Saturday, September 26, 2009

Overcoming the graduates of Political Bullying 101

Now that my busy week is winding down (to be followed by another busy week) I have a few moments to look at part 3 of Sara Robinson's series on avoiding fascism (links to part 1 and 2). This new part was written a month ago -- the day I flew to Denver.

Don't think for a moment that the August graduates of Political Bullying 101 are going to crawl back into their holes now that Congress is back in Washington. Nope, they're looking for another target. Harass a school board over evolution? Beat up some immigrants? Elect a sheriff so they can be a duly deputized posse? Fun times ahead. At least August came with a t-shirt: "Proud Member of the Right-Wing Mob." And that appears to be the only political identity the GOP has now.

How did we get here? Democracies are self-correcting to a point -- they depend on a working political contract. Until recently, our political contract had something for everyone, which kept everyone invested in it. The contract includes:
* For the rich: predictable, reliable wealth in return for investment.
* For middle class: mobility, comfort, security.
* For working class: fair reward for fair work, chance to move ahead.
* For poor: a safety net.

But conservatives have now spent 40 years destroying this contract, even chipping away at the Constitution. The losers, as always, are the working class, whose power only comes from their sweat and numbers. Their losses are in the form of union-busting, farm foreclosures, factory closures, mortgage scams, cuts to college grants, and all manner of betrayals and abuse. They're furious at the way democracy works in this country and willing to pay attention to anyone who offers an alternative. They're so furious they will shoot at anything they're told to aim at if the speaker offers a hint he's on their side. Yes, I find it ironic (I wish I had a stronger word) that the GOP has done the dismantling, yet the GOP has the ear of these people, telling them what to shoot at.

How do we get out of this mess? On paper, it's easy: repair the political contract. Get the working class back into it by acting on the promises made. But it will be difficult because right-wing populism is so strong nothing progressives say will be believed. We have to do. Here are some actions to take.

Pass meaningful health care reform. Yeah, the right-wing troops are against it because the GOP knows that its passage will end their hold on the masses. And, yeah, the reforms are for the very people who are most loudly against it now.

Restore rule of law. Nobody currently believes the rich and powerful are ever held accountable for anything. That must end. The way to restore it most forcefully is to prosecute Bush. Then go on to end the "war on drugs" and reform sentencing which puts large numbers of lower-class people in prison.

Restore our investment in education, that chance to move ahead. "Low info voters" destroy democracy. Education has been ground under "tax revolts" -- laws and constitution amendments that tear at the political contract. Failures in understanding history ("We're really a Christian nation."), biology ("Evolution is wrong."), even science and French allows the Fundies to pull the wool over our eyes. And the worst loss is civics. It isn't on any standard tests and not knowing it means people don't understand how our government is supposed to work and what should limit it. These people are left with Rush's version of civics.

Restore equality. The working class sees the economy rigged to suck dollars out of their pockets and into tax-free offshore accounts used to buy Congress. Every governmental function -- health care, defense, law enforcement, prisons, infrastructure, research, media, education -- currently makes decisions not for the common good, but on behalf of a rich dude or a corporation.

Restoring equality requires meaningful immigration reform so that there is no two-tiered wage system and there is no trap-door under the feet of American workers.

Restore liberal institutions: universities and schools, unions, media, and liberal religious organizations. All of these have been blunted from perpetuating the progressive worldview. It is good to know the efforts of bloggers are forcing corporate media to be less one-sided.

And, yes, including religion is intentional. Because so many Americans draw their morals from religion the progressive religions must be a part. Fascism gains its power through emotion, populism, purity, redemption, and enduring values. The progressive voice that can speak to these things, and the one with the best moral force, is the liberal religious voice.

A progressive wish list? Yup. That's the point. It is a progressive democracy that is self-reinforcing, that can withstand revolutions, that can ensure prosperity, freedom, security, stability, and peace. For all.

Such lovely wedding presents

One of the groups working for gay marriage in Maine is passing out a card that says (with only some of the 33 items repeated here):

Congratulations on your marriage! In your honor the U.S. Government happily presents to you:
1. Access to social security after a spouse's death.
2. Access to health insurance through a spouse's workplace.
7. Burial determination after the death of a spouse.
16. Right to shared property, child support and alimony after divorce.
20. Automatic exemption of property tax increases on shared assets gained after spouse's death.
29. Automatic next of kin status for emergency medical decisions and hospital visitation status.
30. Immigration and residency priority for spouses from other countries.

The rights of same-sex couples are listed on the back of this card.

(The back of the card is blank.)

The author of the post asked for other items to include in the list. One mentioned is living overseas (as in Germany) with a spouse in the military. The rest of the responses were mostly about #7 and #29 above -- heart wrenching stories of hell they went through during the most critical or sorrowful times of their lives.

Encountering a shrug

It was busy enough this week that I decided not to go to a concert last Thursday and didn't go to another this evening. Rather nice to live in an area where there are so many good cultural events that I can't get to them all. But that explains why I'm only getting around to this story now.

