Some people have used “Right Coast” and “Left Coast” to refer to the cultures of the United States. It’s a forced label, a way of slamming the folks on the West Coast for being lefties. I say forced, because what’s the reason for calling the folks on the East Coast, splendid as they can be, “right?”It’s one of those labels that masks as much as it reveals. But I bring it up because I just heard that Minnesota has passed a same-sex marriage bill. By a healthy margin (75 to 59) in the House and a pretty satisfying one in the Senate (37 to 30) as well. I have this boxing image of knocking the opposition, left, right, and now center. I know that does a serious disservice to Iowa, who got there first. But people kept calling Iowa a fluke. Now, with Minnesota also allowing gays and lesbians to marry, Iowa has shown it was more a trend-setter than a fluke.So close on the heels of the state senate vote in Rhode Island in April, extending the rights to all six New England states, and Delaware a month earlier, Minnesota seems like a much bigger deal, not just because of the fact it extends gay rights north from Iowa farther into the heartland of America but because Minnesota was one of those states where it clearly looked for a while like it was going to go to a constitutional ban. It’s a really dramatic turn-around. Minnesota, remember, is where that catshit crazy lady, Michele Bachmann, comes from, the wacko arguing now that 9/11 and the Boston Massacre are the punishment of an angry God on a sinful nation. Following her logic, they need to dig up Tamerlan Tsunaev's grave in Virginia and put his remains wherever we put those folks who died serving the Lord's purpose. Ms. B. also makes the argument that what has just happened "denies religious liberty to people who believe in traditional marriage," a deliciously original way of using the English language, since no liberty has been taken away except the alleged liberty to take away other people's liberty, which liberty no one in this country has in the first place. "How dare you take away "my right" to dictate what rights you should have?" she is saying – "You have no right to remove my right to stand on your toes."What a relief Minnesotans with a brain must be feeling to see some evidence she doesn't speak for the whole state - even if they don't agree with the outcome.Also significant is the speed of change. It all started in Massachusetts in 2004, but it was four more years before California and Connecticut would follow suit in 2008. Now we have three states approving it in very rapid succession and bringing the total to twelve. (I should note that the "approval" dates vary depending on whether you count the days, like this one, when the second house of the legislature approves it, the date when the governor signs it, or the date it goes into effect. Minnesota's law will go into effect on August 1, if the governor signs it - and he has promised he will.)Twice in my life I have gotten involved in gay politics at a time when we faced a formidable opposition to gay rights. The first was the Briggs Initiative, when Anita Bryant was on the verge of convincing Californians that if we allowed gay men to teach in the public schools they would abuse their children. The second was when the Catholics and the Mormons teamed up to buy enough airtime to persuade the next generation of gullible Californians of something similar – gays are not people to be allowed near your children. Because of those scare messages, the majority voted to take away the right of gays and lesbians to marry in a state referendum, the infamous Prop. 8, the constitutionality of which is now being debated in the Supreme Court.We know exactly where that anti-gay message originates. Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI of the Roman Catholic Church, has referred to gay people as “intrinsically disordered.” He had earlier referred to homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil.” That message was passed on to American Catholics by their bishops in the fall of 2006, when Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., head of the committee on doctrine, declared: "Homosexual acts are never morally acceptable. Such acts never lead to happiness," he said, because they are "intrinsically disordered."Interestingly, American Catholics knew when to let things go in one ear and out the other. Polls show Catholics are ahead of the average American voter in approving the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. You’ve got to wonder about the intelligence of the likes of Serratelli, a grown man who claims millions of people cannot be happy because they do not share catholic hang-ups.The other source of funds buying misinformation has been the Mormon Church. There too, there has been an interesting development. Thanks to the dogged efforts of Fred Karger, among others, the once hidden fact that the church had had 77 people working on the California debate over Prop. 8 in their headquarters in Salt Lake, has been exposed, and there has been a huge backlash. So much so that the church is now apparently backing down. It was effectively a no-show in the Rhode Island debate, for example.Possibly the most dramatic revelation, though, of how homophobes work may be in the latest tax return of the so-called “National Organization for Marriage.” It turns out this group, which claims to be the voice of conservative America, is actually 90.5% funded by ten individuals. 70% funded by two individuals. What once looked like it might be a serious grass roots effort turns out to be just another example of Americans trying to buy votes. Not so much a story about homophobia as a story about how money talks in America.It’s like watching sand castles being washed away by the tide.There’s still tons of work to do. Best guess on the Supreme Court decision seems to be they are going to throw it back at the states to decide. If that happens, we will have to go state by state through these expensive debates and discussions and votes to rescind the constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage. That will take time.But at least now we’re don’t have to compare ourselves to the former East and West Pakistan, a nation divided by a whole bunch of "not our kind" of people. You can get married on the East Coast. You can get married on the West Coast. And you can get married in the Center.Happy days.
