1. Elie Wiesel died at his home in New York yesterday.  He had survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and spent his life making sure the memory of the Holocaust remained alive, as well as speaking out for others in places like South Africa, Nicaragua and the Sudan.  He is being remembered by people around the world in the most laudatory language imaginable.   Obama called him the “conscience of the world.”  I think with good reason.

    You know it’s your conscience speaking when you get the feeling you know what’s right and you’re feeling uncomfortable at the same time.  I followed Elie Wiesel over the years.  Not all that closely, but when he spoke, I listened.  Only once, when he spoke out in favor of extending Jewish settlements in Jerusalem, did I disagree with him.  On every other occasion, I was persuaded he was on the right side of history.  He was a remarkable man.  Driven.  A dog with a bone.

    It was the Bitburg controversy where his voice touched me most directly.  I had a good friend in Berlin named Achim.  He and his wife Margit had experienced the war directly.  Achim had been in the German navy and Margit survived the Russian invasion of Berlin in 1945.  When they spoke about war, I always listened.  After the war, Margit and Achim became involved in an organization that managed the graves of fallen soldiers.  Every year, a calendar would arrive in the mail and I would hang it up.  Always a bit self-consciously – as an American, I wasn't going to honor the German war dead without thinking twice.  But I came to understand – and the older I get the more I understand – how good people can get swept up in evil, and I came to see that young men who marched under the symbol of the swastika could be victims too, and came to admire the work of this organization known as the German War Graves Commission, first founded after World War I, but expanded after World War II.

    Achim was a delightful friend.  I learned much from him about German politics and political activism generally.  He became Berlin’s representative for the United Nations at some point and when he died condolences came in from all directions. I admired him as a teacher and as a voice of reason. In all the years we knew each other, I remember only one big disagreement.  That was the visit of Ronald Reagan as president of the United States to the war graves at Bitburg.  Achim, along with 87% of the German people, found it appropriate that Reagan should support his friend and ally, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and make a “visit of reconciliation” to Bitburg during his state visit to Germany in 1985.  Elie Wiesel convinced me otherwise.  It was a sad parting of the ways for Achim and me.  Fortunately not a lasting one, but it was painful at the time.

    Reagan wanted to station Pershing missiles in Germany against strong German opposition.  Kohl came to his aid, and Reagan wanted to repay the favor.  Unfortunately the administrations of both national leaders failed to do their homework.  Among the dead at Bitburg were 49 members of the Waffen-SS.  And to really muddy the waters, Reagan press secretary Larry Speakes mistakenly told the press that there were Americans buried at Bitburg.  Turns out there were not.

    I struggled over this strong difference between Achim's perspective and mine.  On the one hand, I was in total agreement that war victims didn’t stop being victims simply because they were German.  On the other hand, I heard Wiesel’s voice when he lectured Reagan, saying, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place.”

    Wiesel, according to all reports, suffered mightily over this decision to speak out again the Bitburg visit.  He was grateful to the United States for taking him in after the war, and when Reagan called Wiesel to the White House to award him the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, it felt all wrong to bite the hand that was feeding him, so to speak.  But he did.  White House staff, knowing they had messed up, tried to limit Wiesel to three minutes.  But Wiesel insisted he would get his full time or he would boycott the event. In the end he got to speak his mind.  You are wrong, Mr. President.  You are wrong.

    That event is chronicled by Gil Troy writing in The Daily Beast this morning.  Troy describes Elie Wiesel as a “one-man scourge of dictators and a friend to the oppressed.”

    Countless thousands will remember Elie Wiesel for speaking truth to power.  Besides Reagan, he also scolded Pope Benedict for reinstating holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson.  Williamson’s “I believe there were no gas chambers” got him excommunicated, but Benedict brought him back without bothering to check whether his views had changed.  It was some time after being reinstated that Williamson made the "no gas chambers" remark.  

    I remember reading about that and feeling sick to my stomach.  Then I read that Elie Wiesel had called Benedict out on his effort to let bygones be bygones, and I felt better.  There was somebody out there watching and remembering.  As long as somebody's paying attention we would be all right.

    That will be Elie Wiesel’s legacy.  I will remember him for the many hours of discussion I had, both with friends and in my head, over how to find the line between reconciliation and remembering, one of the greatest moral dilemmas one is ever faced with.

    There is no greater service, I think, than to get others out of complacency and forgetting, to churn the waters now and again, to make you think.  And revisit old certainties.  And think some more.

    One of my heroes has died, and I am very sad.

    photo credit


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  2. Last time I posted here I commented on how Bonnie Prince Charlie, as I called him when I was in the Third Grade - Mrs. Parker-Bowles's husband, as he's known today - is now a grandfather already.  And his son, bonnie William, is apparently a peach of a husband and father, if you believe the PR (and I do).  I got several responses from people who thanked me for some good news for a change.  Usually I spend more time rending my garments over the dark side.

    I protest.  When the world gives you lemons, you may eventually turn them into lemonade.  I just think there's nothing wrong with making a face first, if that's what comes natural to you.

    Today is Gay Pride Day.  All over the country LGBT people are out marching.  That includes San Francisco.  Earlier today I waved my husband off as he headed over to the city to march with all the other young'uns and feel the pride.  I plead age on occasions like this.  The thought of the crowded trains, the endless lines, the banging drums, the squeals and the shouts -- all young people stuff, I said.  It's been going for how many years now?  Since 1972?  A million people show up for this event in San Francisco these days.

    I'm not being a party-pooper, not saying "been there, done that," although I've done it maybe thirty times.  I'm just thinking how nice it is I don't have to go bang the drums anymore.  I don't have to stop people on the street and tell them how proud I am to be gay.  OK, so I never did that, but I do remember black people stopping me in the 60s and telling me, "I'm black and I'm proud," and understanding instantly why they needed to do that.  How important it is after being down so long to stand tall and proud.  I am grateful these are better times, at least for some of us.

    So it was all just going to pass me by this year.  I was just going to walk the dogs, as I always do, waiting now till 8 o'clock for the cool of the evening.

    As I walked up the street I saw balloons out in front of the Congregational Church.  When I got a little closer I realized they were rainbow colored.

    I love the Congregational Church. They, the United Church of Christ in America, I believe they are officially called these days, most of them anyway, were among the first to recognize gay people as equals and support their marriages.

    I attended a Congregational Church growing up. Left it to become a Lutheran because I found them too namby-pamby, always talking about being nice to people.  I got hold of Luther's Small Catechism and away I went.  Just what the doctor ordered.  Some serious doctrines to follow.  No more messing around with nice.

    I realize today if I were ever to return to a church community it would more likely be the Congregationalists than the Lutherans.  Precisely because it took them less time to figure out how to put Christianity into action when it came to gay people, just as they were ahead of the crowds when it came to abolition and women's suffrage.

    Personal preference, of course.  The Lutherans today are there as well.  Ditto the Episcopalians.  Ditto most all of the mainstream churches.  It's only the authoritarians, the guys who want to define god as the guy with a switch, ready to bang the evil out of you, that continue to cherry pick the scriptures, laying aside the passages that approve of slavery and suggest banging the heads of your enemies' kids against a rock, to focus on your naughty parts and how to use them only to make more angry Christians.

    When I got right up to the church, I noticed two things.  One was they had taken down the banner that used to hang there which said, "Never place a period where God has placed a comma," or something like that. Always liked that. That banner has been replaced by a "Black Lives Matter" banner. I like that too.

    The other thing I noticed was that there was a sign by the balloons.  This wasn't just gay pride Sunday.  It was a time to pray for the souls in Orlando.

    Damn, I says to myself.  Those Christians can really be decent people when they want to.

    So I got in a little pride today, after all.  Just never expected to feel it walking past a church.

    P.S.  Here's the main entrance.  And the chapel attached, which they let the Baptists use.
    and that tower in between is the Methodist Church across the street.  The Methodist
    Church grounds are a bit shoddy and messed up looking.  Probably because
    they make a big point of serving the homeless.


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  3. OK, so this is a puff piece for Father's Day, put out no doubt by the royal handlers to give the British royal family some positive PR.  I know, I know.  Media manipulation.  One of my biggest pet peeves.

    Until it hits home.

    I have a distinct memory of watching Elizabeth - Queen Elizabeth - get married.  They put a television set (yes, we had TV in those days) on the stage in our elementary school auditorium and they brought the whole school in to watch the ceremony from London. This was in Winsted, Connecticut, not Uxbridge or Somerset.