This past Tuesday I took our new woman pastor out to lunch. I wanted to tell her about the wonderful Reconciling Ministries Convocation I wrote about earlier. I knew that to describe the conference I had to come out to her.

I was caught off guard by how much of a non-event it was.

This is only the third pastor I've told (over the last 9 years). The first was a bit surprised. The second immediately reassured me it would not change how he thought of me (it didn't). This one merely said the equivalent of, "That's nice."

So, we talked about Convo, other things she would like to see from me the Stewardship Guide, and the general state of the church. It was only two hours later on the way back to the church did she say, "Do you have a partner? I've never seen you with someone and wonder if you might have a partner who didn't like the church." When I replied I'm single, she went on to say, "My brother-in-law was gay, well, bisexual." Was? Alas, yes. He died of the same kind of heart problems that plague her husband. And that explains why my revelation was met with a shrug.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

We don’t want to

In response to last week's article in Newsweek about the morals of a country can be seen in its health care a reader wrote that only in American is health care seen as a pathway to riches. That means in America the state of my wallet is more important than your health.

The rest of the world looks at American health care and wonders if we want health care for all. We can bail out banks in no time, get ourselves wrapped up in a useless and costly war. But health care? Nearly everywhere else it is a human right -- including Saddam's Iraq and communist Cuba. Which proves it can be done. Successfully, too. But in America?

It's not because we can't afford it. Most other countries spend a lot less on health care than we do for similar outcomes. We currently spend a great deal of money for a wide variety of things (such as defense) that aren't really needed.

That leaves one reason: We don't want to.

And a big question: Why?

A likely answer:

America's mean streak has been carefully nurtured over the last 8 years. It isn't just health care, but a large number of components of the social safety net have been dismantled. Lives are seen within a cost-benefit analysis. This is a part of the idea, "That you need help is proof that you don't deserve help."

Within a supposedly (or nominally) Christian culture -- a religion that stresses we all are our brother's keeper -- how did a culture of cruelty develop?

Americans are fearful. And, yes, conservatism has been promoting that fear for a very long time. However, if you are fearful a couple things happen: (1) we develop a false bravado -- bad things won't happen to us, and (2) we blame the victim -- we feel we can avoid their fate because misfortune happened to them because they deserved it.

I'm left wondering if people get what they deserve and government should not stand in the way, why did we bail out the banks? Didn't the bankers deserve to go down with the ship?

That culture of cruelty leads to: If the poor (read: anyone who can't afford health insurance) deserve what they get then there is no need to waste my hard-earned money to give them as much as an aspirin. Health care should not be guaranteed to everyone.

Thus there is no need to fix health care because nothing is wrong.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Logic? Who needs it?

The Voter Values Summit is going on now. And that can lead to some bizarre statements. D.C. Schwartz, in a workshop on New Masculinity says:

But all pornography is homosexual pornography because all pornography turns your sexual drive inwards. And that in fact is what it does. I know couples now who are struggling with the husband’s addiction to pornography. It’s a terrible thing, and that is what happened to him. You know, if it doesn’t turn you homosexual, it at least renders you less capable of loving your wife.

As a commenter reminds us: If porn makes you gay, then states with high consumption of porn, such as Utah, would have legions of gays and would have already voted for gay marriage.

I'm sure Mr. Schwartz could find a course in logic at most any college…

Friday, September 18, 2009

Green shirts are better!

The best way to raise a child to not be racist is put them into an integrated environment and say absolutely nothing about skin color. You're sure?

Try this exercise: In a classroom randomly assign red t-shirts to half the students and green t-shirts to the other half. Ask them to wear the shirts every day for a couple weeks but say nothing about what the shirts are for or why the kids should wear them. What will happen? Will anyone be surprised if by the end of the first day the kids begin to separate themselves by shirt color and by the end of the two weeks have declared, "The red shirts are better than the green!" "No, the green shirts are better!"

In an article for Newsweek, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman discuss the latest research into racism. They found two major things.

The first was about the kids. The little ones, some as young as 6 months, go through a process of deciding, "You're like me." "You're not like me." They categorize things. And skin color is an obvious category. Through categories they also make assumptions. If you are like me you enjoy the same things I do. I can relate to you. Observing racial categories could lead to kids figuring out such things as, "Only brown kids are allowed to eat breakfast at school." or "Only brown kids play basketball so I had better play baseball."

The second was about the parents. Mom and Dad have no idea how to discuss race. Many believe to call attention to skin color is to make their kids pay more attention to skin-color differences, to make them racist. But what the kids need is an explanation for skin color ("Their ancestors are from Africa, yours are from Europe") and assurance that skin color doesn't matter.

