1. Here’s a multiple-choice quiz for you.

    In 1829, the English writer, Thomas Love Peacock, a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley, coined the term kakistocracy, to mean “government by the least qualified and most unprincipled citizens.”  What is the origin of the term?

    1.     Radio station KAKI in Juneau, Alaska (88.1 FM)
    2.     The city of Kaki, in the Iranian province of Bushehr
    3.     The village of Kaki, in the French Polynesian Tuamotu Archipelago
    4.     The name used by the residents of the town of Kaltenkirchen to refer to the place where they live, when they don’t want to take the time to say all four syllables
    5.     Abubaker Kaki, the Sudanese runner
    6.     Kaki King, the musician
    7.     a misspelling of khaki
    8.     the Telegu word for crow
    9.     the Maori word for the world’s rarest wading bird, the black stilt
    10.  the Hungarian word for shit
    11.  the Japanese word for persimmon…()
    12.  …or fence or hedge or wall ( or sometimes , a variant writing of )
    13.  …or oyster (牡蠣)
    14.  …or firearms (火器)
    15.  …or summertime (lit. “the flowering season”) (夏季)
    16.  …or flower vase (花器)
    17.  …or “as follows” (下記) (and there you see one of the main arguments for retaining kanji - to disambiguate the many homonyms)
    18.  the ancient Greek word κάκιστος – kakistos – meaning “the worst”

    Whatever the origin, I am joining in spirit the 40 democratic members of Congress who have committed themselves to skipping out on the inauguration of a colossal American kakistocracy on Friday.  And I am joining with a number of friends in body and spirit the Women’s March the following day in Oakland, California.  For those of you who can make it, it begins at Madison and 9th (by the Lake Merritt BART Station).  It will go up Oak to Lake Merritt, then along the lake past Snow Park and the Cathedral, left on Grand Avenue to Broadway, then down Broadway to the City Center.  Gathering time is 10 a.m. 

    If I weren’t 99% certain that’s about all the walking I can do for one day, I would then hop BART over to San Francisco and join in their candlelight march on the same day, starting with a rally at 3 at the Civic Center and a march at some point down Market St. to the Embarcadero.  For those of you in the South Bay, there is also a march in San Jose starting at 10 a.m. in front of City Hall and ending at Cesar Chavez Plaza.  And if you live elsewhere in the country, word has it there are some 600 others to choose from!

    What can we do, at this point, but register our dismay at the takeover of government by people willing to throw up to thirty-two million people off their health care insurance plans by 2026 and 18 million within the coming year, give preference to charter schools over public schools, deny climate change? To a gaggle of folk led by a pathologically narcissistic leader who uses language to rouse crowds and then denies having made his own statements in spite of incontrovertible evidence that he has made them, the presence of millions of eyes and ears.  A leader who promised to “drain the swamp,” leading most Americans to believe that meant rule by the 1% and then pulled a switch and proceeded to increase and tighten the very oligarchic control people thought he was freeing them from.  A man who tells the great civil rights leader John Lewis, who fought for the rights of blacks to vote his entire life, and got a cracked skull for his efforts, that he is “all talk and no action.”  A man who feuds with traditional media outlets and reaches out to the white supremacist organization Breitbart as its propaganda organ.  A man who has thrown his support behind the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.

    I hope the marches will highlight the fact that despite the technical legitimacy of Trump’s win (I disagree with Lewis on that), the way the election was managed is highly suspect.   Our intelligence agencies assure us there was Russian interference; there is a strong argument to be made that the FBI chief sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign at a crucial final moment; and he actually came in behind by nearly three million votes, but won anyway, thanks to a bizarre and outdated electoral system kept in place in part by the gerrymandering of voting districts.

    I support Oakland’s decision to refer to this march not as a “protest” march, but a march of support for the rights of women and minorities, a movement, in the organizers words, “to unify and empower everyone who stands for human rights, civil liberties, and social justice for all… to find healing and strength through tolerance, civility, and compassion.”

    But at the same time, I think most people marching will share my conviction that, whether you call it one or not, it is a protest march.  And not just against the assumption of power by a superrich bunch of self-serving bastards.  But over the seriously messed up American way of doing business and running ourselves as a society. While Lewis's claim that Trump is illegitimate is controversial, what is not arguable is that the election brought out in clear relief how thoroughly corrupted America’s political system has become.  How terribly far we have strayed off the path toward democracy to a rule by oligarchs, with the widest gap between rich and poor since 1928. And a tax plan that would give 99.6% of tax cuts to people in the top 1%. 

    So much is seriously wrong.  The pitiful sight of watching Americans run from the frying pan that was Hillary Clinton to the fire that is Donald Trump has only revealed the danger of believing what you want to believe, rather than insisting on facts supported by evidence.

    I’m marching mostly because I don't know what else to do and I'm so pissed off that I have to move my arms and legs or go crazy.  And I'm hoping it will serve as an impetus for consciousness raising.  For some sign that we can get off this "Make America great again" bullshit train.  Again?  You mean we were a better place once than we are now? When was that?  When we had slaves and committed genocide against the native population?  Before women could vote?  When children worked in factories?  When a black man could be lynched with impunity?  When gays learned self-loathing with their mother's milk?  Just what the hell are we supposed to be going back to?

    I know, I know.  I'm getting carried away with the liberal lefty crap.  I know they're referring to a time when we had more manufacturing jobs, and I appreciate that it has been heartbreaking to watch jobs dry up.  And watch your country develop more wealth than ever before, but not get your fair share of it.  But it's not foreigners who took the jobs; it's technology.  Not Mexicans. Robots. And the robots are not going to give them back to you. 

    This scapegoating of foreigners has some people (like me) wondering if this isn't opening the door to fascism.

    I heard Michelle Malkin tell an audience at UC Berkeley some time ago that we were right to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II.  The audience consisted in large part of Japanese-Americans, some of whom had vivid memories of those camps. Because they're Japanese, they internalized their rage. Instead of storming the stage and ripping her heart out, they sat in their chairs and cried quietly. I consoled myself by saying she was part of the lunatic fringe.

    Until I heard her speak again, and tell us this time we should be using that experience to isolate Muslims.  And I realized her lunacy was now a policy advocated by the soon to be inaugurated president-elect.

    I'll tell you what I'd like to go back to.  To a time before Republicans began sneering when they uttered the word "progressive." 

    Progress is going from good to better and hoping to eventually get to the best.  

    Best.  You know.  That's the opposite of the worst.



    Add a comment

  2. I sent this picture here on the left out to friends yesterday.  It's a picture of a tree hanging in the air just outside our house.  Most people were unable to spot the barely perceptible line holding that tree branch in the air to a crane which in the picture managed to get cut out.  And kudos to niece Amy, who did spot it. Nothing escapes those eagle eyes.

    My neighbor had a giant pine tree threatening to fall on her house, so she hired the tree people to take it down. A major major undertaking.  The roar of the saws and the crane truck made it pretty much impossible to concentrate on anything, so we figured, my spousal unit and I, we might as well go out and join the fun.

    One by one the tree removers cut off giant limbs, like the one you see flying through the air. They then fed them into the chipper, which chopped them into tiny pieces in just seconds. When one truck was full, another truck took over.  It took me back in time.  I was a ten-year old again, transfixed by the power of machines.
    same tree branch, a minute later,
    about to go into the chipper

    A big event.  Also one of those marvelous times when all the neighbors come out of their houses and talk with each other.

    So thanks to my neighbor, Barbara.  I call it one of the social events of the winter season.

    Friend David in Japan commented on how blue the sky was.  I think that's largely a function of the camera lens. In real life it doesn't feel quite that overwhelmingly blue. 

    But it is still very blue.

    For days and days this last week and more we have had floods coming out of the sky.  I fully expected to see a pair of hippos, a pair of giraffes, a pair of kangaroos and a pair of wombats come strolling down the street heading for Noah's Ark, which must be loading somewhere nearby.  Rain of biblical proportions.  And it seems to have cleared out every last bit of pollution in the air for a while.  Hence the blue skies and wonderfully fresh country-smelling air.

    Sorry to rub it in to all of you out there in snow-bound places, but we're sitting here with the patio doors open so the girls can run in and out and toast themselves in the sunshine after all these days of being imprisoned inside.

    I love trees.  Maybe next only to dogs.  Certainly better than a lot of people I know, particularly in this nightmare time when we seem to be in the clutches of some really awful people throwing thirty million people off their health care insurance.  You know people will die because of this. And many more will go bankrupt. 

    I hate to see trees cut down.

    Just like I hate to see any dog, even an old or a rabid dog, put to sleep.

    And I hate to see people with a twenty million dollar income have to have their income reduced to nineteen million dollars, so a million can go toward paying for health care of their fellow citizens earning one five-hundredth of that income.

    So glad that wonderful team of tree removal experts were able to take a moment in time and create a world in which trees come flying through the air.  

    And don't fall on my house or my car.

    How great is that!?


    Add a comment

  3. Here’s a question for you trivia buffs:  What’s the connection between the Virgin Mary and the American dollar?

    Here’s a hint.

