Thursday, March 29, 2018

More on Seven Brides

I was struck by a delightful little coincidence this morning. In my last blog entry I started off with the memory of having gone to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Radio City Music Hall in New York at the age of fourteen. And ended after a string of youthful memories with the fact that I shared a birthplace with the radical abolitionist, John Brown, who raided Harper’s Ferry in Virginia in 1859, for which act he was soon captured and hanged. The coincidence is the fact that in 1929 the Pulitzer Prize went to the writer Stephen Vincent Benét for his poem John Brown’s Body, the very same writer whose story, “The Sobbin’ Women” about the myth of the Roman rape of the Sabine women, became the basis for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

I dug up this bit of trivia because I was struck with the charge by at least one modern-day feminist (supported by many of her commenters) to the fact that this Broadway musical purports to be about song and dance and love and marriage but is in fact about rape and the Stockholm syndrome. One of the commenters even writes: "I’ve never seen “Seven Brides…” and don’t plan to!"

The six younger brothers, if you remember the plot, go into town, grab up the single girls, and steal off back to their mountain cabin with prospective brides.  A politically correct sensibility comes into play here. Millie, the wife of the oldest brother Adam, had been duped into marrying her backwoodsman husband before learning he was looking for someone to cook and clean for him and his six brothers.  She comes around to accepting her lot for herself, but when the boys follow their brother's example and show up with six “brides,” Millie insists the girls be well cared for until they can be returned to their families in the springtime, when the road, which has been cut off by an avalanche, can be cleared. Stockholm syndrome – because the girls have time over the isolation in the winter months to fall in love with their captors.

The past, they say, is a distant land, with different values, attitudes and belief systems, and nothing illustrates this better than the contrast between the view in 1954 of a “jolly good romp” and the view in 2018 of a “crime scene” to describe the very same phenomenon.

Everybody familiar with theater is familiar with the need for a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Plays, even the good ones, are easily subjected to exaggeration, to coincidence, to unlikely plot twists and too readily resolved dilemmas. Corners have to be cut to accommodate the need to squeeze what would take months or years in real time into a two or three hour period to be represented on stage. In opera, characters fall in love instantly, love turns to hatred and back in seconds, and people are suddenly willing to die for somebody they only met fifteen minutes ago. Emotions are not so much real as expressed by proxy. They become real when sung about, rather than experienced through interaction.

I have mentioned many times before what I call the moment my life went from black-and-white into technicolor, when I was twenty and for the first time I got to experience on a daily basis what life can be in a world-class city. I saw my first opera in Munich, Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges.  A perfect combination of the sublime and the ridiculous. Sublime because there was something magical about sitting in a theatre with a whole bunch of strangers and being transported by an orchestra of talented people playing for singers and dancers, also capable of lifting you out of your ordinary circumstances to a place where imagination runs free.  Once you get used to the idea of princesses coming out of oranges and dying of thirst, the rest is a piece of cake. [Here, by the way, is a video of San Francisco’s Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the march from The Love for Three Oranges.]

I love all kinds of musical performance, piano, violin, cello concerts, chamber music, symphony orchestra performances, operettas and operas. And the American answer to the operetta, the Broadway musical. I remember my reaction the first time I heard somebody tell me he hated opera. “The voices sound too unnatural, too strained,” he told me. “Not strained,” I answered back. “Trained!” Cultivated. Disciplined. How could he possibly not see the work that goes into training an operatic voice? OK, so I'm not so crazy about hard rock and I find a lot of rap too aggressive.

Every musical genre has its followers as well as those who remain unmoved. Some people don’t like jazz, others turn their noses up at baroque. Even more do so at countertenor voices. And many people find the American musical too hokey for words. I love blue grass, country, gospel, blues. Love Dolly Parton and honky tonk. Love Japanese enka.  Love folk guitar.  The Mighty Wurlitzer. And the music of the oud and the zither and the sitar.  Hell, I even love bagpipes. So I really have trouble understanding how it is that people take exception to American musicals. But obviously, the thought of people suddenly bursting into song when you least expect it is too big a stretch for some people.

