1. Way to go, Australia!

    I wish I could say I’ve been waiting forever to hear the results of the Australian postal survey on whether lesbians and gays should be allowed to marry. Truth is, I've been kind of grouchy about the whole idea of putting civil rights up to a popular vote. Australia is a modern democracy with a highly evolved justice system and I trust they are as capable as any modern democracy of finding the means to protect their gay and lesbian citizens from having their rights trampled on by religious groups who think the church, not the state, should dictate what constitutes marriage.

    In the end, I understood the reason for the vote. Proponents of the survey argued that it was likely to reveal Australians were quite in favor of the right of lesbians and gays to marry, and when lawmakers can demonstrate the population is behind a law, they have a much better chance of passing it and keeping opposition at bay. I was concerned about the other side of the coin: if the majority were to unexpectedly vote no, it would give them an excuse for sitting on their hands. I will never forget what a downer it was when in 2008 Prop. 8 in California actually took away the right of gays and lesbians to marry which had been granted them by the courts, and created an absurd situation where some gays were married and some were not entitled.

    You don’t leave basic rights up for grabs. Christians once used biblical authority to discriminate against Jews. The Mormons until quite recently found a reason in the bible to discriminate against people of color – and mainstream Christians in America kept the institution of slavery in place on the basis of those same passages for over a century.  So much for “popular opinion.”

    All this is now academic. The results are in and Australians have voted 61.6% to 38.4% to allow same-sex marriage to go forward.  Not only that, the yes vote outdid the no vote in every single state. In the capital territory, the vote went 74% yes to only 26% no. The sense of dignity that has come to gay couples in something like twenty-five countries around the world will now be extended to Australians.  I say “something like” because there is always a gap between entitlement and full application of the law, and there is still a lot of contention around the question of adoption. But the sea change in world attitudes toward LGBT rights has left Australia feeling a little embarrassed.

    They shouldn't be. Just because their legislators were slow. The population has been progressive on this issue for some time.

    Australians have now done their part, and it’s up to their Parliament to carry it home.

    Bravo, Australia. 

    Good on ya!

    photo credit



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  2. Some thoughts today on the significance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther coming up tomorrow.

    For most people October 31 is just Halloween. It’s a day when kids go from house to house extorting people, through fear of violence or through cuteness, into giving them candy. That’s my view, but I’m the village grouch. Others see it as the gay day to go crazy, naked, paint your body and dance in the street. Or as the day when people decorate their houses with witches, ghosts, skeletons and Frankenstein monsters and compete with their neighbors as they do with Christmas decorations to see who has the most eye-catching display.

    But I have Lutheran roots, and that means for me the “Hallowed evening,” is the evening (actually the whole day) before the day set aside as All Saints Day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 kvetches onto the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. What was bugging him was the fact that his church was selling forgiveness (no repentance necessary, just cash) for future sins to make money for its construction projects. Because he wasn't alone in recognizing the corruption of the Christian message this business move represented, his righteousness attracted lots of followers and ended up splitting the Christian world in two – Western Christianity, anyway. Put aside the modern day ironic observation that if he had had even greater clout we might not have this marvelous splendor that is St. Peter's with its Michaelangelo-tarted-up Sistine Chapel. OK, so it was rough on the poor folk.

    There are earnest attempts (it's called ecumenism) to put them back together now that religion has pretty much lost its clout in Europe, where it all began, and it hardly matters anymore. But Lutherans, at least, will tell you this is a day to remember the great man whom MLK Jr. was named after. Who did more for universal literacy than anybody else in history. Who brought the people of Germany together under a common language. Normally, I’m no longer a church goer – haven’t been for half a century – and the day would probably pass without notice. But this is the 500th anniversary, and I’m coming across all sorts of references to Luther and am struck with how much variation there is among interpretations of the day's significance.

    Most of the Protestant cultures of the world, i.e., the North of Europe and the English speaking countries in large part, go along with the Lutherans. Martin is their hero too. He was the guy who made personal responsibility the heart of morality, not adherence to the papal hierarchy. Who made it possible for the values of democracy and the enlightenment to grow, unfettered, at long last.

    When I was growing up virtually everybody in my town went to church. My family ended up in the First Church, a merger of First Baptist and First Congregational. Because the Congregationalists way outnumbered the Baptists, we got a lot less Roger Williams nobody-tells-us-what-to-do history and a lot more pride in being the direct descendants of the Pilgrims. But those were minor distinctions. Mostly this was Connecticut, back before black people and Hispanics came in large numbers, so we were pretty much WASPS from head to toe.

    Most of my friends were Catholic, though, and because I would join them for early mass and breakfast every morning before school during Lent, I got a good dose of Catholicism, as well. I even had the Latin mass memorized before long and would probably have converted if I had not also been exposed to my grandmother’s Lutheran church, as well.

    Looking back in later years, I think it was this heavy dose of conflicting religious practices that ultimately made it easy for me to stop taking religion seriously. But when I went off to college I was still yearning for certainty, and ended up become Lutheran. The Congregationalists, it seemed to me, had nothing much to offer in the way of doctrine other than that one ought to keep one’s lawn mowed and not say unkind things about poor people. I was looking for serious belief assertion material I could sink my teeth into. It wasn’t long before I became a big fan of Martin Luther. He had it all.  I spoke German with my grandmother and used his Small Catechism to build my vocabulary. I had developed an appreciation for Bach and the music of his church was chalk and cheese to “Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam.” And, as with the Catholic Church, when you walked in the door, you lowered your voice and allowed your attention to be drawn to the Gothic arches and the white alabaster altar. The little queen in me yet to raise her liberated head just loved it. Especially the candles. Loved the altar candles.

    Sunday School at First Congregational in my early years was all about Bible stories such as Joseph and his coat of many colors, Jonah and the whale, and Jesus casting out the money lenders. Among the Lutherans now in my late teens, I was digesting the "correction" to the Roman Catholic notion of transubstantiation. Eager to join my new tribe and worship its gods, I eagerly professed the conviction that there was no way an anointed cleric had the power to turn the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus. No, no no. Christ came “in, with and under” the molecules, to use Dr. Luther's choice of words. While others were out playing football, I was sucking up such things as “the priesthood of all believers” and “justification by faith alone.” It wasn’t long before I could explain to the world what “we” believed. I had not only a church to call home. I had the comfort of knowing its doctrine was the right doctrine.

    On the Jews and Their Lies
    Dr. M. Luth.
    printed in Wittenberg by Hans Lufft
    What’s amazing to me now is the fact that in all those early years, I never got a whiff of the fact that Martin Luther was an anti-Semite. Not your ordinary one, but a particularly nasty one. A real Jew-hater. A model for the thugs of the Hitler regime four hundred years later. In 1543 Luther published a treatise entitled, On the Jews and Their Lies, in which he advocates the persecution of the Jews.  Let their “Jewish synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books be destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes burned, and property and money confiscated, … shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection…” and “drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time.”  “We are not at fault,” he concludes, “for slaying them.” They are “full of the devil’s feces…which they wallow in like swine.” Adolf Eichmann couldn’t have said it better.

    My sources on the character of Martin Luther were so anodyne, in fact, that even his faults were turned into virtues. His heavy drinking and his vulgar language were described as “earthy.” He was a “man of the people.” I came to believe that he generated the modern German language practically single-handed.  

    All that good stuff still stands, as I see it. The unifying of the German language may not mean all that much to you if you’re not German/Swiss/Austrian, but the encouragement of literacy ought to be enough to have him count as one of the great figures in the history of the Western world. With that focus on the “priesthood of all believers,” i.e., the claim that all of us are equal before God and have personal responsibility for how we conduct our lives, Luther opened the door to not only the privatization of belief, but ultimately the privatization of the economy. That’s what Max Weber had in mind when he wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. To be sure, he had Calvinism, more than Lutheranism, in mind, but he recognized that it was the focus on earthly activity that all the protestant groups shared that ultimately fostered capitalism. Didn't create it, but definitely contributed to its becoming the leading political and economic philosophy in the world, alongside its chief rival, Marxism-Leninism, and ultimately winning out over it. No mean feat. If this is how you see Luther, as having made a virtually matchless contribution to Western Civilization and to modernity, you might well want to turn him into some sort of saint.

    I had mentors that made sure I didn’t make that mistake. I remember being told by a Catholic friend when I was about ten or twelve, “We worship Jesus Christ; you worship Martin Luther.” So much for a Catholic school education, I thought. I was schooled to have an immediate response to that charge: We don’t freakin’ worship Martin Luther. He was a leader, not a saint. And certainly not a god. You’ve got that wrong. But for all his failings, he was nonetheless a man of heroic proportions.

