Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chaldean Christians in Iraq and the U.S.

“Write about us, write about the Chaldeans.” I don’t normally get requests for my blog, but I owe something to my Chaldean friend, S, who asked me to write about them, and his family. It is from this gracious man and his family that I have learned a little about Iraq, the country my country has invaded and occupied.

Chaldeans are Eastern-rite Christians who have lived in the Middle East for about two thousand years. They live mainly in northern Iraq and Baghdad; the area in northern Iraq they occupy is called the Nineveh Plain. Some Chaldeans live in Iran and Syria, but most are Iraqi. The origins of the Chaldeans are disputed. They claim descent from the Assyrians, and believe they are the direct descendants of Babylon. Some historians and ethnographers disagree. Chaldeans do not consider themselves to be Arab, but Arabs, by contrast, claim them as a sub-group. They speak a distinct language, Syriac or Aramaic. This is an ancient Semitic language that predates Arabic, Hebrew and Ethiopian. Chaldean is spoken by some Jews who previously lived in Iraq, and is similar to biblical Aramaic. In Mel Gibson’s Jew-hating sadistic movie about the crucifixion, the actors spoke Chaldean.

The Chaldeans are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, but they have their own patriarch, who is considered to be a cardinal by the Vatican. Chaldean priests can marry, but if they aspire to be bishops or rise higher in the ranks they must remain celibate. Chaldean Catholics separated from the Eastern Orthodox Church in the remote past; their affiliation with Rome has been historically inconsistent.

Chaldeans who lived in Iraq before the U.S. invasion numbered about one and a half million; now there are probably fewer than 400,000. Since the 2003 invasion, Chaldeans have been targeted by extremists in Iraq. The two worst massacres occurred in 2008 and 2010, but they have been victims of violence since 2003. In 2008 in Mosul, once a city with a large number of Chaldean Christians, 14 were murdered, and two thousand families were forced to flee in 10 days. On October 31st of this year, terrorists stormed Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad. During a ten hour siege, 60 people were killed, including two priests, one of whom was slain on the altar. More than 80 were wounded.

Extremists who murder Chaldean Christians claim it is retribution for the alleged kidnapping of a young Muslim girl by the Coptic Church in Egypt. That is a specious claim; Chaldeans aren’t Coptic, and have no control over what happens in another country. The real reason Iraqi Christians are murdered seems to be this: America is perceived as a Christian country, and Iraqi Christians are presumed to be in collaboration with the U.S. Frustrated Iraqis can’t come to America and kill their invaders, so Chaldeans serve as proxy Americans, no matter what their politics are.

This recent massacre provoked outrage in expat communities throughout the world. In Oakland and San Diego, Chaldean protesters marched, and urged the United States government to do something to protect the rights of minorities in Iraq. In Oakland, one marcher carried a sign that said “We miss Saddam.” Under Saddam, Chaldeans were not persecuted; in fact, Tarek Aziz was Chaldean, as was a famous Iraqui soccer player. Chaldeans faced some political discrimination in Saddam’s Iraq, and perhaps social isolation. They were not, however, murdered, or massacred in their churches.

Please understand, I’m not saying Saddam was a great guy. He wasn’t. But by cavalierly invading Iraq, a country that was no threat to our national security, we have opened up a hornet’s nest. African countries still haven’t recovered from a century of imperialism; civil war and genocide are rampant there. It looks like this will be Iraq’s fate as well. Our imperial adventure has caused the collapse of a country and an entire culture.

In 2003, the U.S. government apparently foresaw the problems they were creating for Iraqi Christians, and proposed the creation of the Nineveh Plan Administration, a semi-autonomous, self-governing area for Chaldeans, somewhat like the structure that exists for the Kurds in the north. As of yet, this remains a vague idea on someone’s desk. Prime Minister al Maliki says he is committed to protecting Chaldeans, but he has so many other problems. Iraq’s government is unstable.

Chaldean Christians are left in an untenable position: stay behind in Iraq and risk violence, or try to come to the country that has wrecked their homeland. If you come to America, good luck finding a job. Credentials don’t easily transfer; Iraqi doctors cannot practice medicine in the U.S. Those who have fled were forced to leave their homes and personal property behind, so they arrive poor.

