Monday, October 14, 2019


Chosen family folk stopped by the other day for a quick bite before going to the theater. We spent much of the time catching up on the news of their still new grandson, Elias, who lives in Buenos Aires.

I love these people dearly. Loved watching their daughters grow up. One is now doing her part to fight crime and injustice (that's how I choose to define her job as a lawyer in the nation's corrupt capital) and the other is, among other things, responsible for baby Elias.

Barely do I have time to properly groove on the wisdom of this child to be born into such a loving family before I get news about another grandchild, born about the same time. This time it's the grandchild of my nephew, Joe Onion, Jr.

We all met last May, Elias's grandparents and Joe Jr., while visiting my sister in Connecticut. Joe's son, Joe III, was there, too. He's the daddy of this little girl, Ella Rose.

Ella Rose and her Grandpa
Can't believe how lucky I am that I now understand the joys of being a grandparent, even though I'm not one myself. Not directly. But I know what I'm feeling, and if I can have these feelings I can only imagine what the actual grandparents are feeling.

It's no secret that those emotions are enhanced by precious memories. I was visiting my sister one time - must have been around 1973 or 1974. Joe Jr. said good-bye and went out the door to walk to school. Two minutes later he comes back in, marches up the stairs, flushes the toilet, and goes back out again without a word to anybody. "Sometimes he does that," my sister says, "forgets to flush the toilet." That leads to a discussion of how many things we take for granted that people know that they actually don't. There are a whole lot of things kids simply have to learn while growing up, one painstaking detail at a time.

That kid is now the grandpa on the right. Ella Rose is the great great great great granddaughter of "Grandma Mary," my great-grandmother, the woman in the rocking chair in the kitchen by the stove I have such vivid memories of, in Manchester, Nova Scotia when I was at the flush-forgetting age. Which didn't matter, because we didn't have indoor plumbing in those days, but that's another story. Mary Johnston was pretty old by then and had taken to starting the fire in the stove first thing in the morning to bake bread. Problem was she kept doing this several times throughout the day and we all worried she might burn the house down.

I feel sorry for the younger generations. They don't have all the memories I have. They see this little face and think, "How cute!" I see her and think of her grandpa learning one has to flush a toilet and of the fear we could all go up in smoke, if we weren't on our toes.


Such joy.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019


Colin Morgan (l.) as Merlin and
Bradley James (r.) as Arthur
When the opera Madame Butterfly is performed in Germany, Butterfly’s American cad of a lover, Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton’s name is changed to Linkerton, because audiences might start giggling when they hear the name Pinkerton - with a P - and think of pinkeln - the German word meaning to go peepee.  

I just found a historical precedent for avoiding association with what my dogs know as pipipupu - the word we use when it’s time to take them out in the garden for the final evacuation of their tanks before bedtime. I’ve been bingeing of late on the 2008 BBC drama series Merlin. As in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and his trusty sidekick, the not-yet-but-certain-to-become venerable wizard who carries that name.

Some googling has revealed to me the fact that Merlin’s original name was Myrddin. That’s how he is known in the Welsh language. Apparently the legend stems from Wales. It comes to us by the hand of British historiographer Geoffrey of Monmouth, aka Galfridus Monemutensis, aka Galfridus Arturus, aka Gruffudd ap Arthur aka Sieffre o Fynwy. Geoffrey was born in Monmouth, Wales around 1095 A.D., and died around 1155. When he Latinized the name, he changed the D in “Merdin” to an L because Merdin would remind audiences of the Latin word for shit.

To immerse oneself in these mythical tales of pre-historical Britain is to enter a time of magic and of fantasy. The BBC show features, in addition to Merlin and Arthur and his lady-love Guinevere and the not-so-noble knight Lancelot who steals her from him, the friendly dragon, Kilgharrah (friendly to Merlin, not to Camelot which he tries to destroy for keeping him chained up for twenty-two years). Arthur’s father in the first couple of seasons, King Uther, whom we get to watch making one bad decision after another, has forbidden magic because he has lost loved ones because of it and considers it pure evil. Because we know that Merlin understands how to use magic for good, we root for the time when Arthur will take over the throne. Arthur will make a second big change, besides overturning his father’s biases against magicians: he will elevate the servant girl Guinevere to queen, thus bringing about the 21st century goals of eliminating class distinctions and homophobia in one fell swoop.

That’s part of the fun of historical dramas, you see. You can read into them all the stuff you want to see happen in this day and age. For one thing, the actress playing young Guinevere, Angel Coulby, is of mixed (Afro-Guyanese) race. Her brother, Elyan, who becomes a knight by Season 4, is played by the actor Adetomiwa Edun, who was born in Nigeria. And he’s not the only black actor in this story of ancient Britain. Our rules of who gets jobs in TV dramas have changed since the 11th century.

