1. It's about time, Germany!

    There is a line you can draw through the European continent neatly dividing the countries which now recognize full civil rights for lesbian and gay people, including the right to marry, from those which don't.  And another line neatly dividing the countries which give most rights, including civil unions, from those which give few or none. These lines suggest geography is a powerful indicator of how attitudes toward LGBT people have changed in recent years, and how much we form our attitudes on the basis of what our neighbors think. The map on the left suggests that the further West you go the more liberal the attitudes. That's no surprise, when you think about it, but it's interesting to see that fact so graphically displayed. There is a "Western-most" swath, which includes everybody north and west of Germany, with the exception of Northern Ireland, a "Mitteleuropa" swath, comprised of the countries historically outside the Iron Curtain plus Estonia, and an "Eastern-most" swath, where gay people still live as second (or third) class citizens.

    "With marriage, it should not be about what your sex is, but
    only about whether the partners are willing to join together
    permanently and accept responsibility for one another."
    There's an election coming up in Germany which could change the map dramatically and bring Germany into the western-most camp. It's already there in terms of the will of the people. 83% of the population polled just this January have come out in favor.  It's only the government that lags behind. And by government I mean the ruling coalition of the two parties with "Christian" in their name and, until now, the socialists. Again, no surprise. That that coalition is falling apart can be seen by the fact the socialists just announced they are going to support full rights, including adoption, for gays and lesbians, and the christian parties are still dragging their feet. (See the statement by SPD party chief Thomas Oppermann, to the right.)  I'd put "christian" in quotes, but that would seem like a sneer, somehow, and they deserve better than that. They are actually no more christian than the other parties, except historically, but that's a show for another day.

    Germany has, from the perspective of someone used to our presidential system and unfamiliar with the parliamentary system, a curious ruling coalition of three parties.  The two so-called christian parties are Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Socialist Union (CSU). The two are known as "The Union" parties. They formed a government after the last election with the German Socialist Party (SPD).  When I say "curious" I mean it's hard to see how these two groups with fundamentally opposing political philosophies ever managed to make it work as long as they did.  A more dramatic indicator than the gay rights issue that they are now coming apart is the fact that Martin Schulz, who was recently chosen to head the Socialists by an astonishing and unprecedented vote by acclamation (100% of his colleagues), will now go from being coalition partner with Angela Merkel to being her chief opponent in the next election for chancellor. The "minor" coalition partner wants to bump off the "major" coalition partner and take over the wheel.

    The socialists have an uphill climb.  Like the democrats in the U.S., who were once the party of the little guy but recently have become the party of the upper middle class, the socialists in Germany are roundly criticized for having been too keen to join with the super-haves, the folks on top, and forgotten their socialist principles.  Martin Schulz, a working class guy without the usual fancy academic credentials which Germans take so seriously, is hoping to bring back the good times.

    It has always bothered me that so many Americans are so ill-informed about that word socialist, and have allowed the manipulators of the Christian right to persuade them to see the socialists of Europe as somehow associated with "godless communism."  That the socialists want a complete government takeover, and that means things will be run badly, by people with no vested interest or need to do things right.  People "sucking on the government's tit" as it was explained to me as a kid, people so mollycoddled that they lose any motivation for working hard and taking responsibility for their own welfare. The fact that most modern democracies of Europe function as well as they do is, in my view, due to the fact that they are "social democracies" - and "social democracy" is what it's actually all about, and not "socialism." Social democrats believe society should be governed with an eye to social equity, as opposed to the generation of profits for the few. Wealth generation, by all means. Unfettered capitalism, no. America has a chance to go for democratic socialism as well, in the person of Bernie Sanders. One of the things I'd most like to see is for Americans to get to the bottom of why so many Americans were willing to sell their souls to get behind Trump and why the democrats went for democratic capitalism instead of democratic socialism - for Hillary instead of Bernie.

    I don't have political heroes. I think politics is by nature dirty and I have neither the talent nor the stomach for it much of the time. I depend on others to do that dirty work for me. But if I did have a political hero, it would probably be Willi Brandt. He left Germany for Norway and then Sweden, eventually taking Norwegian citizenship and changing his name to avoid detection by the Nazis. He returned to Germany in 1946 and in 1948 became a German again and joined the socialist party. In time he became mayor of Berlin and eventually chancellor, and his work in trying to bridge the gap between East and West won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. All large bodies have both retrograde and progressive forces under their umbrella. We in the United States have Mississippi, which still displays the Dixie flag in its state flag, plus a whole bunch of other states which have worked the symbols of the confederacy into their flag. And we have California, now trying to bring about a state single-payer health care program to counter the efforts of the Republican Party to throw America's poor under the bus. That's what politics is, a struggle over who gets to call the shots.

    One reason Germany interests me so much, besides the fact that I have German roots, is that politically it puts the United States in sharp relief. We both have forces we label "right" and "left," conservative and progressive. But in Germany the whole game is played further to the left, and progressive German political actors we might find among the democrats if they were transposed to the United States, are still considered conservatives in the German context.

    Take Angela Merkel, for example. A good German friend of mine took me by surprise when he told me, last time he was visiting here, that he was a supporter of hers.  Not because of her policies, necessarily, but because she was simply "the best manager around." She may have done herself in with her insistence that Germany had to step up and take in refugees even when other European countries failed to follow suit. In doing so, she may have lost the next election. But at the time, when I watched the images of trains pulling into the Munich main station, with which I have such positive associations, happy memories from the early 60s, and saw the refugees spilling out and being met by German volunteers carrying dolls for the kids and fresh fruit and clothing, the German parts of me were overwhelmed with pride. Go, Angela, I said.

    Now she's up against my guy Martin Schulz and I kind of feel sorry for her. Not pity, obviously - she may well win the election, after all - but I've been in middle management situations where I was despised by people below me for being part of the power structure and despised by people over me for giving away the store to the rabble. Angela is caught between the (democratic, remember) socialists on her left and the quite conservative Bavarian Christian Socialists on her right for very similar reasons. She has been described as the kind of person who leads from behind. She reads the scene with great accuracy, is known for her pragmatic approach, and gently guides the ship of state in the way she thinks it should go. At least according to reputation. All I know is what I read in the papers.

    I just listened to a discussion on Deutsche Welle - it's in English, so do check it out - in which a panel of folk take up the issue of extending full rights to gay people, including the right to adopt. As if to make my point about Germany's being more progressive than the United States, the four panelists are all in favor.  There is no effort made, as is so often the case in the States, to create the illusion of balance - as if a discussion on the holocaust requires a Nazi or a discussion on racism requires a member of the KKK for balance.  The program recognizes that 83% general approval figure and goes from there.  Especially interesting is that the only real conservative member is a gay Catholic, and he, too, argues for separation of church and state and speaks approvingly of secularism. And he's a theologian.

    Not everybody wants this much detail on the long hard slog toward gay liberation, of course. But if you do happen to find this progress worth following, join me in a feel-good moment. As I've explained before, I'm working hard to find good news to offset the Trump shenanigans.

    This one made my day.

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  2. There’s a nice little joke life plays on you sometimes.  I'm thinking about that line in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  Remember when that nice upper middle class couple played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are faced with the black boyfriend their daughter brings home and wants to marry?  Played by Sydney Poitier?  Father/Tracy is torn between wanting to show his love for his daughter by getting behind whatever makes her happy, on the one hand, and the white racist assumption of the day, on the other, that “God knows what kind of trouble you’re bringing down on us all” by this foolish desire to marry outside the white race.  Mother/Hepburn puts her finger on the problem Father/Tracy is having immediately.  “Your problem is you’re being confronted by your own principles.”  White liberal abstract meets white liberal concrete.

    I posted my views on the hostile reception Middlebury students gave Charles Murray the other day.  I’ve had a number of conversations about it since, and despite feeling some sympathy for those put out by Murray’s ideas, I am sticking to my view that this is a free speech issue and that the students who protested should face some kind of disciplinary measures for their actions. They should not have shut down the talk.

    And then today I read that Joseph Nicolosi has died and I have to fight the voices in my head going, “Ding Dong, the witch is dead.” Have to hear my grandmother and imagine her wagging finger.  “Now, now, don’t you dare celebrate anyone’s death.”

    Nicolosi was the Big Daddy of conversion therapy, the clinical psychologist constantly cited by the likes of Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, the two chief Christian homophobe groups responsible for messing with who knows how many gay kids’ heads trying to make them turn straight.

    Any person, particularly a gay person who manned the suicide prevention center phone lines, who goes back to the day when homophobia was like Monopoly, a parlor game anyone could play, will understand my desire now to sing and dance. And the desire to shut this man down. Free speech is one thing.  Holding forth with seriously messed up ideas that cause stress to the point of self-destruction is another.

    I find parallels everywhere.  Imagine you’re a concentration camp survivor (there are very few left now, so it’s harder to get yourself in their shoes) and you find yourself at a lecture by Holocaust denier David Irving.  How do you sit quietly in your seat and listen?  How do you not throw the brick at the bastard’s head you smuggled in in your purse? 

    Or imagine, if you are not black, that you are, and your neighbor likes to display a Dixie flag every day on his front porch.  How do you not rip it down?

    Free speech is not for sissies.  It takes some pretty strong convictions. 

    In the case of Charles Murray, where it’s still not clear (at least to me) that his ideas are harmful, you pretty much have to spend hours and hours reading his work, and even then there is no guarantee you will understand what he is getting at.  Or you can, like me, read the literature surrounding his argument by those who seem to know what they are talking about, and try to form an opinion that way.  If you do that, I think you should then stand back and let him talk.  Give him enough rope to hang himself with, if you think he’s seriously messed up.  It's probably easier to say that if you're not black, but I also don’t think his research results that show blacks have a lower IQ tell the whole story.  No skin off my nose, I say. Let the debates go on. It will all come out in the wash.

    The Dixie flag?  I’d tear it down.  Just as I would a swastika.  I know I’m treading on thin ice here, but I don’t think these symbols are debatable.  One is the symbol of a regime which plunged the world into a war in which something like forty million people lost their lives.  The other is a symbol of a regime willing to go to war to maintain the right to keep Africans in a state of slavery.  I’d call that the equivalent of hate speech and tear the damn things down.

    And I recognize that there are people more liberal than moi who would argue I’ve caught the PC virus and need to rethink what I’m saying.

    But back to Joseph Nicolosi and the world of homophobia.  There was a time when I would debate such questions as whether Nicolosi is better or worse than the folks at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University for Clowns.  Sure, that’s not what they call themselves, but what are you supposed to call a "university" built by money contributed by the suckers of televangelism?  A university whose name reveals the connection right-wing Christianity has made with American patriotism, the folks convinced Jesus was an American, and probably a Southern Baptist.  They are not all bad guys, I’m willing to concede, but the hair on the back of my neck goes up when I read on Wikipedia that “it was announced in December 2016 that Liberty University will be constructing an on-campus shooting range for students to protect themselves against terrorist attacks.” Ideas have consequences.  Homophobia is not the only bad idea spawned by Falwell and company, but it’s certainly front and center.