    Over the years since I was a kid, that attitude was pretty much held in place by all the popular treatment of Luther I was exposed to. There are no fewer than eight full-length films on the life of Luther, the first one coming out in 1928, one, in 1953, winning an Academy Award nomination, and one, in 1973, a film adaptation of the John Osborne play, Luther. There are also two TV adaptations of the Osborne play, plus at least two documentaries and a TV travelogue put out by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There are apparently lots of folks who have a dog in the race and want to keep his memory alive. I still have in the back of my mind the hope one day of joining the 300,000 tourists who make pilgrimages every year to the towns in Saxony associated with Luther, including the two towns that put the word “Lutherstadt” (Luther City) before their official names, Wittenberg and Eisleben.   Eisleben, the place where Luther was born and died, is a World Heritage site and Wittenberg, the place with that wooden door (today it’s bronze) he supposedly nailed his 95 theses to (today there is some doubt) and launched the Protestant Reformation.

    It would be years before I would come to find out that there was much more to the hero who got us out from under the heel of the pope and the collectivity of the Roman church tradition to a place of individual responsibility for our actions. He could be – he was – in fact, a mean piece of work, merciless to those who refused to accept his interpretation of scripture and theology, and failed to get in line behind his notion of order. In particular, while Luther rejected the authority of the bishop of Rome, he threw his support behind the various princely authorities of Germany. That meant seeing the peasants who chafed under their authority as enemies of order and thereby enemies of God. By 1525 he was even making the argument that one could get to heaven faster by fighting and killing peasants than through prayer.

    Denn die Hand, die das Schwert führt und tötet ist nicht mehr eines Menschen Hand sondern Gottes Hand, und nicht der Mensch sondern Gott henkt, rädert, enthauptet, tötet und führt den Krieg. 
    For the hand which swings the sword is no longer a man's hand, but the hand of God, and it is not man but God who hangs, stretches on the wheel, decapitates, kills and makes war.
    Let me take a step back just to observe that I’m banging on about something here that is of absolutely no interest whatsoever to most of the people I interact with on a regular basis. Religion, to most people I know, has been dumped on the ash heap of history. It’s an area which was, to begin with, always hard to distinguish from superstition and is arbitrary as arbitrary gets, given the high correlation between your "choice" of faith and the accidental location of your birth. Religion is something you grant your friends the space to diddle with if it gives them some comfort. Or a neutral sphere which works more like a Rorschach test than a truth claim, allowing decent people to store all their natural inclinations to be kind, generous and compassionate, and which gives the insecure folk of the world, in like manner, a place to store their lust for power and certainty and create the illusion they are in the right when most of the world is in the wrong. “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” the great Lutheran hymn starts out. He’s also, to many in the world, a great slayer of dragons. Or infidels. Or people who touch themselves down there, say.

    In the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, Columbus Day has pretty much become Indigenous People’s Day. We now focus not on the Italian guy with an imperfect knowledge of geography and a burning desire for wealth and adventure, and more on the peoples of the Western Hemisphere, many of whom have suffered unspeakably through death, disease and incoherence in the face of the European invasion.

    Isn’t it remarkable how history can provide you with new ways to frame events? The Stars and Bars of the Confederate flag, the Dixie flag, is not part of a proud American heritage. It's a symbol, like the swastika, of a regime of death and destruction, of human humiliation and degradation, and it's time we let the scales fall from our eyes. The Crusades were once a way to earn your way out of hell. Today they are viewed, even by the descendants of the crusader folk themselves, as an early example of the lust for power that is imperialism. The tribal struggle of People 2 of “the book” (the Christians) for hegemony over People 3 of “the book” (the Muslims), which ended with a whole bunch of People 1 of “the book” (the Jews) as collateral damage.

    Lutherans (and other Protestants) in my view don’t need to hang their head in shame over being identified with an angry foul-mouthed anti-Semitic drunk for a leader. Lutheran scholars, the ones I know of, never did feel such shame – they were the first to emphasize their church is Christ-centered, not centered on the sinner who founded it or the sinners who run it.

    I’m not sure I’m up for the idea of finding a Lutheran Church to go to, but something in me would love to belt out “A Mighty Fortress” once more as I used to do every year at this time when Reformation Day came around. There are still parts of me which remember fondly the Lutherans of my youth – my grandmother and many others – who taught me how to be a good guy. Even when I wasn’t, I knew what a good guy was supposed to be. That’s got to be worth something.

    I’m conscious of how much folly we let ourselves in for when we give in to pendulum swings. When we do something stupid or wrong and then swing the pendulum to the other extreme and end up not fixing it, but doing some folly at the other extreme. One need go no further than look at the people who wanted to get away from America’s messed up political system, who went from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak, threw the baby out with the bathwater – there are so many metaphors to mark the practice.

    I'd like to bring Martin Luther back out of that place in history many are now wont to place him, as an awful human being. Not put him back where he was when I was proud to call myself a Lutheran, exactly. But give the historical figure credit for his amazing accomplishments, the merest sliver of which I will never match in my lifetime. If I were king of the world, I'd eliminate Halloween candy. I'd also eliminate the misconception that sitting next to or making nice with a drunk makes you a drunk. Or the idea that acknowledging that Hitler built the Autobahn makes you a Nazi. Or that there’s any reason to reduce your fellow human beings to nothing more than their worst features.

    Five hundred years. My, that’s a long time.

     photo credit


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  3. Nachtcafé guests - Oct. 22, 2017
    I spend a lot of time watching German television, especially the talk shows. My top three used to be the political talks-in-the-round, hosted by women: Anne Will, Sandra Maischberger, and Maybritt Illner. A fourth, Hart Aber Fair (Tough, but Fair), also political, is hosted by Frank Plasberg. Then there’s Phoenix, which is a bit more academic, and also political. Then there are two which are not political at all, but a pot pourri of all kinds of topics dealing with society, sports, and the world of entertainment and culture, where the goal is primarily entertainment, not current events. They can get political when the guests are politicians, but mostly the focus is on simply tossing around ideas and revealing the lives of people with interesting stories to tell. The discourse is at a higher level than American shows like “Ellen” or “Oprah” or "The View" and more "German" somehow, in that there is less of a need to have a laugh a minute and a feel-good conclusion every time.  One of these is the powerful and fast-paced Markus Lanz Talkshow. The other, the one I want to talk about here, is the more leisurely and laid back Nachtcafé (Night Café). It’s a theme-oriented program with a very congenial host named Michael Steinbrecher. Steinbrecher has a talent for keeping the conversation going on a broad array of topics having to do with family, personal identity and relationships, social relations, art and theater and public life. Often the topics (death, divorce, failure in life) are sensitive and the guests include an expert to contextualize and expand the topic being discussed. Nachtcafé airs on Friday nights at 10 p.m., and becomes immediately available online. 

    Last Friday’s program was entitled: “Von Macken und Marotten: Leben leicht verrückt” (Quirks and Idiosyncracies: Living a bit crazy). The guests included a TV comedian noted for her loud mouth and brash interactional style, Hella Kemper, who goes by the name “Hella von Sinnen (Hella out of her mind).” Hella is married to the daughter of a former President of Germany, and the two authored a book which apparently gave the program its title. Another guest collects and sells insects. A third is obsessed with the Swedish royal family. A fourth appears in public nude to bring home the feminist insistence that a woman has the right not to be abused, even if she’s stark naked. A fourth spends her life entering (and winning) contests. The guest that really captured my attention, though, was the final guest of the evening, a man named Oliver Sechting.

    Rosa, right, in New York
    First, a brief digression here. LGBT people familiar with Germany will know who Rosa von Praunheim is. He’s one of my gay liberation heroes, along with Harvey Milk, Dan Savage, Barney Frank, Ellen, and many others. He was born to a prisoner in German-occupied Latvia, adopted and given the name Holger Bernhard Bruno Waldemar Mischwitzky, but decided at some point that he would go by the name of Rosa von Praunheim. Rosa is German for pink, the color of the triangular tag that homosexual prisoners had to wear in Nazi concentration camps. Praunheim is a district of Frankfurt/Main I’m assuming he feels a particular affinity for. He is a filmmaker with more than seventy documentary and feature films under his belt, an in-your-face AIDS activist who, like Larry Kramer, alienated many gay people by hounding them on the topic of safe sex. Subtle he is not. One of his early films (1971) carries the title, It is not the homosexual who is perverse, but the society in which he lives.

    Another of the many times he caught my attention was when he appeared on the Anne Will show (she’s one of the political talk show hosts I mentioned above, whom I still watch regularly) back in 2010 along with the catholic Bishop of Essen, Franz-Josef Overbeck. Overbeck made the mistake of claiming that homosexuality was a sin. Since the official church position is that it’s not “being homosexual” that is sinful, but “doing homosexual,” Overbeck made a fool of himself and Rosa von Praunheim called him out on it.