There are folks who watch historical dramas just hoping to catch a slip-up, like the use of zippers in Shakespearean costumes. But in Merlin, probably since it’s so over-the-top anyway, with all those goblins and dragons and magic potions, they don’t even bother. Arthur goes out to battle “for peace and freedom” when he’s actually battling for the power and position first of his tyrannical father and later himself nearly a thousand years before democracy had found a home in Britain. Nobody cares. Modern goals.

Now that gay bit, that’s a bit more subtle, and if you’re not gay you might actually miss it. Not if you’re gay, though. There are constant references to the injustice of people with magical powers having to hide them. Scene after scene of “I just want to be me.” You almost expect a chorus of “Somewhere over the rainbow...birds fly...why oh why can’t I?”

And they don’t just stop there. There’s a whole packet of photos and articles about the “bromance” between Merlin and Arthur. Lots of opportunities to read gay sentiment just barely beneath the surface. Arthur jokes with Merlin with remarks like, “I hope you don’t think I intend to share my bed with you, Merlin!” and Merlin smirks when he says, “No, of course not!”

I know this is old hat by now, but as a person who lived the first half of his life with crushing homophobia, this brave new world of open acceptance of homosexuality and sympathetic playfulness around homoerotic relationships makes me feel like I’ve been living in a crowded dingy room in a polluted city and suddenly find myself walking a country road, taking in the sunshine and breathing in the fresh air.

I’m living in a polluted big city bingeing on another Netflix fantasy, in fact, and not enjoying the fresh country air.  I’m living in a country governed by goblins and trolls who have removed the regulations against the big energy polluters. I’m hoping people will wake up, throw them all out and put us back on the path to Camelot.

All I can do is vote, and encourage others to do the same.

And dream.

And remember that when I was young, I used to dream that I would live in a time when gay people could fall in love and live openly with that love. And that it would feel like magic.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

We're all on a first-name basis here

In the U.S. (and I guess virtually everywhere in the world), when a person earns a doctorate degree, she/he is given the honorific title of "Dr."

Medical doctors use it routinely, without further ado.

Those who earn (non-medical) academic doctorates, however, divide themselves into subgroups. Some take on the title and use it as regularly as a medical doctor would. Others use it only within academic settings, in publications, at conferences, etc.

And there is another subset of that subset (which I fit into) that considers it tacky to use the title except in situations where one is being recognized for one's academic accomplishments - other than for simply having received the degree.

I get mail from Stanford, where I got my PhD, addressed to me as "Dr. McCornick." I also get mail from a friend who graduated with me with the same degree who addresses me that way. I interpret that action as a joke, a subtle dig, a reminder of a conversation we once had about the inverse snobbery of people who refuse to use the title as a way of being "above it all" and thus indirectly expressing superiority. One almost has to have a program to keep up.

While teaching at Keio University in Japan, I noted that some faculty and students would address me as "Dr. McCornick" and when they did so I accepted that as routine. Not as a sign of respect so much as recognition that that's who/what I was, plain and simple.

Some professors insisted that they be addressed by that title. Since I see the title as an honorific, I would feel foolish making such a request. Honorifics are forms of respect shown voluntarily; they should not be demanded, in my view, even when it is taken as bad manners to omit the title.

Back in the 60s, when I first started teaching at the American Language Institute at San Francisco State University, I remember a discussion I had with colleagues who would introduce themselves to students or answer the telephone with "Mr. So-and-So." 

Where I grew up, in New England, "Mrs." was a title, not an honorific. For that reason, a married woman would introduce herself that way, and others would remember her as a married woman and follow suit. But "Mr." was an honorific, and therefore one assumed one would be addressed that way, but would never apply the term to oneself. So when I first found male faculty in California introducing themselves as Mr. So-and-So, I found it remarkable – and a tad off-putting. Call it East Coast snobbery, if you like, but I began asking around to see if it was “a mid-Western thing.”

One colleague offered the information that they were doing this to teach the foreign students we were working with how they wanted to be addressed, something I saw as a justification rather than an explanation.

I grew up in a home where several members of my family spoke German, and I picked it up – not as a native language; English was clearly the dominant language – but well enough to feel at home with “Du” for “you” and “ich” to refer to myself.

When I got to college and was placed in a formal setting with the German language for the first time, I ran into trouble. One of my German teachers, a woman from Kiel who was new to the United States and had taught high school in Germany, addressed me as “Du,” as she was accustomed to doing with her students in Germany. Since “Du” was the natural word for “you” in my house, I “returned the favor.” She quickly set me straight - “I get to call you “Du” she informed me. To you, I am “Sie” (the honorific word for “you” in German.)

I still remember the feeling of humiliation. I felt I should have known that, and felt foolish.

But all things need to be learned. We do not leave the womb with social knowledge.