    Then I remember the pictures from the Weekly Reader when I was in third grade and Prince Charles was born.  I had heard my Scottish grandfather use the word "bonnie" before, but now here was everybody using that word - Bonnie Prince Charlie. I remember that.  I really do.  I know it used to be used for the Stuart king, Charles Edward, pretender to the Scottish throne, but we didn't know that guy.  We knew Elizabeth's little feller.

    Then you get in your car and zoom back to the future and suddenly here's Bonnie Prince Charlie's little boy William.  Growing up gorgeous.  Diana's little boy.  Where does the time fly off to?

    And now, today, this bit of spam? comes across my screen, a notice from People magazine about how young William is out and about with the common folk, sitting in a coffee shop and talking about father/son relationships on Father's Day.

    grannie scolds
    And he practices what he preaches. There's that picture of him being scolded by his neon grannie for bending down to pay attention to his kid when everybody knows he's supposed to remain ever tall and monarchical.

    He's a lot balder than the last time he caught my attention.  Sitting there with an open shirt, hairy chest and all, and exchanging opinions with kids and their fathers, telling the world that his little boy George's and his little girl Charlotte's mental health are important.


    I've seen future shock.  But this is real!

    I know it's PR.  Twice this week I've seen Prince Harry, once clowning around with grandma, once in a top hat.  They've whipped those kids into shape and are trying to regain royal dignity lost, looks like - Fergie - Diana's boyfriend - failure to lower flag, "annus horribilis" etc. etc., although Harry still complains a bit.

    Not a friend of royalty or nobility.  But I've got a thing for daddies and their kids.

    On Father's Day, what a coincidence.

    William has been out and about doing good works for a while now.  You might say it’s overly cynical to call it just PR.   You could just call it “work,” you know.  Part of a king-presumptive’s job to spend the taxpayer’s money on things other than pomp and circumstance.

    "It's all about being inclusive."
    Here he is, for example, on the cover of Britain’s gay magazine Attitude.  The story inside features his views on the importance of addressing bullying.  “No one should be bullied for their sexuality or any other reason.”  His mother took the initiative of addressing AIDS victims.  He’s following in her footsteps calling attention to LGBT issues, even inviting an LGBT group to Kensington Palace, complete with photos, of course, to show his support.  

    Sometimes when they jerk you around it feels like you're dancing.

    And sometimes, when you feel like you’re dancing, maybe the thing to do is enjoy the music.

    Happy Father's Day.

    Prince William in People magazine (top photo)
    Prince Harry in hat 
    Grannie scolds

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  4. Careful, careful.

    Things are looking up for Hillary’s campaign.  Not because she’s turning people around who are less than enamored of her – although I think that’s happening too – but because Trump continues to shoot himself in the foot so reliably.  It’s still about negative numbers.  People are far far less put off by her than by him not because she’s so good but because he’s so bad.

    This would be the place to argue that she’s had a bad rap, that she is not as bad as so many people think she is, that she’s been smeared by the Republicans' very well-oiled machine.  It would be an argument to get into if arguments were what is called for. 

    But it’s clear by now that arguments are not what Americans are interested in.  No presidential candidate has ever been this willing to stand before massive crowds and tell bare-faced lies.  It might have worked before, but so far nobody else has tried.  Trump's trying it and it’s working.  I just heard a Spiegel journalist express his incredulity that Trump claimed Obama is opening the floodgates and letting in all those Syrian refugees.  This scares the uninformed, who make up a critical mass of the American public, because it’s hard to persuade people that countless numbers of terrorists are not smuggling themselves in in their number.  That’s what has threatened Angela Merkel’s position.  People are furious, convinced her open door policy has increased the risk of terrorism to an even more alarming level.  But scarcely more than two thousand Syrian refugees have been taken in here in the U.S., a fact that we ought to hang our heads in shame over.  Huddled masses yearning to breathe free, my ass.  And people still line up behind Donald Trump.

    The point is that Americans are not being reasonable.  They are letting themselves be jerked around by their fears. Trump is playing on their suspicions as he would on a Mighty Wurlitzer.  There is no way to explain why suggestions like a wall the length of the Mexican border or a ban on all Muslims entering the country were not shot down instantly as immoral and illegal, never mind undoable.  But they weren’t.  The crowds cheered, and Trump kept it up until he found the next fear he could massage.

    The presidential election was sidetracked for a few days by the massacre in Orlando, even though Trump managed to get the last of the jaws that had not already dropped to drop. His first response to the news coming out of Orlando was not “how horrible” but “see, I was right, and they’re thanking me for being right.”  They love me.  The usual refrain.  I’m the greatest.

    What’s worrying me at the moment is what might happen next, now that we appear to have reached at long last a sufficient level of outrage over the insane number of deaths by guns in this country.  If the filibuster in Congress by those two senators from Connecticut is any indication, and the fact that it appears to have worn down some Republican intransigence, we might be at the point of actually doing something about it.  Hurray for that.  Proud of my home state.  Have always squirmed at the “thoughts and prayers” proclamations and the moments of silence.

    I’m concerned that this nod to rational thought could mean we win a battle but lose the war.  What if we get enough support to actually impose some restrictions?  At least maybe we could make it possible to prevent people we don’t allow on airplanes because they’re suspected terrorists not to buy guns, either.  Assault weapons, at least.  Maybe we could still allow them to shoot an individual here or there.  But not an entire class of children or a bar full of revelers.

    Whatever changes get made will be small.  There is no way to change this many hearts and minds overnight.  Almost half of all Americans are convinced of what the big money gun lobby is putting out there, the thought that the government wants to take our guns away so they can then come in and have their way with us.

    All common sense has been flushed down the toilet on this issue.  More Americans have died from being shot since 1968 than have died in wartime – in all the wars in American history.  Way more, since those figures only go up to 2011.  We spend trillions of dollars to fight terrorism, and next to nothing to fight death by guns in America.  Number of deaths by terrorism in the last decade: 24. Number of deaths by guns: 280,024.

    Those numbers are discussed along with a fact check performed by Politifact, an independent nonprofit project.  According to something called the Gun Violence Archive, there were 12,562 gun deaths in 2014 and 9,959 in 2015 up until October 8, when Politifact put out the numbers.   That’s a grand total of 301,797 firearm-related deaths in the past decade, compared to 71 deaths from domestic acts of terrorism.  Note that the numbers differ significantly, because different sources and different years are being used.  But the proportions are accurate.

    Americans are violent.  Seven times more likely to die a violent death than the rest of the modern world.  Six times more likely to be killed with a gun.  The total firearm death rate per 100,000 population in Holland is .5.  In Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Ireland, the UK and Spain it’s around 1.  In Japan and Korea it’s less than 0.  Only in France, Austria and Finland does it creep up a bit – to 2.8 in France and 3.6 in Finland, the highest in Europe.  In the United States of America, it’s 10.2. 

    No sense banging on with these statistics.  Or with facts like when Australia eliminated semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns their homicide rate went down by 59%.  They’re everywhere available and everywhere deemed irrelevant.  Because arguments are irrelevant.  People are going to believe what they want to believe.

    And that’s why I’m concerned that when we do finally take actual steps to cut down on the amount of gun violence, we might be winning a battle only to lose the war.  If laws get passed between now and November, Trump and Company might well turn this into a scare.  “See, I’m right.  I told you they were coming for our guns!”

    I worked on the campaign against Prop. 8 in California in 2008.  Went in to headquarters in San Francisco and made dozens of phone calls urging people to vote against it, because it would remove the rights of LGBT people to marry, a right which had recently been granted by the California Supreme Court.  After all those efforts, we went down to defeat.  Prop. 8 passed by 52%.  A majority of Californians who voted on that issue believed the lies put out by the Mormon and Catholic Churches (others too, obviously, but they were the biggies) that taking away this right would somehow make stronger families.  It was a painful defeat.  

    What came out of this crushing disappointment was the recognition of how money talks in this country, but is under no obligation to tell the truth.  People had skipped right over well reasoned arguments and tons of evidence that gay marriage would only strengthen the institution of marriage, and certainly do it no harm.  What they responded to instead was the old line that gays were a danger to children and God would be mad at them if they chose to "spit in His face." They voted their fears. 

    Following the defeat, gay rights advocates began a campaign of getting out less heady reasoning and more "plain folk" information about gays and lesbians as ordinary people, people who simply wanted to form families and be recognized by their neighbors and their government.  In time we began telling each other that reason, at long last, had prevailed.  Only I don't think it was reason that prevailed.  It was that people who had previously claimed not to know any gay people got up close and personal with gay people and came to understand what was pouring out of the churches was a lie based on a prejudice.

