Thursday, March 30, 2017

Modern-day Austrian man meets modern-day Swiss woman; they exchange views.

Efgani Dönmez
Just came across an example of the kind of thing Europeans are struggling with these days.  A video of an Austrian talk show where an Austrian man confronts a Swiss woman in language that might well be considered hate speech if the encounter took place in America.

The Austrian man is Efgani Dönmez.  He came to Austria with his parents when he was just a few months old, grew up not far from Salzburg, entered politics and was elected to the Austrian Bundesrat as a member of the Green Party, which he served from 2008 to 2015 when he left after the party rejected him for having suggested it might be a good idea to buy one-way tickets for protesting Erdogan supporters. He complained the Party had no room for “unconventional thinkers.”

Nora Illi on the Anne Will talk show
The Swiss woman is Nora Illi.  She grew up in Zurich and joined a punk group at some point. She met her husband, Patrick Jerome Illi, a promoter of techno-raves at a pro-Palestinian protest in Jordan, where they were married in 2003. Both became converts to Islam, and Patric took the name Qaasim. Both went to work for the Islamic Central Council. Qaasim ran into trouble with the law and was convicted of racial discrimination. On his web page he celebrated the “taking down” (erlegen) of what he described as 16 Israeli “Zionist Occupation Bastards” killed in a Palestinian suicide attack on the bus they were riding in. Charges of being in possession of explosives were eventually dropped, but he was again charged in 2016 for spreading jihadist propaganda.

Nora has been making the rounds on German language television wearing a niqab, i.e., fully covered except for her eyes, as a spokesperson for the Department of Women’s Affairs of the Islamic Council. She speaks out in favor of polygamy and after an appearance on the Anna Will show in November 2016, several of her public statements led to an indictment for aiding terrorism. Those charges were later dropped.

That’s the background for the video I came across today, where Efgani Dönmez confronts Nora Illi on that Austrian talk show, where the topic of the day was the debate over headscarves.

Normally this topic has been done to death, and if I'm looking for a good debate, I'll usually give this one a miss. But I remembered Nora from a couple earlier shows, the Anne Will Show and Menschen bei Maischberger, and wondered what she has been up to lately. Because of the tough spot Germany is in these days with Erdogan labeling as “Nazi tactics” their refusal to allow Turkish politicians to campaign in Germany, where a million and a half people with Turkish passports live, people are very careful about appearing anti-anything Muslim. I'm assuming this caution applies to Switzerland and Austria, as well.

But Dönmez is a Turk, originally, and he's fearless.  He really lets her have it.  

Here’s the video, if you can follow the German. At least have a look at the first couple of minutes. 

Right out of the starting gate, the moderator asks him why Frau Illi should not have the right to wear a head covering of her choosing.  He responds, addressing Illi and not the moderator:

We have the freedom in Europe to take up topics, including Islam itself, which in many Islamic countries would be unthinkable.  (But) instead of being a member of this society, you choose isolation.  Instead of bringing Islam forward you choose a Stone Age Islam, which has nothing to do with Islam. What you're doing here is provocation.  You get a stage to perform on.  You are supported by Salafist Wahhabi groups.  You're just a puppet.  You're just a piece of misery, to be honest. You've been brainwashed.  You're like hundreds of others...

What characterizes our society is that people engage with one another. We look each other in the eye, we offer to shake hands, so we can get to know each other. Even a dog gets to sniff somebody out. And you refuse to shake hands with somebody simply because he's a man. How sick is that?

I refuse to allow people like you to drag my religion into the dirt.  Your form of Islam is a very particular narrow version of the religion.  I'm not saying that all Salafists are terrorists, but up until now all terrorists have been Salafists. What we have to fight is not people like you - you can't help it - What we have to fight is this theology of contempt which is going around the world like a virus.


Pinsdorf, Austria, where Efgani Dönmez grew up
You get the idea.  She fights back.  But he is like a dog with a bone.

Whatever happened to that picturesque land where the hills are alive with the Sound of Music?

Makes American television look like a steady stream of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

It's about time, Germany.

It's about time, Germany!