Just came across a great story from that wonderful city I went to on my very first adventure with bright lights and the big city – Munich, Germany. It was in 1960 when I first discovered that “Millionendorf” (village of a million people) with its thirty-seven museums and its forty kinds of beer. It was a treasure store of grand boulevards and rococo churches and its beautiful English Garden. Still is. It was my opening to the world after growing up in rural New England. I’ve written about how rural New England is no longer a place I want to run from. But it’s also true, once I had a taste of city life, which Munich gave me, I never looked back, and I’ve never been sorry.With my North German background, there was a bit of distancing from Catholic Bavaria. Not real prejudice, actually, but sort of a sense that “they’re not us.” Not much different from what New Englanders feel about people from the Carolinas. Or used to. So much has changed since I was a kid.It was in Munich that I left behind first organized religion and, soon after, religion altogether. I had joined the Lutheran Church while I was in college, and since I had grown up associating the German Lutheran Church my family attended with Germany, I expected to find a home. I deliberately sought out a Lutheran dormitory to live in. Instead of the beer-drinking, singing, dancing, fun-loving Germans I grew up with I found a rather cold, rigid and somber folk. Not bad people. Just not a whole lot of fun.For years I accepted the explanation that it was because Munich was so very Catholic that the Lutherans who lived there had become defensive about their faith, and that led to a kind of killer earnestness. I doubt now that I had my finger on the pulse of religious differences, but I do remember how very strongly religious identity figured in my life in those days. And how very conscious I was that I was living in an intensely Roman Catholic environment.Then the years went by and I remember reading somewhere that by 2010 non-Catholics had come to outnumber Catholics in Munich. Things change in fifty years.All this by way of a very long introduction to another, totally unrelated story of a boy and his Catholic Church I read in a Munich paper just now. It’s the tale of a guy named Markus who wanted to be a priest.“No way,” said the church. “You’re gay.”Fine, he says. I’ll just go and make babies, then.Which he did. Twenty-two so far, and counting.Markus became a sperm donor. Found him a bunch of lesbians who wanted to make babies with him, and together they followed the biblical instruction to be fruitful and multiply.All this might not have happened if the state (don’t know whether it was Bavaria or the Federal Republic) had not determined that lesbians would not be eligible to apply for sperm donations. Fine, says Markus. If the state won't let you pay for sperm, I’ll give you my stuff in a cup for nothing. Come on over, bring your partner, we’ll do the thing, you stand on your head for a while and we’ll see what happens. Turns out young Markus has some powerful stuff. It almost always takes the first time.What you see here is old-world Catholic Bavaria, like most Catholic regions, once a conservative and patriarchal place, giving way to a new Bavaria, more secular, more accepting, more "catholic" in the sense of all-embracing. As the church's influence wanes (attendance dropped from 22% in 1990 to 13% in 2009), so do some of its tired ways.There is irony all over this story. The church, with all its talk of "family values," has become a dried-up increasingly irrelevant institution. Religion, more often than not, is little more than a kind of "decayed spirituality" and the Roman Catholic Church illustrates that definition to a tee. For years, gays and lesbians knocked at the church door appealing to be allowed in. Increasingly they're learning the world can actually be a better place if they stop knocking. No longer satisfied to be the spinster auntie or nice uncle Freddie who never found the right girl, they are making their own families now. Oh, and Mr. Bishop person? You can't fire me; I quit.What you have here is one instance of women who are building families together. Under the old rules, women had to marry men if they wanted children. Under the new rules they can marry each other and illustrate the old feminist maxim that women need men the way a fish needs a bicycle.That’s way overstated, of course, because it does not, and never will, tell the story of most women for whom the heterosexual model works just fine, thank you. But here in the land of the three Ks, where Kinder (children) once went only with Küche (the kitchen) and Kirche (church), some women have found them a nice man named Markus to make babies with, and from all appearances things are working out just fine.I say from all appearances because I know this guy Markus only from the newspaper story. I don't know the real guy. Unless I hear otherwise, though, I’m going to assume his motives are what he says they are. He charges no money for his sperm. He identifies himself to the children born with his genes, so if they have questions about where they came from, they will get answers. He may one day come to think this was not the