    Somebody has to figure a way to address the emotional side of this anti-gun campaign out there.  A message or series of messages that would make it clear that nobody’s coming for your guns.  Only for the guns that kill children.  Assault weapons.  Guns in the hands of people known to be a threat.  Insane people.  Irresponsible people.

    Less careful reasoning.  More instant messaging, maybe.  More images like the ones on this page, maybe.

    Something to counter the scare tactics that work so well in this country.

    photo credits


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  5. Christopher Isherwood tells of the time he tried to bring his German lover back into Britain with him.  Just off the boat from the continent, in Harwich, he writes of the customs officer: "As soon as I saw the bright-eyed little rat, I knew we were done for. He understood the whole situation at a glance — because he’s one of us."

    In days gone by, when we had to contend with far more serious and widespread homophobia than today, a self-hating gay could cause unspeakable misery to other gays as he projected his self-hatred out into the world.

    What am I talking about – “in days gone by”?  Very likely it was a man struggling with sexual demons within himself who went off the deep end and killed those 49 men and women in the Pulse Bar in Orlando the other night.

    The Orlando massacre is a story still being told.  ISIS appears to have a new policy of getting sympathizers to forgo coming to the Middle East, but stay at home and wreak havoc locally, instead. Whether that's part of the story is only a guess.  And if it is part of Omar Mateen's motivation, that still leaves open the question of whether that's foreground, and the choice to kill LGBT people is background, or whether it's the other way around.

    I’ve lived my life as a gay man in an intensely homophobic environment, so you know why I’m inclined to think this is primarily about homophobia.  Forgive me if the blood starts to boil when I take note of church spokespeople and other religionists who insist on downplaying the sexual orientation of most or all of the 49 people in a gay bar in Florida as coincidental.  When synagogues are bombed, it's about anti-semitism.  When four little black girls were killed in a black church, it was about white supremacist racism.  

    There are always people, apparently of good will, quick to stress this is not just a Jewish/African American/fill in the blank tragedy.  It’s a human tragedy.  And why can’t we all just get along?
    Such misplaced attempts at solidarity do a disservice to the people involved who have lost their lives for a quite specific reason.  To dilute that message dishonors the victims.  And it takes away the need to track down the particular sources of that hate.  I willingly grant you that I’m making a case from a particular vantage point.  I hope you’ll allow me to make that case.

    As the investigations continue into what made Omar Mateen tick, investigators are discovering that he had apparently spent a considerable amount of time in the Pulse Bar.  He also had a gay meet-up phone number in his cell phone.  Evidence is coming together for calling this primarily a hate crime, not a political one.  And that holds whether Omar was projecting internalized homophobia or simply acting out what was to him the logical next step in ridding the world of gay people.

    There may never be a definitive answer in Omar Mateen’s case.  But there is no doubt that whatever motivated the killings, he was working with a powerful conviction that these people deserved to die. 

    And don’t come at me with the bullshit explanation that he’s simply crazy and that’s that. There’s a much simpler explanation right at the surface, an explanation the churches and rightwingers are working hard to push aside.  Far more often than many are willing to admit, it takes religion to create the will to kill and to die, both to commit suicide and to take others with you.

    On March 13, 1974 one of my closest friends committed suicide.  In fear and dread, I got on the phone shortly afterwards with the sister who raised him.  “I suppose we’ll never know what made him do it,” I said, fumbling terribly for words.  “Oh, I know what made him do it,” she responded.  “It was drugs and the Mormon Church.”

    His name was Merrill.  We had become close friends in our army days a decade earlier.  I was just waking up from a nightmare, fighting with everything in me against the ever increasing evidence that I was probably gay.  When Merrill told me he was homosexual (I don’t believe we used the word gay back then), I responded, “I have those tendencies, too, but I’ve been able to fight them off so far.”  Merrill laughed out loud.  “You’re only fooling yourself.  You’ll see.” 

    Merrill then became my mentor in the coming-out process, took me around the gay bars of Berlin and taught me how to hold a bottle of beer.  I fell immediately in love with him, of course, back then before I learned to fall in love with people who might love me back.  But we bonded over the secret and shared an apartment in San Francisco for a time. 

    Once back in the States, things took a different turn, however.  As I began living on my own for the first time and timidly began coming out – more from a shell than from a closet –  Merrill, my “big brother” in matters of the flesh, to my astonishment, began moving back into the closet.  He found himself a girlfriend and struggled mightily to make that relationship work.  The evidence that it wasn’t working led him, as it did and still does with so many others, into alcohol and drugs.

    I tried to tell that story to a much younger gay person recently.  He stared at me in disbelief.  Why, he wondered, would anybody go back into the closet once he’s out?  Why indeed?  I had to laugh at the naiveté. You have to understand the power of homophobia to make sense of the question. Go to a place where they throw gay people off of buildings, for example.  Or go back to the America of pre-Stonewall.  Merrill killed himself less than five years after the nelly queens of Stonewall took their stand during a police raid on their bar in the Village on June 28, 1969, and fought back.  It would be decades before their efforts would be recognized fully, before they might have been able to persuade Merrill that someday everything would be all right, that being gay would some day no longer be an unbearable burden.  But at the time, so ingrained was the self-loathing that the lived reality was not unlike living today in Uganda or Russia or Afghanistan.

    I remember my response to the drag queens of Stonewall at the time.  I begrudgingly admitted theirs was an act of courage.  But that didn’t stop me from feeling terribly uncomfortable around men in heels and dresses.  I was still new at the game and knew nothing about theater or irony or the power to thwart the efforts of others to define me.  I bought into the explanation du jour that these were “men who wanted to be women,” realized that didn't apply to me, and saw no reason for a sense of solidarity.  It took a long time before I made the connection, and when I did I sat down and bawled like a baby in shame over the disgust and loathing I had directed all those years at drag queens and at men with feminine mannerisms.

    You know that clever Steve Weinberg quotation: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”  I wasn’t a bad guy.  But I had no trouble pointing the finger and condemning what I had come to believe was sin.  The self-loathing Merrill felt may have been put there originally by the church he was raised in.  But it was people like me, all too quick to protest that religion no longer had any power over me, who helped create the atmosphere of disapproval of anything but the authorized norms of sexual behavior, which pulled the rug out from under Merrill and others struggling with serious self-doubts. So strong was my early indoctrination into the belief that homosexuality was evil that the after effects would take many years to shed.  The homophobia that had its source in religion has seeped into the broader American culture.  And just as many of us lose sight of who our ancestors were, it’s not uncommon to hear from religious people that “it’s not religion – it’s culture.”  That blurring of origins then becomes the new reality. It can be seen today in those who would deny the fact that the victims in Orlando were a religiously-persecuted minority.

    Owen Jones, who writes for The Guardian, The New Statesman and other publications, walked out of a TV interview  yesterday when it became obvious to him that the interviewer was trying to hide the fact that the killings in Orlando took place in a gay bar.  It’s not just LGBT people who can see this effort for what it is.  Others with the eyes to see are taking note that this interviewer is by no means alone.  All you have to do is run down the websites of the Catholic Church, for example.  Check out the last several postings of my friend and catholic blogger (and friend) Bill Lindsey the past couple of days to see how applied homophobia is revealed in the church's efforts at silencing.  Check out the Republicans leading the anti-gay charges, the Santorums and the Ted Cruzes who cater to their right-wing Christian base.  It’s not something you have to dig for.  It sits there right on the surface, this need to demonize homosexuality.  In their case it’s an authoritarian form of Christianity.  In Mateen’s case, it's likely to have been an authoritarian form of Islam.  Poison from the same well.

    I’m struck with how widespread the push still is in the media at present to make this story mostly or all about Mateen’s acting as an agent of ISIS.  I’m thinking of Rachel Maddow’s extended piece on the shift in ISIS policy from getting volunteers to come join them in Syria and Iraq to staying put and wreaking havoc at home.  Note, however, as you watch that coverage, that she’s leaving open the possibility of a shift of focus to Mateen’s internalized homophobia.  At least she leaves the back door open and suggests there is more of the story to unfold.

    The fact that Omar Mateen was Muslim does not make this an act of Islamic terrorism.  Islamicist thought may well have figured large in his anger and sense of alienation, but when he lashed out, it wasn’t against a bank or other symbol of capitalism, or a synagogue, or a military target.  It was a gay bar.