There is a line you can draw through the European continent neatly dividing the countries which now recognize full civil rights for lesbian and gay people, including the right to marry, from those which don't.  And another line neatly dividing the countries which give most rights, including civil unions, from those which give few or none. These lines suggest geography is a powerful indicator of how attitudes toward LGBT people have changed in recent years, and how much we form our attitudes on the basis of what our neighbors think. The map on the left suggests that the further West you go the more liberal the attitudes. That's no surprise, when you think about it, but it's interesting to see that fact so graphically displayed. There is a "Western-most" swath, which includes everybody north and west of Germany, with the exception of Northern Ireland, a "Mitteleuropa" swath, comprised of the countries historically outside the Iron Curtain plus Estonia, and an "Eastern-most" swath, where gay people still live as second (or third) class citizens.

"With marriage, it should not be about what your sex is, but
only about whether the partners are willing to join together
permanently and accept responsibility for one another."
There's an election coming up in Germany which could change the map dramatically and bring Germany into the western-most camp. It's already there in terms of the will of the people. 83% of the population polled just this January have come out in favor.  It's only the government that lags behind. And by government I mean the ruling coalition of the two parties with "Christian" in their name and, until now, the socialists. Again, no surprise. That that coalition is falling apart can be seen by the fact the socialists just announced they are going to support full rights, including adoption, for gays and lesbians, and the christian parties are still dragging their feet. (See the statement by SPD party chief Thomas Oppermann, to the right.)  I'd put "christian" in quotes, but that would seem like a sneer, somehow, and they deserve better than that. They are actually no more christian than the other parties, except historically, but that's a show for another day.

Germany has, from the perspective of someone used to our presidential system and unfamiliar with the parliamentary system, a curious ruling coalition of three parties.  The two so-called christian parties are Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Socialist Union (CSU). The two are known as "The Union" parties. They formed a government after the last election with the German Socialist Party (SPD).  When I say "curious" I mean it's hard to see how these two groups with fundamentally opposing political philosophies ever managed to make it work as long as they did.  A more dramatic indicator than the gay rights issue that they are now coming apart is the fact that Martin Schulz, who was recently chosen to head the Socialists by an astonishing and unprecedented vote by acclamation (100% of his colleagues), will now go from being coalition partner with Angela Merkel to being her chief opponent in the next election for chancellor. The "minor" coalition partner wants to bump off the "major" coalition partner and take over the wheel.

The socialists have an uphill climb.  Like the democrats in the U.S., who were once the party of the little guy but recently have become the party of the upper middle class, the socialists in Germany are roundly criticized for having been too keen to join with the super-haves, the folks on top, and forgotten their socialist principles.  Martin Schulz, a working class guy without the usual fancy academic credentials which Germans take so seriously, is hoping to bring back the good times.

It has always bothered me that so many Americans are so ill-informed about that word socialist, and have allowed the manipulators of the Christian right to persuade them to see the socialists of Europe as somehow associated with "godless communism."  That the socialists want a complete government takeover, and that means things will be run badly, by people with no vested interest or need to do things right.  People "sucking on the government's tit" as it was explained to me as a kid, people so mollycoddled that they lose any motivation for working hard and taking responsibility for their own welfare. The fact that most modern democracies of Europe function as well as they do is, in my view, due to the fact that they are "social democracies" - and "social democracy" is what it's actually all about, and not "socialism." Social democrats believe society should be governed with an eye to social equity, as opposed to the generation of profits for the few. Wealth generation, by all means. Unfettered capitalism, no. America has a chance to go for democratic socialism as well, in the person of Bernie Sanders. One of the things I'd most like to see is for Americans to get to the bottom of why so many Americans were willing to sell their souls to get behind Trump and why the democrats went for democratic capitalism instead of democratic socialism - for Hillary instead of Bernie.

I don't have political heroes. I think politics is by nature dirty and I have neither the talent nor the stomach for it much of the time. I depend on others to do that dirty work for me. But if I did have a political hero, it would probably be Willi Brandt. He left Germany for Norway and then Sweden, eventually taking Norwegian citizenship and changing his name to avoid detection by the Nazis. He returned to Germany in 1946 and in 1948 became a German again and joined the socialist party. In time he became mayor of Berlin and eventually chancellor, and his work in trying to bridge the gap between East and West won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. All large bodies have both retrograde and progressive forces under their umbrella. We in the United States have Mississippi, which still displays the Dixie flag in its state flag, plus a whole bunch of other states which have worked the symbols of the confederacy into their flag. And we have California, now trying to bring about a state single-payer health care program to counter the efforts of the Republican Party to throw America's poor under the bus. That's what politics is, a struggle over who gets to call the shots.