best way to go. He’s already, apparently, having trouble finding a partner, because he is committed to the women he has worked with and the children he has spawned. After all, would you get involved with a man who has twenty-two children to buy birthday presents for, twenty-two birthday cakes with candles to blow out? And counting? Then there's his mother. "Stop, my darling child. For the love of God, that's enough!"The important part of this story, though, it seems to me, is that Markus and these lesbian mothers are bringing children into the world who are wanted and will be cared for. They are being born into families who, from all appearances, will raise them in loving homes. The parents, biological and chosen, are taking responsibility for their actions. There are no accidental pregnancies here, and none of these children will ever doubt that their real parents (the women who raise them) wanted them and that their biological father was the very antithesis of a deadbeat dad. A man who once wanted to be a priest, yet.And – I don’t know about you – but I think it would be cool to know you have 21 half brothers and sisters and to be able to name them all. Without being born in a harem or to polygamist Mormon fundamentalists, I mean.The only part of the story that I think people might want to take issue with is Markus’ snide remark that he enjoys getting back at the church that rejected him. Sounds a tad petty, I'll admit, but I think the church has that one coming. And it doesn’t change the fact that he’s going about this with a high sense of responsibility, or so it seems to me.Brave new world, this is. New families. New rules. Lots of new things.As for that old line the homophobes drag out every time there is a debate over same-sex marriage – God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and gays and lesbians shouldn’t be allowed to get married because they can’t reproduce.Well, by showing Markus the would-be priest the door, the Catholic Church in Munichjust fixed that, now didn’t they.
baby picture credit: (Note: The baby in this picture is not related to any of the babies in the story, as far as I know. It's just a terribly cute baby named Otto, and I hope his parents, whose blog I found this picture on, won't mind if I use him to represent happy babies everywhere.)
Taku and I had a lovely pizza dinner at friend Jason's last night (salmon pizza, another with Italian sausage, a third with "white" vegetables - all in loving memory of Jason's partner, Anthony, whose pizza-making talents were legendary.
Taku is heading for Japan shortly for a memorial service for his grandmother and has been out buying a black suit and black tie so as not to stand out as an ugly American with a Hawaiian shirt for the occasion. And the talk, over pizza, turned to death and dying and other things funereal.
"What are those slats you find at Japanese graves?" Jason asked.
"I don't know," Taku answered. "Something written in Sanskrit."
And we sat there feeling real uninformed - which we were, of course - and in need of enlightenment. It was something both of us - Taku with his twenty-four years spent in Japan and me with my twenty-four years spent in Japan (not all the same years) - felt we ought to have picked up somewhere, but hadn't.
The first thing I discovered, as I went digging this morning, was that those flat-faced wooden slats you find next to Japanese graves are called sotōba. In Chinese characters, that’s: 卒塔婆. And that strikes me as terribly curious, since sotōba (actually the second o is a long o, so it’s pronounced so-toe-oh-ba, ((but say it real fast so nobody thinks you’re stressing the oh)) ) is actually the Japanese way of saying “stupa.” And stupas, as you know, are those round things that look like an inverted tea cups. So how did tea cups turn into flat sticks, Roseanne Rosannadanna wants to know…
All-knowing Wikipedia has this to say about stupas:A stupa (from Sanskrit: m., स्तूप, stūpa, Sinhalese: දාගැබ, Pāli: थुप "thūpa", literally meaning "heap") is a mound-like or semi-hemispherical structure containing Buddhist relics, typically the ashes of Buddhist monks, used by Buddhists as a place of meditation.Type 卒塔婆 into your Japanese-English Google translator and you’ll see it translates it as “stupa.” Wikipedia makes mistakes, but Google is never wrong.Here (above) is a picture taken by a blogger of a stupa in Gotemba, near Mt. Fuji:
And here are a couple of images of the sticks we're talking about, also known as stupa/sotōba.And that brings us to the content written on these sticks/stupas/sotobas. What’s written on those sticks/planks/pieces of wood (no offense intended) is the “kaimyou” 戒名. The “kai” means “instructions, or “warnings”, the “myo” means “name.” So the “name you use when you are on guard” is the posthumous Buddhist name you are given after you die. For which you drop a little cash into the collection box.According to one source, those crafty Buddhist caretakers have been gouging the bereaved of late:
Bereaved families throughout Japan have been shocked by the amounts of money charged by priests and temples. Bills totaling several million yen are not uncommon and have left many people feeling like victims of price-gouging.
