1. Get off that damn Bible, kid.  It’ll kill you.

    If you’re a Babylonian, at any rate.  Or, I should imagine, anybody else who has pissed God off.  He’s got quite a temper.

    Came across this image on Facebook this morning and I thought to myself, aw, isn’t that cute?   Maybe I ought to have a closer look.

    Fascinating, the Bible is.  Started out as a history of the Hebrews, a tale told by Hebrew people writing with a heavy Hebrew slant, creating a God who loves them above all others.

    Check out Isaiah 12, for example.  Beautiful inspiring words.  If you’re a Jew or a Christian who has assumed the Jewish tradition and are inclined to see America as some kind of “Zion on a hill,” Old Testament style, especially.

    “…O Lord, I will praise thee: though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away and thou comfortedst me…”

    Lovely, don’t you think?

    But read on.  In the very next chapter, in which the writer turns to “the burden of Babylon,” we read:

    “And they shall be afraid: pangs and sorrows shall take hold of them; they shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth…  Behold the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate…”

    Now here’s the part that jumps off the page at me:

    “…I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity…Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes... Their bows also shall dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eye shall not spare children.”

    Now if you’re going to create an imaginary friend who lives in the sky and loves you, do you have to make him out to be somebody who blames babies for what their parents do?  Even supposing that pissing off the Hebrews deserves a death sentence, I mean?

    This child brain bashing is spoken of not only in Isaiah.  They actually sing about it!

    Psalms 137, Verse 9 reads, in the King James Version:

    “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

    The NET Bible puts this into modern language:

    “How blessed will be the one who grabs your babies and smashes them on a rock.”

    Wow.  Some serious stuff going on here.

    Better not mess with Jehovah, looks like.

    Glad I read my Bible.  I might have missed that.

    Thanks Facebook.




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  2. Doris Kyburz
    I am writing this for those of you who knew our friend Doris Kyburz.  Doris died Thursday night and we are dealing with the shock of the loss.

    With all the rains hitting the Bay Area, Doris had slipped and fallen on her deck and thought she had sprained her ankle.  She called the doctor but couldn’t get an appointment till the next day.  When she went in at 3 p.m. the next day, she got the ankle x-rayed and was sent home to wait yet another day for the results.  At some point, though, it turned out there was a break and a blood clot developed, which traveled to her heart.  She died in the ambulance on the way to Richmond hospital.

    My office at Keio University was four doors down from the German Department, and Doris and I met back in the early 90s because nobody who ever saw Doris in those days missed an opportunity to get to know her.  In a world where learning German involved becoming dutiful and focused on which prepositions took the Dative and which the Accusative, Doris had her classes singing and dancing and acting out Grimm’s fairy tales.  I spotted her as a natural born teacher and we became friends immediately.

    One of my favorite moments of all time was when she entered the faculty dining room, her hair dyed flaming red, covered head to toe in black leather.  The only way she could have garnered more attention would have been to ride her Harley Davidson onto the balcony.  I suggested it and she said she’d give it some serious consideration for her next entrance.

    Taku and I had just met and while many of my friends were riding me about robbing the cradle, Doris decided we made a cute couple and became our most frequent dinner guest.  At some point the strict environment of the language department made her seek greener pastures and she decided she’d become a masseuse.  Taku and I had the benefit of being her first guinea pigs.  Next thing we knew she was taking photos of us in our underwear.  God knows what the neighbors would have thought who might have gotten wind of this.  Doris was single-mindedly concerned with demonstrating over time that she was not merely concerned with tight muscles.  She wanted to help us stand taller and straighter and live more healthy lives.

    Because whatever Doris did she did earnestly, this new passion took her first to Massachusetts, then to Hawaii to learn from the best how to pummel strangers on a massage table.  By the end of the 90s Taku had moved to California and Doris joined us at some point and decided California was the place for her.  The passion for “whole body health” went the way of “German through laughter” and she found her way into the age of the internet.  Specifically designing software for toys for the German market.  She joined our chosen family by making a connection with Dov and Cathy Rosenfeld that has lasted to this day when she was still a regular at seders and Thanksgiving and other occasions.  Dov and Cathy like to tell the story about how when the daughter they were going to adopt was being born and they needed to run to the hospital to be there for her birth, it was Doris they called in the middle of the night to be with their other daughter.  “We need you, now,” Dov said.  “How soon?” Doris asked.  “Three centimeters,” they answered.  Doris was there in ten minutes.

    Doris wasn’t much of a housekeeper.  Her kitchen was filled with screeching birds and her living room the playground for Moya, a huge German Shepherd and for Calhoun, the dog known as the crazy dog.  I can’t tell you how my heart aches as I imagine these wonderful creatures (not the birds – I never cared for the birds) sitting and waiting for her to return.  This image says all there is to say about the cruelty of death and the horror of loss.

    At the moment we are working with Doris’s family in Switzerland as they face both the loss and the need to pick up the pieces that an unprepared-for death involves.

    It’s too soon to be writing this.  The shock has not worn off.

    But I write because I just don’t know what else to do.





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  3. Ernst, if you could have seen the future!
    Sometime in the 1860s, most likely, somewhere in Lower Saxony, in Northern Germany, a young man named Ernst met a young girl named Sophie and they started a family.  Not far away, a young man named Heinrich met a young girl named Johanne and did the same. Ernst and Sophie Gundelach’s son Paul married Heinrich and Johanne Rühmann’s daughter, also named Johanne. A few years after their son, also named Paul, was born and after they had adopted their niece, Clara, they boarded the good ship Bayern and made their way from Hamburg to New York City.  Warren Harding had just died and Coolidge was president, Oklahoma had just passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, that famous Hollywood sign on the hills outside L.A. had just been inaugurated, Walt and Roy Disney had founded the Walt Disney company ten days earlier, and Charlton Heston was born two days before that.  Paul and Johanne Gundelach of Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, would soon come to be known far and wide as Mutti and Vati, proprieters of the Germania Singing Society of Torrington, Connecticut.  

    It was Johanne’s sister Bertha who gave birth to my mother in 1915, right in the middle of World War I.  Bertha’s husband disappeared and because raising a new born as a single mother in war-torn Germany was more than she could handle, she gave my mother to her sister Johanne to raise. Johanne and Paul Gundelach were living on a farm in Braunschweig and had food to eat.  They had a month-old son of their own at the time, also named Paul (the family obviously has a propensity for recycling names), and in time, in America, they would have two more children, Carl and Rose.  And so it was that Paul, Carl and Rose, my mother’s biological cousins, became her siblings.  Once in America, they made it official and she took the name Gundelach.

    Carl married Concettina Mollica and they had two red-haired children, one of whom, back in the 60s, thought Timothy Leary was peachy keen.   That was my cousin Jimmy.  Jimmy’s first marriage ended in divorce, but not before they had a son they named Sean.  Sean married Joanna (no h this time) and had two children, Austin and Lexa.

    Lexa and I had lunch today at the Mt. Everest Nepalese Restaurant on Telegraph Avenue.  She did not know that by law she was my first cousin, twice removed and by blood my second cousin, twice removed, but we enjoyed the Tikka Masala anyway.

    Her great great great grandfather, Ernst Gundelach, who gave both her and my mother his family name, would no doubt have commented, had he lived long enough to meet her, on how pretty she was.  I would have had to remind him that she is a student at the University of California at Berkeley, and that suggests she is more than just a pretty face.



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  4. Keshav (Erik Scilley) and Naveen (Aditya Thakur)
    in A Nice Indian Boy
    I had a delightful encounter with globalization the other night at the Cubberley Auditorium in Palo Alto (California).  Friends had invited me to join them for an amateur theatrical production of a play called A Nice Indian Boy.  I went mostly to share an evening with my friends, but came away really taken with the performance, both for its quality and for its historical significance in the history of gay liberation.