Perhaps that humiliation left me with an oversensitivity to the use of honorifics which I have not gotten over to this day. When I went back to school in San Francisco to get an M.A., the head of the program was a wonderful kindly soul named Thurston Womack. He had a bunch of us over to his house one time when the doorbell rang. It was a teenager who lived next door. Dr. Womack invited him in and suddenly this kid, whom he had just met, was calling him “Thurston.” I felt the urge to tell him how rude he was being, thus reliving the time when Fräulein Lau set me straight about the proper use of “Du.” But then I realized that Dr. Womack was perfectly fine with it all. I chalked it up to his being a Californian.

Years later, this time in the early 80s, when I started at Stanford, I took classes with Charles Ferguson, a man whose accomplishments and reputation I had admired for two decades. I was in awe of him. At Stanford they followed the custom of graduate students calling professors by their first names once they had passed their exams. But I could never make the transition and call the man “Charles.” To me he was, until the day he died, “Dr. Ferguson.”

Before that time, I had lived in Japan where hierarchy is part and parcel of the social system. No two people are of equal rank.  And traditionally you used one word for the verb "give" when speaking to a superior and another when speaking to an inferior. One gave up or one gave down. Also, traditionally, when two strangers met in a business or social setting, they would exchange business cards (and this is still common) where their professional status is clearly evident, and people make the effort to know how corporations and universities and other organizations are ranked. Those differences were once marked (and to a large degree still are) right down to the level of determining who bows lower when meeting a colleague for the first time. Even though that custom may be slipping away these days, Japanese still have the honorific/title “san” (and the very formal “sama”) in use as the analogue to our “Mr./Mrs./Ms.” Even among friends the word is used as an honorific. And the important thing to remember is that one never uses “san” when referring to oneself. It’s clearly an honorific and everyone knows it.

Whether it’s my New England upbringing, or my twenty-four years of living in Japan with the “san/sama” honorific, or my familiarity with the distinction between an honorific word for you used alongside an “intimate/familiar” word for you in German, French, Spanish, and Russian, which I’ve spent considerable time in, I still squirm when young people call older people by their first names. I don’t think this habit of tensing up when I hear it will ever leave me.

What brought on this reflection was an item I saw on Facebook this morning. I have lifted the photo from it, no doubt illegally (and will immediately take it down if called to do so). It’s a photo of Angela Merkel, with a satirical commentary on the fact that in Germany if you have two PhDs you get to use the doctor title twice. If Hermann Schmidt has a doctorate in philosophy and another one in sociology, he is publicly addressed as Herr Doktor Doktor Schmidt. Three doctorates? Herr Doktor Doktor Doktor, of course.

That apparently goes for honorary doctorates, as well.

Since Angela Merkel has an actual academic doctorate in quantum chemistry, and seventeen honorary doctorates, she is properly addressed as

Frau Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Merkel.

Or, in Japan, Frau Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Doktor Merkel-san.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Herzog meets Gorbachev - a film review

Werner Herzog, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev

Alone I set out on the road;
The flinty path is sparkling in the mist;
The night is still. The desert harks to God,
And star with star converses.

The vault is overwhelmed with solemn wonder 
The earth in cobalt aura sleeps. . .
Why do I feel so pained and troubled? 
What do I harbor: hope, regrets? 

I see no hope in years to come,
Have no regrets for things gone by. 
All that I seek is peace and freedom!
To lose myself and sleep!

But not the frozen slumber of the grave…
I'd like eternal sleep to leave
My life force dozing in my breast
Gently with my breath to rise and fall;

By night and day, my hearing would be soothed
By voices sweet, singing to me of love.
And over me, forever green,
A dark oak tree would bend and rustle.

Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov.

Werner Herzog has made a moving documentary about the life of Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s available on Netflix (DVD, not streaming): Meeting Gorbachev, a film by Werner Herzog and André Singer, 2019.

Gorbachev is a hero of mine. He's a hero to Herzog, as well, and that no doubt explains why I found the documentary so compelling.

Or maybe it’s because it’s the life of a tragic figure, a man who, when asked what he’d like to have engraved on his headstone answered, “We tried.”

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev turned 88 this year. 

I’m now in my 80th year, and I have a new appreciation for old men and women in their 80s. And a new interest in learning how to live in the skin of an old man, with not that many years left. I’d like to do it right.

When you're that old, people tend to want to ask you questions about your life. Dumb questions like "to what do you attribute such a long life?" 

All too often you get equally dumb answers, like “I make it a habit to drink hot chocolate every night before I go to bed.”

Less dumb is the question, “How would you like to be remembered after you’re gone?” It’s less dumb, but it’s kind of rude. What are you supposed to say, “I want to be remembered as a kind, generous, compassionate man, one who never turned away a hungry man from my front door, never said a racist, sexist, homophobic thing in my life, never failed to pay his taxes...”  

