Thursday, March 31, 2011

No cringe of self-judgment

Yeah, it's been a while. I didn't post last weekend because I spent part of Friday and all day Saturday at a handbell festival in Lansing. 350 handbell ringers playing together is a cool sound. The ringers were amused that we shared a convention center with a Japanese anime convention and many of those participants came in costume. I spent part of Sunday catching up on sleep, then scrambling to prepare for this week's classes.

Of course, I have quite a backlog of things that I'd like to talk about. Much of it will only get a brief mention, if that. So today I'll concentrate on the brief mentions.

Last year NARAL (an abortion rights group) tracked 174 anti-abortion bills through Congress and various legislatures. The tally for this year is 351 and we're only a quarter of the way into the year! They note that the GOP has nothing to lose by such an onslaught. A few are bound to be enacted and the huge number that aren't at least advertise the GOP position.

And the "pro-choice" and "feminist" Democratic president and party? If you're really quiet you might hear a response.

This one from Slate:

Murray Richmond is a Presbyterian pastor who changed his mind about homosexuality. He wrote about his internal conflict while repeating the church doctrine he no longer trusted. He was annoyed that gays became The Issue that got in the way of so many other worthwhile things. His story is worth reading. This paragraph explains a lot about Fundies. He asks why gays have become such a litmus test for Christians.

One reason, I think, is that it's easy to condemn homosexuality if you are not gay. It is much harder than condemning pride, or lust or greed, things that most practicing Christians have struggled with. It is all too easy to make homosexuality about "those people," and not me. If I were to judge someone for their inflated sense of pride, or their tendency to worship various cultural idols, I would feel some personal stake, some cringe of self-judgment. Not so with homosexuality.

Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, has announced he is exploring running for the GOP nomination for president. Here are 10 reasons -- 10 anti-gay things he has said or done -- why I won't ever vote for him.

Troy Ard was elected to be the chairman of the Colorado College Republicans last year. A worthy question: why is that notable? He's openly gay. And he was elected unanimously. In the home state of Focus on the Family. A sign of the progress we've made. So it's not too much of a surprise that he has stated his support for the state's civil unions bill that is currently being debated in the legislature.

Rabbi Jonathan Singer leads a big Reformed Synagogue in Seattle. He is also a big gay advocate, taking strong political stands and helping gay organizations promote pro-gay legislation and defeat anti-gay efforts. He is one reason why Washington State is so gay friendly now. Here is an interview with him and he says some very nice things.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The GOP vision for America is on exhibit

The GOP has had firm control of the government in Texas and Mississippi for a decade or more. That means if the GOP mantra is to cut taxes and cut government spending they've had unfettered means to do so in both states and time to make it work. So how is it going?

In Texas they expect a $27 billion shortfall in the state budget this year. They're talking about raiding the Rainy Day Fund, which might last them all of three years. That leads to an important question. Why aren't they able to cut spending to match income? To do that they have three options: eliminate Medicaid, drastically cut payments to schools, or drastically cut the number of state employees. Even heartless Republicans can't go that far?

In Mississippi, the poorest state, Governor Haley Barbour is trying to burnish his conservative credentials because people have been saying he has a (small) shot at the White House next year. But his state is broke. How to raise taxes without raising taxes? Make it clear that income and business taxes will not be raised. Then raise taxes on hospital beds, cigarettes, and businesses who lay off employees. These are economically inefficient and don't raise much money. Deep cuts to education are still required, dropping Mississippi even lower in ratings of "best states for business and careers," where it is 48th.

The goal in Wisconsin seems to be to make that state more like Mississippi. And Miss. is poor, has a low high school graduation rate, has the nation's unhealthiest residents because the health care system is so bad, is the deadliest gun state, has a high divorce rate, and tops the teen birth rate.

Welcome to the GOP vision for America.

