that Hillary was too much part of the rich democratic establishment – Wall Street, for short – to be in a position to fix things.  When Debbie Wasserman Schulz and the New York Times and others put all their support behind Hillary, I went along.  What’s not to love about the idea of having a female president? Sure is time, don’t you think?

We got our priorities all wrong.  We didn’t address the national discontent, and the result is Trump.  We didn’t build the wall high enough to protect against a tsunami, and now we’re going to spend years bewailing the water in the carpets and drapes, the broken furniture, the stains and the smell.  A long, very painful, very tiring clean-up.  No way around it.

Because I feel a responsibility to stay in touch with the world outside my door, I watch the news on a daily basis.  That means a steady barrage of bad news – the roll-back of civil rights, the risk of nuclear war, the Great Lie that is Trump who, instead of cleaning the swamp, is reinfesting it with alligators.  And that means I need to supply myself with a steady diet of Mozart, dog and cat videos, good food and wine, a good long soak in the bathtub as often as possible.  And lots of good writing about all the other things going on in the world.  (I’d like to add diet and exercise, but so far that’s been a total bust.)

*                      *                      *
I try to keep abreast of what's going on in the German political scene.  Partly because, while America has clearly gone off the rails, Germany seems to be, so far, at least, humming along quite nicely, thank you.  One of the benefits of the information age is that I can watch all the political talk shows from German television, as well as news from Germany.  I’m still living out my “history of things that never happened,” the decision I almost took, but didn’t, to emigrate to Germany back in the 60s, before I got distracted by Japan.  For about four decades, I pretty much neglected Germany for Japan.  Now in retirement, I’m balancing the scales.  Japan is fading.  Germany is becoming more central to my life.

It’s not replacing my American identity, but it’s enlightening it.  I am currently struck first with how very similar Germany’s social and political problems are to our own. That’s true for most of Europe as well, of course – I just happen to be focusing on Germany.  And second, I’m struck with how often Germany seems to be getting right what we are getting wrong.  Why, I wonder.  Is it that they have figured out how to do things better?  Or is it that we have lost what we once had?  Complex questions, obviously, and simple generalizations are worthless.  But those questions at least guide the topics I take on these days.

I’m struck with the impact Trump has had on German political life.  It’s front and center, and Germans are all over the issues, asking themselves things like how close they are to a similar breakdown of democracy.  There’s Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Viktor Orban in Hungary.  And the AfD in Germany.  Is Germany at risk of falling to their own Trump-like Pied Piper?

I'm developing some enthusiasm for the new SPD (social democrat) candidate who seems to have half a chance against Merkel in the September election for chancellor.  Martin Schulz, his name is. Sort of like electing "Marty Jones" for president.  Despite the "socialist" name, in Germany, they are actually a centrist party.

Then there's the new president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.  Also a socialist.  Not sure whether his election today will get in the way of Schulz's candidacy for chancellor in September.  Hope not. 

The socialists have been in coalition with the conservatives, Merkel's party - which is actually two parties in one, the Christian Democrats in the country at large and its sister party the Christian Socialists in Bavaria.  They are referred together as "The Union" and are center-right.

Mirroring them on the center-left are the Greens, and the SPD.

Then there is a party called simply "The Left," which kind of fills the slot where the former East German Communist Party used to be (and don't say that too loudly or you'll piss a lot of people off).  

Then there are several right-of-center to far-right parties, all of which are making people nervous these days, especially the "Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party," The AfD’s main shtick is opposition to immigration, but they throw in a little homophobia and other conservative issues as well.

What's amazing to watch, and what makes me admire the German system so much and prefer it to our two-party system, is that while they yell and scream at each other sometimes, they all seem to get together when it counts.  Coalitions form, come apart, others form.  All adjusting to the times.  

Anna Will had Martin Schulz on her program for the whole hour a couple weeks ago.  During the interview, she confronted him with one of his constituents who had once voted SPD but now felt politicians had all let her down.  It was a set-up no politician would ever want to be subjected to.  He pulled it off with great grace, however.  Not sure whether he persuaded the voter, but he gave it all he had.  Persuaded me.

