1. Alan Turing
    Somebody sent me a link to a news item the other day about the decision by the powers that be in Britain to “pardon” all the gay men (I think the law only applies to men) who were arrested in the past for crimes like “buggery, gross indecency and loitering with intent.”

    My first response was anger.

    Who the hell are you to presume the right to "pardon" me, said the voice in my head. You want to "pardon" me for committing a crime? It's on your head, you blinkin’ twit, that what I did was a crime in the first place!"

    It’s me who should pardon you for being such a retrograde bigot. Like you, we all did things in the past we are ashamed of today.  I'm happy to see you are no longer hung up on the sex lives of others, and sure, it's good to let bygones be bygones.

    But pardon me?  Come off it!

    I then read the article about the new Turing Law, as it's being called (a wonderful way, at least, to honor Alan Turing) and was not surprised to find I'm not alone in this reaction.  The article mentions a 93-year-old gay activist from Brighton named George Montague who was among those swept up in the legal prissiness of the day.  He refuses to accept a pardon.

    The problem is by now a familiar one.  It is the gap between legal terminology and words as we use them in daily life.  If in passing the Turing Law they had announced only that they were going to “correct the injustice” or “put right the damage done to gays,” there would, I think, have been a huge sigh of relief.  Some “it’s about damn time!” responses, but a much more general welcoming of the change in attitudes in Britain toward LGBT people.   It's the use of the word "pardon" that gets under your skin.

    The legal term “to pardon” is the word used to mean “remove charges,” so, properly framed, this is a story of the justice system righting itself. Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon for illegal wiretapping.  I wouldn't have, but the "dignity of the White House" was never a priority for me. Nixon had clearly done wrong. 

    Unfortunately, in daily parlance, one “pardons” a person for doing an actual wrong. These men, consenting adults who sought each other out for sex, did no wrong.  There’s nothing to pardon.

    Well, let me back up here.  Turns out this is a sticky business because the charge of “lewd behavior” covered a multitude of sins, and folks of a conservative bent are pointing out, with good reason, that a blanket “pardon” might include those who did harm to others – who took advantage of the vulnerable and forced them into sex against their will.

    There’s the rub.  When you use a trumped up excuse to go after someone, it can come back at you.  Go into a private space, like a gay bar, grab somebody dancing with somebody of the same sex, and throw them in jail for “lewd behavior,” and you lose the moral high ground you need when you then want to go for a sexual aggressor on the same charge.

    This issue bugged the hell out of me recently when Donald Trump began hitting back at Hillary Clinton because, as he put it, her husband “did far worse.”  Forget the by now familiar habit Trump has of responding to things like a five-year-old.  His mode of interacting with the world is usually, “Johnny hit me first!” What got lost was the distinction between sex and violence. Between consent and aggression.

    The prissiness of the Victorian age is still with us.  Hillary was married to a horn-dog.  Bill Clinton pulled a stupid that will go down through the ages.  He had an intern in the Oval Office on the floor on her knees giving him a blow job.  Couldn’t get tackier if you tried.

    Now correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn't Monica Lewinsky a consenting adult?  There never was any evidence that she was forced into a sex act.  What she did was inappropriate, and that’s an understatement.  But there was never any way to put it down as an act of violence.  The issue in Trump’s case was – or should have been – sexual aggression, sex with people against their will.  That is, and should remain, a crime.  (And yes, it's entirely possible that Trump is telling the truth for a change and the "crooked Hillary" campaign got these ten women to lie under oath and claim Trump was sexually aggressive. That seedy issue has yet to be worked out.)

    If we could just get past the church’s brilliantly sinister decision to get control of people by making morality center on sex, and recognize that the real ills of this world center on violence and deceit – and not sex between consenting adults – we could eliminate the need for folks at some future date to “pardon” people for doing what comes naturally.

    We've been down this road before with the word tolerance.  Just as the good folk of the British legal system think they are doing good with pardon, most people think they are doing good when they preach tolerance.  But it’s the same inclination to place oneself in a superior position.

    “What the world needs is more tolerance of others.”  Sounds good, right?  Until you put tolerance into context and you come up with things like, “I’ll tolerate you for being Jewish.”  Or “I’ll tolerate your after school work with handicapped kids, but I think you should be working full time on your MBA.”

    I don’t need your tolerance, and I don’t need your pardon.

    I need your recognition that we are equals, and that we have common problems to worry about.

    Let’s get on with those.

    photo credit

    Added 4:15 p.m. - What escaped my notice until just now is the fact that Germany did the same thing the Brits are now doing, earlier this month.  But here the focus is on compensation, and not simply on giving the men a pardon.  They have set aside 30 million euros to compensate the 140,000 men convicted, 50,000 of those since the end of the Second World War.  About 5,000 men are expected to apply for compensation.  The notorious "Paragraph 175" that made gay sex illegal was abolished in West Germany in 1995.  East Germany abolished it as early as 1968.

    Telling is the phrasing of the announcement.  According to the Minister of Justice, Heiko Maas, “We cannot completely undo these outrages of the rule of law, but we want to rehabilitate the victims.”

    That's a damn sight better than "We will pardon you," I'd say.


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  2. Freispruch! (Not guilty!)
    Back in my teaching days, one of my favorite courses was my seminar in Ethics.  I taught in a program dealing with language and culture, and my focus was on how the concepts of right and wrong vary over time and space.  The goal was to help students become aware of what happens when cultures with conflicting values come in contact.  As an educator, I was also hoping to raise consciousness in my students about the importance of clarifying one’s own values and building a rational basis for an ethical system in a world of constant change.