Dealing with marriage swiftboaters

A bit more than a year ago the opponents of gay marriage were figuring out their plan of attack for the campaign in Calif. They knew that if they focused on gay marriage it would be affirmed and they would lose. What to do? After considerable research they decided to focus instead on the consequences of gay marriage. What would happen if Calif. would have gay marriage instead of domestic partnerships? What's the difference between the two? It must be something that hasn't happened yet but possibly could happen. They came up with: decline of religious liberty, damage to children through same sex marriage taught in schools. Factual? Not at all. But politically brilliant. And successful.

And we're still dealing with our opponents choices. They are using the same arguments in Maine this year. Alas, we don't know anymore how to counter those arguments than we did last year in Calif. simply because they are so laden with emotion.

Matt Foreman, in the trenches for the Calif. battle (and others) offers some insight (deep within the comments section of a posting about needing to become emotionally invested in the cause to get it to pass and feeling emotionally devastated when it doesn't).

* In every campaign so far we have been vastly outspent and out-organized. We can't match the resources of the Catholic Church (leading the charge in Maine) or the Mormon Church.

* There is no "magic media bullet" to get people to change their minds -- especially given a typical campaign's financial resources.

* Homophobia and related myths remain extremely potent. We don't know how to counter the "protect the children!" attacks.

* Gay marriage campaigns are different. Put highly successful (read: winning) campaign managers in charge of a gay marriage referendum and they lose (so don't be a doofus and complain when we hire experts and appear to be led astray).

So what does work? When we win one we'll let you know.

The latest wrinkle in the Washington State campaign (Partnerships, not marriage) is the anti-gay forces seen scrambling to raise enough money. That's good, right? Except their August finance report has a gaping hole in it. It appears they have a secret benefactor (and willing to defy campaign laws to keep that name secret). Though they look to be scrambling now, when the crunch comes they'll have the cash for some big media buys.

The first polls on the marriage question in Maine show the two sides to be in a statistical dead heat.

So. Donate to the Washington Campaign here.
And the Maine Campaign here.

Socialist-free Purity Pledge

A liberal woman attended an astroturf tea party in Brighton, MI. Why was one of those held in Brighton, of all places? Short answer: It's near, but not in, Howell, long the Michigan home of the Klan. Our intrepid woman filed a long report in which she attempts to interview (jerk the chain of) several of the attendees with varying success.

For those not in the know, an astroturf event is one in which the organizers bring in participants in an attempt to make it seem like a grass-roots demonstration.

How do we know she was a liberal? Her shirt said:

Don't like liberals? Fine. Then give us back… Our clean air and water standards, worker safety protections, the 40 hour work week, the social security program, the civil rights movement, … the school lunch program, … employee health benefits, … the Voting Rights Act…

The list is much longer. But I think the average teabagger attendee probably doesn't want most of those things and remains justified in their hatred of liberals.

Ah, but there is another way to express the issue. Here is the Socialist-free Purity Pledge. The person who signs it vows to keep away from anything that has a whiff of socialism, including:

* Social Security
* Medicare
* Police, Fire, Emergency Services
* US Postal Service
* Roads and Highways
* Highway rest areas
* Air Travel (regulated by that socialist FAA)
* Public schools
* Sesame Street
* Libraries
* The Grand Canyon
* City Garbage and Recycling services
* Byproducts of NASA, such as duct tape
* Email
* Government subsidized produce and crops
* VA benefits
* Government operated Statue of Liberty
* The US Military

Again, the whole list is much longer.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A nation's health care system reflects its morals

There is a simple explanation why there are so few GOP health care plans and why the existing ones are dismissed out of hand. The reasoning goes like this:

Health insurance companies are criticized for refusing to insure certain people or for readily canceling insurance. But they can't be forced to take everybody until everybody has insurance. Otherwise people would wait until they are sick to buy insurance.

Not everyone will have insurance until they are required to have insurance.

You can't require everyone to have insurance until you provide subsidies for those who simply can't afford it.

If you provide subsidies then one of three things must happen: (1) the federal deficit goes up, (2) other government spending is cut, or (3) taxes go up. And the GOP hates all three of those options.

I give Newsweek credit for chutzpa for giving their cover article the title, "The Case for Killing Granny." Evan Thomas reports that the sickest -- thus costliest -- patients are in the last couple years of their lives. Most doctors go for heroic measures up to the moment of death for basic reasons. They are trained to preserve live and they get paid for each action they take. But at the end of life that isn't best for the society as a whole or the patient. About 70% of patients don't want to die in a hospital, yet about 50% do. So perhaps we shouldn't kill off Granny, but we should certainly recognize when continued efforts are pointless and allow Granny to go in peace.

The very next article in the same issue of Newsweek says that the character of a country can be determined by their health system. Author T.R. Reid explains:

Canada provides free and timely care for acute conditions. For something not urgent the wait may be long, but the wait for a rich person is the same as that for a poor. Health care doesn't go to the highest bidder, but to all. That matches the national character: egalitarian and thrifty.

East Asian nations that practice the teachings of Confucius expect doctors to treat patients for free. They make their living by selling medicine. Naturally, they overprescribe the medications they sell.