OK, so it's absurd for Freddy Eynsford-Hill to ring Liza Doolittle's doorbell in My Fair Lady and then launch into a first tenor paean to the street on which she lives. For me that absurdity is just part of the nature of theater. If you want real life, you can wash, dry and fold your laundry, follow the latest shenanigans of a crooked politician, watch cars go by on a freeway. Me, I’ll take every moment I can snatch away from real life to watch people do things that I myself can’t do, particularly things that require talent way beyond the ordinary. Dmitri Hvorostovsky when he sings, Gene Kelly when he dances. Yo Yo Ma and his cello.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek-to-cheek. The way over-the-top choreography of the finale of Chorus Line, and the many hyper-athletic performances like the barn-raising dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Seven Brides is not usually listed among the top musicals. It doesn’t pop into your head as readily as Oklahoma, or South Pacific, or The King and I. West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar. There’s a long long list. Cabaret. Rent. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Guys and Dolls. Showboat. Man of La Mancha. Camelot. And they extend right up to today with such winners as Les Miz or Phantom of the Opera. And most recently The Book of Mormon and Hamilton.

But it still holds its own for a musical from sixty-four years back in time. It was the highpoint in the careers of several of the principals, but others had talent that obviously couldn’t be contained. Marc Platt, who played Brother Daniel, went on to dance for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and to become director of the ballet company at Radio City Music Hall, among his many other accomplishments.  Jacques d’Amboise, who played Brother Ephraim, was principal dancer for the New York City Ballet with dances created for him by George Balanchine and is the winner of several prestigious awards, the Kennedy Center Honors Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, National Medal of the Arts, among them. Russ Tamblyn went on to an unforgettable performance as gang leader of the Jets in West Side Story. And Howard Keel and Jane Powell are in their own way legendary.

The musical nearly died out in the late fifties, and Seven Brides is associated in many people’s minds with its decline. I’ve been trying to figure out why and am not completely satisfied with the standard explanations,  the rise of television, the vertical nature of the film industry, etc.  But I don’t really care. I loved The Book of Mormon and will get to Hamilton one day when I win the lottery. And their success suggests the day of the musical is not done.

And thanks to all those people out there transferring film to digital and getting things out on YouTube, and others fixing up old stuff, as well as the staying power of theater, including movie theaters showing classics, the rumors of the death of the musical are clearly premature. As for that other issue, the problem of reading and watching material from that foreign land that is the past, with its racism, sexism, homophobia and hokey humor, I think we should recognize that one can still appreciate a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace without worrying about the medieval religious self-loathing behind such expressions as “a wretch like me.” 

And just as we shouldn’t cry “Nazi” every time a right winger calls for something that exposes a fascist mentality, and trivialize the horror of Auschwitz by overusing the word holocaust, we shouldn’t trivialize the real victims of Stockholm Syndrome by self-righteously dismissing a tale of the Old West in which some backwoods yokel talks about goin’ into town an’ gettin’ me a good woman!

You can hate Japan for their defense of hunting whales, hate the U.S. for their support of Donald Trump. And you can hate the past for their misogyny and racism. And still marvel at Japan’s exquisite knowledge of beauty, the U.S.’s capacity for embracing diversity, and the past’s rich storehouse of people who could sing and dance.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Remembering Seven Brides

From Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Everybody’s down on Face Book these days. With good reason, I think. They’ve got some heavy splainin’ to do. But while they work at fixing things so we can get out from under ethically challenged organizations such as Cambridge Analytica, I hope people don’t go to the other extreme and overlook the pleasure Face Book has brought into our lives by providing a means to reconnect with people from the past. To say nothing of a place to store those Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance scenes, political satire and the latest of 799 photos of my dogs.