    But you have to read Hebrew.


    Give up?

    יְהוֹיָקִים is the man’s name “Yehoyakim.”  And Yehoyakim has evolved into various modern names, chiefly Joaquín in Spanish and Joachim in German.  Unlike James and John and Thomas and Mary, which have equivalents in all of the modern languages of people of Judeo-Christian heritage, Joaquín/Joachim never made it into English.  Except as a city on Highway 84 in Texas with a population of 824 in 2010, down 101 people from ten years before.

    In Spain, boys named Joaquín sometimes go by Quino or Ximo (pronounced “keeno” or “seemo” respectively) and in Germany Joachim often gets shortened to Achim.  (And Achim becomes a name in its own right.)  And sometimes to just Jo (pronounced Yo).  Russians, too have both Yakim and Akim.  Swedish has Joakim and Kim.  Finnish has the full range: Jaakkima, Joakim, Aki, Kim and Kimi.  Italian has Gioacchino/Gioachino with either one c or two. Dutch, Serbian and Czech have Jochem, Joakim and Jáchym, respectively.

    And speaking of Czech, there is a town in the Czech Republic called Jáchymov. It fell on hard times after the second world war when it was taken from German control and handed back to Czech control.  The communist government used the place as a prison and forced prisoners to work in the uranium mines located there, radically shortening their lives in the process. In its heyday it was the largest town in Bohemia after Prague.  That was when it bustled as a world center of silver mining.  It was then called by its German name, Joachimsthal – Joachim’s Valley.

    The Theotokos takes her first steps
    So who was Joachim and what does his valley have to do with the Virgin Mary?

    Well, first you have to know that Joachim was Mary’s father.  Here on the right you see him, with his wife, Anna, and their daughter, the “theotokos” taking her first steps.

    For those of you staying with us as we take this brief pledge break, we take a moment to acknowledge our brothers and sisters of the Greek persuasion.

    Synago is a Greek verb meaning “to gather together for religious purposes.”  Synaxis (Σύναξις) is the corresponding noun, “the religious gathering.”  And the place, of course, where a synaxis takes place is a synagogue.

    September 8 is a Greek Orthodox holiday set aside to celebrate the Nativity of the Theotokos (Θεοτόκος).  Syrian Christians celebrate the same event on the same day.  Theotokos, in English, is “Mother of God.”  It’s Mary’s birthday, in other words.

    And just so Joachim, son of Barpathir, and his wife Anne don’t get forgotten, the church made the very next day the “Synaxis of Joachim and Anne.”  Everybody gets their day.

    OK. We’re back.

    One of the books that never made it into the bible was the Gospel according to James.  Like the gospels that did, James, most biblical scholars think, wasn't actually written by the guy with his name on the book, James, the brother of Jesus. But that's neither here nor there. Sometimes known as the Infancy Gospel of James, it fills in some of the blanks in the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that did make it into the Bible.  There is widespread belief that those identified as the “brothers” of Jesus were, in fact, his half-brothers, and not related by blood, that they were sons of his father Joseph by his first wife, before he took up with Mary.  Biblical scholars dispute this claim, some insisting that it was only a way of portraying Mary as a virgin her whole life, and not merely up to the time she gave birth to Jesus.  You can check this out by reading Origen of Alexandria, the third century writer.  He’s apparently the first to make that claim.  Origen is known as the greatest critic of the texts being produced by the early church and one of the greatest scholars on the books of the bible.  He is credited with assembling the books which eventually were collected into what is now called the New Testament.  A prolific author and teacher, he is credited with 6000 works (rolls or chapters), the most important of which is a comparative study of the translations of the books of the Old Testament. 

    The reason this matters is that it is in the Gospel of James that Mary’s father is identified as Joachim. 
    The first Joachimsthaler
    יְהוֹיָקִים (Yehoyakim) to be precise.  Who was to be honored in the Middle Ages by having a valley in Bohemia named after him: Joachimsthal.  (Thal = German for valley).  And somebody or something from Joachimsthal is, of course, a Joachimsthaler.  Like the silver from the silver mines, for example.  Out of which a coin was stamped which remained in currency in Europe for about four hundred years, starting in 1518.

    the other side of the coin
    These coins were called “thalers” in English, tolars in Czech, daalders in Dutch.  The original thalers/daalders had an image of a lion on them.  “Lion thalers” in Dutch is “leeuwendaalders” and that led to the “lev” becoming the name of the currency in Bulgaria, and the “leu” in Romania and Moldova.  And the “dollar,” from the second half of the word, in English.  And sometimes, rather than a lion on the coin, Mary's father, Joachim, was portrayed instead.

    In Prussia, the thaler became the standard currency, and from Prussia it was extended until all the German states were using it.  Scandinavian countries all used the name daler for their currency in the 17th century, and the Dutch leeuwendaalder made its way to the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam, and we’ve been rolling in dollars ever since.

    And that’s how Mary is related to the dollar.

    photo credits:

    Add a comment

  4. I. A little history, to start with:

    In the beginning, there was guilt and shame.  Somebody back in the day when the Hebrews were a subjugated people, possibly when they were slogging away at building the pyramids, one of the more imaginative slaves must have asked himself, “How did we get into this mess?  What the hell did we do to deserve this, anyway?”  Not “this isn’t fair,” but “we must have messed up.”  That’s guilt talking.

    The answer he came up with was the great abrahamic creation myth, in which the origin of life is set in a garden paradise.  The Hebrew God (he later becomes the only god) tells Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, not to lust after knowledge but simply obey his orders.  With the help of a fallen angel called Satan who took the form of a snake who walked upright, Eve was tempted to disobey God’s order.  She then got her man to do the same and that was all she wrote.  First thing that happened was they noticed they were naked, and that, for some curious reason, made them feel shame.

    God got pissed off, cut the snake’s legs off and made him and his descendants grovel in the dust, cursed Eve and all women after her with the pain of childbirth. And withheld all benefits from Adam so that he had to go earn a living by the sweat of his brow.

    This disobedience to authority goes back to the beginning of it all and has a name.  It comes to be known as “the sin of Adam.”  And this sin, along with the notion that shame comes from nakedness (i.e., from showing your private parts), becomes a curse not laid on Adam and Eve alone but on all their descendants.  God punishes not just the sinner, but the sinner’s children as well.  And sexuality is at the heart of morality from the very beginning of Christian time.

    People have conceived of life after expulsion from paradise in all sorts of ways over the years.  Some worry it means you go to hell to live with Satan and burn in a fiery furnace.  In more modern times, people are more likely to claim only that it means living another life after death, apart from the presence of God.  A lonely eternity, given that God is the only thing that really counts.

    At this point the story takes a dramatic turn. After many years, God relents, takes the form of a human being and is born as his own Son in order to become a human sacrifice to placate his angry self.  This human being is known as Jesus.  Originally described as “the anointed one” (Khristós in Greek), the title has since become part of his name.

    Christians argue amongst themselves over what we should make of this story.  Some say the sacrifice of Jesus Christ has “saved” us all, (i.e., released – or “redeemed” – us from the sin of Adam and given us access to God once more, and there is nothing more we need to do about it. Others say the salvation works only if you believe the story.  Still others insist you have to behave a certain way, as well, and show your devotion to God through “good works.”

    Jesus was born a Jew and into a cultural world that differed from much of its surroundings in that they believed in a single god who looked out for them, provided they did as he directed.  Problem is, they didn't, and as a result they lived in constant subjugation – by the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and at the time of the birth of Christ by the Romans.  Failing to credit their lot as appropriate punishment, for some reason, they then convinced themselves that one day God would send a “messiah” to lead them out of subjugation.  A number of Jews came to believe that Jesus was that messiah and became his followers.  Most Jews, however, rejected his claims that “salvation” meant not earthly salvation but a life with God after death.  The Jesus cult would thus have likely died out were it not for his followers, chief of whom were Peter and Paul, who went on to found Christian communities in the Greek and Roman world after Jesus’s death.

    II. Christians grew rapidly in number and have spread all over the world by now and morphed into many subgroups, each with their own myths and legends and truth claims.  Thanks to the decision of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who forced his subjects to convert, the power center of early Christianity soon centered on Rome, whose bishop came to be known as the Pope.

    Papal Christianity soon claimed it had the credentials to speak for God on earth, quoting Jesus’s play on words to Peter, “Thou art Peter (Greek: Petros; Greek petra = rock), and upon this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18). [Latin (see St. Peter's dome, right): Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam.”]

    The strength of this claim to speak for God soon grew into the power to control access to God (via the hierarchy down to and including ordinary priests), and the power to forgive sins (by means of confession to a priest).  By the 14th Century, the church was even selling forgiveness for sins not yet committed.

    This profiteering off the longing of the masses for forgiveness and belonging led to the Reformation and a return to a focus on the non-material by a number of different protestant groups, each putting focus on parts of the corruption most in need of correction.  But the power of the papacy-directed centralized church was sufficiently strong to withstand such opposition and the Roman church went on claiming the authority to speak for the divine.