    At least Nicolosi has been thoroughly discredited and in retrospect free speech advocates got this one right.  It took friggin' forever, but the debates led to research and the facts came out.  As early as 1973 the American Psychiatric Association took action that countered Nicolosi’s contention that homosexuality was a psychological disorder.  They removed it from their list of psychological disorders.  Mental health providers are now banned in six states from practicing the kind of head rewiring he advocated, and twenty other states are working on legislation to follow suit.  When California passed protection for LGBT youth along those lines, Governor Jerry Brown said of these practices that they will “now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.”  The sea change in attitudes toward LGBT people and a new generation of young people who wonder “What was the wuss?” shows he got it right.

    Nicolosi suffered for his ideas.  Angry gay people are known to have spraypainted a rainbow over his front door.  

    OK, I’m being cute.  They also sprayed “Nazi” and “homophobe” as well.  

    Like I said.  Not for sissies.


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  3. I was just reflecting on the fact that so much of my dinner conversation and my correspondence with friends is about how hard it is to live with the daily encounter with dysfunctionality.  How much it takes out of you to read day after day about refugee children turned away and medical services for the poor to be shut down, afterschool programs, meals-on-wheels, NPR and on and on – all to build more tanks and a wall to keep Mexicans out that Trump promised they would be forced to pay for. How much you want to turn off the sources of news and pretend it’s not happening. Running from it is, I think, totally understandable.  

    But to run is an overreaction. First off, I think hiding from what bothers you is counterproductive. Not facing reality is like never taking off your shoes. Feet are wonderful things, but they stink if not washed and exposed to fresh air.

    I have boasted over the years that most of my friends are neurotics.  That’s overstated.  There may be a real neurotic or two in there, but for the most part they are wonderfully bright people who are simply too often inclined to depression. I think there is truth to the saying, “If you’re not depressed, you’re not paying attention.” People who are depressed are people who think and are open and vulnerable, and simply become overwhelmed with too much bad news, some of their own imagining, of course, but much that is real, as well.

    I got good advice from a shrink early on in my twenties that stuck with me.  The solution is to focus on perspective, he said, because while the causes of depression are many, and therefore cannot be easily addressed, what keeps you in depression is the conviction that the here-and-now is a permanent here-and-now, and that’s not the case.

    I have a tremendous respect for civilizations that have been around for a while.  I’ve written recently about how I think the Jews know how to process suffering.  Another group that has learned from centuries of life lived with pain and suffering are the Buddhists. They know how to process nonsense.

    The only certainty, say the Buddhists, is that things will change.  And that means the fundamental premise of depression is wrong.  What you have to do is hold on till the present becomes the future. Good sleep, good work, good food, good conversation, good music, anything that is good will hold you over, usually, till the circumstances change.

    I’m committed to not surrendering to despair over the Trump phenomenon.  I heard a German say the other day how much he admired the American system of government with its checks and balances.  They are working.  We tend to favor the short term at the expense of the long term. We also all too often focus on the hole, not the donut.  The hole is this current short term Trump mess. The donut is the whole package of American ways of doing things, the naïve assumptions that happiness is achievable (which often become self-fulfilling prophecies), the drive, the curiosity and inventiveness, and that system of checks and balances.

    Democracy moves slowly.  It will take time to take down Trump, but he will be taken down.  

    The outrages of the health care reform are sinking in.  Even Republicans themselves are astonished at just how bad Ryan's plan is, how it is a short-term mechanism for making the rich richer which in the long term will eat away at not only our national health but our national confidence in ourselves. The lies - about Obama, about the British participation in tapping into Trump's phones, etc. etc. are beginning to get world attention and more and more people are questioning how one can be expected to work with someone who can't be counted on ever to speak the truth.

    In the NY Times this morning was an article by Ross Douthat that suggested we consider Singapore's healthcare system as a model to follow.  Douthat concluded in the end that a) we could never pull it off because it involves too much government control, and b) we will end up sooner or later with single-payer health care.

    I don't think that's merely wishful thinking.  Single-payer, I mean.  The idea that Ryan and Company will repeal and replace Obamacare with "something better" is now being exposed as a conspicuous lie.  The cost is simply too high, and the law of entropy, if nothing else, will force us into a simpler solution. Single-payer has lots of vested-interest opposition, but there's no doubt it's simpler. I’m reminded of that quote attributed, probably erroneously, to Churchill, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” 

    I have been unable to live up to my own promise to get and stay more involved in politics, because like most of my friends I'm burned out from the endless stream of bad news.  I only tune in partially, and only for limited periods of time.  I think we all have to find out own endurance limits and go with those.  

    Here’s my plan.  I want to time myself.  Keep track of the time I engage with the political scene and then match that time with one of my guaranteed pleasure makers - reading, music, walking, whatever. For whatever amount of time I spend taking in the news or talking about it, I want to set aside that much time with spirit-lifting activity.

    One of my father's constantly recycled quotes, along with "even a clock that is stopped is right twice a day," was "it's a great life if you don't get tired."  And a friend once told me (I'll have to ask a Greek sometime if it's true) that where we say, "Take it easy" the Greeks say it more clearly: "Don't get tired."

    Easier said than done, of course.

    I think there’s no way to never not get tired.  You just have to plan what to do when you do.  Sleep is always good, and I have an advanced degree in napping.  But so is uplifting activity, which can work better than sleep much of the time.

    So I'm looking forward to the day when America has universal healthcare coverage and when we finally realize we have no choice but to address climate change, and the fact that we have a cruelly unbalanced distribution of wealth which it is within our power to change.

    We just have to go through this dark period of shooting ourselves in the foot first.  We'll run out of bullets eventually.  Or get tired of losing toes.

    We just have to remember to keep the toes on ice so they can be sewn back on when the time comes.


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  4. -->
    Religion, a particularly warped form of it, has played a large role in American life, and in mine.  And I have spent entirely too much time, I’m thinking these days, raging against the phonies, the hypocrites, and insecure petty folk who are manipulated by it and who use it to manipulate others.

    I was raised in a Christian environment.  In the small town where I grew up most people went to church or synagogue, and I have to credit that cultural life for many of my fundamental values.  There was pettiness and meanness enough to go around, to be sure, but there were also lots of very decent people who took solace in their religious faith and credited it with the kindness and compassion they took to be essential for a life of substance and meaning.

    I lost that faith sometime after my twentieth birthday when I went to Germany and discovered how different German Lutherans in Germany were from German Lutherans in America.  That led me to question the degree to which religion was tied to culture and come to see how arbitrary were the dictates of any given culture.  It was the arbitrariness of it all that made me think I’d be better off searching for things that are true, rather than buy any longer into any packaged set of truth claims that demanded belief without evidence, especially those notions that laid claim to universality but clearly reflected local varieties of groupthink.

    Also, I developed an intense loathing for organized religion at some point early on as I came to recognize that I was gay and that religion had inculcated in me a self-loathing that pushed me to the edge of suicide.  I have never forgiven religion for that, and I probably never will.  Eventually I recognized that all religious doctrines are cherry-picked, and that it’s the cherry pickers, not the religion itself necessarily, that is to be blamed for religion's dark side.  That freed me up from what had become an obsession to do all I can to root out religious influences around me.

    I had a friend who was raised a Mormon.  His name was Merrill.  We met in the 1960s, way before the sea change in America that made acceptance of gay people the norm.  One stayed in the closet if one wanted to be able to move comfortably in the larger world.  One lived a lie.  Laughed at jokes about fags.  Many of us became violent toward other gays so that others would not “mistake” us for being gay ourselves.  The deception was unbearable to many.  Forty-two years ago this week Merrill got hold of a rifle and blew his brains out. 

    I called his sister, who had raised him.  Stumbling in the dark, desperate for words, I said something like, “I guess we’ll never know why he did it.”  I knew full well why he did it.  He wanted to be part of his large Mormon family of twelve kids, but the older six rejected him and he found that unbearable.  To my surprise, his sister responded, “I know exactly who killed him.  The Mormon Church killed him.”  She was one of the younger six and - it shouldn't have surprised me - she knew him even better than I did.

    My animosity toward religion was already pretty solid by this time, so Merrill’s suicide was not the source of it.  But it solidified and intensified it.

    It took me some time to separate my resentment of the scriptural injunction against same-sex relations – at least as it is interpreted by most literal-minded Christians, Muslims and Jews – from my resentment of the soul-killing way so many of these people actually practiced their religion.  I didn’t believe the myths that had grown up over the centuries, the exodus out of Egypt, the Virgin Birth, Mohammed’s ascent into heaven on a white horse from Jerusalem and all the rest of it.  It wasn’t really my anger at the religion-based homophobia that made me a church-basher.  It was the fact that I simply could not get behind the claims that there is a God, that he created a man and a woman and put them in a garden and told them not to eat of the tree of knowledge.  And then punished all their descendants when they disobeyed him until he changed his mind and decided it was time to come to earth as a human being and make himself a sacrificial lamb to “redeem” us from that inherited sin.  How, I've always wondered, does anybody in their wildest drug-induced fantasy life make sense of all that shit?  I mean never mind the obvious fact that once you reach age six (eight, sometimes ten, if you grow up with a vitamin deficiency) you learn to read the story allegorically and not literally. What is "original sin" all about allegorically if not a mechanism to encourage submission to authority?

    So I have two distinct reasons for not being religious.  One, I simply don’t believe the stories, and two, it looks for all the world like the gatekeepers of the religions include some pretty awful types of people.  People you should run from.  Once I learned that Jerry Falwell was going to heaven, I tore up my ticket.

    And that means I’m up against some serious challenges.  One is I know people, some of them mighty fine people, who do believe the stories.  And who are fighting what I take to be a losing fight to free their religious organizations from the hypocrites and purveyors of violence and deceit who run them.  The challenge is to remain open and honest about my disdain without disrespecting the earnest attempts of these seekers to make sense of the universe the best they can.

    When I rejected the church because I couldn’t buy into the doctrines, I also came to lose respect for people who held onto the church for non-doctrinal reasons.  Pascal's wager types, people who don't really believe, but don't want to risk it. Grandma's good little boys and girls, for example. People for whom family and community are everything and who fear that to reject the religion of their birth could well mean being ostracized from the community itself.  Or, as a friend of mine in high school put it, “I have to go to church.  It would break my grandmother’s heart if I didn’t.”

    I remember the first time I walked into the cathedral at Chartres.  It was a sunny day and the light coming through those stained-glass windows nearly knocked me to the floor.  If living by grandma's rules doesn't do it for you, the other-worldly beauty of a cathedral can keep you in the loop.