Even as the woeful state of my short-term memory continues to remind me that things will never be the same, and as the trees continue to fall in what was once a rich forest of friends and familiars, I try to follow what I think is good advice – to live in the present. Easier said than done, once you reach an age when there is far more of your life behind you than ahead. But I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve got rich memories, and why, I ask myself, should I not enjoy going back in time and lining them up like toy soldiers and playing with them for a while, now and again.

I’ve largely tuned out on the news that my country now wants to put a man in charge of National Security who has advocated a preemptive strike on North Korea and that that news is now in second place to the news that our president is wrapped up in a scandal with a porn star he was diddling at the time his wife was giving birth to their latest offspring.  I’m reading more. Listening to music more. And also using the internet to reconstruct missing pieces of my past. Here’s a sample:

A couple days ago, an old high school friend posted on Face Book a link to the YouTube video of the Barn Raising dance, that wonderful dancing scene from the 1954 film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I just sat here and kvelled over with delight, remembering the time I went with my mother to Radio City Music Hall – I think it was in 1954 when the movie first came out – and left the following comment:

It was 1954. My mother took me to New York City and got us tickets to Radio City Music Hall. I was 14 years old. The movie was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It's a memory that keeps on giving. Have seen this dance a million times. Even at 14 I knew I was watching a spectacular performance of talent and not everyday stuff. What I took away from it, though, was what a magnificent place New York City was!

My sister responded:

I never realized you got to do this-what a great experience!

And that set me to thinking there was something wrong with this picture.

All throughout my time growing up, my parents would pack us into the car for the long drive to Nova Scotia every summer. My father only got two weeks’ vacation and his emotional home was the place where his mother had grown up, at the end of an 8-mile dirt road in rural Guysborough County in the eastern part of the province. For me, and in time my sister, this place was paradise. Cousin Betty was there, and she showed us how to milk cows and turn the cream separator. We played with lambs and goats and jumped, to the great consternation of my great aunt Carrie, off the barn beams into the hay. To my father, who lived for hunting and fishing, it was a chance to do those things with his beloved uncles, Cliff and Clarence and his favorite uncle, Harold. To my mother, who spent all her time with the women folk snapping beans and peeling potatoes, it was a horse of a different color. She would have loved to spend that time in New York City, which at the time was a three-hour trip (today it's only two) by train or car away from our hometown, Nowhere, U.S.A., where we lived most of the year. Spending it in Nowhere, Nova Scotia instead was her lot as a dutiful wife. She had no say. She signed my report cards “Mrs. John S. McCornick,” and when I asked her once why she didn’t sign her own name instead of Mrs. My Father, she said, “That’s just the way it is.”

So how could I possibly have seen Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the age of 14 in New York City. Was it a dream? Try as I may, I couldn’t dislodge the memory of that trip to Radio City. I remember the chorus line, and I remember the movie. No doubt whatsoever it’s a real memory.

So where was my little sister, age 9 at the time? Was she there too? Did we all four go?  Did we stay in a hotel?  I have a very vague memory of a trip to New York with the whole family, where we stayed with friends of my parents on Staten Island – or maybe it was Long Island someplace. Could it have been this visit?

Doris Day at Horn and Hardart's
The other memory that anchors this trip to reality was the memory of Horn and Hardart’s, that wonderful cafeteria where you could put a quarter in a slot and take out a piece of pie or a hot dog or a whole range of other things you could see through the window. A marvel of technology for a 14-year old in 1954.

The wheels kept spinning. Could we have gone by train? Until 1958, when I went off to college, there was a branch of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad that went all the way up to Winsted. We might actually have taken the train in.

My grandmother lived across from the depot in Torrington in 1945, the next town down the line, the town where I was born. In the early days before trains went out of style, she’d take the train up and we’d pick her up at the Winsted Depot and traveling back with her was a grand adventure for a small child. I am able to recall the year 1945 because I was with her when the factory whistles started blowing on May 8, when the war came to an end.