    One of the most effective tools for control was the ability to persuade the masses that at the heart of the question of morality was sexuality.   Sex, it was proclaimed, was to be restricted to reproduction.  That meant there would be no pre-marital sex, no prostitution, no homosexuality – no sex at all outside of the church-run institution of marriage, which they had made into a sacrament at the Council of Trent in 1547. Women must subordinate any personal desires to the male-directed church.  There must be no regulation of birth, no abortion, no infanticide.  So basic to papacy-centered church authority was this notion of the purpose of sex that to this day, despite many revisions in practice, it is for all intents and purposes as essential to being a catholic as the belief in original sin, the resurrection of a crucified son of god, the divinity of Christ and the Virgin Birth.  Take any of those away, many fear, and the church’s authority would collapse in on itself.

    Because sex became so central to the concept of sin, celibacy and virginity became important virtues.  Christ had to be born not to just any woman, but to an actual virgin.  Mary was then elevated above all other women.  She gave birth to God’s son while remaining a virgin.  And it was proclaimed (in the doctrine of “immaculate conception” in 1854 – immaculate suggesting “unsoiled”) that when Mary herself was conceived, she, unlike other human beings, did not inherit the sin of Adam.

    Priests and nuns commit themselves to celibacy, elevating the state of sexual denial to the category of a “gift” they give to God.  Divorce is forbidden; marriage is forever; and while one may divorce civilly, to remarry is to engage in adultery.

    And that brings us to the gap between the church’s notion of the way things ought to be and modern reality.  In Europe and in countries like Cuba and the United States where the majority of people look to Europe as the locus of their cultural origins, divorce is not only frequent; the majority of marriages end in divorce.  In Belgium, Portugal, Hungary and the Czech Republic, two-thirds or more of them do (71, 68, 67 and 66% respectively), Spain is next at 61%, then Luxembourg at 60%, and another eight countries around the world have rates above 50%.[1]  Another twenty range between 40-49%.

    The majority of people who divorce remarry.  That figure in the United States approaches 80%, and there is no reason to suspect the figures aren’t similar elsewhere.  Premarital sex is the norm in most places.  Polygamy is illegal and a general acceptance of equality of the sexes probably explains why there is no interest in ever legalizing it, but with most people marrying more than once, our cultural practice might be described as serial monogamy.  Most Americans today believe living together before marriage is a good idea.  

    Nowadays there is broad acceptance of trial marriages, practice marriages (as many people with more life experience come to view their first marriages), marriages for companionship and same-sex marriage.  In fact, same-sex marriage is now legal in nineteen countries, and tellingly, almost all of those countries have a Christian heritage.

    The church continues to grow outside its European cultural home.  But in Europe and America churches are closing down by the dozens.  And not just because of the no longer tenable insistence on keeping sexuality, and not compassion, at the heart of the Christian message.  Arguably, the child abuse scandals that have rocked the world brought home the message that the church itself never had a handle on sexuality to start with.  When it comes to celibacy and the restriction of sex to church-sanctioned marriage, as Hamlet says of his drunken uncle Claudius's revelry, "it is a custom more (i.e. "better") honor'd in the breach than the observance."  

    So what is a pope to do?  Benedict threw up his hands in defeat and left the challenge to his successor, Francis.  And Francis the Jesuit has taken the only reasonable course of action.  Following the advice of his Jesuit forerunner, Claudio Aquaviva, whose motto was “Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo (Strongly in deed, gently in manner.)” Francis has chosen to make the church bend like a willow and not topple in the storm like an oak. Rather than issue absolute decrees, he has urged his church to be a big tent, open to a wide range of opinions.  And he has urged his followers to talk with each other, those who plod on insisting on celibacy, sexual denial, and those seeking substantial change.  He has struck a posture of flexibility.  That’s the “gently in manner” part.  If pressed for his personal view, of course, he remains a hardliner.

    Not that the church’s hardest of hardliners seem to be persuaded by this two-pronged approach. Unfortunately, flexibility has no appeal when you are convinced not only that you are right and doing God’s bidding and that past truth must remain present truth.   Pope Benedict actually once even suggested that perhaps the church should give up its goal of being all things to all people and become instead a smaller organization of right-minded righteous souls, a kind of “holy remnant.”  But large powerful institutions are never likely to dismantle themselves.

    So what is it going to be?  There are two possibilities.  The church can go on as it has before, in what some like to call the Italian approach – say one thing and do another, keep up the illusion that things are going according to plan, and allow people to actually do what they want as long as they are discreet about it.  Hold firm and damn the torpedoes. The second possibility is to reform the church in a way that brings it in line with the actual values of the 21st century, remove the hypocrisies, and justify the changes as being part of a larger historical move toward enlightenment and universal justice. 

    The church has for years been able to turn a blind eye to the fact that the rules on sexual behavior are openly flaunted.  Occasionally, an occasional hypocrisy is exposed and efforts are made to address the discrepancies.   But there has been a sea change in the loss of respect for clerical authority, and it’s clear that the first approach has not worked and that the pope has to address the new reality.  Since the middle of the last century 120,000 priests have left the church worldwide, 25,000 in the United States alone.   27% of U.S. parishes don’t have a priest anymore, and that’s true for 58,000 parishes worldwide.  Half of U.S. citizens raised Catholic leave the church in adulthood. 

    On April 8, 2016, Francis came up with a concrete plan and issued a lengthy document under the Latin title of Amoris Laetitia (English: The Joy of Love), hoping to clear up ambiguities related to sexual morality and church practices.  By “lengthy” I mean 250 pages and nearly 400 footnotes.  Specifically, it addressed the question of whether a person living in sin (someone who had divorced and remarried, for example) was entitled to partake of communion.

    Predictably, the blowback from conservatives has been considerable, and in June, two months after Amoris Laetitia was issued, 45 catholic scholars asked the pope to repudiate the contents of the document.  Four cardinals followed up with a letter to the pope containing five questions (known as “dubia”) asking for more clarification.  Diplomatically phrased, the questions reinforced the problems the scholars had with the document, in effect challenging the pope’s opinions and asking him to roll back the reforms. 

    The pope, so far, has chosen not to respond. People should read the document, he has let it be known, and discuss the ideas contained.  The authoritarian members of the church, of course, don’t want discussion; they want to be told by their leader what’s what and that’s that.

    It’s one particular paragraph, #305, that is causing all the ruckus.  It reads:
    Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.
    In plain English, it is possible for a person to sin and still live in the grace of God.  Hardly a radical notion, within the Christian tradition.  But it’s the footnote to that paragraph which raised authoritarian hackles.  Footnote #351 reads:
    In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).
    Here, in a nutshell, is the division between what you might call the Vatican I Church (the traditionalists who lean toward fundamentalist and authoritarian notions such as papal infallibility) and the Vatican II Church.  Vatican II brought a number of changes including a switch from Latin to the modern languages spoken and understood by the congregation, and bringing the altar out so the priest can get behind it and create a sense with the congregation of getting around a table.  An important symbolism, because it changes the priest’s role from that of a magician, back to the crowd, uttering mystical words in an unknown language to that of a first-among-equals leader leading a congregation in communal prayer and devotion.   

    It addresses what progressives see as the heart of political corruption in the church, the question of clericalism, the view that the clergy is and must remain an elite group apart, not subject to the will of the masses but in authority over the masses.  The child abuse scandal, for example, was not so much that individual priests had used their power to harm children, bad as that was.  It was that they prioritized keeping the problem hidden from view in order to protect the image of clerical authority, even at the expense of relief and justice for the abused children.

    Vatican I, 1869-70, was the occasion where the pope was declared to be infallible and the church became a kind of do-as-I-say policeman; Vatican II, in sharp contrast, in the 1960s, led by John XXIII was ecumenical in approach.  It encouraged interaction with non-Catholics.  It saw the church as a big tent, focused less on doctrine and more on spiritual renewal, on pastoral care and compassion in imitation of Christ.  To refuse communion to a sinner is a Vatican I notion.  To allow a sinner to take communion is a Vatican II notion.  It puts the focus on forgiveness and God’s grace, and turns away from (if not “brushes aside”) the notion of “living in sin.”

    Vatican II had a short shelf life.  The church doors which were opened a bit by John XXIII, were firmly shut again by his successor and kept shut by every pope since until Francis came along.  He’s doing his bit to further the goals of Vatican II, but he’s up against powerful opposition.

    The struggle is laid bare in Amoris Laetitiae.  How is one to “reform” an organization that lays claim to infallibility and inerrant truth?  How does one match the openness Francis expresses here with previous statements by Pope John Paul II?  John Paul II had argued that remarried divorcees must not have sex, that they must live as brother and sister, in order to be entitled to take communion.

    This raises an interesting paradox.  Here you have the pope, Francis, issuing a kind of guideline (and it’s important to remember he’s not speaking “ex cathedra” or even issuing any sort of legal document, but rather an invitation to restructure one’s thinking.) In trying to find a moderate middle-of-the-road position, he fails both sides, as compromisers commonly do.  Parts of it leave progressives frustrated and unsatisfied.  He supports gender equality in principle, but does not change his opposition to women acting as priests.  He staunchly continues to oppose abortion.  He urges compassion toward gays and lesbians but remains adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage. He remains adamantly opposed to sex-change operations, or even the concept of gender fluidity.