    In my case, if anything would make a believer of me again, it would be the music.

    I remember the time I attended Harvey Milk’s funeral at Temple Emmanuel in San Francisco.  I had never heard the mourner’s kaddish before and was unprepared for the beauty and the power of it.  I only half-jokingly told friends afterwards that I converted to Judaism in that instant.  I had a musical background and was no stranger to the idea that music had power.  But in that moment, I became convinced I could hear the thousands of years of Jewish suffering in what to my protestant ears was almost embarrassingly raw emotion expressed so exquisitely in song.  I felt a powerful draw, a desire to attach myself to a community of people who had clearly figured out some of the big questions of life and death.  And had the skill to express that knowledge in an honest and creative way.  I have no doubt there must also be people in the world who are believers because of a good performance of Mozart’s Requiem.

    My friends Craig and Harriet, both gone now, were for most of the time I knew them pretty much on the same wave length I was on when it came to religion.  So when they told me they had started attending church services at a local church my instant question was,  “Are you out of your mind!?” “No,” Harriet answered me. “I’m not there for the doctrine.  I have just come to realize that there are times when I want to be in the company of other seekers.  It’s not their truth claims that I'm interested in; it’s the fact that they are seekers.”

    Builders of cathedrals may say, I suppose, that they do what they do “for the glory of God.”  I filter that through my humanist take on the world and find I have no trouble feeling gratitude that there are seekers who want to express their spiritual longings through the creation of beauty.  Chartres may make you look to the heavens where you think God dwells, and a cantorial chant – or a Gregorian chant – may make you better able to process your feelings of grief or loneliness or simply your mystification at how time flies by and you have come from childhood to senility in the blinking of an eye.

    On a superficial level, there are religious crackpots that make me roll on the floor in hysterics.  I’m talking Cindy Jacobs and Pat Robertson here.  I would not want to get rid of them.  They provide as much entertainment as a Saturday Night Live skit.  And on a serious level, there are also people who have managed to channel their religious impulses into music and that music has not just enriched my life but kept me sane and able to fight off the slings and arrows of a sometimes quite hostile reality.  I am grateful beyond words for this music.

    Music doesn’t have to be religion-centered to be lofty.  Consider Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, for example, which inolves embracing the death that will come to us all with no mention of a deity.  But often the most profound human emotions are expressed religiously, whether it’s in that wonderful piece in Les Misérables where Jean Valjean asks God to protect a boy, his future son-in-law, that he has come to love as a son.  Especially as Alfie Boe sings it.  

    Or almost any of what must be hundreds of good versions of Amazing Grace. Here’s one of my favorites, by Il Divo.  The bagpipes are like Mexican food.  Can be awful.  But when done right – as in this video – they’re the musical equivalent of food for the gods. (And, speaking of gods, you might want to stay with that YouTube link.  Il Divo moves on next to that Leonard Cohen piece that has circled the world countless times now, and regularly reduces all kinds of people to tears, Hallelujah.)

    Or all the Ave Marias, Bach chorales, and requiem masses.  And not just the big ones, like Mozart and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. (Here's a nice version done by the Danes.)  But also the requiem by Camille Saint-Saëns, who proved you don’t have to be a believer to write a beautiful requiem.  Verdi, I’m told, wasn’t a believer, either, and he too pulled off a good requiem. Gounod, Dvorak, Gabriel Faure, seems everybody got in on the act, and we’re the richer for it.

    Something about death, I guess, clears the throat.  It’s hard to be puffed up and insincere when facing eternity, and it seems to make people want to do their best.

    And I keep discovering more and more examples of beauty at death's door.

    This week it was Azi Schwartz, the cantor at Park Avenue Synagogue.

    Here he is performing at a 9/11 memorial service.

    Also in the picture, as if some Renaissance artist had composed it to enhance beauty by juxtaposing it with ugliness, is that sleaze bag Cardinal Dolan, the incarnation of the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church, standing two down from the pope.  Mr. Dolan spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to hush up the child abuse details, paying off the priests and protecting the church and throwing the kids to the wolves, then later passing himself off as the man who fixed the problem.  He also urged Catholics to civil disobedience to protest granting the right of LGBT people to marry.

    But let’s not be distracted by corruption.  Focus on young Azi.  Beautiful face.  And even more beautiful voice.  Has a wife and three kids, I understand.  Cantoring his heart out and reminding me why I converted to Judaism in that instant back in the 70s when Milk was shot.

    I never stay Jewish, of course.  But I convert every time I hear a cantor sing.

    How could you not?

    Have a listen:  here  


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  5. Erdoğan rally in Cologne
    The Holy Roman Empire came to an end at the hands of a 21-year old.  His name was Mehmet and he was the 7th Sultan of the empire in the East begun with the Turkish tribal leader Osman in the late 1200s.  Mehmet, known as “The Conquerer,” took the city of Constantinople, then the capital of the Roman Empire, after a six-week siege in the spring of 1453, effectively ending Christian hegemony in that part of the world.  The Greek Orthodox Church remained intact, but the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), Istanbul’s most famous landmark to this day, became a mosque.  Mehmet named himself Kayser-i-Rum (the Caesar of Rome) and founded the political system that lasted until 1922 when the Ottoman Empire gave way to the Republic of Turkey.  Historians use the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to mark the end of the Middle Ages, so it may be said that the Ottoman Empire began on the day the Middle Ages ended.

    Osman was originally Uthman, in the original Arabic, but the th-sound, which exists in some languages (English, Spanish, Greek as well as Arabic) is not found in either Turkish or Persian.  In both those languages, an s was substituted for the th, and you got Osman.  The th became a t in Italian, which then also added a vowel in keeping with the Italian aversion to consonant clusters, and pronounced the name Ottoman.  That was taken up by French, and passed on to English speakers as well.  So in case you wondered, Osman = Ottoman.  No relation to Otto the Short.  Or Otto the Red aka Rufus.  Or any other Otto, for that matter.

    [Sorry about that.  I was a linguist in an earlier reincarnation and sometimes things like that pop out like Peter Sellers' Hitler salute in Dr. Strangelove.]

    Back to the 21-year old that changed the course of history.  Well no, actually.  He’s done his thing and now it’s up to the Turks to take it from there.  Fast forward through Suleiman the Magnificent into the 20th Century and the competition with the Habsburgs and the eventual alliance with the Germans in World War I.  Gallipoli and Lawrence of Arabia and all that. That alliance would be its undoing.  Everybody knows the triumphalism of the West led to Hitler eventually.  Bad idea, that, to beggar one’s enemies.  Versailles, I mean.  No telling where that will lead.  But besides Versailles, there was also Sèvres, a treaty signed in 1920 forcing the Turks to renounce all non-Turkish territory.  France you take Lebanon and Syria.  Britain, you take Palestine.  The victors tore at the flesh of the Ottoman Empire like hyenas on a gazelle.  (OK, the Ottomans were no gazelle, but give me some space here.)

    Enter Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  What we need here, folks, is a modern state.  Off with your fezes, gentlemen, ladies no more headshawls.  We’re going to makes ourselves over to look like France and their policy of laïcité, or secularism.  No more Arabic alphabet.  We’re using the Roman alphabet from now on. Mr. Sultan-Caliph person, we’ll not be needing your services any longer.  We’re going to have ourselves a president and a prime minister now.  Islam, you can stay, but we’re going to follow the example of Protestantism in the Christian countries, and tighten you up where you’ve gotten loose.

    Atatürk knew, in other words, that a full-scale attack on Islam would never work.  It was too much a part of the Turkish culture. The solution was what the west had come up with, a way of both protecting religion and protecting ourselves from its power.  We call it separation of church and state.  Enjoy the hell out of your faith, but don’t use it to prevent those who prefer a different faith or none at all.  And to make sure that happens, we’ll keep it out of the public sphere, thank you very much. Oh, and by the way, that means women now get full say in what happens to them.  When they were given the right to vote in 1930, Turkey actually moved ahead of several other Western countries where women’s suffrage was not yet a reality.

    Two opposing ideologies emerged, that of the ulema, the “guardians of legal and religious traditions in Islam” and that of the modernisers, known as kemalists, from Kemal Atatürk.  The challenge faced by the kemalists has always been to persuade the opposition, who believe you’re either “fer us or agin’ us,” that there is such a thing as neutrality when it comes to religion.

    Zoom ahead once more to the current era where in the United States we routinely leave it up to religious innocents (and not so innocents) and others who believe truth to be what they wish it to be, rather than what the cold hard concrete world of facts tells you it is.  We have somehow managed to squeeze the Middle Class almost out of existence and generate a two-class system.  An elite class that has ignored the rest of us to our own peril, and an "I know what I know" class that aims to fix it. The elite upper class has managed to piss off the other class, which includes the official Catholic Church and the Evangelicals who helped usher Pied Piper Trump into office. We’re now engaged in a culture war where the two sides don't know how to talk to each other.

    Which is not to blame both sides equally. How do you talk with a Trump type, who lies for strategic purposes?  How do you talk with a radical evangelical or a jihadist convinced God is on their side?

    We might have learned from the Persians...Iranians, who allowed their dictator-shah (with our support - but that's another story) to use his popularity among the elite as an opportunity to screw the religiously unenlightened at the bottom. Look what happened there when the folks at the bottom finally couldn’t take it anymore.  But we don't take lessons from lesser democracies.

    Most people in America today pay little attention to the battle going on inside the Roman Catholic church between modernizers who have, among other things, removed the use of Latin in the liturgy, thus making the content of the mass more accessible to worshipers.  Conservatives, including the last pope, Benedict, are fighting to bring back the Latin mass, want the Big-Daddy priest/magician back again.  When the Islamic reforms got started under Atatürk, a similar thing happened, only in spades. The Qu’ran was for centuries available to Turks only in Arabic.  The kemalists had a Turkish translation made and distributed, but it took until 1935 to get it accepted.  And the process was reversed in 1950 when Arabic was restored as the liturgical language of Turkish mosques.  Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back. Language we can understand invites our participation, and ultimately our personal responsibility.  Language reduced to symbolism of tradition and authority suggests we'd be better off leaving that authority in the hands of our betters.

    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called for a national referendum to be held this coming April 16th.  Turkish citizens will vote on eighteen proposed amendments to the constitution.  These include getting rid of the role of the prime minister and turning the job over to the president, who could then appoint one or more vice presidents. The executive presidency would replace the parliamentary system.  Executive decrees would take precedent over legislation.  Erdoğan’s party, the Justice and Development (AKP) Party, and its supporters argue Turkey is under threat and the chaos of too much democracy has made the country unstable and unsafe.  All they are asking, they say, is that Turkey give up the parliamentary system common in Europe and move to the American system of a strong executive.  Turkey, they claim, is beset by enemies on all sides, ISIS, Syria, the Kurds, the Turkish military, and the native Islamist organization, the Fethullah Gülen, which they label a terrorist organisation.  Erdoğan maintains that all his enemies were behind the coup against his government last year.  There are now six political parties on the yes side.