Italy makes sure you never see a doctor's bill. France requires a cash payment, even though insurance will reimburse two weeks later, just to make sure you know money is involved.

France justifies coverage for all by saying some people are beautiful or brilliant and some aren't, yet when we are sick we're all equal. Americans say we're all equal, but we're not. The Swiss stress we're all in this together and our community demands all must have equal care in spite of the stroke of destiny. Not exactly American rugged individualism. This concept is basic in so many places it is in many national constitutions and in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

In Britain, they admit, "We cover everybody, but we don't cover everything." Rationing? Perhaps. So is America's method of rationing based on ability to pay or be insured.

And America? Many around the world wonder why we haven't figured it out, especially because we claim to be so smart. Out of the developed countries, only in America are there medical bankruptcies, only in America is care sold to the highest bidder, only in America do people die from lack of care. What does that say about our morals?

Here's one answer to that question. I've written before (long enough ago that I don't want to search for it) about one of the prominent themes of conservatism, though not one that anyone would actually claim. The way it was worded before was something like this: prosperity is an indication of good morals. If you're poor you are morally inferior. If you couldn't afford to get out of New Orleans before Katrina, you deserved to die in the flood. Another take on it is the Prosperity Gospel: If you follow God's commandments God will bless you with riches. Of course, that gets turned inside out: If you aren't blessed with God's riches you aren't following God's commandments and therefore deserve to be poor. And the latest flavor: That you need help is proof that you don't deserve help. Heartless.

Put in context of health care: If you can afford health insurance (or pay for care out of pocket) you are worthy of the good health you can get. If you can't afford insurance you don't deserve good health. Therefore it is a waste of my money to pay for your medical expenses because you don't deserve what those treatments will do for you. Call it America's mean streak. It isn't confined to health care.

For the record: This particular definition of morals has completely missed the mark.

Another component (mentioned in previous posts) is racism: I don't want my tax dollars going to help Those People.

What kind of country do we want to be? What kind of health care will reflect those ideals?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On the ballot again

Washington State approved a domestic partner benefit law which is about as close as one can get without actually calling it marriage. As expected, some Fundies lied (including some citizens were tricked into signing) their way to barely enough signatures to force voter approval of the law. It didn't help there is a cloud over the signature approval process. Part of it seems to be the law says only registered voters may sign the petitions and those approving signatures say the person only needs to be registered by the time the name is checked. At this point it looks like there were only 1,500 more signatures than required and 4,000 signatures may be questionable. It's that close. Alas, the appeal deadline has passed so the question has been approved for the November ballot.

So, all you in Washington: Approve Referendum 71! A donation would help too.

Another nasty aspect of the case is a federal judge sided with the Fundies and, contrary to the law in Washington, said the names of those who signed don't have to be disclosed. First of all, we don't like sneaks. We want people to take responsibility for their actions. Second, we want to be able to face our accusers. Third, this precedent allows special interests to take over the government in secrecy.

Freedom v. individualism

Instead of looking at health care in terms of insurance company profits and national debt (and to those now worried about national debt I ask, "Where were you during the Bush years?"), we should be looking at it in terms of morality. Some comments and questions to get the discussion going:

* We talk about freedom and liberty but are these concepts any good without the knowledge of them and the ability to act on them? Translation: Knowledge = education, ability to act = health care.

* Is our prized independence and individualism keeping us from helping our neighbor? Does that extend to not wanting our tax dollars to go for our neighbor's health?

* Given two people, one rich and one poor, who have the same life threatening, but curable, disease should both be allowed to live or only one?

Loving your nukes

When commentary was raging about the possibility of Iran and North Korea getting nuclear bombs I wondered why there was no talk of why the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction did or did not apply. It turns out I was a bit premature in my wondering.

Jonathan Tepperman offers an essay in Newsweek on why nuclear weapons are a good thing. He wrote it because Obama is about to convene a meeting of world leaders to discuss how the world might be rid of agents of mass destruction. Tepperman's disagreement with the prez. is this:

In the 64 years since it was first used, there has never been a war of any magnitude between two countries who both have the bomb. That includes Pakistan and India. Before both acquired the bomb they fought a few wars. Afterward, they have been working hard at not fighting. Disagreements that used to spread into war no longer do so. Bombs mellow behavior.

Critics say, "But…"

Aren't current world leaders crazy enough not to care if their country gets annihilated? Crazier than Stalin and Mao?

Won't they give bombs to terrorists? If a country is central to a country's sense of survival they won't give it to someone they can't control and whose aims don't match their own. Besides, we've said that we'll go after the country that a terrorist nuke came from.

What if the country collapses? Russia managed to secure its nukes when the Soviet Union collapsed. Pakistan's nukes are isolated from its political chaos. Besides, bombs are difficult to operate.

What about a new arms race? Countries that do not feel their survival is threatened don't bother with bombs. South Africa gave theirs up. And if a country does get nukes it will mellow behavior.

Instead of getting rid of nukes (which he won't be able to pry out of Russia's and China's hands, anyway) Obama should work to make them more secure.