As miserable as it must have been for him, it's the very image of what one wants to see happen in a democracy.  The Democrats in the U.S. are being held responsible for Trump.  The socialists in Germany, who joined in a coalition with the conservatives, have also lost most of their support for that reason and are now trying desperately to get it back.  Let us run the show, instead of being a minority party tied to the Unions, Schulz argues, and you will see.  Why should I believe you lying politicians, asks his constituent.  Maybe if the democrats would go back to being democrats, start looking out for the little guy again instead of being just another money-chasing party.  Maybe if the socialists would be the socialists they were of yesteryear, the party of Willi Brandt, etc. etc.  Amazing the parallels here.

If you want to read up on German politics, there are much better sources than me.  But I have brought in this much detail to provide some context for what German politicians are saying about America these days and at how well they are getting to the real issues we seem to skim over.  And that includes commentary on what has been going on in the U.S.  Leading politicians are saying (to me) amazing things.  Let me give you some examples.

Here are bits (translation mine) from Martin Schulz’s very passionate acceptance speech before the SPD when he accepts the challenge to run for Chancellor in September:

(about the nationalist tendency of right-wing parties):

the party of Marie Le Pen, which the AfD identifies so closely with, translates to “National Front.”  We here in Germany have had a party with an aggressive nationalism before.  We experienced it in the first half of the 20th Century. [This party] is no “alternative” for Germany.  It is, rather, a shame on the Federal Republic.

(about Trump and his politics):

We will never surrender our values, our freedom and our democracy, our rule of law and our pluralism, no matter what challenges we face.  I say that in full knowledge of the fact that a U.S. President wants to build walls, thinks out loud about torture, directs dangerous attacks on women, religious groups, minorities, people with handicaps, artists and intellectuals without shame.  That is unacceptable.  I am sure that European politicians will now, when they travel to Washington, explain to the U.S. government that international human rights and the rights of nations apply to Donald Trump as well.  I’m sure of that.

And here are bits from Steinmeier’s acceptance speech after being elected Germany’s twelfth president since the end of World War II.

A brief aside... Worth mentioning is the fact that in the European political systems, nation and government are represented by two different figures, whether that’s the Queen and the Prime Minister in the U.K., or the president and the chancellor in Germany, respectively – and it’s similar in virtually all countries with a parliamentary system.  That enables them to put all their efforts into assuring the national leader will be person of universal respect, while the political leader is expected to get his or her hands dirty.  Schulz, once a small town mayor, later head of the European Parliament, was once an alcoholic.  He never got his Abitur.  He's not a "top drawer" type but he's drawing admiration from the voters for that very reason, a self-made man of the provinces with a bunch of kids.  At the same time, Steinmeier, also a socialist, has become the national symbol.  He will now represent the nation, and the praise (most of it sincere, as far as I can determine) is coming in from all directions.  You see the current Chancellor coming in with a bouquet of flowers, even though her chief rivals in September will be those very socialists who were (and still are, at the moment) her coalition partners. It appears Germany has worked out how government should be run. Contrast that with the American way of putting those two jobs, government leader and national leader, in the same person.  Look what that has led to.  People wanted a dirty fighter who could smash the establishment as a political leader. What we got is a symbol of the nation who humiliates it on a daily basis, with his lies, with his demonstration that he was working for the 1% all along, with his out-of-control ego and his instinct for nepotism.  The shame never seems to end.

I’m not kidding when I say I prefer the parliamentary system. We might have kept our dignity as a nation by electing an Obama or a Jimmy Carter to represent that nation. And allowed a Trump to have a go at running the government.  Until he revealed his true intentions.  Then we could have had a vote of no confidence and bounced him out. Instead we are stuck with a tyrant for at least four years.

Anyway, the bits:

Steinmeier began with the story of an encounter with a woman in Tunisia who said to him, once, “You give me courage.”  The woman was not referring to him personally, he said, but to Germany as a whole.  And not because Germany was a perfect place, but because it was a place that has shown that one can rise from misery and become a source of hope to the world.

·      …and when this foundation becomes shaky elsewhere, all the more must we stand by this foundation
·      we must distinguish fact from lies
·      nowhere in the world is there more opportunity than here…
·      and who is going to do it, if not us…

Remember when Americans talked like that?

I hope it's clear that I'm not trying to paint a black-and-white picture here of a lousy America and a spiffy Germany. It's not that America is bad and Germany is good.  It's not even that the German political scene is better than the American political scene - that's true, I believe, for the moment, but things change.  The only certainty is that things change.

What I am saying is that "America First" is an absolutely deplorable slogan to go by, and maybe the best evidence that American democracy has gone off track.  Democracy is not a competition.  It is - or should be - a universal cooperative effort.  Of course, we should work to make things better where we live.  But we don't live on an island, and we don't have to assume a zero-sum game.  We can watch other winners, and applaud them when they do well. And try to learn from their example.