… “Kaimyo is not a commodity to be traded for money,” says the Japan Buddhist Federation, comprised of 60 established Buddhist sects. “Any money or gift you give to your priest or temple is strictly a donation you offer voluntarily.”The same article says a kaimyou name is made up of only two characters, but you can beef it up by adding more characters to give the deceased a higher rank. And why would you have poor gramps live his eternity as a corporal when you can make him at least a colonel? Originally everybody got a kaimyou when they embraced the Buddhist faith. Apparently now you only get one when you pop off, evidently because – in Japan, at least – that’s the first time you get really serious about your religion.Kaimyou is also translated “precept name” – precepts as in rules for living: no harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication, although why you should slap the rules for living on somebody just as he passes off his mortal coil remains a mystery to me – as was the reason a stick is called a stupa, which sent me off on this quest for answers.In digging around, I kept coming back to the story of the “Sotoba Komachi,” which in Arthur Whaley’s account of the story, is about an old woman named Komachi who sits and rests on a “stupa” (Sotoba no Komachi = “Komachi of the stupa”), which is described now not as a teacup but as a “log carved into five parts, representing the ‘five elements’. Komachi is apparently well-known to those up on Noh drama. Ono no Komachi was a 9th century erotic poet known for her beauty. She is courted by Fukakusa no Shosho. She tells him if he will visit her continuously for one hundred nights, she will become his lover. He almost makes it, but misses one night and she has to turn him down. Whereupon he dies of a broken heart. And then his death sends her into such grief that she dies. Things were tough in the 9th Century.
Her story lives on in Noh Drama and in poetry. Here she is, in her old age, sitting on a stupa (a highly irreverant act, we have to note). Which leads to another question. If she dies of grief, what the hell is she doing sitting on the stupa in her old age? Answer one question and another just pops up. Apparently she lived to a ripe old age and had plenty of time to "meditate on the arrogance and heartlessness she displayed to her suitors as a young beauty" (so this happened more than once?) before dying of a broken heart.
And you've got to love the poetry, (it's a waka, by the way) I think:
Original Japanese Text Roman characters Approximate meaning 花の色は 移りにけりな
Hana no iro wa Utsurinikeri na
Wa ga mi yo ni furu
Nagame seshi ma ni
The flower colors wilted and faded away
while I meaninglessly
existed in this world
as the long lasting rain continued
top to bottom: sky, wind, fire, water, earth
So much Google can teach you when you let your fingers do the walking. This search took a while, but I got there. The real fun part, though, were all the distractions along the way.
Like this, for example:
The high prices of funeral plots, costing on average 2 million yen, have led to a new service of Grave Apartments (お墓のマンション ohaka no manshon?), where a locker-sized grave can be purchased for about 400,000 yen. Some of these may even include a touch screen showing a picture of the deceased, messages, a family tree, and other information. Due to the cost of land, a graveyard in Tokyo has recently been opened by a temple in floors 3 to 8 of a nine story building, where the lower floors are for funeral ceremonies.[citationIt would appear that, in Japan, at least, you can die and immediately “move upstairs.”And, alas, Japan is not the crime-free paradise it once was. Apparently you can get your ashes stolen for ransom.
There are a number of cases where the ashes of deceased persons have been stolen from graves. The ashes of famous cartoonist Machiko Hasegawa and of the wife of real estate chairman Takichi Hayasaka were stolen for ransom. The ashes of famous novelist Yukio Mishima (1925–1970) were stolen in 1971 and the ashes of novelist Naoya Shiga were stolen in 1980. The ashes of the wife of the baseball player Sadaharu Oh went missing in December 2002. (source).
The Mimizuka Stupa
Anyway, you can see (left) how the stupa is now getting vertical.
And here you see (on the right) a close-up of a wooden stick divided into the five parts.