Lots of GOP talking heads in Washington (and elsewhere) call for "shared sacrifice." Heather Digby Parton in an opinion piece for The Hill says, "It’s very easy to prescribe 'shared sacrifice' when you will not personally sacrifice anything at all."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

When tragedy can't be eliminated

Ben Kingsley has made several movies about the Holocaust. In one of the recent ones was Anne Frank: The Whole Story in which he plays Anne's father. He joined Scott Simon of NPR in a discussion at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Kingsley now sees himself as a shaman at a campfire sharing stories with the community. He said that Western Civilization wants to eliminate tragedy. In one sense that is good -- it is good to conduct our affairs so that planes don't needlessly fall out of the sky or that millions aren't poisoned with tainted meat. But Kingsley sees that as going further, of trying to deny tragedy is possible. The recent quake and tsunami show that eliminating tragedy is not possible. We need the shaman around the campfire telling us stories so that we learn to deal with tragedy when it happens and to know what caused tragedy in the past.

Parents warn their kids not to hang out with the wrong crowd, the bad kids. They know that peer pressure is strong and has made many a good kid do bad things. Peer pressure is strong enough that stodgy marketing campaigns ("Say no to drugs") don't work.

But peer pressure can also be harnessed for good. Tina Rosenberg has written Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World to document and encourage exactly that. Examples include: an AIDS prevention campaign built around fashion advice and gossip, Asian students who study calculus together and do much better than Hispanic students who study alone, and small group Bible studies built around community service projects. The antidote to peer pressure is more peer pressure.

Over the last year I've come to understand an important part of Christianity is building community. I see this book as saying the same thing. Students who study in community do better. We all do better when there is someone to encourage us. I'll be adding this one to my reading list.

Friday, March 18, 2011

What the wedge will split

I reported yesterday on gay issues being a wedge issue again. Here's a more complete explanation.

Some polls are now reporting support for gay marriage is over 50% (by almost as much as the margin of error). Only five years ago support was only at 36%. Support is higher in all categories, including Evangelicals.

Some dispute these numbers because to counter deeply red states the percentage in states on the verge of marriage (such as Maryland) would need to be much higher than latest polls show.

Just a few years ago gay issues were important only to liberal Dems. The GOP could drive a wedge between moderates and Dem candidates. But now the wedge would split the moderates from the GOP.

At least I'm better than you

Some tidbits that have accumulated over the last 10 days.

Gay legislators make a difference. David Pierce is a representative in the New Hampshire state house. He and his partner Robert Duff are raising two daughters. As is the case with other gay legislators Pierce's speeches to the chamber include personal details and sometimes sway colleagues. They form collegial relationships with members of the other party. Pierce spoke about how some people don't think he, his children, and his partner should be a family. That was enough to change at least one vote in favor of gay marriage in that state.

In Maryland a marriage equality bill passed the Senate but was shelved by the house. In Iowa the GOP is trying to drum up support for a marriage protection amendment. In Washington a bill would define out-of-state marriages as translating to civil unions within the state. Official public debates in all three places have brought out people saying things that are both ridiculous and vile. At least in Maryland and Iowa that has included prominent black pastors claiming how dare those gay people equate their struggle with ours!

Alvin McEwen, who is both black and gay, has had enough -- again. He says that it isn't about an Oppression Olympics where only those at the bottom deserve to be brought into the mainstream, that one must deeply suffer to be made worthy.

McEwen didn't quite say it but I had an insight. Black leaders may be saying this because no matter how bad they have it and how miserable they are they can at least say, "Even so, I'm better than you."

Rev. Greg Renstrom leads the Wesley United Methodist Church in downtown Minneapolis. It is near a gay district so several years ago declared itself to be gay-friendly. Renstrom is now taking it one more step. He has announced he will perform same-sex union blessings for any couple that requests it. Yes, this is in violation of church rules and could cost Renstrom his job. Not that he's concerned about it -- he is already at retirement age and his annual pay is $1 because the church is struggling financially.