    I’ll name the friends.  They were Arvind Kumar and Ashok Jethanandani.  I met Arvind thirty some years ago now at the Gay and Lesbian Center at Stanford and his partner Ashok soon after at the very next Gay Pride Parade.  What stands out in my memory from that time was the uphill climb these two gay activists faced in raising consciousness among Indians and other South Asians about some very serious homophobia in their communities.  Arvind and a friend, Suvir Das, co-founded a gay South Asian non-profit LGBT support organization which they named Trikone (after the pink triangle, the Nazi marker of gays in the concentration camps; trikon = triangle in a number of South Asian languages) and he and Ashok ran the organization for years before they retired. Trikone is still going strong.

    It’s still an uphill climb.  As in Uganda and other former British colonies, institutionalized homophobia in India may be traced in large part to the religious values of Victorian England. Prior to colonialization, Hindu culture had never criminalized homosexuality, but Britain’s anti-sodomy law of 1860 went into effect only two years after India’s incorporation into the Empire. Ironically, historically clueless modern-day Indian politicians have been known to describe homosexual behavior as a form of corruption.  Even India's Health Minister has described it as a "Western disease."  Despite the presence of around 2.5 million gay people in India (this figure reflects not the total, but only the number of self-declared gays), the vast majority of Indians still regard it as undesirable. 

    Homophobia, we have learned the hard way, cannot be fought on the political level alone, important as recent court cases and legislative actions have been to the cause of gay civil rights.  It has to be fought on the cultural level as well.  It’s a question of hearts and minds, and of reaching members of the national community one by one and making them understand just what homophobia looks like up close.

    Although it has a broad appeal, A Nice Indian Boy is an all-Indian production set in and addressed to the Indian community which does this brilliantly.  The local-born writer, Madhuri Shekar, still only in her twenties, has already written three plays.  This one, her first effort, was written for her MFA dissertation at USC, and the program states it has received a number of awards.  It is also a first attempt at directing a comic drama (and second directorial effort) for Ranjita Chakravarty.  Bringing it to the stage is the work of the Bay Area South Asian Theatre Company EnActe, its founder, Vinita Belani,  and a number of members of the Indian community on the production staff.

    The play centers on the domestic difficulties faced by a Silicon Valley Indian immigrant couple with a gay son who wants them to accept his lover, the “Nice Indian Boy” who turns out to be Caucasian, just at the time their “well-married” daughter informs them she is getting a divorce.  What makes the play work, and keeps it from falling into slapstick or soap-opera territory, is the remarkable skill of writer Madhuri Shekar in getting each of the five characters just right.  She hits all the buttons, love marriages vs. arranged marriages, sex and gender stereotypes, racial prejudice within the Indian community.  The case for a more positive approach to homosexuality works because the struggle is depicted as just another one of many challenges the family needs to overcome, and because in the end the love parents and their children feel for each other can be channeled into mutual support and the strengthening of family bonds.  

    Not all polemical efforts such as this succeed on stage or in other media.  It’s easy to get preachy.  But this one has a loving touch and the comedy is used not as a spin-off but as a skillful means for releasing tension.  The parts all come together, the lights, the sets, the costumes – even the Bollywood song and dance at the end – just in case you’d forgotten this was all about things Indian.

    I began this by telling you I found the play a "delightful experience."  I might also have framed it as a case of future shock, given the changes it suggests in the Bay Area Indian community I first met thirty years ago, which changes I take to be a result of that community's interaction with the gay-friendly Bay Area.  But those are empirical issues best left to social scientists.   The bottom line, I think, ought to be to point out that one can do politically responsible theater while still giving the audience a great night out.




    photo credit:  Photo is by Prabhakar Subrahmanyam and appeared in The Almanac in an article written by Karla Kane of the Palo Alto Weekly.  http://www.almanacnews.com/news/2016/01/21/beyond-culture-in-a-silo
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  5. Southern Baptist Sissies. To any gay kid, male or female, who grew up in Protestant America anytime before the last ten or fifteen years in most of the country, or even much more recently in the Bible Belt, this movie is a stunner.  I'm referring to the 2013 filmed version of the 2000 stage play, but I imagine it applies to earlier versions as well.

    There’s good religion, not so good religion, really toxic religion, and then there’s the Southern Baptist fundamentalist type of religion.  Pure poison, if you’re gay.

    To people whose lives are fused with religion, who think about it, talk about it all day every day, who go around praising Jesus and thanking him for every meal and every business success, religion is not simply a guiding light.  It can become a pathology.

    What playwright and filmmaker Del Shores has done in Southern Baptist Sissies is remarkable.  He has captured the power of the church to inculcate self-loathing.  To take young psyches and twist them and turn them with the kind of mind-control it takes to make a suicide bomber.  The Taliban turn the kids outward toward political enemies.  The Southern Baptists turn them inward on themselves.  Suicide among gay teens remains epidemic and the killing agent, the impulse to hang yourself, jump from a bridge or in front of a train, is toxic religion.

    The Southern Baptists are not the only ones to teach self-hatred.  Clericalist Catholics do a fine job of it.  So do the Mormons,  the Muslims and the arch-conservative branches of other religious faiths.  The damage is limited, fortunately, because most kids exposed to this kind of indoctrination grow up in pluralistic societies.  They see alternatives, and with luck, find mentors and friends who help them discover a way to get outside the mindset of their church-centered lives and see them from a more objective perspective.  When they do, they sometimes spend their lives raging at the injustice they come to realize was visited upon them.  As one psychotherapist told me once, when I proudly announced that I had shed the religion of my youth, “You’ve smashed the statue, but you’re still struggling with the mold it came in.”

    That’s still true to this day.  That fact came home to me when, watching Southern Baptist Sissies on Netflix the other night, a line popped off the screen at me.  “This is my church,” the actor said.  “This is where we were taught to hate ourselves.”

    It felt like I'd been kicked in the gut. From that point on, I was willing to dismiss what others have labeled the film's limitations: its excessive emotionality, its staginess, its length.  I saw in the four young boys trying to play the cards dealt to them as gay kids in a soul-killing environment a story that needed to be told.  Finally, I said, somebody has managed to let these motherfuckers have it.  The Southern Baptists have produced in their young people the antidote to their poison.  The kids have woken up.  They’re telling their stories.  And if you have even the slightest sympathy for what they have gone through, you’ll agree with me they’ve done a bang-up job of it.  I say "they."  I should give more credit to the writer/creator, Del Shores, but I don't want to slight the splendid performances.

    I’m over a decade behind in singing the praises of this piece.  If you’re closer to the gay theater circuit you may have seen Southern Baptist Sissies as a play as early as 2000 when it was first produced on stage.  And if you follow the gay film festivals, you might have seen the film version a couple years ago already.  It has been out since November, 2013.  For this stick-at-home, Southern Baptist Sissies crossed my radar only just now with its release on Netflix, for which I am grateful.

    What you are watching is a filmed version of a stage performance, reworked somewhat to allow close-ups and other shots not possible with a stage version.  It’s a bit jarring, at first, but you quickly get into the characters and forget the staging.  Two different things happen simultaneously.  You get the four distinct stories of the young boys, with all the pain and grief of their struggles to maintain balance against the onslaught of self-hate messages.  This is offset by a kind of Greek chorus pair of drunks played by Leslie Jordan, whom you may remember from Will and Grace, and by Dale Dickey.  The two are drinking and smoking away their declining years and ought to be too tired and worn-out to keep going except that they are simply too hilarious to fade away.

    If you get the DVD, don’t miss the extras.  It is hard conveying to my Japanese life-partner what it was like to be raised in a religious mindset.  He just can’t get his mind around what he considers a form of madness.  Even more difficult for him is my insistence that I am still moved by the music.  I was a church organist in my teens and regularly played for hymn-sings in the “Church in the Wildwood” in the summertime. The music in Southern Baptist Sissies is glorious if you have a similar memory of happy hymn-singers in years gone by.  That sticks with you well after religion has left the premises.

    “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” can still rattle the nervous system, no matter the conviction that your brush with death maybe ought to have cured you of such addictions. In fact, before watching the movie, I’d recommend going straight to the Special Features section and clicking on Levi Kreis singing “Pass Me Not” to get you into the right headspace before watching the film.

    One last thing, which I ought perhaps to leave out as a spoiler, but I feel it’s only fair to warn those who, like me, would love to see the story end as the lead characters slough off their religious chains and shout, “I’m free!”  They don’t.  The come to embrace what they see as the love of God.  They simply insist it cannot be found in the current mindset of the Southern Baptist Church.