San Diego currently has the largest population of ex-patriate Chaldeans outside of Michigan. How, I wonder, do Iraqi refugees like my friend S cope? What must it be like to have to immigrate to the country that has caused all his problems? What will happen to the thousands of Chaldeans who can’t leave? For every refugee that makes it out alive, tens of thousands are left behind, or remain in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Thousands live as undocumented workers all over the world.

It would be nice to end this posting on an upbeat note. For Chaldeans, and for most other Iraqis, there is no happy ending in sight.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Popes Against the Jews

David Kertzer’s 2001 book, The Popes Against the Jews is well-researched and readable. It’s not for the faint-hearted; it reminds me of Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 blockbuster, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which I was never able to finish. Kertzer, the author of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, took advantage of the access he was granted to the Vatican’s secret archives in 1999. The Pope had just finished an internal investigation of the Vatican’s role in the Holocaust, and--- surprise, surprise--- concluded the Catholic church had no guilt or complicity in the slaughter of the Jews. The Vatican insisted its objections to Judaism were based on religious principle, and not on racial anti-Semitism. As Kertzer points out, this is a distinction that is hard to sustain. It’s the “hate the sin, love the sinner argument” that always rings hollow. Yes, the Vatican concluded, it approved and promoted articles in Catholic newspapers opposing the Jewish religion, but they never incited violence. When a thousand years of insisting that Jews remain locked in the ghetto, and that Jews regularly murder Christian children at Passover, a climate of genocide is created.

The Pope, historically, was a political as well as a religious ruler. By the mid-19th century, the land the Pope ruled was greatly diminished, consisting chiefly of Rome and central Italy. The Vatican opposed Italian unification because it had to cede political authority. Italian unification was complete by the end of the 1860’s, but the Pope refused to recognize the fact until 60 years later. The Vatican had its own police force, spies, and soldiers. The Pope controlled the Jewish community with an iron fist. Jews were forced to wear special clothing, including a gold star. They were locked into the ghetto, or Jewish quarter, at night. The Roman ghetto was small and impoverished. Jews were forbidden from employing Christians, and the Vatican discouraged Christians from any contact with Jews. Jewish children who were secretly baptized without their parents’ knowledge were forcibly removed from their Jewish parents, and raised by priests. Kertzer’s previous book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara details just such a case.

Like all superannuated entities, the Vatican resented its loss of power. It found a convenient scapegoat for its ire, the Jews. The Popes, by and large, were incensed by the liberation of the Jews that occurred when Italy was unified. Through its network of newspapers and periodicals, the Vatican waged war on the Jews. Apparently most priests and Popes actually believed the Talmud commanded Jews to murder Christians. Papal-approved newspapers regularly printed incendiary articles accusing the liberated Jews of murdering Christian children at Passover. In fact, the eastern European folktale of the vampire was blended with a heavy dose of anti-Semitism, since it was believed Jews drained the blood of Christians to put in matzo.

The history of European Jews doesn’t have a happy ending. The two Popes who reigned during the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, Pius XI and Pius XII, had no objection to the harsh anti-Jewish laws imposed by the new political order. Few are aware that Italy enacted the same racial purity laws as Germany; Italian Jews weren’t deported for execution, though, until Mussolini died and Hitler took over northern Italy. The only real complaint the Vatican had with fascism was that new political bodies had co-opted its pet project of anti-Semitism.

There were, of course, Catholics of good will who opposed the Vatican’s relentless persecution of Jews. Archbishops in England and America refused to print some of the Vatican’s most scurrilous anti-Jewish polemics, and urged the Popes to moderate their anti-Jewish attitude.

In California, the Catholic church has recently joined forces with the Mormon church to fight the political liberation of gays. The language used by the church is exactly the same as its anti-Semitic rhetoric. The church hates the sin of homosexuality, but doesn’t condone violence against the gay community. Of course, when there is anti-gay violence, the church resorts to the same old “blame the victim” meme. When pogroms occurred in eastern Europe, the Vatican refused to condemn them, insisting that Jews shouldn’t be surprised when their behavior resulted in murder. Gays shouldn’t be surprised at anti-gay violence, they provoke it by being so open.

