1. clockwise from far left: Viktor, Wilhelm, Charly
    Friedhelm, Greta
    A friend called to my attention the other day the German three-part television miniseries called Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (Our Mothers, Our Fathers) from two years ago.  It’s now out as a two-part film, available with English subtitles, under the clumsy English title, Generation War.   I saw it the other night on Netflix streaming.

    I see no way to write a review of the film without taking into account the critical reviews I have read on Rotten Tomatoes and in Netflix commentaries and wondering how broadly their views are shared by the general American moviegoer.  So let me start with that.

    It’s not surprising that when Germans make a movie about the Second World War a lot of people are going to sit up and take notice.  But what is surprising is how many people seem to question their right to do so at all, or at least to do so without starting and ending with shame and contrition. Despite the fact that most Germans living today were born after war’s end and have no personal responsibility for the direction it took, much of the negative criticism of the film centers around the decision to make it about German victims of the war instead of making it about the Holocaust. 

    The warning is clear.  If you’re going to do history, you’d better do it from the victor’s perspective.  Otherwise you are bound to raise some shackles.  In a black-and-white world of good guys and bad guys, some folks appear to find it insulting to be presented with a nuanced view of Germans as something other than one giant collective of bad guys.  The least they could do, apparently, is to show them as good guys who enabled very bad things to happen.

    The movie is about the kind of college-age students who get into trouble because they listen to swing, knowing full well the Nazi state has declared the music decadent.  They are not Nazi thugs, in other words, but people you imagine your mothers and fathers might well have been.

    At the center of this group of five close friends who have grown up together are two brothers.  One of them, Friedhelm, is mistreated by his father because he is a “soft” mother’s boy.  Wilhelm, Friedhelm’s older brother and the narrator of the tale, is made to promise by his mother that he will bring his little brother home alive and by his father that he will bring honor to the family. Wilhelm is a dutiful son and takes his responsibilities to the Fatherland seriously at first.  Then there is Charlotte, who is in love with Wilhelm but afraid to let him know it.  “Charly” as she is called, volunteers enthusiastically “to represent the German woman” as a nurse at the front.  At one point, she learns a Ukrainian nurse she has hired is a Jew and turns her in.  The last two of the fivesome are a couple in love with each other, Greta and Victor.  Victor is a Jew, and Greta ends up is sleeping with a Gestapo officer to get papers to get Victor out of Germany.  These are people who buy into the cause at the start of the war.  The one pacifist in the bunch becomes a hardened killer, even of innocent civilians.  These are not pawns, as critics suggest, and this is most assuredly not a whitewash.  In fact, Generation War goes further than many treatments of the war have gone in portraying the extent to which the Wehrmacht, the regular German army (and not just the SS or the Gestapo), committed acts in defiance of the Geneva Conventions.

    Critics who suggest the movie should have centered on the holocaust might consider what Alice Walker said when criticized for her negative portrayal of black men in The Color Purple at a time when many in the struggle for black liberation thought she should have presented a common front against white racism.  “You tell your story,” she said, “and I’ll tell mine.” 

    Here’s a sample of the kind of criticism I’m taking issue with:

    Peter Keough of the Boston Globe sneers, “All sides of the German side in ‘Generation War…’”
    as if the film fails because it is not an objective textbook analysis of the war.  It’s a fictionalized imagining of what some people’s mothers and fathers went through.  A tale told in a German cultural space, not a litany of German transgressions. 

    Robert Denerstein puts into words what I think is on the minds of many.  “There are those,” he says, “who have insisted that the movie’s separation of characters into good and bad Germans tends to encourage a form of national absolution. Those voices shouldn’t be ignored.”  Maybe so.  But does this mean Denerstein thinks there were no “good Germans?”  And did he miss the fact that the characters we come to feel some sympathy for (i.e., the good Germans) include Charly, who betrays a Jewish colleague?  And Friedhelm, who shoots innocents when commanded to do so?  Their crimes don't make them Gestapo agents, but no one can dismiss them as "good Germans" tout court, either. They are complex human beings caught up in morally challenging times, and and they don't come off completely clean.

    The notion that if you’re German you have one task: to take on full collective responsibility for the war, or keep your mouth shut, is sophomoric and unworthy.   While evading responsibility by blaming the war on circumstance and the bad guys is also unworthy, there is no legitimate reason to deny the right of people swept up in Führer mania and war frenzy to cry out in pain when it becomes clear what price they are going to have to pay for their naïveté and for their inability to go against the tide.  

    Michael Philips acknowledges there is “occasional nuance” and some good acting, but he sees those merits lost in an “overall sea of whitewash.” 

    Not all critics take this stance, of course.  Ken Hanke, for example, disagrees with the notion the film is a whitewash.  “To me,” he says, “it has less to do with making the Germans look good than it’s about the perils of nationalism for its own sake, self-delusion, disillusionment and just plain getting sucked into something over which you have no control.”

    But then there's Marc Mohan, writing in The Oregonian, back on the same critical theme.  “While it's an effective memoriam for the well-meaning Germans whose lives were ruined by Hitler's mad dream,” he claims,  “the refusal of "Generation War" to focus on any other sort of German makes it both dramatically and historically suspect.”  There it is.  You don’t get to tell your story unless it’s my story.  

    Farran Smith Nehme,  freelance movie reviewer for the New York Post and blogger, characterizes the film as “Nazi Germany lite,” and suggests that the idea that a group of five friends might include a Jew, not one of whose pals was a true Hitler worshipper was “statistically unlikely,” leaving one to wonder if she actually thinks there were no well-integrated Jews living in Germany before Hitler, or if only majorities have the right to have their stories told. 

    Matt Prigge, of Metro, calls Generation War a “useless epic” about Nazi Germany which “spends four-and-a-half hours excusing the German populace for falling to Nazi rule.”  He, like other critics, objects to what he sees as a good German/bad German dichotomy:

    One commandant is introduced calmly shooting a Jewish girl in the back of the head. We know he’ll get his, and we will cheer when he does. But it’s a reassuring falsehood: We are trained as viewers to focus all our hatred on him while forgiving our lead characters, who are portrayed as mere pawns.

    Pawns.  Whitewash.  Did none of these guys actually sit and watch the film?

    Granted, virtually everyone who grew up with the Second World War and the Holocaust has struggled with the question of how civilized people could have sunk into the barbarity that Germany inflicted on the world under the Third Reich.  The question will never go away.  There will always be (at least I hope there will always be) someone demanding a critical new look at American slavery and the genocidal killing of the North American Indian, or of Pol Pot, or the war in Kosovo, or the slaughter in Rwanda.  Each time a new generation faces the fact that there is an ugly side to humanity that may stay buried for long periods of time but which can reveal itself anew, given the right kind of external pressures.  To this day, the Turks refuse to recognize the part they played in the wholesale slaughter of Armenians a hundred years ago, and the world’s apathy toward that even gave Hitler courage.  “Who remembers Armenia,” he famously asked, when starting out on his killing spree.