    Really powerful stuff, even if it’s not entirely your cup of tea.



     photo credit





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  6. The situation has got the police coming...
    Many people are still asking, “What the hell happened?” on New Year’s Eve in Cologne.  A thousand dark-skinned men making German women run the gauntlet to and from the main train station, tossing firecrackers at them, robbing them, molesting them and in a couple cases raping them?   WTF?

    The facts were slow to come out, partly I suppose because the situation was chaotic and out of control, and partly, it would appear, because the powers-that-be were loathe to add more fuel to the fires raging among right wingers in Germany over the fact the gangs can be assumed to be Muslim men from North Africa and the Middle East.  Including some newly arrived asylum seekers.

    Now the facts are finally coming out.  Cologne’s police chief has been sent packing into early retirement, the mayor is on the hot seat for a political gaffe – she suggested women ought to be more careful around men – and we’re considering the possibility that this event was actually coordinated. And it happened not only in Cologne, but in Hamburg, Stuttgart, and several other German cities as well as in other European cities - Helsinki, Zurich, Kalmar in Sweden, and in Austria.  My guess is it was not coordinated.  I’m betting it was just a bunch of revved up men with no place to go, waiting for the chance to blow off some steam, and New Year’s Eve provided the opportunity.
    ...and going

    Cologne got most of the attention because there the rowdy crowd of single men is said to have numbered a thousand.  The head of one of the policemen’s unions can be heard complaining loudly in a television interview that they didn’t have sufficient back-up, because, he says, a couple thousand of their regular troops are down on the southern borders trying to keep the flow of refugees from getting out of hand.  “We’re faced with a whole new scenario,” he says.  “We have the immigrants to worry about, the terrorists, and now this situation of mass criminality.”  Over two million hours in overtime.  He lets the Interior Ministry have it, publicly, and the interviewer thanks him for his “straight talk.”   The police simply were not ready for this degree of social unrest.  And investigations are hampered by the inability to get victims to identify their abusers.  As might be expected, there is a lot of political posturing, as Chancellor Merkel and others speak of tightening up the regulations on deporting offenders.  It appears that’s about all they can do at the moment until the shock wears off and investigators can get at the facts.

    There have been charges that the government, the police and the media have conspired to withhold information about the fact these attacks were largely the criminal acts of migrant men. Of the thirty-one alleged muggers in Cologne under investigation, nine are Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, two are Germans, one is an Iraqi, one a Serb and one a US citizen.  The contention that sensitivity about identifying perpetrators as Muslim immigrants played a role is supported by the fact that one Cologne broadcaster tweeted the question to its viewers: “How should we cover the events in Cologne?” and then failed to actually do so until five days after the event.

    pouring kerosine on the flames of racism and
    xenophobia
    One thing is clear.  Although the best way to get at this story might be to google “Attacks in Cologne” this story goes wide beyond any single city.  No matter how hard you might want to defend Germany’s current policy of taking in refugees, no matter how important it is to keep a cool head and recognize that in a population of a million people there are certainly bound to be at least a thousand men here and there who for one reason or another live outside the borders of civilized society, the fact remains that this last New Year’s Eve, women all over Europe were molested by men who came from the Muslim world.  Repeat the usual caveats until you are blue in the face. This does not – or should not – cast aspersions on Muslims as a whole and certainly not on the desperate lot of people seeking asylum from bombs and persecution.  But let’s not turn away, either, from the fact that we have witnessed an event in which men ran wild and caused fear and confusion among women.  And that it was not local men, but men from another cultural background.

    Given enough time, the million asylum seekers and counting will be processed.  Some will eventually return to their home countries, some will move on to other countries, some will settle and become Germans.  In time, they will give up their tribal and patriarchal traditions, but it will take time.  In the meantime, things like this thuggish testosterone-driven event will be part of the new Germany’s growing pains.  It will be a very bumpy road and there will be all manner of temptation to give up hard-acquired human rights.  Fearful people within Germany will argue the social challenge and the financial cost are too great and their arguments might easily carry the day at times.  There may be many steps backwards before Germany can move ahead again.  There is a real danger the xenophobic German monster has been let out of the bag and we’re going to have to watch refugees being abused for a while.

    And that would be tragic.  And that’s why I’m hoping this event gets viewed through the lens not of the Muslim/Crusader conflict, and not in terms of an opportunity for Angela Merkel’s opponents (of whom I am one) to get the upper hand, but through the lens of gender equality.

    The greatest contribution to humankind over the past many centuries has been the notions expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that white people have no claim to power over people of color, that war is wrong, that religion or any other retrograde ideology should not be allowed to chip away at the accomplishments of the seekers of democracy and equity and that men should not dominate women.

    In time, we can do it.  We can get Muslims to cherry-pick their religion and cast off the Qu’ranic verses currently being used by so many of the Al Qaeda and ISIS ilk.  Get them to limit their religion to its poetic inspiration.  And stand up and oppose the traditional values of North Africa and the Middle East in which men are raised to believe they have a right to have their way with any woman whenever the opportunity arises.

    Every man, every woman should take every opportunity to say it loud and clear, to repeat it till the end of time.  Men cannot make women do things against their will.  We have learned that the white European was wrong to abuse the black African.  That battle isn’t over, but it’s largely won.  The events in Cologne and elsewhere show that the battle for gender equality has only just begun.  Women have achieved parity with men in much of Europe and America, but male supremacists still abound.

    no to racism, no to sexism
    We need to speak out.  Point fingers at the Roman Catholic Church, for example, which insists God wants men to control the billion dollar institution that claims to speak for God on earth, and not women.  Point fingers at the male legislators who insist their religion and not women themselves should dictate what women do with their bodies.  Point fingers at the failure to root out honor killings, forced marriages, and domestic violence, and at all manner of abuse against women in the name of tradition and religion and culture. 

    For some time, progressives and other people of good will have been intimidated by the charge they are cultural imperialists when they insist Europe’s values are superior to Muslim or Arab or Middle Eastern values.  We have to “respect” differences, we are told.   While that may sound like reason and common sense at first, it only takes a moment to deconstruct the labels European and Middle Eastern and spot the bogus reasoning underlying the argument.  There is nothing European about human equality.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights took time to get established.  Originally Saudi Arabia didn’t sign because it objected to the right of a person to change his or her religion.  The Soviet bloc didn’t sign because it objected to the right all people have to travel freely.  South Africa didn’t sign because it would have had to give up apartheid.  But in time all of these countries came around.  And what is being labeled a Middle Eastern value is a Middle Eastern value only if you fail to recognize that it serves the interest only of the men of the Middle East.  The ethic of male domination thrives in the Middle East, but it’s found in Sicily, in Korea, in Afghanistan, in Guatemala, and in Mali as well.  You’re not being an anti-Middle Eastern cultural imperialist when you criticize a value it shares with cultures hostile to women elsewhere in the world.  You’re being pro-equality.  When slavery meets freedom, slavery does not get the right to defend itself on cultural grounds.  And freedom should show the strength of its convictions, and not cave to a fear of being misunderstood.

    The male supremacist tradition common to the Muslim world will give way eventually.  It will have to, because victims of inequality eventually fight back.

    I hope the police find the guys in Cologne and Helsinki, Hamburg and Zurich who ran amok on New Year’s Eve.  Whether you deport them, send them to jail, or find some other way to get their heads straight I leave that to the institutions engaged in the struggle.  I hope we can do more to help schools and social services to reach young boys and girls before it’s too late and get them going on a path of human equality for all people, even if fathers want their daughters to stay home from school, even if their tradition is to cover their faces and keep their mouths shut.

    This wretched running amok on New Year’s Eve was a temporary victory for the dark side.  It needs to be countered by renewed efforts to improve the lot of women.  This New Year’s Event is part of the story of mass migration of have-nots to the nations of the haves.  It’s also an outcome of the Civil War in Syria.

