Thursday, September 30, 2010

A reply to a freind

An expansion of a recent short exchange I had on facebook.
The questions were posed by my friend Peg (before she took up the sailor's life.)

When I advocate in favor of gay marriage, I sometimes hear "it will hurt the marriage institution." My response, that gay marriage can't hurt marriage anymore than straight marriage has, is ignored. Would someone explain the rationale behind the "bad for marriage" argument to me?

                This question is remarkable only for its utter lack of mystery.    Religious authority has been losing its position as the definer of truth in many things--government, education, natural philosophy to name a few—for centuries.   They tried to hold the line on these fronts, but inevitably came up short.  Marriage has been one remaining refuge where their longstanding priority in saying what goes is still more or less intact.  Even after their power to influence sexual mores began to erode, marriage has been a bulwarked fortress from which they have had little cause to retreat.  Yet, that, as the saying goes, was then, and this is now.   Society is shifting towards dramatically increased tolerance of homosexuality.  Worse, there are open demands that homosexuals be allowed the covenant of marriage.  The religious realize they face a society that believes it has outgrown clerical authority on yet another topic.  They simply find this difficult to bear.
                One cannot completely discount the role of fear and hatred in all this, but we must resist the temptation to assume it is in total control of the reaction.  Consider.  If even the modest estimates of the proportion of gays in the Roman Catholic priesthood can be trusted (which they probably can, boy howdy can they), then homosexuality has to have been an open secret among thousands of clerical colleagues over years and years.  Yet they have gone on rubbing elbows together in the arms of Mother Church without flinching.  This is hardly a climate of rampant homophobia.    The idea that they simply can't bring themselves to understand the equivalence of a same sex union in terms of love, honor, commitment and growth is false.  The claim that if they could only be made to see this their opposition would evaporate is utter nonsense.   They are perfectly capable of seeing that, and the more intellectually reflective of them have probably already acknowledged it to themselves.   They might even acknowledge it openly.  The bottom line is that they just couldn't care less.  The hate card makes good rhetoric, but it doesn’t frame the real issue.
                No, the thought process that sets off the alarm in the authoritarian clerical mindset is their unshakable belief that marriage IS what the church says it is, and only the church is allowed to say what it is.  Of course they'll rephrase that to say “what GOD says it is”, making sure to speak for him if he doesn’t make an appearance.  It is one of the areas where they still hold a truly dominant share of the market.  Were they to bow to shifting societal attitudes regarding marriage, they would be conceding away one of their last remaining spheres of dominance.  The stakes for them are therefore enormous. 
                In a sense they are perfectly right.  Societal introduction of gay marriage contrary to church instruction destroys the institution as they understand it, but only because that would mean it was no longer their sole province.   They know damn well what they are being asked to give up.

All very good points and well-said. But the person I am trying to reason with is concerned only with the implications of legalizing CIVIL marriages.