    Nor was it a spontaneous act.  Mateen had hung out in a gay bar for some time before his planned massacre.  One person told the Orlando Sentinel that he had seen him there a dozen times.   And his father told the press he was probably motivated by seeing two men kiss some time back.  The signs are there that milady doth protest too much.  Another source reports Mateen was actually actively dating gay men and showing up regularly at the Pulse bar.  

    “Have you ever noticed,” a wise man once asked me, “that people comfortable with their own sexuality seldom concern themselves with the sexuality of others?”

    Yes, I had noticed actually.  Just as I have noticed the open secret that one of the major sources of homophobia around the world comes from the Catholic Church, where estimates are that as many as half the priesthood is comprised of men who have a same-sex orientation.  And as long as such feelings are taboo, the church will continue to provide a haven for them.  I noticed too that Ted Haggard, who had weekly access to George W. Bush as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, regularly preached the homophobic party line while engaging in sex with men, providing evidence that sexual hypocrisy is by no means the exclusive purview of the Roman Catholic Church.  In the political arena, an article in The Advocate some time ago took note of sixteen antigay leaders who, it turns out, were gay themselves.  Projection of internalized homophobia is clearly alive and well in Washington.

    Love the sinner but hate the sin, the churches preach to us.  It sounds at first like a reasonable slogan.  But think about it for a while and you come to see that somebody is still defining the core act of expressing physical desire and emotional attachment to a person of the same sex as sin, and then declaring that expression of love and affection is something one should hate.  That twisting of love into hate didn’t come from nowhere.  It came from the religious teachings of the three abrahamic religions that undergird the civilization in which we live.  Ancient prejudices.  Those same scriptures once supported our culture’s acceptance of slavery, the suppression of women, the bashing against the rocks of the heads of the children of those from another tribe.  We’ve managed to root these prejudices out, most of us, as we struggle to embrace the new humanistic and egalitarian morality of the modern world.  But some ancient practices remain.

    As always, it is necessary to distinguish between religion as a locus of our better hopes, dreams and instincts on the one hand, and the toxic varieties in which the Bible or the Qur’an are used as a hammer, on the other.  It’s the toxic brand I’m referring to when I use the word religion obviously.  Criticize me, if you will, for the ellipsis in leaving out the word toxic when I mention religion.  But only if you do the same for those folk who leave out the word non-toxic when trying to persuade you that “religion is the answer.”

    Getting rid of hate is like pulling weeds.  It’s like pursuing democracy.  It’s a terribly ambitious project, an elusive goal, and a constant struggle.  You don’t want to be one of those people who never stops to smell the flowers.  But neither should we miss an opportunity to pull some weeds.

    Watch closely as this story about the Orlando massacre continues to unfold.

    And when you can, like when you hear somebody tell you this was a human tragedy, not a gay tragedy, give a good yank.

     photo credit:  from the website of the non-profit organization REVEL & RIOT 

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  6. $641,880 over the asking price.  How ‘bout them apples?

    I went to lunch not long ago with my friend Sally.  She and her husband run a real estate cum construction business in San Francisco.  I mentioned during our conversation that a house on my street had just sold for a quarter of a million dollars over the asking price.  I thought she’d be impressed.  “That’s about normal, these days,” she said.

    You’ve got to be kidding me.  Normal?

    I just can’t keep up with the bubbles.  Not that long ago – eight years ago, was it? – we nearly all went to the poor house nationally because the money people who run the Republican and Democratic Parties and the rest of Washington, and pretty much the rest of the country as well, got caught with their pants down, offering houses to people who couldn’t afford to make the mortgage payments.  All fall down.

    And instead of fixing things, instead of getting people like Robert Reich and Elizabeth Warren in there, Obama put the foxes back in charge of the henhouse, and here we are again.  Same old, same old.  That’s why I wanted Bernie Sanders to head the Democratic ticket and not Hillary Clinton.  I was – still am – convinced she’s of the “same old/same old” variety.

    These days, now that we have no choice – because Donald Trump is not a choice – we have to support her and hope for the best.  Hope Bernie has pushed her far enough toward the center to bring some equity back into American political and economic life.  That all remains to be seen.

    I’d like to stand up and cheer these real estate prices in the San Francisco Bay Area.  My house is not in one of the pricey neighborhoods – it’s in South Berkeley, where you can still get a house for (I blush to admit) under a million dollars.  But on paper, at least, I’m sitting pretty.  Or would be, if ever I decided to sell my house and go live in rural Saskatchewan.  If I sold my house and tried to stay here as a renter, I couldn’t afford the rent.

    This is just crazy.  How can we live in a country where there are people buying houses for two-thirds of a million dollars over the asking price – not the asking price, but over the asking price?  And we can’t get everybody medical coverage, can’t get everybody educated, can’t fix the roads and keep the libraries open?

    We’re all focused now on the madness of Donald Trump and on the fact that Hillary is our only hope.

    And we’re missing the point that the reason two of the three candidates – until Bernie drops out and makes it two out of two – represent either the rich or the status quo, where the rich tell the rest of us we need more guns and less environmental regulation, and we all flick the homeless off like a piece of lint from our clothes.

    The donut, folks.  More donut.  Less donut hole.

     $641,880 over the asking price!

    photo credit: The house is an artist's rendering of the place that just sold for $2.625 million in Berkeley.  Source and details can be found here.

    Not to cast aspersions on the house or the people who are going to live in it - I have no doubt it will make these people a great home and I wish them every happiness in it.  But the artist's rendering above, with the delicious white halo above it, is only one way to look at it.  Another way, if you google map it, is by an actual photo:

    That's what you get for  $1,983, 120  $2,625,000 in Berkeley these days.


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  7. I sometimes struggle with an overestimation of my own powers.  I used to fear going to the bathroom in an airplane might cause the plane to crash.  And I've noticed that more often than not the political candidate I vote for does not get elected.  It makes me wonder sometimes if lesbians can really cause hurricanes.

    That happened again yesterday.  I cast a ballot in the California primary for Bernie Sanders and this morning I see that Hillary beat Sanders by five percentage points and is now the clear presumptive winner.  Love that notion, that we have somebody we can clearly presume.

    Fine.  Didn’t want the status quo, but I understand in politics you often have to settle, and I’m not going to sulk.  If this is what America wants, I’m not going to take my marbles and move to Spain.  I’m going to vote for Hillary in November and urge everybody I know to do likewise, if for no other reason than to keep Donald Trump from getting us out of the frying pan and into the fire.

    I am not a flag-waver.  I don’t think the United States is the best place in the world.  If it were not for the cold weather, I think I might move to Berlin or to Vancouver.  I had a short visit to Stockholm a couple years ago and saw it immediately as a city I’d like to live in.  There are lots of places where the politics of the place is closer to my own.  My husband, despite having taken American citizenship, feels pretty much the same way about these places as I do, and he is less snow-resistant, so we could easily pack our canine daughters into their snowsuits and make a new home in one of these other northern cities and start over.

    These are fantasy notions.  I don’t really want to move elsewhere.  I am in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I started my adult life, where I came out, where I went to graduate school, where most of my friends are.  I would miss the convenience of being able to speak to everybody in English, and I would miss the laid-back nature of the life I know in America, if I were ever to leave again.  I did it more than once – several years in Germany, a year in Saudi Arabia, three months in Buenos Aires, more than a dozen summers in Canada, twenty-four years in Japan.  I know what it is to live elsewhere.  And I'm familiar with the aching sense of loss one gets when one becomes a refugee. One does not pick up and leave one’s home except in extreme circumstances.

    So it strikes me as really dumb, all this talk I hear around me of people wanting to pull up stakes and move elsewhere if this country goes into the fire.

    I know, I know.  There is so much about this country that is seriously off-putting.  The denial of its wretched history, for starters.  The fact that we teach our kids that the Pilgrims came to America to be able to have freedom of religion, but we don’t teach them that once they got here they became just another brand of religious bigots.  And we don’t face up to the fact that what happened to the locals once they got here fits the definition of genocide to a T.  We still don’t recognize that movements like Black Lives Matter are clear signs that slavery and segregation left a lot to deal with even today.  We don’t see the connection between our removal of Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader in Iran, and the hostage situation at the American Embassy years later.  And we then went on to repeat the folly in replacing Allende with Pinochet, who liked to throw kids out of helicopters into the sea tied to railroad ties, a man that our great leader Jean Kirkpatrick once pronounced as "muy amable." Guatemala.  Nicaragua.  America has been very dirty at times.  