    At some point, we would run through the tried and true standard ethical dilemmas.  The survivors on a life raft, for example.   If there is no way to keep the raft afloat with more than five people and there are six of you, do you toss someone overboard?  If so, who?  Is a doctor’s life worth more than a carpenter’s life?  A child’s life worth more than a 60-year-old’s?  Would you torture somebody to prevent a nuclear disaster?

    Occasionally, students would protest these hypothetical situations.  Ethics, many argued, are contingent.  I’d torture someone to save a loved one, my child, for example.  But not to save a stranger.  One student once told me he was offended that I should be doing this kind of exercise in the first place.  He should not be forced to reveal his values.  They were his and nobody else’s business.

    I followed the Abu Ghraib story and the example of water boarding in particular.  Not just because I was obsessed and depressed with the thought that America had failed a major moral test miserably, but because I was fascinated by the reasons people came down against it.  A Kantian, or somebody at Stage 6 on the Lawrence Kohlberg scale, people who think principles are higher than individual needs or wants, will tell you you need to establish the right thing to do and then do it, period.  Others will want to make room for all sorts of contingencies.  So I became fascinated with how many people would say torture, water-boarding in particular, was wrong – not because it was morally wrong but because it was ineffective and often led to false information.  The implication, obviously, is that it would be all right if it actually worked.

    This week, Germans turned their country into an ethics classroom.  A stage play entitled Terror, written by Ferdinand von Shirach, one of Germany’s most respected writers, was adapted* for television.  The play poses the question, "Would you shoot down a passenger plane – particularly in the light of the 9/11 experience – to save a football stadium filled with spectators?"

    It is the story of a plane carrying 164 passengers which has been commandeered by a terrorist intending to crash it into Munich’s football stadium filled with 70,000 people.  A major makes the decision to shoot the plane down, thus committing what some will designate the “lesser evil.”

    Complicating the question for those who place a high value on the law is the fact that until recently Germany had a law allowing such measures to be taken, in the event of a terrorist act.   Following 9/11, Germany instituted what was known as the Luftsicherheitsgesetz – the “Aviation Security Act on January 15, 2005.”  However, a year later, on February 15, 2006, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court, their Supreme Court, declared that law unconstitutional.  Their reasoning was based on Article 1 of Germany’s constitution, its “Basic Law (Grundgesetz), which reads: “Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar,”  ("Human dignity shall be inviolable" in the official English translation.)

    Article 1 has been interpreted to mean that one may not justify the taking of a life by the saving of another, no matter how many persons are involved.  The court is thus following the Kantian prescription, “Let justice be done, though the world perish.”  Kant’s approach to ethics is in contrast to the utilitarian argument that actions must be taken to bring about “the greatest good for the greatest number.”    Utilitarians focus on the outcome of an action and judge it accordingly.  Kant’s “imperative” is “categorical,” that is it is true for all times and all occasions, without exceptions or conditions.  You can’t shoot down a plane, because you can’t kill people.  Period.

    So when Major Koch, upon whom the duty falls to decide who lives and who dies, kills the 164 to save the 70,000, he has done wrong, according to Immanuel Kant.  And more relevant to his fortunes, he has broken a fundamental law of Germany’s modern democracy.

    Problem is that while Germany’s Supreme Court would seem to be Kantians, most Germans are clearly utilitarians.  And a gap this wide between a people and its government is what makes this a big story.

    Hart Aber Fair panel, left to right: Jung, Wassmann,
    Bahr, Baum, Plasberg (standing)
    When the TV film was shown, it carried the title, Terror – Ihr Urteil (Terror – Your Verdict), and the public, effectively turned into a national jury, was invited to telephone in their decision to a talk show, Hart Aber Fair (Tough But Fair), which then released the results and debated them with four guests.  The two panel members who pronounced the major innocent of murder included Franz Josef Jung, a former defense minister, and Thomas Wassmann, a military man and fighter jet expert.  The two who pronounced him guilty included the theologian and bishop of Hannover, Petra Bahr, although she defended her position on grounds less theological than constitutional; and Gerhart Baum, the former Minister of the Interior, a passionate defender of the constitution.   If your German is up to it, the program is available here.  

    The show, and thus the ethical dilemma, captured the imagination of the nation.  It had an audience of 6.88 million viewers.  That’s a market share of more than 20%. 

    There are two sources of public opinion on the question of whether shooting down the plane was the right thing to do, the stage play and the television version.  When the play was performed around the world, in Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Venezuela, Israel and Japan, audiences were asked to vote on Major Koch’s guilt.  Germans, for the most part, found Major Koch not guilty of murder by a wide margin – 90,357 to 60,897 of the votes tallied.   The range was even greater in Switzerland, where 2424 people voted not guilty to 882.  Tallies have not yet been taken in Denmark and Israel, but Venezuela and Hungary show similar responses to the German speaking countries (Austria's numbers on the television version were virtually identical to the German numbers.)  With the exception of Japan, where the vote went 569 not guilty to 958 guilty, the not guilty votes outweighed the guilty votes about 60/40. 

    The Bundestag seems to have had the popular sentiment on their side when they first passed the Aviation Security Act, allowing a commandeered plane to be shot down.  And the Constitutional Court, their defenders might argue, did what Supreme Courts are supposed to do, determine constitutionality on the basis of reason, and not emotion.  