The church hierarchy hasn't taken action -- yet -- because no couples have asked for a blessing yet. But the offer has gotten the notice of the gay community. And that is good.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

400 equals 155 million

I found this one just before my trip to Texas and, alas, couldn't share it with you until now.

As various levels of government have been slashing spending -- and decimating services for the poor and middle class -- it didn't take me long to figure out we do have enough money to offer government services (good roads, to start), help the country out of recession, educate everyone, eliminate the deficit, take a serious cut out of the debt, and more. Where is this money? In the pockets of the rich.

Michael Moore says the same thing, but with a lot more eloquence, accuracy, depth, and anger. He spoke at the Wisconsin Capitol to the assembled protesters back at the beginning of March. Here's a summary of what he said.

America is not broke. It is rich, but the money has been taken from our hands in the greatest heist in history. The richest 400 Americans now have more money than 155 million Americans combined. We don't want to admit we surrendered our democracy to the moneyed elite. Much of this money was taken from us illegally through the market crash and other crazy scams (much was taken from us legally through tax deals).

These rich people are now afraid of us demanding our money back. In hopes of preventing that the rich have done two smart things.

* They control the message. They own most of the media (which is why they want to shut down NPR). The message is this: You too might be rich someday! See, even a poor kid of a single mother can become president. So don't rock the boat and be sure to vote for the party that will protect you when you too become rich.

* They have created a poison pill they know we'll never swallow. They've already threatened once and we've already blinked. Give us trillions or we'll trash the entire economy, draining your savings and pension accounts, killing your jobs, and taking your homes. We said please take our money! And millions still lost jobs and homes. Yet the chant continues: Give us your pay and pensions or we'll trash the economy.

America is not broke or broken. We are still rich in talent, ideas, hard work, and love. Especially love and compassion for the least among us.

What to do? Take lessons from Cairo and Madison.

The rich have overplayed their hand. They weren't content to raid the treasury and take away our jobs. They have started taking away our dignity and souls. That has triggered a massive, nonviolent revolt. The moral compass of the rulers is broken. We plan to steer the ship ourselves. There are a lot more of us than there are of them.

Be careful where you point that wedge

The GOP in the House has been clamoring to take over the legal defense of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) from the DoJ, which now agrees it is unconstitutional. Several Dems have filed legislation to repeal DOMA. I don't have links because with everything else I want to comment on, that was low on the list. But this is worthy of comment: The battle over DOMA appears to be the next gay wedge issue -- and this time it appears to be a political winner for the pro-gay Dems. The GOP is complaining that the bill will cause them political problems. Barney Frank says, "Hallelujah! … it's a great sign of progress."

Traveling with a secret agenda

One of my goals during my trip to Texas to visit my brother and his family was to have a long talk with my nephew who is now a Catholic Priest. I rarely travel with a secret agenda, but this time one was necessary. My one day illness deprived me of a chance to see my nephew's parish. Thankfully, he came to see me. My reason for this talk is in his position of church power he will have kids coming to him about gay concerns. I didn't want him to cause them damage.

We talked of many things, not just my secret agenda. His parish is 80% Mexican and he says he has 600 Mexican mothers who make sure he doesn't go hungry. He has endeared himself to them by being a gringo who at least is attempting to speak their language. He is fondly called Padrecito, the little priest (though he is easily tops 6-feet). He has preached in Spanish and does so by writing out what he wants to say in English and asking a church member to translate. He knows enough Spanish to be pleased with what he gets.

He says it is a stereotype that the younger priest, especially one just out of seminary, is assigned to lead the youth groups. In this case the stereotype is actually true and he is pretty good with the kids. Which made my secret agenda that much more important.

I asked, so he told me his bachelor degree is from a very conservative Catholic college. All Catholic seminaries range from somewhat conservative to very conservative. His was on the somewhat conservative side.