Germany is, I think, a good example.  I can think of lots of others - Canada, Australia, Holland and the Scandinavian countries come first to mind, but there are others, as well. Japan's bopping along. Look at how far Taiwan has come.  New Zealand, of course.  South Africa shed apartheid. Most people think Costa Rica's pretty nifty.  Lots of places have people who can be proud of their countries, imperfections notwithstanding.

I am just partial to Germany, when it comes to good examples.

And not just because among all the many candidates for chancellor at Steinmeier's inauguration is Olivia Jones, né Oliver Knobel.

That's her, in the picture at the top, with her arm around Chancellor Angela Merkel.  To Angela Merkel's left is the head of the Green Party, one of them, Katrin Göring-Eckhard.  And just to round out the picture, that's Joachim Löw, the chief coach of Germany's World Cup winning soccer team, on the left.

And here she is again, sitting among the delegates to the presidential election convention, of which she was a member.

And one final time, congratulating President Frank-Walter Steinmeier personally:

photo credit: Olivia Jones photos (all three)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

On reading Andrew Sullivan's latest blog

It was a sad day for me when Andrew Sullivan decided to shut down his blog, The Dish, about a year ago and retire.  I was a regular reader and I have missed it.  So I’m delighted to find he’s back at it with at least an occasional commentary.  His latest, which appeared the other day in New York magazine, has a short review of Martin Scorsese’s latest movie, Silence, and some thoughts on the tragedy that is Trump.

I have been a fan of Sullivan since reading “A Conservative Case,” a conservative’s argument in favor of same-sex marriage, which he made in 1995.  He was still a Thatcher/Reagan supporter in those years, and he continues to take a conservative perspective on some issues, although he joined the democrats in disillusionment with George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the torture at Abu Ghraib to vote for John Kerry. As you might expect from someone with an Oxford, then Harvard, education, he is a superb independent and critical thinker, and he has acquired great skill in putting his thoughts into both speech and writing. Even when I am not persuaded by what he has to say, I find myself thinking I am unlikely to find a better take on any given topic he chooses to address, even when I don’t share his views at all.  His recent comments on Silence, Martin Scorsese’s latest film, are a case in point.

Silence is based on a 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo about two 17th Century Jesuit priests from Portugal who travel to Japan in search of their missing mentor, whose faith, it turns out, has not withstood the Japanese authorities’ use of death and torture to keep this “foreign” thing called Christianity at bay. The film addresses Scorsese’s belief that the road to faith must necessarily involve doubt (Why is God silent?) at some point.

Sullivan is both gay and a traditionalist Roman Catholic.  Whether that’s kind of like being an African-American member of the Ku Klux Klan, or whether that’s a sign of his cognitive flexibility I’ll leave for another time. I understand he’s not alone in finding a way to lay claim to its non-authoritarian authority and the power of its traditions.  How he does that is not the point here.  The point here is that he clearly resonates at some level with Martin Scorsese’s notion of faith. 

Here’s what he has to say about Silence, the movie, and about Scorsese.

(I)ts genius lies in the complexity of its understanding of what faith really is. For some secular liberals, faith is some kind of easy, simple abdication of reason — a liberation from reality. For Scorsese, it’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery, and often inseparable from crippling, perpetual doubt. You see this in the main protagonist’s evolution: from a certain, absolutist arrogance to a long sacrifice of pride toward a deeper spiritual truth. Faith is a result, in the end, of living, of seeing your previous certainties crumble and be rebuilt, shakily, on new grounds. God is almost always silent, hidden, and sometimes most painfully so in the face of hideous injustice or suffering. A life of faith is therefore not real unless it is riddled with despair.

Moreover, I think Sullivan correctly anticipates the public response to Silence

Those without faith have no patience for a long meditation on it; those with faith in our time are filled too often with a passionate certainty to appreciate it.

I part ways with Scorsese (and thus, I assume, with Andrew Sullivan as well) precisely because of Scorsese’s argument that faith is "not real unless it is riddled with despair." It strikes me that this take on faith doesn’t so much define faith as it reveals Scorsese's own personal belief system - Sullivan, like many believers, appears to be equally drawn to the mystery of belief, the power it has over so many people who can't or won't accept the loneliness of unbelief.