    So much for pleasing the progressives.  And he fares even worse with the conservatives.  He leaves traditionalists up in the air with his suggestion that they should not treat communion as a reward for good behavior.  And just what is a traditionalist authoritarian to do with all this?  The rules you live by say the pope is always right.  And here’s the paradox: how can you oppose him on anything he says here and still see yourself as a loyal Catholic when what’s called for by party-line orthodoxy is obedience?

    Catholics are thus divided into one of four camps.
    1. Progressives, who celebrate the changes hinted at by Francis, but are holding out for more (specifically more gender equality and less rigidity in sexual matters, lifting injunctions against homosexuality and birth control);
    2. Supporters, who like the way Francis moves cautiously and encourages dialogue;
    3. Conservatives who see their loyalty to the church and its traditional teachings (the magisterium) and define the pope as fallible (except when speaking ex cathedra) and subordinate to tradition; and
    4. Hard-liners, who see the pope and the church as synonymous, and consider their primary duty to be loyalty to the person of the pope.  Currently hard-liners seem to have the Rota (The Vatican Supreme Court) on their side.[2]

    III.The case of David Berger

    David Berger, the German theologian, and, for a time, professor at the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas in Rome, became a hero to many fighters for gay liberation in the German-speaking world with the publication of his book, Der heilige Schein (The Sacred Illusion) in 2010 and his subsequent career as editor of and frequent contributor to several gay publications.  In Der heilige Schein, he charges that the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy puts the appearance of things over and above matching their deeds with their words.  Berger's act of rebellion came to be seen as driving a stake directly into the heart of the beast.  And by the beast, not to mince words, I mean the papacy-based (Vatican I)  Roman Catholic Church as one of the main sources of homophobia in Western Civilization.  [See my review of Der heilige Schein from January 2011 here.]

    In listing in Part II above what I see as four ideological camps within the Catholic Church, I trust I captured the confusion that has arisen out of the church’s clash with modernity.  David Berger is a case study in how that confusion can manifest itself in a single catholic individual and how the church’s hostility to homosexuality can cause a tug-of-war to rage within an individual gay but simultaneously loyal catholic soul.

    Berger remains a conservative Roman Catholic theologian and fits into the third category I have outlined above.  His loyalty is to the church as an institution and not to any given individual who may happen to become pope.  Paradoxically, he remains a gay man who celebrates his homosexual nature.  But to add paradox to paradox, after pounding away at the church’s unwillingness to grant greater dignity to LGBT people for many years, he has now backed off from his previous view to the degree that he is arguing the church’s stand against same-sex marriage must be supported on the grounds that not to do so would split the church in half.  He has gone so far as to come out in support of his former nemesis, Cardinal Meissner, who had withdrawn his right to teach at Catholic institutions, and the other writers of the five dubia.  In doing so, some are suggesting he be welcomed with open arms as a prodigal son.  How that might be accomplished given the fact that he remains an ardent proponent of most other gay rights, remains to be seen.

    Berger’s story reminds me of that quote variously associated with Aristotle and St. Francis Xavier, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”  Meaning if you can indoctrinate a child adequately, you will have his loyalty to a cause or an ideology (including a religious faith) forever.  Berger fell off that wagon for a time when his frustration with the church’s hypocrisy over homosexuality became too much for him.  But he has now climbed back on and is home once more in the conservative fold.  Or so the media suggest.

    To go back a bit for some context, Berger’s dissatisfaction with the homophobia in the church had been building for some time when he happened upon a TV show featuring Franz-Josef Overbeck, the Catholic bishop of Essen, debating homosexuality with Rosa von Praunheim, one of Germany’s most outspoken gay activists in modern times.  Overbeck insisted that homosexuality was a sin against nature, and that God intended for sex to be something for men and women to use when producing children.  (Practicing to do so, is acceptable as well, so long as no birth control means are used to prevent conception.)  Berger knew his catechism and understood that the official version was that a homosexual nature was not part of any sin, that only homosexual behavior was.  To outsiders, this is both hair-splitting and counterintuitive.  Does God grant you a nature and then command that you resist that nature?  But to someone like Berger, evidently trying to find ways to hold on to the church despite everything it had done to put him down, Berger decided the time had come to speak out for himself and his gay brothers and sisters.

    In his book, Der heilige Schein, (Holy Illusion), and elsewhere, Berger makes the claim that between 25 and 40% of the priests in the church are gay, and that many were, as he was, drawn to the church as much for aesthetic reasons – its pageantry, jewels, silks and satins – as for doctrine, thus furthering a gay stereotype of gays as theatrical and glamour-obsessed.  The veracity of his claims I leave open to empirical research on the topic.

    What followed was a number of years in which David Berger became a public figure who made the rounds in the German-speaking world and occasionally beyond, defending his thesis and speaking out in favor of gay rights, right up to and including the right to marriage. In this video from 2013, you can see Berger still making the talk show rounds in defense of same-sex marriage,  here calling out fellow panelists Hedwig von Beverfoerde of the “Family Protection Initiative” and CDU politician Erika Steinbach for their church-based, man-and-woman-only, position on the family.  “You’re talking about raising chickens!” Berger says to Steinbach.  Marriage and the family should not be reduced to the biological.  We are not farm animals.

    To get back to the question hanging here, which is what is to come of Francis’ urging of dialogue and of furthering the policy of aggiornamento behind John XXIII’s work with Vatican II.  We know what Francis wants, but how is the church to reconcile the conflicting wishes of its various factions?

    One wonders how Berger reconciles the conflict he has between the church’s claim that his sexual activity is sinful, on the one hand – he has what in Germany is called a “registered partnership” with his life partner (Germany does not permit same-sex marriage) – and, on the other hand, his need to come to the defense of the church as the mainstay in Western Civilization, particularly against the modern-day in-migration of Muslims. I also find it hard to understand his defense of Roman Catholic orthodoxy in light of the fact he has chosen to call his blog Philosophia Perennis, perennialism being the view that all religions share a greater truth, that all religions are different paths to that truth.  Obviously I am missing something important here.  Berger appears, ironically, to be advocating a mixed message.  Allow me to go on sinning, he seems to be saying, and I will support your need to survive as an institution.  So much for putting an end to the “holy illusion.”

    In fairness, Berger makes no secret of his apparent contradictions.  On the webpage introduction to “Schubladenfrei” (outside the drawer),  the column he writes in The European, one reads:

     Liberal and conservative, gay and culturally Catholic, traditional theologian and gay activist, alternating in his private life between extreme hedonism in the bacchanalian jungle and a total longing for Apollonian clarity.  Schizophrenic?  A Felix Krull?  May be.  Out of the drawer, uncertain, provocative and seeking thereby to provoke fruitful debate. [3]

    He regularly includes articles by Jürgen Fritz who makes the case that it’s time for a Hegelian synthesis of conservative and progressive thought, that they should not be seen in opposition.  Fritz shares Berger’s view that it’s the values of Western Civilization (Rousseau and Kant) and not those of Mohammed that must be preserved.

    Berger had two critical moments that altered his relationship with the church and his political orientation.  The first was that moment when he encountered Bishop Overbeck’s ignorance of church doctrine and it spurred him into coming out.  That then led to the church's revoking of his right to teach at Catholic institutions. For four years he turned his back on the church and headed for the bright lights and the big city, for “heathen” Berlin. This second voice on the road to Damascus he connects with the issue of so-called political correctness.  He attributes his “conversion,” his break with the left, as it were, to the radical islamist attack in Nice, to which he was a witness.  

    He now expouses the view, shared by other intellectuals such as the German secular Muslim Hamed Abdel-Samad and the American spokesman for the new atheists, Sam Harris, that it’s not merely radical Muslims that are a danger to Western Civilization, but Islam itself as an ideology.  This anti-Islam camp finds the defense of Muslims by most people on the left, including one's gay brothers and sisters, to be unacceptable and self-destructive.  Berger will now tell you he no longer wants his gay identity to be central.  He has swung sharply to the right, joined the conservative CDU (Christian Democratic Party) (although he remains opposed to its head, Angela Merkel), attacks the leftist Green Party, accusing it of becoming an enabler of the rightwing AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party.  He has also become a supporter of Donald Trump and a defender of another radical gay rightist, the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, editor of Breitbart News, notorious for its white supremacist and anti-feminist sympathies.  One wonders if he really knows who he is in bed with.

    Berger's boomeranging back to conservative causes makes plain he is fighting a personal battle on a number of fronts, juggling his no doubt sincere interest in clearing LGBT people of the guilt and shame of religious condemnation with his political interest in building a solid front of Christians and gays to resist what he sees as a dangerous incursion by Muslims into his European cultural home.