    In real life.  But what about the television trial of Major Koch, who is found innocent of a crime? An overwhelming majority of citizens agree with the TV court, despite what one assumes would be the decision of the constitutional court in real life.  In the Hart Aber Fair discussion, the defense minister endorses the TV court’s decision.  The argument that one cannot measure one life against another is bogus, he asserts.  We do it all the time, for example, when it comes to saving a mother’s life over a fetus’s life, when faced with that choice.  The Catholic Church has made it clear the doctor’s obligation is to the newborn.  But the state argues a family can always have more children, but once the mother is dead, she’s dead.  And in wartime, medics performing triage routinely neglect a patient near death in order to save three with better life prospects.

    But how to explain the wide discrepancy between the not guilty vote following the theater performances and the not guilty vote following the TV show?  Both agreed, but the TV audience voted for not guilty by a much larger margin – 87 to 13.  

    Bishop Bahr attempts to make the point that the vote was not, in fact, a national referendum.  It was a vote on which ending was appropriate for a television program.  (They had prepared two endings, one in which Major Koch was found guilty, one in which he was found innocent, and it's the "best ending," technically, that they were voting on).  What governs the decisions of a law-making body in real life is not necessarily the same as what influences a television audience primed to be entertained. Florian David Fitz, who played Koch, for example, the major who shot down the plane, is one handsome dude.  As Bahr points out, he might easily be mistaken for Klaus von Stauffenberg, the man who made the attempt on Hitler’s life – a hero, in other words.  The “hero effect” might go a long way to explain the discrepancy between the 87-13 figure in the film as opposed to the 60-40 split in the theaters.  You watch a man on a stage from some distance.  On television, you watch his anxiety and his guilt and his vulnerability in close-ups on his eyes.  Then there’s the technology problem.  At some point, the phone lines jammed.  The figures are not necessarily representative of those who actually voted, much less of those who might vote in a real referendum. 

    None of this detracts from the fact that, for a time, the German nation is being urged to debate a moral dilemma and consider the responsibilities of democratic institutions to follow the rule of law, or justify exceptions to the rule of law.  Such debates will quickly lead to others.  Security debates invariably involve the notion of privacy. Do you want police to be able to spy on everyone?  It would make everyone safer.  And it could perhaps head off such dilemmas as whether to shoot down a plane with 164 innocent passengers in it in the first place.

    The former Minister of the Interior loses his cool in the panel discussion.  At one point the moderator asks him directly, “Are people wrong to find him innocent?”  “Yes,” Baum answers.  “They don’t know the law.”

    Hard to argue with that, although one might raise the question, "If we don't permit our military to go after known terrorists, (remember, they are certain in this case) aren't we encouraging more terrorist acts? Wouldn't one successful attack on 70,000 football fans be certain to encourage another?"  To say nothing of sending the nation into a national trauma. How long would the country abide by the ruling that it's OK to sit tight and allow 70,000 people to meet their death, because "it's the law"? Would there not be riots?

    And then there's the response to this response, "How is this not mob rule?"

    And what about the argument that the folks in the plane are goners in either case?  Does this not suggest one should give them a part in history as tragic heroes and not define them only as tragic victims?

    Or do you want to leave this decision to fate (or God, if you prefer)?  Or worry about guilt, and place it on the terrorists and not the major?

    To which you have to ask, is doing nothing not also sinning/being guilty of criminal neglect of duty? Is being inactive the same as being responsible?

    The questions go on and on.

    It’s tempting to argue, as many have, that the national ruckus raised by populists like Frank Plasberg and his TV program have created more sound and fury than rational thought.  Der Spiegel suggests as much.  Interior Minister Baum lays blame on the author, von Shirach, for even getting this (bogus?) ball rolling (and missing the point that Shirach himself thinks the major is guilty.)

    I’m persuaded by my years in the classroom watching otherwise tuned-out students come alive when faced with life and death questions that this debate is not a mistake, legitimate though the protestations of its faults may be.  I’m also persuaded by watching the sad state of political debate we’ve fallen into in the United States, that there are better things we might be doing, things such as this German debate, in the name of democracy.

    *The play was adapted for television by von Shirach and the director, Lars Kraume and a third director and producer, Oliver Berben.  [To get a sense of Shirach as both writer and criminal defense lawyer, link here.]  It has been called "the TV experiment of the year."

    panel on „Hart Aber Fair“


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  3. Matt Taibbi has a way with words.  His latest article in Rolling Stone on “The Fury and Failure of Donald Trump” is a gorgeous piece of writing.  Read it for the content.  Splash around in it for the imagery.

    Taking up the Trump phenomenon, Taibbi makes the now obvious point that others are making as well: that Americans are between a rock and a hard place, that what we want is change, but because of Trump we have no option but to support the status quo.  

    I see the alternative as putting a grenade into the hands of a three-year-old.  Taibbi uses less clumsy metaphors.

    He risks beating a dead horse.  Most people I know are sick to death of this election campaign and we feel like we're crawling through the desert with an empty water canteen, hoping we can make it to the next oasis alive.  

    Taibbi's writing reminds you that this seemingly endless journey can be fun, if you don't lose your sense of humor.

    A few quotes:

    Taibbi sums up the mess Trump has made for himself:

    Trump, in the space of a few hours, had become the mother of all pop-culture villains, a globally despised cross of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Charlie Sheen and Satan.