    But let’s not miss the fact that it’s also a part of the story of the struggle for gender equality.



    picture credits:

    kerosene on the flames of racism and xenophobia in Germany: http://seenthis.net/sites/857961
    no to racism and sexism: http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/new-year-crime_zurich-women-report-cologne-style-sex-attacks/41880556
    cops in pigtails (going): http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/08/ive-never-experienced-anything-like-that-cologne-in-deep-shock-over-attacks
    four policemen (coming): http://dafemoritz.blogspot.com/2016/01/cologne-police-chief-dismissed-over.html 








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  7. A friend from army days sent me a link this morning to an article about the way the manager of a Chick-Fil-A franchise in Marietta, Georgia, found to honor America’s veterans this year.  He set up a table last November, just before Veterans Day, with a memorial to soldiers who didn’t make it back.  The sign on the table reads:

    This table is reserved to honor our missing comrades in arms. The tablecloth is white — symbolizing the purity of their motives when answering the call of duty. The single red rose, displayed in a vase, reminds us of the life of each of the missing and their loved ones and friends of these Americans who keep the faith, awaiting answers. The vase is tied with a red ribbon, symbol of our continued determination to account for our missing. A pinch of salt symbolizes the tears endured by those missing and their families who seek answers. The Bible represents the strength gained through faith to sustain those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God. The glass is inverted — to symbolize their inability to share this evening’s toast. The chair is empty — they are missing.



    Here’s part of my response to my friend who sent the link:


    Regarding that e-mail you just sent about Chick-Fil-A honoring veterans…  You pushed a couple of buttons here.

    For starters, let’s acknowledge where there is agreement.  People who put on a military uniform and do what the U.S. government determines is their duty to their country should not be blamed for the country’s mistakes.  On the contrary, their willingness to fight and die should be respected – regardless of their true motives and of the legitimacy of their cause.  I’m all for memorials to veterans and to fallen soldiers.  You and I both wore the uniform at one time and I think those of us who were lucky enough to have avoided combat while in uniform should be particularly grateful for that fact, and acknowledge those who were not so lucky to come home.  No exceptions – those who came home in a box, those with missing limbs, those with shattered psyches, and those who came home with all their limbs and their faculties intact as well.  The risk they took to life and limb should be honored, and if Chick-Fil-A wants to set up a table in their restaurant to do that, I’m all for it.

    The problem I have with this e-mail is not with the veterans and not with the impulse to honor them.  My problem is with the story that goes untold, with the message that gets left out.  With the way in which we take young American lives and put them in harm’s way, and then compound the injustice by using them as jingoistic symbols of totally corrupt policies of international war and aggression.  “Support Our Troops,” the slogans say.  If we were honest, we would recognize the underlying message is more accurately stated as “Support Our War Efforts.”  If we were really to support our troops we would be more careful to use them only when our lives and our security were actually being threatened.  Once you send troops off to war, you then get to manipulate their courage and dedication to silence the voices that are crying out to stop the folly. 

    While my political views are leftist ones, I see those manipulators as coming from both sides of the political divide.  Ever since we got to feel good about our contribution to defeating Hitler we have let that euphoria carry us away into thinking all our later efforts at war-making were similar contributions to civilization.  That has not been the case.

    We ignored President Eisenhower’s warning that the military-industrial complex could get out of hand and a generation later we were killing Vietnamese and napalming their countryside.  For what?  To make sure the misery the Vietnamese suffered under French colonialism continued unabated?  We twisted that fight – it had by now become a civil war – into an overly simple black-and-white struggle between communism and “the free world.”  That enabled us to turn Ho Chi Minh into a monster, when a more cautious analysis might have recognized him as a land reformer, and nationalist founding father of a post-colonial nation.  A quarter of a million South Vietnamese soldiers died in that war, over a million North Vietnamese, because Americans had the greater killing power, and two million civilians [those are Hanoi’s figures and may be exaggerated, but most people, I think, agree it was over half a million].    And yes, 58,200 American soldiers, as well.

    We lost that war designed to “contain” communism, and since then the Soviet Union has collapsed and communism, including the Vietnamese version,  has evolved and become compatible with the international community of nations.  Would the world be a better place if we had won that war?  If the Vietnamese had not been allowed to name their capital city after their founding father, as we did? In any case, the world now recognizes that the claim that American soldiers “fight for democracy and freedom” is an empty jingoist slogan.  They fight for corporate interests, for a subset of American politicians with imperial ambitions, and for the illusion that America has a God-given right to dictate how the world should be run.

    That’s not the view you get from the plaque on the table at Chick-Fil-A, which declares, among other things, that “the Bible represents the strength gained through faith to sustain those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God.”  The implication is blatant – these soldiers fought for a godly nation.  How could their cause be unjust?  

    Millions died in that war and a generation later it is as if it had never taken place.  That bitter fact is nowhere to be found on that memorial plaque.  It speaks of American mothers' tears, but not of the tears of Vietnamese mothers of boys born at the wrong time and forced into a war with that “nation under God.”  Does the American God love those mothers less?  Some facts about the efforts expended in foreign wars have to be left out in order for us to maintain the illusion that we are and always have been the good guys.

    And did we learn from Vietnam?  Where is the evidence that Americans died for democracy and freedom in Grenada?  In the Tanker War between Iran and Iraq in the Persian Gulf?  In Panama? Kuwait?  Somalia?  Haiti?

    And now, in what may be the biggest American folly of all time, costing over two trillion dollars – with predictions that figure may rise to six trillion dollars in time – we smash a baseball bat against a hornet’s nest in Iraq, turning it into an Iranian satellite and provoking enough hatred, resentment and desperation among the Sunni to justify the establishment of Al Qaeda and ISIS.  

    How can any reasonable person argue that America was fighting for freedom and democracy?  It was fighting for incompetent self-serving political leaders with aggressive imperialist goals.  One failed war policy after another sent Americans into harm’s way.  If there were innocent soldiers motivated to fight of freedom, that innocence got them killed.  Ignorance (W started the war with no awareness of the difference between Shia and Sunni) and incompetence (dismantling the Iraqi army and sending the soldiers out into the street, unemployed) on an almost unimaginable scale sent those boys and girls to die. 

    How dare we sit and shed a tear over this “nation under God” and not put those warmongers on trial for the killing of our American soldiers?  How dare we continue to manipulate religiously vulnerable people into thinking this was God’s will that we are up to?  The harnassing of sincere piety to American jingoism in that Chick-Fil-A monument should make Americans retch.

    And lest you think my partisan voice speaking here is unbalanced, consider the source of this article.  It’s from Top Right News.  If you go to their website you see four tabs: immigration, Islam, Common Core and Guns.  You don’t have to read very far into these links to see that Islam is bad and guns are good.  The ideology is right there on the surface.  I can’t speak to Chick-Fil-A’s motivations, which may be well-intended.  But there is no doubt their boosters are part of what makes America ugly.

    And we haven’t even begun to address the Chick-Fil-A controversy over their support of anti-gay causes which brought the likes of Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum to their defense.  These and others of their political persuasion are the direct successors to the Bush-Cheney policy makers who unleashed the latest war in which so many Americans died in vain.

    One nation under God?

    How about a more honest look at what it is Americans in uniform actually die for?




    photo of Missing Man Table and content of the sign taken from the original article in Top Right News
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  8. My mother was one of the “foreign born” in our home town, as we labelled those people then.  She had immigrated young enough to have lost her German accent, but many in our large German community had not.  People said things like “peas mit carrots” and “I maked a cake” and we laughed at my grandmother’s use of “looking glass” because she couldn’t manage the English r’s in “mirror.”

    Most of my friends came from Italian immigrant homes, Neapolitan or Sicilian, mostly, and we called them guineas, wops or dagos because the concept of political correctness had not been invented.  My father was a “mick” to them except when he chose to explain he was Scottish and not Irish.  Or Krauts.  We were unmistakeably Krauts.

    As a kid I saw only affection among the groups, despite major differences in religion and food and ways of accommodating the grandparents.  “Hey, paysan!” was the standard shout-out when you met an Italian.  Usually followed by “Pasta fazoo!” which I thought meant, “How ya doin’?”  It was years before I realized fazool was the Neapolitan dialect word for fagioli (beans) and pasta fagioli was that delicious pancetta and cannellini bean noodle soup that has been part of my adult diet ever since.