I have always objected to the way religious people lay claim to faith. I see it as analogous to the way so many on the political right, including, not surprisingly, those on the religious right, who maintain they have an exclusive right to define patriotism.

For those in the faith business, those who claim the right to speak in the name of God, or at least in the name of their particular form of organized religion, faith is synonymous with acceptance of one of the doctrines associated with our civilization - Jewish, Christian or Muslim.  It involves acceptance of the claim that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews, or that Christ was born of a virgin to redeem inheritors of the sin of Adam, or that Mohammad was the seal of the prophets and there would never be another.  

As a non-theist, I am said to be a man without faith.  But I’m not without faith.  I’m simply without religion, and I think we’ve done ourselves a disservice in conflating the two. “Faith-based” has come to be understood as “religion-based,” when it is more precisely defined as “belief-based.” Not all beliefs are religious beliefs.  I believe there is such a thing as good and evil, for example, and that there is truth and there is falsehood and that there is beauty and there is the absence of beauty. These are philosophical principles, of course, which many people, both religious and non-religious, often distinguish from religion.  My life experience (I believe – at least I credit it to experience) has taught me that one has a moral duty to one’s fellow creatures as well as to one’s own well being. I believe that at the heart of a life well lived is a commitment to avoid violence and deceit.  And that to the degree one surrenders to violence and deceit happiness becomes increasingly unattainable.

That faith system – my belief system – requires no descent into misery for it to mature. It requires no periods of doubt to grow, although I find doubt and the debate that derives from questioning things to be extremely useful.  And I am naturally suspicious of affirmations of certainty.  I am much more comfortable with the definition of truth used by modern science – that it is the sum total of all knowledge to date, subject to change with the addition of new and contradictory information.  It is my belief that an openness to the possibility of error in one’s convictions is superior to the claim that certain things must not be questioned.  I don’t believe that it is God “working in mysterious ways” when millions are tortured and killed in war, or die in natural disasters.  The claim of a loving God strikes me as not consistent with children born blind or paralyzed or ridden with diseases which will cause them to live out their lives in pain and agony and then die at a very young age.  I don’t wonder at God’s silence.  I do wonder how people find such a god worthy of worship and praise. How is following such a god not simply following some law of perversity?

Silence may have many things going for it – I don’t know and I’m not attempting to review it here because I have yet to see it – but I will not seek it out for what it has to say about testing one’s faith in God.  And I trust that will not deter others from doing so if they wish.

What Sullivan has to say about the Trump phenomenon is a different story.  This time, he and I seem to be on the same wave length exactly.

Sullivan begins with the truism that “All politicians lie.”  What is different about Trump is that normal liars “pay some deference to the truth.”  They “acknowledge… the need for a common set of facts in order for a liberal democracy to function at all.”  Trump’s lies, he maintains, are goal-directed.  They have a purpose, to enforce his power and to test the loyalty of those he is able to force into submission. It is a characteristic strategy of authoritarians.

Sullivan’s solution to the problem of living with Trump’s deceit is not original, but it is intuitive.  “Rebut every single lie,” he insists.  Insist, if you are in a position to, that every lie be retracted.  Work cooperatively (he’s speaking specifically to journalists here) to back each other with follow up questions.  Never leave a lie alone.   “Press and press and press until (a) lie is conceded.”  Don’t be afraid to call him a liar to his face.

Sullivan is also not the first to suggest that there may be something wrong with Trump’s mental and psychological health.  It’s this, he says, and not his agenda, that is “a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months.”

There is no anchor any more, Sullivan says. “At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.”

Most of us, I think, never imagined we’d be using language like this when speaking about American democracy.  But then none of us imagined we’d have to watch the systematic dismantling of efforts to control banking so as to avoid a repeat of the crash of 2008.  Or the removal of efforts to further enrich corporations and the hyperrich at the expense of the less fortunate.  Or to save the environment.  Who among us imagined an administration openly committed to increasing the risk of nuclear disaster, to fostering the education of the few at the expense of education of all? Who thought we’d ever see a complete takeover by the racist, sexist, homophobic right and an open attack on the voting rights and other civil rights of America’s black population?  We have always had politicians who know how to manipulate our fears and our greed.  We just have not had one in our lifetimes who did so openly and so brazenly.

