1. Three Germans at dinner: an immigrant artist from Israel; Mrs. Gop;
    a non-Jewish German citizen who used to prefer the identity "European"
    to "German" but is becoming more comfortable with German pride
    I saw a first-rate documentary at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival yesterday, titled Germans and Jews.  A collaboration by two New Yorkers, director Janina Quint, who grew up as a non-Jew in Germany, and producer Tal Recanati, who grew up Jewish in the U.S. and in Israel, it is a face-on encounter with the effect of the Holocaust on Jewish attitudes toward Germany and Germans, and a close-up view of Jews living in Germany today.  Ken Jaworowsky of The New York Times has called it “part psychology seminar and part sociology course…a real cause for hope, despite history.”  

    I worked for the French Railroads years ago, during the 60s, helping travel agencies and individuals in San Francisco get tickets and reservations on European trains (i.e., not just in France).  I remember a conversation on the phone with a customer who wanted to get from Paris to Vienna but didn’t want to travel through Germany.  “Why not?” I asked, suspecting the answer.  Sure enough.  “Because I’m Jewish,” she answered, without hesitation.

    I’ve known Jews who wouldn’t be caught dead buying a German car, or even a German washing machine.

    The thing is, though, I’m in my 70s and was alive from 1940 to 1945 and remember the end of the war. And that means my Germans vs. Jews notions were formed some time ago.  It's hard to keep up with changes, and this film was enlightening indeed.  I realized as I watched how much I was in need of the update the film provided.

    I remember getting to know concentration camp survivors in the 50s and 60s, and seeing the tattoos on their arms.  I remember distinctly how awkward it was getting Germans, even in my own family, to talk of the war.  The most common attitude seemed to be, “Some things are best forgotten.  I think we should focus on the future, not on the past.”  The people I grew up with had direct personal knowledge of the war from a variety of perspectives, German, non-German, Jewish, non-Jewish, including overlapping perspectives, and the burden of memory was simply too much for some of them.

    I was a student in Munich, in 1960, and I saw an announcement one time that there would be a showing of concentration camp films in a large auditorium at the university.  I was taking a course in the history of the Nazi period at the time and was curious about how much they would actually show.  They showed it all, the kids with the tattooed arms, the “Kauft nicht bei Juden (Don’t buy from Jews)” signs, right down to the bulldozers pushing corpses into ditches for burial.  Several people got sick and many went running out of the room.  It was an unforgettable moment, particularly since I had built up the conviction that I would never get a German to talk about what really happened.  It made clear to me that even if the majority of people were shunning the memory, some were not.  Some were facing their country’s immediate history and trying to figure out what to do with that confrontation.

    Over the years I met more people who spoke of asking, “What did you do during the war, Papa?”  and then as the years went by, “What did you do during the war, Grandpa?” and of either getting no answer at all, or the protest that their people were never “Mitmacher” – people who went along. 

    Other histories of the early post-war period, beyond the scope of this documentary but relevant to its conclusions, reveal just how long the de-nazification process took to unfold.  One example is the fight by Fritz Bauer to bring Adolf Eichmann to justice.  That story is told in The People vs. Fritz Bauer, also playing at the SF Jewish Film Festival this year.  And in Labyrinth of Lies, which I reviewed last October.  The American decision to pursue the Cold War led them to drag their feet on bringing Nazi crimes into the public view, and that only furthered the “focus on the future” argument.

    But in all this time, I realized that I was getting a look at this question entirely from the non-Jewish German perspective.  I didn’t know a single German Jew living in Germany today.  And for that reason, the film had an impact on me beyond the obvious.

    For one thing, I was working with the assumption that the majority of Germans still remained ignorant of the Holocaust, or perhaps had a superficial understanding, something akin to Americans’ knowledge of their cowboy-and-Indian history.

    The American TV mini-series, The Holocaust, was shown on German television in 1978 and was viewed by half the German population.  Despite some criticism - Elie Wiesel called it soap opera and a trivialization - it had, from most reports, a profound impact on Germans.  Since then the topic has been opened wide, and one of the people interviewed claimed that Germans are better informed on the topic than other Europeans. Whether that's true doesn't matter much - it's not a competition.  What matters is that German history no longer stops with Charlemagne, as another interviewee said of his school experience.  There is now extensive coverage in school of the time of the Third Reich, and a large number of documentaries, including some featuring the children of Nazis, including Nazis who ran the concentration camps, are now widely available for viewing.  History of the Third Reich is no longer a taboo subject and information once shunned is now out in the open.  Whether and to what degree reconciliation takes place, at least the ground is better prepared for it than in previous decades. A sea change has taken place from the attitude in the first decade or two after the war, where anti-Semitism was still in the air as part of the cultural baggage, like smoke in the floors and walls of a building which had suffered a major fire.  

    Today, if anything, the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction.  Anti-Semitism has largely been replaced by philo-Semitism, the desire on the part of Germans to bend over backwards to be kind to Jews on the personal level and speak kindly of anything Jewish.  As Thorsten Wagner points out, many Germans are only too happy to point out to you how smart the Jews are, how musical, how talented this way and that.  He worries that they sometimes spill over – how good at business, for example – into praise that could turn to anti-Semitism in an instant.  Wagner is the Danish academic director of a program called Fellowships at Auschwitz, affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, and an example of somebody with a Nazi background who has made a career in Jewish, particularly holocaust, history.  German historian, Fritz Stern, who also figures prominently in the documentary, worries that the desire to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive has a downside – he’d like for Jews to be known for something besides their history as victims.

    What puts this documentary a cut above most is the brilliant selection of voices chosen to tell the story.  Besides Thorsten Wagner and Fritz Stern, there is a Russian couple, the Gops, two of a great many Russian Jews who have left the Soviet Union for Germany.  The husband speaks freely and openly.  He’s very happy with his choice.  Not that he has become a patriot, but because, he says, it’s a great place to live and raise his children.  His wife has many of the same attitudes – used to have, that is – of her parents’ generation – “How could a Jew ever live in Germany again?”  One of the Germans in the film declares that he doesn’t want to identify as German, but as European, expressing an attitude that until recently was common among Germans.  A German woman wonders if she's mistaken for Jewish because she has a big nose.  A jarring note, but one which gives the film a sense of authenticity.

    Neue Synagoge, Oranienburgerstrasse, Berlin
    The filmmakers put on a dinner and invited all the participants to share their thoughts around the table.  Their conversation is interspersed with talking head commentary and scenes of normal life in Berlin today.  What comes of this is a remarkably positive image of life in Berlin today, with the assumption that this applies to rest of the country, as well.  Particularly striking is the number of Israelis who have emigrated to Berlin.  Partly because it’s a thriving in-place to be, with a lively cultural and night life, partly, as one Israeli confesses, “because it’s safer than Israel.”

    Menorah before the Brandenburg Gate
    The positive image of Germany portrayed in the film is not a whitewash.  
    There are still neo-Nazis to contend with.  And even more troubling are a number of immigrants from Turkey and other Muslim-culture nations who have brought anti-Semitism with them as part of their cultural inheritance.  And then there is the fact that this place called Germany, which once had as many as half a million Jews today has fewer than 120,000, or .2% of the German population, a constant reminder of genocide.  The point though, is that that number is rising faster in Germany than anywhere else, and there are some stunning iconic images to represent that change – the rebuilt Oranienburger Strasse New Synagogue, for example and the image of the 30-foot menorah in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

    The desire for remembrance is inevitably in conflict with the desire of people to focus on the positive.  Elie Wiesel spent his life telling the holocaust story, and was plagued by people complaining of his beating a dead horse.  Like Bernie Sanders, who was put down by opponents for his johnny-one-note focus on economic disparity in the U.S., Wiesel’s vow that “they shall not be forgotten” came with a cost.  Simon Wiesenthal hunted Nazis all his life and had to contend with charges that he was dredging up bad memories and hounding people who had moved on and built new productive lives, to no good end.