    The no side claims the referendum signals the end of democracy in Turkey and the implementation of what amounts to dictatorial powers for Erdoğan.  More like the American system, perhaps, they say, but without the checks and balances.  The wishes of the solitary executive will take precedance over both the legislative branch and the judiciary. 

    The battles between the two sides are frequent and often violent.  And they are spilling over into Europe, where large populations of Turkish expats with dual citizenship are involved.  Turkish-German relations are at a new low since Germany turned down an application for an Erdoğan rally and Erdoğan responded by describing the event as involving “Nazi-style tactics.”  Didn’t sit well with the Germans.  Holland, too, is on the outs with Erdoğan. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Social Policy Minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya were both denied premission to hold rallies among Turkish migrants.  Dutch Prime Minister Rutte was then subjected to the same “Nazi” swipe from Erdoğan as Angela Merkel’s government was.  And now Switzerland and Austria have followed suit.    Erdoğan has control over the media and uses the images of Dutch and German police beating Turks to strengthen his assertion that Turkey is beset by enemies on all fronts.  And as if smearing the Dutch with the Nazi label wasn't enough, Erdoğan decided to put a little icing on the cake. “We know how rotten their character is from their massacre of 8,000 Bosnians there,” he said, referring to the Dutch at Srebrenica.   Since these events, support for the yes side has grown.

    I’m obviously working as a rank amateur here.  I’m not a historian and my attempts to see modern developments in Turkey in a historical context are necessarily superficial.  But I sit here marveling at the chutzpah of such outrageous slander on the part of Erdoğan and how much the man resembles Donald Trump.

    Donald Trump put Exxon Mobil in charge of the environment, Goldman Sachs in charge of the financial sector, Rick Perry in charge of Energy, a department he vowed to dismantle, and the sister of Erik Prince, the mercenary par excellence who made a fortune in Iraq through his company, Blackwater, headed up by Cheney, in charge of education, when her sole stated purpose in education has been the dismantling of public education.  All his lies and narcissism aside, it gives me a fix on the man.  And so too do these charges against the Dutch tell me much about the character of the man Erdoğan. I'd like to take his arguments seriously that governing Turkey demands a stronger hand these days, but how would you feel if you had lived through the German occupation of Holland and lost family members and friends to the Nazis and you now had to endure the attempts of this moron to paint you as a Nazi?  And it’s true, the 110 Dutch U.N. peacekeepers failed to stop the Serbians from marching in and massacring 8000 Muslim men and boys they were in Bosnia to protect.  But the Dutch government took responsibility for that failure, and admitted the troops were not sufficiently trained and backed up.  It was hardly an act of brutality.  Only one Bosnian Serb was sentenced to prison, by the way.  Erdoğan, like Trump, obviously uses facts filtered through his own self-serving lens to suit his purposes.  “Their massacre?”  The Dutch did the massacring?  I'm to trust this demagogue?

    What’s capturing the most attention abroad is Erdoğan’s crackdown.  Since the coup last July, 46,875 people have been arrested; 4070 judges and prosecutors fired, and 7316 academics have lost their jobs.  (The Guardian puts that figure at 5000, but even that figure is astonishing.) 162 journalists have been arrested, including 11 from Cumhuriyet, the country’s oldest newspaper.  2500 journalists have been laid off and 170 media organizations have been shut down. 

    Then there are the spin-off effects that Trump and Erdoğan can't be blamed for directly, but are clear indicators that there is something rotten about their approach to politics.  Trump's rallies brought out the KKK and the thugs - the "deplorables" Hillary was referring to when her words got twisted back at her and used to make her sound like an elitist.  Erdoğan's remarks about Germans and Dutch being Nazis have likewise unleashed a flood of deplorables.

    One issue that has been brought front and center is the issue of dual citizenship.  If the Turks who have made their home in Germany had been required to renounce their Turkish citizenship, there would be far less animosity between the two countries, since there would be no point in campaigning abroad.  Another unforeseen consequence of “too many freedoms.”  Instead, Germans are outraged by the jailing of one of their citizens, Deniz Yücel, a reporter for Die Welt, Germany’s conservative daily newspaper.  He was jailed in Turkey for reporting on a story involving Erdoğan’s son-in-law which Erdoğan evidently did not consider favorable to his reputation. (It involved the hacking and leak of the son-in-law’s e-mails.)  From a Turkish perspective, this is a domestic matter, since Yücel is obviously Turkish.

    I probably should not be making too much of the parallels between Erdoğan and Trump.  There are some; the comparisons are obvious.  The biggest one, as I see it, is Erdoğan’s willingness to use the discontent of the religious folks in the bottom half of society, the ones we are inclined to dismiss as types jerked around by their religion or handicapped by their lack of education in many cases.  A serious social or political analysis might well find plenty of differences to counter these parallels with, I’m sure.  And maybe, for all I know, the vote to move Turkey from a more parliamentary government to a more autocratic one might not be a total disaster.  I’d hate to take the chance, if I were a Turk, but I don’t vote in their elections.

    But as I follow the international news these days – as much as I have the stomach for – I have trouble keeping a sense of despair at bay I feel at watching what’s going on with Putin in Russia, Trump in the U.S., Viktor Orban and his yes-man president Janos Ader in Hungary.  Like Putin, Orban is simultaneously painting foreigners as a threat and cracking down on local Hungarian human rights groups.  

    Then there's Poland. Some 50,000 people demonstrated in Warsaw in December against their government’s reinstatement of known lawbreakers, an action which the head of the EU labelled a coup.  (That’s socialist candidate for Chancellor Martin Schulz, by the way, who is running against Angela Merkel.) Andrzej Zoll, former president of Poland’s Constitutional Court, warned that “twenty-five years of democratic Poland is coming to an end."

    We're waiting at the moment for the result of the election in Holland to see what role Geerd Wilders' nationalists will be playing there.  Then there is Marine LePen and the nationalists in France.  In Germany, too, the AfD party has had alarming victories in recent elections.  National populists are in these days.  And nationalism is a passion one whips together with authoritarianism.  You need a special guy to save the nation.  And you need to give him special powers. 

    So far, we have been spared the horror Turkish democrats are experiencing watching thousands of journalists being thrown in jail or prevented from doing their job.  We still have a powerful resistance.  Saturday Night Live, all the evening talk shows, Rachel Maddow, even the mainstream press, are having a field day satirizing the shenanigans and bringing the deceptions of the oligarchy that is the Trump administration to our attention.  I know naysayers claim nobody on the right listens to these folk anymore.  But they are still there and they are still loud and as long as they are free to talk there's possibility.  As long as Trump doesn't succeed in totally discrediting all of them, we're still good.

    America likes to think of itself as a unique Zion upon a hill, the exception among nations. Exceptionalism is still part of the ruling orthodoxy and in the American psyche. But there’s no reason why, if we’re willing to spend an hour here and there following what other democracies are up to, we can’t shed that foolish notion once and for all.

    If we learn nothing else from the Trump phenomenon, we can at least recognize that we’re not above making the same mistakes as the rest of the world.  That we are equally capable of following a Pied Piper to our own destruction.  That we’re all grown up now and don’t have a daddy anymore to fix all our problems for us.

    I know that’s hard.  I miss my daddy sometimes too.

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  6. Middlebury College
    In my blog entry entitled The Obamas of Europe the other day I mentioned in passing that when I was a freshman in college we had a single black member of our freshman class and we elected him president.  I tossed that off without comment, assuming my readers would understand I was poking fun at white guilt and the inclination of liberal progressives to bend over backward sometimes to prove they are not the bad guys – in this case, the racists of America keeping black people down.

    An old friend from my home town, who happened also to get her B.A. at Middlebury College in Vermont, wrote me to suggest that Ron Brown – she remembered his name – I hadn’t – was elected not because he was black but because he was the kind of guy who was obviously going places.

    Retrospect is a wonderful teacher.  Ron Brown went on to become Secretary of Commerce under President Clinton.  Whether his colleagues in my freshman class saw that coming or not, he obviously had potential.  Ron Brown died in a plane crash in Dubrovnik, Croatia in 1996 while on an official trade mission with the Clinton administration.  Before that he had been influential in Bill Clinton’s successful presidential run in 1992, and before that he had worked for Ted Kennedy.  Like I said, going places.

    Middlebury today is one of those places the political right has in mind when they speak of how thoroughly “the left” has seized power in this country.  It’s a hotbed of lefty intellectualism, in other words.  A New England liberal arts college which almost any of America’s elite progressives would be happy to send their kid for a college education, as many do. In 1958, when I made the great leap away from home for the first time, a bundle of youthful hope and excitement, naivete and insecurity, it was not as exclusive as it is today, but it was up there.  And I was a fish out of water.  A kid from a working class home from a small river town of the industrial revolution in New England, not a suburb of Boston, not a product of the many prep schools that fed into Middlebury like Exeter or Andover or Deerfield or Choate or Groton.  I didn’t have enough money to ski and joined those who sneered at Middlebury as a kind of “great white hell.”  The snow on the ground went on for what seemed like forever.   I spent what little social time I had with people who derided the campus with names like Mibbledairy or Diddlemerry.  Most of the time I became pretty much a bookworm, since I didn’t have the requisite disposition to join a fraternity, as most of my classmates did.  Ron Brown, incidentally, joined Sigma Phi Epsilon.  They first proposed that he join them as some kind of “associate” member, since the national fraternity had a no blacks clause.  Brown refused and in the end Sigma Phi broke away from the national fraternity and embraced him fully.

    I just learned these facts about Ron Brown in the past couple of days.  And they only add to my admiration for Middlebury, now grown considerably since my days there as a social misfit.  I can see now what a solid grounding I got in study skills and intellectual inquiry.  The times when Robert Frost dropped in to "say his poems."  And when I sat at Pardon Tillinghast's family table and watched his children name the monarchs of England in reverse order.  Tillinghast taught a course called "Intellectual History."  I didn't have the courage to take it.  Have wished ever since that I had.  What I learned there was the foundation ultimately for an eventual PhD from Stanford and a university professorship.  And more importantly for a life in which ideas are as essential to the meaning of life as any of the other appetites.  Despite some very rich friendships and experiences, I missed out on much of what Middlebury had to offer, in large part because my self-loathing as a gay man at the time prevented me from presenting myself authentically.  But I am proud to tell people that I went to Middlebury.