    Investigative journalism is on the rocks in America, so most Americans, unless they know how to dig for news on the internet and can read in languages other than English, miss a great deal in perspective.  They don’t hear things like the standard narrative in lots of countries that ties Al Qaeda and ISIS directly to the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq.  Of course, truth often leaks through.  If you know how to look for slant, you can find things that make you double think – support for Hillary over Sanders in the “newspaper of record,” for example.  It's not a lack of objectivity that bothers me so much, although I got really angry at how slanted The New York Times was for Hillary and against Bernie. Bias in the press is hardly the worst thing in the world, and you can offset one slant with another without much effort.  

    People running for election always like to tell you how bad things are before they tell you how they can fix things.  It's not surprising that one of the three running wants only to tinker with the status quo and the other two want a more radical approach.  The Republicans, terrified of change and looking for an authoritative Leader to bring us back to a history that never was, lost control of their party, as they did earlier when the Tea Party got so strong.  It is now in the hands of a dangerous demagogue, a thin-skinned self-serving Pied Piper.  A second group, equally disgusted with the status quo, went for this rare bird Bernie, an apparently honest politician from a small remote state with a small population.  If he were a European politician, he would be in one of the mainstream social democrat parties.  Until yesterday, when California and New Jersey sent Hillary over the top, one hoped he might actually pull it off.

    And then there is the space in the Middle.  Most people don’t want the guy on the far right with the ability to make an amazing number of people into lemmings.  Most people don’t want the guy on the far left, not because he’s a socialist (he’s not!) but because they want an outsider who can do all the things only an insider can do.  That leaves only the status quo.  More of the same.  More big money control, banks too big to fail.  More jingoism and faith in military solutions.  More deliberation that goes nowhere.

    It’s all over but the mud-slinging now.  Just as soon as Bernie gets his last stand over with. He's holding out for the primary in Washington, D.C.  Many fault him for not being realistic and throwing his weight, early and hard, behind the only person who can save us from Trump.  I tip my hat to him for keeping his resolve to fight to the bitter end.  There will be time, still, to rally behind Hillary, and I can’t imagine he would do anything else.  The stakes are just too high.

    I wish I could wax more enthusiastic about Hillary.  I’m really glad to see a woman candidate.  It should have happened a long time ago, but at least it’s here now, this sign that we do actually progress toward greater universal equality when we want to.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a savior, as a columnist in Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung did this morning.

    But we won’t quibble over words.  Voting for her will help us retain the hard-fought rights of women and LGBT people and people of color.  It will save us from a man who not only proclaims a person of Mexican heritage cannot be a fair judge, but defends that racist stance when called out for it.  Who tells his audience to punch out protestors and offers to pay their legal bills if arrested.  It will save us from a man who has poked fun of the movements of a reporter with physical handicaps, created conspiracy theories, urged not less torture of prisoners but more. And favored killing the families of terrorists, not just the terrorists themselves.

    OK, maybe savior (small s – OK?) is the word.  Just remember, we've pinned our hopes on others before.  Let's hope we can help her play her role with a bit more success this time.

    Here’s my translation of the article in the German paper this morning.  Original is available here

    Errors are all mine: 

    June 8, 2016, 2:58 p.m.  
    Hillary Clinton must save America

    For a long time now people have been asking themselves why Hillary Clinton wanted to become president.  Now everything makes sense: she has to save the country from Donald Trump

    Commentary by Nicolas Richter

    Thank God the primaries in America are over.  They were an endless round of lies, humiliations and references to genitals.  Now it’s the opportunistic Republican against the woman democrat, Hillary Clinton.  Both embody white privilege, which always manages to come out on top.  On the one hand, that’s sobering.  But the primaries also had their good side.  The country looked into a mirror, more closely than usual, and with more honesty about itself.  In so doing, America saw uglier things than it had seen before.  At least it looked.

    One result of this self-examination was the recognition that many of its citizens are disgusted with unrestrained capitalism, that system America has always boasted about with such confidence.  The USA has always been for free trade and the unfettered market.  Now more and more Americans are recognizing that America can be among the losers of globalization.  This discomfort has grabbed both parties.  The young fans of the socialist Bernie Sanders are asking themselves why corporations are able to move from one cheap labor country to another while they are children who cannot afford to move out of their parents’ homes.  Meantime, angry older voters listen enthralled to Trump as he spits out the word “China” in disgust. 

    Suddenly Clinton’s candidacy has taken on greater significance

    It’s sobering also to take a look at the people involved in politics.  Hillary Clinton, if the predictions are correct, is the first female candidate of a major party for the White House.  She has fought for this success against sexist resistance.  But few take Clinton for the shining light Barack Obama once was.  She is stiff and secretive and her affinity for big donors brings to mind the corruption of money and power without which America’s political system cannot function.  No, Clinton does not embody any new awakening.  On the other hand, she is the most experienced person who ever sought this office.  She ties idealism with the knowledge of what is doable.  And she drives policy with an earnest love of detail that is unfortunately rare in the USA.

    In shocking contrast to this is what Trump reveals about America.  He has succeeded in dragging in the most negative characteristics of each decade, combining the greed and ruthlessness of the 80s with the permanent self-promotion in social media platforms of the 2000s and the increasing acceptability of xenophobia in the 2010s.  Lately he has claimed a U.S. judge of Mexican heritage is biased simply because he has Mexican roots.
    A year ago nobody would have thought it possible that one would see open racism in a leading politician in this tolerant land of immigrants, which still manages to be the driving force behind globalization.

    But the look in the mirror has revealed something more.  The once so proud Republican Party is characterized through and through by resentments.  Against illegals, against Muslims, against alleged freeloaders.  Older white voters fear a loss of control.  They fear they are getting too little while the others, the outsiders, are getting too much.  The party itself has had little to offer its voters since the 80s other than lower taxes and more money for armaments, which just doesn’t work out mathematically.  Now the party of “conservative principles” has tossed out both principles and what is conservative and given itself over to Trump.  All that is left for Republicans is to hope for  a destructive defeat for Trump in the polls in the fall followed by a new beginning.

    Only Hillary Clinton can save America from Trump

    The only person who can prepare this defeat for Trump is Hillary Clinton.  Only she can save America from this dangerous machismo.  That gives her candidacy a deeper meaning that was not evident at first.  Clinton must make it clear to her fellow Americans the earnestness of the situation.  Trump would be an authoritarian president.  He would take every criticism personally, would not be confident in victory, would disrespect state institutions and foreign allies.  Secondly, Clinton must dedicate herself to fight against those evils which the look in the mirror revealed: growing inequality, the influence of big money, non-transparent trade agreements, entire stretches of the country in misery and a broken system of justice for foreigners.  America looked into the mirror and saw resentment over a loss of control.  The image is unflattering, but Hillary still has time to help the country raise its consciousness.  It would be the biggest and most important victory of her life.

    photo credit: great blog for photoshopped leader faces: http://www.urantiansojourn.com 

    Oh, and those previous saviors?  There's Obama, of course:

    and McCain:

    Hope is not just a town in Arkansas.


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  8. In this week’s New York Times Sunday Review, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof takes on the closed-mindedness of the ideological left in an essay entitled “The Liberal Blind Spot.”

    Always a good thing to do, criticizing blind ideology.  I can only applaud.

    Problem is, Kristof has a few blind spots of his own.

    He starts by revisiting the problem he had with a bunch of “fellow progressives” when he insisted that while academics were good at promoting most kinds of diversity on their campuses, they fall down when promoting ideological diversity.  The blind spot in Kristof’s eye is the fallacy that there are always two sides to every story and the truth always lies in the middle.  It doesn’t.  When anti-Semites argue that Jews should be wiped out and Jews argue that they shouldn’t, the solution is not to wipe half of them out.  When slave owners argue the law should return runaway slaves to them and slaves argue that they shouldn’t, the solution is not to let half of them get away.

    “As I see it,” Kristof says, “we are hypocritical: We welcome people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us. It’s rare for a column to inspire widespread agreement, but that one led to a consensus: Almost every liberal agreed that I was dead wrong.”

    One liberal tried to shame him, he says, by pointing out that is is “mindlessly accepting patriarchy, misogyny, complementarianism, and hateful, hateful bigotry against the LGBTQ community into the academy.”  He insists that he is not.  That all he is doing is claiming that “liberals have turned departments into enclaves of ideological homogeneity.”

    It’s unfortunate that Kristof chose to use the word ideology in the first place, since ideology is commonly defined as a closed mind-set, and what is at issue here is whether people with one mind set (or “orientation,” if you will) can cross over and work with people of other mind-sets.  They can, of course, provided the people on both sides have an open mind and a willingness to change their opinions when confronted by new information and sound reasoning.  But Kristof used ideology, so we have to deal with the choice of words.