Torrington train depot in 1907 and as I remember it in the 1940s.
It was demolished, as a safety hazard, on January 4, 2011, after
113 years despite efforts to have it declared a historical site.
“Come on,” she said to me, grabbing my hand and pulling me down the stairs. “We’ve got to find your father.” He worked for what was then the American Brass Company, and that was directly across Water Street. We had no luck. The crowd was too large and it was pouring out of the gates. We kept looking for him all the way down to Main Street where people were dancing in the street, I remember. Pretty heady for a five-year old. Not even. VE Day was a week before my fifth birthday. My sister at the time was just nineteen days old. And my memory of that time is clear as a bell.

The depot was a few hundred feet to the east of my grandmother's apartment building. A few hundred feet to the south, across Water St., was  the American Brass Mill, where my father worked before he was transferred to Waterbury and the company was absorbed by Anaconda Copper Works in 1960. 

The place where the Torrington train depot used to stand
as it looks today.
Here’s what that place looks like today. You can see that a single track is still there, probably because they continued to use the line for freight for some years and then found it not worth the trouble to rip out anymore.

The depot was replaced by the building you see there with the white façade and at first I suspected that the building Großmutter lived in in the 1940s wasn't there, either. It’s far more likely it was torn down years ago and replaced by the building you see on the left that contains Alfredo’s Deli.

But then, thanks to Google maps, which allows me to swivel a photo around, I see that there is an old building still in existence behind Alfredo's that must surely have been there in my youth. That must be the building where my grandmother lived on the second floor.

I still have a memory of being taught to draw two points, a comma and a hyphen (Punkt, Punkt, Komma, Strich) and then draw a circle around it and call it the face of the moon (Fertig ist das Mondgesicht) in those days with
Großmutter. Back when I got to play the role of the little prince, first born of my generation on both sides of the family (except for cousin Pauli, who died at 7), but especially adored by a grandmother who had lost her first husband in the First World War and been forced to hand her daughter, my mother, over to her sister to raise so she wouldn't go hungry in a country that had just lost a war. Großmutter then worked as a stewardess on the Hamburg-Amerika Line, jumped ship in New York and found her way to Torrington and her daughter she had not seen in four years. She then stayed until she was discovered to be a German alien living in the U.S. without papers, was arrested and brought to Washington to stand trial as a spy - a story for another day. Now, she at least had her daughter and her dignity back (my father managed to convince the judge his mother-in-law was no Mata Hari) and her daughter's little boy and girl to devote herself to.

I'm conscious, suddenly, that I'm back now in time not to my college years or my early adult years in San Francisco, but all the way back to the age of five, and the memories are flooding in strong and clear.  And thanks to the internet, I have located the building and can see the windows of the apartment I was in when I learned that World War II had come to an end - at least in Europe.

I can scroll forward, ahead to my first days of school, to the time I visited my cousin Pauli, who was dying in the hospital of leukemia, to the time I was myself in the hospital having my tonsils out and realizing afterwards that my mother had lied to me, that I would still get a sore throat sometimes even though the tonsils were gone. Or back to the time I was playing slap-jack with my Aunt Doris as my mother left the house with my father to give birth to my sister.

Back to the time when all my aunts and uncles were alive, all my three sets of grandparents - my mother's sister and husband who adopted her took on the title and role of grandmother and grandfather as well as Großvater, Großmutter's second husband, who died at some point around 1947 or 8, leaving me with a connection to his brother Otto and his Lebensgefährtin (life partner) in Berlin, my Tante Frieda, who came to be a major figure in my life in later years. She would become a reason for me to go back to Berlin some 20 times over the years until she died at the age of 94, outliving all other members of her family and all her friends.