    I do not mean to suggest that the only culprit is war itself, or the human lust for war.  I still believe with the Simon Wiesenthals of the world that one should seek out and punish individual perpetrators of crimes against humanity.  Germans, Turks, Americans, Serbians – any individuals who have engaged in aggressive war – should be held responsible for their deeds.  But I also believe Germans, even those whose parents (or, more accurately, grandparents) were not totally innocent of complicity for the evils done in their name, get to imagine how these parents may have suffered as the war and the evil that goes with war eventually swept over them.  And imagine them not as monsters, but as people living at a terrible time.

    Which brings us, finally, to the standard film review question, “How well was the story told?”

    I, for one, found the tales of the paths traveled by these five young people to be totally engrossing.  I thought the acting was superb, the settings and the costumes first rate, the war scenes credible, the pacing just right, considering its length, and the tension at a high pitch.  Some have argued that since you know how the war is going to end, this makes the film predictable, but in fact, there are five separate narratives on display and you don't know how they will each turn out.  

    The only serious weakness I found was the sheer number of coincidences that had to be contrived to keep the five friends in touch with one another.  That pushed the story in the direction of soap opera and stretched credibility, although it also enabled a memorable final scene.

    Another possible weakness was the portrayal of Polish partisans as ardent anti-Semites.  I can’t be sure they weren’t, and in fact, there seems to be considerable evidence that Jews actually had as much or more to fear from the Polish Home Army (the Armia Krajowa) than they did from the Nazis. The problem, of course, is it does raise the question of whether this isn’t the pot calling the kettle black.

    There were a few minor flaws – a soldier given up for dead gets saved because a nurse gets a doctor to operate, and he’s up and about in no time; the Jewish Ukrainian nurse who is betrayed comes back as a deus ex machina.  All a bit too pat.

    Because I don’t like war movies, don’t like the violence and the focus on blood and guts, I’m not likely to want to see it again too soon.  But there is enough substance to the twists and turns of lost innocence that I expect I will come back for another viewing one day.


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  2. Many years ago I got into a discussion with a gay friend who said to me, “You are so lucky you live in San Francisco.  There are so many gay people there that you don’t have to worry about the kinds of things we have to worry about.  It's like when Jews like to live with other Jews.  One needs one’s own kind around for protection.”

    That got me thinking about the Jewish inclination to live in urban areas.  The stock explanation is that Jews need a minyan to have a religious service – a quorum of ten men.  But that is only a small part of the story.  It’s an understatement that birds flock together and there is safety in numbers.

    The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized we were missing the woods for the trees.  The reason San Francisco is a safe place for gays (and Jews and black people married to Chinese people) is that the straight people who live here tend to be welcoming.  It’s the straight people who make San Francisco a gay mecca.  It’s not just the fact that all the gay people from Kansas, Texas and Alabama running from the homophobes had reached the ocean and had no choice but to put down stakes; it’s that people moved over, took them in and made them feel at home.

    I came to San Francisco in 1965, a full half century ago come June, in time for the flower children revolution, smoked some pot, marched in anti-Vietnam war parades, and learned over and over that when I came out as gay to my straight friends their response would be, “Of course you are!”  End of story.

    Ad in San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, April 16, 2015
    (for a readable version, click here)
    You can imagine my pride in this city when I opened this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle to find a full page appeal to the pope to get rid of the Roman Catholic Archbishop, Salvatore Cordileone.  108 signatures (if I have counted them accurately) on a document which ends with, “The City of Saint Francis deserves an Archbishop true to our values and to your teachings.”

    I’ve watched this struggle within the Roman Catholic Church between the hierarchy and the folks in the pews up close for years.  It matches the political split in the United States, where one party represents the interests of corporate America and the wealthy classes and the other concerns itself, at least slightly more, with social welfare, fighting poverty and racism, voting rights, and social equity.  The Catholic Church took a big step away from its traditional focus on control and the accumulation of wealth and power centered in the hierarchy with Vatican II.  It’s worth noting that this appeal to the pope begins, “We are committed Catholics inspired by Vatican II.”

    Vatican I, remember, was the time when the pope of the day, Pius IX in 1868, frustrated over the loss of the Papal States, decided against great opposition to declare himself infallible.  It made the pope central to the faith, a curse the church has had to live with since.  (Another concern of Vatican I was to point out the dangers of rationalism.) To this day, however, folks who stress Vatican II over Vatican I believe "the church" should not be centered on the men in silks and satins who live in palaces but on the pastoral work of its ordinary clergy, with full participation by all of the followers of Christ, women as well as men. These "folks in the pews" have not stopped trying to pull the church back to its humble origins and center it on a man known for urging compassion and forgiveness.  You know.  The guy who once declared “Blessed are the Poor.”

    The self-identified Vatican II Christian signatories to this letter to the pope make my point for me that San Francisco is a welcoming place.  They specifically single out two pet projects of Cordileone's conservative wing of the Church as reasons why they no longer want this man as their spiritual leader – keeping women out of power positions and rejecting gay and lesbian people as people whose natural behavior it characterizes as “gravely evil.”

    How often, in the old days, when I had more fire to flame-throw at the Church for its homophobia, did I hear its defenders say, “But all those schools, all those hospitals – it isn’t all bad!”  And all I could think of was the number of children abused by the catholic message that they are born with sin, hate Jesus when they masturbate, can be gay as long as they give up sex for life, accept a patriarchal tradition as the will of God, and ought to pray for the conversion of their Jewish friends.  I still think it is a very sick institution.  And as a non-Catholic I deeply resent the obvious move by the official church to send here into the Bay Area, a traditionally warm and welcoming place to people outside the mold of the communities they come from, one arch conservative after another.  Cordileone is only the latest in a long list.  But he is a new low among those who unabashedly use the power of their faith community to affect the lives of non-Catholic Americans.   I can't begin to tell you how bitterly I resent that.  Cordileone intends to rally folks in Washington next week to urge the Supreme Court to reject the right of same-sex couples to marry - just before they meet to decide the issue on April 28.

    Make no mistake.  This letter is a red flag before the eyes of a bull.  The battle is engaged.  These people are not going away, as a Chronicle editorial reminds us    But neither is the archdiocese likely to cave.  It immediately responded by releasing a statement saying the ad was

    a misrepresentation of Catholic teaching, a misrepresentation of the nature of the teacher contract, and a misrepresentation of the spirit of the archbishop. The greatest misrepresentation of all is that the signers presume to speak for ‘the Catholic Community of San Francisco. They do not.”

    That’s the thing with religious communities.  There’s inevitably a squabble over who gets to be the voice of the people.  Is ISIS the voice of Islam?  - they cite chapter and verse from the Qur’an to justify their actions.  And all Cordileone was doing with his warning to the teachers at four Catholic High Schools – one of the primary motivators for these 108 signatories – was reminding them what was in the official Catholic catechism – the rule book for believers.

    If you are raised in one of those religious communities governed by harsh doctrines going back to the bronze age, you always have the option of using your eyes and your ears and your heart to form the kind of practical morality that comes from living side by side with people outside your faith.  San Franciscans know gay people – some of whom are Catholics themselves – and they know there is something foul in the doctrine that would teach them to internalize the view that their God-given sexual natures are “gravely evil.”