One reason Germany interests me so much, besides the fact that I have German roots, is that politically it puts the United States in sharp relief. We both have forces we label "right" and "left," conservative and progressive. But in Germany the whole game is played further to the left, and progressive German political actors we might find among the democrats if they were transposed to the United States, are still considered conservatives in the German context.

Take Angela Merkel, for example. A good German friend of mine took me by surprise when he told me, last time he was visiting here, that he was a supporter of hers.  Not because of her policies, necessarily, but because she was simply "the best manager around." She may have done herself in with her insistence that Germany had to step up and take in refugees even when other European countries failed to follow suit. In doing so, she may have lost the next election. But at the time, when I watched the images of trains pulling into the Munich main station, with which I have such positive associations, happy memories from the early 60s, and saw the refugees spilling out and being met by German volunteers carrying dolls for the kids and fresh fruit and clothing, the German parts of me were overwhelmed with pride. Go, Angela, I said.

Now she's up against my guy Martin Schulz and I kind of feel sorry for her. Not pity, obviously - she may well win the election, after all - but I've been in middle management situations where I was despised by people below me for being part of the power structure and despised by people over me for giving away the store to the rabble. Angela is caught between the (democratic, remember) socialists on her left and the quite conservative Bavarian Christian Socialists on her right for very similar reasons. She has been described as the kind of person who leads from behind. She reads the scene with great accuracy, is known for her pragmatic approach, and gently guides the ship of state in the way she thinks it should go. At least according to reputation. All I know is what I read in the papers.

I just listened to a discussion on Deutsche Welle - it's in English, so do check it out - in which a panel of folk take up the issue of extending full rights to gay people, including the right to adopt. As if to make my point about Germany's being more progressive than the United States, the four panelists are all in favor.  There is no effort made, as is so often the case in the States, to create the illusion of balance - as if a discussion on the holocaust requires a Nazi or a discussion on racism requires a member of the KKK for balance.  The program recognizes that 83% general approval figure and goes from there.  Especially interesting is that the only real conservative member is a gay Catholic, and he, too, argues for separation of church and state and speaks approvingly of secularism. And he's a theologian.

Not everybody wants this much detail on the long hard slog toward gay liberation, of course. But if you do happen to find this progress worth following, join me in a feel-good moment. As I've explained before, I'm working hard to find good news to offset the Trump shenanigans.

This one made my day.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The dustbin of quackery

There’s a nice little joke life plays on you sometimes.  I'm thinking about that line in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  Remember when that nice upper middle class couple played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are faced with the black boyfriend their daughter brings home and wants to marry?  Played by Sydney Poitier?  Father/Tracy is torn between wanting to show his love for his daughter by getting behind whatever makes her happy, on the one hand, and the white racist assumption of the day, on the other, that “God knows what kind of trouble you’re bringing down on us all” by this foolish desire to marry outside the white race.  Mother/Hepburn puts her finger on the problem Father/Tracy is having immediately.  “Your problem is you’re being confronted by your own principles.”  White liberal abstract meets white liberal concrete.

I posted my views on the hostile reception Middlebury students gave Charles Murray the other day.  I’ve had a number of conversations about it since, and despite feeling some sympathy for those put out by Murray’s ideas, I am sticking to my view that this is a free speech issue and that the students who protested should face some kind of disciplinary measures for their actions. They should not have shut down the talk.

And then today I read that Joseph Nicolosi has died and I have to fight the voices in my head going, “Ding Dong, the witch is dead.” Have to hear my grandmother and imagine her wagging finger.  “Now, now, don’t you dare celebrate anyone’s death.”

Nicolosi was the Big Daddy of conversion therapy, the clinical psychologist constantly cited by the likes of Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, the two chief Christian homophobe groups responsible for messing with who knows how many gay kids’ heads trying to make them turn straight.

Any person, particularly a gay person who manned the suicide prevention center phone lines, who goes back to the day when homophobia was like Monopoly, a parlor game anyone could play, will understand my desire now to sing and dance. And the desire to shut this man down. Free speech is one thing.  Holding forth with seriously messed up ideas that cause stress to the point of self-destruction is another.

I find parallels everywhere.  Imagine you’re a concentration camp survivor (there are very few left now, so it’s harder to get yourself in their shoes) and you find yourself at a lecture by Holocaust denier David Irving.  How do you sit quietly in your seat and listen?  How do you not throw the brick at the bastard’s head you smuggled in in your purse? 