    I believe there is wisdom in the George Santayana line, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” And for me, the challenge when faced with an either/or proposition is to turn it into a both/and proposition.  How do we both remember the war and its victims and use that memory as a jumping off point for positive change?  That this can be done is illustrated by the Stolpersteine phenomenon.

    “Stolpern” is “stumble” in German, and in 1992 Cologne artist Gunter Demnig came up with the idea of placing cobblestones with brass plates in the road for people to “stumble across.”  They are put there by people who want to remember that "a Jew once lived here" or worked here or was otherwise associated with a particular place nearby.  In Germans and Jews a woman, reflecting the guilt many Germans feel toward Jews, spoke of going out and polishing the plaques in front of her building.  She then located relatives of the people on the plaque and let them know their loved ones were being remembered.  Call it schmalzy, if you will.  I call it reconciliation.

    Another important issue taken up in the documentary is how differently anti-semitism and Nazism are remembered by those who grew up in the Federal Republic (West Germany) and in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).  The East Germans put all their emphasis on building socialism and claimed all the Nazis had left for the West, thus enabling them to claim Nazism was a strictly West German phenomenon.  A remarkable fiction, one with effects still felt in the difficulty East Germans have coming to terms with the seeds of fascism and anti-semitism still extant in modern life.  It’s hard to root something out you don’t believe was there in the first place.

    Time seems to be healing even something as brutal and inhuman as the Holocaust and the devastation inflicted by the Third Reich.  Germans and Jews speaks not only to those interested in Jewish and German history.  But to all of us who surrender at times to despair and cynicism.  Of the many dramatic moments in this story of reconciliation in Germans and Jews, the most memorable one, I think, is the story of the Russian couple, the Gops.  The husband represents those who argue for forgetting history.  The wife, those who for one reason or another cannot forget or who will themselves not to forget.  In the end, Mrs. Gop comes around to embracing this new Germany they have emigrated to.  The moment came, she says, when she saw her son playing with the German team in the international Maccabiah games, which some like to refer to as the “Jewish Olympics,”   in Israel.  There they were, Jewish kids in Israel, rooting for their home team.  “Deutschland!  Deutschland!  Deutschland!” they were shouting.

    I guess I can call Germany home now, said Mrs. Gop.

    Germans and Jews
    Released by First Run Features
    English and German with English subtitles

    USA. 76 min. Not rated

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  2. I find this latest Pew Research chart showing overwhelming support for Donald Trump by white Evangelicals fascinating.  There is so much in these figures to wonder at – the fact that they are virtually the mirror image of the ‘nones,” for example. Or between blacks and whites, and between Hispanics and non-Hispanics.  Free thinkers avoid Trump, Bible thumpers embrace him.  Now how do you make sense of that?

    To start with the Evangelicals, the first answer that comes to mind is that it’s likely the Evangelicals include a whole lot of single-issue voters, and that issue is abortion. Trump was once in favor of a woman’s right to choose, but he has come around since deciding to run for president to be anti-abortion and pro-gun control.  Also part of the story is the successful strategy of the right-wing to line up evangelicals on the full range of right-wing issues.  Not just unrestricted use of guns, but the myth that the right is pro-small government when in reality it is actually for very big government when it comes to a strong defense, and translates that into support of the military-industrial complex.  And when it comes to controlling women's bodies, as well, bringing behavior in line with the religious views of evangelicals.  A culture war frontline issue, in which the army of the right favors limiting sex to reproduction and women to male domination generally, while the left looks to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights instead, in which sexism and racism and homophobia are seen as retrograde values to be cast into the dustbin of history. It turns out they, the right, want small government only when it comes to taking some of that money which has floated to the top 1% and putting it into roads, bridges, healthcare, and education through university.

    What blows my mind, as someone who sees the appeal of Christianity in its emphasis on love and compassion, concern for the poor, the homeless, the sick and the needy, is how Evangelicals have turned Christianity into something quite rotten.  How an Evangelical can bash away at gay people all these years for their alleged promiscuity, for example, and then throw their support behind a man who cheats on his first wife with the woman who becomes his second and then dumps her, as well, for a model.  Not that I think there’s anything wrong with models.  Or with divorce, for that matter.  It’s that they do.  Or at least say they do.  And it gets harder and harder to mask the hypocrisy.  They will tell you it’s not hypocrisy, of course, but a simple prioritizing of values.  Better a philanderer who opposes abortion than a boring middle-of-the-road mainstream Methodist victim of a philandering husband – who favors abortion rights.  Guess that’s the choice Jesus would make.

    And what of the Mainstream Protestant vote - an 11-point spread in favor of Trump.  What explains that, aside from the fact that this group is overwhelmingly white?

    Then there are the Catholics.  What a split between Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics.  In case you ever had any doubt that cultural values can, and usually do, trump religious ones – here it is all spelled out for you.  If you followed your church’s authority figures, the pope, the curia, the bishops, you’d vote for the sex-for-reproduction only candidate.  OK, wait a minute.  That’s not right.  You’d vote for the guy who is against abortion.  That’s it.  Then how come this gigantic split between non-Hispanics, half of whom follow the strict line on abortion, and Hispanics, who go solidly for the woman in favor of women’s rights?

    That question, too, is probably easily answered.  Trump has revealed himself to be a bigot in silk suits, claiming that Mexicans need to be kept at bay by a wall because of their inclination to rape and murder.  And the many folks from south of the border who have made their way into the States for economic reasons need to go back, for the same reason.  Hispanics know that way of viewing their culture and their people is pure bigotry and decency requires they support the candidate who would work for a saner (and much more practical) solution.  Sorry, Mr. Pope-in-Rome, we’ve got a pretty good reason to go for the Methodist value here.  You know, that John Wesley quote Hillary gave in her acceptance speech, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”  Totally mainstream Protestant way of articulating religion, and one that a Hispanic Catholic (or anybody else, obviously) can embrace enthusiastically.  I am assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that they are embracing Hillary for positive reasons; they could, of course, simply be voting anti-Trump.

    My point about culture trumping religion is brought out all the more clearly in the distribution among
    African-Americans:  8% for Trump and 89% for Clinton.  Doesn’t get more dramatic than that.  Some blacks may take Trump’s two divorces as a reason to disapprove of him, of course.  But I’ll wager the real picture is the cultural one, the fact that this election is about the last gasp of white supremacists to hold onto cultural and political control via the Republican Party and the clearly articulated support on the democratic platform for minorities.  A quick look at this Paul Ryan selfie of himself with White House interns tells the story.  I can only imagine how that picture must come across to you if you’re a black American.

    My point, I guess, is that you can’t tell a book by its cover.  And you can’t be sure you know about the significance of American religious affiliation by looking at this poll of Americans ostensibly on the basis of religious affiliation.  Sometimes a Christian isn’t much of a Christian.  Sometimes a Catholic is a pope-knows-best Catholic; sometimes Catholic means caring for the poor and ministering to the needy, and not worrying who should be prevented from approaching the communion rail.  You don’t know all there is to know by following the label “Christian” or “Catholic.”  Without much more poking around in the motivations of these voters, you see that the labels can actually mask as much as they reveal.

    If you give a moment’s thought to the fact that blacks, Hispanics and the non-religious are all overwhelmingly anti-Trump, and stand in such sharp contrast to white Christians, Catholic, Mainstream Protestant or Evangelical, you might want to ask yourself just exactly what is going on among these folks who call themselves Christians anyway.