    My guess is the church will realize Cordileone’s power to win friends and influence people has waned enough to make him more trouble than he is worth, and will replace him, once enough time has passed so it will look like it’s simply time for a transfer.  The Church is much better at looking good than at actually being good.   I’m not Catholic, and I watch these goings-on from outside.  But I do appreciate the good Catholic folk of the San Francisco Diocese for having the courage to put their money where their mouth is – this full-page ad can’t be cheap.  And I’m sure plenty of Bay Area atheists, Buddhists, Jews, Chinese women married to black men, transgendered people and lovers of life in all its rich potential will join me in saying to them, “So glad you’re here, you Roman Catholic people.  Have a seat next to us.  There is plenty of room.”


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  3. Fito and Leo
    It is sad that the great majority of gay-themed films that come my way fall in the space between disappointing and just plain wretched.  It’s obvious gays are hungry to see themselves represented on the screen and will watch paint dry, as long as they are convinced there is a gay theme in there somewhere.  How else can one explain the run of gay films that come down the pike, one more amateurish, maudlin and trite than the next?  Click on the gay and lesbian category in Netflix, if you don’t believe me, and just look how many of them have a one or a two-star rating.

    All the more reason to celebrate when the occasional gem shows up.  A friend had just come across a Mexican film called Cuatro Lunas (Four  Moons), and urged me to have a look.  It made my day.

    Cuatro Lunas, strictly speaking, refers to four phases of the moon: the new moon, moon waxing (rising), full moon, and moon waning (falling).  Each phase is used to characterize one of four gay relationships in the film.    The new moon is Mauricio, an eleven-year-old boy discovering sexual desire for a male cousin who rejects him and later bullies him.    Moon rising is the story of Fito and Leo, two old friends from a small town who find each other in Mexico City, discover a sexual attraction for each other, and have to contend with the difference in the pace of each other’s coming out.  Moon waning is a couple, Hugo and Andrés, who have been together for ten years, and are challenged when one of them begins to stray.  And the full moon is the story of Joaquín, an elderly family man of considerable social standing, a poet and university professor who finds himself attracted to Gilberto, a male prostitute. 

    The four stories do not overlap, but they are narrated simultaneously, allowing for some tension to build as the scene shifts from one to the other.  Collectively, they lay out four distinct faces of the experience of being same-sex attracted in Mexico today.  Each character is fighting homophobia, sometimes external and harsh, sometimes internal and even harsher.  The stories are told not from a sociological perspective, however.  Each one is a very personal narrative and it is a testament to the writing of Sergio Tovar Velarde, who also directed the film, that you quickly find yourself rooting for each character in turn.  Their stories are told with warmth and a gentle touch and, despite some ugly reality, you are left with the sense that things will work out.

    Cuatro Lunas is Tovar Velarde’s second feature film.  Although it was not immediately picked up in Mexico, it made it to the screen ultimately with the aid of American and Canadian (Quebec) support and has already begun the rounds of gay film festivals, at Ft. Lauderdale and San Diego. The film will open the Latin and Queer Art and Film Festival in Los Angeles, this Friday, April 17th. One reviewer described Tovar Velarde’s work as “an outstanding analysis of the human soul of his generation, a sublime compendium of the new laws of desire of the 21st century.” 

    There are missteps in the plot line.  Problems are resolved a bit too quickly to be believable.  And Andrés’ tears get a bit too close for comfort to soap opera.  But the film has so much heart you are inclined to forgive those sins and much more.  And, ultimately, it's the honesty of the story-telling that makes you sit up at times in astonishment.  Some moments are agonizing, as when Mauricio takes his eleven-year-old homosexuality to a priest in confession only to be dismissed out of hand.  And some are downright hilarious, like watching two straight men learning how to “do the gay thing.”

    Another feature of the film which lifts it out of the amateur category, besides the honest story-telling and some very credible acting, is the theme music provided by two Argentine musicians and their now quite successful group called the Paté de Fuá (as in foie gras), which they formed after emigrating to Mexico.   Their music is a mix of  tarantelas, Dixieland, tango and jazz.  Their theme song, Cuatro Lunas, is available here, on YouTube, the words to which follow:

    No sé si he de mirar al firmamento;
    yo vivo entre la tierra y las estrellas.
    No sé cómo escapar de lo que siento,
    mi amor,
    no sé cómo dejar atrás tu huella.
    Me quema el corazón a fuego lento
    la triste realidad de no tenerte.
    Paté de Fuá
    Lucho con la culpa y el tormento al pensar
    que moriré queriéndote amar.
    Luna de pena,
    nueva y creciente.
    Luna valiente,
    menguante y llena.
    Cuatro lunas,
    cuatro lunas.
    No habrá una noche igual,
    no habrá ninguna.
    Será que de vivir mirando al cielo
    mi corazón se pierde en lo lejano.
    Será que cada noche en mi desvelo,
    mi amor,
    me alejo para no soltar tu mano
    “Dibújame un cordero”, me dijiste
    haciendome cosquillas en la boca.
    Tus labios me provocan otra forma de ser.
    Ya no seré el amado de ayer.
    Luna de pena
    nueva y creciente
    Luna valiente
    Menguante y llena
    Cuatro lunas
    Cuatro lunas
    No habrá una noche igual
    no habrá ninguna.

    An interview with Sergio Tovar Velarde, Alejandro Belmonte and Cesar Ramos (in Spanish) is available here.    And an interview with Gustavo Egelhaaf (Leo) (in Spanish) is available here.  

    And if you get hooked on Paté de Fuá, as I did, try these, as well:

    and you'll find many more on YouTube.

    picture credits:

    1. Fito and Leo (César Ramos and Gustavo Egelhaaf) from YouTube video trailer 
    2. Paté de Fuá poster also from a YouTube video

    "Te amo, chiquillo" - "I love you, kiddo!"


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  4. Cornel West
    I went with the family – Taku and Amy (we left the girls at home) – to hear Cornel West talk to a packed house last night at San Francisco’s Nourse Auditorium.  It was, for me, a thrilling experience.  It’s rare these days that people get up and talk in public and I find myself in agreement 100% of the time.  OK, so maybe thrilling is overstating it, but I was quite taken with his rhetorical skill.  Really quite bowled over with the power of his language.  Not just the words.  The smack-down power of his frank assessment of American shame.

    Amy thought it was worth hearing what he had to say, but in talking about him later, at an 11 p.m. Thai dinner after the show, she began her comments with some reservations.  Taku found the entire experience a disappointment.

    It was clear we were all processing the evening differently, and I was surprised that they would be anything but bowled over, like I was, so I decided it was time to just sit and listen. 

    At some point West made a comparison between Beyoncé and Aretha Franklin.  He had made much about the gradual decay of the black community and the fact that they were so easy to co-opt and his implication was clear that it had to do with the loss of soul – spirituality – and its replacement by sensuality.  Joy, he said, was what it is about.  Not pleasure.  Aretha, not Beyoncé.  I took to the comparison instantly.  Amy found something wrong with the patriarchal tendency to make pronouncements on women who are acceptable and women who are not.  She didn’t disagree with what he said.  She was just resonating with the feminist in the audience who challenged him on the comparison.