    Bishop Overbeck, Rosa von Praunheim on Anne Will in 2010
    Rosa von Praunheim: Homosexuality isn’t a sin.

    Bishop Overbeck: It is a sin. We know with absolute certainty that it is a sin. It goes against nature. The nature of man is based on a man and a woman being together.

    RvP: Bullshit. You don’t even believe that yourself.

    Forgive me for going out on a tangent to the tangent I’m already on, but I have to mention in passing that it was this encounter that Catholic theologian David Berger claims prompted him to come out and to write his book, Der heilige Schein (Sacred Illusion), which I reviewed on this blog soon after it appeared. And which put me in touch with people who have since become very good friends.

    But let me get back to the topic. I was talking about the last guest of the evening, Oliver Sechting.  For a while there it appeared as if the producers of this edition of Nachtcafé had made a terrible mistake – all of the eccentricities the guests displayed were harmless, and quite entertaining. There was little for the guest psychiatrist to talk about except to say, “If it doesn’t hurt anyone, why not?” But when it came to Oliver, the mood suddenly changed. Oliver has a severe form of OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder. Most people, when they hear OCD think of behavior compulsions - people who have to wash their hands until they become raw, or wipe doorknobs with bleach before touching them, or people with tics like head or shoulder jerking. But some OCD sufferers, like Oliver, have “thought disorders” that are not immediately evident to strangers. As a result, they often suffer in silence or have trouble getting people to take them seriously. Oliver can be traumatized when he comes across the number 58. And when he sees the color red on a black background.

    Fortunately, over time, he has developed strategies for coming to terms with these behaviors. He has come up with numbers (7 and 34) to “neutralize” the “bad” number 58. And if he can spot something white after seeing red on black, he can ease the tension to some degree. Life can still be hell – imagine what it’s like for him to walk the streets at night and come across a red “do not walk” signal on a street lamp, where the background appears black. Struggling with this OCD has hospitalized him with depression at times.

    Rosa von Praunheim; Oliver Sechting
    The Nachtcafé program ended with the question, “Well, Oliver, how are you doing these days?” You could hear the silence, as everybody waited for the answer. I thought we were going to end on a very sour note. Instead, however, Oliver smiled, and began telling the story of having met a wonderful man who has turned his life around. A much older man, somebody with “loads of life experience” who seems to know how to deal with his hangups just right, he says – not patronizingly, not overdoing it, but by being understanding and a terrific listener. That man, it turns out, is Rosa von Praunheim.

    Oliver became Rosa’s assistant at some point, worked as his assistant on the prize-winning Die Jungs vom Bahnhof Zoo (The Boys of Bahnhof Zoo - English title: Rent Boys) (2011) and more recently has even directed some of his films. Since the two began working together they have become life partners and now live together in Berlin.

    I’m such a sucker for happy endings.

    Photo credits:

    Oliver with face covered with numbers is taken from his book, Der Zahlendieb: Mein Leben mit Zwangsstörungen (The Number Thief: My Life with OCD)  https://www.psychiatrie-verlag.de/buecher/detail/book-detail/der-zahlendieb.html. Posted on his blog page:


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  4. I’ve long been a fan of Robert Reich. I love it that he’s at Berkeley and I’ve been able to attend a number of his lectures and public appearances. He strikes me as being sensitive and aware. He’s certainly more knowledgeable and experienced in the ways of government than most of his colleagues, even the democratic ones. And, probably most importantly, unlike me and others like me who are so weary of the corruption of the political process in this country that they/we have largely given up, he is doggedly in there fighting, a major figure in The Resistance.

    His latest contribution is an insightful claim that America has not two political parties, but six. It’s a simple but obvious look at how Americans have grouped themselves politically into six different factions, each with their own special interests.

    He’s saying, in effect, that we’ve become more like a parliamentary system that works with coalitions and a greater diversity of political parties. They represent their voters more closely because there are more options to choose from. 

    But leaving the question aside for the moment of whether there is all that much practical difference between a faction in a coalition government and a faction within a ruling party, I think it’s useful to look at how Reich sizes up the American electorate. As a Bernie Sanders supporter, I had no trouble dividing the country into black hats and white hats, the white hats being those who focused on social equity and a fair distribution of wealth. I think government should act as if we are a national community, and just as happens within a healthy family, never let the strong overpower the weak. Label me a democratic socialist, in other words. The label fits.

    I don’t think much of the folks in the black hats, the “I’ve got mine” party. They’ve become more open about advocating welfare for the rich of late – just check out the current misnamed tax reform efforts to eliminate taxes on those earning more than five million dollars a year. We know that the argument that this will generate more growth is bogus, and that it simply means those who earn less will pay more in taxes. But they have the political power now, and this effort may actually succeed.

    Here’s how I see Reich’s six categories. The expansions are mine, and Reich probably would find them oversimplified, overstated, and maybe even wrong, but they are how the landscape looks to me at present. First off the three subgroups among the Republicans:

    1. The Establishment – This is corporate America, sometimes called the 1%. Their goal is to keep the wealth in the hands of the superwealthy. They justify greed by the Calvinist notion that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. Even those who no longer cast it in religious terms have nonetheless inherited the notion as cultural (predestinationist) Calvinists. Some may be sincere – I believe most are not – when they attempt to justify the politics of greed by claiming the trickle-down theory of economics. I think anybody who has been paying attention knows that this theory has long since been debunked and what can one conclude but that the claim is self-serving bullshit?

    Along with this is the notion that rich people tend, in general, to be smarter than others. In many cases that’s true – they at least have better access to formal education, and in many cases that allows them to cultivate their intellectual capacities. But a simple rich = smart has got to be one of the most corrupt and immoral notions ever to come down the pike. Don’t believe me? Spend some time among the wise folks in poverty-stricken places. You’ll see what I mean. And, of course, even if there is a correlation between rich and smart, there is no logical connection to be made to the idea that smart = good.

    2. Anti-establishment. These are the Small Government Republicans. They include the Tea Partiers and the Libertarians. Reich stresses that in many ways their heads are in the right place. They are against corruption in government (the bigger the government, the greater the opportunities for corruption). They therefore want to starve government by limiting taxes. That leads them to underestimate the need for money to build roads and bridges and schools and provide welfare for the vulnerable and the needy among us. But they argue (and their arguments are worth listening to) that the solution is more sensible spending policies, not more money collected in taxes.

    3. Third come the Social Conservatives. This group is represented mostly by those with religious ideological convictions. Many will argue, if you push them, that God’s law (as they interpret it, of course) should outweigh man’s law. This is most clearly seen in the Islamic world where sharia law has become civil law, but even in secular states, and the United States was intended from the beginning to be one, despite the fiction that America is a Christian nation, you will find people who tell you in their hearts they believe they are justified in pushing God’s law onto the rest of us.

    Those driven by religious ideology are readily manipulated by more sophisticated folk who know what buttons to push. Wedge issues such as abortion and homosexuality, dear to the heart of absolutist literal-minded religionists, easily outweigh all other issues, and persons living on the edge of poverty can often be seen to vote for fewer taxes on the superrich and more on themselves, simply if along with those tax policies comes an anti-abortion policy. Check out the videos of Pat Robertson of Jim Bakker sometime.

    It’s important to distinguish among “religious” people. There is a far greater division between spiritual religionists and literal religionists than there is between the spirituality-focused religious and the non-religious. It’s not hard to identify who’s who. The spiritually inclined tend to listen in humility for the voice of God; the literalists are only too happy to tell you they can speak for God (“because I read it in the Bible!” – the evangelical version, or “because the church hierarchy has been ordained by God” – the catholic version). Another way to distinguish the two groups is to recognize that one (those with a spiritual focus) is essentially open and the other is essentially closed. Secularists tend toward a scientific world-view and thus take a “don't tell me/show-me” approach to knowledge. They want evidence for truth claims, and that makes them essentially open to change and possibility. Spiritual religionists and secularists are both “open” in other words; literalists are by nature “closed.”

    There are other social conservatives. Reich mentions rural Southern whites as such a group, but I think, when push comes to shove, that group is working on a fundamentalist Christian basis, and is not, for all practical purposes, all that different from other fundamentalists, closed to outsiders, closed to evolution in thought, closed to new possibilities.

    So much for the three subgroups under the rubric of the Republican Party. Reich then turns to the Democrats and finds:

    4. The Establishment – not all that different from the Republican establishment, and that’s why you so often hear “there’s no difference between the parties.” What people mean by that is there’s not all that much to distinguish the ruling class within the two parties. They are both governed by the conviction that reality means recognizing that money rules the world and that whoever has the most money when they die wins. What distinguishes the Republican Establishment from the Democratic Establishment is that the former adheres more to the “invisible hand” idea, the market place as the source of truth and knowledge, somewhat more than the Democrats do. And the Democrats take more time to see to health, education and welfare, to see to it that government follows Hubert Humphrey’s admonition to care for those in the dawn of life, the dusk of life and the shadows of life. But let’s not forget our priorities. Money comes first.