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  3. Gentlemen of the Saxon and Viking Reenactment
    Society of East Anglia
    Sometime in the early 400s, C. E., we can imagine Romans living in places like Londinium, Eboracum or Mancunium (London, York or Manchester) in Provincia Brittania, taking note of the arrival of Saxons and Angles and Jutes from across the Oceanus Germanicus (North Sea). 

    Whether these were invaders or simply folks looking for some greener pastures is actually still a contested issue, believe it or not.  In any case, they had come to stay and a Roman-controlled Celtic (Briton) Britain gave way to a Germanic Britain.  To complicate matters, the Britons gave their name to Brittany in France, which some of them fled to.  The Celts retreated to Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland.  Those who didn’t stay and make babies with the new occupiers of Germanic Britain, that is.  From the Angles, we get the name of England and the English language, although at the time, locals pretty much referred to all three groups as “Saxons.”  To this day, the Scottish Gaelic name for England is Sasainn, and the people of England are Sassunach.  In Ireland, it’s Sasana and Sasanach, respectively.*

    By the time the Vikings began raiding Britain, a few centuries later, the Saxons had become a distinct race of people.  I’m using “race” in the social-cultural sense, the way Hispanics use “La Raza”.  Genetically, of course, they were still the same people as the Vikings now come to bop them on the head and take their things.  Linguistically, too, the two groups probably had a large degree of mutual intelligibility, kind of like German and Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese, or Russian and Polish.

    If you grow up with an interest in English history, you know of King Alfred the Great.  Have always loved his name.   If you know German, you know that “Rat” (old spelling: Rath) means council.  Rathaus, I learned as a kid, is not a house for rats, but rather “council house,” the German word for “city hall.”  “Red” is just another Germanic variation on “rath,” and has taken on the meaning of “wise man.”  Alfred was small in stature, evidently (I’m guessing), and probably suffered from Crohn’s disease, and that may have made him a tad bookish.  In any case, he was known as “the wise elf.”

    But I digress.  I was getting to the BBC television series known as The Last Kingdom, which I have just finished binge-watching.  The Last Kingdom refers to Alfred’s kingdom.  At some point, the Vikings, or “Danes” (just as Angles and Jutes were subsumed under Saxons, Norwegians were subsumed, as well, this time under “the Danes.”) had landed in East Anglia and pretty much occupied three of the English kingdoms – Northumberland in the North, Mercia in the Center, East Anglia in the East.  Only the West Saxon (i.e., Wessex) kingdom remained in Saxon hands under Alfred.  Map is available here

    Now imagine the drama you can squeeze out of this history.  Imagine a boy from up North, in Northumberland, say, in the year 866 and follow his life for ten years or so.   Let’s call the boy Uhtred (he too, please note, can also be “wise”), using a real character from later years, but stick him into this time period and make a hero out of him.  Have his father, the original Uhtred, killed by an invading Dane, an earl named Ragnar, and have Uhtred the younger enslaved and raised by the Danes.  Great material for some pre-modern identity politics – Dane vs. Saxon, fun-loving marauder vs. pious Christian, outsider vs. insider. 

    Bernard Cornwell, a prolific writer of historical novels, has written a series he calls The Saxon Stories.  The first couple of these novels was the basis for The Last Kingdom, an eight-part television series produced by BBC and aired in October of last year.  The story I’ve sketched out is the TV version, not Cornwell’s original.  The screenwriters have tinkered with Cornwell’s details, one has to assume, for dramatic effect.  It caught my eye when Netflix announced it was available for streaming in the United States and in Britain.  A second series is in production and expected to air later in this year.  Plot summary is available here

    Uhtred develops a strong affectional relationship with Earl Ragnar, his Danish father, despite the fact it was Ragnar who killed his Saxon father, and struggles over whether to define himself as Saxon or Dane.  Uhtred is driven by two overriding desires: the Saxon in him leads him to seek the help of Alfred to regain his rightful place as ealdorman (think “duke” – the Latin translation is “dux”) of Bebbanburg (today’s Bamburgh) in the North.  The Dane in him burns with loyalty to his Danish brother, Ragnar “the fearless”, together with whom he hopes to avenge the death of their Danish father, Ragnar the Elder.  Throw in a bunch of other life companions – Brita, a Saxon girl taken at the same time as Uhtred as a slave by the Danes; Thyra, Earl Ragnar’s daughter (and therefore sister to Ragnar junior and to Uhtred, as well); Kjartan, Ragnar’s shipbuilder, and Kjartan’s son Sven, a thoroughly despicable sort and a couple of Superman-type other Danish kings/generals (there’s no difference in this day and age) like Guthrum and Ubba, and you’ve got yourself a TV series that goes and goes and goes.  I believe the customary adjective for such productions is “rollicking.”  It doesn’t hurt that Uhtred, Ragnar, Guthrum and Ubba are all actual historic figures.

    I’ve only skimmed the surface of the characters in this saga.  Uhtred’s love interests are notable.  So too are the efforts of the priests who play a role in stressing the main cultural distinction between the Danes and the Saxons.  The Danes are disparaged as “pagans,” and given to partying hard in the here and now; the Saxons are handicapped by needing to be guided by an external code of behavior including self-denial (mis?)taken for virtue – and no small amount of hypocrisy.  Uhtred, although baptized as a child, rejects Christianity, yet is the model of a man whose word is sacred.  In contrast to Skorpa, for example, the quintessential Viking marauder, a cruel, deceitful and sadistic barbarian.

    It’s these contrasts that make the characters so lively.  The endless clashing of swords gets tiresome, and the violence is pretty graphic.  So is the wretchedness of life in the first half of the first millenium at a time of endless war, the mud, the pigs and the chickens who invade your living space when you can get them, the diet of vegetable broth when you cannot.  Apparently there is no way to keep your fingernails clean.

    Historically, of course, Alfred was known as “the Great” because he eventually had considerable success in driving out the Danes, and negotiating a peace with those who remained.  Guthrum converted to Christianity, for example, and Alfred is today venerated by the Anglican Church as a Christian hero with his own feast day, October 26.  (The pope wouldn’t canonize him, but this is probably the next-best thing).  It’s not giving the plot away, I hope, to tell you the story of Alfred’s accomplishments are not central – the main character of The Last Kingdom is Uhtred, after all.  And this season stops short of telling you whether Uhtred made it home to achieve his goal of reclaiming Bebbanburg.  Nonetheless, the yearning for home is palpable, and gives the story a driving force.

    Inevitable, I suppose, with history-for-television is historical inaccuracy and ambiguity.  What parts of the story correspond to actual historical events – Alfred’s grand stand at the battle of Edington in 878, for example, where the combined forces of the Saxons under Alfred defeat Guthrum and the “Great Heathen Army” – and what parts are fictionalized are not always evident.  Nor do they matter, of course, to most people, I suspect, who will watch the story for its romance and its adventure, and see historical reality as little more than icing on the cake. 

    The acting is excellent.  It helps that the series has a whole host of experienced talented actors, many of them familiar faces, including Matthew Macfadyen, who plays a cameo role at the beginning as Uhtred Senior, and the noted Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, who plays Ravn, the father of Earl Ragnar (also a minor role).  The lead role of Uhtred is played by German actor, Alexander Dreymon (born Alexander Doetsch), who grew up in France, Switzerland, Germany and the United States and speaks English with a British accent in real life, for some reason.  Several Swedish actors are involved, including Thomas Gabrielsson, who plays Guthrum and Jonas Malmsjö, who plays a terrifying Skorpa.  Actual Viking actors, in other words.  And let’s not forget Rune Temte, the Norwegian actor who plays the other Viking warlord Ubba.  Brilliant idea, don’t you think, getting modern-day descendants of Saxons to play Saxons and descendants of Vikings to play Vikings? The role of another Saxon-turned-Dane Brida, Uhtred’s fellow slave, and first love, is played by Austrian actress Emily Cox.  Mildrith, Uhtred’s (Saxon) wife, is played by British actress, Amy Wren.  Other notables are the Shakespearean actor David Dawson as Alfred and Adrian Bower, also British, plays Leofric, Uhtred’s loyal friend he is forced to engage in a battle to the death with.