    Taku was disappointed for a number of reasons, not at all impressed with the fire and laser-beam intensity and the skill to rattle off thousands of bits of information with no notes in sight. If you know Cornel West at all, you know he fills his talks with references to the world of jazz, the blues and black musical greats of all stripes.  He has an encyclopedic knowledge and apparently a photographic memory and can run down lists of names, dates, song titles, event venues, tossing out references by the dozens.  If you stand outside that musical tradition, your head spins.  I think that talent of his makes your head spin if you’re inside the tradition even more, actually, but the key is whether or not you are lifted up by inclusion or left out and wondering what it’s all about.

    That was a talk by a black man to a black audience.  Primarily.  Not entirely.  He addressed the state of black men, particularly young black men in America and every American is effected by the social decay he describes.  But if you are not intimately familiar with the black cultural tradition, where music, according to West, has always been the only way to hang on to your last bit of integrity when all your dignity has been removed – by not being allowed to bury your dead, for example (he doesn’t shy away from the legacy of slavery) ­­– then you cannot connect as well with his message.  Taku complained, too, that there was so much applause he couldn’t hear the second half of half of West’s sentences.  Or so it seemed to him.  I was more interested in noting that he was used to this and always made his points clear by the time the applause started.  He really is a master orator.

    I too lack the musical knowledge he assumes his audience has, but I have a native speaker’s love of the language he uses to tell his story.   I can tell the difference between a clanging cymbal of a preacher and a man like West who has the rhetorical skills to lift you out of your seat because you are hearing somebody tell it like it is. It doesn’t bother me that he is not quietly analytical, or that he doesn’t produce a how-to manual in response to the dilemmas he ticks off.  West once said somewhere, “In these downbeat times, we need as much hope and courage as we do vision and analysis,” and last night was much more a pep-talk than a lecture, as I suspect most of West’s speeches are.

    Even so, his speech was riddled with words like catastrophe, decay and destruction.  Thoughtful people have a right to say that we don’t need more dwelling on the obvious – we live with serious social and political decay – what we need are solutions.  But sometimes thoughtful people miss the woods for the trees.  I think what Taku was missing was that West wasn’t teaching his audience the answers.  He was creating a space where the answers would be most likely to stick, once they were eventually identified.  And the answers are hard to swallow, because they involve personal transformation, the most difficult of all responses to any situation.  The answers are spiritual ones, and we live in a far too cynical age to know what to do with spiritual answers when we hear them.

    West didn’t need to set up the surface problems.  His audience knew we spend more money on incarcerating black youth than we do on educating them, that we spend more money killing people in foreign countries than we do creating jobs in America, that we have a policy of dividing and conquering those on the bottom of the ladder, that we can silence the would-be opposition to national policy by setting the poor against each other, persuading part of us that the rest of us are freeloaders.  He went right to work on underlying problems, using W.E.B. DuBois four questions:

    1. How does integrity face oppression?
    2. What does honesty do in the face of deception?
    3. What does decency do in the face of insult?
    4.  How does virtue meet brute force?

    This is a well-rehearsed show.  He has had years to put it together.  Call it a dog and pony show, if you want to be cynical.  I call it a rare moment of telling it like it is.  You can get a sense of the talk by clicking here, where he gives you some of the content.  Only the smallest taste of the fire of last night’s performance, however.  Watching him deliver his message to a select TV audience is like watching a movie on a small screen that belongs on a large one, the large screen analogy being a black audience who magnifies the rhetoric with call/response.

    "Justice is what love looks like in public spaces; tenderness is what love is like when you are alone."

    That and other quotes by Cornel West are available here.

    The word thrilling came to mind to describe my response to West’s address last night not merely because he is a stirring speaker and because his topics are justice, truth and love – although that’s a large part of it.  I was drawn in because I feel we are currently beset with devastatingly overwhelming challenges.  Racism, America’s national curse, has been exposed in the police killings of black men now being captured on our mobile phones, but also in the efforts of political leaders to take voting rights away from black folk so hard fought a generation ago.  Our culture is rotten to the core.  We are programmed to think the individual is all, and that leaves us prey to those who would buy us out.  Money now buys the media, it buys the Supreme Court, Congress, the White House.  Only those with real bucks can participate in the political process with any hope of having any effect.  And I think when all is said and done, how we answer W.E.B. DuBois’ four questions is all we really have left to work with.  Even if the will to repair could be found, the mechanisms of repair seem to have slipped out of our hands.

    I think we are treading water.  Waiting for a time when we may some day find the courage to distribute the wealth of the nation in a way that builds us all up.  Find the money for repairs to bridges and roads and the rest of the nation's infrastructure, find the will and the money to create free education from pre-school through university, with serious attention to those coming from gutted out places of illiteracy and despair.  Recognize that when our money goes into drones that kill children on the other side of the world we bear responsibility for it.  That when we think the mega-rich are entitled to their billions because they earned it on their own, we are wrong.

    Some day we will do more than talk about these things till the cows come home.  For now, we preach to the choir.  Not because the choir is going to get things done.  But because the choir will have to keep the songs alive until we figure out how to stop the violence we inflict on the world.  And begin to see ourselves as others see us.  

    photo credit


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  5. The German soap opera, Verbotene LiebeForbidden Love, finally seemed to run its course and was about to come to an end this past January after a twenty-year run, but just wouldn't give up the ghost. Super soapy crap, with all the usual melodrama, accidents, near death scenes in the hospital and miraculous recovery, mistaken identity (a potentially incestuous brother-sister relationship until one of the daddies admits he’s not the real daddy), love triangles, etc. etc.  It ran on the German cable channel Passion – a station set aside for this kind of schmaltzy stuff.

    If you’re not gay, what follows may bring on a giant yawn, and for that I apologize.  For that matter, most of my gay friends will yawn as well.  But as someone who has followed what I call the “long, hard slog to gay liberation,” I like to keep sticking the thermometer into events such as these to check to see if we’re done yet.

    In 2008, Verbotene Liebe introduced the gay coming out theme with the characters Christian (Thore Schölermann) and Olli (Johannes "Jo" Weil).  We don’t put other countries’ soap operas on American television, so it’s not known here, but it’s been around long enough that many of its episodes have been captured on YouTube videos.  How many couples do you know who have a name for their coupledom (Chrolli), which coupledom has its own Facebook page and Fan website?  You can even vote for your favorite love scene and there are nine to choose from.  Here, for example, is their 107th onscreen kiss.  Somebody has kept count.

    Anybody who enjoys looking at men with their shirts off will enjoy the eye candy, and some will appreciate the gay smooching.  Other than that, there isn’t a whole lot to recommend. Besides the low grade story line common to daytime soaps, there is the (to me) seriously annoying emphasis on the need for gays to stay in the closet and the suggestion that this is how gays have to live.  To say nothing of the shouting and the weeping and the quick changes of emotion so typical of soaps.  I need to remind myself that some of these episodes go back to High Closet Days.  After all, I don’t watch German soaps and didn’t know about this program until very recently.  So perhaps I'm dwelling unduly on the early story lines and forgetting they were representing more reality than I think.  And I believe the story went through five years of ups and downs but eventually the two get together and get married.  But it’s still annoying.  “Get over yourself!” I hear myself shouting at them.  Stop being so 1990s!  It’s 2008 when you’re filming this for chrissakes!