                It doesn't make the slightest bit of difference.  Certainly in a society where freedom of religion and separation of church and state are the law of the land, a civil administration of marriage is to be expected.   But it is also true that our society in practice has greatly deferred to clerical authority in matters of marriage more than in any other arena.   How many people do we know that still get married by a cleric, even if their personal beliefs are agnostic at best.  The historical bargain of the establishment clause may have required the various sects and faiths to share power in matters nuptial, but the religionists understood that it was still mostly their game, and their ball.  To this day faithful of many stripes expect that status quo to be upheld.  It does not matter to them, therefore, that a law allowing civil marriage would not encroach on their right to refuse to proffer the sacrament to homosexual union. The point is that in matters of what marriage is going to be in society they still expect to have the last word.
This leaves them in a bind.  First, what they are trying to uphold is not a legal privilege as much as a Gentlemen’s Agreement.   They may feel the legalization of civil union violates their purview, but what can they do?  The more stridently religious can scream about sanctity, an explicitly religious concept, but that won’t stand long in the face of the establishment and separation clauses.  They can prattle about the offense of forcing believers to respect a bond sanctioned by the civil authority in violation of their deeply held religious laws, but that won’t hold up to scrutiny either.   In this society, the reach of religious law is short, and does not increase with the passion with which the faithful embrace it.  Otherwise, orthodox synagogues would preclude the establishment of pig farms in the same neighborhood.
Second, a number of clerics and denominations have broken ranks and come out in favor of same sex marriage.  Some offer the sacrament where possible, either in accordance with or in lieu of existing civil recognition.  One effect of this is to turn the legal landscape a full 180 degrees.  It makes proffering the sacrament of marriage a matter of differing religious opinions.   The Constitution makes it very hard to ask the state to take a position adjudicating between such differences, all other things being equal.  Our best rule of thumb in such cases is for the state to remain neutral and proscribe sufficient room for all to practice as they see fit.  This invariably favors the civil allowance of same sex union for those who want it.
                Given all this, what can be said in defense of the old status quo?  Not much.  The fall back becomes a preservationist argument.  Marriage as defined in the old terms is claimed to be such an important and meaningful concept that it must be preserved in toto.  Not a dram of its meaning can ever be allowed to evolve or pass away.   They might say something like “What would anyone add to or cut away from the Mona Lisa?”  They will accuse us of trying to do something like that to marriage.
                I can think of a few objections to this position.  First, it’s based on an assumption of some kind of perfection in the marriage concept they wish to preserve.  This is very problematic.  They can trot out the theological “God made it perfect” claim in support of this, but it puts them squarely back in the arena of civil vs. clerical separation.   Beyond that, is there anything to suggest perfection in the institution?  Its common practice certainly doesn’t, nor does its history of evolutionary change.  At one time it meant a subjugation of a woman’s legal independence to her husband.  We’ve worked hard to rid ourselves of that, with some way yet to go, but the point is that if we thought the marriage concept was perfect, we wouldn’t be still working on it like that.  Other examples of change in the marriage concept can be brought readily to mind.  Without some kind of static perfection to fall back on the preservationist argument starts to leak oil.
                Even if we granted some kind of perfection to the traditional concept, that wouldn’t necessarily preclude anything new.  To reply to the Mona Lisa analogy at its face value: Just because we want to keep Leonardo’s masterpiece intact doesn’t mean we have to tell Renoir or Pollock or O’keefe to lay down their brushes, or restrict them to pounding out duplicates of one portrait of an Italian merchant princess.   Worthy things can coexist:  the more the better.  When Rodin crafted The Thinker, he did not detract from but added to the value of Michelangelo’s David.  Excellent yet different conceptions side by side offer far more than they do separately.
                Finally the preservationist argument is a ploy: an attempt to get you to agree to manacles in advance of the debate.   It’s based on the knowledge that growth and change attends an annihilation of some fraction of the original.  Instances where growth is exclusively amplification or simple addition are rare.   Natural, desirable, inevitable change usually discards some part of its beginning.  Insect and amphibian metamorphosis shows this in extremis. The caterpillar is continuous with the butterfly, yet only a small necessary amount of the caterpillar identity is preserved.   The flaw in the maneuver intended by the status quo defender becomes clear.  They will argue it does not matter what is gained by the expansion of the definition of marriage, if even the slightest bit of the original is discarded or lost, they will demand that it must not be done.   They deny growth, adaptation, and experiment: an excellent strategy, if the goal is to learn or invent absolutely nothing.
                So the next time anyone asks you to put on the “preservationist” handcuffs, tell them no, it just doesn’t turn you on.  Some may like, even need, bondage to be part of intellectual intercourse, but you simply have to have your hands free thank you very much.  If they complain, suggest that if they can’t “perform” under those circumstances the fault might not lie with you.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In political theater the playwright you use matters

Its been over a week since the undue attention was paid to a grandstanding Florida cleric.  My thoughts are definitely out of synch with the news cycle but hey, the country was founded on letters that took weeks to deliver.  I might still be in some window of opportunity.

Let me say up front: the threat to burn Koran’s by Terry Jones’ congregation should be seen exactly as they meant it to be seen.  It is an aggressive provocation of another faith through desecration of its sacred objects, and a cynically intentional piece of political shock theater based on a Nazi trope.  Their intention to “fan the flames” to create an increasingly visceral climate of intimidation toward muslims as a people in this country is obvious, and equivalent with the painting of a swastika on a synagogue by the KKK. (One point of exception here--the Klan itself never bothered to buy any synagogue before bombing or defacing it.  Perhaps if that were required they might have been thwarted by the demands of frugality).   Still, although its probably assumable that Jones’ tiny group of yahoos don’t have the stones to engage in violence on their own, there is every reason to treat them as if they intend to foment violence.  If they can ignore decency and the lessons of history to play the Brownshirt, we can take it at face value.  If they’re only faking, then as the Lerner and Lowe song says, “Well aint that too darn bad”.