    My best friend Tommy could speak Italian with his grandparents and that no doubt motivated me to pick up German faster than I might have – just not to be outdone.  I had other friends who spoke Polish and Canadian French at home, and it became a challenge to see how fast I could pick things up.

    Gene Ahern
    I told my uncle that I was studying Russian at some point, and his response was, “Nov shmoz ka pop!”  Everybody had some idea of what the various languages sounded like.  “Nov shmoz ka pop” he thought was Russian for “Going my way?”  Nobody looked things up.  This was half a century before google, remember.  These days you can trace the expression to cartoonist Gene Ahern’s character The Little Hitchhiker.  It’s not Russian at all.

    Nonetheless, I remember thinking of “Nov Shmoz ka pop” the first time I heard “Happy New Year” in Russian.  “Snovim Godom” (accent on both first syllables).  Not a real language.  Something out of the cartoons.

    Russian has lots of funny words – zoop for tooth, bumaga for paper, bok for God.  But over time I grew to love the sound of Russian, and this morning I woke from a dream where I was rushing around wishing everybody snovim godom.  What I was doing in Russian in my dreams I’ll never know.  There was a time when I was fluent, back in the Cold War Days when I kept the rooskies from invading the homeland.  But that was a lifetime ago.

    I have other childhood memories associated with New Year’s Eve.  I was on a beach in Mazatlan, Mexico one New Year’s Eve and there was a drunken American running around obnoxiously shouting “Feliciano!  Feliciano!” as in José Feliciano.  “Feliz Año” is Spanish for Happy New year.  Close enough. 

    I loved learning French early on.  Loved the details.  Like the fact that in French you have two words for year, “an” for the year viewed as a single point in time, “année” when you feel the duration of the time across twelve months.  So you wish somebody “Bonne année,” while the English expression “year in year out” comes out in French as “bon an mal an (good year bad year).

    I remember asking my grandmother in all earnestness why it is we say, “gutes neues Jahr” (good new year) with an s on both adjectives, but we tell people we hope they have a good “slide into the new year” (“einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr” and the s goes with the preposition (actually the article das, which is elided) in this case.  She said that’s just the way things were.  Years later I would go to college and major in German and answer my own question, but that would take time.  For now I would just have to try and remember these curiosities and marvel at how inconsistent the world could be.

    Some people develop early on a love of sports.  For others it’s music.  Or machines.  Or today the wonders of computer technology.  For me it was the curiosities of the words people used to say the same thing in different languages, a love that led me eventually to linguistics and culture theory and a career in language teaching.

    It’s my grandmother’s fault.  She used to plan a good cry every year on New Year’s Eve.  It was her time to let out all her frustrations, admit that fifty years after the death of her mother she still felt the loss vividly on the year-end holidays.  I’ve picked that up.  I get sentimental about the past on New Year’s Eve.

    Just sat at the dinner table with my two favorite human beings – my husband Taku and my niece Amy who leaves for the other side of the world the day after tomorrow, back to her current life of trying to ease the burden of Burmese refugees.  We fed a couple of the pieces of sushi we were not able to finish to the girls.  OK, so feeding raw salmon and yellowtail to dogs is what many would call a ridiculous waste.  But my little girl had an operation on her leg last week and has suffered a terrible reaction to the pain medication, and it’s been a rough week.  And there’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for her at this point.  Taku came home with a gorgeous sushi plate and in one fell swoop I put a nod to my twenty-four years in Japan together with the proof that my life today is happy and rich and filled with love.  And at the same time I remember with fierce nostalgia watching my grandmother let loose on the one day of the year she allowed herself to cry.  And learning languages and learning what a big world was out there for me to explore.  So many rich memories to choose from.

    Bounce, aka Boobie
    Come sit on my lap, little girl with the balloon around your neck to keep you from fussing at the stitches, which will not come out till next week.  Help me remember back to when all these many adventures got started.  To how it was in the beginning.  This is a time for such reminiscences.

    Then we’ll watch the new year come in together and look forward to the stitches coming out and to Amy’s next home leave, and to springtime and warm days once more. 

    But for now, Boobie, my dear, let’s you and me, and your sister Miki, and your other papa-daddy Taku wish everybody we know a bonne année and einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr and an akemashite omedeto (in your papa-daddy’s native language).

    And, snovim godom.  Let’s not forget snovim godom.





    Gene Ahern photo credit


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  9. We have a blind spot in this country that gives religion a free ride instead of calling it out for what it is, the chief motivating force behind much of the violence in the world.  To say nothing of keeping gay people in the demon category and women subservient to men.  I’m speaking in particular of the three abrahamic religions that are at the foundation of our civilization – and to a large degree still determine our actions.

    I contributed to that folly when I posted a blog entry some months ago titled “Religion is not the problem.” That was, I’m now thinking, part truth.  But it was also part lie by omission.  I’d like to revisit the issue. 

    Since I wrote that defense of religion I’ve been struck by the number of times I’ve heard people declare, usually when describing the problems in the Middle East, and ISIS in particular, “Religion is not the problem, politics is.”  I think that is dead wrong.  I think religion is very much the problem.

    There is general agreement about the definition of religion in general.  Google “definition of religion” and you’ll come up with something like “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”  Good enough for government work.

    Defining particular religions and establishing who speaks for those religions is more challenging.  Each organized group lays claim to the authority to define it as they will, defining themselves in and those who disagree with their basic tenets out.  So while religion is distinct from politics, how it is defined is determined by power.  Hence the pomp and circumstance that often accompanies religious office.  I noticed recently that New Zealand has decided to accept as a religion the Pastafarians, who wear a colander on their heads as a religious symbol and worship the Great Spaghetti Monster, an “airborne spaghetti and meatballs-based being”.  You can get married in New Zealand by an official Pastafarian.  That’s not the case in neighboring Australia.  A judge threw out a recent attempt to extend the same right there.  On the other hand, in Massachusetts, the woman in the photo at the left has persuaded authorities to allow her to wear her colander as a religious accessory in her driver's license photo.  Different strokes for different folks. 

    In the end, religion comes down the way pornography comes down – I know it when I see it.

    When I was growing up just about everybody around me went to church.  There were a couple Jewish families in town but they kept a very low profile.  If there were atheists around, they kept an even lower one.  I went to one of the two Congregational churches.  There was one on each side of town, so none of us descendants of the Pilgrims would have to travel too far.

    We went to church on Sunday to sit on comfortable cushions in a well-lit round space to hear the preacher tell us it was only polite to keep your lawn mowed so as not to embarrass the neighbors.  Most of my friends were Catholics.  They went to a cold dark place with gorgeous Gothic arches and prayed on their knees to the smell of incense, the sound of tinkling bells and the sight of flickering candles.  I decided at some point their deal was more real, somehow, and began to yearn for ritual and orthodoxy, but I was too Protestant somehow to convert to Catholicism.  In the end I found a lovely place, mid-way, in the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches.  Not long after settling down as a Lutheran, though, I found faith had left me as surely as it had once found me.  One day, my grandmother, familiar with my habit of church hopping, and more to make conversation than for any other reason, asked me, “What church are you going to these days?”

    I’m an atheist, grandmother. 

    “As long as you believe in God,” she responded, reflecting the values of the day.  For all she knew, atheists were something on the order of Quakers.

    Europeans have largely left religion behind, and Americans, I expect, will tire eventually of the endless Bible-thumping we are subjected to and follow suit.  Nowadays, when we talk of religion, increasingly we do so in connection with Islamic terrorism.

    And where the discourse level dips down into the pits you get assholes like Donald Trump suggesting that we should keep Muslim refugees from seeking asylum from war and chaos in Syria and elsewhere.  With masses of Republican lemmings following him off the cliff of reason to bar an entire group of people who can be gathered up under such a large and diverse umbrella term as “Islam.” Americans, like others of the human species, can become seriously mean-spirited when jerked around by their fears. 