    Thought you might like to sample one.   Because the show made it to England, there are English subtitles.  It’s only ten minutes long, and it features Christian’s first recognition that he is not only gay but in love with Olli – who is an out gay.  If you get hooked and want to binge-watch, you can find other episodes galore.  Sit back and click away.

    Or perhaps one will be enough to remind you how it was back then in the dark ages, in the 1990s.

    How soon we forget!

    Wait, wait!  Could it be that Verbotene Liebe is not dead after all?  Now there's a soap opera ending for you.  This just in...  Just checked with DasErste (Germany's Channel One) which informs me that Verbotene Liebe began as a weekly last month (February 27) at 6:30 p.m.  Heat up a couple Bratwürste, some fried potatoes and red cabbage, pull up your TV table in front of the TV and have at it!  Episode 4652 is about to begin!

    For more, check out the Wikipedia page on Verbotene Liebe.

    And lest you think Jo Weil is just another pretty gay face, watch him sing and dance, as well as emote.

    photo credit: from the Facebook page of "International Friends of Jo Weil, Thore Schölermann and Chrolli (Chrolli = Christian und Olli)" 

    And now that Google has figured out what I'm interested in, look how helpful they are when I click on YouTube:


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  6. Let’s hear it for The Atlantic.  They’ve got coverage of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Law from differing perspectives being debated on two successive days:  Garrett Epps argues (March 30) that the RFRA (the a in “act” is now the l in “law”) was imposed specifically to allow Christians to discriminate against gays and lesbians.  And Conor Friedersdorf insists (April 1) that all the fuss over the RFRA is misdirected and even hypocritical.  One needs to read both these articles.

    First, the good news.  Both arguments are “pro-gay,” please note.  Epps lays out the details of the case and the chronology and does a real service to those trying to understand the attempt by religious conservatives to pull an end-run around America’s raised consciousness regarding gay people.  The RFRA is a pitiful example of a last ditch stand by folk seeking to maintain at least a small corner of the world where they might maintain their prejudices.

    Conor Friedersdorf is not making a counter-argument.  I don’t think one can be made, actually.  Not by anyone serious.  But this young man from Orange County who favored the libertarian candidate over Barack Obama in the 2012 election, sure knows how to serve the conservative cause by going after liberals he considers too smug and huffy.  It’s not a complex formula.  First, you take potshots at politicians who ride with fingers in the wind, “evolving” in a way that will give them the most votes at any given moment.  Never mind the fact that having hypocrites and opportunists on your side doesn’t mean your cause is unjust.  Secondly, you take the low road when you can’t win an argument and argue that you shouldn’t be making the argument in the first place – that there is another, bigger, argument you should be making instead.  Friedersdorf’s main point is that the bad guys (he’s on the side of the gays, remember) are the states where gays still cannot marry.  Indiana is not one of those states.  Ergo, it’s the wrong target.

    Friedersdorf misses the woods for the trees.  When you have two battles to fight it doesn’t mean the only way to go is to fight one and drop the other.  You fight them both.  Actually, the battle for marriage rights in all fifty states is on hold at the moment because the Supreme Court will take up the issue later this month, so frankly I don’t know what Friedersdorf is going on about here.  Gay rights advocates can and should now devote their energies elsewhere.  Like speaking out against efforts to expand the definition of businesses and corporations as people who have religious rights, particularly when “religion” turns out to be just another word for “discrimination.” 
    Pence and friends
    You don’t have to be gay to spot homophobia this blatant.  It's patently obvious the context for the law is the same-sex marriage fight.  And if you doubt that, and are tempted to believe Mike Pence is being honest when he says there is no intention to discriminate against gays, just take a look at the people standing around Pence as he signs the bill into law.  And note what same-sex marriage opponent Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, had to say on the subject: "If there is no way to protect marriage as the union of a man and a woman, then we must protect the freedom of conscience, thought and speech on marriage in Indiana."  Besides Micah Clark in the picture on the right are Curt Smith, who has equated homosexuality with bestiality.  And Eric Miller, who once spread the false notion that preachers who preached against homosexuality could be jailed.

    The knife in the back gets twisted when you realize that in places like Indianapolis, which have stepped up to pass protections for gay people,  this law would require them to back down and create exceptions for religious people (any non-specified people of any religion, if you can imagine anything this wild) not to comply with these protections.

    And you have to laugh so you don't cry at the ways language is manipulated these days.  We invade a country and call it “Operation Freedom.”  We have the “Patriot Act” designed to mark political opponents as traitors, laws like the “Defense of Marriage Act,” and organizations like the “National Organization for Marriage,” which are mechanisms for keeping people out of the institution of marriage.  And now the good Christians of America are being told Indiana is leading the fight to “restore religion” in their land – code for “whatever you do, don’t let gays get away with thinking they are as good as we are.”

    And what the hell is this "restore religion" about in the first place?  When did we turn into a theocracy, where it's the job of state legislators to "restore religion?"   And scaring Aunt Martha into thinking she's about to be trampled by drag queens hauling poor Father John to the altar to marry them is a pretty sneaky means to an end.  It's not the state stepping on church rights here; it's the other way around.  But by the same token, if you want to hang out your shingle outside the church grounds and sell indulgences, you will have to sell them to Methodists – and not just to your own kind.

    One last thing.  Sometimes when you take a stand, you end up taking it on what appear to be all the wrong grounds.  When Muslims die rioting because their Prophet had been insulted by cartoonists in Denmark or France, there is pressure to blame the cartoonists for putting a red flag in front of a bull.  Stop looking for trouble, critics say, missing the point that you don’t fight for free speech only when you’re fighting Hitler or Stalin.  You often fail to appreciate the principle clearly unless you’re fighting at the outer edges.  In the case of censorship, that means fighting for the right of disagreeable people to be disagreeable. 

    I would never want to have somebody bake me a wedding cake who didn’t like me or approve of my wedding.  If I had the least suspicion I was talking to a baker who might spit in my cake, I'd be out of his bake shop like the roadrunner.  You don’t fight back because you want some person to bake you a cake.  You fight back because you don’t want people who operate businesses to be able to use religion to justify lynching.  Which, if I’ve read this law correctly, it sort of suggests they should be free to do.  OK, so there are other laws to prevent lynching and I’ve just given you justification for calling gays hysterical queens.  But a law that allows anybody to use religion to escape civic responsibilities is still a rotten piece of legislation.

    And now for the really good news.  Indiana and its governor are now in full damage control.  And Arkansas, which was once set to follow Indiana into the anti-gay folly, has backtracked.  Governor Asa Hutchinson has announced from Little Rock that his son has persuaded him not to sign the Arkansas version.  Something to do with difference in attitudes between the generations.

    Imagine that.

    The battle isn't over.   (Is it ever?)  As the San Francisco Chronicle commented this morning (April 2nd) in its lead editorial, undoing the damage of this law will take time.  Although Hutchinson will not sign the bill into law, if I have my information correct, unless the bill is expressly vetoed it passes automatically into law.  A veto would be nice.

    Still, as the Chronicle notes, "At long last, disingenuous defense against discrimination is in retreat."

    photo credits: the cartoon of the cross nailed to the closet door is by Nick Anderson of the Houston Chronicle.  I got it from Anderson's Facebook page after seeing it this morning in the San Francisco Chronicle.
    Source for the photo of Pence, surrounded by religious supporters at the signing of the RFRA, is here.