From the view, perhaps, of testing how somewhat conservative his view are now, I asked if any kids have talked to him about being gay. Yes, some have. He knows the Pope's position, and in spite of that makes sure the kids feel welcome. He says they have enough issues simply dealing with being gay. He won't make it worse -- he'll be as supportive as he can. He can't offer same-sex couple blessings, but otherwise he'll be as affirming as possible.

One of his good friends from seminary is gay. This young man had no intention of telling the church hierarchy. Both are aware that many gay Catholic men choose the priesthood to avoid having to explain why there are no girlfriends, and both are aware this is not a healthy reason for choosing a profession. This friend appreciated having my nephew as someone he could confide in. My nephew learned about the life and challenges of being gay.

All that was very good to hear. Agenda complete.

One last question for my nephew. What would his mother have said if he told her he was gay? This has long been a fear of mine -- if she found out would she ban me from seeing her kids? He had no idea. Homosexuality was a topic never discussed (the rest of the family knows what that's like).

The children of various other nephews were feeling much better so one family came to my brother's house on Friday evening and I visited the other on Saturday afternoon. Both visits were delightful. I was able to visit everyone I wanted to, though in some cases for a shorter time than I would have liked.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I'm back

I arrived in Detroit yesterday afternoon after a (mostly) good short week in Texas visiting my brother and his large family. I spent yesterday evening and most of today preparing for class tomorrow, so don't have a lot of time for a complete trip report. Perhaps after this week's crush of class preparation.

I will say that I did see everyone I wanted to see, though in some cases it wasn't for as long as I would have liked. On Tuesday and Wednesday two nephews said some of their children weren't feeling well and they didn't want me to catch it. A third nephew (yes, a lot of them) said his two were feeling just fine, so invited me for supper. A half hour after I arrived, his two-year-old son started throwing up. Back at my brother's place that evening I started doing the same. Yes, as a few people have commented, that was rather quick. Thankfully, it lasted less than 24 hours. By then the various children were feeling better and visits could resume.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Getting off the ground (correction)

I posted an entry last Friday about black gays and lesbians, referring the interested reader to a list celebrating many such luminaries. Alas, I forgot to include the link. Here it is now. Thanks to my dad for pointing it out.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The calendar says spring break

The next two days are going to be quite busy, with me dashing from one event to another (one of those events will be the Gay and Lesbian ComedyFest in Dearborn tomorrow evening). At least the roads shouldn't be as icy as they were this morning (though I didn't have to go out). Most of Monday will be taken up with preparation for class, even though it is spring break, and then packing. I leave Tuesday morning for Texas to visit my brother and his extensive family and return Sunday afternoon. There may be a trip report when I get back. A friend told me not to report on the Texas weather.

So, unless I get some free time on Monday, I may not post again for more than a week.

Getting off the ground

Though I am a bit late for honoring Black History Month, this link will take you to a list of black people who were also gay, lesbian, or transgender. There is also a quote with each name. Folklorist Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”

Various commenters contribute more names to the list.

Revolutions don't always improve the situation

Niall Ferguson in Newsweek notes that since America was founded through a revolution we tend to root for revolutions elsewhere. That's not a good idea because so few of them come out the way we expect. In particular, the more violence is needed to challenge the existing political order the more likely the replacement will be a man of violence, such as Stalin and Mao. So we must be careful in what we do. First, support democratic movements while the tyrant is still in power, so there isn't a vacuum when he goes. This is what we did in Eastern Europe before the Soviet Union fell. Second, exploit divisions within fundamentalist movements.

Ferguson's article is followed by one written by Peter Beinart, who offers another way of looking at the mistakes Bush II made. Back in 2002 he saw that we faced great military and ideological power. If he didn't act first the balance would tip in our enemies' favor.

That was the same argument used back in the 1950s for attacking the Soviet Union. Thankfully, Truman and his successors didn't listen, we had a fairly stable cold war (with, alas, lots of proxy battles), and the USSR eventually fell apart. An economically vibrant democracy faced an economically destitute tyranny and could afford to wait. We should have done the same in the Middle East.