    The lazy thinkers who make up the Trump/Cruz/Bush/Huckabee/Jindall base can’t or won’t take the time to recognize that while most terrorists these days are Muslims, most Muslims are not terrorists.  They've simply got the wrong category designator.  What makes it not just wrong but cruel is that it’s Muslims who suffer the most death and destruction at the hands of Islamist terrorists.  We blame the victim who is running for shelter.  Progressive people of good will know this and are fond of saying that Trump is a clown or an idiot and we should stop giving him so much media attention and just let him pass quickly and quietly into forgettable history. 

    I don’t want to spend more time on the Trump phenomenon, though.  I want to focus on the false claim that progressives seem to be bending over backwards to make, that “Islamic terrorism is not about religion; it’s about politics.”

    That is simply not true.  People who say that are trying to defend Islam – or religion generally – by filtering out the bad parts and claiming it consists of nothing more than its most laudable aspects.  

    But religion is not only about singing “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam.”  It’s also about the stoning of adulterers, the handling of snakes and the withholding of the sacraments of marriage and the Eucharist from gay people.  To reduce religion to a few carefully selected doctrinal statements is to describe a horse by its mane and leave out the fact it has four legs.  It’s not the whole picture.

    Religion is a broad portmanteau word.  It covers doctrine, ethical codes, clerical brotherhoods or sisterhoods, rituals, Mozart requiems and stained glass windows, the Crusades, the Reformation, the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the Hebrew people’s exodus from Egypt, and much more.  Its many faces include the institutions which house it, the damage it does while it dashes forth to do good, and the prayers and dreams of the faithful.  Sometimes, as with “make me an instrument of thy peace,” those prayers are lofty.  Sometimes, as in the British national anthem, they are unabashedly self-serving:

    God Save the Queen

    O Lord our God arise
    Scatter her enemies
    And make them fall
    Confound their politics
    Frustrate their knavish tricks
    On Thee our hopes we fix
    God save us all.

    Cute.

    People have been searching for why so many young people should decide to leave their homes and go off to fight for ISIS, and wonder why the brutality and harsh conditions don’t put them off.  A young man named Adam Shafi, from Fremont, in the Bay Area, made the headlines this morning in the San Francisco Chronicle.  He was arrested last July while trying to board a flight for Istanbul, intending on crossing the Syrian border to join the al-Nusra Front.  He is only now coming to trial.  Whether the authorities have the facts right is highly disputed, but according to court records, shortly before he was arrested his phone was tapped and he was heard to say, “I just hope Allah doesn’t take my soul until I have at least, like, a couple gallons of blood that I’ve spilled for him.”  Shafi, if the FBI hasn’t messed up somehow, would appear to be working with some powerful religious motivation.

    I believe we make a big mistake when we allow well-intentioned Muslims to claim that theirs is a religion of peace, and overlook the fact that what drives the government of Saudi Arabia, or a fellow named Bagdadi and his many real and would-be ISIS followers, is religion that is anything but peaceful.  Religion in its political mode, to be sure, but no less religious for being political.

    So how do you get to what religion actually consists of?  Do you reach for your catechism?  If you follow the general Lutheran maxim that Christianity is sola scriptura, and throw out the need for clerics and the saints to intercede with God for you, you still have to deal with the problem of which scriptures you follow.  Do you cite the parts where Christ’s earliest followers were urging slaves to obey their masters, and women to remain silent in church?  Or do you limit yourself to those verses (printed in red, in the Bible I had as a child) attributed to Christ himself where he urged you to turn the other cheek and be meek?  If you follow Catholic teachings, you place the magisterium, the traditional expansion of original teachings as the church evolved over the years, right up there alongside the Bible.  And then, if you follow the orthodox literalists in either camp, you end up at odds with other literalists.  Absolutist evangelicals insist you're only a real Christian when born again into their mindset. Absolutist Catholics will tell you St. Peter gave them the keys to the kingdom and if they say you're out, you're out.  Defining religion is largely a question of power.
      
    With Islam, authority is more diffuse, but that doesn't mean they don't play I'm right and you're wrong.  In centuries past, righteous folk in Saudi Arabia would sneer at the Ottomans as al-dawlah al-kufriyya (a heretical nation), and the feeling was mutual.  Shia and Sunni today are still at each other’s throats, and Muslims abroad have to contend with no end of embarrassment as Pakistanis and Egyptians and Moroccans find themselves vying to define Islam the way it's defined back home. And then there are the practical Muslims who want to circle the wagons, insist the differences are trivial, and stress unity against hostile outsider groups.

    Literalists, in any religion, commonly lash out at those who “cherry pick” the parts of their religion that suit them.  In response, non-literalists criticize their critics for “worshiping the Golden Calf of Literalism,” as a theologian friend of mine so poetically put it.  Of course we cherry pick.  There’s no choice when faced with all the contradictions.

    The reason we have nothing to fear from a billion Muslims or a billion Christians, is that most religious people cherry-pick.  They know how to distill the essence of love or peace or justice from the raw material known as scripture.  And, in doing so, they are influenced by the secular communities they live in and increasingly governed by modern humanistic values such as gender equality and non-violence.  Those of us who live in historically Christian countries still wish each other a Merry Christmas, even if we don’t believe in a Big Daddy who walked on water, and joke the Wise Men should have brought diapers, not myrrh, to the folks in the manger with the new-born.  We are “culturally Christian,” just as the folk of Jewish heritage living in Israel and the diaspora who have discarded religion remain “culturally Jewish.”  John F. Kennedy was able to declare that in any conflict between his church’s catechism and his country’s Constitution he would follow the latter with no difficulty.  Americans understood that they could trust him to follow through on that promise, because most of us have hollowed out our religious traditions and given priority to modern cultural values over religious ones. 

    Imagine a world where cherry-picking does not take place and you have the kind of world which ISIS is trying to create.  Religion is acceptable in modern life only when it has been spayed or neutered.  We choose compassion and generosity and peace and harmony not because they are religious virtues but because they are virtues shared by religious and non-religious alike.  We don’t have official prayer in schools, because such endorsement of one particular religion over another would be divisive.  We keep religion from getting out of control.

    In the Roman Catholic Church, modernists since Vatican II have been calling for reform, and urging more emphasis be placed on pastoral care and less on ritual and strict doctrinal adherence. They want recognition of the religious legitimacy of other faiths.  Clerical loyalists, on the other hand, insist there can be no bending of the rules against women priests, no allowance for gays or adulterers at the altar, and no approval of non-reproductive sex. Will the true Roman Catholic Church please stand up!? Is it the one governed by the College of Cardinals? Or the one lived by the people in the pews who practice birth control, approve of stem-cell research and love their gay brothers and sisters? Both groups are marching to the tune of a different catholic drummer.  Both are motivated.  By religion, but to different ends.

    Hamed Abdel-Samad, the son of an Egyptian imam, and an outspoken opponent of religious Islam, still calls himself culturally Muslim.  But he insists that the so-called “Islamic Golden Age” is misnamed.  The flourishing of learning from the time of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid up to the time of the Crusades happened despite Islamic influence, he says.  Art and scholarship was multi-cultured, rather than Islamic.  Jewish and Nestorian Christians were major contributors to learning and it was largely the translations from Hellenistic civilization and Roman cosmopolitan scholarship and the ideas they led to, as well as open debates, including criticism of Islam, that made the age “golden.”  What was Islamic about it was the rigidity of thought characterized by Mecca and Medina temporarily held at bay during the Golden Age.  To sweep the entire enterprise under the rubric of “Islamic,” i.e., “religious” is to credit the detractors, not the contributors to the age, says Abdel-Samad.

    This is a radical notion and many would argue that Qur’anic encouragement to learning should not be underestimated.  Given the arid nature of cultural life in Saudi Arabia today, though, and the propensity for orthodox Muslim organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS to destroy the contributions to world culture of the Middle Ages, methinks Hamed Abdel-Samad has a point.

    The distinction between “religious” and “cultural” is admittedly muddy at times.  There is a wonderful line in the movie Munich, where one of the guys the Israeli government has recruited to assassinate the killers of the Israeli Olympic team gets his opportunity.  Face to face with the guy he is supposed to kill, he cannot bring himself to finish what he came for.  He hears his grandmother’s voice saying, “It isn’t Jewish.”  Those who respect the Jewish tradition (I am in this number) whether they are Jewish or not, might want to proclaim, “Now that is the real Judaism.”  But all that means is we're declaring Judaism to be what we'd like it to be, with practices we'd like all Jews (and everybody else on the planet) to practice.  But to allow religionists to define their religion only by its ideals (even if they could agree on what those ideals are) would be to turn a blind eye to how religion is lived in the real world.  It would be a fantasy definition of religion.  A pretense.   