    It begs the question, how did we get here?  Why Trump, for God’s sake?  Well…

    All 16 of the non-Trump entrants were dunces, religious zealots, wimps or tyrants, all equally out of touch with voters. Scott Walker was a lipless sadist who in centuries past would have worn a leather jerkin and thrown dogs off the castle walls for recreation. Marco Rubio was the young rake with debts. Jeb Bush was the last offering in a fast-diminishing hereditary line. Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer….  By the time the other 16 candidates finished their mass-suicide-squad routine, a tail-chasing, sewer-mouthed septuagenarian New Yorker was accepting the nomination of the Family Values Party.

    On the fate of the clueless Republican voter:

    Duped for a generation by a party that kowtowed to the wealthy while offering scraps to voters, then egged on to a doomed rebellion by a third-rate con man who wilted under pressure and was finally incinerated in a fireball of his own stupidity…

    On Mike Pence:

    The man who once opposed clean needles on moral grounds was now ready to march through history with a serial groper and tit-gazer

    On Rudolph Giuliani’s role in the campaign:

    How Giuliani isn't Trump's running mate, no one will ever understand. Theirs is the most passionate television love story since Beavis and Butthead. Every time Trump says something nuts, Giuliani either co-signs it or outdoes him. They will probably spend the years after the election doing prostate-medicine commercials together.

    On the problems the Republicans have been faced with:

    The challenge for the leaders of the Republican Party: it's hard to keep the loons out when you're scraping to find people willing to sell rich-friendly policies to a broke population.

    On Trump’s chutzpah:

    Shackled! Only in America can a man martyr himself on a cross of pussy.

    Taibbi sums up the country’s best course of action.   It’s a sign of the times that Taibbi, like the rest of us, is singing Hillary’s praises.  Sure, she’s the Queen of Wall Street.  So why doesn’t she stop denying it?  That’s where we are.  We could go off the grid and live in the dark.  Or we could have four more years of business as usual with a candidate who knows the ropes.  In time, we need to get to the real issues like the gap between rich and poor in America and a totally corrupted political process. Get this election over with, admit defeat, put Hillary in, and get on with the show. 

    Taibbi calls the American political process a TV reality show, which explains Trump’s remarkable success in the first place:

    … (T)he Campaign Reality Show as it has evolved over the years…(l)ike every TV contest…discourages subtlety, reflection and reconciliation, and encourages belligerence, action and conflict…. It's a divide-and-conquer mechanism that keeps us from communicating with one another, and prevents us from examining the broader, systemic problems we all face together.

    We’ve now seen that reality show.  It’s done with, and the hero is dead.

    Built up in the press as the American Hitler, he was unmasked in the end as a pathetic little prankster who ruined himself, his family and half of America's two-party political system for what was probably a half-assed ego trip all along, adventure tourism for the idiot rich.

    Taibbi articulates the dismay of the American left.  Thanks, Donald.  Thanks, Republican Party.  We’re voting for the status quo now.   The Queen of Wall Street.  There simply is no realistic alternative:

    If he goes on to lose, he will be our Bonaparte, the monster who will continue to terrify us even in exile, reinforcing the authority of kings.

    There’s no justification for putting all the blame on the Republicans, of course.  Democrats participate in this process of selecting leaders from alternate dynasties.  Republicans didn’t write our Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama-Clinton history all on their own.

    But that’s a problem for another day.  Tomorrow, if we are able, we will rebuild.  Today, we simply pick up the pieces.


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  4. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Missing the woods for the trees.  Concentrating not on the donut but on the hole – pick your cliché.

    Top of the news the past couple of days is who “won” the vice-presidential debate.  It’s as if the entire country were on drugs.  “Won” the debate?  What does that even mean?   Tim Kaine had too much caffeine and Mike Pence displayed a ferocious propensity for denial and we are giving points for looking calm and taking points away for alleged rudeness?  Where the hell are our priorities?

    What “winning the debate” should mean, I think, is which candidate persuaded more people to vote for their party’s nomination.  At least then we’d be discussing something of consequence. Someday we’ll all have our brains wired directly into some NSA computer and will be able to answer that question.  Homeland Security computer.  Yahoo computer.  Whatever.

    Until then, I suppose there’s no way we’re going to be spared all the media speculation that stands in for news reporting.   What is going on is a battle between somebody whose chief appeal is that she will at least keep the boat from capsizing, even if we will then just go on drifting as before, and somebody who promises us in 2016 that Vladimir Putin will not go into Ukraine, apparently unaware that he already snatched the Crimea from Ukraine on March 18, 2014. Who thinks the U.S. Constitution will permit him to use a religious test to keep Muslims out of the United States.  Who tells you he knows more about ISIS than the generals do. 

    Tim Kaine was being rude and interrupting that “nice man” Mike Pence, and even liberals like the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle (Thursday, October 6, 2016) can describe Pence’s behavior as “ducking with discipline (and) dignity.”

    That’s the headline on page A13.  On the opposite page is Debra Saunders, a Trump opponent but strong Republican voice.  Her article is entitled, “Pence prevails over too clever Tim Kaine.”

    These are opinion pages, so I probably ought to allow their choice of narratives to just sit there and move on to other things.  And remember that despite the focus on discipline and dignity the title suggests, the editor does say that the big question in this election is “whether the Republican at the top of the ticket has the policy command, temperament and discipline to run the country.”  But I can’t help thinking we’re once again arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Or maybe snoozing in them. While we’re all chuffing on about Tim Kaine’s manners, nobody is telling the whole story of just who this man Mike Pence is, to say nothing of the sinister force he is defending.