The search for the what these sticks were on all these Japanese graves, which led to the discovery that they were the same thing as stupas, is now solved. Check out here, for example, where you read, just to sum up:
The stupa was originally a structure or other sacred building containing a relic of Buddha or of a saint, then it was gradually stylized in various ways and its shape can change quite a bit according to the era and to the country where it is found. Often offertory strips of wood with five subdivisions and covered with elaborate inscriptions also called sotoba can be found at tombs in Japanese cemeteries (see photo below). The inscriptions contain sūtra and the posthumous name of the dead person. These can be considered stupa variants.And there you have it.See where conversations over pizza can lead you.
picture credits: the Gotemba stupa
All the New Englander parts of my identity are dancing up and down at the moment. Rhode Island, the sixth and final New England state to approve same-sex marriage has just put out the welcome mat. New England now speaks with one voice, and that voice has said, loud and clear, that the era when gays and lesbians were expected to cower in shame before the boney pointed fingers of bishops and bible thumpers is now done. At least in New England.I grew up in Connecticut, went to college in Vermont, was confirmed in a church in New Hampshire. My father was from New England’s capital, Boston, in Massachusetts. When asked years ago where I would most like to live, I remember thinking of the coast of Maine, which I knew as a lobster-loving kid. Rhode Island is the only state I don’t have many connections with, other than learning as a kid it was founded by Roger Williams running from the theocratic Pilgrim fathers, and was a place one could be proud of. Roger Williams has been referred to as the first abolitionist, and he gets credit, as well, for being the author of the idea of a “wall of separation” between church and state, an idea and a phrase which Thomas Jefferson picked up. (I was taught by Baptist Sunday School teachers, and some of that religious-nationalist pride has stuck, it would seem.) Forgive me for my slant on things, thinking the state now has lived up to its potential as a place for free-thinkers. Took some time getting there, but they’re there.I left New England for California nearly three quarters of my life ago, and without regrets. California. You know. That state that used to lead in education, in mental health care, in so many ways. Also, unfortunately, the state that gave us Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and Proposition 8. You’ll forgive me if once in a while I wonder if my rejection of my New England roots and my total embrace of California was really the right move.It was. I have selected one part of New England that is admirable and put it up against parts of California that are not. An intellectually dishonest comparison and a waste of time. But I can’t help those thoughts bouncing around in my head right now, which I’m going to give free rein to and say, “New England, I’m glad to know you. I think you’re mighty fine.”It’s not yet a done deal, of course. The Rhode Island house approved it some time ago, and the senate voted yes just yesterday (Wednesday, April 24). The governor has agreed to sign it. It just has to go back to the house for approval of the latest changes, basically giving some righteous religious organizations the right to keep their view that there is something wrong with homosexual people.The votes are clear victories. The Rhode Island House approved it 51 to 19 and the Senate 26 to 12. These are considerable margins, all the more significant when you consider that Rhode Island has the second highest percentage (44.3) of Roman Catholics (after Massachusetts, with 44.9) in the country. Once again we need to remember that when you hear people speak of “the Catholic vote” or “the Catholic church’s position” that they may be making the erroneous assumption that the hierarchy is the church.It has been a great run for gay people lately. I blogged my delight at the Maori love song at the New Zealand parliament the other day. I apologized (as if they needed it) to Argentina for not making a bigger deal when they extended rights to gays and lesbians we don’t have in this country. And Uruguay – that country I’ve always given a bad rap to because my pocket got picked once in Montevideo. (The rap is totally unjustified, by the way, because other Montevideans went out of their way to get my passport and wallet back to me, when the thieves tossed them into the street.) So bully for Uruguay!And France! How about France! As my friend Elizabeth said once, when complaining about life in Germany – “There’s only two things wrong with these people – they don’t make decent croissants and they’re not French.”The battle in France is interesting. In the center of Paris, just a seven minute walk from the Hotel Esmeralda, where my partner and I stayed in a room looking out on Notre Dame, one time – one could never have a more storybook Parisian vacation – just seven minutes from there is the church of St. Nicholas de Chardonnet. Despite the smile that name should bring to the lips of any wine-loving Francophile, the church is actually a center for an archly conservative Catholic group known as the SSPX, the Society of Saint Pius the Tenth, a group committed to the idea that the reforms of Vatican II were in error and we need to go back to the old ways. You know the old ways. Blaming Jews for the death of Christ. Keeping women barefoot and pregnant. So conservative they