Or imagine, if you are not black, that you are, and your neighbor likes to display a Dixie flag every day on his front porch.  How do you not rip it down?

Free speech is not for sissies.  It takes some pretty strong convictions. 

In the case of Charles Murray, where it’s still not clear (at least to me) that his ideas are harmful, you pretty much have to spend hours and hours reading his work, and even then there is no guarantee you will understand what he is getting at.  Or you can, like me, read the literature surrounding his argument by those who seem to know what they are talking about, and try to form an opinion that way.  If you do that, I think you should then stand back and let him talk.  Give him enough rope to hang himself with, if you think he’s seriously messed up.  It's probably easier to say that if you're not black, but I also don’t think his research results that show blacks have a lower IQ tell the whole story.  No skin off my nose, I say. Let the debates go on. It will all come out in the wash.

The Dixie flag?  I’d tear it down.  Just as I would a swastika.  I know I’m treading on thin ice here, but I don’t think these symbols are debatable.  One is the symbol of a regime which plunged the world into a war in which something like forty million people lost their lives.  The other is a symbol of a regime willing to go to war to maintain the right to keep Africans in a state of slavery.  I’d call that the equivalent of hate speech and tear the damn things down.

And I recognize that there are people more liberal than moi who would argue I’ve caught the PC virus and need to rethink what I’m saying.

But back to Joseph Nicolosi and the world of homophobia.  There was a time when I would debate such questions as whether Nicolosi is better or worse than the folks at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University for Clowns.  Sure, that’s not what they call themselves, but what are you supposed to call a "university" built by money contributed by the suckers of televangelism?  A university whose name reveals the connection right-wing Christianity has made with American patriotism, the folks convinced Jesus was an American, and probably a Southern Baptist.  They are not all bad guys, I’m willing to concede, but the hair on the back of my neck goes up when I read on Wikipedia that “it was announced in December 2016 that Liberty University will be constructing an on-campus shooting range for students to protect themselves against terrorist attacks.” Ideas have consequences.  Homophobia is not the only bad idea spawned by Falwell and company, but it’s certainly front and center.

At least Nicolosi has been thoroughly discredited and in retrospect free speech advocates got this one right.  It took friggin' forever, but the debates led to research and the facts came out.  As early as 1973 the American Psychiatric Association took action that countered Nicolosi’s contention that homosexuality was a psychological disorder.  They removed it from their list of psychological disorders.  Mental health providers are now banned in six states from practicing the kind of head rewiring he advocated, and twenty other states are working on legislation to follow suit.  When California passed protection for LGBT youth along those lines, Governor Jerry Brown said of these practices that they will “now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.”  The sea change in attitudes toward LGBT people and a new generation of young people who wonder “What was the wuss?” shows he got it right.

Nicolosi suffered for his ideas.  Angry gay people are known to have spraypainted a rainbow over his front door.  

OK, I’m being cute.  They also sprayed “Nazi” and “homophobe” as well.  

Like I said.  Not for sissies.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Saving the toes

I was just reflecting on the fact that so much of my dinner conversation and my correspondence with friends is about how hard it is to live with the daily encounter with dysfunctionality.  How much it takes out of you to read day after day about refugee children turned away and medical services for the poor to be shut down, afterschool programs, meals-on-wheels, NPR and on and on – all to build more tanks and a wall to keep Mexicans out that Trump promised they would be forced to pay for. How much you want to turn off the sources of news and pretend it’s not happening. Running from it is, I think, totally understandable.  

But to run is an overreaction. First off, I think hiding from what bothers you is counterproductive. Not facing reality is like never taking off your shoes. Feet are wonderful things, but they stink if not washed and exposed to fresh air.

I have boasted over the years that most of my friends are neurotics.  That’s overstated.  There may be a real neurotic or two in there, but for the most part they are wonderfully bright people who are simply too often inclined to depression. I think there is truth to the saying, “If you’re not depressed, you’re not paying attention.” People who are depressed are people who think and are open and vulnerable, and simply become overwhelmed with too much bad news, some of their own imagining, of course, but much that is real, as well.

I got good advice from a shrink early on in my twenties that stuck with me.  The solution is to focus on perspective, he said, because while the causes of depression are many, and therefore cannot be easily addressed, what keeps you in depression is the conviction that the here-and-now is a permanent here-and-now, and that’s not the case.