    When someone bombs an abortion clinic and kills the doctors and staff, it’s easy to say they were “misguided” and “not really following the religion.”  When nuns put unwed mothers to work in the laundries of Ireland, though, and gave their babies away, when priests give homilies at Sunday mass and tell their congregations not to vote for Catholic politicians supporting birth control or abortion, can we really say these are not religious people earnestly trying to follow the dictates of their religion?  What of Saudi authorities, "guardians of Mecca and Medina," refusing to allow members of the Saudi Shia minority access to job opportunities within the kingdom open to Sunni Saudis?  Is that purely political and divorced entirely from religion? When Kim Davis refused to do her job as county clerk and marry gay people “because it’s against the Bible,” wasn’t that religion as well?  Particularly when you see so many of her fellow religionists lining up to support her and forming a political group to “defend religious liberty.”

    When you make the argument that ISIS is “all about politics and not about Islam,” you’re ignoring the fact that Islam is by nature political.  It has never separated mosque and state. Progressive people these days, seeking to diffuse interfaith animosity reduce all religions to anodyne toothless versions of themselves.   "We're all the same underneath, really - both sides have their good parts and their bad parts."

    Well yes, people are all the same underneath.  But religions aren't.  While Christ spent his time turning water into wine, calming the waves, raising Lazarus from the dead and preaching love for one's enemies, Mohammed was riding his horse into battle to slay his enemies. Correct me if I’m wrong about this but my understanding is that when the religion was growing, and Muslims were in the minority, Mohammed did as most minority people do.  He urged caution and emphasized commonality.  Passages written in that early period were filled with admonitions to love Christians and Jews as “people of the book.”  Once Islam had made some headway, though, the Qur’an then fills up with language urging death to unbelievers.  You may want to claim Mohammed meant this only to be applied to those he engaged in battle, and not as a guideline for life in the 21st century.  But clearly the scripture sits there like a neon sign, food for a great many lost souls hungering for ultimate meaning in life.  They find it, ultimately, in religion.   And the restoration of the Caliphate, where non-believers know their place.

    Stephen R. Metcalf, of the Reno-based National Security Forum, has referred to the Qur’an as “the catechism for Muslims.” 

    The Old Testament of the Bible, embraced by Jews, Christians and Muslims, was ostensibly an historic record. The Quran (and its associated Hadiths), on the other hand, is instructional in nature. While parts of it teach tolerance, kindness and peace, other parts teach intolerance, violence and human abuse wildly at odds with 21st Century civilization. That makes it far easier for one violent jihadist leader after another to pop up and recruit angry or frustrated Muslims to follow strict interpretations of the Quran, thinking they are serving Allah in a holy war against whomever the leaders designate as infidels.

    You don’t reach these people by preaching to them they need to give up their political goals for new and better religious ones.  They appear to be convinced down to the soles of their feet they’ve already got religion.  Right religion.  All the religion they need.  Now and again a Southern Baptist can be persuaded to become a Presbyterian.  Turning a jihadist Salafi into a Sufi is another order of magnitude.

    I've OD'd now on German talkshows taking up topics like “Is Islam compatible with German values?”  The conclusion is generally something inane, like, “Islam is a peaceful religion, just as Germany is a peaceful country.”  People making that summation have a vested interest.  They want to tamp down the xenophobic right wing in Germany, like those marching in the streets of Dresden with PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamicization of the Occident) and generate sympathy for immigrants, instead.  Their heart is in the right place when they think praising Islam is the way to go.

    I am convinced the way to go is to leave differences aside and declare Islam irrelevant.  It's individual people one has to deal with, one at a time and collectively, not their faith tradition. Immigrants to Germany, not all of whom are religious Muslims, remember, need to follow the rule of law, not the rule of patriarchal individuals; they need to adhere to the notion of gender equality, to universal education, and non-violent ways of resolving differences. It really doesn't matter whether you come from a Muslim background.  It does matter that you are lawful.

    Easier said than done, of course.  Even bio-Germans (love that neologism!) have trouble, some of them, smiling at their gay and lesbian and Jewish neighbors in the elevator.  But the rule should be if you can't handle bare-breasted women on beaches you need to stay away from beaches and not harass the sunbathers.  Newcomers can learn that brown glass should go into the brown glass recycling container, not the green glass container.  They can learn to live with an occasional bare breast.

    Germans are now debating how to make this happen.  The latest policy position from Angela Merkel’s CDU Party Congress is a list of things immigrants need to be prepared to accept.  Some won’t be all that hard, like stopping at red lights.  Others, like recognizing the State of Israel, are going to be a challenge for a lot of people.  Ditto for accepting gays holding hands and kissing in public.  The CDU wants Muslims to sign a pledge to that effect.  Others in parties more to the left consider that requirement asinine and unworkable, and think it should be enforced by proper modeling behavior, not by written contracts.  Lefties insist there should be accommodation on both sides – “We both need to give a little.”  Absent specifics, that is an empty affirmation.  I’ll try to remember to wear underpants when I go out into the hall, if my nakedness bothers you, but I won’t agree to hide my gay identity.  And women should never ever surrender their hard-earned gains to those with patriarchal demands.

    If practices incompatible with Western democracy (gender inequality, patriarchy, tribal loyalty over the rule of law) are defended in the name of religion, we should speak out loud and make it clear nobody gets to use religion as a defense.  You can put your hand on a Bible, if you like, and swear to uphold the Constitution, but you can't put your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.  The state is grounded in laws based on equality without regard for race, religion, sex or sexual orientation.  By all means go on believing your religion is all about peace, if you are a Muslim, justice, if you are a Jew, and love, if you are a Christian. But allow me to remind your fellow religionists that some of us want more than anything in the world to be free from religious injunctions.  And the best way to get around all these differences is to say that religion – however you may want to define it – is not by any means part of the foundation of the actual society in which we all live. It's way past time we shed the taboo against criticism of religion.  

    In the 60s, when immigrants came to Europe to work, they were called guest workers.  The assumption was that they would stay till until they had put some money aside and then go home.  No plans were made for integrating them.  In Germany, children of Turkish parents would be sent to Turkish language classes to help them on their return and their German was ignored. 

    Experience has shown that policy to be a disaster.  The immigrants stayed, and the policy led to ghettoization.  So this time they’re trying to head off a repeat of that mistake, get the Syrian immigrants into German language classes right away and on their way to full integration into German society.  The problem is, many Syrian men see no reason to surrender familiar social practices grounded in abrahamic religious patriarchal traditions:

    ·      “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands ... (Colossians 3:18)” 
    ·      "(Women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them."  (Sura 2:228). 
    ·      "And call two witness from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not at hand, then a man and two women. (Sura 2:282)

    Fortunately, if you look at any European country – Britain, France, Germany, for example –where Muslim immigration has been going on for more than a generation, you see that assimilation has taken place and there are plenty of people who have taken on the secular values of German life, including loyalty to the rule of law and the German constitution.  You can turn on German television and watch people like Serdar Somunçu, or Islam-critics Hamed Abdel-Samad, Necla Kelek, Seyran Ateş, Arzu Toker and Lamya Kaddor, or the Iranian-born German writer invited to address the Bundestag on the anniversary of the German Constitution, Navid Kermani, all of whom have left Islam behind as a religion – at least the literal interpretations of scriptures - and now participate fully in German social and political life as “cultural Muslims,” seeking justice for their fellow Muslims, religious and non-religious alike.  Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, we struggle with bigoted presidential candidates blind to the fact that immigrants have always been a major source of cultural enrichment.  The proposals to shut down immigration entirely has to be the most highly polished form of self-destructive stupidity.

    Religion may not always be the problem, but sometimes it simply is the problem.  Nothing is gained by pretending that’s not the case.  Muslim individuals are usually not the problem, either, although those who cherry-pick the violent parts of Mohammed’s message need to be recognized as religiously motivated and kept from pursuing their religious goals.  