All these people are gone now. All loom large in my memory and anchor me to specific locations that I recognize today as my roots. I've had an interesting exchange with two close friends this week, also, about growing up as an outsider because of being gay. When I want to, I can shift my various identities at will. I was gay in a straight world, a child of immigrants who could get an invitation to the Country Club because I had a WASPish name, a bookish kid in an anti-intellectual high school social environment, a poor kid at an upper middle class college filled with preppies and skiers, where I didn't have the money to join a fraternity or run with the skiing set, cursed, I believed for many years, to be an "other" - a perennial outsider.

But my memories force me to see the other side of that coin. How rooted I am, how comfortable I am admitting that within this California persona I have fitted into, hand-in-glove, for many many decades now, there are also New England roots which, despite very little watering over the years, are still strong.  I am both German-American and the child of Scottish and Irish immigrants who were headed for Ontario but when shipwrecked off the Eastern shore of Nova Scotia, decided to stay.  Protestant Nova Scotia which once warred with their neighbors, the Scots Catholic heirs to Mary Queen of Scots. And when the Gaelic-speaking priests from St. Francis Xavier University came to visit me daily that month I was in the hospital in Antigonish at age 16, because my family, now back in "Connect - tikut", as they pronounced it, weren't able to get there, I was deeply grateful to them. I had little to do but listen to bagpipe music on the radio and dream of going to college at St. FX.

If you dig in the right places, you will discover that Torrington is the home of the largest Elks Lodge in New England. I love absurdist trivia like that. And did you know that Torrington, Connecticut is one of 536 micropolitan areas in the United States, a designation that signifies a place with a growing population far removed (by as much as 100 miles) from larger metropolitan areas? And that Torrington was named the number one micropolitan place in the country to live in by Bizjournals in 2008? All this information is easily accessed if you only type in Torrington, CT on the Wikipedia website. The wonders of the modern world where information now rules supreme and you can actually drown in it, if you are not selective. What, you don't read Bizjournals?

Torrington, Connecticut is where I was born. It is also the home town of John Brown, whose body lies a-moulderin' in the grave.

lead photo - the scene is from the Barn Raising Dance - Check it out on YouTube here.  I've marveled at this choreography and talent a million and forty times, forty in this last week alone.

Punkt Punkt Komma Strich

Torrington train depot

other photos are grabbed from Google maps

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Being Gay - Keep it Proud

Kevin Kühnert
If you share my view that the world is going to hell in a handbasket – an expression which, I realize, marks me as 110 years old – you will probably appreciate the occasional suggestion that comes down the pike that the news is not all bad. I felt the uplift when I read the other day that Kevin Kühnert, the young socialist in Germany currently making the rounds on all the talk shows on German television as the great hope of the Socialist Party, just came out as gay.

I’m marked as old not just because I tend to use expressions like the handbasket one – or think in terms of something “coming down the pike,” but because I still have a keen awareness of how the world has changed since homophobia was as much a part of the fabric of American society as separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites and the custom my mother followed when she signed my report cards with my father’s name with a “Mrs.” tacked to the front of it. I remember when.  And I’m now in a place in my life where future shock is a constant companion, as I imagine it must be to everyone my age.

“I thought people like that killed themselves,” was the attitude of the day toward LGBT people when I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s. No member of modern society would say that anymore, thank God. We’ve progressed. Mightily.

I shared the happy news to some of my gay friends yesterday that one of our tribe had made a splash on the German political scene by coming out. One friend wrote back, “We’ve come a long way since Ernst Röhm was the model for homosexuals.” Words to that effect. He clearly meant it as a way of saying thank God we’ve risen out of the darkness, but I zeroed in on the use of the word “model” in connection with this thug who was close enough to Hitler to call him Adolf, long before “Mein Führer” became the prescribed form of address. Röhm created the SA, the “brown shirts,” a private police force to protect the Nazis as they roamed the country in the days of the Weimar Republic, hunting down communists, Jews, journalists and editors and university professors and anyone else conspicuously hostile to the Nazi Party. Their methods were violent and commonly lethal. Röhm was the very essence of National Socialism. He was also homosexual.