    5. My folk – the anti-Establishment Democrats. They tend to be younger, they are inherently more progressive, open to new ideas, committed to the welfare of the outliers among us – transgendered folk, prisoners, the mentally ill, no less than women, lesbians and gays, blacks, Asians, Hispanics and other ethnic minorities. They see inequity as America’s chief problem, they take the problem of climate change very seriously, and they definitely see money as a problem, not an automatic solution, especially in politics. To a Martian, they might appear to be advocating a practical and righteous (i.e., non-Stalinist) form of communism, or perhaps a practical form of Christianity (I don’t see much difference). This is due to their conviction that capitalism as it has come to be practiced in the West is crony capitalism – and some like to call it vulture capitalism.

    That leaves the final group, the one that put Donald Trump in power. The “out of the frying pan, into the fire” folk. The folk duped by a Pied Piper, the “none of the above” voters willing to give him free rein to ride roughshod over tradition and decorum simply to register outrage at change, at modernism, at internationalization, at evolution. A pot pourri of discontent.

    6. Trump – the greatest challenge to American democracy in modern times. Some claim he merely reveals the ugly underbody of a racist sexist society, a greedy self-serving bunch of folk for whom popular democracy is simply another way to rule by id and not by superego. The best we can hope for is that the shock of Trump in the White House will shake the apathy America (and other modern democracies) are cursed with.

    I am convinced that Trump is not the problem, that he is a symptom of the problem. He serves, of course, as the icon of the problem, but we will not get out of the current chaotic state if we continue to fail to see the problem is not this one wretched, probably mentally ill, narcissist, but a failure to show a respect for facts, if we continue to believe that truth is whatever we want it to be, particularly if we can get others to go along with our fantasies.

    Trump’s Republican enablers are leaving what looks for all the world like a sinking ship. That’s not all that needs to be done, but it’s a beginning.

    Coalition governments may be superior to government by a two-party system in some ways, but only if party leaders can find a way to override tremendous differences. The German government is struggling to put together a coalition that includes the German equivalent of our establishment parties (both Democratic and Republican) and the Green Party (our environmentalists). Some worry about the consequences of putting an environmentalist in charge of foreign policy - a real possibility in Germany - and other worry the question itself could become disruptive to efficient government.
    The point is only that the times call for desperate efforts to build coalitions and make them work. In the U.S., that means, according to Reich, getting the subgroups to work together – he stresses the tax relief and money-out-of-politics segments.

    Unfortunately, that’s only the what, not the how. What Reich leaves out is any information about the size and relative power of each of these factions, and the fact that the battle for control of the Democratic Party between Factions 4 and 5 (Establishment (Hillary Clinton/Debbie Wasserman-Schulz/Donna Brazile) Democrats and Bernie Sanders and the majority of young voters, respectively) gets both hostile and downright dirty at times - as hostile and dirty as the battle between parties.

    What I find useful in all this is the opportunity to look a little more closely than most of us look most of the time, to find distinctions, and possibilities for an opening.

    Something’s got to give.


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  5. Nedjma and Mustafa planning their interviews
    Algeria is probably not on the radar of most people I know. Another of so many troubled areas in the world, failed states or nearly failed states, or at the very least not-ready-for-prime-time states. What is on my radar, though, are film festivals. We are blessed here in the Bay Area with one after another – the LGBT festival, the Jewish festival, the German festival and more than a dozen others. And this year I found myself drawn to the Arab Film Festival, (now in its twenty-first year) because of an intriguing description of an Algerian film called Investigating Paradise (Tahqiq fel djenna).
    ...a layered analysis of Algerian millennial culture and the efforts made by Salafi clerics to tempt this particularly vulnerable demograph towards the embrace of jihad. Through a sampling of everyone from college students at internet cafes and a karate instructor, to Imams and social intellectuals, it becomes apparent that Allouache’s position is much deeper than what is readily and regularly espoused per “extremism” and “radicalization” on Western media outlets.
    Investigating Paradise is a curious genre, bound to make some people howl in protest: It’s a fictionalized documentary. The festival blurb refers to this genre as – are you ready for this? – “performative docuform.” But hold your horses. The silliness of that term (and the notion it captures) don’t do it justice.

    Two journalists, Nedjma, played by the well-known Algerian actress, Salima Abada, and her male colleague Mustafa, played by Younés Sabeur Chérif, set about investigating how it is that so many Algerian youth are drawn to ISIS and to radical Islam in general. What writer/director Merzak Allouache and his daughter Bahia (or perhaps I should say what Bahia and her better-known filmmaker father) have come up with is a vehicle for capturing the vulnerability of Algerian society today to political Islam and the readiness of an uninformed and badly schooled populace to be misled by their own programmed desires. Nedjma and Mustafa focus on the Koranic concept of paradise, which they understand to be driving so many young people into violence and self-destruction, and its bizarre macho vision of 72 virgins to take you into paradise. 

    Nedjma begins with interviews with young men in an internet café, but travels around asking everyone she meets how they conceive of paradise. She captures a full range of answers from the clueless young and their unquestioning acceptance of the ideas of the online video sermons of two imams, two televangelist types, to the feminists and other intellectuals at the other end of the spectrum who label the 72-virgin concept macho porn.  A taste of her interviews is available on YouTube here.  

    She travels across the Sahara at one point to the town of Timimoun, where she meets with one of the imams in question, a man who appears to be kindly and driven more by spiritual Islam than its political version.  The other imam, Abdelfatah Hamadache, the more strident of the two imams, refuses even to meet with her. Not part of the "docuform" is the suggestion found elsewhere that Hamadache in reality might actually have been an agent of the corrupt government, but now we're getting into far too much complexity, and we haven't begun to address the Western support of the Saudi-based Wahhabi Salafists that he speaks for. Whatever the twists and turns, what comes out of the interviews is a layered and richly textured study of a people under siege.

    Algeria’s road to modern democracy is filled with the kind of hurdles common to all postcolonial nations. Investigating Paradise suggests the possibility that political Islamist ideology may turn out to be much more than a just a bump, however. Many fear is could be a permanent – or at least a long-term – impenetrable barrier. In the background, coloring the quest for understanding and providing a context for why Algeria never participated in the Arab Spring, was the decade-long civil war between the corrupt government and the brutal and radical islamist forces, which left most Algerians with a “pox on both your houses” sense of alienation, with no place to go. [For one source on the corruption on the government side, click here.]

    At least this is the explanation given by the writer Kamel Daoud, whose interview was for me the highlight of the film. Daoud has gotten into trouble recently, not only among the religious sector in Algeria itself for being too much a part of the French-speaking secular elite, especially by the likes of Hamadache, who puts a fatwa out on Daoud for being an apostate and an “enemy of religion.”   But Daoud has lost favor as well among the intellectual left in Europe who see him as anti-immigrant for his outspoken stance that Europe is being naïve in allowing in so many cultural Muslims with little to no understanding of and appreciation for Western values.   Investigating Paradise gives a platform for Daoud to present his view that the Arab-Muslim world is "full of sexual misery," particularly when it comes to women, but also when dealing with the human body and any notion of healthy sexual desire.

    Daoud is hardly alone in his view that the problem with Islam (certainly political Islam, but to a greater or lesser degree cultural Islam as well) is its inability to read the Koran as poetry, thus missing the point and taking things literally that were never intended to be read that way.

    The film, despite the despair and conflict reflected in many of its scenes, is ultimately a warm human story. There are scenes of feminists giggling among themselves at the responses of the sex-obsessed boys and the silly old men who claim to be speaking in the name of Allah, and who, when asked what happens to single women when they enter paradise – what good are the 72 virgins to them? – are told that they become virgins again and get to choose their husbands this time. Or revert to the age of 33, the perfect age for a woman, and become beautiful, with long black hair and sparkling eyes. There’s a scene with a martial arts teacher who would love to train girls, but is handicapped by not having the money to keep them safe, he tells them, so has to turn them away from his gym. And there is affection for even the most radical of players in this Algerian drama, and much respect shown for older people with religious views. 

    Daoud, I believe it was, remarks at one point that the tragedy of the decade of violence, which one would expect would make the population war-weary and desirous of peace and cooperation, has made them suspicious and withdrawn instead. Many choose life in exile and migrate. Others draw into themselves, the young all too often into religion. It’s a melancholy world-view that Allouache père has revealed in his previous films. But the implied criticism of Muslims as unduly focused on the next world when they have so much to offer in improving this one, is not a cynical world-view. People can learn. They can lift themselves up and out of ignorance. It’s just going to take time – and a whole lot of effort.