I have a tremendous respect for civilizations that have been around for a while.  I’ve written recently about how I think the Jews know how to process suffering.  Another group that has learned from centuries of life lived with pain and suffering are the Buddhists. They know how to process nonsense.

The only certainty, say the Buddhists, is that things will change.  And that means the fundamental premise of depression is wrong.  What you have to do is hold on till the present becomes the future. Good sleep, good work, good food, good conversation, good music, anything that is good will hold you over, usually, till the circumstances change.

I’m committed to not surrendering to despair over the Trump phenomenon.  I heard a German say the other day how much he admired the American system of government with its checks and balances.  They are working.  We tend to favor the short term at the expense of the long term. We also all too often focus on the hole, not the donut.  The hole is this current short term Trump mess. The donut is the whole package of American ways of doing things, the naïve assumptions that happiness is achievable (which often become self-fulfilling prophecies), the drive, the curiosity and inventiveness, and that system of checks and balances.

Democracy moves slowly.  It will take time to take down Trump, but he will be taken down.  

The outrages of the health care reform are sinking in.  Even Republicans themselves are astonished at just how bad Ryan's plan is, how it is a short-term mechanism for making the rich richer which in the long term will eat away at not only our national health but our national confidence in ourselves. The lies - about Obama, about the British participation in tapping into Trump's phones, etc. etc. are beginning to get world attention and more and more people are questioning how one can be expected to work with someone who can't be counted on ever to speak the truth.

In the NY Times this morning was an article by Ross Douthat that suggested we consider Singapore's healthcare system as a model to follow.  Douthat concluded in the end that a) we could never pull it off because it involves too much government control, and b) we will end up sooner or later with single-payer health care.

I don't think that's merely wishful thinking.  Single-payer, I mean.  The idea that Ryan and Company will repeal and replace Obamacare with "something better" is now being exposed as a conspicuous lie.  The cost is simply too high, and the law of entropy, if nothing else, will force us into a simpler solution. Single-payer has lots of vested-interest opposition, but there's no doubt it's simpler. I’m reminded of that quote attributed, probably erroneously, to Churchill, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” 

I have been unable to live up to my own promise to get and stay more involved in politics, because like most of my friends I'm burned out from the endless stream of bad news.  I only tune in partially, and only for limited periods of time.  I think we all have to find out own endurance limits and go with those.  

Here’s my plan.  I want to time myself.  Keep track of the time I engage with the political scene and then match that time with one of my guaranteed pleasure makers - reading, music, walking, whatever. For whatever amount of time I spend taking in the news or talking about it, I want to set aside that much time with spirit-lifting activity.

One of my father's constantly recycled quotes, along with "even a clock that is stopped is right twice a day," was "it's a great life if you don't get tired."  And a friend once told me (I'll have to ask a Greek sometime if it's true) that where we say, "Take it easy" the Greeks say it more clearly: "Don't get tired."

Easier said than done, of course.

I think there’s no way to never not get tired.  You just have to plan what to do when you do.  Sleep is always good, and I have an advanced degree in napping.  But so is uplifting activity, which can work better than sleep much of the time.

So I'm looking forward to the day when America has universal healthcare coverage and when we finally realize we have no choice but to address climate change, and the fact that we have a cruelly unbalanced distribution of wealth which it is within our power to change.

We just have to go through this dark period of shooting ourselves in the foot first.  We'll run out of bullets eventually.  Or get tired of losing toes.

We just have to remember to keep the toes on ice so they can be sewn back on when the time comes.

Friday, March 17, 2017

It comes down to the music

Religion, a particularly warped form of it, has played a large role in American life, and in mine.  And I have spent entirely too much time, I’m thinking these days, raging against the phonies, the hypocrites, and insecure petty folk who are manipulated by it and who use it to manipulate others.

I was raised in a Christian environment.  In the small town where I grew up most people went to church or synagogue, and I have to credit that cultural life for many of my fundamental values.  There was pettiness and meanness enough to go around, to be sure, but there were also lots of very decent people who took solace in their religious faith and credited it with the kindness and compassion they took to be essential for a life of substance and meaning.