    Yesterday I came across an article in The Atlantic about the ugly reception accorded Charles Murray   at Middlebury last Thursday night, March 2.  Murray had been invited by the student American Enterprise Institute club to discuss his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, but no sooner was he introduced than he was shouted down.  For about forty minutes – the entire event is available on video – students shouted slogans like:
    Middlebury students turn their backs on Charles Murray

    ·      Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray, go away.
    ·      Your message is hatred. We cannot tolerate it.
    ·      Charles Murray, go away. Middlebury says no way.
    ·      Who is the enemy? White supremacy.
    ·      Hey hey, ho ho. Charles Murray has got to go.

    I watched in increasing discomfort.  The very first thing that struck me was the number of black students in the crowd (only students were permitted in the auditorium).  Progress, I said.  Brave new world.  Long way from the days of the single precocious black kid that opened the inevitable question about tokenism.  The next thing I noticed was that, while the majority of kids were white, they alternated the chants above with “Black Lives Matter!”  Proud again.  That’s my alma mater.  My people.  White liberals, the kind of people I surround myself with.  (And, by the way, that includes one of Murray’s four children, a daughter who graduated from Middlebury with the class of 2007.)  But it wasn’t long before I realized they were shouting things that were in fact questionable.  “Racist”?  Well, possibly.  This is the author, one of them, of The Bell Curve, after all.  The book that caused a major ruckus twenty years ago because it claimed that white people had higher I.Qs than black people.  Never mind what Murray (and Herrnstein) concluded from those results.  Just the fact alone was taken as a demonstration of racism.

    Sexist?  Really?  Murray is a libertarian.  He doesn’t spend a lot of energy supporting political programs that foster feminist causes, for sure.  But whether that constitutes sexism is up for further inquiry and debate.  And anti-gay?  Well, it so happens they’ve got that wrong.  Murray has always been a conservative at heart.  He argues that societal stability depends on a strong family structure, thinks religious faith is a good thing, and he measures social decay in such things as out-of-wedlock births.  He’s often cited as the generator of scientific evidence that the family should be headed by a male, and that marriage should focus on children and be between a male and a female.

    Problem is, Murray is a real intellectual.  And that means he clearly believes that when facts change, he should change his mind accordingly.  Four years ago, The New Yorker published an article about how Charles Murray upset the CPAC audience he was addressing in 2013 when he declared that he had come to believe he was wrong in opposing same-sex marriage.  Not only did gay people make good parents, he said.  The gay couples he knew with children not only made good parents, they made “excruciatingly responsible parents.”  

    So anti-gay?  No.

    When Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray came out with The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, I immediately bought a copy. That was 21 years ago, in 1996.  A colleague spotted it on my shelf and challenged me.  “What are you doing with that book on your shelf?” he asked.  “What do you mean?” I asked.  “It’s a best-seller.  I wanted to see what it was all about.”  “Well, you should not have contributed to the fortunes of that bastard,” he said.

    I’d like to say I studied the volume, chock-full of data and graphs to tie you up for weeks, if you took it seriously, but I never found the time to do much more than a brief scan.  I did far more reading about the political fuss that ensued, including the heavily critical stance taken by Stephen Jay Gould, who called the book “anachronistic Social Darwinism,” and the more ambiguous one by the the American Psychological Association who ended up saying, essentially, that we don’t know enough yet to seriously address the differential between black and white IQ scores.

    But I don't want to get distracted here by the quality of Charles Murray’s research and miss what I think is the more serious issue at hand – the matter of free speech.  At the surface level, these Middlebury students I am inclined to look at so fondly as the third generation of the alums of my day, people I see as “my people,” are engaging in a seriously counter-productive exercise.  They are name calling instead of listening to an intellectual argument.  On their own college campus.  And just as our misguided political leaders have fed the beast that is ISIS and the Taliban by invading a Muslim country and killing millions of innocents, these well-intentioned young souls, with their hearts in the right place, have provided the right-wing with a clear and vivid example of PC gone wrong.  Free speech, the liberals cry.  But only if you agree with me. They have enabled the right to take the focus off of the injustices they perpetrate by giving them one to shame the left with.

    This is a repeat of the mess at UC Berkeley recently when rioters shut down the appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos, the provocateur.  Not just anywhere, but in the heart and soul of the Free Speech Movement of the 60s. 

    A brief aside here:  There may be evidence that the people responsible for actual violence (the professor who was to spar with Murray after his talk ended up in the hospital after a scuffle as Murray was making his exit from the campus) were outsiders.  Some dressed in black and wore masks – the same uniforms as the people were wearing who shut down the Berkeley event.  But that’s another story for another time.

    Murray is an example of how difficult it has become to separate ideas from politics.  The conservative Witherspoon Institute fostered the work of a Texas catholic* sociologist, Mark Regnerus, for example, bypassing the usual kinds of peer review and getting out the false message that gay people could not raise healthy children.  Once serious academics tuned in, including Regnerus’ own department head and the American Sociological Association, which found his study “fundamentally flawed,” they blew his argument out of the water.  The lasting effects are still there, however, and the right continues to pretend the study had merit.  And here we are again, with Charles Murray, whom many have criticized for sloppy methodology, misuse of statistics, and the like.  There is a difference, though, between the two.  Murray is addressing some powerful questions.  Even if you find his conclusions offensive, the questions still get to be asked.  Is society going downhill?  Is America getting dumber?  If so, what are we to do about it? Are we making a mistake fostering the birth of children who will be raised in poverty and ignorance?  And is that what we are actually doing?

    I have to jump in here.  I'm with the students in being offended by this line of thinking.  I think the notion that you should not support a poor woman's child because that might encourage other poor women to have children is beyond obnoxious.  It's cruel and heartless and I understand the desire to scream at this man and tell him I don't want him to speak.  But I'm with Middlebury's president, who insisted (to no avail, alas) that Middlebury's code follows the first amendment's purpose in protecting obnoxious speech - non-obnoxious speech needs no protection.  And that the only proper response to speech is more speech. Questioning, debate, refutation.  Not shouting.  And certainly not violence.

    Rejecting Murray as a bigot is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  He's much more than his bad ideas and he's got a bunch of really interesting ones.  More relevant to the modern day are the conclusions Murray was trying to discuss in his talk at Middlebury.  His first book, Losing Ground, argued we are barking up the wrong tree in trying to fix social problems through welfare. It’s intelligence we should be looking at, since it’s a much better predictor of things like income, job performance, pregnancy out of wedlock or crime.  That’s what gave rise to claims of sexist and racist bias on his part.  People ran with the conclusion without respecting the devil in the details.  The Bell Curve only solidified the anger and resentment against him as a scholar, again by and large by people who had not read his and Herrnstein’s contribution to the field of intelligence as legitimate inquiry rather than as political advocacy.  It doesn’t help that he’s a member of the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank which counts among its present and former members the likes of Dick Cheney, Dinesh D’Souza, Paul Wolfowitz, Newt Gingrich, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Antonin Scalia, any one of whose names gives me serious indigestion.

    His third book, which came out about five years ago now and which he came to Middlebury to discuss, is, I think, an even more stunning book, Coming Apart.  In it he details what we all know from anecdotal evidence to be true, that there has been a dumbing down in America, that the country has bifurcated and there is now a wealthy comfortable upper class and an ever more insecure and not well-read underclass.  We live in gated communities – whether actually gated or simply divided by neighborhood housing prices.  Unlike when I was growing up and going to school with classmates from every point on the social scale and from every educational and economic background, I now live almost entirely with people of the same social class, people of my own culture.  What I know about the really poor I know from reading and the movies, and not from rubbing elbows and sharing meals on a regular basis.  What is challenging is the notion race is not a significant determinant of the social polarization we are experiencing in the U.S. today.  Instead, Murray claims, it’s all about class, and the fact that the lower class has become increasingly dysfunctional.  Again, Murray attributes these changes to the loss of religious observance, what we’ve come to call traditional marriage, the work ethic and sense of community.  The solution, he says, is not to take money from the wealthy and give it to the poor, but to seek ways to change the culture through raising awareness of what we’ve lost.

    And here’s the rub.  Murray, like most members of the educated elite, is horrified at the Trump phenomenon and considers the man and his administration dangerous. Here's what Murray has to say about President Donald Trump, according to the speaker who introduced him last Thursday night:
     In my view, Donald Trump is unfit to be president in ways that apply to no other candidate of the two major political parties throughout American history. As far as I can tell, Trump has no character. He is a bully with subordinates.  He does business in ways that good business people despise, and he's not even very good at that. He says things about people that are so obnoxious, that calling them obnoxious doesn't come close to how awful they are.  He constantly lies about things that can be checked, he brags incessantly, but he doesn't even brag about things that he could apparently be proud of. 
    And yet, what’s almost certain to happen is that people will read Murray’s conclusions as a white supremacist pitch for making America great again.  What needs to happen is people have to break out of the simplistic good guy/bad hombre shorthand we work with these days.  And that requires nuanced thinking and an honest detailed analysis of ideas.

    My first inclination was to feel shame for what went down last Thursday night at Middlebury.  But, just as was the case at Berkeley with Yiannopoulos recently, I came to see that the problem we're facing here is an old one, the inclination of some people to resort to thugishness.  Middlebury, in the person of its president Laurie Patton and Allison Stanger, the professor caught in the hassle, both of whom made clear they had serious differences with Charles Murray yet tried their best to make space for him to speak, did itself proud.

    Don't sell Middlebury short.  Don't judge it by the small number of people in masks shutting down discourse (that's me, talking to myself.)

    Wait till you've read the conclusions of Charles Murray's research.

    And then get seriously depressed.

    *Correction, March 9.  I originally identified Mark Regnerus as an evangelical, insinuating that his unfounded anti-gay conclusions were based on religious prejudice.  He is, in fact, a convert to Roman Catholicism. Because he has been cited as declaring that one's religious faith should guide one's research (see Mark Oppenheimer's article on the subject in the New York Times), I believe the suggestion was still appropriate, if not necessarily warranted, but I apologize for getting the facts wrong.  I have now corrected the text.

    photo credits: Middlebury Collegeprotest showing Murray: protest showing only students 


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  7. I’ve spent my whole professional life in the field of language and culture, studying particularly languages and cultures in contact.  The best way I know to get a sense of what culture means is to see where it rubs up against other things.  What is the difference between culture and religion, for example, or how does the concept of culture overlap with the concept of civilization?  Or society?  Another thing I find inherently interesting is how many ways there are to define “us” and “them.”  Race, for example, is one of the most conspicuous ways we use to “other” people – to mark them as “not our kind,” often as a prelude to discrimination and rejection.  Nazis “othered” Jews to create a scapegoat as a mechanism for producing the fiction of a superrace.  In this new age of Trump, many (not all, of course, but entirely too many) people are misled by the notion that the white Christian male-centered America represented by Norman Rockwell, Ozzie and Harriet or Leave it to Beaver is threatened somehow by black people, gay people, Mexicans or Muslims.