    The production was filmed in Hungary, for affordability.  Since there are no structures still standing from those days, entire villages – including the town of Winchester – had to be built from scratch.  Great detail was given to costuming, getting the homespun just right, and other details right down to face-painting.  A minor liberty was taken with the wooden shields.  They were modified in shape so you can distinguish between the opposing armies.

    Jolly good history.  It will send you to Wikipedia to read up on the Danelaw.  Or maybe cause you to reflect on the notion of immigration to Britain.  First Romans moving in on the Celts/Britons, then Saxons, then Danes, then Britons from France in 1066 whose ancestors were Celts. Some sort of cosmic justice, maybe, watching the Celts-turned-French now getting control of their land back. And, of course, in the end, nobody actually displaces anybody.  Mostly they all hop into bed and make new races of folk every so often.

    Tell the history by means of giant blonde men with face tattoos busting in and looking for the family silver and you’ve got a rollicking good binge-watch in store.  Keep your Netflix streaming current. Positively rollicking.

    *Note that while in Britain “Saxon” (to the Celts) means English, on the continent it means German.  The Finnish word for Germany is Saksa.  In Estonian, it’s Saksamaa.  The Romani (Gypsies) call Germans Ssassitko temm.
    **Here it’s the Danes who have tattooed faces and bodies.  It’s worth noting, I think, that the word “Briton” seems to have originated from the Greek Prittanoi, their word for the Celts, from the Celtic word to cut or carve, i.e. tattoo. 

    photo credit: Please note that none of the folks in this photo have anything to do with the TV series, The Last Kingdom, as far as I know.  But I'll wager they've stopped frolicking on the beach at Norfolk long enough to rollick with the rest of us.


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  4. My friend Jason sent me an e-mail the other day in which he asked me if I knew the character 間.

    I did.  It's a very common character, one you see every day.

    Here's my response to Jason:

    is the Chinese character for “space.”  That's the traditional Chinese character.  The Chinese have simplified it to 间, but I'm concerned with the character as it is used in the Japanese language only. Japanese and Koreans did not follow the Chinese simplification program in 1949. The Japanese did simplify some characters, but it was a Japanese simplification of Chinese, not a Chinese simplification of Chinese.  This was Early Cold War times, remember, and the notion of a single Chinese language writing system to enhance pan-Asian communication was not yet on the horizon.

    In the kunyomi (“Japanese” reading), 間 is pronounced “ai” or “aida.”  “Aida” is the word for “between,” as in “kimi (you) to (and) boku (me) to (and, again) the old oak tree no aida (no is the possessive marker, equivalent to ‘s)” it translates “between you and me and the old oak tree.”  Note that Japanese has postpositions, not prepositions.

    An additional kunyomi is “ma” which means either a room or a space or a pause or a musical “rest”.   Tokonoma,” for example, that little alcove in a Japanese room where you hang a scroll and put flowers and maybe an altar to the ancestors, is written with this character: 床間。

    When combined with the character , tsuyu “dewdrops, flimsiness, tears, mortality” it is pronounced tsuyunoma and may be translated “a fleeting moment.”

    If you ever take a train in Japan (and how could you not?), the first word you always hear when a train is about to enter a station is “mamonaku.”  ma = space; mo = even; naku = not.  In the English tongue, this word may be understood to convey something like “in no time at all…”  Note that the distinction here between time and space is of no account; "ma" may be understood to be a generic word for both time and space.

    間男, maotoko, “ma” combined with the word for man, , otoko, it translates “secret male lover.”

    In the onyomi (“Chinese” reading), it has two pronunciations: KEN and KAN.  Which one you use is a feature of individual words, the same as gender is in European languages.  There is no explaining it; you simply have to know.

    “Person” in Japanese is “hito” (nothing to do with Hirohito, which I eventually discovered means "Mr. Abundant Benevolence," and not "Mr. Wide Person" as I thought for the first decade or so I lived in Japan.).  It is written 人。“Hito” is kunyomi -  the corresponding onyomi is “nin.”  When (pronounced nin) is combined with ken (the k becomes g in word compounds for phonological reasons irrelevant here) you get ningen.  “Person-space” is the word for “human being.”

    Combine (we’re still talking about the ‘ken’ pronunciation now) with se, “the world,” and you get 世間, seken, which translates “people, ‘the public,’ society, life, rumor or gossip.”

    You know that Japanese, like many East Asian languages, uses “counters.”  You combine the numbers, one, two, three, four, five, etc. ichi, ni, san, shi, go, etc. with a counter depending on size, shape, or other characteristic:

    -hon/pon/bon – for counting long thin things like pencils, penises, chopsticks and trees.
    -mai ­– for flat things, like sheets of paper and solar panels
    -hiki/piki  – for four-legged-animals (small ones - there's another counter for larger animals)
    So “two pencils, empitsu” would be nihon no empitsu; “two pieces of dried seaweed, nori” would be nimai no nori, and if you asked me how many dogs I had in the car and I had both Bounce and Miki with me, I would answer nihiki.

    , pronounced –ken, is the counter for spaces on a go board (I don’t know why you would count the spaces, since in go it’s the intersections that count, not the spaces, but I mention it because go is apparently the only board game in which human beings (人間) can still reliably defeat computers.

    ikken, niken, sangen, then, are the counters for spaces.  Note that -ken/gen are counters for spaces and only coincidentally the same word as for spaces itself.  Many people these days, when talking of "lines and spaces" use the English words "line" (ライン), i.e. ra-i-n and "space" (スペス), i.e., su-pe-su.  Go-players of the conservative sort might want to avoid foreign words when speaking of an ancient Japanese traditional board game (which is, of course, Chinese), but more modern youngfolk might be heard to speak of "two spaces" as niken no supesu.  Only if they knew the counter for spaces, of course.  Older people regularly bewail the loss of the language with the present generation, so who knows? Also, this may never have actually happened, of course, but I'm considering the theoretically possible.

    One last comment, and then we can break for lunch…

    The elements of consist of the outer two parts – – which is mon “gate”, and a sun being observed through the gate.  Think of the character for gate as a pair of swinging saloon doors in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Note that you could just as readily write this character with a moon, , tsuki, instead of a sun being seen through the gate and it would still mean the same thing.  How it is that “sun (or moon) observed through the gate” came to be the Chinese character for “space” is a question that it takes somebody of a higher pay grade than mine to answer.

    Some other things that can be seen through the gate are:

    kuchi – “mouth” – 問 – as in “to question” or “to accuse”
    mizu – “water” ­– – as in “to pan for gold”
    –­ kokoro – “heart” ­– 悶える “to be in agony”
    mimi – “ear” – 聞こえる“to hear”

    and that’s but a small sample.

    Forgive the digression.  It was only the sun and moon seen through the gate that you were asking about.  I have much to learn about not going on beyond the pale.


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  5. Elie Wiesel died at his home in New York yesterday.  He had survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and spent his life making sure the memory of the Holocaust remained alive, as well as speaking out for others in places like South Africa, Nicaragua and the Sudan.  He is being remembered by people around the world in the most laudatory language imaginable.   Obama called him the “conscience of the world.”  I think with good reason.