You can, of course, use the opportunity to say how much you loved your family and friends, but that doesn’t really leave anybody the wiser. They’ll go, “Awwwww, isn’t he sweet!” and shake their heads at the evidence you’ve entered into the doddering years.

We’re Americans. We’re not supposed to think about death, much less talk about it openly. We can go at it obliquely with bits of wisdom like  “Remember that nobody ever says, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office,’”  the moral being, of course, to remind you to get your priorities straight before you go.

When Herzog asks this question of Gorbachev, Gorbachev responds by citing this Lermontov poem. That kind of puts him in the same category as the Dalai Lama. Somebody once asked him, “Now that the Chinese have forced you to leave Tibet, what do you intend to do with the rest of your life? The Dalai Lama responded: “I intend to prepare for my death.”

Very lovely Buddhist answer.

Here in America, where democracy is on life support, talking about death is assumed to be an admission of failure. It makes people angry and uncomfortable. “Why focus on the negative,” they wonder, when you’re supposed to keep a positive attitude toward life till the very end. They may consider you a bit of a kook for mentioning the subject, possibly recommend therapy. Prozac, maybe.

I was taken aback by the stanza in the Lermontov poem which runs:

I see no hope in years to come,

Have no regrets for things gone by. 

All that I seek is peace and freedom!

To lose myself and sleep!

Damn! What a gloomy thought.  “No hope in years to come?” Really? Something only a sick and dying person might say, somebody seeking relief from pain.

But read on. If you go on to the next two stanzas, you get a very different picture:

But not the frozen slumber of the grave…

I'd like eternal sleep to leave

My life force dozing in my breast

Gently with my breath to rise and fall;

By night and day, my hearing would be soothed
By voices sweet, singing to me of love.
And over me, forever green,
A dark oak tree would bend and rustle.

It’s a real answer. I don’t want heaven. I want life. I want the love I share with others to carry on. I recognize that I will walk that road alone, but the image I want is of my chest rising and falling. 

Some are capable of imagining life among the angels in a place of perfect bliss. Allow me to imagine a life where you doze under a dark oak tree and where love carries on.

Werner Herzog is my age. He’ll be 77 in a couple weeks.

Two old men sitting face-to-face across a historical divide. Herzog’s people once killed over twenty million of Gorbachev’s people. But this man Gorbachev is revered today in Germany as the man who brought about German reunification.

Gorbachev grew up at a time when people in his home town actually died of hunger. His socialism isn’t the stuff of academic debate; it’s the way out of a callous world where such things can happen. Herzog grew up feeling the shame of German atrocities and dreaming his nation might be put back together again in a way that would bring out the good he knows lives in the German soul. They are two old men who share an optimism despite having lived through unspeakable misery. When the two talk to each other, it’s history talking.

While Gorbachev is idolized in Germany and greatly admired in the West, in his homeland he is despised as the man who brought down the Soviet Union. That makes Gorbachev a tragic figure, since, if he had his way, the Soviet Union would still exist. He wanted reform. But perestroika got away from him and the union fell into pieces. Today Russia is controlled by vulture capitalists, just as its Cold War rivals are. The former Cold War antagonists, instead of building on perhaps his greatest accomplishment, the dismantling of nuclear weapons, are talking about building them back up again – in an age where they have become immeasurably more destructive.

Israelis and Palestinians might well burn both their houses down because the former are jerked around by a perverse religious belief that their God promised them the land the Palestinians think they have a right to, and the latter can’t find a non-violent response to the injustice inflicted upon them. Americans and Russians can’t stop behaving as imperial powers and meddling in each other’s internal affairs. Now that the Russians have acquired the capacity to destabilize the American political system and the Americans have surrendered to their basest instincts rather than rise above competition and petty rivalry, things don’t look good at all at the moment. We may both be doomed.

Let’s hope there will be somebody left standing to carve “We tried” on our tombstones.

I’m going to rent this documentary again. I expect I’ll want to watch it several times more.

At the height of the Cold War I was trained by the American military to spy on the Russians. They sent me to study Russian for a year. In an army uniform. In an environment so paranoid about the evil “rooskies” that even our bilingual dictionaries were stamped “Confidential.” Because they contained words in Russian.

The paranoia didn’t hold because the “evil empire” propaganda was so inept. What I came away with was a love of the Russian language and culture that has so enriched my life that it’s even today a source of comfort when the world gets too much for me. I have Alexander Malofeev. Who needs Xanax? I have the Igor Moiseev dancers.   Who needs psychotherapy? I have Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Who needs food and water?

Have a look at this old man, Gorbachev. And tell me where you can find a man who has led a more decent life.

He didn’t do everything right. But then nobody does.

This man, this Russian…

He tried.