even embarrass the pope. A kind of Tea Party with überCatholic values.The church is a center for the opposition forces fighting against the right of French gays and lesbians to marry and news items lately include images of the good Abbé Beauvais in Roman collar shouting at the CRS (the riot police) to “matraquez les décadents" (club those decadent people!). So much for the religion of God’s love. For a more in-depth treatment of the church’s role in the French opposition to marriage equality, see Bill Lindsay’s blog this morning and the John Lichfield article in The Independent to which he refers.Fortunately, despite the surprising amount of violence associated with the struggle for this latest step in full equality for LGBT people in France, the French parliament went and did it. Voted on Tuesday, a day ahead of Rhode Island, for marriage rights to all. The vote was 331 to 225, another comfortable margin, although four conservatives later claimed they didn’t know what they were voting for because the light was in their eyes. Just joking. One guy said there were too many flashing lights on his electronic voting board. We all get confused. They allowed him to change his vote.The Connecticut Senate (yeah, home state!) just voted 34 to 0 to allow gay people who lost their veteran rights under Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell to get those rights back.Santa Fe, New Mexico’s city council pulled a Gavin Newsom the other day and voted 5 to 3 to grant marriage licenses to gay people to marry on the grounds there were no laws against it in New Mexico. (San Francisco’s mayor Gavin Newsom, remember, got the ball rolling which eventually got same-sex marriage rights passed in California before Prop. 8 overturned them.)Delaware, Minnesota, Illinois and Nevada are all talking about same-sex marriage rights. No telling who will get there first and how long it will take the stragglers, but the momentum is unmistakable. The GOP sees the writing on the wall and one Republican congressman after another is switching sides. The conservatives in Britain and the socialists in France are both leading the charge. From mighty world power France to little Rhody, people are coming to recognize the evil that has been done in the name of fear and organized religion, and they are now increasing the pace to put things right. It feels good to be able to see positive change like this.And did I tell you I’m from New England, originally?
I fell in love with a song yesterday. Went absolutely ape-shit bonkers over it. Couldn’t stop listening to it.The song is the Maori love song, Pokarekare Ana, and it serves as New Zealand’s unofficial national anthem. Imagine. A country with a national anthem that is a love song.I already had a powerful admiration for New Zealand - for its willingness to lead in opposition to nuclear proliferation, for the fact it was the first modern state to have universal suffrage (in 1893), and for being the first country to have its three top positions held by women (Prime Minister, Helen Clark; Governor General, Dame Silvia Cartwright; and Chief Justice, Sian Elias). But yesterday my admiration went off the charts. And I can’t be sure whether it was because they became the thirteenth nation to extend the civil right to marry to gays and lesbians, or because when they did so their parliament was ground to a halt by the singing of a love song. Have a look at the video of the vote count announcement for the full experience. Make sure you have your hankie at the ready.If you’re a New Zealander, you’re probably shaking your head at my naïveté, or wondering where I’ve been all these years that I shouldn’t know this melody. Or at my presumptuousness to think this song might get picked up by gays and lesbians as their theme song, as well. I was probably overdoing it there, but no matter. The song went straight to the heart and began to dance there.It’s not just the melody that got to me, obviously. It’s a rather plain song, not in the same league as some of the more dramatic show tunes – think Alfie Boe singing “Bring Him Home,” for example, at the 25th Anniversary performance of Les Misérables at Albert Hall. It’s more in league, maybe, with Amazing Grace in singability and for the way it lends itself to rich harmonies by choirs and large groups of people. It’s a song, in other words, that spells community. And solidarity. And optimism. Listen to this version, for example by a college men’s group called the Front Row Chorus.And that’s not to say it doesn’t hold its own when kicked upstairs (or schmaltzed up, depending on your degree of music snobbery) and sung by soloists who know how to knock you over with their talent. This operatic duet version with Welsh tenor Bryn Terfel and that New Zealander popular singer with the purest of voices, Soprano Hayley Dee Westenra. Or, Hayley Westenra doing it solo. Here, for example, if you'd like it with Japanese subtitles.Then there are the many versions by New Zealand’s own Kiri Te Kanawa, herself of Maori origin. This Millenium New Zealand performance, for example. Or this one, where she sings it a capella:Apparently it has made a huge hit not only in Japan, but in Korea, as well. Here are a couple versions done by Korean groups, here and here. If your tear ducts haven't had enough flushing, consider that the reason the song is so big in Korea is that Maori soldiers came to the aid of South Korea during the Korean War and taught it to Korean children. Or so I'm told. If you'd like to sing along in Korean, here are the words in romaji (with some liberties taken with the English translation, as you can see).