Until proven guilty

One big complaint of the death penalty -- besides the inhumanity of it -- is the possibility of executing people wrongfully convicted. What is scary is that some people are completely unmoved by that argument. Such as a couple Supreme Court justices. In June the Supremes ruled (5-4) that a prisoner does not have a constitutional right to demand DNA testing, even if the prisoner pays for it. Last month Scalia and Thomas dissented from an order for a new trial when most of the witnesses recanted their testimony. Scalia wrote:

This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is "actually" innocent.

Technically, Scalia is correct. The Constitution is indeed silent on the issue. But the monstrosity of that insensitivity is an abomination. He is saying I don't care if you did it or not. That a court found you guilty, no matter how flawed, means you deserve all contempt. There is something seriously wrong with this guy's basic humanity and he has a twisted sense of the fairness this nation is founded on.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Surviving the mint (part 3)

On Monday evening (Labor Day), since I didn't get in my daily hike in, I walked the two miles from the hotel to downtown Denver for supper. And since I forgot to put the hotel's phone number in my pocket, I walked back.

I have a cousin in the Denver area, so I didn't want to be tied down by anything like a car rental. Alas, she didn't return my calls so we didn't visit. That meant on Tuesday morning I wanted to rent a car and hadn't made a reservation. I used Enterprise because they were a mile from the hotel. Alas, with each office such a small operation cars don't appear on demand. It was after 11:00 before I took possession of a Dodge Journey, a cross between an SUV and a station wagon. I did get a price discount and a small gas credit.

My first stop was Red Rocks Park in the foothills. This is an area with huge red rocks sticking up at odd angles. I enjoyed the nearly 1½ mile trail through the rocks. Lots of pictures. There is also a well known amphitheater built between the largest rocks. Next was Lookout Mountain and great views across Denver and the prairie. I then checked the map for scenic drives and found one reasonably close down I-70. The drive headed south out of Idaho Springs, up to Echo Lake (and could have gone to Mt. Evans), then down to Berger Park.

My primary destination on Wednesday was Boulder. While on the highway about halfway there a tire blew. I was in a construction zone so it was a while before I could pull over. By then the tire was completely shredded. Then the fun began -- I couldn't find the spare (though found the jack) and there was no user manual. I was close to an exit, so walked to a phone in a Mazda dealership and called Enterprise. The agent said that because it was a flat she would cancel the service fee the road service crew would add to my bill. The truck picked me up at the dealership and took me back to the car. The mechanic did something inside the hatch area to lower the spare from under the car. I would have never figured this one out on my own. Total delay less than two hours. Strangely, the car didn't do well with the undersized wheel, insisting on going 55 or 75 on a highway with a 65 speed limit. I decided I had better not venture up into the mountains and to avoid the highway back to Denver.

I got to Boulder in time for lunch and then off to the main attraction -- the Celestial Seasonings Tea plant in town. I drink herbal and decaf tea, so I'm familiar with many of their flavors and hoped to stock up on varieties that are not or no longer sold in Detroit. Of course, I also took the plant tour, which shows milling of leaves, making teabags, and packaging. It didn't show blending. We also stopped in the room where peppermint and spearmint is stored -- that will clear your sinuses! They sell a t-shirt proclaiming, "I survived the mint room!" And, yes, I bought lots of product. However, that leaves me with a dilemma -- what to do with their biodegradable shopping bag? It isn't marked as recyclable, and if I put it in the trash, will a standard landfill put it in a place where it will decompose? All my canvas bags were back in Detroit.

I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the pedestrian zone in downtown Boulder -- lots of art galleries, tourist shops, sportsman outfitters, a kite shop, and several bookstores. One bookstore featured leftist books and a large display of bumper stickers. One that I remember said, "When the government ignores the constitution -- what is treason?" Another said, "25% of all prisoners are in the United States."

I took a road along the front range back to Denver. Once on Denver highways the car was fine.

On Thursday morning I toured the US Mint. Interesting, but not a lot that can be seen. I returned to Detroit that afternoon.

Rocky mountain high (part 2)

On Thursday I took a shuttle service from my hotel in Denver to Estes Park. Already in the van were others heading for the same conference. They were picked up at the airport. Our base for the long weekend was the YMCA of the Rockies.

I met Mark on the ride and after lunch he suggested we go hiking together (and before you get snarky, he already has a long-term partner). From the YMCA activities desk we found we could hike about a mile, take the bridge across the creek, and be right at a shuttle stop inside the Rocky Mountain National Park. The shuttle system took us up to Bear Lake, which we hiked around, then back to Glacier Gulch for a hike up to Alberta Falls.

The reason for this trip was to attend the Reconciling Ministries Network Convocation. This is an organization working to get the United Methodist Church to overturn its prohibitions against gay people and to help the denomination to be more inclusive. Most of the organization leadership is gay as were the attendees, though at least a third of the attendees were allies -- and most of them are parents of gay kids. Another large contingent was pastors who believe the denomination should be more inclusive. A third segment was youth. Total attendance was about 520, a significant jump from the 450 who attended two years ago.