However this does raise the issue of what to do when an American community of faith comes under threat from other parts of the populace.  A fundamental obligation of all civil authority is to protect freedom of worship, but no less than for any other civil liberty constitutionally proscribed.  We have to understand that this is true even to the threat or application of deadly force:  as when the National Guard escorted students into schools ordered to integrate.  The message needs to be unequivocal.   A segment of the population may have rights properly granted through due process.  Some other antagonist segment may vow that those rights will be exercised only over their dead bodies.  If they force the issue to that extreme, then the civil authority must be ready saying, “If you really won’t reconsider.  If you’re really calling our bluff, so be it”.  If this results in the antagonist’s corpses gracing the occasion per their own draconian ultimatum, that’s unfortunate.  It’s sad, but not necessarily bad.   This does not justify a hair trigger in such cases.  Such action must always be a remedy of last resort.  Still there’s a core of principles that must lead us to say at the appropriate time “No, I’m afraid we’re really going to have to insist you leave people to the rule and protection of the law.  We’ll repeat this up to a point, but then we’re just going to open fire”.  That’s the backstop behind the rights, as Hobbes duly pointed out.   It’s also the essence of what President Jefferson told the Baptists of Danbury regarding the Congregationalists of Danbury whom they feared.  Jefferson’s letter is a beautiful essay on religious freedom and separation of church and state, but also a tacit reassurance that the government would behave as outlined above should the Congregationalists fail to leave the Baptists to live and worship in peace.
It’s a mistake to think that the driver behind this reality was a desire to assure the preservation and promotion of religion per se.     This view has kind of grown up to inform many people’s understanding of the first amendment.   Believers and even a considerable portion of unbelievers think this.   But the peaceful promulgation of faiths in order to enjoy benefits from them we can’t otherwise obtain was not the thing about the rights that everyone agreed on.  To think this is nonsense.   The purpose of separation of church and state was to blunt the repeatedly demonstrated transgressions by religious authority, and to keep them from competing to get their hands on the levers of civil power.  It’s a civilized alternative to sentiments exemplified in Diderot’s call to “hang the last tyrant with braided entrails of the last cleric”, which he believed would be necessary to fight the compulsion of religions to make men and the world over in their own image.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mangled Myths (a division of Fractured Fairy Tales)

A little nonsense now and then ...

The last winged horse, the kind that could fly one directly to heaven, had to be put down after breaking a leg in a stakes race on Mt. Olympus in 823 A.D.   They tried to splint the thing, but horses being what they are, it wouldn't stay off its feet, and they sent it to the celestial glue factory. Tragic really.

Since then all the Valkyrie have taken to riding mountain bikes.  It’s really got them in shape too.  Traditionally they carried a lot of body mass, but now they all have flat stomachs, legs like gymnasts and shoulders like Olympic swimmers. They can’t go anywhere without being hit on by unwed demigods, (male and female alike who can still live up to their ancient reputations if you know what I mean).

Sadly though, when they lost the weight, they lost their famous upper vocal range.  They just can't quite hit the high notes of Wagner anymore.  Now when they ride down Bifrost singing wildly, its usually some soul or Motown tune—Aretha Franklin mostly—which they bring off quite well.   They tried ABBA once, and while the Scandinavian angle seemed like a good fit at first, it just didn’t work out.  Nobody, and I mean nobody wanted to be born aloft in glory from the battlefield to Dancing Queen.

In spite of their new found fitness, the braided maidens really missed their horses.  Out of sympathy the Aasgard dwarves tricked out their bikes with these amazing Gotterdammerung and Ragnarok paint jobs that burst into billowing smoke and fire when they ride.  They undid their braids to let their golden hair stream behind their helms, and they wear dark Oakley wrap-arounds.   Its no longer opera and noble steeds across the Rainbow Bridge, but they get their point across.  When a warrior falls in battle, they bear him home: a swarm of stunning, frenzied bike couriers.