I wrote back that my first impulse in reading the suggestion in my friend’s note that “we’ve come a long way” was not to celebrate progress but to want to go back to beating the drum on the importance of keeping the distinction alive that “gay” does not mean the same thing as “homosexual.” Homosexual is a neutral term to describe a sexuality. Gay is a political term. Anybody can be homosexual. One has to earn the right to be called gay.

I am a great fan of Tony Kushner, as a man and as a writer. You may remember the scene in the movie Munich where Golda Meir has set up a clandestine assassination team to hunt down the killers of Israel’s Olympic Team who were massacred at the Summer Olympics in Munich in 1972. A profoundly moving scene is the one in which one of the revenge killer team finally tracks down the man he is assigned to kill and finds he can’t pull the trigger. He hears the voice of his grandmother, and she is saying, “It isn’t Jewish.”

Jews don’t kill, his grandmother believed. Good Jews don’t murder people.

By the same token, I believe that gays cannot kill people either. They cannot support an Adolf Hitler, cannot dedicate themselves to intimidation, cannot become fascists. Homosexuals can; gays can’t.

We’ve merged the terms and it is now common to hear people substitute “gay” for “homosexual,” thinking they are simply bringing their language up to date, as they do when they say “African-American” instead of “Negro.” There are similarities, of course. Both are attempts to shed the negative connotations of a word used to identify a disparaged class. But whereas African-American is largely the substitution of one neutral term for another (there was never anything inherently wrong with Negro - the problem was always with the users), gay carries the additional connotation of pride and a seizure of the power to define oneself by a political-cultural term rather than a medical one.

The official name for the modern-day socialist party in Germany is the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD). They are not socialists, strictly speaking, but social democrats. The SPD is active in 14 of the 16 state governments, and it has ruled in coalition with the Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists (the CDU and the CSU, respectively) since the 2013 federal election. It is the oldest party in Germany, going back to 1863.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, he outlawed the socialists and had their leaders killed or sent into exile. Only in 1949 did they regain their earlier power and influence. Social Democrats held the office of chancellor from 1969 to 1982 and 1998 to 2005. It (the SPD) is the chief rival of the Union Parties (the CDU and CSU govern “in union” at the federal level – the CSU in Bavaria and the CDU in the rest of the country), and at the risk of oversimplification, they represent the kind of right and left division represented in the U.S. by Republicans and Democrats, the “right” representing the interests of the corporations and big business, the “left” placing a higher value on social equity and social justice – including a decent minimum wage and a fair distribution of wealth. The midpoint of the division is further to the right in the U.S., but the parallel between the two sides is still valid, I believe.

Imagine what it would be like if we had a multi-party system in the United States, with the Republicans taking the place the CDU/CSU holds in Germany, the Democrats taking the place of the SPD, the Green Party being the same in both countries, and the left represented in Germany by Die Linke (the Left) and in the U.S. by the communists. Then imagine we had an additional party – let’s call it the Business Party, which we might propose as a counterpart to the German Free Democratic Party (FDP), currently shrunk to such a point they represent only about 10% of the electorate.

Now imagine a new party is created in the U.S. Let’s call it the Nationalist Party. Its main raison d'être is to keep out immigrants. Some of their members are relatively moderate, but many of them are neo-fascists and outwardly racist. And imagine that for the past eight years, the U.S. has been run by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, because neither party won enough votes to go it alone. The Republicans dominated and the Democrats played the role of Junior Partner in order to get a few jobs where they might exert influence – the State Department, say.

Over time, the Bernie Sanders Democrats got fed up with what they saw as the ass-kissing nature of their leaders, all for a few crumbs from the table, and they began leaving the party in droves, many leaving to join up with the party of the far left.