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  7. As I listened to people trying to come to terms with the loss of so many young people in this Germanwings crash in France this week, one summation of the event went straight to the heart.  “When your parents die,” this person said, “a little of your past dies with them.  And when your life partner dies, so does a little of your present.  But when your children die, your future dies as well.”

    A “gruesome event” – the word all over the German press and television is “Grausamkeit” – like no other I’ve experienced lately.  For some reason it struck close to home, partly because I have a fear of flying and watching my worst nightmare play out before my eyes was  almost too much to bear.  Partly because it hit so close to what I call home and became a national tragedy for Germany, as well as for so many others.  And partly because it brought the mighty low in a way I believe they didn’t deserve.  Lufthansa has always stood for the best of German virtues – the mechanical and organizational skills, the disciplined approach to work and to service, the quiet efficiency – all now up in smoke as it turns out they had put a very young man in the cockpit of one of their planes who had repeatedly struggled with suicidal tendencies.

    One way to frame this event, far-fetched as it may sound at first, is as only the latest of many German tragedies stemming ultimately from the greatest of all German tragedies, the unleashing of the evils of the Third Reich upon the world, including on Germans themselves.  I’m not being far fetched.  What appears to have gone wrong is that the details of Andreas Lubitz’ medical problems were not allowed to see the light of day.  If they had been, there might have been second thoughts about allowing a chronic depressive to take control of a flying machine where he might well slam it into a mountain.  And the reason is Germany’s history of one police state after another – first the Third Reich, then the German Democratic Republic, both of which showed little respect for individual rights and none at all for personal privacy.  As a result, the modern German democracy has made privacy a high priority.  Even after death, one’s medical records remain sealed.  It’s a case of a pendulum that once swung too far in one direction swinging now too far in the opposite direction.

    Menschen bei Maischberger
    "Legacy of 1945 - German Guilt, German Victims"
    Quite coincidentally, I happened to tune in just now to a German talk show online titled, “Das Erbe von 1945: Deutsche Schuld, deutsche Opfer (The legacy of 1945: German guilt, German victims)”

    There are three popular television talk shows hosted by women on German television.   All three display a much greater degree of earnestness and desire to foster public debate than one expects from their American analogues. More Charlie Rose than Oprah or Ellen.  

    This particular program – Menschen bei Maischberger (People (talking) with [Sandra] Maischberger – even exceeded the normally high level of discourse and took on the painful rehashing of war crimes, guilt, shame and misery of the Nazi past.  As might be expected, there was in the commentary an immediate cry of “Oh, no, not again!”  According to figures cited on the program, 81% of Germans recently polled would like to “put the Holocaust behind them.”  58% would like a line drawn under the Nazi past.   But just as we marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in January, this whole year we will be marking seventy years since the end of World War II.

    Although Germany isn't remotely what it was seventy years ago, there is the nagging thought that we haven't crossed all our t's and dotted all our i's.  For one thing, there is still the radical fringe (Click here, if you have a strong stomach, for a quick glance at evidence that Nazism is still alive). For another, there is the work survivors have to do to keep memories alive.  And the job of digging for an ever deeper understanding of the human condition and recognizing personal responsibility for crimes done in your name by your countrymen who preceded you is a job you do your whole life long.  It has to be balanced with the challenge to get on with life and not obsess over things for which you were not responsible and to find ways to feel good about life and those around you.  That's what Sandra Maischberger and her six guests were doing in her program today.

    “German Guilt, German Victims” had the following guests:

    Erhard Eppler
    1. Retired socialist party politician Erhard Eppler was six years old when Hitler came to power and he never knew any other reality than the mindset of the Third Reich.  Instead of being exposed to democracy and human rights as a child he went at age 16 from the Hitler Youth into the military, like the rest of his generation, and watched his world fall apart.  From his early 20s, until now at 88, he has had to live with the reality that he took part.  “I believe I was not particularly guilty of what happened,” he says today, “but I am ashamed that right up to the end I obeyed every order.”
    Miriam Gebhard

    2. Miriam Gebhardt is a historian who focused especially on the toll the war took on women in Germany.  She stirred up controversy with her recent publication of stories of women raped not only by Russian occupiers, but by British, American and French soldiers, as well.  Some 860,000 women, according to best estimates.

    When Eppler, who lived in the East, and Gebhardt, who lived in the West, tell their stories, it becomes clear that all accounts of what happened are only partial and one could fight to the end of time over which missing piece of the whole picture is most in need of attention.  One learns in the West of the routine raping and pillaging by Russians, but not of the wholesale destruction of the Russian (and Ukrainian) homeland which went into building up such a rage for revenge.  And when the victors get to tell the story, their abuses get underplayed.

    Nico Hofman
    3. Nico Hofman is a film producer who has been sharply criticized for making films that some claim whitewash the perpetrators of the war and present his German characters too sympathetically.  Others claim he has done an exceptionally good job at portraying historical events objectively, taken the black and white images we are given to work with and shown shades of grey.

    Niklas Frank
    4. Niklas Frank is the son of Hitler’s Governor General of Poland, the man ultimately legally responsible for all the crimes that took place in Poland, including all the concentration camps located there.  Frank carries a picture of his father around with him for two reasons, he says, “First, to prove to myself that he is actually dead.  And Second, to remind myself that he is still alive.”  Living with the shame of being Frank’s son means he carries a burden that might do many of us in.  But it also drives him to feel a personal responsibility to assure the events of the war years are never forgotten. 

    Frank appears obsessive about his claim that Germans have learned nothing from the experience. He is particularly pessimistic about the future of the nation. His views are not shared by the other members of the panel and he locked horns particularly with Hofman. The exchanges between Frank and Hofman are dramatic. Watching the two go at it, you don’t take sides. You simply note how important it is to recognize that the stories one chooses to tell depend on where one sits, what part of the shoe pinches, what part of the elephant one has been given to describe.

    Especially poignant are the challenges of what to do with the memories of victims who fit both categories of perpetrator and victim.  What of the comrades who died too young to make amends, too young to begin life anew with a raised consciousness?

    Elfriede Seltenheim
    5. Elfriede Seltenheim was gang-raped as a teenager because there was no escaping the Russian invasion. She began telling her story only recently, after the death of her husband, so great was the shame her generation taught her to internalize.

    6. Guido Knopp is another historian and television moderator. “Guilt is never collective,” he maintains, always a question of personal responsibility. But he insists that one must understand that “Hitler, Himmler and Auschwitz belong to German history just as much as Goethe, Beethoven and Weimar.” He has been called “Germany’s History Teacher.”

    While the six perspectives represented here do not cover the entire spectrum, they give enough of an insight into the breadth of issues that must be considered when remembering the past so that the past is never repeated. Telling the story from a variety of German perspectives, one comes to see how often when one labels someone a perpetrator one is pointing simultaneously at a victim. And, by the same token, when one mourns a victim, one may well be mourning a perpetrator.