    At one point, in 2012, he charged Benedict with being gay himself, leaving many to assume the former pope was just one of many gay clerics whose homophobia stemmed from self-loathing. Berger later withdrew that charge and apologized to the pope for getting it wrong. His apology appeared on his blog on August 26, 2016, along with a reminder of the danger of the islamicization of Europe.  Which, in turn, reinforces the suspicion Berger may be acting more on political impulses than on anything else. He does, however, describe himself in the apology as a "ungrateful disloyal son."  Pretty abject.  Barring the ability to peer into Berger's soul, one can only wonder how much he's using the church and how much he's in the grip of the church's age-old tools of guilt and shame and it is using him.

    In any case, his reassumption of the conservative stance is consistent.  He also now praises Benedict for having reinstated the Latin mass in 2007 as an option, for example, thus maintaining some of the church’s richest traditions.

    There has been much public discussion in Germany over whether Islam “belongs” in Germany for quite a while now.  Most people on the left argue that Islam should not be the focal point, but rather the rights of Muslim citizens.  The common view of progressives is that the question of whether or not Islam “belongs” is a trivial one.  Muslim German citizens’ rights, on the other hand, are not trivial, and there there should be no argument.  Of course Muslims should have the same rights as Christians, atheists or any other German citizen.  Berger, however, maintains that in defending the rights of Muslims, the left has gone too far.  He looks, for example, at the example of a church in Amsterdam that has been converted to a mosque as a sign of things to come if Europeans don’t wake up and smell the coffee.  There is a threat to Europe from Islam, he claims.  The Catholic Church belongs to Europe and Islam does not.  And this touchy-feely stance by lefty liberals has now grown so strong, Berger insists, that a new monster has been created.  “Gutmenschen” they are called, in German.  A word formerly understood to refer to goody-goody types, it now has the connotation of a naive and rigid person whose overbearing left-liberal ideology threatens free discussion.  Gutmenschen now demonize anyone on the right who disagrees with them, Berger says, and soften up the nation for the invasion.

    A third gay Catholic conservative, Andrew Sullivan, comes to mind.  Sullivan might be added to this collective but for the fact that he was drawn to the left out of disgust with George W. Bush's conduct of the Iraq war, which Sullivan initially supported, and the policy of torture at Abu Ghraib.  Sullivan also remains an ardent supporter of same-sex marriage.  What ties the three men, Sullivan, Berger and Milo Yiannopoulos, together is their ongoing identification as Roman Catholics, despite the church’s homophobic stance, men who have changed places and passed by each other like ships in the night.  They serve as a useful example of the impossibility of drawing too many conclusions from the category "gay conservative Catholic," since Sullivan is more accurately described as a "progressive conservative," Berger as a "conservative with considerable reservations," and Yiannopoulos as a "conservative for pay," a gadfly provocateur of the Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh sort.   

    Berger’s views are available in an English-language version of Der Spiegel here.   His website and his blog are filled with articles such as this one, complaining that the police are allowing serious criminals to get away with murder while focusing all their efforts on hate speech.  It's the same distain for political correctness that catapulted Trump into office.
    The attack on the gay bar in Orlando led Berger to a renewed effort to warn of the danger from left-leaning apologists of Islam, a move with led Facebook to shut down his profile page for a month.  Berger is upset by the welcoming remarks by clerics to Muslim immigrants.  “Do they not see the homophobia in their religion, the anti-semitism?” he asks.

    Which raises the question of why Berger cannot make the distinction others make between the culturally retrograde and culturally progressive Muslims, both religious and secular, but must take an essentialist view of Islam instead of seeing it as covering no less broad a spectrum of believers than any other world religion.  He parts company here with religious folk of an ecumenical bent who make the argument that joining forces with religious immigrants can lead to the greater good of protecting the status of religion in the West generally.  We religionists have to stick together against the secular foe, they maintain. None of that for Berger.  It's Catholic Church as the mainstay of Western Civilization.  All other religious step aside.

    Here he joins forces with orthodox, conservative, or authoritarian religionists, generally, who believe their particular religion has a monopoly on truth and argue that any acceptance of other faiths, and specifically Islam, is sure to backfire when those retrograde forces become rooted in German society.  Rather, his argument continues, Catholics (in this case) should become bedfellows with gay folk seeking to hold back the power of what is an even more homophobic religion than Christianity.  Don't you see, he asks the clerical church, that you have an ally in gay people?  And that you are squandering their support? 

    All this discussion begs the question, of course, of what one means by religion.  Is it doctrine? Those who prioritize doctrine argue over whether it’s a set of beliefs or a set of practices that makes one religious.  Besides those drawn to a particular religion for its doctrine are those who affiliate with an institutional religion for sentimental or aesthetic reasons, go to church because “our people have always gone to this church” or because of a love of Bach or Mozart or stained-glass windows.  Or, for the reason Berger claims most gays are attracted, for the pageantry and the drag.  Berger once referred to the Tridentine (Latin) Mass as a “gateway drug.”  He takes this yet a step further and claims the majority of gays in the church are to be found in the most traditional liturgical circles.

    And, finally, one can affiliate with the church for practical political reasons.  The church remains strong in the African-American community because it was once the only place blacks could find solace, and they haven’t forgotten their history.  Poles used the Catholic Church as an acceptable way to express their opposition to an oppressive communism.  And it is only the Church, with its claims to be in exclusive possession of truth, Berger believes, that can hold civilization together against both atheism and rival ideologies like Islam.

    It is surprising, frankly, to find this over-simplification of two complicated religious ideologies, Christianity and Islam, in one so grounded in theology, but barring the opportunity to discuss Berger’s views with him personally, I can only reveal the limits of my own understanding of Berger’s line of thought. It is possible there is a logic in his thinking that has eluded me.  I do have to wonder, though, about a chicken-and-egg proposition.  Is it Berger's aversion to Islam that is driving him back into the arms of the church, as he claims?  Or is it the church, which he sees as best represented by its arch conservatives who insist they alone have godly truth, that is the real source of his hostility to Islam?  Was it nature - a predisposition to authoritarianism?  Or nurture - a careful inculcation of South German conservative Catholicism - that formed the views he holds today?

    Is he deliberately closing his eyes to the fact that most victims of terrorism are Muslims, and that closing ranks with Muslims would probably be a more effective strategy for fighting radical Islam than closing ranks with separatist-oriented Catholics?   That joining with clericalist Catholics, in the mistaken belief that they are the church, even though they are outnumbered by Catholics seeking reform, is counter-productive?

    Whether Berger sees the irony in his instrumentalization of the church for political purposes after having criticized it for encouraging hypocrisy through the mechanism of illusion, remains an open question.  To instrumentalize religion, and make it serve any purpose other than to spread the message of the gospel, according to the pious, is to pervert the faith.

    But then one person's bundle of contradictions is another person's courage to embrace their own complexity.  To see David Berger as merely another case of what looks like a world-wide move to the right and a return to conservatism so clearly in the zeitgeist, is speculative.  It may also just be evidence that the mainstreaming of gay rights and gay identity is all but complete, and we will now be encountering more and more right-wing gays free to disassociate themselves from progressive causes.  Or, to put it in a framework conservatives are likely to be more comfortable with, to shun the excesses of those in the ideological camp of the so-called politically correct, where women, LGBT people, people of color and other minorities once found shelter, encouragement, and relief.  A kind of self-correction, a balancing out.

    "Self-correction" sounds for all the world like justification.  This is not the stock market; this is a culture war over values.  I part company with David Berger.  I find his willingness (or need, as the case may be) to join forces with what is clearly one of the major generators of homophobia in the world, the clericalist branch of the Roman Catholic Church, to be self-destructive and unworthy. And his loathsome embrace of Breitbart America only makes one further question his judgment.

    I remain committed, despite recent events, to the hope that this conservative backlash we are experiencing world-wide will turn out to be no more than a hiccup in history, that the values we have embraced in the West of justice, equality and universal human rights, without regard to race, creed, gender or national origin, will out in the long run. 


    [1] Estonia – 58%; Cuba – 56%; France – 55%; Lithuania – 53%; Latvia – 52%; the US – 53%; Switzerland – 51%; Russia  - 51%  source
    [2] The Rota Romana is the Supreme Court of the Vatican, and has been for 845 years.  It functions as an appellate court, although it can take on original cases in some circumstances.  Its decisions can be overridden by the pope, but normally its decisions stand.  Justices on the court are called auditors, and they are under the direction of a dean.  The current dean, Pio Vito Pinto, was appointed by Pope Benedict in September 2012. 

    The Rota (rota for “wheel” since they sit in a circle) has, in fact, stepped into the kerfluffle over Pope Francis’ attempt to lighten the restriction against divorced and remarried catholics taking communion.  I blogged about this on Wednesday.

    It’s clear the Rota is in the hands of the arch conservatives.  While Francis suggests that his “guidelines” on marriage and the family should lead to discussion, Pio Vito Pinto has issued a warning to the four cardinals that their jobs might just be on the line.  According to kath.net, a catholic website, at a conference in Spain, Pinto reminded the cardinals that it is he, not the pope, who gets to decide who gets to remain a cardinal. This would seem to indicate the the Supreme Court of the Vatican falls in Category 4, the “hardliner camp,” – obey the pope’s will, or else, whether he’s speaking ex cathedra or not.