    There was no mention at the debate, for example, of the fact that Mike Pence has supported a constitutional amendment which would ban gay marriage, for example, and that he once signed a bill which would have jailed gay people in Indiana for even filling out a marriage license.

    Mike Pence argues that evolution is “only a theory” and advocates teaching the theory of intelligent design alongside the theory of evolution in schools.

    Mike Pence denied during the debate that both he and Trump ever declared Putin to be a “very strong leader,”  or that Trump said in 2016 that Putin would not invade Ukraine two years after he had annexed Crimea in March of 2014, or that there would be a “deportation force” to remove illegal aliens from their homes, or that women should be punished for having an abortion, or that Japan and Saudi Arabia should have nuclear weapons, or that immigrants should be kept out if they are Muslim.  What is astonishing about all this is that they must have realized the Democrats would immediately launch a video juxtaposing Pence’s denials against Trump saying exactly these things.  Pence is an experienced politician, and one has to assume these are not knowledge gaps but deliberate attempts to address the Trump base, which has demonstrated repeatedly that it lives, with Trump, in a world of self-serving manufactured reality.

    This is the issue.  Not the lies, which politicians are inclined to engage in by nature, but the fact that Americans in large numbers can be counted on to accept lies and misrepresentations made before their very eyes when it suits them to do so.

    One of the inherent weaknesses in democracy is that it can never be any better than the people trying to make it work.  If they don’t participate, it doesn’t work.  If they don't hold leaders responsible, it doesn't work.  If they don't distinguish fact from fiction, it doesn't work.  

    Somehow we seem to bumble our way through, despite incompetence and dishonesty at the top.  In fact, we’re so conditioned to second best government that there are voices everywhere telling us we could survive a Trump presidency.  And probably we could, although why anyone would be all right with merely surviving is beyond me.

    Hillary is in the lead again.  If she can keep the lead we can at least hope for more of the same rather than putting up with a narcissistic 1-percenter clown for the next four years.   Treading water beats drowning.  

    And get real.  When somebody calls out a liar, don't be a jackass and scold him for his aggressive debating strategy.

    There are far more pressing needs than reminding the boys to mind their manners.  Like resisting the inclination to think icebergs are not our problem and rearrange the deck chairs for another snooze.

    photo credit

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  5. I posted a blog entry last June which comes as close as I’ll ever come, I think, to writing a love letter to a church.    The First Congregational Church of Berkeley, located a block south of campus and about a fifteen minute walk from the house, is a joy to the eyes.  Maybe not to everybody, but I think to anybody who, like me, finds this kind of New England architecture so very appealing in its simple lines and quiet elegance.

    Even more attractive is what goes on inside.  Over the years I’ve lived in Berkeley,  I’ve attended dozens of concerts and lectures here.   First Congregational has played an active role in community activities, providing a venue for any number of interesting speakers on book tours, and a home for one of our* favorite things in the world, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale.  We’ve had season tickets for many years now.  I can’t tell you what a luxury it is to have a world class musical group perform six times a year only a fifteen minute walk from your house.  Beethoven, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach and much much more.  So very good for the soul.

    George Lakoff, Matt Taibbi, Karen Armstrong – and so many more people have popped in.  If anybody counted the number of times I went through those doors, they’d likely conclude I must be a Christian churchgoer.  I have never attended a church service there, actually, but I have commented that if all Christians demonstrated their faith through the kind of community service First Congregational does, there would be a hell of a lot more Christians around, and a whole lot less animosity toward religion.

    And it didn’t hurt to take note that the United Church of Christ is a leading force for embracing LGBT people and their struggle for equality before the law in this country.  First Congregational is a member of that organization.  I, for one, will never make the mistake of thinking that to be a Christian you’d have to give up your sexuality, or to be gay you’d have to give up your religion.

    My respect for First Congregational knows no limits.

    So you can imagine the shock and sadness I felt, after complaining about helicopters flying overhead for what seemed like forever yesterday afternoon, to hear the news that First Congregational was on fire.

    The good news, for the glass half-full people, is that except for some water damage, the sanctuary is still intact.  The fire was in the annex, where they run a day-care center, a center for homeless people, and many of the lectures I was talking about.  They don’t have the cause yet – they were working on the roof and probably somebody got careless.  There is some no-doubt-about-it good news, though.   Nobody was hurt.

    Curious news reporting.  The local paper, the Berkeleyside, spoke of a fire in the church, failing to note it was the annex and not the church itself.  And the local fire chief, speaking to the press, was unable to identify it as First Congregational.  He knew it only as “a church.”  Funny how these ancillary things strike you when you’re hungry for news.  As if you zero in on the curious in order to soften the blow of the really bad news.  Curious to me, because as a kid growing up, everybody knew the names of all the churches in town.  Certainly firemen and policemen did.

    First Congregational will survive.  I’m sure people will step up and contribute to its reconstruction.  I’ll contribute.  “Look ma, I’m putting money in the collection plate at my age!”

    They’ve had fires before and have bounced back. 

    First order of business is where are we to go for the All Beethoven concert on Sunday, October 16th?   Hope somebody steps up with a substitute location.

    Wherever that may be, we (I’m sure I’m not alone in this) will be listening, conscious of the gratitude we feel that nobody was hurt and with the hope this marvelous church gets back on its feet as fast as earthly possible.