Out of your league dude, trust me

Every Valkyrie used to wear a gilded breastplate that was at least a DD-cup, but after trimming down most aren’t more than a “C” these days.  Once some sexist old deity tried to get cute about it with that "more than a mouthful is wasted darlings" wisecrack, but the buff heralds of Woden all carry much heavier spears and shields than in the old days. They opened a can of whup-ass on him like you never saw, all the while singing What you want, baby I got it, and You-better-think-(THINK!)-think-about-what-your-tryin-to-do-to-me.  Somehow word of it reached humanity, and this German philosopher Fred Nishy (I think that was the name) reported the deity didn’t survive.  Not so.  He’s just in rehab with his jaw wired shut, living on a diet of burnt-offering smoothies--totally sworn off women.  He tries to say, “I am the LORD thy GOD”, but it comes out “Hy-uma-HOR-eye-GAH”.  Its hard to take him seriously, especially if he's just made that slurping sound with his straw in an empty cup.  Since then the Valkyrie get R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and plenty of it...even from the demigods.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


My grandmother just turned 98.  I've put together some of what she's told me of her immigration story.  Its by no means a complete telling, but everything in it happened.

Her dark complexion made her strikingly beautiful, but it bothered her.  She was young—seventeen, wrapped in a wool coat on the deck of the ocean liner Ile de France.  She’d been seasick for three days,  found the smell of food from the ship’s kitchen unbearable, and had avoided the dining room since they left port.  Not eating had made her wobbly on deck, but the nausea was less keen in the cold salt air, so she spent as much time there as possible.  Her name was Antonia.
She had been born in Sleme, a small Slovenian mountain village, when Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Later, after the Great War, Slovenia became part of Yugoslavia, and in the 1920s, only six small extended families called the village home.  Antonia's family owned a small farm and roadside tavern which gave them their living.  Her father Josef was hard-drinking, stubborn, and occasionally mean.  His main desire was to relocate his family to the United States, but his wife Jenny was against going.  So first he went alone, leaving her and their children to fend for themselves.   He settled in Cleveland, working and saving what he could.  There followed several returns back to their farm, unannounced and unpredicted.  He would repeat his pleas for the family to follow him back to America, and stay only long enough to grow frustrated with Jenny's resistance, and to get her pregnant.  His returns to Cleveland were usually discovered in the form of  a note left behind on the kitchen table.
  Antonia’s presence on the French steamer was the final act in her father’s exodus drama.  During one return visit he had announced that this was the last time he would ever return to Yugoslavia.  He gave his wife an ultimatum; if you want to be with me, follow me.  This was enough.  While he returned to Cleveland, Jenny made arrangements to sell everything, and buy passage for herself and the children.   They included her son Pepe (in his twenties), Antonia, Ludwig, and four year old Sophie, the last two being fruits of father’s abbreviated homecomings.
  In the village, Antonia and Pepe had made an inseparable troika with another boy, and the three simply adored each other.  They spent their free time hiking the alpine hills, poaching fish from the river at night (alert for wardens and darting for the cover of the nearby hay fields when the official’s telltale torches worked their way up the riverside).  In winter they navigated the mountain on skis of their own make.  Once, when the villagers had been distilling brandy from the summer’s surplus plums, they got drunk together (Antonia was around 12 then).  The distillers had been "dutifully testing" the quality of their product all morning and needed to lie down.  When the children came on the scene, the men asked them to watch over the operation while they went home and took their nap.  The three obliged (of course), dared each other to try the sweet liquor (of course), liked it (of course), drank too much, got tipsy, then sick in turn.  By the time of her emigration they were welded in a deep and permanent love, but it was especially strong between Pepe and Antonia.
Antonia’s tomboy nature, her easy friendship with older boys and her somewhat olive skin had prompted some in the village to call her Rom--Gypsy—a mean-spirited nickname.  This was still an epithet in Old Europe, where the Romany were feared and disliked.  Antonia hated when they called her that, not least because it offended an inborn sense of equity.   Still, knowing its intent, the name bothered her, and she became sensitive about this aspect of her appearance. Not that she took it in silence. Once a woman who always made a particular point to mock her this way did it once too often, and Toni grabbed an apple off a tree, whirled and pegged the offender in the head as she fled into her cottage.  It may not have been directly related to her memory of this treatment, but for the rest of her life she was marked by an ingrained sense of what was fair, so that no one could ever remember her taking advantage of another person or letting someone else get away with it.