    What of Russian (or French) rapists? Are they men who abuse women? Men avenging crimes committed against their homeland and loved ones? Does one curse the Russian invader or thank him for liberating the concentration camps? Curse the American rapist occupier or thank him for building the new Germany? Mourn the destruction of Dresden or remember it was the genocidal policy of its leaders that gave the British reason to want payback for the bombing of London? Celebrate Germany as the first choice of Russian Jews wanting to emigrate? Or dwell on the fact that Jews were once a far greater percentage of the German population than they are today (.75% of the population in 1933 vs. .14% of the population today)? Is it even possible to talk about German victims without talking about German guilt, and how is one affected by the other, if at all?

    No easy task, struggling against charges of being a humorless drudge who gets their jollies wallowing in the misery of the past. And no easy task living up to the responsibility of taking your “Nie wieder!” (Never again!) promise seriously.

    all photos from publicity for German Channel 1 ("Das Erste"),  Menschen bei Maischberger

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  8. Weasel
    George Stephanopolous did a pretty good job yesterday of holding Indiana Governor Mike Pence's feet to the fire.  And Pence did a pretty good job of playing the weasel.

    I think I just made an understatement.  You sort of expect politicians to be weasels, but every once in a while a four-ply, government-inspected, no-doubt-about-it, honest-to-goodness political weasel will come by and redefine the weasel category.

    Watch the interview.  It’s only 12 some minutes long.   The piece starts out with Pence claiming Indiana’s new “Religious Freedom” law has nothing to do with discrimination.  “… (I)f I thought it was about discrimination, I would have vetoed it,” he says.

    You have to laugh sometimes when politicians go this far into the red pants-on-fire liar zone. You wonder how anybody can survive the headaches that must come with being so brazen.

    What Pence is doing, of course, is what George Lakoff has been trying for years to get democrats to do – grab hold of the narrative and make your opponents tell the story according to your framework.  By labeling his bigotry “religious freedom” he gets the non-critical religious right – his kind of folk – to see him in heroic terms.  Looking out for their interests.

    What’s going on here is a direct nose-to-nose confrontation between civil rights and the right of a religious group to claim their God is behind them in their disapproval of somebody.  Christians did it when slavery was in harmony with the spirit of the times.  They did it when keeping Jews out of country clubs was simple Episcopalian common sense.  They do it today when radical lefty pastors open the church to the homeless and they can’t get the stink out of the pews so they put pressure on the pastor to stop.  All well and good to turn the other cheek, give your coat to the guy who asks for your jacket, and walk two miles when he asks you to keep him company for only one.  Just so long as it doesn’t burst your comfort zone.

    There is terrible nastiness in religious scriptures.  Parts of the Qur’an the Islamicists use to justify their brutality.  Parts of the Gospels that Martin Luther and all sorts of Christians before and after him used to justify blaming the Jews for the ills of the world.  Parts of the Old Testament that encourage genocide and smashing the heads of small children against the rocks.  And parts that many Christians use to this day to justify keeping women subordinate to men and gays on a permanent sinner shit list they can get off of only if they give up any hope of a satisfying sex life, including one with a loving partner for life.

    We live with taboos.  One of those taboos is that we must never criticize what is in the Bible or the Qur’an.  We must honor religion.  It’s a social requirement.  Although the number of atheists is on the increase, it’s still a good way to flunk a job interview to let it be known you don’t believe these Bronze Age texts are definitive.  And a certain way to lose an election.  This country is still cursed by religion, and despite our separation of church and state we have the unwritten rule that this includes never telling anybody their religion sucks.  Even if you make plain it's only some particularly wacko misinterpretation of their religion you're going on about. Nice people, we are told, don't say things like that. And I know my rights, they say.  Your freedom of speech is OK as long as it doesn't make me feel bad.  And my freedom to believe nonsense entitles me to cross the church/state line and make laws affecting you and frame it as freedom of religion.  What a royal pain in the ass these religionists can be.

    That’s why Mike Pence can make a fool of himself on national television refusing to admit that the new law in Indiana will prevent LGBT people from getting equal treatment.  He knows the religious right, which is very much in control of his party and his section of the country, will not worry about his prevarications.  They are in what they consider a good cause.

    One can only hope reason will ultimately prevail and this is merely a bump in the road to the still elusive goal of equality in America.

    picture credit: http://media.washtimes.com.s3.amazonaws.com/media/image/2014/07/27/7_272014_ap9366833150848201.jpg  (The caption "weasel" is mine - and not part of the source material)


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  9. I’m still trying to get my head around the anti-gay legislation that passed a couple weeks ago in Arkansas. 

    A quick history.  Fayetteville, where the University of Arkansas is located, passed an anti-discrimination ordinance last August 19.  Almost immediately, money started pouring in from folks like the infamous Christian media family, the Duggars (“19 Kids and Counting”), to pay for a fear and loathing campaign.  Shades of the California Prop. 8 campaign, pushed particularly hard by the Mormons and Knights of Columbus.  In Arkansas, where evangelicals are the major homophobic force, the pitch was even dirtier.  According to Christian mama Michelle Duggar,

    I don’t believe the citizens of Fayetteville would want males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls.  

    The law that was aimed to protect not just LGBT people, but other minorities as well, and not just the transgender people the religious right have now focused their particular loathing on, was repealed, 52 to 48.  

    Turns out that was only a warm-up.  Arkansas then went on to pass Arkansas Senate Bill 202, with the deliciously cynical name, “Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act.”  And how is commerce improved, you ask?  This bill, now law, prohibits any municipality in the state from passing a law protecting minorities specifically.  The argument?  Christians, whose religious rights are trampeled on when they are forced to serve gays and lesbians, would not want to settle in Arkansas with cumbersome laws like this, you see.  By protecting their right to discriminate, business can only flourish in the long run.

    It’s an idea whose time has come.  People are freaking out over the possibility that the Supreme Court may legalize same-sex marriage in all fifty states.  Once that happens, it will be hard to explain to your kids that you know gays are inferior because if they weren’t they would be allowed to get married and have their relationships recognized by the state.  No parent should have to explain that to their kids, right?  At least with this anti-pro-gay ordinance, you can assure your kids that you don’t have to worry about sitting next to one of them at a lunch counter.  Or be waited on by one of them.  Or if you do, and you don’t like the service, you can at least tell the restaurant owner and get his ass fired for being gay.

    And so other states are following Arkansas’s lead.  A similar ordinance, identical to the Arkansas law right down to the “Commerce protection” label, have been passed in West Virginia and Texas. 

    And if you are in the American majority and get your news from Fox or CNN, you can be excused for not knowing about this.  Neither network covered the news.  MSNBC did, but they are part of the lamestream media and only hardliner lefties listen to them anyway.

    This too shall pass.  It’s merely a bump in the road.  A reminder that gay liberation is a long hard slog and there will be many more setbacks before equal rights and gay dignity are universal values.

    I have finally begun to tackle my out-of-control personal files of several decades of old stuff.  I’ve got utility and phone bills back to the 80s and that’s just for starters.  So I’m trying to get ruthless and clean.  It isn’t easy.