    We've made some bad mistakes in the way we govern ourselves.  We have allowed corporate entities to abuse the rights of individuals.  We have allowed the hard-earned right of blacks to vote in the South to be withered away in recent times. We have misread the Second Amendment's endorsement of militias in the case of emergencies to mean people we don't allow on airplanes cannot be restricted from buying automatic weapons.   And we have convinced ourselves that religion should be respected.  

    Religion is an idea and ideas are to be debated, not respected.  People, on the other hand, are worthy of respect. But only if they don't use religion to beat you over the head with.

    photo credit: colander as religious accessory
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  10. I read in the paper yesterday that women had voted in Saudi Arabia for the first time.  And been elected to some local councils.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is the they had to depend on men to drive them to the polls.

    Rome wasn’t built in a day, you might say.  And actually, as I see it, the right to vote is a much greater leap forward than the right to drive. The right to drive is often defended by men as a way of "protecting" women, believe it or not.  There is no such defense possible for taping their mouths shut, politically. In any case, the practice is right up there with female genital mutilation, bride burning and forced marriage as an example of the need for women's liberation on a world wide basis.  It's hard to believe, don't you think, that even in this day and age there are women kept virtual prisoners in their own homes, subject to all manner of abuse by the men in their lives?  “Prisoners” may not be the right word.  Maybe "slave" is the word. 

    OK, let's look at the argument for limiting a woman’s right to drive. Imagine being stuck by the side of the road and having to change a tire while covered head to toe in a black bag, and you’ll see the point.  Or getting into a fender-bender with a bunch of thuggish teenagers. This should take you immediately to the larger issue, which is the question of equality of rights, protections and responsibilities of men and women tout court.

    So now women are in government.  Bravo.  And one of the first issues the women came up with, I understand, was the need for better garbage pick-up.  

    My first reaction on reading that was, “They’re asking for more goats?”

    Which reveals my prejudices about life in that bizarre country called Saudi Arabia where I spent a year (1977-78) working as an English teacher with the UNDP (the United Nations Development Program.)  When it was over I felt I’d escaped from a nightmare and have shown only passing interest in keeping up with developments in that neck of the woods (that's sarcasm, in case you missed it.)  I understand progress has been notable and it’s not the same place today that it was when the goats ate my fanbelt when I made the mistake of leaving the hood of my car open one day to run upstairs for some tools.  In Jeddah, in 1977, people tossed their garbage all over the place and the goats took care of it.  And flat tires were very common, given the nails and broken glass that made its way onto the roads.

    It’s not a place I would go back to, much less live in again.  But there were good moments.  Some of the warmest, kindest people I’ve ever met in my life were ordinary Saudis.  It’s no secret that when life gets harsh it does many people in.  But it can also bring out the best in people and Saudi Arabia taught me that one should never sell the human race short.  People can rise to all manner of challenges.  I just want to make that point explicit, even though that should not be necessary.  On a personal level, I find Saudis no different in character from anybody else.  As individuals.

    When it comes to the nation and culture of Saudi Arabia, however, I have another opinion.

    On November 20, The New York Times ran an article by the Algerian writer, journalist and editor of a French daily, Kamel Daoud.  It was titled "Saudi Arabia, an ISIS That Has Made It" and it accomplished what many of us thought impossible.  It called Saudi Arabia out as the source of both funding and the ideology behind violent Islamicist terrorism.  I passed it on to friends with the comment, “Finally somebody is addressing the elephant in the room.”  Saudi Arabia, said Daoud, is essentially indistinguishable from ISIS (He prefers the word “Daesh” because it withholds recognition that ISIS is a state).  He calls ISIS “the black Daesh,” Saudi Arabia, “the white Daesh.”

    The former slits throats, kills, stones, cuts off hands, destroys humanity’s common heritage and despises archaeology, women and non-Muslims. The latter is better dressed and neater but does the same things.

    Emile Nakhleh, of the University of New Mexico, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written about his failed attempts to get the Saudis to revise their school curriculum, the same curriculum ISIS has determined is suitable for the schools they establish in the lands they conquer. 

    If I had been paying better attention I would have seen that this is not the first time somebody has taken the Saudis on directly for the part they play in Middle East terrorism. A year and a half ago, Britain’s Independent ran an article saying essentially the same thing.  According to a former head of Britain’s MI6,

    substantial and sustained funding from private donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to which the authorities may have turned a blind eye, has played a central role in the Isis surge into Sunni areas of Iraq.

    All those images of George W. Bush holding hands with the Saudi princes come to mind.  The flights to get the bin Laden family out of the country after 9/11.  Schmoozing for oil, we called it.  Business interests (read arms and plane manufacturers) are at stake.  Can’t fight big money.

    You don’t have to dig too far beneath the surface, though, before you run into complexity.  The Saudi family came to power, remember, by making a pact with the Wahhabis.  The House of Saud would have Wahhab's backing in exchange for Saudi support of his radical fundamentalist Sunni understanding of Islam.  The Wahhabi (they’re generally called Salafi, the name they prefer, in Europe) are an uncompromising lot.  They accept no separation of mosque and state, no compromise with other religions, including Shia, Alawite, Sufi, or any other school of Islamic thought.  The current king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz, has declared “there is no such thing as Wah(h)abism.”  There is only Islam, and what the West likes to call Wahhabism is in fact Islam.  End of story.

    An opinion piece by the New York Times editorial board the other day (Dec. 14) begins:

    Ali al-Nimr was sentenced to beheading and crucifixion for participating in a protest at age 17. Raif Badawi was to receive a thousand lashes — a punishment sure to kill — for his blog posts. A Sri Lankan maid, whose name has not been released, was sentenced, on scant evidence, to death by stoning for adultery. These are just some of the people awaiting horrific punishment in Saudi Arabia for things most of the world would not consider serious crimes, or crimes at all. It would be an outrage if their sentences were carried out. 
    Saudi Arabia’s justice system has gone into murderous overdrive. More than 150 people have been executed this year, the most since 1995. More than 50 people are reported to be scheduled for imminent execution on terrorist charges, though some are citizens whose only crime was protesting against the government. This wave of killing has prompted some to compare Saudi Arabia to the Islamic State: both follow Shariah law.

    In discussing the refugee crisis in Europe, talk-show panelists frequently insist the problem needs to be dealt with at the source, and frequently they take on Germany’s alleged buddy-buddy relationship with Saudi Arabia as a major part of that source.  And Angela Merkel’s coalition partner and Vice-Chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democrats, recently came out as a strong proponent of this view.

    But although clearly the ideology for ISIS is a Saudi product, blaming them for keeping ISIS going is not really justified.  Lots of private individuals in Saudi Arabia may well be supporting them, and the Saudis can be criticized for not cutting off those funds fast enough, but the Saudis are actually making moves to do just that.  This largely symbolic announcement yesterday that they were launching an Islamic Alliance as a Muslim response to ISIS (which, remember, kills way more Muslims than people of any other group) is a start, although they seem to have announced first and are only now gathering alliance members who might join in.  Not much.  But something.

    The U.S. performed one the greatest international political blunders of all time by marching into Iraq as a means of satisfying American thirst for blood after 9/11 without regard to the warnings from all sides that it was likely to unleash chaos in the region.  The follow-up was an even more insane policy, if that’s possible, and that was to take part in Iraq's history of injustice and Shia-Sunni animosity on the Shia side, thereby throwing the ultimate victory to the Iranians, and driving the Sunni to the side of their tyrant friends in the Gulf States.  And the more radical ones into Al Qaeda and ISIS.

    So now the choice in the Middle East continues to be between terrorists and tyrants.  Nice job, Bush administration.  And shame on you, Obama administration for not calling out your war-criminal Republican adversaries for what they are, making yourselves into partners in this mess.
    We can go on and on about what an awful place Saudi Arabia is, how backward in terms of human rights, how rigid in terms of religious ideology.  But the larger picture, alas, is of us over here in the Western Hemisphere, looking on as the refugee crisis rips Europe apart and throwing stones at Saudi Arabia from our house made of glass.

    cartoon credit





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