    No doubt some will want to fault the film for being all about the problem and short on answers. Some will object that it's too critical of Islam, and that we must start and end with an acceptance of Islam. But that would be missing the point. If political and socially retrograde cultural Islam are the problem, one doesn't surrender to it; one seeks ways over it, under it, through it or around it. A daunting task, to be sure. But if the thinkers - perhaps especially the feminists - in this film are any indication of the richness to be found in the character of Algerian society the task is not insurmountable.

    While Investigating Paradise is doing well in the festival circuit - it has won the Berlinale and the Festival International des Programmes Audiovisuels in Germany and France, respectively - it deserves to make the leap up and out of festival status to reach a much broader audience.

    photo credit: clipped from Beirut film festival poster

    Should also include



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  6. Cults have been around longer than organized religion and will continue to exist as long as humans seek the answers to our origin. They permeate every culture and society and their impact on society is grossly underestimated. They range from Om Lovers to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, Children of God, Japan’s Aum Shin Rikyo Cult, and Heaven’s Gate, all the way up to the larger cults like Scientology, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Mormon Church. They all inject an insidious poison into the lives of a vulnerable, unsuspecting public, disguised as the truth. Many are innocent victims, others are willing participants in the abuse, and still others were victims of child abuse who unwittingly continue to repeat the abuse as a result of their trauma. Some are just simple, ordinary people looking for hope, while others are just bad people.
    Slave, p. 220

    Jabali was born on March 26, 1971 in North Oakland, just a few blocks south of the Berkeley line, across the street from 809 57th Street, where Bobby Seale lived with his parents in the house in which Seale and Huey Newton and others had formed the Black Panthers a few years earlier. Jabali was the fourth child born to Marilyn Ornelas, whom he describes as “a revolutionary, an intellectual, a Buddhist, hippie, an occultist with a love for black men.”  When Jabali was six years old, Marilyn would turn him and his fourteen-year-old sister over to a cult leader whose real name was alternatively William Brumfield or Richard Thorne, but whom Jabali and other members of the cult knew as Om. Om would keep him for the next six years in captivity, mostly in Mexico and later in Nevada and Southern California, brainwashing him, physically abusing and terrorizing him, and preventing him from learning to read and write. Their day would begin with Jabali, along with two of Om’s own children, watching his sister, as well as Om’s other “wives” engage in a daily “fucking ritual.”

    Jabali is unaware growing up that his mother has effectively abandoned him. He remembers the love and warmth he received from her the first years of his life, and dreams of the time his mother will come rescue him and take him back to Berkeley. She never comes. Instead, the cult members eventually leave Mexico, always on the run from the police and the FBI, first to Las Vegas, then Los Angeles and San Diego. Eventually, they find their way to Richmond, in the Bay Area. After six years, Jabali finally finds the courage to make a run for it. He finds the 72 bus that will take him down San Pablo Avenue to Berkeley and makes his way back to the Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue where his mother used to hang out with him and his siblings.

    Luck is with him. When he walks into the Med he runs into a family friend, the man who introduced his father to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Eventually he finds his mother and others willing to take him in and he is able to begin the long journey to find the life he lost as a small child. His problems are far from over, but he is able to begin school, learn to read and write, and eventually come to recognize that reconciliation with his sociopathic mother was not in the cards. He would have to go it alone, with the help of friends he meets along the way.

    I met Jabali when he was a classmate of my niece at Berkeley High School, almost thirty years ago now. She was quite taken with him, described him as a special friend and hinted that he had come through some hard times. But even she didn’t know the full extent of it, and he remained pretty much a man of mystery. For many years Jabali played his cards very close to his chest, too ashamed to share more than the basic outline of the gritty story of his childhood with anybody outside a small circle of intimates. But last Saturday night, my niece, who had flown in from her job in Denver for the weekend, got right to the point of her trip. “Remember Jabali?” she asked. “Very well,” I said. “Well, come with me. Jabali has published a memoir. It’s called Slave: A Human Trafficking Survivor Finds Life. He is having a book launch in Oakland.”

    Several hundred people showed up for his talk. He has become an articulate and charismatic speaker and is today the founder and executive director of The Well Child Foundation, a group dedicated to “creating an environment that fosters health, growth, and transformation for foster children and inner city youth who have experienced abuse, as well as for victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.”  After reading about a hundred pages I had to put the book down for a couple days. I couldn’t bear to take the relentless account of brutality. I knew that I would finish it eventually; it’s far too compelling. But it was going to take some deep breaths.

    Some months ago I came across a best-seller about a young boy growing up in France, also under far less than ideal circumstances. The End of Eddy, it was called. I stumbled through about four-fifths of it before I put it down for good. The same problem – relentless misery. With Slave, however, I made it through because I had met and talked to the happy ending in person. Jabali climbs up out of the almost unimaginable misery that is human trafficking and ends with an uplifting suggestion that things are going to be all right. His last three subsections are entitled, Love, Forgiveness and Compassion.

    How is one supposed to approach a narrative of such pain and darkness? Do we take the happy ending as the purpose, a lesson-in-life, proof that whatever burden we are carrying things will work out all right in the end? It sounds like the great American cultural bias, the Hollywood view that we all have the right to be happy in the end, and one selects stories that give evidence to that effect. Or is it a cautionary tale, a warning that we should pay more attention to what our children are up to, and get our heads out of the sand when it comes to our neighbors’ children, as well. It can, and maybe should be read as a sociological study of how badly America went off the rails in the 60s, with the Vietnam War and the pendulum swing from the up-tight hypocritical fifties to the overindulgent 60s. 

    Jabali takes note of the fact that many of the kids in his life are like him. They come from black fathers freed from the fear of lynching to find themselves a once unobtainable white girl and white mothers who want to prove to themselves and others that they are with it by finding themselves a black man to sleep with. It's a tale of America working out its race problem. Jabali brings the sexual revolution home in the quotation, which he attributes to somebody named Piero Amadeo Infante: “After the summer of love came the winter of fatherless children.”

    And here the story takes a curious turn. I googled the name Piero Amadeo Infante and what turned up was a story in the East Bay Express published on September 24, 2003. Piero turns out to be the older brother that Jabali identifies as Pio. Piero and his sister Cybele, whom Jabali calls Isabella, apparently contacted the police in 2002. Cybele/Isabella, according to the Express article, charged Om/William Brumfield with rape and for a while it appeared that the charge would stick, even though it had taken place years before. Unfortunately, the law lifting the statute of limitations was declared unconstitutional, and Om/Brumfield is a free man. He was institutionalized for a time in the mental hospital in Napa and given shock therapy, but the effects only solidified in Brumfield’s mind the belief that he was indeed Om, the "Highest of the High, Greatest of the Great, All Power, All Knowledge and Beyond." He now lives quietly in Berkeley, still playing a lot of tennis.

    In Piero’s account, Jabali is not mentioned by name. He is simply a younger brother, somebody in denial. Since Piero’s account came out in 2003, that may be an accurate description, actually. Jabali’s version of their childhood in Slave is quite at odds with Piero’s. Piero makes the cult experience a story of sexual abuse of the children; Jabali argues that Piero didn’t actually live with the cult in Mexico and that Piero’s (Pio’s) account of what life was like was actually stolen from Jabali and told in a particularly tawdry (Jabali's word) fashion.

    That rivalry doesn't lessen the impact of Jabali’s story. It remains powerful. And it has a sad coda. A man named William comes across Piero’s account in the East Bay Express and realizes it involves the man who has seduced his two daughters. Brumfield’s cult did not dissolve when Jabali and his sister Isabelle/Cybele left, apparently. Jabali learns some time later that William has committed suicide in despair over not being able to get his daughters out of Brumfield’s clutches.

    And this brings us to what I consider the essence of the story, the all but unbelievable tragedy that something like this could take place in modern America. The more I turned the pages, the more the questions nagged at me. Is Jabali telling the truth or is he making the whole thing up? Large parts of it up? How is it that a mother can not only abandon her children but give them over to a lover who she knows is abusing them physically and sexually? Where are the other people in their lives? Where is the father? Why is he not running to Mexico to bring his son back? Where is the grandmother? And the godmother, Marilyn’s friend Jackie, both of whom Jabali speaks of as loving caring people. Where are the police and other authorities? How could a cult living in a school bus not be picked up at some point in the six long years Jabali is being held captive?

    And Jabali? “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man,” Aristotle is credited with saying. That would explain how you can capture a child at the age of six and even when he is twelve he will be too frightened to tell a soul that he is being kept enslaved. But did the beatings and the fear of impulsive random punishment really not provoke him into running earlier, if only in sheer desperation? Those I assume are in the know tell us it is entirely believable that such things happen. The only real question is what’s wrong with our society that we allow it to happen with quite such frequency. In Jabali’s final chapter he cites the work of Dr. Margaret Singer and her book Cults in Our Midst, according to which there are some 5000 cults operating in the U.S. at any time with some 2.5 million members, 20 million victims in just over the last ten years.