Here's the Lermontov poem in the original Russian:

Выхожу один я на дорогу
Выхожу один я на дорогу, • Сквозь туман кремистый пут блестит, • Ночь тиха. Пустыня внемлет Богу, • И звезда с звездою говорит. • В небесах торжественно и чудно, • Спит земля в сиянье голубом... • Что же мне так больно и так трудно, • Жду ль чего? Жалею ли о чём? • Уж не жду от жизни ничего я, • И не жаль мне прошлого ничуть, • Я ищу свободы и покоя! • Я б хотел забыться и заснуть! • Но не тем холодным сном могилы, • Я б желал навеки так заснуть, • Чтоб в груди дремали жизни силы, • Чтоб, дыша, вздымалась тихо грудь. • Чтоб всю ночь, весь день мой слух лелея, • Про любовь мне сладкий голос пел, • Надо мной чтоб, вечно зеленея, • Тёмный дуб склонялся и шумел.

And here's how it sounds when sung by a bunch of cool young Russian guys.

And here's how it sounds when the king of the world himself sings it.

photo credit

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Sitting down with Jesus for a Q&A

All my life I’ve marveled over the things religious people come up with. Virgin birth. Walking on water. Raising the dead. 

Not bloody likely.

These days, when I think of religion, I tend to see it as the primary vehicle for dumbing us down. After all, if you can be convinced that Jesus walked on water, you’re primed to believe that Obama is a Muslim, that the climate crisis is a hoax and the Republican tax plan is good for low-income people.

I was raised in a bunch of different Protestant traditions.  And not just any Protestantism, but American Protestantism. You know who I'm talking about: the folks who think of Jesus as their personal friend.

 I was baptized in a Baptist church, where it was important they wait until I had supposedly reached the age of reason before I was allowed to call myself a member. It was not enough that I could spout the words, “I’m a believer;” they had to believe I believed it.

I didn’t know what I believed at that tender age. Like most kids, I went through the ceremony because I could tell it’s what the adults thought was a peachy-keen idea, and I’d get lots of approval. But I love the idea that, in this church at least, there was some recognition that the mind counts. You don’t mumble pre-packaged prayers like the Catholics, I was told, don’t simply perform the rituals, like Muslims and Jews. You go into your religion body and mind. No credit for performance; it only counts if you will it to happen. God help you if you’re not sincere. He reads your mind, knows what you think even before you think it, so don’t try to fool him.

It’s enough to scare the living shit out of you, this responsibility.

In no time, I was doing what I thought I was supposed to do. I was thinking and asking questions. Why do you need to pray, if God knows your mind? Obviously one prays aloud in public to impress one’s neighbors, not God. He’s way ahead of you. And be careful what you pray for. If you pray for something concrete, like a bicycle for your birthday, and he gives it to you, that means you've reduced him to your own personal micro-manager. That kind of faith, that kind of theology, I learned a bit later on, is for kids. When you grow up you learn to pray for peace and understanding, not a new Lamborghini.

You also learn that God answers some people’s prayers only some of the time. Mothers pray their sons who go to war will come home safe. And it’s not at all clear that the mothers whose prayers he does answer are better people than the mothers whose prayers he ignores. Why is that? I wonder. A mystery, we’re told. Better not think too much about it.

Really? You’re supposed to use your mind but you’re not supposed to think too much? Supposed to make sense here, but accept the irrational there? All very confusing.

By the time I discovered anthropology, my connection to religion was pretty much done with. If it hadn't been, anthropology would have finished it off. The more I saw of the world, the more I discovered how many ways there are of being transcendental, the less any particular religious narrative had a hold on me. Why limit yourself to just one story?

In recent years I’ve spent many a Friday evening with Jewish friends lighting candles and reciting the ritual prayers in Hebrew. Not for the religion, but because I saw that my friends wanted to train their kids to feel a part of a community of believers. To feel a sense of belonging. What exactly those beliefs were was far less important than the fact of community. I could go along with that. Besides, there’s something to the notion that lighting the candles and “bringing in the light” is good for the soul. I don’t need for there to be a God for that. I became a touchy-feely Californian in the 1960s. I understand that one prays as a form of meditation – to calm the soul. And I love how the Jews figured out thousands of years ago that it was smart to shut down on a regular basis, stop working, be with loved ones, let in the light, and just be.
Turns out the Baptists got it wrong. “Mumbling” prayers, doing things ritually, is not an empty gesture. It’s not even an insincere act, necessarily. It’s good for the soul because it lowers stress on the mind and the body. OK, so that’s instrumentalizing worship, using it for selfish purposes. I don’t care. The nice thing about chucking out the notion of an all-seeing all-powerful deity is that it frees you up to enjoy the idea of being alive. No need to worry about an afterlife. Assume you only go around once. Better get it right the first time because there’s only the first time.