We have listened to those who claimed this liar’s promises were nothing more than some raw meat to a pack of hungry wolves, a strategy for building up a power base, and that once in power he would rise to the dignity of his office.  We have considered claims that he is not a true conservative, that his self-interest would keep the radical right from attempting to break down the wall between church and state, to roll back Roe v. Wade and the rights of LGBT citizens to marry.  And now we are presented with evidence that the opposite is true, and that chaos and uncertainty are the only certainties.  We are in a condition of exteme distress and disease.

I said earlier that I believe in good and evil.  But I don’t believe that good always prevails.  I think if it is to prevail under present-day circumstances, it will take extraordinary efforts.

The victory of the courts against the inhuman and profoundly stupid and self-defeating travel ban is a positive sign and some of us are celebrating that victory and hoping it signals the start of a more effective resistance to the new Trump way of doing things.

My concern lies less with Trump, more with his enablers.  I fear that unless Republicans of integrity find a way to get us off this path, we may find that gerrymandering only gets worse, that even more blacks and other minority people will lose their power to vote, that ever more judgeships, more school board positions will go to self-serving right winger candidates.

I also differ with those who claim this is the worst thing to happen to America since the Civil War. Even with the threat coming from an apparent powerlessness to fight deceit in high places, I think we’ve been worse off.  The Civil War time was worse.  Life under slavery and in segregated America was worse.  McCarthy and the Red Scare, the internment of Japanese-Americans, Nixon’s shenanigans – American democracy has been bombarded before.

Our only hope is that we still have a critical mass of people committed to democracy and to decency, to the rule of law and to evidence-based justification for political action. I don’t think they are likely to let all this slip through their fingers.

“One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all,” Sullivan writes.  We’ve had it easy.  We’ve been able to ride the waves.  We’ve been able to turn off the news, and “exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene.”

Not any more.  We are beginning to realize those times are over.  We now get to have a close look at just how fragile democracy really is. We may have to live with fear and with burnout from an endless display of outrage, day after day. Some of us will go under, especially if our health care suffers and if white supremacists continue to come out of the woodwork.

Everybody’s looking for ways to resist.  Let me suggest one that I have not heard seriously suggested before.

I witnessed a terrible injustice the other day when a provocateur came to speak at the UC Berkeley Campus at the invitation of the young Republicans.  Protesters assembled and outside forces, identified as “anarchists” (they dressed in black and wore masks), came in, set fires and smashed windows on and near the campus.  The news media then did what I think was a terrible thing.  They reported that “some of the protesters turned violent.”

But that was bad reporting.  The protesters didn’t turn violent.  This is Berkeley, the home of free speech.  Protesters protest here all the time and the tradition of peaceful protest is well established.  It was a separate group of outside agitators who took over, as they now commonly do when there are public protests, and brought about the violence.

The Berkeley police held back because in previous riots in the Occupy movement they had moved in too soon and only escalated the rage of the group.  The pendulum swung too far and this time they calculated that allowing the negative energy to burn itself out was the lesser evil. Getting that right is an art.  They need community help in doing this.

Here’s my suggestion.  We need to recognize that protests are now going to be a regular part of the resistance to the new Trumpocracy.  Because it is based on deceit and the power of a small minority to abuse the institutions of power to which they have been given access, we have no alternative.  As the recent 600 women’s marches around the country and the world demonstrated, protest, along with other institutions like the police and the courts dedicated to the rule of law, are going to be our way around this corrupt regime.  Let me suggest that protesters take another look at the police and shed the outdated view that they are the enemy.  Protesters need to work with the police against the anarchists.  If you see somebody wearing a mask set a building on fire, rip off that mask.  Take their pictures and pursue them relentlessly up until the time when they are prosecuted.  Call them out by name if you know them. Call attention to them.  Shut down this threat to peaceful protest.  It’s our new lifeline they are endangering.

I realize this isn’t easy.  Many still think of cops as “pigs.”  As racists and bullies.  Some are, as the Black Lives Matter movement makes plain.  But some is a long way from all. We need to commit to a ruthlessly honest look at the prejudice in ourselves and at our own inclination to profile.  Recognize that there are crooked cops, but also that the majority of police are committed to law and order.  Making cops the enemy is a self-destructive strategy in this day and age.  What we need now is to join forces with the police and help them do their job to look out for the weak and the vulnerable.

We need to know who our friends are and not make enemies of the very people we need to fight this battle of resistence to the man who promised to drain the swamp but now demonstrates on a daily basis that he’s all about doing the exact opposite. 

We need to get smart.