    You know it’s your conscience speaking when you get the feeling you know what’s right and you’re feeling uncomfortable at the same time.  I followed Elie Wiesel over the years.  Not all that closely, but when he spoke, I listened.  Only once, when he spoke out in favor of extending Jewish settlements in Jerusalem, did I disagree with him.  On every other occasion, I was persuaded he was on the right side of history.  He was a remarkable man.  Driven.  A dog with a bone.

    It was the Bitburg controversy where his voice touched me most directly.  I had a good friend in Berlin named Achim.  He and his wife Margit had experienced the war directly.  Achim had been in the German navy and Margit survived the Russian invasion of Berlin in 1945.  When they spoke about war, I always listened.  After the war, Margit and Achim became involved in an organization that managed the graves of fallen soldiers.  Every year, a calendar would arrive in the mail and I would hang it up.  Always a bit self-consciously – as an American, I wasn't going to honor the German war dead without thinking twice.  But I came to understand – and the older I get the more I understand – how good people can get swept up in evil, and I came to see that young men who marched under the symbol of the swastika could be victims too, and came to admire the work of this organization known as the German War Graves Commission, first founded after World War I, but expanded after World War II.

    Achim was a delightful friend.  I learned much from him about German politics and political activism generally.  He became Berlin’s representative for the United Nations at some point and when he died condolences came in from all directions. I admired him as a teacher and as a voice of reason. In all the years we knew each other, I remember only one big disagreement.  That was the visit of Ronald Reagan as president of the United States to the war graves at Bitburg.  Achim, along with 87% of the German people, found it appropriate that Reagan should support his friend and ally, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and make a “visit of reconciliation” to Bitburg during his state visit to Germany in 1985.  Elie Wiesel convinced me otherwise.  It was a sad parting of the ways for Achim and me.  Fortunately not a lasting one, but it was painful at the time.

    Reagan wanted to station Pershing missiles in Germany against strong German opposition.  Kohl came to his aid, and Reagan wanted to repay the favor.  Unfortunately the administrations of both national leaders failed to do their homework.  Among the dead at Bitburg were 49 members of the Waffen-SS.  And to really muddy the waters, Reagan press secretary Larry Speakes mistakenly told the press that there were Americans buried at Bitburg.  Turns out there were not.

    I struggled over this strong difference between Achim's perspective and mine.  On the one hand, I was in total agreement that war victims didn’t stop being victims simply because they were German.  On the other hand, I heard Wiesel’s voice when he lectured Reagan, saying, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place.”

    Wiesel, according to all reports, suffered mightily over this decision to speak out again the Bitburg visit.  He was grateful to the United States for taking him in after the war, and when Reagan called Wiesel to the White House to award him the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, it felt all wrong to bite the hand that was feeding him, so to speak.  But he did.  White House staff, knowing they had messed up, tried to limit Wiesel to three minutes.  But Wiesel insisted he would get his full time or he would boycott the event. In the end he got to speak his mind.  You are wrong, Mr. President.  You are wrong.

    That event is chronicled by Gil Troy writing in The Daily Beast this morning.  Troy describes Elie Wiesel as a “one-man scourge of dictators and a friend to the oppressed.”

    Countless thousands will remember Elie Wiesel for speaking truth to power.  Besides Reagan, he also scolded Pope Benedict for reinstating holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson.  Williamson’s “I believe there were no gas chambers” got him excommunicated, but Benedict brought him back without bothering to check whether his views had changed.  It was some time after being reinstated that Williamson made the "no gas chambers" remark.  

    I remember reading about that and feeling sick to my stomach.  Then I read that Elie Wiesel had called Benedict out on his effort to let bygones be bygones, and I felt better.  There was somebody out there watching and remembering.  As long as somebody's paying attention we would be all right.

    That will be Elie Wiesel’s legacy.  I will remember him for the many hours of discussion I had, both with friends and in my head, over how to find the line between reconciliation and remembering, one of the greatest moral dilemmas one is ever faced with.

    There is no greater service, I think, than to get others out of complacency and forgetting, to churn the waters now and again, to make you think.  And revisit old certainties.  And think some more.

    One of my heroes has died, and I am very sad.

    photo credit


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  6. Last time I posted here I commented on how Bonnie Prince Charlie, as I called him when I was in the Third Grade - Mrs. Parker-Bowles's husband, as he's known today - is now a grandfather already.  And his son, bonnie William, is apparently a peach of a husband and father, if you believe the PR (and I do).  I got several responses from people who thanked me for some good news for a change.  Usually I spend more time rending my garments over the dark side.

    I protest.  When the world gives you lemons, you may eventually turn them into lemonade.  I just think there's nothing wrong with making a face first, if that's what comes natural to you.

    Today is Gay Pride Day.  All over the country LGBT people are out marching.  That includes San Francisco.  Earlier today I waved my husband off as he headed over to the city to march with all the other young'uns and feel the pride.  I plead age on occasions like this.  The thought of the crowded trains, the endless lines, the banging drums, the squeals and the shouts -- all young people stuff, I said.  It's been going for how many years now?  Since 1972?  A million people show up for this event in San Francisco these days.

    I'm not being a party-pooper, not saying "been there, done that," although I've done it maybe thirty times.  I'm just thinking how nice it is I don't have to go bang the drums anymore.  I don't have to stop people on the street and tell them how proud I am to be gay.  OK, so I never did that, but I do remember black people stopping me in the 60s and telling me, "I'm black and I'm proud," and understanding instantly why they needed to do that.  How important it is after being down so long to stand tall and proud.  I am grateful these are better times, at least for some of us.

    So it was all just going to pass me by this year.  I was just going to walk the dogs, as I always do, waiting now till 8 o'clock for the cool of the evening.

    As I walked up the street I saw balloons out in front of the Congregational Church.  When I got a little closer I realized they were rainbow colored.

    I love the Congregational Church. They, the United Church of Christ in America, I believe they are officially called these days, most of them anyway, were among the first to recognize gay people as equals and support their marriages.

    I attended a Congregational Church growing up. Left it to become a Lutheran because I found them too namby-pamby, always talking about being nice to people.  I got hold of Luther's Small Catechism and away I went.  Just what the doctor ordered.  Some serious doctrines to follow.  No more messing around with nice.

    I realize today if I were ever to return to a church community it would more likely be the Congregationalists than the Lutherans.  Precisely because it took them less time to figure out how to put Christianity into action when it came to gay people, just as they were ahead of the crowds when it came to abolition and women's suffrage.

    Personal preference, of course.  The Lutherans today are there as well.  Ditto the Episcopalians.  Ditto most all of the mainstream churches.  It's only the authoritarians, the guys who want to define god as the guy with a switch, ready to bang the evil out of you, that continue to cherry pick the scriptures, laying aside the passages that approve of slavery and suggest banging the heads of your enemies' kids against a rock, to focus on your naughty parts and how to use them only to make more angry Christians.

    When I got right up to the church, I noticed two things.  One was they had taken down the banner that used to hang there which said, "Never place a period where God has placed a comma," or something like that. Always liked that. That banner has been replaced by a "Black Lives Matter" banner. I like that too.

    The other thing I noticed was that there was a sign by the balloons.  This wasn't just gay pride Sunday.  It was a time to pray for the souls in Orlando.

    Damn, I says to myself.  Those Christians can really be decent people when they want to.

    So I got in a little pride today, after all.  Just never expected to feel it walking past a church.

    P.S.  Here's the main entrance.  And the chapel attached, which they let the Baptists use.
    and that tower in between is the Methodist Church across the street.  The Methodist
    Church grounds are a bit shoddy and messed up looking.  Probably because
    they make a big point of serving the homeless.