Most of my Friday was at a workshop on how to get a congregation to support an inclusive statement of some sort. I've been working on that in my own church for over a year and it is going much more slowly that I thought it would. The workshop provided a lot of resources, though it didn't say much about the process. One participant said he invited a Fundie to speak at his church -- and that caused many to reject the Fundie point of view (I don't want us to be like that!).

The conference was laid out to allow for afternoon activities, a requirement when we're right outside the Rocky Mountain National Park. My Friday activity was a hike, with a YMCA hike master, up to Bible Point, on camp property. It was a strenuous hike up and down and the guide stopped frequently to allow us to rest while he told us about what we were seeing.

The Convo officially opened that evening with a worship service. Naturally, one of the "warm-up" songs before the service began was the "YMCA" song made famous by the Village People. Yes, nearly all 500 of us gays did the hand motions for the letters.

Leave it to the gays to turn a communion service into a party. With so much talk and singing about inclusion I was frequently overwhelmed enough that singing was difficult. On one side of the stage was a 3 panel screen of white cloth. During the several services through the weekend an artist stood behind the screen and painted in a scene of mountains, rainbow, and sky. The paint soaked through so we could see it applied, but not see the brush. Quite cool!

Saturday opened with another worship service. One memorable moment in the service was when we were directed to bow to one another. The front row bowed to the second, the second to the third, on through the auditorium. We did this to follow the custom in some cultures where a bow is a sign of honor. Having one person look you in the eye and bow and then doing the same for another was again overwhelming.

The service was followed by a bible study on the longest prayer by Jesus recorded in John 17.

Next, I attended an hour-long workshop on Rethinking Church. I thought it would be on new ideas for worship, but it was more basic than that. The presenter says she is a part of a small group of 5 or so who live and worship together daily, focus on a particular community need, and support themselves through day jobs. In a sense they create the modern version of the monastery. For example, one such group focuses on helping the 13-16 year olds who drop through the cracks of the social services system.

The leadership of Reconciling Ministries may focus on the church's treatment of gays (who the United Methodist Church officially treats as second-class members), but it is aware that we aren't the only ones discriminated against. The afternoon plenary session featured two presenters from the denomination's General Commission on Race and Religion. The first was Rev. Barbara Isaacs who discussed discrimination featured in Disney movies ("Some Day My Prince Will Come" from Snow White, the depiction of Native Americans in Peter Pan) and popular culture.

The second presenter was Erin Hawkins -- a young black woman who heads the commission and who hears all the time why she shouldn't be the chairperson -- who talked about how discrimination needed both prejudice and the power carry it out. She then had a cross-section of participants stand in a circle to demonstrate what she calls the Privilege Walk. She would read a statement (or its inverse) from various commentaries on privilege and ask people to step forward or back if it applied to them. Examples: "If you were the victim of overt discrimination based on skin color, gender, sexual identity, nationality, or religion, step forward." "If you received a comprehensive sexual education while growing up, step back." The ones most discriminated against ended up in the middle of the circle. The purpose of the exercise isn't to say privilege is to blame -- it isn't something we create for ourselves -- but to raise awareness about the ways in which inequalities and oppression still exist.

Rev. Isaacs returned to talk about levels in Intercultural Sensitivity. Determining a community's level of sensitivity allows them to assess where they are and what they have to do to improve. The levels are Denial, Defense, Minimalization (others are tolerated), Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration. The last step leads to Ethnorelativism.

I didn't go on a hike that afternoon because I had laundry to do. Turns out I'm glad I didn't -- thunderstorms passed through the area.

The evening plenary session was on the right to marry. This was set up as a panel with one primary person (plus the audience) asking questions of two others, those being Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry and Rev. Roland Stringfellow of the Coalition of Welcoming Congregations in San Francisco. Stringfellow and his organization worked to say some churches are not in favor of the Calif. marriage ban.

Wolfson is a fierce and articulate champion of gay marriage and thinks the battle of gay rights is properly fought through marriage. Marriage was also the battleground for the issues of divorce, contraception, and the rights of women. Why should gays be allowed to marry? Well, yeah, there are all those federal benefits and responsibilities that come with the marriage license. But it is more basic than that. Everybody "gets" marriage. Even kids understand it. No explanation is necessary. There are huge cultural associations that come with the term. That same intrinsic understanding does not come with Civil Unions or Domestic Partnerships.

Want another crack at the Calif. marriage ban? You have your chance this fall -- in Maine. I've already donated.

Sunday also started with worship and bible study. This worship service featured a moment when we were anointed with oil on the forehead by the person on one side and passed on the gesture to the person on the other side.