Don't stop here. The many versions keep spilling out of YouTube like clowns out of a telephone booth. Some are exquisite, some merely good, some terribly schlocky - the Xena the Amazon Lady version, for example. Nice harmony, but the video is strictly you gotta be kidding.In digging around for more information about New Zealand and about this song, I came up with all sorts of interesting information. New Zealand has, besides God Save the Queen, I mean, an official national anthem that is also head and shoulders above most national anthems as a beautiful melody. How do they do it?And how do they know to treat their Maori minority with such respect? About half a million of New Zealand’s four million inhabitants are Maori, only just over 160,000 of whom have even conversational ability in the language. About 70,000 are native speakers today. But just as Switzerland accepts Romansch as one of its four official languages, New Zealand is not concerned with numbers, but with historical representation and respect.Not only is their national anthem a thing of beauty, it shouldn’t be missed that it is sung first in Maori, and then in English.And you haven’t heard it all yet. Besides considering Pokarekare Ana an unofficial national anthem, they actually have one more official one: The third language is New Zealand Sign Language.It occurred to me at some point yesterday while I was going on and on over what had just happened in New Zealand, that I had given Uruguay short shrift. They, too, had just passed legislation granting same-sex couples the same rights opposite-sex couples have to have their life partnerships recognized officially. And, for that matter, I didn’t hop up and down when Argentina granted its people those rights, either, despite the fact I have a special affection for Argentina for that wonderful period in my life when I lived there in 2007.The only way I can explain it, is that there was something about the music. Watching people cry and shout with delight is one thing. Watching them burst into song – a love song, at that – is another.picture credit of the New Zealand Parliament leader making the announcement that the vote was 77 to 44 in favor.Don't miss, while you're at it, the great speech by Maurice Williamson leading up to the vote.And that woman in the rainbow-colored coat at the center of it all in the first video of the vote count announcement? Her name is Louisa Wall, and she's the Labour MP for Manuwera. She's the major force behind it all. Kudos! Kudos too to the woman behind the woman, her partner, Prue Kapua.
The Supreme Court is taking up, at long last, two big court cases this week affecting the rights of LGBT people. On Tuesday they will hear the challenge to Prop. 8, which took away the right of LGBT people to marry in California. And on Wednesday, they will hear a challenge to DOMA, the nastily mis-named “Defense of Marriage Act” which imposed a no-gays-allowed policy nation wide that has prevented gays and lesbians from all sorts of benefits, from tax benefits to adoption rights to hospital visits – more than 1000 in all – that straight people enjoy and gay people don’t. Most people are predicting that DOMA will be overturned. There is less certainty about the Prop. 8 case.
If you have access to today’s New York Times, they did a splendid job of laying out the complexity of the two cases, on page 16, complete with flow chart and graphics depicting what people are calling the 1-state solution, the 9-state solution, and the 50-state solution to the Prop. 8 battle. (They don’t use these terms, and the graph was made before it became clear that Colorado would join the eight states with domestic partnerships, but the terms are the right ones.)The 1-state solution, if the Supreme Court decides to resolve the conflict this way, would overturn Prop. 8 in California and return to gays the right to marry, but it would leave everybody else out. It would uphold the decision that the U.S. District Court (Judge Walker) in California reached to overturn Prop. 8. It would be what is called “the narrow ruling,” the ruling which decides on the basis of those couples taking the case to court, not on the basis of all gay people’s rights generally. The way they would get there would be via a curious legalism. When Judge Walker decided Prop. 8 was unconstitutional, he decided in favor of the couples (one of whom was named Perry) who wanted to marry, and against the government of the State of California (then headed by Schwarzenegger), which was obliged to uphold the bad law. But then the government folk who were supposed to defend this homophobic law some more drew the line when it went to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. They said no. They (including Schwarzenegger) agreed with Walker that Perry should win and Schwarzenegger should lose, and they wouldn’t support it.So then the same anti-gay religious folk who put Prop. 8 on the ballot in the first place (and paid all that Knights of Columbus and Mormon money for false information to mislead California voters into voting for it) decided they would have to take up the appeal, if Schwarzenegger wouldn’t. Now in real life they should have been shown the door, since the rules say only people directly affected by the law have the right to sponsor efforts to do this. But somebody bent over backwards, and