    *I'm not using the royal "we" here.  I'm talking about me and the hubby.

    photo credit: Berkeleyside


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  6. There are a lot of people claiming the battle for gay rights in the U.S. is essentially won.  A large majority of people are in favor of same-sex marriage and an even larger percentage of Americans insist there is no justification for discrimination against LGBT people, period.  For many Americans who don’t have gay friends and family, it’s time to take the topic off the front burner and recognize it only directly affects a tiny percentage of the population.  My response to that is that percentage is about the same as the percentage of Jews in the U.S., and given the historical injustice done to both gays and Jews in our history, I’d say OK, take it off the front burner – but don’t turn off the heat. 

    The gay liberation struggle is no longer my central focus in life.  That would probably be trying to stay awake after meals and making sure my canine daughters get outside at regular intervals, so I don’t have to pick up accidents off the bathroom rug.  But sometimes the struggle still calls out for attention and I find myself dipping into the pool and checking the water temperature.  Gay liberation still runs hot and cold.

    When you look outside the limits of the pockets of progressivism in Europe and North America, it’s clear the battle is still raging hot and heavy.  The Catholic Church in Mexico, for example, is working hard this week to prevent the current government from extending same-sex marriage rights from the capital and nine of Mexico’s thirty-one states to the rest of Mexico.  Protest marches have been organized around the country by the National Front for the Family  showing the power of the church in Mexico is still considerable.  Bishop Pedro Pablo Elizondo of Cancún has been grandstanding, declaring he’d be happy to go to jail to defend the family.  (Oh, sit down, Pedro, you’re embarrassing yourself.)  Meanwhile, LGBT people are marching on archbishop Norberto Rivera’s digs in Mexico City, and demanding the pope bounce him out of his job.

    La lucha continua.  The struggle continues, in other words, in this culture war now extended to the entirety of Western civilization over the roles men and women are expected to play, and whether those roles may be expanded or otherwise modified. The same tired old arguments.  Cardinal José Francisco Robles Ortega of Guadalajara is upset the government is not allowing (sic) parents to pass on their faith to their children, assuming the right to raise your own kids catholic, which remains unchanged, includes the right to prevent other people from living by non-catholic rules and conventions.  Same old, same old.

    Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Lima, in Peru, incidentally, seems cut from the same cloth.  “Gay marriage and the so-called (sic) ‘day after pill’ are things people are not interested in.”  That’s according to a report in the Catholic publication Crux: Taking the Catholic Pulse.  

    Gotta love it.  The people are “not interested in the day after pill.” 

    I know.  I asked the people and they told me they were not interested. 

    Sure you did.

    You go over there, Juan Luis, and sit next to Pedro Pablo and see if you two can make your church look even sillier.

    Homophobia is unacceptable.  Fear of change is another story.  I don’t think everybody uncomfortable with outspoken women or men holding hands is a monster.  I think they need time to recognize that the world will not fall apart if the continuing struggle for human rights takes its natural course and the artificial barriers set up on the basis of sex and race and sexual preference are gradually taken down.  But I think there can be no let-up in the struggle.

    It’s always hard to watch members of the Catholic hierarchy in their silks and satins spread the doctrine that one should not use condoms, do stem-cell research, allow women to have executive authority over men or any of us to touch ourselves down there unless we’re making babies.  One wishes they’d get the hell out of the Middle Ages.

    Gay Pride in Harrison, Arkansas
    But they’re not quite as frightening, somehow, as some of the evangelicals we have in this country whose “old ways” are closer to lynching and the celebration of slavery.  I came across a news story in Harrison, Arkansas the other day, the home of the Ku Klux Klan.  Apparently a group of folk had managed to organize themselves a gay pride event.  How about that, I thought, as the newscaster interviewed the event’s organizers.  I noted they had dropped the word “gay” and were using just “pride” – but hell, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

    Across the street from Gay Pride in Harrison, Arkansas
    But then the video continued and suddenly we were looking at the face of one R. G. Miller, head of the Arkansas League of the South.  Have a look at the video.    It’s chilling.   “Our duty is primarily to God,” says Miller.  “To stand for his word, to stand for his truth, and to stand for his law.  And his law condemns this.  It says that it is evil.  And we don’t want our children to be growing up in a city where homosexuals can parade around the town square.”  The “city” he’s talking about has a population of 12,943 people according to the latest census.  

    And that includes the out-and-proud, whom you have to admire for wanting to stay and stand up to the R. G. Millers and the Ku Klux Klan.  I would beat it out of town like the road runner.  But they grew up there, and they call it home.  Of course they want to make it better, safer, saner, and closer to the ideas expressed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

    Time to recognize how good I have it.  At breakfast this morning, I found an article by Kevin Fisher-Paulson, who is a sheriff in San Francisco who, when he isn't sheriffing, writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle.  It’s titled, “Yo ho ho: He’s me lawful wedded mate” and I got to bask in the luxury of living in another part of the country, one where the KKK never held sway and the issue of same-sex marriage is now settled.  Read the entire article if you can.  It may be limited to subscribers, and I’m afraid to reproduce the whole thing here for copyright reasons, but here’s a taste.  Fisher-Paulson writes about his husband and their two adopted kids, Zane and Aidan, and their habit of talking like pirates.   Also, read the story of how they had adopted three kids once before and had them taken away from them because "the love of two men can never replace the love of a woman."