To make sense of what I’m getting at, note that in the most recent federal election in Germany, Merkel’s CDU party won only 33% of the vote, a drop of 8% since the previous election.  The Schulz-led SPD did even worse, with only 20%. And, probably most disconcerting is the fact that many of the those who fell away from the two parties went and joined the AfD, who, with 12.6% of the vote got to take seats in Parliament, where they are free to push their anti-immigrant agenda and generally wreak havoc with the traditional way of doing things.

I’ve pushed this US/German comparison much too far already, so I’ll stop. Except to say in the U.S., the hopes of the democratic socialists were on Bernie Sanders. And the failure of the Hillary Clinton democrats to inspire general enthusiasm among the Democratic mainstream led in large part to the rise of the nationalist Donald Trump. (Don’t let my comparisons tempt you to make too many one-to-one comparisons – I’d hate to have to take responsibility for that).

And in Germany, the feeling is the old school SPD’s time has passed and the only way around the horror of watching the nasty folk with their anti-immigrant agenda take over is a serious infusion of young blood. Ditto for the U.S., by the way, and even more so when you consider that in addition to Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda you’d have to add anti-environment, anti-globalism, anti-abortion, pro-gun and pro-corporate welfare. (And an obscene level of deception and incompetence, but that’s a story for another day.)

Enter young Kevin. Cute, if a bit nerdy. Smart as hell. Articulate. Still in his 20s (he'll turn 30 in July of next year), he plays with the big boys and holds his own.

With the embarrassing showing in the 2016 election, the ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats looked like it was going to be over and done with. Socialists were tired of selling out their principles, and their new leader, Martin Schulz swore he would never work with Angela Merkel again. He would become the opposition party instead.

I want to keep the focus here on gay accomplishments rather than play amateur political historian, but just to finish the train of thought...  fast forward to today, when the Germans are breathing a sigh of relief that they once again have a government. The haggling took more than five months and the only reasonable solution – surprise, surprise – was for the two parties, CDU/CSU and SPD, to go back into coalition (CDU and CSU being considered as a single union party, remember).

Bad idea, says Kevin. Don’t want to work with the capitalists. Got to get back to democratic socialist principles. Got to be a party we can be proud of, the socialists that represented the best of German political forces – most equitable, most committed to peace and freedom and equality. The party of Willy Brandt.

No such luck. The SDP caved “for the sake of the country” – can’t have a country without a government to run it. What can I say?

Kevin accepted defeat gracefully. His day is yet to come. Merkel is slowing down and the hawks are circling already. Tomorrow is another day.

Now where am I going with all this, you (if you are still reading) will no doubt ask yourself. Are you saying that to be gay is to be leftist? To be a Bernie Sanders supporter and an opponent of both Hillary and Trump? No, I’m not saying that, although that’s where my heart is. On the contrary, I want to see gay people everywhere, speaking for conservatives in their role of keeping progressives honest, as well as for progressives. Much as I loathe the AfD in Germany, there is a part of me happy to note that one of its leaders, Alice Weidel, is a lesbian. How she manages that in such a homophobic environment I can’t tell you. I don’t want to make the mistake of assuming if you’re not a progressive Klaus Wowereit (the SPD former gay mayor of Berlin) you’re a Nazi Ernst Röhm, and Wowereit has more than a few bungles under his belt, so I have to assume at some level, Ms. Weidel has some integrity. Haven’t seen it, but I’m sure it’s there.

A better example of good guys on what is in my view the wrong side is Jens Spahn, one of the people many consider might make a good successor in the CDU to Angela Merkel. Another well-spoken, articulate gay man, he has devoted much of his energy to health care in Germany. He is currently part of the Finance Ministry, a job many consider a proving ground for the chancellorship. A practicing Roman Catholic, he nonetheless used his influence within his party to push for same-sex marriage in Germany. A hero of mine, in other words, even if his efforts went nowhere. On the other hand, he’s on record for his criticism of Merkel’s refugee policy as being too „humanitarian“ somehow. Did I say hero? OK, maybe not hero.