let them do it. What the Supreme Court can do now, if they want to make this a narrow ruling, is simply declare these religious pork butts had no standing. They should not have been allowed to take it to the Appeals Court in the first place. And that would mean the Appeals Court never happened (even though the Appeals Court upheld the Walker decision – told you it was complicated) and the Walker decision would stand.Nine U.S. states have domestic partnership or civil union rights (eight at the moment, and Colorado starting May 1st) which are essentially the same as marriage rights. This means that the battle over same-sex marriage in these states comes down to a battle over the right to the word “marriage.” The Supreme Court could decide to accept the argument that it makes no sense to grant rights to do something but insist on making a semantic distinction that hurts gays and at the same time doesn’t help straights. The 9-state solution would simply extend to the people in the nine states with domestic partnership or civil union rights, the right to call themselves married. That would mean gays and lesbians could marry in nine more states, in addition to the nine states (plus D.C.) where they can already marry, making it eighteen states plus D.C., where same-sex marriage is legal in the U.S.The 50-state solution, if chosen, would be derived from the argument that anti-gay bias is not a proper basis for law-making, and all restrictions gay people now live under would therefore be removed.Obviously I believe the right thing for the Supremes to do is give us the 50-state solution.Most people I know who have been following this struggle closely are guessing it’s a toss-up between the 1-state and the 9-state solutions. Nobody I know thinks we will come out of this hearing with no changes.I keep thinking about the comment I heard Ruth Bader Ginsburg make the other day, that Roe v. Wade may have been a mistake. It made abortion safe and legal – no small thing – but it hardened the right wing and gave them cause to distrust the legal system and start down the path of crying “activist judges!” every time they were faced with a decision they didn’t like. The implication is this could happen again if the Supremes go for the 50-state solution, because clearly many in the country are not “ready for it.”This is in line with the thinking of other justices who believe the Supreme Court has to be “prudent” and “move slowly.” Not get too far ahead of the thinking of the country. It has to do its job assessing constitutionality, of course, but we’re supposed to believe they have to consider which cases to take and when to take them on the basis of the pulse and the mood of the country. That bothers me.There are two forces urging caution. One consists of people you hear on the Fox Network arguing as if the only rule that applied to American democracy was majority rule. These people act as if the Supreme Court had no function to override laws passed at the expense of basic constitutional rights. They have been talking this way since Prop. 8 when it appeared the majority of Americans were against same-sex marriage. No court, they wanted you to know, Supreme or otherwise, has any right to go against the supposed “will of the people.” You’ll note they are singing a different tune now that the tide has changed and the majority of Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage. I heard Tony Perkins argue this morning that the polls were wrong. Poor fellow. Where else can he go now?The other force are the wise and practical people, like the ACLU, which made a very strong case that Boies and Olsen should never have taken up the cause of same-sex marriage because the country “wasn’t ready” and they might lose and set gay rights back an entire generation. The ACLU didn’t anticipate how rapidly things would change, and how in a few short years support for same-sex marriage among young people would be in the 80% range.It’s an interesting philosophical question, whether to let the majority rule on everything. Thank God we don’t. Democracy without constitutional constraints is mob rule.Consider what American majorities have wanted in the past, and have gotten away with, actually – slavery, white supremacy, keeping Jews out of country clubs, putting children to work in factories, keeping women from voting, forcing Chinese laborers to leave their women behind in China to make a living, putting Japanese in concentration camps, taking the country to war in Vietnam and Iraq, keeping gays from marrying. OK, some of those are not so much majority decisions as government decisions, but they were approved of by the majority.Without a strong independent judiciary, this country, like any other country ruled by selfish passions and money and hero-worship and self-interest, is a democracy off the rails. Without fair-minded judges who have a higher purpose than enforcing majority opinion, we can’t make it.And that’s the argument for the government we have, where the Supreme Court may soon decide that Prop. 8 and DOMA are unconstitutional. Where democracy can be restored.And if Scalia and Thomas decide the way we think they will? And if three others join them? Will I still be such a fired-up supporter of the courts as Superman heros fighting mob rule?What happens then?We live in interesting times.photo credit