    I am struck with the symbolic effect that Barack Obama has had on the modern world.  Putting aside his political accomplishments and the ways he disappointed people who had hoped for much more from him, I became conscious of his impact on the world the other day when I read of a black African mayor in a small town in Slovenia being referred to as “our Obama.”  The reference was not to his views as an American, his rhetorical skills, his politics or any of his other features as a prominent figure in the news, but to his race.  It's a small thing, actually, but it is nonetheless clear that this new mass migration of folk from the troubled Middle East or from Africa into Europe now apparently beginning in earnest, is likely to change the world more dramatically than ever before.

    The great destabilization of the Middle East began, in my view, when George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their gang of neocons took a baseball bat to the hornet’s nest that was Iraq and Afghanistan, making Blackwater rich and collateral damage a household word and giving birth to the Taliban and to ISIS.  I know that’s an oversimplification, and that Assad’s ruthlessness against his own people and the many Arab uprisings in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere are also part of the story, but I’m not after political analysis here.  I’m just trying to make the point that we had better get used to the fact that we have unleashed a massive Völkerwanderung, to use the German word for mass migration.  Or, to translate by cognates, a bunch of folk wandering about, with the implication they’re searching for a new home.

    German flag with Turkish
    crescent superimposed
    We used to call the economic migrants “guest workers.”  But that was until it became clear that once they found a job it made no sense for them to go back. Why would they give up a decent income and a better place to raise their kids than the place they came from?  Germany today has over four million citizens of Turkish origin, and many of these, now into the second and third generation, speak German natively and Turkish not at all.  And they are represented all across the spectrum of assimilation, from those who go out into the streets of Germany to campaign for Turkish president Erdogan at one extreme, to others at the other extreme like the cabaret artist, Serdar Somuncu. In America, we’d call him a stand-up comedian, but he’s much more.   He’s politically astute as well, and serves as all cabaret artists do as the conscious of the German nation.  Or Cem Özdemir, the head of Germany’s Green Party.  Son of a Turkish-Circassian guest worker, he’s married to an Argentinian woman and describes himself as a “secular Muslim.”  Also a good representative of the “new Germany,” in other words.

    Germans are hypersensitive about racial identity because of their past, so they do not permit themselves to categorize people according to ethnic origin.  That means there is no way to count the actual number of first, second or third generation “Turkish Germans” with accuracy. The best guess is that it exceeds four million, or 5% of the German population.

    Jani Toivola, Finland
    Rotimi Adebari, Ireland
    Now, with the EU, the people of Europe are free to travel and settle in each other’s countries more than ever before.  In some cases, as with Poles or Hungarians or Czechs in Germany, assimilation comes relatively quickly.  As the culture gaps increase, (Czechs usually adjust to Germany more readily than citizens of the former Yugoslavia do to Holland, for example and much more readily than Somalis to Sweden) it may take a bit longer, but generally once the kids have the language, blending occurs. This is not to make light of the efforts involved, the pain of loss of one’s home culture, the occasional bullying, and the insensitivity of the mainstream culture to what one is going through.  But what’s now at least on the radar is what might be called the “Obama effect,” the readiness of mainstream white people to shed the practice of racial “othering” once common to all European peoples. Hitler, if he had a grave, would be turning in it.  His country has become a full-fledged nation of immigrants.  As have virtually all economically successful European nations.

    Karamba Diaby, Germany
    I went looking for examples of Africans succeeding in the homeland of white people.  It didn’t take long before I found a goodly number.  Here’s a list of ten of these, and I’m including only politicians, since politicians are not merely “good neighbors” from other countries, but people one chooses as their leaders.  And please note this is but the surface, and I'm leaving out the several women who should also be acknowledged.  At least one source suggests that there is not a country in Europe now without at least one black person in the local parliament. 

    1. Let’s start with my favorite.  A gay man from Finland named Jani Petteri Toivola.  An actor and dancer before going into politics, he’s Finnish born but has a Kenyan father.  He was elected to the Finnish parliament in 2011 as a candidate of the Green League.
    Edmond Lukusa, Ireland
    2. Then there is Karamba Diaby.  He’s a member of the SPD, the German Socialist Party, from Halle, in Saxony-Anhalt, and was elected to the German Bundestag in 2013.
    3. Diaby is not the only black African in the Bundestag. Charles M. Huber, of the CDU, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, is from Hesse.  He was elected on September 23, 2013.
    4. A third black German politician of note, John Ehret, is not a parliamentarian, but he’s been the mayor of Mauer, a small town in Baden-Württemberg, since 2012.  He’s the son of a black-American GI and a German mother who gave him up for adoption at age two, when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  He was adopted by Gertrud and Helmut Ehret at age six and took their name.
    Peter Bossman, Slovenia
    5. Poland, too, has black African politicians.  There is John Godson, a Polish member of Parliament, born Igbo, from Nigeria, and a member, of the Łódź City Council.
    6. And Killion Munzele Munyama, delegate to Polish Parliament, Zambian born, member of the Polish Sejm (lower house of Polish parliament).
    John Ehret, Germany
    7. Meanwhile, over in Ireland, there is Edmond Lukusa, a member of the Fingal County Council and the Sinn Fein Party.  He is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
    8. Also in Ireland is Rotimi Adebari, mayor of Port Laoise, County Laoise, Ireland. He was born in Nigeria and came to Ireland originally as an asylum seeker.
    9. In the Tver Oblast, in Russia, is Jean Gregoire Sagbo, councilor of Novozavidovo in Konakovsky District..  He was born in Benin.
    10. And finally, in the small coastal town of Piran, in Slovenia, married to a Croatian woman and working on improving Slovenian-Croatian relations is Peter Bossman, twice elected mayor of Piran, Slovenia, despite a somewhat limited knowledge of Slovenian. He was born in Ghana.  There is a very sympathetic video interview with Bossman here.  

    Jean Gregoire Sagbo, Russia
    Just a handful of people among millions, you may say.  True.  But evidence that the world can change and that immigrants and asylum seekers sometimes have considerable talents and strengths to offer.

    Charles M. Huber, Germany
    America once made some of the best cars in the world.  Today they are way behind Japan and Germany.  We rank first in number of prisoners as well as in the number of superrich and in the size of our military but we are now 14th in education, 44th in health care, 7th in wireless broadband subscriptions (Finland is first), and 33rd in terms of download speeds.  We rank 101st on the Peace Index out of 162 countries measured (Iceland is first).  That puts us between Benin and Angola.  We are 13th among countries that believe homosexuality should be accepted (Spain is first). And we’re 23rd in gender equality. Reporters Without Borders ranked us 46th in terms of freedom of the press (sandwiched between Romania and Haiti).  26th in terms of child well-being (Holland is first).  And 24th in terms of literacy.   [Source for above stats here]
    Killion Munyama, Poland

    John Godson, Poland
    Until the Trump phenomenon, I might have been persuaded we’re still out front in terms of modern nations in our ability to stop othering people of color.  Now, with the white supremacists, a piece of shit homophobe for Vice President and thugs knocking over Jewish gravestones, you have to wonder what the hell happened.  Who let these guys lose?  We’re not alone.  Hungary and Poland are arguably worse.  Germany has the AfD, Holland has Geert Wilders, France has Marine LePen.

    I really enjoyed coming across a sign referring to Peter Bossman which described him as “Our Obama.” Maybe it’s naïveté on my part.  I suspect Bossman is an exceptional qualified man, and one little birdie does not a springtime make.  In all likelihood, it's probably premature European crowing over what they see as racial integration.  I can imagine plenty of people will look at this phenomenon cynically.  Just a bunch of white liberals trying too hard to prove they are not racists. Like when my freshman class at college had one single black member so we elected him president. Embarrassing, actually.

    On the other hand, I'm kind of proud that our racial trailblazer, Obama, has become an icon for black politicians making inroads into previously all white territory elsewhere.  There's no cause to be cynical about that.  That's real.  The Trump people would have you think that "progressives," like "liberals" are "bad hombres."

    Not so.  In the real world progress is still a good thing.

    And watching people break the color barrier in Europe is, to my way of thinking, more than a little bit of light during these dark times.

    In that last picture John Godson in Poland is telephoning his friend Janusz Piechocinski. "Piechocinski?" he asks. "When did you plant your bananas?"

    OK.  So Rome wasn't built in a day.

    Photo credits:

    1. German flag with Turkish symbol superimposed: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turks_in_Germany
    4. Diaby
    5. Lukusa
    7. Ehret
    8. Sagbo
    9. Huber
    10. Munyama
    11. Godson
    Main source for politicians featured.


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  8. from left: Bruce Cohen, producer of Milk; Roma Guy;
    Ken Jones, Cleve Jones, Dustin Lance Black
    What a blessed two hours.  The first two hours of the ABC Series When We Rise, I mean.  Cleve Jones’s book by the same name elaborated into an eight-hour TV series on the history of the gay liberation movement, at least the San Francisco contribution to it.

    I am commandeering the word “blessed” from the evangelicals because it felt to me like a gift from the gods, despite the abominable commercials every six minutes or so.  To sit here and watch history unfold.  My history.  I wasn’t on the front lines, didn’t know Cleve Jones or Anne Kronenberg or Del Martin or Harvey Milk personally, although I’ve seen them at plenty of public events.  (And sat behind Anne K. on the streetcar as extras in the movie Milk, I just can't help boasting.)  But I’ll never forget the thrill of Harvey’s election or the agony of his assassination.  I was in Santa Cruz when the verdict came down that Dan White had gotten off after killing Harvey and went insane with rage.  I know if I had been in the city at the time I would have been in the crowd smashing windows at City Hall.

    I came to San Francisco to live in 1965 and I know what it was to live in the closet, sneaking into gay bars hoping nobody would see me from my daytime life, sharing stories with friends who had been clubbed by policemen simply because they had not managed to get away when the bars were raided.  The whole trajectory from those days when my being gay made me suicidal to the day three years ago when a bunch of predominantly straight friends put on a wedding dinner for me and Taku, my life-partner, that’s all mine, and that of of my gay and lesbian friends. Watching it unfold on television last night was a blessed, blessed event.

    Three more evenings to look forward to.

    What a service Dustin Lance Black has done for the LGBT world.  First, the film Milk, for which he won an academy award in 2008, and now this.  And in-between that amazing play called 8, a staged reenactment of the Proposition 8 trial, when the court overturned that hateful anti-gay referendum on constitutional grounds.

    The man's got his head on right.  He has been unafraid of showing racism in the world of gay white men.  And he knows the importance of setting the LGBT struggle in the context of rights for women and black Americans.  The awareness my partner Taku had when he told me he became a women's studies major in college because there was no gay studies program.  "It's OK," he said.  "It's the same struggle." That was a moment when I realized I had found somebody I could take seriously and would one day marry.