    One in three girls are sexually molested before the age of 12 and one in five boys, more than three million reports of child abuse every year. Four to five children die every day from neglect. I had trouble accepting those figures, so I checked out the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) data myself that Jabali refers to. They corroborate his claims:
    There were 683,000 victims of child abuse and neglect reported to child protective services (CPS) in 2015.
           The youngest children are the most vulnerable with about 24% of children in their first year of life experiencing victimization.
           CPS reports may underestimate the true occurrence of abuse and neglect. A non-CPS study estimated that 1 in 4 children experience some form of child abuse or neglect in their lifetimes.
    About 1,670 children died from abuse or neglect in 2015.
    As for how Marilyn Ornelas could do what she did, the answer appears to lie in the power of ideology. In this case, that ideology involves the 60s pursuit of freedom from the strictures of the Puritanical practices that went before, the belief in the need for revolution at all costs. Piero’s account (the Berkeley Express interview) gives a fuller picture of the lives of the adults involved in this child abuse story and despite what each may feel about the other’s version, they complement each other. Jabali chose to write from a child’s perspective. And that makes it an individual’s perspective, up close and personal, and the pain comes through with piercing agony. That’s why you may have to put the book down and take a break from time to time. Piero’s is a more sociological account of a time of free love, liberation of the spirit and expansion of the imagination. His perspective brings to mind the flower children, the tambourines, the dancing in the street, the romance and the music of Woodstock. His image of their mother, Marilyn, is of the flower child whose love is too big for just one family. Her focus is the revolution, the change that must come, the greater cause. One thinks of Rousseau, who neglected his children to write Emile, the great book on child education. But Rousseau sent his children to a foundling hospital, not a child molester.

    One day, back in Berkeley, Jabali comes across a yellow school bus parked on Martin Luther King Way and spots one of Om’s wives outside. He talks his way inside and encounters Om after all these years. He finds him old, worn out, a pitiful human being. He tells him off, turns and walks out of his life permanently. It was a moment when I wanted to throw the book against the wall. “No!” I said to myself. “What of this man William who killed himself in despair? This story is not just about you! Put this motherfucker in jail!” 

    But Jabali wants to move on. The story continues to be his personal memoir and he writes of love, forgiveness and compassion. I want revenge. I want justice. How do you forgive people who tie a child with an agonizing skin disease she can’t scratch to a bed and leave her there, without medical attention, for days?  Piero too, in his account, writes of looking at his mother in her later years, sees her as old, shriveled up, and lost. She too is not a perpetrator anymore but a victim herself, he declares.

    I don’t believe in forgiveness, except on a personal level if somebody does you wrong and they ask you for it and you can see they are sincere. Otherwise I want justice. But I see merit in the religious notion that forgiveness does as much, and maybe more, for the soul of the forgiver. And I can see how these two boys have had to forgive their mother and dedicate themselves to moving on if they are to become free of the burden no god, if he existed, would ever give them to carry. 

    I asked earlier why anyone would write such a memoir as this, with so much pain and misery, a book made for a reader to throw against a wall. Is it simply a meditation on the injustice of life? I think the answer comes in those last three subsections, titled love, forgiveness and compassion and in the steps Jabali has taken to start his foundation. A book like this is written and read so that we stop walking by recycled school busses parked on a street with suspicious-looking street people in them and look the other way in embarrassment at the risk of becoming busybodies. We recognize our duty to each other to take better care of each other. Especially if you see a lost child, stop what you’re doing. Call the cops. And while you're waiting, see what you can do to hear their story.

    Jabali: A Human Trafficking Survivor Finds Life, TitleTown Publishing, Green Bay, WI 54307-12093

    cover design by Mark Karis 
    used with permission


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  7. Alastair, left; Zach, right
    Don't Ask/Don't Tell advocates - eat your heart out
    In addition to sending post-it notes to Jared Kushner with ideas he might put to use in his work solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, the opioid epidemic, improving relations with China and Mexico, improving care for veterans, and reforming the criminal justice system, I am working on a project to improve the quality of the poop bags I carry when walking the dogs. Once you’ve had one of these suckers come apart in your hands, you’ll appreciate why.

    And to make sure I keep a balanced life, I binge-watch in my free time on Netflix and Amazon Prime. They’re churning them out these days almost faster than I can keep up with, but I do occasionally catch up. Like I did the other day when I decided to extend the bingeing to a young YouTuber’s vlog.  Fascinating. Utterly fascinating. I sat for the better part of five days gathering insights into the life of a modern-day twenty-three-year-old media junkie with a need to document his every move and monetize his ramblings by collecting enough YouTube viewers to attract sponsors. He has some 134,000 “subscribers,” at latest count.

    I am now ready to drop that project and go back to being a geezer, maybe reading books and keeping a cleaner house with some of that time. But not before taking a minute to consider what a firestorm this delightful young man set off in my head, about him, about me, about the vlogging phenomenon, the state of gay liberation in this country, and the gap between red state working-class culture and the yuppie world I am surrounded by, and how his story forced me to do a serious revision of my assumptions about all these things.

    The young man’s name is Zachary Garcia. He comes from a Mexican-American family but is more apple pie and Dr. Pepper than tortillas and guacamole. He speaks in a deep bass voice which, when combined with his Texan and Alabaman speech patterns made me think he was putting me on, at first.  “I need all y’all’s help,” for example. ‘Can’t’ pronounced ‘caint’ – rhymes with ‘ain’t.’ Not your stereotype of a gay man.

    At the heart of his four years of getting his coming-of-age events down on tape is his relationship with his boyfriend, Alec, who over time becomes fiancé and then husband. In Texas. In a military family. Alec is Alastair (not Alistair, see below) and we get to watch him graduate from West Point. We watch Zach propose to him on bended knee, after calling his mama and asking her permission to marry him. The story ends with them moving to Ft. Sills, Oklahoma and hopefully living happily ever after. You’ll have to become a subscriber to see how that goes.

    Zach and Alastair’s story is, for me, first and foremost about future shock. We're talking the grandkids' generation here. I was already older than they are now when the Vietnam War started and I was marching in the streets to try and make it stop. I also marched in Washington for gay liberation and to call attention to the AIDS epidemic, events they think belong in the history books. I celebrated the really wretched movie, Making Love, in 1982, as a milestone, simply because there was a gay kiss. By the time Brokeback Mountain came out to widespread acclaim, I was already past my activist days. Zach does a video on LGBT cinema in which he pronounces Brokeback Mountain “cheesy.” To say we are not on the same wavelength would be  to understate our differences by a mile.

    It’s the incongruities which kept me coming back for more. There are at least three ways you could frame his project, I think. One would be as an applied sociology study of how far acceptance of gay people has come in America, down to and including the red deep south. A second way would be to see it as a study of the uninhibited openness of the post-millennial generation, or Generation Z, as they’re sometimes called, and their embrace of self-revelation in the age of the internet. A third way might be as evidence for how wrongheaded the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy was and how badly the right wing got wrong the threat to marriage gay people allegedly represented. Zach’s is a total embrace of all the trappings of what in America is referred to as “traditional” marriage. Zach films not only his proposal on one knee to his true love, Alec, but also the phone call to Alec’s mother asking her blessing. To say nothing of the insistence that theirs will be a monogamous relationship. He’s a young romantic who dreams of his prince, believes he finds him, and proceeds to set up housekeeping and declare his undying devotion.

    Another way to look at all this, of course, for the over-thirty set, might be as a snapshot of innocence and naiveté, but let’s leave that jaded view aside for now.

    A fifth way of framing Zach’s video project might be as an extended interview with the kind of people Zach describes as “Cracker Barrel,” which I take to be a synonym for “Southern country.” Not your Greenwich Village gays or your San Francisco Castro clones or your sleek nightlife oriented West Hollywood types. People for whom “ain’t” and “he don’t” comes naturally, and people who view atheists, and probably democrats, with considerable discomfort.

    A sixth might be the frame of thoroughly Americanized Hispanics. Zach’s family name, Garcia, and his dark handsome good looks reveal his Mexican origins. But a quick glance at the Face Book page of Alastair J. Patton will reveal that Alec is from Mexico City originally,  unmistakably Anglo name notwithstanding. He speaks Spanish much better than Zach, Zach tells us. These boys are not white bread, in other words, but part of the new world the white supremacists warn us about.  Mexicans at West Point. Gay Mexicans. And you wonder why people voted for a charlatan who promised to “Make America Great” again?