As America, and the world, enters a period of what may be prolonged economic hardship, xenophobia and racism have again surfaced. Gays, who have some political liberation, could easily be the next target. Currently it’s Latinos and Muslims who are the victimized; there’s no reason to believe that gays and even Jews could be next. Kertzer’s work is invaluable, reminding us of the human tendency to scapegoat the minorities. The old line of “hate the sin but love the sinner” never ends well.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta 2010

Last week was not a good one for us middle-aged lefties. So, I’ll quit obsessing about politics and turn to something happier. The hot air balloon festival in Albuquerque, the first week of October 2010, was phenomenal. The Balloon Fiesta began in the 1970’s. Albuquerque has great weather for hot air balloons at both sunrise and sunset in the fall. There is a weather pattern called the “Albuquerque box.” This means that balloons will rise, float in more or less a square or rectangular pattern, and return to where they left from. Hot air balloons are difficult to navigate, and normally a balloon lands wherever it can--- whenever it runs out of fuel. Because of the Albuquerque box, pilots need not worry about having an expensive chase crew to find them wherever they land.

This year there were about 600 balloons that participated. It brings in millions of dollars from tourists who flock to the event. It’s difficult to find a hotel room the first week of October, when the fiesta takes place. The balloons launch at sunrise, about 7:00 a.m. Getting out to watch them launch in the northeast heights is tricky. This year, for instance, friends who left their house at 5:30 a.m. were still stuck in traffic 2 hours later, and missed the launch. Even some people who bought tickets for the park and ride program missed out—this year had some unexpected logistical problems.

It’s really something to see the balloons all rise at once. Because there are so many, the launches are staggered, and it takes about an hour for all of them to get up in the air. You can see them from almost anywhere in the city. And if you think that all balloons are more or less round, you’d be mistaken. Increasingly they are in unusual shapes, from beer bottles to bees. The bees are incredibly popular: this year there were 3 bee balloons launched: mom and dad and a little one. On the ground, the most interesting and popular chase crew is dressed like Jedi warriors from Star Wars. I’m not up on the terminology, but some are good guys and some are bad guys—they are dressed in white costumes as well as black ones.

If you are lucky enough to go to Albuquerque during the Fiesta, there are a lot of other things going on at the same time. The Greek Orthodox Church has its annual Greek festival the first weekend of October. It was well-attended, and the food wasn’t bad. There are bigger Greek festivals in other cities, but if you’ve never gone to one, this one is a good start.

Don’t miss the Arts and Crafts Festival that is held near the balloon launching area. There is wonderful Native American art in New Mexico, but you won’t find any great art at this festival. It’s kitschy in a wonderful way. The artist that I was most taken with is R.C. Ramey, a Melungeon potter who had a great collection of hand-fired rabbis and other Judaica. I hope this promising potter, based in Arizona, keeps working.

And now for the food. When you are in New Mexico, the real question is: “red or green?” Chili, of course. You must try authentic New Mexico food, which you can get at almost any restaurant. I’ll recommend a few. If you are like me, and can’t make up your mind about anything, ask for both red and green. The red has a rich flavor, and is usually nice and spicy, but don’t miss the green either. Near Old Town, eat at Duran’s Pharmacy café. Duran’s is a pharmacy that has a lunch counter—be sure to try the homemade blue corn tortillas. Sadie’s has two locations, one in the heights and one in the valley. It may have the best New Mexico food in town. If you are downtown, try Cecilia’s—it’s like visiting the Hispanic family you wished you had! If you’re in the heights, you might try Eloy’s New Mexico café. Friends tell me that El Pinto is one of the finest restaurants in town. I’ve never been, but it’s where President Obama ate the week before I got to town.