Their emigration route wound from the village to Ljubljana depot, then by train to Le Havre, the great Atlantic seaport in northern France.   There they boarded the steamer to Ellis Island, where her father would meet them.  The first leg of the trip ended in heartbreak.  The Great War (nobody called it WWI yet) was nearly 10 years past, but it had left old Europe unstable, under a steady, perceptibly increasing sense of dread.  The violence of 1914-18 had gone to ground, but you could say that people still felt it seismically as if a vibration through the soles of the feet.  By 1928 many concluded another war was inevitable, so at the train station, Jenny presented their travel papers to a government official, who, unknown to them, was there to deny passage to all men who might serve in the anticipated conflict.  Yugoslavia was claiming Pepe for the Army, but  having already sold everything to make the journey the rest couldn't stay with him.  His mother wept, cried in anger, begged the official to let her son come with her.  Failing that she offered the remainder of their money to bribe the female official.  This enraged the official who told Jenny she would be put in prison if she said it a second time.  In grief, they all boarded the train, leaving 20 year old Pepe under guard behind them.  Antonia’s most painful memory even in her 90's was walking away from her constant companion that day.
On the steamer deck, Antonia was approached by a young man of the ship’s company.  He was on the lookout for passengers made ill by the trip.  In his hand was an orange. He held it out to her.  In the circumstances she was too shy to take it.  She had never seen one before; did not know what it was; had no idea what he expected her to do with it.   Recognizing the look of confusion, he peeled the orange deliberately so she would understand how to do it herself, separated the segments, and held one up.  The fresh scent of the fruit had grown strong, and to her surprise this amplified her hunger instead of her nausea.  He mimed eating motions.  She took the segment and tasted it.  Perhaps due to its unfamiliar flavor, the acidic sweetness was a near ecstasy that pushed her illness aside.  She ate the remainder under his watch.  He laughed and said something in language foreign to her and walked away.  Later he delivered a paper bag that held over a dozen like fruits, which she lived on till she reached New York.  Later in the passage, another person took an interest in her.  A seemingly wealthy woman began to pay her a lot of attention, going so far as to buy her a hat they wouldn't normally have afforded.  Later the woman asked Jenny if she would consider letting her take Antonia home, while the remainder of them went on to Cleveland.  They refused, but never knew what to make of the offer.
At Ellis Island, where harried immigration clerks had long stopped asking people to pronounce their names more than once, Antonia was granted entry into the United States as Antoinette.  Her friends came to call her Toni.  In America, more than anything else she wanted to go to school.  She asked her father’s permission for just one year of the free public education available to immigrants, but he refused, insisting she go to work immediately.  One of her first jobs was as a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family but the situation was bad.  They mistreated her, made her work excessively, and did not provide adequate rest or food.  She lost weight and grew haggard.  When her cousin came for a surprise visit she was so horrified by Toni’s condition she berated the wife of the family, and threatened them with the police.  She packed Toni immediately back home. 
Too soon the world plunged into the Great Depression, and to make ends meet, Jenny brewed beer and made wine, earning money selling it to fellow Slovenian immigrant neighbors in their east side conclave during prohibition. Eventually prohibition was repealed, and the foreseen second Great War broke out, absorbing both their old and new countries into its unique furies.  Back in Yugoslavia, against the Fascists, Pepe became a partisan under Josef Broz Tito.  They learned almost nothing of his military service except that he an American air raid. 

Almost exactly one year after I first posted this, Antonia died.  It was an incredibly peaceful passing two days past her 99th birthday and three after the birth of her 5th grandchild. There was no fear, very little discomfort, and no obvious pain. Up until a few weeks ago she was alert, could walk, and could handle most of life's essential things (eating, and its obvious consequence the main ones) with very little aid. For about a year she'd had some dementia but this merely regressed her into simplicity, and childlike love and trust. A rapid physical decline began with a fall as of a few weeks ago, but its impossible to know if the fall was a trigger of the decline or just a consequence of its arrival. From that point on she began to mostly sleep. It was as if her amazing constitution had this one last card to play, that it would simply use its own brain chemistry to sedate her through to the end. During her brief moments of wakefulness she recognized us and could tell us she loved us, even if she only mouthed the words. When my grandfather passed away I was grateful because he'd suffered badly for many many months and his death came mercifully. When my grandmother passed away today I felt even more grateful, because for her, far against the usual odds, death actually came gently, even kindly.