I lost that faith sometime after my twentieth birthday when I went to Germany and discovered how different German Lutherans in Germany were from German Lutherans in America.  That led me to question the degree to which religion was tied to culture and come to see how arbitrary were the dictates of any given culture.  It was the arbitrariness of it all that made me think I’d be better off searching for things that are true, rather than buy any longer into any packaged set of truth claims that demanded belief without evidence, especially those notions that laid claim to universality but clearly reflected local varieties of groupthink.

Also, I developed an intense loathing for organized religion at some point early on as I came to recognize that I was gay and that religion had inculcated in me a self-loathing that pushed me to the edge of suicide.  I have never forgiven religion for that, and I probably never will.  Eventually I recognized that all religious doctrines are cherry-picked, and that it’s the cherry pickers, not the religion itself necessarily, that is to be blamed for religion's dark side.  That freed me up from what had become an obsession to do all I can to root out religious influences around me.

I had a friend who was raised a Mormon.  His name was Merrill.  We met in the 1960s, way before the sea change in America that made acceptance of gay people the norm.  One stayed in the closet if one wanted to be able to move comfortably in the larger world.  One lived a lie.  Laughed at jokes about fags.  Many of us became violent toward other gays so that others would not “mistake” us for being gay ourselves.  The deception was unbearable to many.  Forty-two years ago this week Merrill got hold of a rifle and blew his brains out. 

I called his sister, who had raised him.  Stumbling in the dark, desperate for words, I said something like, “I guess we’ll never know why he did it.”  I knew full well why he did it.  He wanted to be part of his large Mormon family of twelve kids, but the older six rejected him and he found that unbearable.  To my surprise, his sister responded, “I know exactly who killed him.  The Mormon Church killed him.”  She was one of the younger six and - it shouldn't have surprised me - she knew him even better than I did.

My animosity toward religion was already pretty solid by this time, so Merrill’s suicide was not the source of it.  But it solidified and intensified it.

It took me some time to separate my resentment of the scriptural injunction against same-sex relations – at least as it is interpreted by most literal-minded Christians, Muslims and Jews – from my resentment of the soul-killing way so many of these people actually practiced their religion.  I didn’t believe the myths that had grown up over the centuries, the exodus out of Egypt, the Virgin Birth, Mohammed’s ascent into heaven on a white horse from Jerusalem and all the rest of it.  It wasn’t really my anger at the religion-based homophobia that made me a church-basher.  It was the fact that I simply could not get behind the claims that there is a God, that he created a man and a woman and put them in a garden and told them not to eat of the tree of knowledge.  And then punished all their descendants when they disobeyed him until he changed his mind and decided it was time to come to earth as a human being and make himself a sacrificial lamb to “redeem” us from that inherited sin.  How, I've always wondered, does anybody in their wildest drug-induced fantasy life make sense of all that shit?  I mean never mind the obvious fact that once you reach age six (eight, sometimes ten, if you grow up with a vitamin deficiency) you learn to read the story allegorically and not literally. What is "original sin" all about allegorically if not a mechanism to encourage submission to authority?

So I have two distinct reasons for not being religious.  One, I simply don’t believe the stories, and two, it looks for all the world like the gatekeepers of the religions include some pretty awful types of people.  People you should run from.  Once I learned that Jerry Falwell was going to heaven, I tore up my ticket.

And that means I’m up against some serious challenges.  One is I know people, some of them mighty fine people, who do believe the stories.  And who are fighting what I take to be a losing fight to free their religious organizations from the hypocrites and purveyors of violence and deceit who run them.  The challenge is to remain open and honest about my disdain without disrespecting the earnest attempts of these seekers to make sense of the universe the best they can.

When I rejected the church because I couldn’t buy into the doctrines, I also came to lose respect for people who held onto the church for non-doctrinal reasons.  Pascal's wager types, people who don't really believe, but don't want to risk it. Grandma's good little boys and girls, for example. People for whom family and community are everything and who fear that to reject the religion of their birth could well mean being ostracized from the community itself.  Or, as a friend of mine in high school put it, “I have to go to church.  It would break my grandmother’s heart if I didn’t.”

I remember the first time I walked into the cathedral at Chartres.  It was a sunny day and the light coming through those stained-glass windows nearly knocked me to the floor.  If living by grandma's rules doesn't do it for you, the other-worldly beauty of a cathedral can keep you in the loop.

In my case, if anything would make a believer of me again, it would be the music.