Must always define 'the other' as deviant

Michigan Radio had a brief segment on Randy Hekman, the first GOP candidate to declare he is running against US Senator Debbie Stabenow. The usual stuff -- Hekman is executive pastor of a church in Grand Rapids (though the church website doesn't say how conservative it is, it is in Grand Rapids), CEO of a consulting company, founder of Michigan Family Forum (yup, a core belief is gays can't marry), and an attorney -- made me think he is just another Fundie/GOP candidate wanting to impose his morals on me.

But there was something else in the Michigan Radio that caught my eye.

He says it’s critical the size of government be drastically reduced. He says “the resulting human needs” should be addressed “with significant growth in the non-profit sector.”

That leads to some important questions:

* Given the current state of funding of non-profits (I volunteer for one and donate to several others) where is the money going to come from? The pockets of the same rich people who are demanding tax cuts from the government and who aren't supporting non-profits now?

* What happens to all those poor people if the non-profits can't raise enough money to meet the need?

* Is Hekman's desire for a greater role for non-profits because that frequently means church-affiliated organizations and is a way for him to impose his religion and morals on the rest of us? "Sorry, we can't give you food because you're gay."

Thank you, but no.

While on the subject of fundamentalism…

Peter Gomes, chaplain of Harvard University and gay, recently died. This prompted Andrew Sullivan to post a few quotes from Gomes. This one is worth repeating. Several times.

"Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant. Such intolerance, in the name of virtue, is ruthless and uses political power to destroy what it cannot convert. It is dangerous, especially in America, because it is anti-democratic and is suspicious of 'the other,' in whatever form that 'other' might appear. To maintain itself, fundamentalism must always define 'the other' as deviant."

Last spring I wrote about the book Saving Paradise by Brock and Parker. The book describes how the Christian message had been subverted by various kings and popes. The Protestant Reformation reset the message through Sola Scriptura, the claim that the true message was found only through the scriptures. Human interpretation was not necessary. That was a good idea at the time because human interpretation had replaced the message of Jesus and that interpretation had become so corrupted.

According to essayist Terrence Heath there is more to the story. As part of the claim that the Bible was a sufficient description of faith and papal interpretation and authority wasn't necessary the reformers had to claim the Bible itself was a greater authority. And the way to do that is to claim the Bible was divinely dictated to the humans who wrote it down.

And that is the birth of Protestant Fundamentalism.

We get crazy slogans such as, "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." There are a whole host of contradictions and inconsistencies when trying to make the Bible do something it wasn't written to do. Then there is the problem that one can prove the Bible supports whatever one wants it to.

I'm pleased that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, recognized that Scripture isn't enough and developed his quadrilateral. The Bible must be tempered with reason, experience, and tradition.

For the record, I believe the Bible contains the stories of people and their encounters with God. Through the pages they struggle to explain and interpret what can't be limited to words. Even if it wasn't dictated by God it is sill a fabulous resource for living.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

We want equality, not revenge

The General Social Survey, put out by the National Opinion Research Center and the University of Chicago, goes back to 1972 and is now released every two years. Since 1988 one of the questions has been about gay marriage. 2010 is the first time responders approving of gay marriage topped those opposed. Other recent surveys don’t show us ahead, but we’re getting close.

Some commenters wonder about the Bradley Effect – people telling pollsters what they think the pollster wants to hear rather than their true opinion. If so, even that is significant. It means that many people believe the “correct” answer, the one the pollster wants to hear, is approval for gay marriage. That itself is an important change.