Because I chose to go down that path and call myself a humanist, not a religious person, I’ve naturally wondered how I made that choice. Was it really a choice? Was it not simply a set of experiences which led me to conclude that was the way to go? Other people, for a whole host of reasons, make different choices. It’s all so damned arbitrary.

Wouldn’t it be nice if I could go back in time and spend a few hours over coffee or a couple glasses of wine with Jesus and get him to clear up these things. But that just begs another question. Would you have to learn Galilean Aramaic to talk with him? Or would he speak modern-day American English? So many questions. Since nobody speaks Galilean Aramaic anymore, I could, of course, spend a couple years living among the Aramaic-speaking Assyrians of Northern Iraq and learn their language, but that door closed when I read somewhere that those still speaking the so-called “language of Jesus” were speaking an Aramaic that was not mutually intelligible with Galilean Aramaic. Damn, they make things hard.

Then I learned that he spoke Greek. And probably some Latin. But probably not enough to debate the finer points of theology. Besides, my Latin is limited to “Fiat Lux” and “E Pluribus Unum” and my Greek is even worse. So that’s pretty much out. Whoever came up with the idea that you could just speak English and Jesus would be cool with it?

What would I ask him? I don’t know much about Galilean etiquette. He never married and I’d love to know if he was gay, but asking him that right out of the blue would probably be as rude in Nazareth as it would be in Peoria. I'm curious about whether he masturbates and if so how often and who he fantasizes over when he does, but it wouldn't really benefit me to know the answer to that, so I probably wouldn't ask. But I’d really like to know if he’s one of the tribe.

How does he keep clean? Do they have soap? Do they soak in a tub after a day on the Mediterranean with his disciples hauling in the fish? Or with his dad, sanding down the dining room chairs? Does he like dogs and cats?

These are not trivial questions. I know it’s a popular notion these days, particularly among Evangelicals, to see Jesus as a personal friend, a guy you can talk to about anything – your desire to get laid, your fear of spiders, your love of opera. If you’re going to be his friend, it’s important to find common ground. I doubt I could take him very seriously if he smells bad, and if he were to suggest it’s OK to eat dogs and cats, I’d throw him down the stairs.

What was his relationship with his step-father, Joseph, like, I wonder. Or his step brothers (same mother, different father). Did he really die and come back to life? Does he still have those holes in his side or have they healed shut?

What’s his take on Brexit? Does he think Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will ever fill Angela Merkel’s shoes? Does he even care?

Does he care that some Americans are upset that some of us say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” because we don’t want the non-Christians among us to feel left out? And that some Christians find that a sign that the country is going to the dogs? Does he have a take on this?

Headscarves? Abortion? Circumcision?

Does he care that the Walton family controls 1,508,965,874 shares out of 2,952,478,528 total shares outstanding in their family business and earns more than $25,149 a minute while their workers earn only $9.00 an hour? Does that bother him? Or does he have bigger fish to fry?

Does he agree with me that Martin Luther was a great man in history because he created a modern German language to translate the Bible into? Even though he was an anti-Semite? Is it possible to admire a person for their good features while loathing them for the flaws in their character? If so, does he think the Evangelicals are right when they say it’s OK to separate small children from their parents and label Mexicans rapists and murderers, so long as you keep American white people in charge of the show? Is he a Kantian or a utilitarian?

Does he love America more than other countries?

Does he hate me because I find the idea that he is a God absurd?

Does he think I should censor my questioning and stop asking about any damn thing that pops into my mind but ask him only about things like war and the death penalty?

Does he have a sense of humor?

Does he ever get chapped lips?

The questions just keep on coming.

Ever since when I was baptized they told me I needed to love God with all my heart, yes, but with all my mind, as well.

I’ve concluded that there’s no reason to believe in gods and ghosts and demons, but Jesus is a historical figure about whom much has been said. Much of that is bullshit, of course, and I’d really like to clear things up.

Now that I’m retired, I’m free pretty much anytime, for some Q&A.

If he’s got the time.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Family - the book and now the docu-drama

Thou hypocrite,” rails the Gospel of St. Matthew, “first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.”

My father never went to church. “Why would you go there?” he would ask. “That’s where all the hypocrites are?” Come to think of it, I never saw him pray, either.

He didn’t prevent my mother from taking my sister and me to Sunday School and church, however. He just didn’t go himself. His was pretty much a live-and-let-live approach to the world.

I feel sorry for earnest Christians. Not only are good people leaving the churches in droves; the bad ones are staying in and turning the church, at least the American church, into a fascist organization. And by fascist, I mean an authoritarian, power-centered, win-by-any-means organization.

American Christians have always been a fractured group. They are frequently far more interested in telling you why they are the only real Christians and others who call themselves Christians are not. And that means “real” is often understood to be that which the largest number of people tell you is real. Getting at the real reality, like getting at truth, remains eternally elusive. Especially in this age of “fake news” where the general population has been convinced that since there is no way to find it, one might just as well give up and go with the gods of the tribe. Or, for the more hard-core fascists, the tribal leader as a stand-in for the Almighty.