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  7. OK, so this is a puff piece for Father's Day, put out no doubt by the royal handlers to give the British royal family some positive PR.  I know, I know.  Media manipulation.  One of my biggest pet peeves.

    Until it hits home.

    I have a distinct memory of watching Elizabeth - Queen Elizabeth - get married.  They put a television set (yes, we had TV in those days) on the stage in our elementary school auditorium and they brought the whole school in to watch the ceremony from London. This was in Winsted, Connecticut, not Uxbridge or Somerset.

    Then I remember the pictures from the Weekly Reader when I was in third grade and Prince Charles was born.  I had heard my Scottish grandfather use the word "bonnie" before, but now here was everybody using that word - Bonnie Prince Charlie. I remember that.  I really do.  I know it used to be used for the Stuart king, Charles Edward, pretender to the Scottish throne, but we didn't know that guy.  We knew Elizabeth's little feller.

    Then you get in your car and zoom back to the future and suddenly here's Bonnie Prince Charlie's little boy William.  Growing up gorgeous.  Diana's little boy.  Where does the time fly off to?

    And now, today, this bit of spam? comes across my screen, a notice from People magazine about how young William is out and about with the common folk, sitting in a coffee shop and talking about father/son relationships on Father's Day.

    grannie scolds
    And he practices what he preaches. There's that picture of him being scolded by his neon grannie for bending down to pay attention to his kid when everybody knows he's supposed to remain ever tall and monarchical.

    He's a lot balder than the last time he caught my attention.  Sitting there with an open shirt, hairy chest and all, and exchanging opinions with kids and their fathers, telling the world that his little boy George's and his little girl Charlotte's mental health are important.


    I've seen future shock.  But this is real!

    I know it's PR.  Twice this week I've seen Prince Harry, once clowning around with grandma, once in a top hat.  They've whipped those kids into shape and are trying to regain royal dignity lost, looks like - Fergie - Diana's boyfriend - failure to lower flag, "annus horribilis" etc. etc., although Harry still complains a bit.

    Not a friend of royalty or nobility.  But I've got a thing for daddies and their kids.

    On Father's Day, what a coincidence.

    William has been out and about doing good works for a while now.  You might say it’s overly cynical to call it just PR.   You could just call it “work,” you know.  Part of a king-presumptive’s job to spend the taxpayer’s money on things other than pomp and circumstance.

    "It's all about being inclusive."
    Here he is, for example, on the cover of Britain’s gay magazine Attitude.  The story inside features his views on the importance of addressing bullying.  “No one should be bullied for their sexuality or any other reason.”  His mother took the initiative of addressing AIDS victims.  He’s following in her footsteps calling attention to LGBT issues, even inviting an LGBT group to Kensington Palace, complete with photos, of course, to show his support.  

    Sometimes when they jerk you around it feels like you're dancing.

    And sometimes, when you feel like you’re dancing, maybe the thing to do is enjoy the music.

    Happy Father's Day.

    Prince William in People magazine (top photo)
    Prince Harry in hat 
    Grannie scolds

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  8. Careful, careful.

    Things are looking up for Hillary’s campaign.  Not because she’s turning people around who are less than enamored of her – although I think that’s happening too – but because Trump continues to shoot himself in the foot so reliably.  It’s still about negative numbers.  People are far far less put off by her than by him not because she’s so good but because he’s so bad.

    This would be the place to argue that she’s had a bad rap, that she is not as bad as so many people think she is, that she’s been smeared by the Republicans' very well-oiled machine.  It would be an argument to get into if arguments were what is called for. 

    But it’s clear by now that arguments are not what Americans are interested in.  No presidential candidate has ever been this willing to stand before massive crowds and tell bare-faced lies.  It might have worked before, but so far nobody else has tried.  Trump's trying it and it’s working.  I just heard a Spiegel journalist express his incredulity that Trump claimed Obama is opening the floodgates and letting in all those Syrian refugees.  This scares the uninformed, who make up a critical mass of the American public, because it’s hard to persuade people that countless numbers of terrorists are not smuggling themselves in in their number.  That’s what has threatened Angela Merkel’s position.  People are furious, convinced her open door policy has increased the risk of terrorism to an even more alarming level.  But scarcely more than two thousand Syrian refugees have been taken in here in the U.S., a fact that we ought to hang our heads in shame over.  Huddled masses yearning to breathe free, my ass.  And people still line up behind Donald Trump.

    The point is that Americans are not being reasonable.  They are letting themselves be jerked around by their fears. Trump is playing on their suspicions as he would on a Mighty Wurlitzer.  There is no way to explain why suggestions like a wall the length of the Mexican border or a ban on all Muslims entering the country were not shot down instantly as immoral and illegal, never mind undoable.  But they weren’t.  The crowds cheered, and Trump kept it up until he found the next fear he could massage.

    The presidential election was sidetracked for a few days by the massacre in Orlando, even though Trump managed to get the last of the jaws that had not already dropped to drop. His first response to the news coming out of Orlando was not “how horrible” but “see, I was right, and they’re thanking me for being right.”  They love me.  The usual refrain.  I’m the greatest.

    What’s worrying me at the moment is what might happen next, now that we appear to have reached at long last a sufficient level of outrage over the insane number of deaths by guns in this country.  If the filibuster in Congress by those two senators from Connecticut is any indication, and the fact that it appears to have worn down some Republican intransigence, we might be at the point of actually doing something about it.  Hurray for that.  Proud of my home state.  Have always squirmed at the “thoughts and prayers” proclamations and the moments of silence.

    I’m concerned that this nod to rational thought could mean we win a battle but lose the war.  What if we get enough support to actually impose some restrictions?  At least maybe we could make it possible to prevent people we don’t allow on airplanes because they’re suspected terrorists not to buy guns, either.  Assault weapons, at least.  Maybe we could still allow them to shoot an individual here or there.  But not an entire class of children or a bar full of revelers.

    Whatever changes get made will be small.  There is no way to change this many hearts and minds overnight.  Almost half of all Americans are convinced of what the big money gun lobby is putting out there, the thought that the government wants to take our guns away so they can then come in and have their way with us.

    All common sense has been flushed down the toilet on this issue.  More Americans have died from being shot since 1968 than have died in wartime – in all the wars in American history.  Way more, since those figures only go up to 2011.  We spend trillions of dollars to fight terrorism, and next to nothing to fight death by guns in America.  Number of deaths by terrorism in the last decade: 24. Number of deaths by guns: 280,024.

    Those numbers are discussed along with a fact check performed by Politifact, an independent nonprofit project.  According to something called the Gun Violence Archive, there were 12,562 gun deaths in 2014 and 9,959 in 2015 up until October 8, when Politifact put out the numbers.   That’s a grand total of 301,797 firearm-related deaths in the past decade, compared to 71 deaths from domestic acts of terrorism.  Note that the numbers differ significantly, because different sources and different years are being used.  But the proportions are accurate.

    Americans are violent.  Seven times more likely to die a violent death than the rest of the modern world.  Six times more likely to be killed with a gun.  The total firearm death rate per 100,000 population in Holland is .5.  In Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Ireland, the UK and Spain it’s around 1.  In Japan and Korea it’s less than 0.  Only in France, Austria and Finland does it creep up a bit – to 2.8 in France and 3.6 in Finland, the highest in Europe.  In the United States of America, it’s 10.2. 

    No sense banging on with these statistics.  Or with facts like when Australia eliminated semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns their homicide rate went down by 59%.  They’re everywhere available and everywhere deemed irrelevant.  Because arguments are irrelevant.  People are going to believe what they want to believe.

    And that’s why I’m concerned that when we do finally take actual steps to cut down on the amount of gun violence, we might be winning a battle only to lose the war.  If laws get passed between now and November, Trump and Company might well turn this into a scare.  “See, I’m right.  I told you they were coming for our guns!”