    Just a moment's digression here to salute the gods of language and culture...  It's Alistair Cooke’s spelling of his name that is arguably more of an aberration than Alastair's. Both of these spellings are to be found in the English-speaking world - along with Alisdair, Alastor, Allaster, Alister, and Aleister – all corruptions, apparently, of the Anglo-Norman Alexander.  And a second salute to the both/and, not either/or understanding of cultural identity. Zack goes overboard at times with his love for Texas and his waving of the American flag - but they appear together on Alec's Face Book page behind a Mexican flag.

    As the taping goes on, Zach’s infectious optimism about his lover and their future is overshadowed a bit – maybe more than a bit – by more than a few contradictions and inconsistencies. To delve into the content of the videos is to reveal that, actually, it’s Zach’s idea to film everything, not Alastair's, and they both say at some point that despite all the suggestion that they let it all hang out, they still keep most of their private life private. One has to question how much one can match up what they say with what they actually do. They also reveal that they have been rejected in Texas as a gay couple, so I really ought to backtrack on my hasty conclusion that gay lib has made astonishing progress. It may have, but this one piece of anecdotal evidence will need to be supplemented by a whole lot more evidence before the generalization can be made with assurance.

    In my defense, I ask that you recognize qualitative research, if this quick five-day analyze-on-the-hoof methodology study can be described as such, is almost never to be taken as producing clear evidence for conclusions. What qualitative research does is uncover ever better things worth exploring. I’d suggest this is a great starting place, and if you have the interest and the time, it should be augmented by other stories of the kids of Generation Z putting their lives on line. If not for science, then for no other reason than to take away some of the cynicism that comes to those who believe they’ve seen it all, by providing a sense of how the young keep hope alive with unending surprises.

    Before I call an end to this "on second thought" paean to avowedly Christian and (possibly) right-wing Republican Cracker Barrel America, let me give you a sample of Zach’s project which I think should help explain why he’s charmed the pants off of me. Besides his stunningly good looks, I mean, obviously, and his unabashed love for his French bulldog, Bronson.

    For you animal lovers, let’s start with this recent appeal to save the animals after Hurricane Harvey:

    1. Help the Animals – Aug. 31, 2017  

    Then, I think, the conversation with the female-to-male transsexual, Ben, in which Zach reveals that even gay people can be astonishingly uninformed, not only about the trans phenomenon, but queer theory, as well:

    2. Being Trans: A Conversationwith Ben – July 29, 2016 

    The West Point graduation and the family gathering that proceeded it:

    3. An Officer and A Gentleman – July 15, 2017

    And Zach the story-teller:

    4. Affair with a guy fromFacebook – Aug. 15, 2016

    I’ll stop there. You can dig out all the ring and the engagement and the wedding stuff, if you’re into it.

    5. OK, then. Just one more - their wedding tape, from which the photo above is lifted.

    If you've only got time for one, make it this last one.

    Skip the commentary on LGBT movies. It will make you weep.

    Don’t know if this makes you want to carry a giant American flag down a country road in Alabama, or start dividing the world into gals and dudes and hanging homemade carve-outs of the State of Texas on your wall, but maybe it will add to your understanding of the complex ripples and folds of the many subcultures of this country. It expanded mine.



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  8. Don't blame me; I just work here.
    The death penalty is legal in over half the states in this country, thirty-one of the fifty.

    The United States is not as bad as the serious killer countries. China kills way more prisoners than anybody else. We don’t know how many because they keep the number a state secret. Freedom of information hasn’t caught on in the Middle Kingdom. Followed by the Islamic righteousness bunch – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt, in that order. That was in 2016. In 2015 fifth place in that list went to the United States instead of Pakistan.

    Given America’s willingness to go to war, it should come as no surprise that it finds itself among the nations that fail to hold human life sacred. All Western European nations have eliminated the death penalty, as have Canada, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, and much of Latin America. But not the United States. What does come as a surprise, at least to me, is the extent to which the United States will go to defend their right to take human life.

    The United Nations Human Rights Council just passed a resolution condemning nations which take the lives of gay people for being gay. Twenty-seven nations supported the resolution. The United States did not. Not our business, says the US, if you kill your gay people.

    How low we’ve sunk since that unforgettable day, December 6, 2011, when Hillary Clinton addressed the UN in Geneva on the topic of human rights for gay people. I’m not a Hillary fan, but I will never forget what she did on that day as Obama's Secretary of State. Just thinking back on it brings tears of pride and joy to the eyes.

    And now we get – “No skin off my nose!”

    It bothered me when I read the news this morning. The gay press is howling, as you might imagine. But most press reports give the statistics only - 27 in favor, 13 against, 7 abstentions. Most fail to give any explanation for why, other than that Trump is a nasty piece of work, the U.S. not only failed to abstain but actually voted against the resolution. You have to dig a bit before you realize what’s going on. I figured it out when I noticed that Japan, too, voted no. Japan is another country that doesn’t want to criticize anybody for having the death penalty for fear their action might come back and bite them in the ass for being hypocritical.

    So there you have it, folks. We demand the right as a nation these days to kill bad guys when we want to. And since we know what's good for the goose is good for the gander, we're not going to step on your right to do the same - and to define bad guys any way you want to. Speaking out to save the lives of gay people around the world is no longer on our agenda.

    Got to keep one’s priorities straight.

    Photo credit


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  9. Karl and Bodo jump the broom
    Oh, happy day!

    The doors opened at the registry offices around Germany today, allowing lesbian and gay couples to marry. The bill passed the Bundestag, the lower house, on June 30, and the Bundesrat, the upper house, on July 7, was signed into law by President Steinmeier on July 30, and was published in the Federal Law Gazette on July 28, touching all the bases, so to speak. Passing this law was no mean thing, and laws don't usually go into effect overnight. 

    A great step for the modern narrative. You know the older one, the one some on the religious right still adhere to, about the Garden of Eden. In that narrative, marriage is for Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and woman is cursed to suffer the pain of childbirth forever because she listened to a snake that once walked on two legs but must now crawl on the ground because Eve couldn’t overcome her desire for knowledge.

    Side by side with that narrative is this new one in which Adam and Steve (actually this first couple’s names are Karl and Bodo) don’t go to hell for their disobedience, but are inconvenienced a tad (one can’t rush the bureaucracy) by having to wait three months before getting to sign on the dotted line and open those final bottles of champagne. I say final. I’m assuming plenty were opened on June 30, that first important date.

    Younger people will take this in stride, while geezers of my generation will want to squeeze the event for all it’s worth. It was a long long time coming and in so many places – just across the border in Poland, for example, it is yet to come. In Poland and the other nations of Eastern Europe it isn’t even on the horizon. So you’ll excuse the urge to jump around a little.

    Polls of voters by party show a rapid - and (pace FDP) universal - change in approval of same-sex marriage in Germany in the past two years:  

    June 2015
    June 2017
    Die Linke
    Green Party

    Not that somebody didn't find a way to throw a few tacks in the road. The bureaucracy couldn’t get its shit together in three months to update the registry software. That means Karl and Bodo, who have been together for thirty-eight years, and have been trying to marry for twenty-five, will have to decide which of them signs on the “husband” line and who puts his name down as “the wife.” 

    At least they don’t ask who’s the top and who’s the bottom.

    Or which one wears the pants in the house.

    Or which one the kids will call daddy.

    94,000 gay couples in Germany, according to one count. Not all will want to marry. Marriage isn't for everyone. But at least the option is now there for anyone who wants it.

    Happy day.  Congrats, Germany! 


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  10. Kirkconnel church and graveyard
    Dùn Phrìs is Gall-Ghaidhealaibh, or Dumfries and Galloway as its called in English, is the southernmost district of Scotland. Row eastwardly across the Irish Sea or drive down the road to Carlisle and you’re in County Cumbria, in England. As a border district, it has a colorful history of 300 years of antagonism and border reivers (the Scottish word for plunderers) from the end of the 13th to the beginning of the 17th centuries, during the age of the Stuarts in Scotland and the Tudors in England. Colorful being a euphemism for bloody, of course. Dumfries, a onetime Royal Burgh, is remembered as the place where Scotland’s hero Robert the Bruce murdered Comyn the Red, son of Comyn the Black, at the altar of the Church of the Greyfriars. Details are somewhat fuzzy. It took place in 1306.

    Up in the northern part of the shire is a village called Kirkconnel, sometimes written with two l’s and without the second k, and associated with Sir Walter Scott’s “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.” One of the ballads contained in this work, published in 1802 or 3, is the Ballad of Fair Helen.   