    I would say this TV series and the accomplishments it celebrates are a dream come true, except that this exceeds the stuff of dreams.  I never imagined, during all those lonely fearful years, that we would one day be understood, and promoted, and welcomed, and loved, by what we call the mainstream of America.  Not the holdouts, of course.  They’re still there, firmly convinced they know the mind of their homophobic God.  But by and large, at least in the section of the country where I live, I have no fear of physical harm by gay-bashers.  Not that they’re not out there – just look at the recent threats against Jews the past couple of days to see the thugs are still out there – but because the world has come around and let go of a hatred of “the other” that once was a socially acceptable public value, one that could be displayed and carried into action without fear of censure.

    Women's Center, San Francisco
    The “mainstreaming” of gay history means that I get to see all these familiar character actors I know so well from other places. What a treat to see Rachel Griffiths, for example, playing the role of Diane, the wife, eventually, of Roma Guy.  I’ve been a fan of hers since the days of Six Feet Under, where she won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild and Emmy awards for her performance as Brenda Chenowith.  And Brothers and Sisters, that high-quality soap starring Sally Fields, I also got hooked onto.  Then there’s Mary-Louise Parker to look forward to in future episodes, playing Roma Guy, who went on to found the Women's Center in San Francisco.  You can see Roma in action today at the center's website here.

    There’s Whoopie Goldberg playing Pat Norman, the first openly gay employee of the San Francisco Health Department.  There’s Rosie O’Donnell playing Del Martin, founder of the country’s first lesbian organization. There’s David Hyde Pierce, from the sitcom Frasier, the neurotic Dr. Niles Crane, Frasier’s younger brother.  He plays Cleve Jones’s father, who leaves his son out in the cold after Cleve comes out to him.  I love it that Pierce, whose Niles Crane character was such a clear gay stereotype on Frasier, is himself gay, and participated in the world of illusion that his eccentric marriage problems with wife Meredith were straight people problems.  And that in this series he plays the straight bad guy who represents the countless thousands of fathers who throw their children into the street rather than accept their gay identity.

    Have thrown.  That’s the point.  They’re throwing them out less and less these days, one hopes.

    AIDS quilt at Washington Monument
    I love it that Cleve Jones is getting his due reward.  I felt the impact of his contribution to the world of gay liberation when I went to the March on Washington with gay friends back in October of 1979.  Officially known as the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, there were several life-affirming events I will hold close in my memory forever.  One was the candlelight event at the Lincoln Memorial, where I sat in silence with thousands of gay and lesbian strangers with a feeling of family connection I never knew was possible.  I went back again eight years later for the Second March.  In the interim, support for gay rights had grown to the point this one could be referred to as “The Great March.”  Earlier that year I had caught wind of a project Cleve Jones had started called The Names Project, a memorial quilt made up of hand-sewn memorials to loved ones.  I remember sticking my head in the Market St. office to see dozens of hands pulling needles and thread through cloth panels, channeling grief into what has become a great community effort to make beauty of tragedy.  At the AIDS march on Washington I remember hours spent listening the the names of AIDS victims being read off one by one by their family members and other loved ones, surrounded by the the ever-growing quilt which today is comprised of 48,000 3 by 6 memorial panels, too big now to be displayed in its entirety anymore.

    I remember sitting there hypnotized by the endless list of names, recalling the fact that Ronald Reagan had taken four years to even mention the disease, and recognizing that most of the people affected by the devastating loss were straight people.  That feeling came back at the gala event at the Kennedy Center.  Most people hurting in this room are straight people!  This is not about cutting off an infected limb, as I once heard a southern preacher refer to the need for public rejection of LGBT Americans.

    Cleve Jones I knew.  But I didn’t know Roma Guy, whom Dustin Lance Black has also brought front and center in this series.

    Time to get out the history and brush up.

    Time to feel proud.

    And grateful.

    Will want to see this program again.

    Without the commercials next time.

    Photo credits: five in front of SF City Hall from the Bay Area Reporter
    AIDS quilt at Washington Monument

    Women's Center Building, San Francisco

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  9. Aaron Swartz
    Am I the last kid on the block to know who Aaron Swartz was?

    Aaron Swartz’s story was outside my radar entirely.  I know such names as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, of course, and could even name Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange, but the second and third tiers of computer nerds are largely unfamiliar to me.  I can’t recall now why I ordered Brian Knappenberger’s documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, from Netflix, but I’m very glad I did.

    Five stars.  No hesitation.  This is a seriously outdated review – the film came out in 2014 and has has broad distribution and has met with considerable acclaim. But the film has not lost an ounce of its considerable punch in the past three years.  If anything, the story has even more relevance today, as our freedoms seem to be slipping away before our eyes.   It has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 97% and even the negative reviews, if you take a closer look, are essentially positive. It tells the story of a young man who just wanted to make a better world and got eaten alive by the government’s obsessiveness with secrecy, which began as an overreaction to 9/11.

    Aaron was upset that private corporations had managed to assume ownershop of things in the public domain.  It’s analogous to the situation with the airwaves.  Originally they were considered public domain.  Today we have to pay billions to organizations who have taken control of them and politicized them entirely. Aaron directed his attention to those agencies, like Elsevier, who have managed to take control of academic research.  Science should be free, he insisted.  Science, after all, is knowledge, and the control of knowledge by money-making organizations is wrong.
    But try to get that message across in capitalist America.  Aaron Swartz did.  And it got him killed.  He was under indictment for having stolen ordinary information – not trade secrets, not secret formulas, which corporations were treating as proprietary information, and made it public.  Not because he wanted to make a profit from it.  He simply wanted to make the statement that this information belonged to the world and not a private corporation.  He was facing thirty-five years in prison.  There’s little doubt he would not have survived that.  He was not a saint; in fact, he could be quite self-centered.  But he was, from all reports, an idealistic soul.  An innocent.  Cynics and bullies make their way to the top.  Some even become president.  But the tender souls who show up now and again on this planet can easily get crushed and thrown to the wolves. This is the story of one of them.
    If you see parallels with Wikileaks, with Chelsea Manning, and with Edward Snowden and the work of Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras to back him up, that’s because the parallels are there.  Except that the good that has come from Wikileaks, the exposure of government malfeasance, is offset to some degree by the risk to national security.  At least an argument can be made that that’s the case.  With Aaron Swartz, the only harm done is the potential diminishment of corporate profits. 
    You might also want to argue that what Aaron did was the equivalent of pirating the work of composers and musicians by making their work available to people without asking them to pay for it.  Or publishing copyrighted material.  Or forwarding news articles without paying the source.
    Also arguments worth considering.  But Aaron didn’t abuse the rights of creative people to make a living.  He challenged the right of a corporation who wanted to appropriate information and then sit on it until you paid up.  The film makes clear that from this nerd’s perspective, this was intended as a prank.  To be sure, it had a political message, similar to the one made by folks protesting that the coastline should not be in the hands of private owners.  The film’s internet notables make the case for an open internet.  I simply can’t see any convincing argument for limiting the internet.
    What is missing from the film is the prosecuters side of the story.  But they were invited to present their side and chose not to.  What can one say?
    The specific charge was that he illegally downloaded five million scholarly texts from the JSTOR database.  He did that.  He was guilty of that.  In the end, JSTOR decided not to prosecute.  But the government went ahead anyway, in order to make an example of him and deter others from trying to inject themselves into the world of profit-making.  None of the material was sensitive, it is worth repeating.  And he earned not a penny for his efforts.
    Anyone following the fate of Edward Snowden and the trial of Chelsea Manning, anyone interested in the increasingly harsh treatment of whistleblowers in this country, should see this film by all means.  I’d take that even further and say anyone interested in getting us out of the dark hole we have fallen into should, as well.  It’s a big story, and includes surprising details, such as how MIT’s refusal to step in on Aaron’s behalf illustrates the maxim that all it takes for evil to happen is for good men and women to do nothing.  And a whole host of characters whose unabashed grief tells it all about the impact Aaron had on people and colleagues.  These include Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World-Wide Web, and Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford professor known for his brilliance, for once clerking for Antonin Scalia, and for being an outspoken defender of net neutrality. Watching Lessig cry over the loss of this young life brings home the importance of making sure we get justice back into our justice system.

    1 hour and 45 minutes.


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  10. When Trump won the 2016 election, many of us sat up and asked, “Did anyone get the number of that truck?”  Words came to mind like flummoxed and flabbergasted (to say nothing of shocked and devastated.)  A great moment in history for reminding us of the folly of getting too sure of ourselves.

    Great.  We learned our lesson.  Now can we go back to sanity?

    Unfortunately not.  We have to live with the consequences of a Trump presidency for what could be years.  And one of those consequences is the endless Monday morning quarterbacking over how it happened.  Chief among these is the claim that we deliberately ignored the signs.  The country had undergone a terrible financial crisis in 2008.  The Obama government bailed out the sons of bitches responsible.  The taxpayer watched it all happen and realized the government was working in tandem with the 1% and we were just going to go on getting screwed over and over again.

    So the manipulators of information simplified the message, making government the sole bad guy, and the Republicans were in like Flynn.  They liked to tell you that government was the problem and to get around government we needed to allow the business sector to run things.

    Never mind that this only led to continued control by the 1%.  Americans like their explanations in plain language.  No need for facts.  We leave those to the Pied Piper to make up as he goes along. We are into self-indulgence, into entertainment, and we don’t like things that don’t make us happy.  So we manufacture facts to suit us.  Evil in the world?  No problem.  God will answer your prayers.    Afraid of dark-skinned people?  No problem.  We’ll just throw more of them in jail.  Or keep them out, if they’re coming from foreign countries.

    Simple-mindedness is the way to go.  Allows time to watch Netflix.

    I remember Robert Reich warning, long before we thought Hillary could possibly lose to Trump, that we had made a mistake not taking care of the folks in America who were out of a job because of globalization.  We needed a better safety net, better social protections for people thrown out on unemployment, better retraining for new jobs.  Better social welfare generally.

    But we are Americans.  Strong individuals who can take care of ourselves.  Don’t need no damn government handouts.  So we didn’t do anything about the globalization safety net.  We just let the marketplace do its thing.  Got screwed, did you?  Tough.  Sorry.  Shit happens. Unions?  A minimum wage?  Universal education?  What are you, a socialist?

    Enter the Pied Piper with an easy explanation and easy solutions.  He’s going to build a wall to keep Mexicans out so they can’t come in and take your jobs.  And you, my fellow Americans – not all of you, obviously, but a critical mass of you, believed that shit.  And were too stupid to realize that Mexicans can fly in as tourists and then just not go back, the way most illegals have always come in.  And the ones crawling through the desert are probably not taking your automobile manufacturing jobs, anyway.  And if you look at the actual statistics, you’d see that Mexicans are going home to Mexico more than they are coming in these days.  And unemployment is at a new low.  And the stock market at a new high.  Just more facts.  We're not into fact; we're into fears.  Don't care that it's robots, not Mexicans.  Can't stop the robots, so let's do what we can and stop the Mexicans.