    “There are dumb or dogmatic conservatives, just as there are dumb and dogmatic liberals,” he says, “So let’s avoid those who are dumb and dogmatic, without using politics or faith as a shorthand for mental acuity.”

    So far, so good.  What reasonable person would want to disagree with that?

    Kristof cites a study by racism scholar George Yancey (i.e., presumably not a closed-minded conservative) which shows that in some fields of academia most academics would discriminate against an evangelical job seeker.  I agree with Kristof.  “That feels…like bigotry.”

    But “feels like” is not the same as “is”.  To know whether there is bigotry going on or whether hesitation to hire an evangelical for a given job is legitimate, one would have to know more about the hiring circumstances.  Discriminating against a first-rate mathematician who teaches his kids to pray is indefensible.  But rejecting an active proponent of creationism in the schools for a job in the Graduate School of Education is another story.

    In filling a new faculty position, if a candidate announces during an interview that “men should rule the world and the little lady should stay at home,” does Kristof really think the committee should hire this person to “promote the free exchange of ideas?”  It’s possible the bigotry is not in the hiring committee but in the candidate.  

    There are benefits of diversity, Kristof says.  Well, yes.  That too is not even an argument.  But while putting people who believe Jesus is the Messiah in a classroom with Jews and others who believe he is not may be good for churning the thinking process, and while it may do football players and ballet dancers good to get to know each other as fully-developed human beings and not merely a function of their passion for art or for sports, this is not an argument for diversity for diversity’s sake. 

    Kristof is uncomfortable with the fact that “at most only about one professor in ten in the humanities or social sciences is a Republican.”  He calls that a “sickly sameness.”  But turn the question around.  Instead of asking why more professors aren’t Republican, ask why conservatives should want to spend their time in disciplines where one is constantly searching for new and better ways to do things rather than passing on the traditions of the past.  There is no need to assume there’s a conspiracy here to keep conservatives out.  Being more inclined to embrace change is not a form of “sickly sameness.”  It is, on the contrary, a very healthy mindset and at the very heart of the purpose of higher education.

    “I suspect many liberals disdain evangelicals in part because they don’t have any evangelical friends,” Kristof says.  Well, if you accept that the chief characteristic that distinguishes liberals from evangelicals is that liberals define truth as shifting and changing as new information comes in while evangelicals claim that all that really matters has been established once and for all, it should come as no surprise these two groups are not all that likely to bowl together.  Why would those advocating an open door approach to life want to hang out with those advocating a closed one?  We can agree with Kristof that it might be a good thing if people hung out more with people of different mindsets.  But that should not translate into a mandate for giving university positions to folks simply because they bring ideological diversity.  If you already have a Joseph Stiglitz on your faculty, does that mean you should pass over a Robert Reich to hire an Ayn Rand?

    Kristof claims that conservatives avoid jobs in academia because of the risk of being belittled and having to suffer microaggressions.  Really?  It’s about bullying?  I spent my professional lifetime in academia.  It can be a brutal place.  Academics can be small-minded bullies, for sure.  But it’s a toss-up whether one is any worse off than with the obsequiousness to be found in the world of sales, or cut throat business practices, or hypocricy of the world of politics.  All fields have challenges.

    I think Kristof is barking up the wrong tree.  It’s not ideology that’s the problem.  If it were, I’d be in his camp when he insists that “we liberals should have the self-confidence to believe that our values can triumph in a fair contest in the marketplace of ideas.”  If students protest the policies of Benyamin Nethanyahu, or Recep Erdoğan, they're going to protest the presence on campus of former Vice-President Dick Cheney and you're going to see large numbers of signs urging he be tried as a war criminal.  If he finds it difficult to actually speak, it may have something to do with the evidence that we were lied into the Iraq war and there is broad consensus that Muslim rage around the world at American foreign policy is what's behind the growth of Al Qaeda and ISIS.  Asking those people to sit quietly and applaud politely when Cheney speaks - for the sake of allowing all ideologies an equal place in academia - is really pushing it.

    France insists that in the interest of social harmony, which the state has a duty to foster, children may not wear headscarves or other religious symbols in public schools.  America insists those are individual choices and the state should keep its hands off.  In Germany, the law doesn’t permit you to advocate anti-Semitism.  In America, we have that right, obnoxious as it is, provided it is not directed at a specific individual.  It’s useful for Americans and the French and the Germans to debate these questions and recognize how history dictates many of our choices.  And how freedom may be restricted under specific extenuating circumstances.  There I fully support the “marketplace of ideas.”

    The problem is that in recent years the American political right has come to reject the scientific approach, where claims must be supported by evidence.  It has not only resisted change; it has tried to pull society back to the time when women had no control over their own bodies and black citizens had a much harder time getting into polling booths.  Debating whether big government is better than small government is one thing.  Obstructing the working of government in order to advance the cause of the Republican Party is another.  Today, if one has reservations about what the word conservative has come to represent, it’s those moves into alarmingly restrictive and self-serving territory that drives those reservations.

    “There are no quick solutions to the ideological homogeneity on campuses,” Kristof argues.   “But shouldn’t we at least acknowledge that this is a shortcoming, rather than celebrate our sameness?”

    No.  Not if the sameness is a shared conviction that the work of the university is the pursuit of knowledge, and not the furtherance of the belief system of a particular segment of the traditional culture. 

    Yes, of course the label “liberal” or “progressive” doesn’t mean you’re right all the time about everything.  There are liberal blind spots.  I just worry that when Nicholas Kristof lays out his ideologies and wants to give them equal time and equal weight, he has not thought through the possibility they may not be of equal value.

    photo credit


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  9. A wonderful bird is the pelican
    His bill can hold more than his belly can
    He can take in his beak
    Enough food for a week
    But I’m damned if I know how the hell he can.
    I remember the sense of connection I had with my friend Ed from Missouri the first time I came up with "A wonderful bird is the pelican..."  and he finished the limerick.   I had grown up in New England, he in Southeast Missouri, but this 100-year-old bit of delightful doggerel was part of our shared American culture.

    The other night at a friend’s house for dinner we began talking about Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson and ended up waxing nostalgic about recitations by the old folks of our youth.  (The fact that we were celebrating my 76th birthday may have had something to do with the inclination to reminisce.)

    My friend Cathy brought up Abdul Al Bulbul Amir and remembered how her father used to entertain the kids with a recitation of it whenever he got the chance.  Not to be left out, I remembered a great-uncle, who, back in the days before radio and television (and even electricity and running water), used to entertain the kids with recitations.  In his case, what I remember above all others was The Cremation of Sam McGee.

    I felt the guilty urge to make the point that there’s a world of difference between "Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening..." and the clashing swords of Abdul Abulbul Amir, but nobody was interested.  We all got a lot of mileage from the popular poetry that helped make family and community – at least in our imaginings of the good old days.  It didn't seem to need defending. Nonetheless, in poking around for more information on these two pieces, Abdul Albulbul Amir and Sam McGee, I found several people who needed to label them as doggerel.  I'll get to that issue in a minute.

    Thanks to the internet, I now know that the pelican limerick was not written by Ogden Nash, as I had always thought, but by a Tennessee newspaper editor named Dixon Lanier Merritt.  
    William Percy French

    And Abdul Abulbul Amir was written during the Russo-Turkish war in 1877 by an Anglo-Irish songwriter named William Percy French (1854-1920) for a “smoking concert,” those Victorian era gatherings for men only where new music was introduced and political views were aired.  It was stolen and sold off for £5.   The thieves passed it on as their own creation, so French never made any money off of it.  History has given him the last word, fortunately, and his creative genius is still celebrated every year at a festival at Castlecoote House, County Roscommon.

    Robert W. Service
    The Cremation of Sam McGee is a Canadian piece, written a generation later by a sourdough (a resident of the Yukon Territory) and published in 1907.  His name was Robert W. Service.  Service was born in England but after finding his way to British Columbia, he eventually got caught up in the rush to Klondike Country, and became known as the “bard of the Yukon.”

    OK, so now for the doggerel bit.  The class distinction between classical music, generally written and performed by people of exceptional musical talent and the popular music of the masses of ordinary folk is mirrored somewhat in this alleged distinction between poetry and doggerel.  I say “alleged” as a way of admitting I don’t like being thought of as the kind of person who judges people by who lives in the “nicer part of town” and who lives in the “low-rent district.”  I do, of course.  I just don’t like to be caught at it.