    [3] (original: Liberal und konservativ, schwul und Kultur-Katholik, traditioneller Theologe und Homo-Aktivist, im Privatleben wechselnd exzessiver Hedonist in bacchantischem Dschungel und dann wieder voll Sehnsucht nach der Apollinischen Klarheit. Schizophren? Ein Felix Krull? Vielleicht auch. Den Schubladen entsprungen verunsichernd, provozierend und dadurch hoffentlich fruchtbare Debatten auslösend.)   

    Add a comment

  5. Portable Storage is a film conceived, written and directed by an independent filmmaker, my friend Sam Burbank.  He’s more than a friend, actually, more of a member of my extended chosen family.  Since finishing the project some years ago, he has been struggling to get broader distribution for his creation, and it has been an uphill climb.  It has just become available for rent or purchase on iTunes and can be seen for free if you have Amazon Prime.  Otherwise, for a small fee.  It will also be available soon on Hulu. 

    I’ve given you reasons why I cannot do an objective review.  But let me try to get as close as I can.

    Portable Storage is a goof-ball comedy.  I’ve seen it three times now, and it is growing on me.  The first time I saw it, it smacked of amateurism, although that could just as easily have been my projection and not anything inherent in the film itself.  The second time I saw it, I began to appreciate how witty it was, and I was able to move a bit beyond spotting people I know in the film and recognize the work that went into it.  Last night, I watched it for the third time, with a friend, who shared my view that this is something you can recommend to your friends with confidence.  He was the one who came up with "goof-ball."

    That’s not a negative, by the way.  I love the absurd.  Not crazy about zany (this is not really zany) and campy (this is not campy) does not ring my bells much either.  Portable Storage is on the clever side of goofy, not the silly side.  There are few if any belly-laughs, but lots of bits that bring a smile to your face. And more than a few chuckles.

    It’s a plot-driven story of an out-of-work computer gamer named Don (Todd Brotze), entrusted with his grandmother’s bowling ball, which he puts in storage with a rip-off storage company.  The crooks come to your house, pile everything into a locker and take it to the desert in Nevada, because land is cheaper than in urban California.  Problem is, the land in Nevada turns out to be an off limits government site and when our hero and his buddy Hamad (Nicholas Massouh) decide to chase it down, they find it all but inaccessible.  I won’t reveal more, other than the fact that they team up with a delightful list of offbeat characters in the same boat, including a couple of over-the-hill lushes, as well as an 11-year-old computer whiz who would save the day if his mother didn’t force him to wash the dishes.  I urge you to rent the film and take it from there without spoilers.

    Likable characters.  Pretty good acting.  Some lovely shots of the moon and an homage to ET.  And several other details that help to explain, I think, why the film gets better with each viewing.  Because computers figure large in the lives of the characters and the plot line, the technology is now dated and the telephones are clunky.  But that's a minor issue, outweighed by the witty unspoken social commentary behind the bullying by anti-immigrant thugs who can’t tell Hamad the Lebanese from a Mexican and aren't swift enough to figure out he is actually a right-wing patriot.  For icing on the cake, the thugs come loaded down with homoerotic neuroticisms.

    Goes well with popcorn, in my experience.  And there's something to be said for a movie which gains something with each viewing.



    Add a comment

  6. A pope can be challenged.  He makes claims to being infallible, but few people these days actually believe that.  In the first place, the doctrine of infallibility is only intended to apply to times when the pope speaks officially on doctrine, “ex cathedra.”  And only twice has it been invoked.  The first time was in 1854, when Pius IX declared that Mary was born without having inherited the sin of Adam – the notion of so-called “immaculate conception,” frequently misunderstood to refer to Christ’s conception.  The second time was in 1950, when Pius XII declared that Mary entered Heaven in bodily form. Whether she died first is left open to question.

    Popes can and do make mistakes at other times, but if you are a catholic you are required to believe without question that these two events took place.  Pius XII, labeled “Hitler’s Pope” by his detractors for his decision to go easy on Hitler rather than risk the loss of church property and authority, was quite specific on the doctrine of infallibility.  “(I)f anyone,” he declared, “which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which We (sic - capital letter) have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.” 

    Times change.  Here we are in 2016 and Francis, the current pope, issues a book length guideline on family life under the title, Amoris Laetitia.  We all know people have been leaving the church in droves, not over doctrinal conflicts, which most people seem to be able to leave to their “betters” in the hierarchy.  But over what is roundly perceived to be unrealistic demands on their behavior.  In an age when half the marriages end in divorce in many modern nations, being told you can no longer have access to the sacraments because you've divorced and remarried strikes many as cruel.  Traditionalists insist rules are rules and the church’s truth cannot be made subject to the ebb and flow of cultural norms.  Modernists, on the other hand, argue we learn as we live, and while some things cannot change (the divinity of Christ and his resurrection, for example, or the importance of charity and compassion), common practices which do not affect one’s faith may.  And here is where Pope Francis has tuned in.  Many traditionalist bishops have urged that communion be denied to legislators who support candidates who support a woman’s right to an abortion, for example.  But in Amoris Laetitia, footnote 351, Francis writes, “I would also point out that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak'.” 

    Cardinal Burke (center, in red)

    This move on Francis’ part has many conservatives in the church and traditionalists in the hierarchy up in arms.   In June of this year a group of Catholic scholars, 45 of them, addressed a letter to the cardinals asking them to help get the pope to backpedal on these efforts to reform the church from within.  Four Cardinals: Burke, Caffara, Brandmüller and Meisner responded by addressing the pope with what is called a dubia, or a request for clarification. Five dubia, actually. They are listed here.  Basically, they ask for clarification on the old questions of whether divorce is to be allowed, and whether a person who divorces is not committing adultery when remarrying and how one is supposed to reconcile the teachings of the church with one’s individual conscience.

    Francis has chosen, so far at least, not to reply.  To put a positive spin on his silence, the cardinals are suggesting it is a signal that the issue should be reflected upon some more before proceeding.

    Those who want to celebrate this pope as a liberal or a modernizer seize on his welcome focus on pastoral care over the rigidity of doctrine and the policing of the people in the pews.  But what you find in reading Amoris Laetitia is unmistakeably a restating of the old rules – marriage is forever, sex is for the purpose of reproduction, and one does not mess with Mother Nature.  In other words, no sex outside of marriage, no gay sex, no gay marriage, and put a stop to sex changes right now.

    What’s a progressive to do?  We're in the same boat with Hillary Clinton supporters, who wish she had won out against von Clownstick, knowing all the while it would only have meant more corporate control, more military solutions, more of the same old same old.  With the pope, you get these wonderful moments when he expresses personal humility, like that moment in the plane when he mused, “Who am I to judge?”  But then you get this rehashing of the medieval notion that sex is the basis of morality, women are ultimately subordinate to men, and homosexuality is “inherently evil.”  One is admonished to love the sinner, but hate the sin, and your protestations that your love is not sin fall on deaf ears.

    “Progressive” as he may at first appear relative to the likes of Cardinal Burke, famous for his silks and satins, and his embrace of the good old days when the mass was in Latin, performed by an elitist clique of men with special access to the deity, Francis is still the head of a ruthlessly authoritarian institution.  Ironically, because he is pope, there are people in the church farther to the right than Attila the Hun who would punish these four cardinals for even questioning the authority of the pope in the first place.  Sort that all out, I dare you.

    But to the point.  How, I ask you, does one go through life hating the good within you without falling apart, knowing in your heart of hearts that homosexual love, like any other form of love, is a beautiful thing, that it enhances and does not detract from the inclination to charity and compassion, generosity and caring?  And how does one get through life undamaged if, after marrying badly out of youthful ignorance and inexperience, you know you will never be able to use that experience to give yourself a second chance at companionship and family?

    The Roman Catholic Church has had a number of times in its history when it revealed its stunning imperfections for all to see.  The selling of indulgences to build St. Peter’s led to the Reformation.  The hypocrisy of the church’s support for the powers that be in the slave-owning societies of Brazil and the United States, among other places, and for tyrannies in Latin America and elsewhere help to explain the appeal of Marxism and “godless communism.”

    And today?  This apparently lovely decent man I take Jorge Mario Bergoglio to be, who expends great effort trying to get the church to spend less time on ritual and ceremony and finger-pointing and shaming and more on pastoral care and embracing the poor and the outlier, tries an end-run around the traditionalists with Amoris Laetitia.  It’s basically an appeal for flexibility, for making the church a bigger, more inclusive port in the storm. But the conservatives seize upon his strategy of using ambiguity, and call him on it.  In forcing him into a corner, they reveal he was doing little more than adjusting the deck chairs on the Titanic in the first place.  This is not the pope speaking ex cathedra. It's the pope speaking as a man, fallible and seeking.  What the cardinals are clearly longing for is the good old days when the pope had no doubts.  They want their daddy back the way he was when he had all the answers.

    How very much a matter of the zeitgeist.  America wants its Boss-Man - never mind his imperfections and limitations.  Hungary and Austria are moving toward fascism and the rest of Europe circles the wagons as well against the imagined Muslim invader.  And the church wants this pope of theirs to cut it out with all that uncertainty of his.  Get with the drill.