Where Christians are particularly bad at missing the beam in their own eyes is when they describe Islam as a religion of violence, and claim, erroneously, as Ben Carson has done, that the Qur’an approves of deception in order to further the faith. Here we have a fundamentalist Christian accusing others – and getting it wrong – of doing the precise thing a large number of fundamentalists themselves do: present themselves as honest peace-loving folk when they are in fact worshipers of power and unashamed of manipulating it, by gerrymandering, by limiting the voting rights of their opponents, by packing the judiciary with their supporters to their own benefit. 

And then there's the notion of "the chosen," a special inner circle of elect folk favored by God, a bit of theological poison dreamed up by Calvin that is inimical to democracy in the extreme but still alive today, to some degree, even in mainstream (non-Lutheran) Protestantism. It justifies viewing the rich as not only smart, but somehow more worthy, and makes the notion of taxing them to generate the resources it would take to give us free health care, free education through university and a minimum wage that everyone could live on a real uphill climb. 

If you are not yet familiar with Jeff Sharlet’s two books on The Family, I urge you to run out and get a copy forthwith. I think the evidence of right-wing chicanery he exposes should be required reading for all Americans. And I don’t mean just political junkies, but anyone who wants to understand American society today.

In a nutshell, Sharlet exposes the myth that American Christians worship Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who preaches love, not hate; forgiveness, not vengeance; and compassion, not disregard for the widow, the orphan, the stranger in the land. They say they do – and a good many actually make some effort to put these virtues into practice – but a very large number of them - including the politically most powerful - are children of an angry God. Their God is about to bring on the end of the world at any time now; their Savior is the guy who will return with the sword this time. And their evangelical leaders, including the likes of Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, have a surefire strategy for achieving power. Their claim is that Christians who are focused on the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount have it all wrong. It’s not the meek who shall inherit the earth; it’s the strong. And the sooner one recognizes that fact, the better. It’s not the sheep; it’s the wolf. If you want to get ahead in this world, according to these Jesus-folk, follow the wolf; the sheep will naturally follow.

Billy Graham pioneered the strategy of making friends with presidents and kings, putting the wolf-not-the-sheep notion into practice. His intellectual successor was not his son Franklin, but two more capable evangelists who operated from behind the scenes. One of these was Abraham Vereide, the Methodist minister who came to the aid of Seattle’s most prominent business leaders in busting the power of the unions in the 1930s, and came up with the concept of the National Prayer Breakfast. The second of these was Doug Coe, who carried on Vereide’s dream of creating networks of followers of Jesus based on the idea that these followers could be of any religious persuasion.

What is controversial about The Family is the degree to which Coe’s intentions were sinister. Vereide’s support of corporate leaders' interests over workers’ interests places him in the company of the modern-day 1% working for themselves against the 99%, and nothing separates religious Christians from political Christians more clearly than the appeal to focus on the wolf and not the lamb, the essence of right-wing religion in a nutshell. 

To be sure, there is evidence that cutting through the theological complexities of Christian doctrine and using the name of Jesus as a talisman has actually worked on more than one occasion to bring powerful people together, arguably more effectively than many diplomatic efforts have. What remains problematic, however, is that we cannot be certain that this a grand idea that has been ruined by imperfect followers who twisted its idealistic intentions to nefarious ends. Is it that, in fact?  Or is the wolf-not-the-lamb strategy flawed from the start?

Rather than attempt to answer that question, I’d recommend a third version of Sharlet’s contribution to understanding the intersection of religion and politics in America today: the five-part docu-series produced by Netflix, with Jeff Sharlet as executive producer, also called The Family. There are two good reviews on the series, one by Joel Keller and one by Joel Mayward, both of whom find the film less than a perfect vessel but nonetheless very much worth watching.

What is astonishing, once you let the message of the film sink in, is how many people there are who are not of a right-wing Christian persuasion  – Hillary Clinton, for example – who have added their weight to the Prayer Breakfast event, despite its Family connections.  Perhaps it's because politicians can readily understand the advantages of networking, and are willing to blur the line between government and religion and prioritize not only faith, but the Christian faith in American life when they find it expedient to do so.

If you are at least a nominal Christian, one who believes morality is tied to the Christian faith, this may strike you as beneficial. Or at worst, far more neutral than harmful. But then you can't escape the complex questions: Is Islamic fundamentalism a violent faith? And is it different, in essence, from a Christian fundamentalism that throws its support behind Republican policies that favor the rich, that support efforts to disenfranchise black voters because black voters tend to vote Democratic, that deny a climate crisis because it is in the interest of American energy corporations to maintain maximum levels of use of fossil fuels, and that separate immigrant children from their parents and claim it is because these asylum seekers are rapists and murderers in disguise?