    The Fisher-Paulsons and their boys
    When Zane and Aidan’s two daddies, Fisher and Paulson, were finally able to get married, they suddenly realized they didn’t have a best man.

    The morning of the wedding, at the kitchen table, I asked Zane about this best-man business.  He said, “Daddy, you’re the best man.” And Aidan said, “Papa too!” In that crazy kindergarten logic, it worked. Brian was my best man, as well as my bride.

    For a quarter of a century, he’d been the guy who bought me old comic books, raised my children and ate my experimental chili. Through the years of working in video stores, our Christmas tree committing suicide, losing the triplets, losing Tim, adoption ceremonies, baptisms, raising 21 rescue dogs, dance awards, newspaper columns and medals of honor, we’ve shared every one of those 11,315 days and nights with each other. It doesn’t get any more best-man than that.

    What we got for a wedding party were two middle-aged white queens, their hyperactive adopted black 5-year-old son, their hyperactive adopted mixed-race 3-year-old son and three Pekingeses. Kind of like “We Are the World” meets “Here Comes the Bride.” The ceremony was short, and, thanks to Brian’s wisdom, we were not dressed as pirates.

    …Eight years later, Brian is still my best man. As well as me hearty.

    We’re going to be all right.

    Photo credits:

    lipstick and mustache = me source

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  7. My friend Bill Lindsey writes from Arkansas that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Little Rock, which covers the entire state, has issued new guidelines for dealing with gay people.  Stop using the word gay.  Not because it isn't sufficient to include LGBTI people, but because we should pretend all these people don't amount to a hill of beans in the first place.  Just don't say the name and maybe they'll go away.

    Here's the actual wording of the pronouncement:

    Students may not advocate, celebrate, or express same-sex attraction in such a way as to cause confusion or distraction in the context of Catholic school classes, activities, or events. When discussing homosexuality or homosexual inclinations, the use of the term "same-sex attraction" is preferred, as it is a more appropriate description in accordance with the truths of Catholic faith and morals.

    I'm all for avoiding confusion, Lord knows.  There's so much of it going around these days.

    And they don't stop there.

    If a student’s expression of gender, sexual identity, or sexuality should cause confusion or disruption at the school, or if it should mislead others, cause scandal, or have the potential for causing scandal, then the matter will first be discussed with the student and his/her parents.

    Cause scandal?  Have the potential for causing scandal?

    Don't look now, folks, but we've reached the heart of the matter.

    When it became obvious that priests were abusing young boys in large numbers, what was the church's response?  To circle the wagons.  To protect the church from scandal.  Throw the young'uns under the wheels, if you have to, but for God's sake don't let it get out that priests were using them for sex.  What a scandal that would cause!

    God damn, you've got to give these buggers (yes, pun intended) credit for consistency.
    Keep your eye on the donut, boys, not on the hole.  Watch out for scandal!

    But I digress.  

    You've got something there with being careful about your choice of words when speaking of people different from ourselves.  Let's be sure to control the discourse.  We choose the words to describe you.  Not you.  We are church. You are something "other than church."  If you will all just follow me, please, we can avoid confusion.

    How about?

    Students may not advocate, celebrate, or express race consciousness in such a way as to cause confusion or distraction in the context of Catholic school classes, activities, or events. When discussing race or racial identity, the use of the term "dark- or light-skinned person" is preferred, as it is a more appropriate description in accordance with the truths of Catholic faith and morals.   
    Students may not advocate, celebrate, or express any aspect of the Hebrew language and culture in such a way as to cause confusion or distraction in the context of Catholic school classes, activities, or events. When discussing Jews or Jewish practices, the use of the term "Semitic" is preferred, as it is a more appropriate description in accordance with the truths of Catholic faith and morals. 
     Students may not advocate, celebrate, or express Mexican culture in such a way as to cause confusion or distraction in the context of Catholic school classes, activities, or events. When discussing people of Aztec, Mayan or conquistador heritage, the use of the term "south of the border" is preferred, as it is a more appropriate description in accordance with the truths of Catholic faith and morals. 
    Students may not advocate, celebrate, or express German identity in such a way as to cause confusion or distraction in the context of Catholic school classes, activities, or events. When discussing Germanness or Germanic traditions, the use of the term "Hun" is preferred, as it is a more appropriate description in accordance with the truths of Catholic faith and morals.

    Words matter.  Let's all use the right words, people!

    photo credit


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  8. I grew up in a culture in which we were taught never to speak ill of the dead.  It's tacky.  Mean. Nice people don't do it.

    So when I saw this picture on Face Book of the Wicked Witch’s red shoes sticking out from under the house that fell on her, from The Wizard of Oz, I think I was supposed to cluck, “Well, no, it’s not right to laugh.”  Instead, my reaction was, “Damn!  Somebody shares my sense of humor to a T.”  Phyllis Schlafly 1924-2016.  The witch is dead.

    I’m sure there was a part of this woman that her children could love.  She raised six of them, after all.  And had sixteen grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.  I wouldn’t dance and sing about her death in the presence of these people.  There was a private person someone could call grandma.

    But there was also a public figure who worked diligently to assure that women would continue to be legally defined as adjuncts to their fathers and husbands, a Catholic woman who followed her church’s patriarchal teaching to the letter.  This witch is now dead and will ride through history as a footnote, along with Jerry Falwell, in the American culture war over the rights of women and minorities.  And, by the way, when it came to family loyalty, it would seem to have been rather one-sided.  When her son came out as gay, her response to gay people remained unchanged.  “Nobody’s stopping them from shacking up,” she said.  “The problem is that they are trying to make us respect them, and that’s an interference with what we believe.”  Gee thanks, mom.