    I’d love to be able to like the Roman Catholic Church.  When she’s good, she’s very very good.  A source for schools and hospitals and countless numbers of caring priests and other religious doing their best to relieve pain and suffering.  We feminize her.  Call her "Mother Church." See her as warm and embracing.

    But when she’s bad, she’s worse than horrid.  And not feminine at all.  She's more like daddy at his pig-headed best, driving down the road too proud to ask directions. 

    I remember how I used to pepper my mother with questions and hear her say, "Ask your father."  I did.  And he always had all the answers.

    I also remember the time when I came across an old Model T in an empty field not far from my house.  I used to pretend to drive it, but for years my legs were too short to reach the pedals.   And by the time they did, the engine was missing.

    Eventually, somebody came and towed her away.

    photo credits:



    Add a comment

  7. Barry Jenkins (front) with the three actors who play
    Chiron at three different stages of life, in Moonlight
    Every once in a rare while a movie comes along that blows you away.  You sit, when it’s over, and watch the credits, milking it for the last bit of energy.  Whether you feel like bursting into tears or just feel good all over, you know you’ve seen a film you will remember.  Such was the case with Moonlight, a story in three acts about a boy at about ten, then seventeen, then twenty-seven, give or take, who struggles to survive life with a drug-addicted single mother in a Miami inner city ghetto.

    The last time I remember being this taken with a movie was with Brokeback Mountain.  If you are gay and your first experience of sexual self-discovery was sabotaged by a religious upbringing, you will have shared the thrill I experienced seeing a love story told to a universal audience to widespread appreciation of the film craft and understanding of the challenges gay people face.  Moonlight shares this with Brokeback Mountain.  But what writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and screenwriter/director Barry Jenkins have given us is two-for-one.  It’s not only the story of a gay kid whose childhood is an endless string of bullying events; it’s also what Te-Nihisi Coates has called the “best take on black masculinity ever.”    Three-for-one, if you add in growing up poor.  Four-for-one for having a mother who will throw you under the bus to get high.  And whom you have to love anyway because you know there’s nobody who has ever loved you more or ever will.

    I think The Wire, that crime drama television series set and produced in and around Baltimore, Maryland, should be required viewing for all American high schools and recommended for anyone who wants to understand the failure of American democracy on multiple levels.  And I think Moonlight should be required viewing for anybody who has ever turned their back on the problem of racism in America or suggested that there are people who are simply no good and deserve to be locked up forever.  What Jenkins and the cast of Moonlight have managed to do is portray a close-up look at addicts and thugs before they get that way, while they are becoming that way, and after they come through the storm and find themselves still standing.  A lot the worse for wear, but still standing.

    Perhaps I’ve given too much away, but I don’t think this will take away from your experience with the film.  The story is told, probably because it is autobiographical for both Tarell McCraney and Barry Jenkins, with such empathy and it conveys such a sense of authenticity that you are very likely to want to see it more than once.

    When I do see it again, I imagine I will find more and more to take in.  Sophie Gilbert has a review article in The Atlantic in which she writes of the symbolic power of water in the film.  There are moments like the one when a bully reveals his vulnerability by a quick glance over his shoulder. And when Little, as the protagonist is known in his young years, asks his benefactor if he’s the man who supplies his mother with drugs.  Scenes which speak volumes about human complexity.  And scenes which make you appreciate that for all of Jenkins' talent as a writer, Jenkins the director also knows that some things are best conveyed visually. 

    The story brings home the truth of the saying, “to know all is to forgive all.”  Or, if that’s asking too much of you, at least you can understand the universal appeal of the Christian command to forgive those that wrong you, even when you are surrounded by evidence this command is readily preached but rarely taken seriously.

    You’ll find my enthusiasm matched by a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, by six Golden Globe Nominations, by ten Critics’ Choice Awards. The New York Times claims it’s the best movie of 2016, the Boston Globe calls it a cultural watershed, and the praise goes on and on.

    When you’re done, you may want to do as I did and make the rounds of interviews with Barry Jenkins and the cast.  They go on and on on YouTube.  Skip Charlie Rose, who asks so many wrong questions.  But have a look at the one done by:

    Ta-Nehisi Coates, for The Atlantic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyN5ptzcYws

    Moonlight is why we go to the movies.



    Add a comment

  8. Rayk Anders
    Rayk Anders is a 29-year old independent journalist known for his comments on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.  A young shit-kicker who has received some fame/notoriety, depending on your orientation.  His weekly commentaries have attracted up to four million viewers, according to Wikipedia.  As of November 2016 he has, according to the same source, about 75,000 YouTube subscribers (including yours truly, by the way), and has drawn about 8.4 million responses since he began in August of 2013.  He has the kind of passion Keith Olbermann shows, albeit with less stridency.

    This presentation he gave the day after the attack on the Christmas Market at the Kaiser Memorial Church in Berlin gives you a sample of his style and tone.  His language is raw, and he’s directly in your face.  I found it on the French Huffington Post here.  The German version gives a title to his address: "To the Cowardly Piece of Shit behind the wheel."

    Have a listen to Anders' rant.  Some have suggested that he’s a phony limelight seeker.  Nonsense.  Lots of people have trouble with people who step up and speak while we stay silent, say the things others are still mulling over.  I think they do our work for us.  Without whistleblowers, without people who cry “ouch”, what chance do we have to survive the madness that is coming down these days?  

    Enough of the “let’s all be reasonable,” I say.  Let’s get out in the street and the marketplace and scream a while.  Reason, by all means, if and when you see reason working.  But we seem to be living in a world where truth no longer sways, where the inmates have taken over the asylum, where Mitch McConnell can persuade his fellow Republicans to steal a president’s right to name a Supreme Court justice, where a presidential candidate accused of rape can get the case thrown out on the excuse he’s a presidential candidate, where planes go down with that most magnificent of men’s choruses, the Russian Army Chorus, where it’s almost certain now the fight against global warming is over for a time.  The world has gone mad.

    So what if one young man calls a terrorist a “cowardly piece of shit”?  Is that the kind of thing that we should get upset about these days?

    I love Berlin. Absolutely love Berlin. In my history of things that never happened, it's my home. I love it that this guy born when I was nearly fifty speaks out and gives an in-your-face defence of the city and its people.  Love every word of his magnificent diatribe. Love the evidence that the younger generation still has the stuff of fighters-back.

    Here it is in the original German, with French subtitles.  I can’t find an English translation, so I did one.

    If you have not been following the news, the terrorist in question was a young Tunisian man named Anis Amri, who was on the run through France and Italy before he was shot and killed in Milan by the Italian police.

    Anders' challenge to Amri will go unheard by the killer.  The spirit of the challenge, in my view, remains undiminished.

    Here in Berlin, on Breitscheidplatz behind me, less than 24 hours ago, a person drove a truck into the Christmas market.  And as things stand now, the culprit is at large and is presumed to be armed.  But, you cowardly piece of shit, no matter where you come from, no matter where you are, you’ve picked the wrong city.  Berlin has two world wars in its bones. Check out any damn old folks' home and you'll find people who can tell you about bodies piled up in a city reduced to ashes. You can’t go more than two hundred meters in any direction without running into a memorial for the victims of war, persecution or death.  This city has known hell.  And now you come along with your fucking truck, here to Berlin, and you think you’re going to knock the Berliners off their feet?  
    Look.  I can tell you what’s going to happen.  We will take care of the injured, we will bury the dead, and we will never forget.  And we will go on.  The Christmas market closed for only a day.  And not out of fear, but out of respect for the victims.  The people of Berlin will not only resist, they shit on you.  And you chose the perfect place in this Christmas market here in the heart of Berlin at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.  But have you looked around, you piece of shit?  The top of this church is broken off, the walls are damaged.  It’s no accident, you genius, that you picked the Christmas market that stands in front of the perfect memorial to peace, not only in Berlin, but in all of Germany.  
    And the pictures of this church will go out into the world and remind everyone that it has already seen terrible things and that people have gotten back up and gone on.  People will remember, and Berliners will be free.  They will laugh and cry and celebrate and mourn, but they will be free.  You may take away the good mood and damage the Christmas spirit.  But you can never take away freedom.  Berlin is the city that is the very essence of freedom.  Your cowardly attack changes nothing.

    Vive la résistance!

    photo credit 

    Add a comment

  9. Standing Tall  (Tête en Haut) is an exceptionally good movie.  Whether you zero in on the social commentary, the story line, the drama, the insight into a world outside the daily routine, there’s much to bounce off of.  In my view, it is worth watching if only to see Catherine Deneuve still elegant, still going strong at 73.  She plays a judge in juvenile court who refuses to give up on what most of the world would see as a throw-away kid.  Or at least a “lock up and throw away the key” kid.  Also worth watching the film for are two more actors – newcomer Rod Paradot, who plays Malony Ferrandot, the kid in question, (from 7 to 17) who has virtually no impluse control and precious little empathy.  And seasoned actor Benoît Magimel, who plays Yann, the social worker assigned to Malony’s case.