I know it’s disheartening to encounter these questions on a daily basis, and the temptation is strong to turn away. I find myself spending an ever greater portion of my time listening and watching talented singers and dancers, streaming TV detective thrillers and defending my canine daughters from their other daddy, who likes to wrap tea towels on their heads and make them look like East European babushkas.

But I strongly urge you to watch The Family. 

And read the book.

You won’t be sorry.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Imagine that you’re a foreign high school student from France. You get a chance to go to the United States and spend a year living with a family in Buffalo, New York. One of the first things you notice your first day of school is the image of an electric chair worked into the tiles in the entryway.

You quickly learn your way around and friends invite you to a basketball game on the weekend. When you get there, you see that all the players are wearing images of an electric chair on their jerseys. You are told it’s the school’s emblem, chosen because a well-known professor from what is now the State University of New York at Buffalo invented the method of execution and the symbol evokes local pride.

If this scenario strikes you as bizarre, then imagine you are a foreign high school student from Japan. You are from Fukuoka, not far from Nagasaki. Your grandparents were living in nearby Kokura in 1945, the site of the intended second atomic bomb drop. Because of bad weather, the planes dropped the bomb on Nagasaki instead. But for the cloudy skies, your grandparents would likely be dead and you would not exist.

You get a chance to go to the United States and spend a year with a host family in Richland, Washington. One of the first things you notice your first day of school is the image in the entryway of a big R surrounded by a mushroom cloud. You learn that Richland is the location of the Hanford Site, a nuclear production complex and home of the B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world. The mascot of Richland High School is “The Bombers” and one of the cheers at games is “Proud of the Cloud!”

The electric chair is something to be proud of. It kills bad guys when the time comes to kill bad guys.

No reason why you can’t use it as a high school mascot, is there?

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Laugh if you're up for it

Sometimes a banana is just a banana.

And sometimes you just have to let yourself laugh when somebody falls down the stairs. Or, in this case, gets pushed off the stage.

That's what happened to Father Marcello Rossi,  a priest in Sao Paolo, Brazil, the other day.

It's mean. But it can be funny, if the person falling is in clerical drag and you've wished your whole life something like this would happen to people who collect a salary for proclaiming God doesn't like gays or uppity women or people who practice birth control. Whose boss actually declared (until 2010) that condoms must not be used to fight AIDS.

Don't get all righteous on me and tell me it's not nice to wish other people ill. And don't waste time insisting your ethical system would be OK with pushing Hitler off the stage, but this priest is no Hitler.

Of course he wasn't. And decent man, child molester, homophobe or nebbish, it really doesn't matter. Of course we should all put ourselves in his place and ask how it would feel being shoved off a stage by somebody who doesn't like you. Or at least doesn't care if you get hurt or not. Of course he doesn't deserve to be dealt with violently.

But what are we to make of the reaction to this incident? After you watch this video, take the time to read the commentary. Most of it is celebratory. Most people who took the time to tune in are glad to see a Roman Catholic priest "get what's coming to him."  Look how many comments refer to the child abuse history in the church. Or the homophobia. To say there's no shortage of resentment of the church being expressed here would be a gross understatement.

Unfortunately, from what I've been able to dig up so far (and I admit I haven't really dug that far) we're not clear about the background to this event. Was he preaching that God doesn't like fat women? Was the pusher a crazy lady? All innuendo so far; very little real background information.

The press coverage isn't necessarily helpful. Several sources, here, here and here, claim it's because Rossi claimed fat women don't go to heaven.

You have to ask yourself, could he have been that stupid? Or is this fake news?  Is the resentment expressed in the commentaries against this priest, Marcello Rossi, as an individual or as a member of the RC clergy? Can one argue that this incident is emblematic of the loss of prestige of the church? Or is it just one of those events out of the blue?

I remember a time gone by when we turned the knob on the TV set to listen to Walter Cronkite tell us about the important events of the day. The term "fake news" had not been invented. The priests in my home town visited all their parishioners once a year to update their estimates of how much money they could probably afford to pledge to the church's coffers. Nobody would dream of laying a hand on father. My friend Tommy went to confession every Saturday to store up enough good vibes to be able to resist touching his girlfriend's boobs that night. He always failed, but that gave him material to take into confession the following Saturday.

I'll admit, I didn't just laugh; I guffawed when I saw the good father bite the dust. Too many years of stored resentment for my better nature to call the shots. Second thought: I hope he didn't get hurt. Third thought: maybe we can start a new trend. Fourth thought: Sure hope this doesn't backfire and create sympathy for this sexist, homophobic crew that is the clergy.

Fifth thought: I wonder how many people I know out there are wondering why I don't get a life.