Jonathan Rauch notes that even if gay marriage isn’t supported by a majority the general population, the moral acceptability of gay relationships has passed the majority threshold. Rauch proposes a scenario. Gay students walk into a bakery and ask for rainbow decorated cupcakes for their National Coming Out Day observance. The business refuses, claiming they won’t work against their moral principles. Should the gay students: (1) take their business elsewhere and call for public dialogue, or (2) report the bakery to city hall in an attempt to shut the business down because it violates the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance. Both? Neither?

Rauch says option one is a fine idea. Option two is dangerous.

The rights battle is far from over. Much work still needs to be done. But we now have the upper hand, momentum is on our side, and we need to change tactics. In particular We need to give our opponents the time and space they need to let us win.

Being pushy and demanding (“If we’re polite they’ll just ignore us.”) is minority thinking. We and our allies are part of the majority. A “shrill, aggressive majority appears bullying and menacing, not plucky and righteous.” We don’t want to be seen as the oppressors.

Oh, yes, the irony is rich. We’re the oppressors? Tell that to the gay teen bullied by Fundie kids.

But as the Fundies are getting portrayed as the moral deviants, they are working hard to make sure we are portrayed as violators of civil rights, never resting until we eliminate our opposition (um, yeah, something like they’ve said they want to do to us). But they have a point. Our goal is to make homophobia so culturally unpalatable that churches will feel compelled to go against their own doctrine (and then eventually change that doctrine).

All that means we have to be careful not to hand them the victimhood weapon.

There are two ways to do that:

First, accept legal exceptions for religious organizations in discrimination laws, as long as the cost to gays is acceptable. Let a Catholic adoption agency refuse to place kids with gay parents if there are other agencies that will. Religious liberty is an American founding principle. Branding religion as bigotry won’t help us convince the flexible middle that we deserve our rights. Being seen as a threat to religion will harm us.

Second, stop branding the opposition as haters and bigots, even if they obviously are. At the moment we tend towards lumping the true bigots with those who don’t yet see how a particular piece of policy truly affects us. Rhetorical overkill will backfire. We are to criticize them, but not to silence them. We want equality, not revenge. We want them to be true to themselves as we want to be allowed to be true to ourselves.

Our opponents are betting heavily we won’t make the shift from a demanding minority to a tolerant majority.

Free speech works both ways

Though most Americans find the Phelps clan and their Westboro Baptist Church to be disgusting the Supremes rightly said free speech applies to them. Such speech may occasionally hurt, but being hurt is not a reason to shut it down.

Thee is a reason to support the ruling. For a few election cycles now the anti-gay forces have claimed that if gays are allowed to marry (or get equal rights to employment, or protected from bullying) than anti-gay pastors will be pulled from their pulpits and silenced. We now have proof that won’t happen. If the Supremes won’t silence the Phelps clan they won’t silence anyone.

There are, however, some who are wondering if the ruling isn’t about free speech but the shielding a speaker from the consequences of that speech.

The Ohio Senate passed a bill the GOP claims is essential to balancing the state budget. Included is a limit on collective bargaining rights (perhaps not as severe as in Wisconsin). It also contains a long, rambling section that a marriage may only be between one man and one woman. This is in addition to a draconian marriage protection amendment. So why put it in a budget bill? It strips domestic partnership benefits from university and city workers across the state. Absolutely anything to save a buck.

I’ve written before (probably a long time ago) about researchers in Germany in the 1870s realized that some men had sexual attractions towards other men. These men appeared to be mentally healthy. This research resulted in the term homosexual. Robert Beachy has written the book Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity tracing why that research was undertaken.

In 1871 Germany was unified from hundreds of separate political units into one country. As the central government was created the Imperial Criminal Code included a law prohibiting gay male sex. That law triggered sustained research into same-sex sexuality and eroticism. Germany was on the forefront of such research until the Nazis came to power.

Photographer J Henry Fair aimed his camera at the pollution and scars that result from various mining and clearcutting operations. He has now published them in a book The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis. The photos are both weirdly beautiful and disturbing. Here is an interview of Fair and a photo gallery of shots from the book.