    Doggerel is a lofty sounding word for a concept that is anything but lofty.  In fact, it's generally associated with the burlesque.  Nobody knows the origin of the word, although it was probably coined by somebody who wasn't much of a dog-lover.  It is defined as “comic verse composed in irregular rhythm,” or “verse that is badly (i.e. crudely) written. When the word is used, it is commonly preceded by such words and phrases as "mere," "pure" and “deteriorates into.”   It is nonetheless "effective because of its simple mnemonic rhyme and loping metre, if the Britannica is your guide.  Goethe and Schiller both wrote what in German is called Knüttelvers, or "cudgel verse," and in English even Samuel Butler and Jonathan Swift dabbled in it.  Which raises the question of whether this is "bad" poetry or merely another genre of creative language by people with imagination. Are what Ogden Nash and Calvin Trillin wrote doggerel?

    "Fleas" (Nash)

    Adam had'em.

    and if you're one of those who insist it wasn't Ogden Nash who wrote that but Shel Silverstein, here's another one that was written by Nash:

    Is gharsley.

    "On the Assumption that Al Gore Will Slim Down if He's intending to Run for President" (Trillin)

    Last week, I told my desk that Gore might run,
    Though he appeared to be at least full-size:
    A waiter at a Georgetown place revealed
    Gore's order had included 'hold the fries.'

    Whether a particular poem lifts and inspires one above and beyond the ordinary or “deteriorates into doggerel” is a subjective evaluation, like all critical evaluations of art and poetry and music.  One man’s doggerel is another man’s witty verse, of course, and truth be known, given the choice between pheasant under glass and spaghetti and meat balls, I’m hardly alone in preferring the spaghetti.  Much as I appreciate “stopping by woods on a snowy evening” and “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways…”  (and I do love Frost and Dickinson.   And Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Keats, and Pablo Neruda…), there’s always room for the pelican…belly can…hell he can on the bench next to me.

    I’ve been thinking a lot in recent times about the old folks I knew as a kid.  Like the ones my father looked up to.  It was fascinating going to Nova Scotia every summer where his roots were and watching this man I thought knew everything there was to know actually looking up to people he himself as a kid thought knew everything there was to know.  The uncles.  Clarence and Cliff and Harold and Austin and Rollie, not to mention some who had "gone on to their reward."  The women too, with names like Cordelia and Annie and Mabel and Lillian and Lola, were no less important, but it was one uncle especially who had a way with words.  And for whom space was always made for yet another story or recitation of poetry.

    In 1938, when my mother and father married, they were the children of immigrants and had few resources to count on to get their lives started.  My father’s mother’s father had built the house in the woods he and his wife and their nine kids all lived in just after the time of the U.S. Civil War, in Canada and in territory never before inhabited.  Electricity and running water were unknowns.  And when my father bought the house I grew up in, it too lacked running water for the first year, even in Connecticut, until he got around to digging a well and putting in a septic tank so we didn’t need to use the outhouse any more. 

    He had not acquired the city ways my mother and my sister and I would soon take for granted, and he seemed to be less put out by the fact we lived with a water pump outside and an outhouse for a time. No "cultural estrangement" apparently. There was always a gap between my father and me, but when we began spending the summers with my grandmother's siblings in Nova Scotia, when I was about seven, I began to learn something essential about him, things about his roots that made little sense outside that environment.  The hunter, the fisherman, the man who wouldn’t let me get my driver’s license until I could take apart a carburetor. The culture that had nurtured him consisted of self-motivated farmers and woodsmen who, in the days before social welfare, either worked or starved. He was of the next generation, born in Boston, but his heart was always among the woods and lakes of Nova Scotia and when he died we scattered his ashes there.   

    It took me some time to learn the full extent of that culture he always yearned for.  Curiously, at least to me at the time, these people sat around in large family circles and listened to those who had ways with words.  There was the radio, I suppose, although I have no memory of anybody listening to it.  In time, I was able to make a connection between that world of self-sufficiency and the world of story-telling, where one respected the old folks for their knowledge of how to build things and sustain them.  And how to tell the same stories and recite the same poems over and over again until the rest of us began to pick them up and join in.

    When I looked up Robert W. Service I had a flash of instant recognition.  Service made his living writing poetry eventually.  My Great Uncle Harold never reached the heights Service did - Service made it professionally and left quite a proud legacy – but he was part of what went into my love of the rhythm-and-stress patterns of the English language, the cadences and the dry wit behind the turns of phrase.  Service’s world in the Yukon was not that far from my uncles’ world in the Canadian Maritimes and Newfoundland.  Rough as timber in their youth, apparently, and soft as a rhyming couplet, as the years went by.

    I’ve always envied those who could recite poetry at the drop of a hat, always marveled at the notion of oral traditions and at the thought that once there were people who could recite Homer’s Odyssey.  And that, even in this day and age, there are people, I understand (I’ve never met any face to face), who can recite the entire Qur’an.

    To go from Homer's Odyssey to Abdul Abulbul Amir in the same sentence is to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, quite literally, although I'm not on firm ground here with the allegedly sublime.  From the heroic to the silly, maybe I should say.  But to a seven-year old first learning an appreciation of language and story-telling, the distinction is trivial.

    Both of these pieces, Abdul Abulbul Amir and The Cremation of Sam McGee, have been musicalized.  Abdul Abulbul Amir was set to music by a vaudeville singer and composer named Frank Crumit.  And The Cremation of Sam McGee was popularized not long ago by Johnny Cash.

    I'm posting the words and the links below, if you’d like to hear them spoken/sung.  And you tell me.  Is this doggerel?  Or simply the rap music of an age gone by?  Have they become outdated, the way I think Seventy-Six Trombones has lost its appeal?  Are they “too silly for words” as I think Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang has become and probably always was?  Probably “whose woods these are I think I know” deserves a longer life than “the first time I’ve been warm.”  But that’s OK.  For now, there’s room at the table for both.

    Have a listen to these two pieces.  And you have to hear them, sung or spoken.  Reading the verse doesn’t capture the spirit.  Many people have other associations with these two poems than mine, of course.  They learned Sam McGee in school, perhaps, along with the Gettysburg Address.  Or associate it with their father and long car trips.  But see if you can’t find a way, if only in the imagination, to go back to a time when one sat around and listened to the old folks telling their tales and reaching for a way to entertain each other.  Back before the internet.  Before television.  Before radio. Before electricity.

    Here are some of the versions of these two poems, the former set to music, on YouTube.

    Frank Crumit
    There’s the wonderfully politically incorrect version done by MGM.  We forget that the original confuses Turks and Persians as many do today, and in the heat of war and the breakdown of the three-cousin monarchies, King George V of England, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia, which led ultimately to World War I, it was not a time of sensitivity toward cultural differences.  But that aside, here’s the cartoon version

    And here’s a version by Brendan O’Dowda.  He’s actually the guy who popularized the songs of Percy French, but if you listen to him doing it after watching the cartoon version, it’s almost comical in how straight-laced it comes across.  Helps you understand how context is everything.

    Here’s a nice 1927 recording by Frank Crumit, who set it to music originally. 

    And another sung version by Frank Ifield, with a lovely Irish tenor voice: 

    And here’s a spoken version by Tom O’Bedlam. 

    The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
    And quite unaccustomed to fear,
    But the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah,
    Was Abdul Abulbul Amir.

    If you wanted a man to encourage the van,
    Or harass the foe from the rear,
    Storm fort or redoubt, you had only to shout
    For Abdul Abulbul Amir.

    Now the heroes were plenty and well known to fame
    In the troops that were led by the Czar,
    And the bravest of these was a man by the name
    Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

    One day this bold Russian, he shouldered his gun
    And donned his most truculent sneer,
    Downtown he did go where he trod on the toe
    Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

    Young man, quoth Abdul, has life grown so dull
    That you wish to end your career?
    Vile infidel, know, you have trod on the toe
    Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

    So take your last look at the sunshine and brook
    And send your regrets to the Czar
    For by this I imply, you are going to die,
    Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

    Then this bold Mameluke drew his trusty skibouk,
    Singing, "Allah! Il Allah! Al-lah!"
    And with murderous intent he ferociously went
    For Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

    They parried and thrust, they side-stepped and cussed,
    Of blood they spilled a great part;
    The philologist blokes, who seldom crack jokes,
    Say that hash was first made on the spot.

    They fought all that night neath the pale yellow moon;
    The din, it was heard from afar,
    And huge multitudes came, so great was the fame,
    Of Abdul and Ivan Skavar.