My morning workshop was JUST Worship, a look at how to make the worship experience more inclusive. The presenters told the story about how they were doing a good job by hiring a deaf translator. They didn't realize the disappointment they caused when the morning prayer included a repetition of the phrase, "God, hear our prayer." Once that was pointed out future uses of the prayer were changed to, "God, receive our prayer." Other ideas include reading scripture without gender pronouns, allowing people to say prayers in their own language, providing alternate words for masculine pronouns in hymns, or starting off the Lord's Prayer with other terms for God such as "teacher".

The afternoon plenary session was enlightening. In contrast to the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches who made recent changes in favor of gay people and which are American organizations, the United Methodist prides itself in being a global organization. It is cool that when we gather every four years in General Conference there are delegates from across Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America, as well as from our own country. But that also makes for tensions, especially when the issue is gays.

At the General Conference last year there were proposals put forward to allow more regional autonomy. I'm pretty sure it passed GC. I don't know if it has yet passed all required district votes. The process is similar to the US Senate passing a constitutional amendment that needs ratification by the states.

When the GC convenes the next time in 2012 only 665 of the close to 1000 delegates will be from the USA. Many watchers are convinced that if only the American delegation voted, the anti-gay provisions would easily be removed. But when the rest of the delegates are added in, especially those from Africa, the gay side looks much less certain. In 2008 the key provision against gays was retained by a 54% approval. The worldwide church is growing while the American church is shrinking, which means in the future fewer delegates will be American.

So this plenary session was to hear from the worldwide pro-gay voices. The panel was made up of Bishop Daniel Arichea from the Philippines, Rev. Araceli Ezzatti of Uruguay, Rev. Eunice Musa Illiya (means Moses Elijah) from Nigeria, a pastor (I didn't get the name) from Zambia, and a representative (again, no name) from the organization Other Sheep. Each one introduced themselves by describing how they became advocates for gay people, the incident that caused them to change their minds. Rev. Eunice had also been a worship preacher and told the story of how Nigerian pastors and bishops had strategized how to keep their influence over Americans to prevent gay-friendly policies and how she was shouted down by a bishop when she tried to object. Here are some of the things they discussed:

* Many of the denomination publications are created for American use, irritating the global church.

* The Zambian pastor is challenging the American Evangelicals (and, yes, they are a part of the United Methodist denomination, just as liberals are), saying Americans are using Africans to get what they want. Africans need to hear Americans don't speak for them and the relationship is filled with hypocrisy. But it doesn't work to denounce the bible, which Africans strongly believe in. Instead, Africans must develop an African interpretation of the bible. I've heard a story about "using Africa" at GC -- the Fundies gave African delegates free cell phones and just before "critical" votes, these delegates would get calls reminding them of the *proper* way to vote full of indirect implications.

* The Other Sheep organization works to support gay-friendly pastors around the world, no matter the denomination. They work to connect these pastors to like-minded people and to available resources.

* The Filipino bishop wondered whether the denomination should be global. Too often American efforts come across as attempts to recolonize the global church, to impose American values (such as insisting a bride wear white). The Philippines don't want to be dependent on the American church, but to be partners with it.

Reconciling Ministries leaders are now saying, "You're going to insist that the gay issues be voted on by the global church? Fine. We'll go global too."

My afternoon hike was another one led by a YMCA guide. This time we went into the Rocky Mountain Park over a glacial lateral moraine (the dirt and boulders pushed to the side of a glacier) and into the meadow known as Moraine Park. We heard thunder and our guide said in the case of lightening we would turn back. He didn't say how close the lightening had to be to force the decision. It rained enough that we all put our raingear on.

The evening program was a very well put together presentation of the 25 years of Reconciling Ministries -- yes, we've been at this fight for 25 years now. The show include lots of photos and a few videos of key moments. There were also awards handed out for individuals and groups that have made a big impact over the last couple years.

Through sessions on Sunday evening and Monday morning we were introduced to the next campaign of the battle, called Believe Out Loud. A survey noted that 68% of pastors in the denomination say that gay people should be fully inclusive. Yet only 7% of pastors publicly proclaim that position. You believe gays should be included? Then believe out loud and actually say it.

Our closing worship service featured preaching by Bishop Grant Hagiya. I think he serves in Calif. Yup, a bishop publicly on our side. He spoke about courage and integrity.

Somehow I knew that when we were to board vans back into Denver I would have problems because I had contracted to go back to the same hotel while the others were going to the airport. There were several vans for the 2:00 crowd and a guy with a clipboard checking off names. I went up to him and said what I wanted. He said, "It's not possible." I reminded him I had paid extra for the service. Mr. Clipboard said, "Not possible." One of the drivers intervened saying, "I'll take him." So I climbed into the last seat in the back of the van.

Our next stop was the airport. Over the nearly two hours to get there all of us chatted about what a wonderful conference it was and what we would be doing once back home. The driver couldn't help but listen and understand his van was filled with gay Christians and allies. Once everyone else was dropped off at the airport the driver asked me to check the seats. I found a cell phone. The driver tried to find the owner and waited in the area until the owner asked someone to call her phone and she and the driver could arrange where to meet.