    I keep coming across things I just don’t want to throw away.  Like this letter I wrote to an unknown student some twenty-two years ago.  I was teaching in an English program at Keio University in Japan and we were reorganizing the courses.  We put the word out that we wanted student input for workshops we might offer, hoping to get a sense of the kinds of things students were interested in talking about.  My colleague, Yoshiko Takahashi, came to me in some distress over a letter she got from one of her students.  “I just don’t know how to respond to this!” she said.  I told her I would take care of it.  Here’s my response:

    To the Student in Professor Takahashi’s class who is afraid of gays:
     I have just seen your response to the request for new workshops.  On that response sheet, you have written that you would like a workshop to teach people how to “escape from gays.”  You included my name, in parentheses, as an example of one of the people in that category.
     I don’t know who you are, and I don’t need to know your name.  I am asking Professor Takahashi to give this letter to you.  (Or if she doesn’t know who you are, to give this letter to the whole class so you will be sure to read it.)  I cannot tell whether you are serious or joking, but in either case, since you suggested I am one of those people you would like to run away from, I would like to say something to you.
     Gay people are everywhere.  Many of your classmates and many of your teachers are gay.  Some will readily tell you this; others consider this a part of their private life which they choose not to share with you; some are ashamed of being gay.
     The world is changing, however, and more and more gay people are insisting on being recognized as both gay and human, and deserving of the respect that is due all human beings.  It will become increasingly difficult for you to “escape from gays” as you go through life.
     The question is, why would you want to?  If you are gay yourself, and ashamed of it, you will come to accept yourself in time and realize there is no more reason to be ashamed of yourself than if you are blind, or left-handed, or very short or very tall or in any way “different” from the majority of people.  If you are not gay, you need to realize most gay people have no interest in bothering you; there is nothing to “escape” from!
     If you suggested this idea as a joke, you should realize that the suggestion is not a joke to gay people.  On the contrary, it is hurtful.  Think how you would feel if you were living in a foreign country, and somebody suggested that they wanted advice on how to “escape from Japanese.”  You would then feel the oppression of bigotry and you would understand why this is not a joke.
     If you are serious, and you are suggesting that people who are gay should be removed from your sight, let me urge you to think very carefully what you are asking.  Do you also want to separate yourself from people that are different from you in other ways?  Are you afraid of people of other races?  Other religions?  Are you afraid of handicapped people?  Or is your prejudice only against people whose sexual and emotional feelings are directed toward people of the same sex?  Do you really think we should put people in jail, or in a hospital, or on a desert island somewhere because they love differently?
     Gay people, like any people who seem strange and different to you now, can turn out to be people you know, people you like, people who can teach you things, people you care about, and people you can live with, if only you take the trouble to find out more about them.
     Please take that time.  Learn about gay people, as you learn about people from other cultures.  There is no need to run from the blind, no reason to run from the French or from Chinese or from Africans, no reason to run from people with blue eyes or people who wear strange clothes or people who are gay.  The world is big enough for us all.
     You don’t need to be afraid.  As I said, I don’t know who you are and I am not going to try to find out.  But if you and your friends would like to come talk to me, I would be happy to talk with you about this or any other subject.  My office hours are Tuesday and Thursday afternoons between 2:30 and 4:30.
     Yours truly,

    I never heard from this student and have no idea of whether this letter even registered on his radar. Gay students on my campus were so closeted in the early 90s in Japan that my being openly gay worked against me.  Students who wanted to keep their gay secret avoided me like the plague, at least on campus.  Within the decade they began to get noticeably better, however, and not too many years after this, our English Department actually made a film about coming out.  

    It's useful, I think, to look back.  Finding this letter put the Arkansas setback in perspective.  And reminded me of that wonderful Italian saying:

    Piano, piano, si va lontano - If you're going a long way, take it slow.


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  10. Future travelers to the planet Mercury, especially hedonists and perhaps the occasional LGBT historian in search of milestones,  will no doubt want to locate the crater there named after the Arab/Persian poet Abu Nawas.  Those who don’t want to wait that long may wait till the current troubles are over in Iraq and Baghdad is returned to normal.  They will then be able to stroll along the banks of the River Tigris, on one of the city’s major boulevards, which also bears the name of Abu Nawas.

    And not just bisexual readers, of course.  The Encyclopedia Britannica identifies Abu Nawas as an “important poet of the early ‘Abbāsid period (750–835).”  The Abbāsid caliphate is sometimes referred to as the beginning of the "Islamic Golden Age," when "the ink of a scholar (was) more holy than the blood of a martyr."  Arabic-speakers know him as one of the greatest of Arab poets.  He is said to have spent a year living with the Bedouins to acquire the original purity of the Arabic language.  That experience would seem, however, to have lasted him a lifetime, because when he was done, he returned to write of the joys of living in the city, chiefly for the access it provided to wine and pederasty, and apparently never looked back.

    His was given the full name at birth of Abū Nuwās Al-hasan Ibn Hāni’ Al-hakamī .  At some point, his Persian mother sold him to a grocer.  He never knew his father.  The experience only made him stronger, apparently, and he shows up as a character in the Thousand and One Nights, and is known to have influenced the Persian poet Omar Khayyam.  He’s also known as the first Arab poet to write about masturbation.  And how women can be complete sluts.  Which, he says, is probably a good thing.  Especially when they are not fat.

    A girl who is slender, not clumsy and flabby, will show you how to rub and grind.

    I mention Abu Nuwas because I’ve come across his name repeatedly in recent weeks as I’ve been reading about Islam and trying to decide whether there is any substance to the claim that of the three Abrahamic religions it’s the most violent and restrictive and puritanical.  I’m leaning at present toward the view that religion is not what its scriptures tell you God wants for you to believe so much as it is about how it spreads out through the cultures which take it in and make it their own, filtering it and molding it over time, to suit local interests and fit local expectations of how the world should be run.

    One of the most interesting claims made by Hamed Abdel-Samad, which I have now found repeated in a number of places, is that the great heyday of the Muslim world was a time of great creativity and intellectual imagination not because of Islam, but despite Islam.  That if you look at the places where Islam held sway – Mecca and Medina, chiefly – you find the most stifling lack of imagination and creativity.  Only in places characterized by a multitude of cultures do you find the gold in the label, The Golden Age of Islam.  And when people speak of this gold, the name Abu Nuwas often pops us.  Not sure everybody shares the view that Nuwas is a golden contribution to Islamic culture, but how does one reach these conclusions anyway?

    O the joy of sodomy!  So now be sodomites, you Arabs.
    Turn not away from it – therein is wondrous pleasure.
    Take some coy lad with kiss-curls twisting on his
    temple and ride him as he stands like some gazelle
    standing to her mate
    Make for smooth-faced boys and do your very best to
    mount them, for women are the mounts of devils!

    I cannot be sure how much has been lost in translation.  How much better it sounds in the Arabic of 1100 years ago, where I presume there is better rhyming and perhaps alliteration and perhaps other rhetorical delights.  I doubt he achieved his reputation for world’s best Arabic poet (or one of them) for his choice of topics.

    The question is, “Is it golden?”

    And, of course, “Is it Islamic?”

    source of Abu Nawas’ poetry: Shaykh Nefzawi’s Perfumed Garden, p. 24 and 37-39, cited in Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not a Muslim

    picture credit: Collected works of Abu Nawas (in Indonesian)


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