    I worked on the campaign against Prop. 8 in California in 2008.  Went in to headquarters in San Francisco and made dozens of phone calls urging people to vote against it, because it would remove the rights of LGBT people to marry, a right which had recently been granted by the California Supreme Court.  After all those efforts, we went down to defeat.  Prop. 8 passed by 52%.  A majority of Californians who voted on that issue believed the lies put out by the Mormon and Catholic Churches (others too, obviously, but they were the biggies) that taking away this right would somehow make stronger families.  It was a painful defeat.  

    What came out of this crushing disappointment was the recognition of how money talks in this country, but is under no obligation to tell the truth.  People had skipped right over well reasoned arguments and tons of evidence that gay marriage would only strengthen the institution of marriage, and certainly do it no harm.  What they responded to instead was the old line that gays were a danger to children and God would be mad at them if they chose to "spit in His face." They voted their fears. 

    Following the defeat, gay rights advocates began a campaign of getting out less heady reasoning and more "plain folk" information about gays and lesbians as ordinary people, people who simply wanted to form families and be recognized by their neighbors and their government.  In time we began telling each other that reason, at long last, had prevailed.  Only I don't think it was reason that prevailed.  It was that people who had previously claimed not to know any gay people got up close and personal with gay people and came to understand what was pouring out of the churches was a lie based on a prejudice.

    Somebody has to figure a way to address the emotional side of this anti-gun campaign out there.  A message or series of messages that would make it clear that nobody’s coming for your guns.  Only for the guns that kill children.  Assault weapons.  Guns in the hands of people known to be a threat.  Insane people.  Irresponsible people.

    Less careful reasoning.  More instant messaging, maybe.  More images like the ones on this page, maybe.

    Something to counter the scare tactics that work so well in this country.

    photo credits


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  9. Christopher Isherwood tells of the time he tried to bring his German lover back into Britain with him.  Just off the boat from the continent, in Harwich, he writes of the customs officer: "As soon as I saw the bright-eyed little rat, I knew we were done for. He understood the whole situation at a glance — because he’s one of us."

    In days gone by, when we had to contend with far more serious and widespread homophobia than today, a self-hating gay could cause unspeakable misery to other gays as he projected his self-hatred out into the world.

    What am I talking about – “in days gone by”?  Very likely it was a man struggling with sexual demons within himself who went off the deep end and killed those 49 men and women in the Pulse Bar in Orlando the other night.

    The Orlando massacre is a story still being told.  ISIS appears to have a new policy of getting sympathizers to forgo coming to the Middle East, but stay at home and wreak havoc locally, instead. Whether that's part of the story is only a guess.  And if it is part of Omar Mateen's motivation, that still leaves open the question of whether that's foreground, and the choice to kill LGBT people is background, or whether it's the other way around.

    I’ve lived my life as a gay man in an intensely homophobic environment, so you know why I’m inclined to think this is primarily about homophobia.  Forgive me if the blood starts to boil when I take note of church spokespeople and other religionists who insist on downplaying the sexual orientation of most or all of the 49 people in a gay bar in Florida as coincidental.  When synagogues are bombed, it's about anti-semitism.  When four little black girls were killed in a black church, it was about white supremacist racism.  

    There are always people, apparently of good will, quick to stress this is not just a Jewish/African American/fill in the blank tragedy.  It’s a human tragedy.  And why can’t we all just get along?
    Such misplaced attempts at solidarity do a disservice to the people involved who have lost their lives for a quite specific reason.  To dilute that message dishonors the victims.  And it takes away the need to track down the particular sources of that hate.  I willingly grant you that I’m making a case from a particular vantage point.  I hope you’ll allow me to make that case.

    As the investigations continue into what made Omar Mateen tick, investigators are discovering that he had apparently spent a considerable amount of time in the Pulse Bar.  He also had a gay meet-up phone number in his cell phone.  Evidence is coming together for calling this primarily a hate crime, not a political one.  And that holds whether Omar was projecting internalized homophobia or simply acting out what was to him the logical next step in ridding the world of gay people.

    There may never be a definitive answer in Omar Mateen’s case.  But there is no doubt that whatever motivated the killings, he was working with a powerful conviction that these people deserved to die. 

    And don’t come at me with the bullshit explanation that he’s simply crazy and that’s that. There’s a much simpler explanation right at the surface, an explanation the churches and rightwingers are working hard to push aside.  Far more often than many are willing to admit, it takes religion to create the will to kill and to die, both to commit suicide and to take others with you.

    On March 13, 1974 one of my closest friends committed suicide.  In fear and dread, I got on the phone shortly afterwards with the sister who raised him.  “I suppose we’ll never know what made him do it,” I said, fumbling terribly for words.  “Oh, I know what made him do it,” she responded.  “It was drugs and the Mormon Church.”

    His name was Merrill.  We had become close friends in our army days a decade earlier.  I was just waking up from a nightmare, fighting with everything in me against the ever increasing evidence that I was probably gay.  When Merrill told me he was homosexual (I don’t believe we used the word gay back then), I responded, “I have those tendencies, too, but I’ve been able to fight them off so far.”  Merrill laughed out loud.  “You’re only fooling yourself.  You’ll see.” 

    Merrill then became my mentor in the coming-out process, took me around the gay bars of Berlin and taught me how to hold a bottle of beer.  I fell immediately in love with him, of course, back then before I learned to fall in love with people who might love me back.  But we bonded over the secret and shared an apartment in San Francisco for a time. 

    Once back in the States, things took a different turn, however.  As I began living on my own for the first time and timidly began coming out – more from a shell than from a closet –  Merrill, my “big brother” in matters of the flesh, to my astonishment, began moving back into the closet.  He found himself a girlfriend and struggled mightily to make that relationship work.  The evidence that it wasn’t working led him, as it did and still does with so many others, into alcohol and drugs.

    I tried to tell that story to a much younger gay person recently.  He stared at me in disbelief.  Why, he wondered, would anybody go back into the closet once he’s out?  Why indeed?  I had to laugh at the naiveté. You have to understand the power of homophobia to make sense of the question. Go to a place where they throw gay people off of buildings, for example.  Or go back to the America of pre-Stonewall.  Merrill killed himself less than five years after the nelly queens of Stonewall took their stand during a police raid on their bar in the Village on June 28, 1969, and fought back.  It would be decades before their efforts would be recognized fully, before they might have been able to persuade Merrill that someday everything would be all right, that being gay would some day no longer be an unbearable burden.  But at the time, so ingrained was the self-loathing that the lived reality was not unlike living today in Uganda or Russia or Afghanistan.

    I remember my response to the drag queens of Stonewall at the time.  I begrudgingly admitted theirs was an act of courage.  But that didn’t stop me from feeling terribly uncomfortable around men in heels and dresses.  I was still new at the game and knew nothing about theater or irony or the power to thwart the efforts of others to define me.  I bought into the explanation du jour that these were “men who wanted to be women,” realized that didn't apply to me, and saw no reason for a sense of solidarity.  It took a long time before I made the connection, and when I did I sat down and bawled like a baby in shame over the disgust and loathing I had directed all those years at drag queens and at men with feminine mannerisms.

    You know that clever Steve Weinberg quotation: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”  I wasn’t a bad guy.  But I had no trouble pointing the finger and condemning what I had come to believe was sin.  The self-loathing Merrill felt may have been put there originally by the church he was raised in.  But it was people like me, all too quick to protest that religion no longer had any power over me, who helped create the atmosphere of disapproval of anything but the authorized norms of sexual behavior, which pulled the rug out from under Merrill and others struggling with serious self-doubts. So strong was my early indoctrination into the belief that homosexuality was evil that the after effects would take many years to shed.  The homophobia that had its source in religion has seeped into the broader American culture.  And just as many of us lose sight of who our ancestors were, it’s not uncommon to hear from religious people that “it’s not religion – it’s culture.”  That blurring of origins then becomes the new reality. It can be seen today in those who would deny the fact that the victims in Orlando were a religiously-persecuted minority.