    Another reason to take in the film is to see how a juvenile system can work if the right people are running it.  And to watch the way in the French legal system a judge interrogates and engages instead of just sitting back and watching two opponents slug it out, trusting truth will out in combat.  These heroes of the French welfare system suffer from some of the same problems we have.  How hard it is, specifically, to get the world to give kids born into dysfunctional families a second chance when they have missed a chance at education to spend their entire youth fighting their own dysfunctional families and can’t be trusted not to slug you at the slightest pretext.

    Filmmaker Emmanuelle Bercot chose to focus on a success story.  She might have selected a kid who falls through the cracks and simply banged the drum of social criticism.  Instead, she gives us a look into a rickety social welfare system held together by heroic adults committed to the notion that one does not, in fact, throw any child away.  And weaves the kind of story you don't realize you're being drawn into until it's done.

    In the wrong hands, this narrative could easily have gone off the tracks and become maudlin or preachy or overdone.  It is arguably overlong, if you aren’t used to European cinema, where one likes to linger on faces and long shots of people walking from here to there.  But if you allow yourself to sit back and let the story build, by the end you’ll be standing and cheering for the whole human race.

    A marvelous antidote to the temptation to think that with modern-day Europe and the U.S. circling the wagons to keep “us” in and “them” out, we ought to grab our dogs and head for the mountaintop and hope the madness passes.  At least that’s my take on things.  I trust you’ll find your own reason to fall in love with Catherine Deneuve for the tenth time and celebrate the arrival of newcomer Rod Paradot.

    Who has to be the cutest teenager in a tuxedo you’ve ever seen.  Watch him stumble all over himself searching for words to thank his supporters when he gets the 41st César Award (the French Oscars) earlier this year, 2016, for most promising male actor.  

    A must-see.

    Available on Netflix streaming.



    Add a comment

  10. A friend of mine lives in Mexico, because his wife is unable to get healthcare in the United States.  Don’t ask.  You’ll just get me started on the American decision to allow corporations to profit off of visits to a doctor, and that’s a misery for another day.  For now, let me address the distress he’s going through.  He’s been spending much of his retirement time yacking it up with a bunch of other retirees who gather each week to discuss politics.  I love the idea of lifetime geezer education, so I’ve been inclined to cheer them on from afar.  Problem is, though, they seem to be so dispirited by the endless stream of bad news from Washington that they’re actually thinking of disbanding.

    My heart goes out to them.  I wonder if I’d keep coming back week after week to rehash the latest illustration of how America is making an ass of itself before all the world.  The problem of greed behind it all.  Our talent for generating great wealth, and then making sure it stays in the hands of bankers and CEOs and not too much spills over to the hoi polloi who will just squander it on bread and circuses.

    Besides our greed problem, there’s also the fact that we seem to be unable to think in terms of both/and.  Instead, it’s either/or.  Take the White Christian people, for example.  They started the place; shouldn’t they own it?  Many of them seem to think so.  Instead now there are non-whites everywhere you look, and some of them are even transgendered.

    Here’s the problem.  We couldn’t figure out how to manage the rise of the have-nots without the white people haves having to let go of all the goodies they had acquired by getting here first.  So we picked a man to be president who we thought would make sure that wouldn’t happen.  At least he could slow the process down.

    I wish I hated America, so I could have a good belly laugh at all this.  But I don’t laugh at people falling down the stairs and I don’t laugh at people shooting themselves in the foot. And when you ask young people on the street who we fought the Revolutionary War with and they answer Russia, I don’t laugh, either.  Ignorance makes me sad.  That’s why I became a teacher, because I saw ordinary common ignorance as something that was fixable. 

    Some kinds of ignorance, of course, I just can’t help myself.  Like watching Pat Robertson (may he live forever) with his predictions that hurricanes will hit the coast of North Carolina because there are lesbians running loose in California.  Or Jim Bakker urging his Christian flock to recycle his potato soup buckets into elimination buckets.  No kidding.  Have a look here

    Putting Trump and his men in charge of the henhouse is that kind of ignorance.  We once taught kids to think logically.  "A is bigger than B.  B is bigger than C.  Therefore A is bigger than C."  Today it's "Politicians are all bad.  Trump's not a politician. Therefore, Trump is good."

    Inner city schools are a mess.  The solution?  Logically, replace them with charter schools. Appoint a billionaire friend who has dedicated her life to destroying the public school system to head up the Department of Education.  Killing two birds with one stone.  She can dismantle the Department of Education at the same time.  What happens to the kids we can't fit into the charter schools?  Look, I can't fix everything.

    Solve the “too big to fail” banking problem by appointing Steve Mnuchin, former executive at Goldman Sachs to Secretary of the Treasury.  It appears that Trump's promised "draining of the swamp" (getting rid of corrupt politicians) means putting the people that corrupted the politicians in the first place in his Cabinet, cutting out the middle man.  Logical.

    I can't handle the news anymore.  Every morning it's another outrage.  The accumulation of corporatist millionaires (what am I saying - billionaires!) in the new ruling oligarchy known as Trump's cabinet.  This morning there was a petition being passed around from a friend of mine in New York protesting the need for New Yorkers to foot a million dollars a day so that Mrs. Trump and her son can stay in the tacky gold tower they're used to.  Wouldn't do to have to move to that dump on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.  Not when you can stick the sucker-taxpayers for the rent to stay where you are!

    It's called the new reality.  And I'm still getting word from my sister that God has answered her prayers by putting Trump in the White House.  She gets her information from Billy Graham's little boy, Franklin, so she knows it's good information.  Like so many other evangelicals, the folks now fixing to dismantle Medicare and raid the Social Security coffers to the benefit of the superrich have figured out these are single-issue voters who can be had simply by promising to repeal Roe v. Wade. And making sure their leaders keep them informed as to God's will.

    Just don't know what to do.   I can't live with this much depression.  But I can't shake it, either.  Got to get back to normal.  Got to find a way not to take this in and make it feel like such a personal attack.  Not doing well at all.

    Wish I could watch Trump piss off China by talking with Taiwan and laugh.  Laugh at watching that Carson bozo take on the country’s big city mayors as head of Housing and Urban Development. Laugh as Trump backs another truckload of alligators up to the swamp he promised American suckers he would drain.

    I’m going to suggest to my friend in Mexico that they rename themselves the Resisters of Rosarito Discussion Group.  Sticking your head (my head - obviously I'm talking to myself here first and foremost) in the ground will not satisfy.  It will only allow the pain to dig in and fester.  There has to be resistance.  Catharsis never comes with denial.

    If you’re not going to fight, what are you going to do? 

    Seriously.  What to do?  I am a fan of Robert Reich, whom I see in Indian restaurants here in Berkeley from time to time when he's not on YouTube urging people to organize and fight back. And of Elizabeth Warren.  And Van Jones is out there beating the pavements once again.  And of course, there's Bernie Sanders, who just keeps on running like an old Model T.  Love that guy.

    But organizing and fighting back, for me, are easier said than done. I live in California. Do I knock on doors or join a telephone bank to get my democratic neighbors to vote for electors who are guaranteed to vote democratic already?  Do I join the secession movement? Do I move to Wyoming or North Dakota where my vote will have a greater influence on the Electoral College?

    Do I pay more attention to what’s happening across the pond in Europe and Britain?  Keep abreast of Geert Wilders in Holland, Marine le Pen in France?  Austria narrowly escaped electing a fascist head of state in this week's election, but nobody thinks the winner can hold out against them forever.  Hungary is already in the hands of a thug who is systematically dismantling the courts and oversight bodies..  Germany is struggling with a cross between the Tea Party and a Trump Rebellion in the “Alternative for Germany” Party, which only won 4.7% of the national vote in the 2013 election (and therefore was not entitled to any seats because the country has a 5% minimum requirement).  Three months ago, however, they were able to gain recognition in ten of Germany's sixteen state parliaments.   

    All part of the same Trump show.  The legitimate gripes by the have-nots against the wealth generators who have not figured out how to distribute the wealth equitably.

    My friends, many of them, insist I need to get away from the computer and cultivate my own garden.  Problem with that is that in this age of connection, the national garden is our own garden. Another alternative, also common among my friends, and one which I lean toward quite strongly, is to kvetch. Sit hour after hour at the computer and keep track of all the injustices and shout OUCH day after day after day. At least it relieves some of the pressure.

    Big news here in the East Bay this week is the fire in East Oakland.  Death count is now up to 34.  The artsy-fartsy crowd without a pot to piss in can’t afford the $2500 a month rent in Oakland (It’s $3500 across the Bay in San Francisco), so they gather together in death traps.  All part of the same problem.  The wealth generated locally by Silicon Valley is great for those who can afford the two, three, five, ten-million dollar homes you see advertised everyday in the San Francisco Chronicle.  Not so great on an artist’s income.  Haves, superhaves, and have-nots.  At least we're not at each other's throats yet.

    Democracy?  Pretty much gone.  Vulture capitalism is still alive, but the natives are getting restless.

    The stock market is at an all-time high.

    I think I’ll do Christmas this year.



    View comments