    The story goes like this. Fair Helen belonged to the prominent Irving family. They wanted her to
    graves of Fair Helen and her Adam
    marry within her station and decided that among her many suitors the most suitable was Robert Bell. Helen had other plans, having fallen in love with Adam Fleming, of a not so prominent family. Coming across Helen and Adam in an embrace one day, Robert pulled a gun and fired, intending to kill Adam. But Helen saw what was coming and threw herself in front of Adam, taking the shot. Adam, crazed with grief, set upon Robert and hacked him to pieces with his sword. He then fled the country, only to return some years later, where he was discovered, by a servant of the Bell family, lying dead across Helen’s grave. The Irvings had come around by then and allowed them to be buried together.

    countertenor with absolutely
    no connection with this
    story whatsoever
    If you grew up in a Protestant tradition, you may be familiar with the lovely and eminently singable hymn, “Alas! did my Savior bleed,” - which derives from a popular tune based on Scott’s ballad of Fair Helen. Or perhaps you remember it without the blood reference as “As Pants the Hart (sic) for cooling streams,” not to be confused with the more ponderous tune of the same name by Georg Friedrich Händel, sung here by the Tölzer Boys’ Choir (with how’bout them apples countertenor and handsome Sudanese Superdude, Magid El-Bushra, at left).

    On a very different plain, but still very much to my taste these days is Scottish folksinger Archie Fisher’s version of the ballad, available on YouTube.

    Here is Scott’s original ballad, if you’d like to follow along.  A ‘lea,’ by the by, is another word for pasture or grazing land that goes back to the 12th century and possibly earlier. I trust the Scottish words are not stumbling blocks – “meikle” for “much,” “nae mair” for “no more,” and “burd,” which normally means “flattering” but I take here to mean “fair.”

    You’ll note that Archie takes some liberties with the text and leaves out some verses, as I’ve indicated with italics and double indentation:

    I wish I were where Helen lies!
    Night and day on me she cries;
    O that I were where Helen lies,
    On fair Kirconnell Lea!

    Curst be the heart, that thought the thought,
    And curst the hand, that fired the shot,
    When in my arms burd Helen dropt,
    And died to succour me!

    O think na ye my heart was sair,
    When my love dropt down and spak nae mair!
    There did she swoon wi' meikle care,
    On fair Kirconnell Lea.

    As I went down the water side,
    Kirkconnel Lea today
    None but my foe to be my guide.
    None but my foe to be my guide,
    On fair Kirconnell Lea.

    I lighted down, my sword did draw,
    I hacked him in pieces sma,
    I hacked him in pieces sma,
    For her sake that died for me.

    O Helen fair, beyond compare!
    I'll make a garland of thy hair,
    Shall bind my heart for evermair,
    Untill the day I die.

    O that I were where Helen lies!
    Night and day on me she cries;
    Out of my bed she bids me rise,
    Says, "haste, and come to me!"

    O Helen fair! O Helen chaste!
    If I were with thee I were blest,
    Where thou lies low, and takes thy rest,
    On fair Kirconnell Lea.

    I wish my grave were growing green,
    A winding sheet drawn ower my een,
    And I in Helen's arms lying,
    On fair Kirconnell Lea.

    I wish I were where Helen lies!
    Night and day on me she cries;
    And I am weary of the skies,
    For her sake that died for me.

    That was in the 1600s, three hundred years after Comyn the Red met his maker at the altar of the Church of the Greyfriars. Hacking somebody into little pieces - I hacked him in pieces sma, - isn’t quite as dastardly as the blasphemous slaying before a church altar, and is of course mitigated by la passion d’amour. But there’s still blood and death involved, lest you think the peaceful “land of lochs and legends” Scotland has become today happened overnight.

    Wikipedia’s Kirkconnel page tells me not to confuse this Kirkconnel the ballads of Fair Helen of Kirconnell (sic – no second k), but I suspect Wiki’s left hand may not know what Wiki’s right hand is doing, since when one clicks on the Helen of Kirconnell site, one is informed that Scott’s ballad
    concerns one Helen Irving, who lies in a grave with her lover, Adam Fleming, in “the burial ground of Kirkconnell, near the Border.”

    Further corroboration that Scott’s Kirkconnell and modern day Kirkconnel are one and the same is provided here in an alternative take on this tale of the Romeo and Juliet of the Scottish borderlands.

    And if that’s not convincing, try this one.

    Kirkconnel today is a town of some two thousand souls, in the Strath of Nith, strath being the Scottish word for river valley and Nith being the River Nith, not far from its origins, before it makes its way past Dumfries to the Irish Sea. As best I can determine, the town has maybe a dozen named streets, including a Main Street and the A76 trunk road which runs for sixty miles between Kilmarnock and Dumfries, right through Kirkconnel. Kirkconnel Church remains the town’s most notable landmark. It ceased to be a place of worship in 1640 and what ruins remain today are but a shadow of its original glory. A sign posted outside tells us that the church was probably the family vault of the Maxwell family and includes a cross memorializing the 8th Lord Maxwell, a Scottish Catholic nobleman who was once found guilty of treason, in 1588, for participating on the Spanish side in the organization of the Spanish Armada, but was somehow freed a year later on a bond of £100,000 and reinstated three years after that as “Warden of the West Marches.”  

    A brief discursion here… March, you may know, is a medieval geographical term for borderlands: march, in English, margo, in Latin (from whence “margin” is derived), marz in Persian and Armenian, mörk in Old Norse, mark in German and Danish (thus Denmark, and Ostmark to signify Austria after the Anschluss). And the guy who runs the mark?  Why, the marquis, of course, (or the English marquess, if you prefer (the Scots use marquis), along with his good lady, the marquise, sometimes marchioness.

    But back to business.  John Maxwell, 8th Lord Maxwell, was  “slain (we are told) unarmed (stress mine) by the Johnstones in 1592.”  More bloody violence, a marquisicide this time, to saddle on the history of Dumfries and Galloway.

    It's possible, of course, that it was this bloody history of his birthplace that drove my grandfather to leave Kirkconnel for America in 1902. Another, more likely, explanation is the fact that the town probably had only one single road at that time.  I’ll never know. Anybody who might tell me is long gone.

    Thomas McCornick sailed at the age of 22 from Glasgow to Boston, where he met Mabel Johnston (no e at the end and no relation that I know of to the Johnstone fellow who did in the 8th Lord Maxwell) of Nova Scotia, where they both settled in their senior years and are buried. But not till after raising three boys in Connecticut: Thomas, John and William, each of whom, in their turn, raised two children of their own. I was the firstborn of the six. My father was the middle son.

    Like most young people, I had little interest in the origins of my elders when grandpa was still in my life, before I rode off into the California sunset, and knew of my grandfather’s Scottish roots because they were highlighted by the time we spent in Nova Scotia, where you could still hear bagpipe music on the radio everyday when I was a kid, and the catholic descendants of Mary, Queen of Scots, still kept Gaelic alive.

    I wonder what he would make of this internet age, when one can call up photos online of the kirk in the town of his birth. And have instant access to the poetry of Walter Scott and Rabbie Burns (who died at Dumfries at age 37, by the way) at whim, without having to find a library or bookstore. And find one’s name on a ship’s manifest and learn that the ship would end its days off the coast of Newfoundland a few years and ocean crossings later, miraculously with no casualties. And discover that there is another person carrying your name on the UK census of 1891 two years older than you.

    Brave new world, this world of the internet. Wish he had lived to see it.

    Or that I had known enough to google his brain for answers to so many questions now coming to mind about who he was and where he came from, now that I’ve lived long enough to understand why one might want to ground one’s identity with more and more specifics.

    We had Irvings and Flemings and Maxwells among our circle of family friends, I remember, as a kid. Did he ever make connections with the ancestors of those folks, the Fair Helen Irving who took a bullet for Adam Fleming, for example? Or the Maxwell House coffee can I cut my hand on in Nova Scotia at the age of 16 which put me in the hospital in Antigonish where the priests of St. Mary’s would come and teach me Gaelic? The same Maxwell House the eight Lords (and more) of the Scottish Westmarch belonged to, they who once actually owned the land where my grandfather was born?

    I think not, somehow. He was a man who moved forward, not back, as illustrated by the fact that he never went back to Scotland in all the 77 years he lived in the U.S. and Canada.*

    But maybe if we could get together and talk today, I might find some interesting missing bits of history. He’d be 131, so it might be slow going.

    I still hear his voice.  “Go on!” he used to say when you’d say something he found hard to believe.  

    Did you know, pa (we all called him pa), that you and Fair Helen of Kirkconnel fame share a birthplace in common?

    “Go on!” he'd say.

    "Go on!"

    Photo Credits:

    Graves of Helen and Adam in the Kirkconnel churchyard 

    Kirkconnel Church 

    Kirkconnel Lea today

    *Correction: Cousin Betty reminds me they did make a trip back one time. I was too young to appreciate the significance and failed to pick his brain for impressions. I stand corrected.

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