    Owen Jones, who writes for The Guardian, The New Statesman and other publications, walked out of a TV interview  yesterday when it became obvious to him that the interviewer was trying to hide the fact that the killings in Orlando took place in a gay bar.  It’s not just LGBT people who can see this effort for what it is.  Others with the eyes to see are taking note that this interviewer is by no means alone.  All you have to do is run down the websites of the Catholic Church, for example.  Check out the last several postings of my friend and catholic blogger (and friend) Bill Lindsey the past couple of days to see how applied homophobia is revealed in the church's efforts at silencing.  Check out the Republicans leading the anti-gay charges, the Santorums and the Ted Cruzes who cater to their right-wing Christian base.  It’s not something you have to dig for.  It sits there right on the surface, this need to demonize homosexuality.  In their case it’s an authoritarian form of Christianity.  In Mateen’s case, it's likely to have been an authoritarian form of Islam.  Poison from the same well.

    I’m struck with how widespread the push still is in the media at present to make this story mostly or all about Mateen’s acting as an agent of ISIS.  I’m thinking of Rachel Maddow’s extended piece on the shift in ISIS policy from getting volunteers to come join them in Syria and Iraq to staying put and wreaking havoc at home.  Note, however, as you watch that coverage, that she’s leaving open the possibility of a shift of focus to Mateen’s internalized homophobia.  At least she leaves the back door open and suggests there is more of the story to unfold.

    The fact that Omar Mateen was Muslim does not make this an act of Islamic terrorism.  Islamicist thought may well have figured large in his anger and sense of alienation, but when he lashed out, it wasn’t against a bank or other symbol of capitalism, or a synagogue, or a military target.  It was a gay bar.

    Nor was it a spontaneous act.  Mateen had hung out in a gay bar for some time before his planned massacre.  One person told the Orlando Sentinel that he had seen him there a dozen times.   And his father told the press he was probably motivated by seeing two men kiss some time back.  The signs are there that milady doth protest too much.  Another source reports Mateen was actually actively dating gay men and showing up regularly at the Pulse bar.  

    “Have you ever noticed,” a wise man once asked me, “that people comfortable with their own sexuality seldom concern themselves with the sexuality of others?”

    Yes, I had noticed actually.  Just as I have noticed the open secret that one of the major sources of homophobia around the world comes from the Catholic Church, where estimates are that as many as half the priesthood is comprised of men who have a same-sex orientation.  And as long as such feelings are taboo, the church will continue to provide a haven for them.  I noticed too that Ted Haggard, who had weekly access to George W. Bush as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, regularly preached the homophobic party line while engaging in sex with men, providing evidence that sexual hypocrisy is by no means the exclusive purview of the Roman Catholic Church.  In the political arena, an article in The Advocate some time ago took note of sixteen antigay leaders who, it turns out, were gay themselves.  Projection of internalized homophobia is clearly alive and well in Washington.

    Love the sinner but hate the sin, the churches preach to us.  It sounds at first like a reasonable slogan.  But think about it for a while and you come to see that somebody is still defining the core act of expressing physical desire and emotional attachment to a person of the same sex as sin, and then declaring that expression of love and affection is something one should hate.  That twisting of love into hate didn’t come from nowhere.  It came from the religious teachings of the three abrahamic religions that undergird the civilization in which we live.  Ancient prejudices.  Those same scriptures once supported our culture’s acceptance of slavery, the suppression of women, the bashing against the rocks of the heads of the children of those from another tribe.  We’ve managed to root these prejudices out, most of us, as we struggle to embrace the new humanistic and egalitarian morality of the modern world.  But some ancient practices remain.

    As always, it is necessary to distinguish between religion as a locus of our better hopes, dreams and instincts on the one hand, and the toxic varieties in which the Bible or the Qur’an are used as a hammer, on the other.  It’s the toxic brand I’m referring to when I use the word religion obviously.  Criticize me, if you will, for the ellipsis in leaving out the word toxic when I mention religion.  But only if you do the same for those folk who leave out the word non-toxic when trying to persuade you that “religion is the answer.”

    Getting rid of hate is like pulling weeds.  It’s like pursuing democracy.  It’s a terribly ambitious project, an elusive goal, and a constant struggle.  You don’t want to be one of those people who never stops to smell the flowers.  But neither should we miss an opportunity to pull some weeds.

    Watch closely as this story about the Orlando massacre continues to unfold.

    And when you can, like when you hear somebody tell you this was a human tragedy, not a gay tragedy, give a good yank.

     photo credit:  from the website of the non-profit organization REVEL & RIOT 

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  10. $641,880 over the asking price.  How ‘bout them apples?

    I went to lunch not long ago with my friend Sally.  She and her husband run a real estate cum construction business in San Francisco.  I mentioned during our conversation that a house on my street had just sold for a quarter of a million dollars over the asking price.  I thought she’d be impressed.  “That’s about normal, these days,” she said.

    You’ve got to be kidding me.  Normal?

    I just can’t keep up with the bubbles.  Not that long ago – eight years ago, was it? – we nearly all went to the poor house nationally because the money people who run the Republican and Democratic Parties and the rest of Washington, and pretty much the rest of the country as well, got caught with their pants down, offering houses to people who couldn’t afford to make the mortgage payments.  All fall down.

    And instead of fixing things, instead of getting people like Robert Reich and Elizabeth Warren in there, Obama put the foxes back in charge of the henhouse, and here we are again.  Same old, same old.  That’s why I wanted Bernie Sanders to head the Democratic ticket and not Hillary Clinton.  I was – still am – convinced she’s of the “same old/same old” variety.

    These days, now that we have no choice – because Donald Trump is not a choice – we have to support her and hope for the best.  Hope Bernie has pushed her far enough toward the center to bring some equity back into American political and economic life.  That all remains to be seen.

    I’d like to stand up and cheer these real estate prices in the San Francisco Bay Area.  My house is not in one of the pricey neighborhoods – it’s in South Berkeley, where you can still get a house for (I blush to admit) under a million dollars.  But on paper, at least, I’m sitting pretty.  Or would be, if ever I decided to sell my house and go live in rural Saskatchewan.  If I sold my house and tried to stay here as a renter, I couldn’t afford the rent.

    This is just crazy.  How can we live in a country where there are people buying houses for two-thirds of a million dollars over the asking price – not the asking price, but over the asking price?  And we can’t get everybody medical coverage, can’t get everybody educated, can’t fix the roads and keep the libraries open?

    We’re all focused now on the madness of Donald Trump and on the fact that Hillary is our only hope.

    And we’re missing the point that the reason two of the three candidates – until Bernie drops out and makes it two out of two – represent either the rich or the status quo, where the rich tell the rest of us we need more guns and less environmental regulation, and we all flick the homeless off like a piece of lint from our clothes.

    The donut, folks.  More donut.  Less donut hole.

     $641,880 over the asking price!

    photo credit: The house is an artist's rendering of the place that just sold for $2.625 million in Berkeley.  Source and details can be found here.

    Not to cast aspersions on the house or the people who are going to live in it - I have no doubt it will make these people a great home and I wish them every happiness in it.  But the artist's rendering above, with the delicious white halo above it, is only one way to look at it.  Another way, if you google map it, is by an actual photo:

    That's what you get for  $1,983, 120  $2,625,000 in Berkeley these days.


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