To balance off Jens Spahn's position to the right of the SPD, there is Volker Beck to the left of the SPD. Beck is a member of the Green Party. Beck went down in flames, unfortunately, when he was caught playing with crystal meth. But not before leaving parliament to a standing ovation for his efforts to bring about same-sex marriage. A real tragedy. Beck was the real advocate for gay rights in Parliament and is known as the father of the German Registered Partnership Act, the forerunner to same-sex marriage. I won’t list his many superb contributions (you can find them hereto human rights, inside and outside of Germany. Nor will I bang on about his wrong-headedness, in my view, in regard to Palestinians. He’s a politician. He takes stands. Some you support. Some you want to throw eggs at him for.

My point is that gays are now at the heart of our modern political systems. They are not heroes, even when they perform what we consider to be ennobling acts. They don’t have to be heroic all the time to be entitled to call themselves gay, as opposed to homosexual. But they have to have a gay consciousness, have to seek to advance the cause of gay liberation in some corner of their brain, whether they are heroic or wrong-headed.

At the same time, just as I feel a kinship with a Jew who tells me "it is not Jewish" to assassinate one’s enemies, no matter how much they may deserve to pay for unspeakable crimes with their lives, I feel we owe it to the likes of Harry Hay, Frank Kameny, Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones and Barney Frank, just to name only a select few of the many American contributers to the welfare of LGBT people over time, to keep the word gay a word we can use with pride.

Photo credit

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Risen v. Greenwald

Just watched New York Times reporter, and more recently columnist, Jim Risen debate one of my heroes, Glenn Greenwald. If you’ve got the time, have a listen. And if you don’t have the time, try to find it. It will restore your faith in the ability of Americans to address the flood of nonsense we’re up to our waist in these days. It’s only an hour long.

Glenn Greenwald, Jim Risen
Their issue, in a nutshell, is this. Risen’s perception of Greenwald, shared by most people on the left, I would guess, is that there is a gap between what he wants to communicate and how he is understood. Specifically, he is becoming a darling of the right because he is maintaining that the evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians simply isn’t there. Greenwald’s perception of Risen is that while his heart may be in the right place by worrying aloud that the country is in danger from the right wing, he is making a mistake in the long run by not insisting, as a journalist, that opinions and beliefs, no matter how broadly shared, are not the stuff of good journalism. Information based on evidence is.

It’s perhaps a bit too overly simple to say this, but it is as if Risen writes from the heart, Greenwald from the head, and whichever of the two you find yourself siding with will reveal your own preference for head over heart or vice versa. The two men agreed, kind of, with Risen’s view that his primary goal in writing is the journalistic one - to reveal a good story. A true story, to be sure, but a good story. And Greenwald’s primary goal is an activist one – to achieve political ends. Greenwald suggests it’s not that simple, that he too is a journalist interested in getting at the truth of things.

The moderator of the debate between these two good men is Jeremy Scahill, who dropped out of college to work with the homeless. He later went on to become a senior producer of Democracy Now. Most recently, he founded The Intercept with Glenn Greenwald, which has produced this debate. What the two men are getting at is what serves us better in the long run - the practical advantage of getting the dirt out to the masses quickly so they can act on it, or the ethical one of holding off until you are certain you are getting it right.

If you’re not current on Glenn Greenwald, here’s a summary of this complex man reduced to one paragraph.

And here’s one for Jim Risen, including his highs (Pulitzer Prize?) and his lows (NY Times getting sued for getting the Wen Ho Lee story wrong – the Chinese computer scientist they thought had stolen nuclear secrets for China – but couldn’t prove).  The Wen Ho Lee debacle would seem to make Greenwald's point that you don't publish until you've got the goods.

What you have here are three of the more articulate voices of the left debating the best way to conduct the Resistance. In my view, something to watch closely.

Here's the link again.

photo credit - from The Intercept podcast site - which, if you're interested, also contains a transcript  and a podcast of an extended version of the debate in question.