Once that was handled and it was only me and the driver and heading to my hotel he asked, "Could I ask you a few questions?" I agreed. He said he could tell we were all gay or gay allies and that we were also all Christian. I confirmed that. What follows is a rough summary of our discussion.

He considers himself a conservative and the new openness of gay people makes him afraid. Of what? I eventually pieced together his fear is of a general moral decline. That might be seen as a narrow viewpoint -- that all morals come from the church -- but that was what he had been taught.

Won't gay openness lead to bestiality? Won't people demand to marry their dogs? Sorry, that idea is a smokescreen. Besides, dogs can't consent to marriage.

Are there any types of relationships that gays would consider immoral? Won't it be anything goes? When I hesitated he added, What about a father and daughter? Yes, gays would consider sex between them as wrong because it is about power and lust, not love. We talked about a couple more examples of power relations. Can we always tell the difference between power and love? No, some couples don't figure it out until later, which is one reason why some divorce. What about abuse? Yes, gays think abuse is wrong.

I believe the bible says gay relationships are wrong! The bible says very little about gay relationships (I couldn't quote chapter and verse), but the bible says a lot more about divorce and greed. Of those few verses some have translation problems, some are routinely misinterpreted (Sodom and Gomorrah), and others are grouped with prohibitions we believe no longer apply, such as eating shrimp.

Are there gay relationships in the bible? Jonathan and David, perhaps. He wasn't convinced. What about the sex life of Jesus? -- he did go through puberty. Since the bible offers no information on the topic it is prudent not to speculate.

I have considerable respect for this guy. Though he knew we were gay or allies, he went out of his way to help us. That started with volunteering to drive the extra miles to get me to my hotel when Mr. Clipboard insisted it wasn't possible. My respect is mostly because in spite of his personal belief, he asked to hear my side of the issue rather than remaining silent. If he was inclined to lecture I'm sure he would not have while driving a company van.

Exploding peanut butter (trip report, part 1)

I've broken the report of my recent trip to Denver and Estes Park into three parts because I will be posting the middle part in several other forums.

My flight to Denver was the morning of Monday, August 31. Since I have low blood sugar and try to eat healthy, I have been buying natural peanut butter, pouring off the oil that floats to the top, and adding some sweetener (corresponding to the sugar in the traditional peanut butter). This makes a good bedtime snack. Alas, the jars are glass. I prepared 3 jars and debated how to pack them. I ended up putting 2 in my checked bag and 1 in my carryon.

The TSA scanner in Detroit spotted the one in my carryon and confiscated it. More than 3 ounces of "liquid". Ah, yes, who knows what explosives I may have mixed into the peanut goo? Fortunately, the two other jars lasted the whole 10 days.

I stayed at the Hotel VQ which is beside Mile High Stadium and across I-25 from downtown Denver. It was inexpensive and adequate (not exactly a sterling recommendation) and provided a shuttle service to downtown attractions.

I had a late lunch in Denver's Larimer Square, where a lot of the old buildings have been preserved. I then explored the length of the 16th Street Mall (pedestrian zone), though only one of the shops really attracted my attention -- the Tattered Cover Bookstore (I like books). I walked over to Cherry Creek on the west side of Downtown and followed the pedestrian paths to the South Platte River and continued on a ways on its paths. Watching the boys and young men in the skateboard park was fun.

I spent most of Tuesday at the Denver Art Museum. The museum is housed in two striking buildings and features a large collection of Western American art. I took time in the middle of the day to take the Dome Tour of the State Capitol. The "tour" part isn't much, but the views from up there are great -- or would have been if the California fires hadn't contributed to the haze. Alas, this was the only hazy day.

After a rest and an evening meal (enjoying naked tacos -- all the ingredients except the shell) I decided my feet weren't too sore and I could walk from Union Station back to the hotel along the South Platte River paths. The 16th Street Mall features a free shuttle bus, which got me from near the Art Museum to the station. The walk was less than 2 miles.

I got downtown early enough before museums opened on Wednesday to go back over to the Capitol to see the "mile high" marker I missed the day before (I has used a different door). The rest of the morning was at the Colorado History Museum. The main level tells the story from the European perspective, the lower level from the Native view.

In the afternoon I toured two historic homes. The first was the Byers-Evans house, restored to about WWI. The first Evans in the house was the son of the second territorial governor. One of the Evans daughters was instrumental in the fledgling Denver Arts Society. That became the Denver Art Museum, which is now adjacent to the house. The other home is the Molly Brown home of "The Unsinkable…" fame. The guide made sure we knew the famous name was created by Broadway and the owner always referred to herself as Margaret. But who would visit the Margaret Brown house? Sheesh, I visited the Byers-Evans house. The Molly Brown House was restored to about 1900 and showed how rich she was.

Denver has some pretty cool public art. There is a row of tall ballerinas in front of a downtown hotel. Two 30 foot dancers are in front of the Performing Arts Center. And a 40 foot blue bear peeks into the windows of the Convention Center.