    As Abdul's long knife was extracting the life,
    In fact he was shouting, "Huzzah!"
    He felt himself struck by that wily Calmuck,
    Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

    The Sultan drove by in his red-breasted fly,
    Expecting the victor to cheer,
    But he only drew nigh to hear the last sigh,
    Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

    There's a tomb rises up where the Blue Danube rolls,
    And graved there in characters clear,
    Is, "Stranger, when passing, oh pray for the soul
    Of Abdul Abulbul Amir."

    A splash in the Black Sea one dark moonless night
    Caused ripples to spread wide and far,
    It was made by a sack fitting close to the back,
    Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

    A Muscovite maiden her lone vigil keeps,
    'Neath the light of the cold northern star,
    And the name that she murmurs in vain as she weeps,
    Is Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

    Johnny Cash
    As for The Cremation of Sam McGee, YouTube has several versions.  I don’t like any of them, probably because they are not the version I remember as a child.  Too stagy.  Too puffed up.  There’s this one by Hal Jeayes.  And there’s even a film version directed by somebody named Johnny A. which fails miserably for me because the visuals are too distracting.  It’s the voice that should carry you.  And your own imagination that should do the work.  The Johnny Cash version works, at least: 

    The Cremation Of Sam McGee

    There are strange things done in the midnight sun
    By the men who moil for gold;
    The Arctic trails have their secret tales
    That would make your blood run cold;
    The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
    But the queerest they ever did see
    Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
    I cremated Sam McGee.

    Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
    Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
    He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
    Though he'd often say in his homely way that he'd "sooner live in hell".

    On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
    Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
    If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
    It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

    And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
    And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
    He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
    And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

    Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
    "It's the cursed cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
    Yet 'tain't being dead -- it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
    So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

    A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
    And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
    He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
    And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

    There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
    With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
    It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say:
    "You may tax your brawn and brains,
    But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains."

    Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
    In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
    In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
    Howled out their woes to the homeless snows -- O God! how I loathed the thing.

    And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
    And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
    The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
    And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

    Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
    It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May".
    And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
    Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

    Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
    Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
    The flames just soared, and the furnace roared -- such a blaze you seldom see;
    And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

    Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
    And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
    It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
    And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

    I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
    But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
    I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
    I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; . . . then the door I opened wide.

    And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
    And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
    It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm --
    Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

    There are strange things done in the midnight sun
    By the men who moil for gold;
    The Arctic trails have their secret tales
    That would make your blood run cold;
    The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
    But the queerest they ever did see
    Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
    I cremated Sam McGee.

    photo credits:

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  10. In explaining my decision to enter the world of the absurd the past couple of weeks, my escape into the history of the Hohenzollerns and their connection to other royals, I’ve said it’s because I can’t stand the endless chatter about Trump and Cruz, Hillary and Sanders.  I came out as a Bernie Sanders fan a long time ago, and, while I remain willing to argue with all my Hillary-supporting friends, I really find the horse race game the media play pretty unbearable.  At least with royals there are characters like Rasputin.  And Prince Philip’s mother, Alice, who was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic and forcibly institutionalized.  And Freud suggesting x-raying her ovaries to kill off her libido.  All before she became a Greek Orthodox nun and a member of the “righteous among the nations,” a Jewish “really really good guy, maybe saint, even,” and being buried in Jerusalem.  So much more fun than listening to Trump call Mexicans rapists over and over again in the lefty press.

    But in the past couple of weeks or so I've begun to feel disheartened that my friends are settling for second best, and I just want to say so.  I think there’s something terribly wrong with the big picture.

    Here’s how I see the big picture.

    Without going on about how badly broken the system is, I see three choices: one good, one not so good, and one really really bad.

    Good is Bernie Sanders.  The only one of the three candidates seriously engaging with the question of how to whittle away at the kleptocracy that America has become.  Then comes Hillary, who is the person to vote for if you don’t think the status quo is all that bad.  The third choice, Trump, is not a choice.

    Here’s what my Hillary-supporting friends are saying about the choice between Bernie and Hillary. 

    1. Bernie is not used to playing with the big boys.  They will eat him alive.  Which is baloney.  First off, there’s a good chance that the voters who would come out for Bernie are the kind of voters who would also throw the obstructionist Republican bums out and give Bernie a democratic congress to work with.  And even if they don’t, there would be such a sigh of relief that there finally is a radically different type of person in the Oval Office, that I’m sure he would not be left high and dry.  We might even get Nancy Pelosi back.  Look how effective she was in her day.  Have you noticed she still has not come down off the fence, by the way?  A woman still not ready to endorse Hillary?

    2. Bernie has no international experience.  Hillary did a bang-up job as Secretary of State.  You got me there.  But Obama should get some credit for putting a good Secretary of State in office.  Why couldn’t Bernie Sanders do the same?

    3. The biggest argument I keep hearing against Bernie is that he is a spoiler.  Ralph Nader revisited.  He couldn’t get out the vote and all he is doing is splitting the democratic party. This argument, with all due respect to my dear friends putting it forward, is just plain wrong.  And it's based on the cynical notion that the system is rigged and we have to choose an insider or lose the game.  It's surrendering before the game has started.  Besides, all Nader could do was syphon votes off the bottom of the pile of democrats.  Bernie is drawing major support - he's far more of an equal - if the polls comparing Bernie to Hillary are taken seriously.  I know polls have been proven unreliable lately, but then what’s the argument for ignoring the polls?

    Here’s the results of the latest NBC News/SurveyMonkey Tracking Poll, conducted online between May 2 and May 8:

    Bernie vs. Trump: 53 to 40%
    Hillary vs. Trump:  49 to 44%

    The problem seems to be Hillary’s unpopularity.

    According to HuffPost, a look at ten different polls (with one exception, CNN) shows Hillary’s unpopularity rating is roughly between 10 and 20% points ahead of her popularity rating: 

    See also HuffPost’s reasoning behind its endorsement of Bernie here.

    By contrast, Bernie’s ratings are the mirror image – between 10 and 20%, for the most part, favorable ahead of unfavorable.  CNN is once more an outlier here.  It has Bernie’s favorable ratings 28 points ahead of his unfavorable ratings.  (Nice to hear, but note to self: continue ignoring CNN as a source of information.)

    Then there is the Quinnipiac poll showing Hillary beating Trump in Florida by only one point, while Bernie is beating him by 2.  In Ohio she is four points behind Trump, while Bernie leads there as well, by 2.  And in Pennsylvania,  she’s ahead of Trump by only one point, Bernie by 6. The argument that she’s a better candidate than Bernie does not seem to be holding water lately.  (And while you’re checking out that page, note that after giving figures showing Bernie a stronger candidate, the entire rest of the article compares only Hillary to Trump.  Same media slighting of Bernie as we've seen all along.)

    Common Dreams has this to say:  “a new national poll out Tuesday shows that the most surefire way to derail the GOP frontrunner: Put Bernie Sanders on the Democratic ticket.”

    Another way of looking at the election is shown in the opening lines of an editorial in today’s Chicago Tribune: “Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump can be glad that ‘none of the above’ won't be on the ballot in November. If it were, they'd probably both lose.

    So much for the beatability argument.  If you’re going to go for Hillary over Bernie, the burden is on you, it seems to me, to make the case.  You're going to have to begin with “Even though Bernie is a safer choice at keeping Trump out of the White House, you should still vote for Hillary.  It’s riskier, but she’s the one to vote for because…”

    To get behind Hillary, it seems to me, is to turn a blind eye to just how inequitable a place the United States has become, how we’ve thrown away our focus on education (just look at the history of California in the last fifty years, dropping from arguably best in the world to 49th in the nation, for example ) how we’ve turned our backs on voting rights, stopped rewarding productivity and rewarded financial shenanigans instead.  And totally surrendered to corporate greed.  Read Thomas Frank’s Pity the Billionaire for a good treatment of that story, or Les Leopold’s Runaway Inequality, or check out Noam Chomsky’s latest, the Requiem for the American Dream, and then consider Hillary’s half-hearted attempt to change the fact that for every house and average American worker might afford to buy any more his or her CEO boss could buy 844 houses.

    If Hillary wins the nomination, I will get behind her and hope everybody else does likewise – allowing a man to become president who wants to bar Muslims from entering the country would be a cataclysmic disaster for the country (and the rest of the world).

    But it's not over yet.  I know it's a big uphill climb, and it's the two political parties, not the American people, who determine who gets to the top.  But California, Oregon and New Jersey have not had their primaries yet, and the struggle is still engaged.

    It's been a long time since we've had much hope things could be turned around.  Why abandon so quickly the only voice in the game seriously addressing America's inequities?  What will it hurt to wait a while longer before throwing in the towel and settling for second best?


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