    Reminds me of the battle in 1978 over the Briggs Initiative. Orange County California State Senator John Briggs wanted to prevent gay men from becoming teachers because, Briggs insisted, gay men were child molesters.  Even after Harvey Milk demonstrated that most child molesters were heterosexual, Briggs persisted.  There are too many heterosexuals to go after, he said, so let's go after the gays.

    If you don’t read, you don’t know that it’s not foreign labor threatening your jobs; it’s technology.  Robots, not Mexicans.  I think most people know that now.  But Trump's wall idea still resonates with his supporters.  And with all the Republican legislators who obviously know better.

    I became a Bernie Sanders supporter early on because he was the one focusing on economic inequality as the real source of American discontent.  I thought he was right about that, and I thought that Hillary was too much part of the rich democratic establishment – Wall Street, for short – to be in a position to fix things.  When Debbie Wasserman Schulz and the New York Times and others put all their support behind Hillary, I went along.  What’s not to love about the idea of having a female president? Sure is time, don’t you think?

    We got our priorities all wrong.  We didn’t address the national discontent, and the result is Trump.  We didn’t build the wall high enough to protect against a tsunami, and now we’re going to spend years bewailing the water in the carpets and drapes, the broken furniture, the stains and the smell.  A long, very painful, very tiring clean-up.  No way around it.

    Because I feel a responsibility to stay in touch with the world outside my door, I watch the news on a daily basis.  That means a steady barrage of bad news – the roll-back of civil rights, the risk of nuclear war, the Great Lie that is Trump who, instead of cleaning the swamp, is reinfesting it with alligators.  And that means I need to supply myself with a steady diet of Mozart, dog and cat videos, good food and wine, a good long soak in the bathtub as often as possible.  And lots of good writing about all the other things going on in the world.  (I’d like to add diet and exercise, but so far that’s been a total bust.)

    *                      *                      *
    I try to keep abreast of what's going on in the German political scene.  Partly because, while America has clearly gone off the rails, Germany seems to be, so far, at least, humming along quite nicely, thank you.  One of the benefits of the information age is that I can watch all the political talk shows from German television, as well as news from Germany.  I’m still living out my “history of things that never happened,” the decision I almost took, but didn’t, to emigrate to Germany back in the 60s, before I got distracted by Japan.  For about four decades, I pretty much neglected Germany for Japan.  Now in retirement, I’m balancing the scales.  Japan is fading.  Germany is becoming more central to my life.

    It’s not replacing my American identity, but it’s enlightening it.  I am currently struck first with how very similar Germany’s social and political problems are to our own. That’s true for most of Europe as well, of course – I just happen to be focusing on Germany.  And second, I’m struck with how often Germany seems to be getting right what we are getting wrong.  Why, I wonder.  Is it that they have figured out how to do things better?  Or is it that we have lost what we once had?  Complex questions, obviously, and simple generalizations are worthless.  But those questions at least guide the topics I take on these days.

    I’m struck with the impact Trump has had on German political life.  It’s front and center, and Germans are all over the issues, asking themselves things like how close they are to a similar breakdown of democracy.  There’s Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Viktor Orban in Hungary.  And the AfD in Germany.  Is Germany at risk of falling to their own Trump-like Pied Piper?

    I'm developing some enthusiasm for the new SPD (social democrat) candidate who seems to have half a chance against Merkel in the September election for chancellor.  Martin Schulz, his name is. Sort of like electing "Marty Jones" for president.  Despite the "socialist" name, in Germany, they are actually a centrist party.

    Then there's the new president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.  Also a socialist.  Not sure whether his election today will get in the way of Schulz's candidacy for chancellor in September.  Hope not. 

    The socialists have been in coalition with the conservatives, Merkel's party - which is actually two parties in one, the Christian Democrats in the country at large and its sister party the Christian Socialists in Bavaria.  They are referred together as "The Union" and are center-right.

    Mirroring them on the center-left are the Greens, and the SPD.

    Then there is a party called simply "The Left," which kind of fills the slot where the former East German Communist Party used to be (and don't say that too loudly or you'll piss a lot of people off).  

    Then there are several right-of-center to far-right parties, all of which are making people nervous these days, especially the "Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party," The AfD’s main shtick is opposition to immigration, but they throw in a little homophobia and other conservative issues as well.

    What's amazing to watch, and what makes me admire the German system so much and prefer it to our two-party system, is that while they yell and scream at each other sometimes, they all seem to get together when it counts.  Coalitions form, come apart, others form.  All adjusting to the times.  

    Anna Will had Martin Schulz on her program for the whole hour a couple weeks ago.  During the interview, she confronted him with one of his constituents who had once voted SPD but now felt politicians had all let her down.  It was a set-up no politician would ever want to be subjected to.  He pulled it off with great grace, however.  Not sure whether he persuaded the voter, but he gave it all he had.  Persuaded me.

    As miserable as it must have been for him, it's the very image of what one wants to see happen in a democracy.  The Democrats in the U.S. are being held responsible for Trump.  The socialists in Germany, who joined in a coalition with the conservatives, have also lost most of their support for that reason and are now trying desperately to get it back.  Let us run the show, instead of being a minority party tied to the Unions, Schulz argues, and you will see.  Why should I believe you lying politicians, asks his constituent.  Maybe if the democrats would go back to being democrats, start looking out for the little guy again instead of being just another money-chasing party.  Maybe if the socialists would be the socialists they were of yesteryear, the party of Willi Brandt, etc. etc.  Amazing the parallels here.

    If you want to read up on German politics, there are much better sources than me.  But I have brought in this much detail to provide some context for what German politicians are saying about America these days and at how well they are getting to the real issues we seem to skim over.  And that includes commentary on what has been going on in the U.S.  Leading politicians are saying (to me) amazing things.  Let me give you some examples.

    Here are bits (translation mine) from Martin Schulz’s very passionate acceptance speech before the SPD when he accepts the challenge to run for Chancellor in September:

    (about the nationalist tendency of right-wing parties):

    the party of Marie Le Pen, which the AfD identifies so closely with, translates to “National Front.”  We here in Germany have had a party with an aggressive nationalism before.  We experienced it in the first half of the 20th Century. [This party] is no “alternative” for Germany.  It is, rather, a shame on the Federal Republic.

    (about Trump and his politics):

    We will never surrender our values, our freedom and our democracy, our rule of law and our pluralism, no matter what challenges we face.  I say that in full knowledge of the fact that a U.S. President wants to build walls, thinks out loud about torture, directs dangerous attacks on women, religious groups, minorities, people with handicaps, artists and intellectuals without shame.  That is unacceptable.  I am sure that European politicians will now, when they travel to Washington, explain to the U.S. government that international human rights and the rights of nations apply to Donald Trump as well.  I’m sure of that.

    And here are bits from Steinmeier’s acceptance speech after being elected Germany’s twelfth president since the end of World War II.

    A brief aside... Worth mentioning is the fact that in the European political systems, nation and government are represented by two different figures, whether that’s the Queen and the Prime Minister in the U.K., or the president and the chancellor in Germany, respectively – and it’s similar in virtually all countries with a parliamentary system.  That enables them to put all their efforts into assuring the national leader will be person of universal respect, while the political leader is expected to get his or her hands dirty.  Schulz, once a small town mayor, later head of the European Parliament, was once an alcoholic.  He never got his Abitur.  He's not a "top drawer" type but he's drawing admiration from the voters for that very reason, a self-made man of the provinces with a bunch of kids.  At the same time, Steinmeier, also a socialist, has become the national symbol.  He will now represent the nation, and the praise (most of it sincere, as far as I can determine) is coming in from all directions.  You see the current Chancellor coming in with a bouquet of flowers, even though her chief rivals in September will be those very socialists who were (and still are, at the moment) her coalition partners. It appears Germany has worked out how government should be run. Contrast that with the American way of putting those two jobs, government leader and national leader, in the same person.  Look what that has led to.  People wanted a dirty fighter who could smash the establishment as a political leader. What we got is a symbol of the nation who humiliates it on a daily basis, with his lies, with his demonstration that he was working for the 1% all along, with his out-of-control ego and his instinct for nepotism.  The shame never seems to end.

    I’m not kidding when I say I prefer the parliamentary system. We might have kept our dignity as a nation by electing an Obama or a Jimmy Carter to represent that nation. And allowed a Trump to have a go at running the government.  Until he revealed his true intentions.  Then we could have had a vote of no confidence and bounced him out. Instead we are stuck with a tyrant for at least four years.

    Anyway, the bits:

    Steinmeier began with the story of an encounter with a woman in Tunisia who said to him, once, “You give me courage.”  The woman was not referring to him personally, he said, but to Germany as a whole.  And not because Germany was a perfect place, but because it was a place that has shown that one can rise from misery and become a source of hope to the world.

    ·      …and when this foundation becomes shaky elsewhere, all the more must we stand by this foundation
    ·      we must distinguish fact from lies
    ·      nowhere in the world is there more opportunity than here…
    ·      and who is going to do it, if not us…

    Remember when Americans talked like that?

    I hope it's clear that I'm not trying to paint a black-and-white picture here of a lousy America and a spiffy Germany. It's not that America is bad and Germany is good.  It's not even that the German political scene is better than the American political scene - that's true, I believe, for the moment, but things change.  The only certainty is that things change.

    What I am saying is that "America First" is an absolutely deplorable slogan to go by, and maybe the best evidence that American democracy has gone off track.  Democracy is not a competition.  It is - or should be - a universal cooperative effort.  Of course, we should work to make things better where we live.  But we don't live on an island, and we don't have to assume a zero-sum game.  We can watch other winners, and applaud them when they do well. And try to learn from their example.

    Germany is, I think, a good example.  I can think of lots of others - Canada, Australia, Holland and the Scandinavian countries come first to mind, but there are others, as well. Japan's bopping along. Look at how far Taiwan has come.  New Zealand, of course.  South Africa shed apartheid. Most people think Costa Rica's pretty nifty.  Lots of places have people who can be proud of their countries, imperfections notwithstanding.

    I am just partial to Germany, when it comes to good examples.

    And not just because among all the many candidates for chancellor at Steinmeier's inauguration is Olivia Jones, né Oliver Knobel.

    That's her, in the picture at the top, with her arm around Chancellor Angela Merkel.  To Angela Merkel's left is the head of the Green Party, one of them, Katrin Göring-Eckhard.  And just to round out the picture, that's Joachim Löw, the chief coach of Germany's World Cup winning soccer team, on the left.

    And here she is again, sitting among the delegates to the presidential election convention, of which she was a member.

    And one final time, congratulating President Frank-Walter Steinmeier personally:

    photo credit: Olivia Jones photos (all three)

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