    Schlafly’s most notable accomplishment was the founding of the Eagle Forum.  She organized it originally to stop the Equal Rights Amendment, but it then became an umbrella organization for other arch-conservative causes. Until Schlafly came along, the ERA was on its way to becoming ratified.  Thirty-five state legislatures had passed it by a vote of more than 90% - out of the thirty-eight necessary.  But congress was then bombarded by pie-baking church ladies, and the amendment died on June 30, 1982. 

    Schlafly seemed to relish the role she played in keeping alive the Ozzie and Harriet image of a perfectly coiffed homemaker in pearls and heels welcoming hubby home from the office with a cocktail and his slippers.  Floor vacuumed, not a hair out of place.  She used to begin her speeches by thanking her husband for allowing her to go out and speak.  In this, she was not one for practicing what she preached.  Twice she ran for Congress, in 1952 and in 1970.  Lost both times.

    She had a point when she argued that the ERA would actually take away some privileges granted to women on the basis of their sex.  The two biggies were alimony and freedom from the draft. Conservatives today insist that the number of rapes of female soldiers prove she had a point.  Ditto the number of children born out of wedlock.  But pull the camera back a bit.  Focus on the whole woods, and not just a couple individual trees.  Reminds me of the arguments that we can't eliminate the growth of poppies for heroin because farmers depend on it for a living.  Or shut down coal mining for the same reason.  Sometimes you have to change two or more things to get the desired result.  I'm always struck with the short-sightedness and lack of imagination in anti-birth control arguments. And limitations on divorce. And giving refuge to children fleeing war.

    Phyllis Schlafly supporting Pat Buchanan for president
    in 1996
    My use of the witch metaphor is hardly original.  Betty Friedan once declared she’d like to burn Schlafly at the stake.    She also referred to her as “Aunt Tom.”  Political Scientist Alan Wolfe wrote in  The New Republic in 2005, “Schlafly has to be regarded as one of the two or three most important Americans of the last half of the 20th century.” But he also wrote that “every idea she ever had was scatterbrained, dangerous and hateful.”  No doubt he was referring to such comments as “sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for virtuous women,” and “sex-education classes are like in-home sales parties for abortions.”

    Politically, you couldn’t get much further to the right.   She even hated Henry Kissinger for being too liberal.  The atom bomb, according to Schlafly, was “a marvelous gift that was given to our country by a wise God.”  Sex education, she said, was “a principle cause of teenage pregnancy.” The Schlaflys were ardent anti-communists who supported Joe McCarthy and the Bricker Amendment in 1954, which would have prevented an American president from negotiating international treaties.

    Particularly irksome to women (and men) in the fight for equal rights was the realization that Phyllis Schlafly had taken the quickest path to a life of leisure; she had married rich.  Gail Sheehy captured the “I’ve got mine” insensitivity of the privileged when she wrote, “Phyllis Schlafly’s formula for the better life, then, is based on marrying a rich professional, climbing the pedestal to lady of leisure and pulling up the rope ladder behind her.”

    Each time we complain about some lousy idea, we are faced with the question of how far we want to go to shut people up.  I am for erring in the direction of free speech.  I think neo-nazis should be free to express anti-semitism, keeping in mind the rule that one cannot shout fire in a crowded theater.  I think people should be allowed to express the notion that the South fought for states’ rights and not to keep slavery intact, even though they are dead wrong.  It’s up to the rest of us to make sure facts get out there to contradict this kind of misinformation.  Trump and other dirty politicians can lie their heads off.  It’s up to the rest of us to call them out and vote accordingly. 

    So I’m not for labelling Phyllis Schlafly’s hateful pronouncements hate speech.  Not something to be punished.  Just something to take note of as hateful.  I just want to be sure that when her ideas get a hearing others get to step up and reveal the pernicious effect of her work.  Because she fought AIDS education, people died.  Because countless numbers of women could not get access to birth control information, thousands of abortions took place that should not have been necessary, and women who might have gotten out from under bad marriages remained tied to abusive men.  All because the crusader, Phyllis Schlafly, was convinced she was doing God’s work.  Schlafly was a fountain of slander and misinformation.  Consider her claim that the real purpose behind the push for same-sex marriage was to eliminate the Christian religion.  

    Just as most Muslims ignore what's actually in the Qur'an about slaying infidels and such, most Evangelicals, thank God, ignore what’s actually in the Bible. The naughty parts where Yahweh insists you should bash the brains out of the children of your enemies.  And where Jesus (in Luke 19, verse 27) says, "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me." And most Catholics ignore the retrograde teachings of the so-called Holy See. The world has moved on.  Hypocritical biblical/magisterium cherry-pickers like Pat Robertson and Ted Cruz and Phyllis Schlafly, who find their way into American politics, however, will, little doubt, be ever with us, insisting on the importance of maintaining the old ways.  Holdovers from a harsher age.  When white people spoke of the white man’s burden, when blacks went to lesser schools if they went to school at all, when women were paid only 77 cents for the same work men were paid a dollar for… OK, so that last one still holds…

    In any case, Mrs. Schlafly has gone on to her reward.  She came.  She had her say.

    And now she’s gone.

    Ding Dong.

    photo credit:

    Witch is dead: Jennine Hill’s Face Book page


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  9. 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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  10. 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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