I remember the time I attended Harvey Milk’s funeral at Temple Emmanuel in San Francisco.  I had never heard the mourner’s kaddish before and was unprepared for the beauty and the power of it.  I only half-jokingly told friends afterwards that I converted to Judaism in that instant.  I had a musical background and was no stranger to the idea that music had power.  But in that moment, I became convinced I could hear the thousands of years of Jewish suffering in what to my protestant ears was almost embarrassingly raw emotion expressed so exquisitely in song.  I felt a powerful draw, a desire to attach myself to a community of people who had clearly figured out some of the big questions of life and death.  And had the skill to express that knowledge in an honest and creative way.  I have no doubt there must also be people in the world who are believers because of a good performance of Mozart’s Requiem.

My friends Craig and Harriet, both gone now, were for most of the time I knew them pretty much on the same wave length I was on when it came to religion.  So when they told me they had started attending church services at a local church my instant question was,  “Are you out of your mind!?” “No,” Harriet answered me. “I’m not there for the doctrine.  I have just come to realize that there are times when I want to be in the company of other seekers.  It’s not their truth claims that I'm interested in; it’s the fact that they are seekers.”

Builders of cathedrals may say, I suppose, that they do what they do “for the glory of God.”  I filter that through my humanist take on the world and find I have no trouble feeling gratitude that there are seekers who want to express their spiritual longings through the creation of beauty.  Chartres may make you look to the heavens where you think God dwells, and a cantorial chant – or a Gregorian chant – may make you better able to process your feelings of grief or loneliness or simply your mystification at how time flies by and you have come from childhood to senility in the blinking of an eye.

On a superficial level, there are religious crackpots that make me roll on the floor in hysterics.  I’m talking Cindy Jacobs and Pat Robertson here.  I would not want to get rid of them.  They provide as much entertainment as a Saturday Night Live skit.  And on a serious level, there are also people who have managed to channel their religious impulses into music and that music has not just enriched my life but kept me sane and able to fight off the slings and arrows of a sometimes quite hostile reality.  I am grateful beyond words for this music.

Music doesn’t have to be religion-centered to be lofty.  Consider Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, for example, which inolves embracing the death that will come to us all with no mention of a deity.  But often the most profound human emotions are expressed religiously, whether it’s in that wonderful piece in Les Misérables where Jean Valjean asks God to protect a boy, his future son-in-law, that he has come to love as a son.  Especially as Alfie Boe sings it.  

Or almost any of what must be hundreds of good versions of Amazing Grace. Here’s one of my favorites, by Il Divo.  The bagpipes are like Mexican food.  Can be awful.  But when done right – as in this video – they’re the musical equivalent of food for the gods. (And, speaking of gods, you might want to stay with that YouTube link.  Il Divo moves on next to that Leonard Cohen piece that has circled the world countless times now, and regularly reduces all kinds of people to tears, Hallelujah.)

Or all the Ave Marias, Bach chorales, and requiem masses.  And not just the big ones, like Mozart and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. (Here's a nice version done by the Danes.)  But also the requiem by Camille Saint-Saëns, who proved you don’t have to be a believer to write a beautiful requiem.  Verdi, I’m told, wasn’t a believer, either, and he too pulled off a good requiem. Gounod, Dvorak, Gabriel Faure, seems everybody got in on the act, and we’re the richer for it.

Something about death, I guess, clears the throat.  It’s hard to be puffed up and insincere when facing eternity, and it seems to make people want to do their best.

And I keep discovering more and more examples of beauty at death's door.

This week it was Azi Schwartz, the cantor at Park Avenue Synagogue.

Here he is performing at a 9/11 memorial service.

Also in the picture, as if some Renaissance artist had composed it to enhance beauty by juxtaposing it with ugliness, is that sleaze bag Cardinal Dolan, the incarnation of the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church, standing two down from the pope.  Mr. Dolan spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to hush up the child abuse details, paying off the priests and protecting the church and throwing the kids to the wolves, then later passing himself off as the man who fixed the problem.  He also urged Catholics to civil disobedience to protest granting the right of LGBT people to marry.

But let’s not be distracted by corruption.  Focus on young Azi.  Beautiful face.  And even more beautiful voice.  Has a wife and three kids, I understand.  Cantoring his heart out and reminding me why I converted to Judaism in that instant back in the 70s when Milk was shot.

I never stay Jewish, of course.  But I convert every time I hear a cantor sing.

How could you not?

Have a listen:  here