If you want a steakhouse, then the place to go is Vernon’s. New Mexico beef is yummy. Vernon’s is a concept restaurant, with the gimmick of being a 1930’s speakeasy. There is no sign out front, and you must know the password to be admitted. (When you make your reservation, they give you the day’s password. And yes, you must have a reservation—it’s packed.) It is quite dark inside, and there is live music. And now for the disclaimer: the chef there is the neighbor boy I walked to school with for years. The food is excellent, but, sadly, there’s no green chili. Try the chopped salad--- it’s a meal in itself. The portions are more than ample, and if you have supper there you won’t need to eat again for a week. I had the scallops, which were fresh and tasty.

Finally, when you visit the lovely campus of the University of New Mexico (be sure to see the WPA era murals in Zimmerman library), eat at the Frontier Café on Central Avenue. Everyone in the state eats there. The food is delish, reasonable, but the reason to go there is for the people watching. You’ll see real cowboys, Native Americans, Hispanos, and students. It offers a cross-section of the most interesting people in this fascinating state. When I was there, we saw a cowboy with a loaded pistol in his belt, students, senior citizens, and various and sundry aging hippies.

I love Albuquerque, and any excuse to go there, and visit with my old childhood friends, is great. From Vivian Vance to my neighbor here, everyone says Albuquerque people are the friendliest—it’s a good middle class city. Santa Fe is OK, but too pretentious for my liking. Go to Taos if you want history. But by all means, see the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, the first weekend in October, and eat as much red and green chili as you can!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Presbyterians and Palestinians

I’m not an especially religious man, but there have been times in my life when religion has been a comfort. Social pressures, friends, and a spiritual quest are reasons to attend services, as is family. My father was a Presbyterian minister, and half of my family is Presbyterian. My family is of Jewish descent, but few practiced that religion. Immigration patterns were one reason for this. By 1900, there was so much anti-Semitism in New York that Jews were forced to immigrate through Galveston. The Galveston Movement, as the phenomenon is called, tried to assimilate Jews by sending them to Texas. My ancestors made their way north from Texas to St. Louis, dropping their Judaism somewhere along the way. But while religious practices were neglected, some principles remained. Assimilationist Jews have a strong emphasis on education and ethics, for instance.

My great-great grandmother, living in Poland, found herself in danger from constant war. In the 19th century, Prussia (Germany) was on the move, annexing that poor country. Her family were bakers, and she spent considering time hiding in the huge ovens to escape the clutches of marauding soldiers. She was desperate to flee, and because there were quotas on Jewish immigration by 1880, she forged some Christian documents. Maybe it wasn’t admirable to deny her heritage, but she got away from the fighting.

In the past, my Jewish forebears found the Presbyterian church to be a safe place. Historically, Presbyterians placed emphasis on literacy, education, and ethics. It was a Protestant church that wasn’t too dogmatic. That has changed. In 1980, the northern Presbyterian church and the southern Presbyterian church merged. They had separated during the Civil War; the southern church had the reputation, deserved or not, of being conservative.

The first casualty of this merger was gays. In 1980, Presbyterians stopped ordaining gays and lesbians. Since that time, the Presbyterian church has waged continual war on gays. Currently, a retired Presbyterian minister is on trial by the church for marrying gay couples when it was legal in California. The whole idea of a church trial sounds medieval.

Liberal Presbyterians have found a group they can fight: Israeli Jews. In 2004, the General Assembly came close to recommending divestment from Israel, joining the B-D-S movement (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions). Last week, the church I have sometimes attended held a meeting on divestment. I understand that Palestinians have been horribly treated. A recent U.N. report concludes that Israelis have committed war crimes--- but so have Palestinians. There is enough blame for both sides in the Middle East conflict. This meeting was a gateway for anti-Semites to express their anti-Jewish views.

Being of Jewish descent and going to a church is a tight rope, a balancing act. Last year, I attended a large Methodist church in town where the pastor gave a strange anecdote about helping Jews. The Christian church has a guilty history of anti-Semitism, and it is still there.

Maybe I was a fool to think I could have anything to do with church. As a gay man who is half-Jewish, I feel most comfortable at Reform Jewish services or the Unitarian church. Sometimes I feel a little like Cher singing “Half-breed.” At times of economic distress, demagogues use race and religion to divide. You only have to consider the “show me your papers” law in Arizona, and the Islamophobia we are experiencing. But being on the outside, and being different can be a gift. Edward Said said it best: “Even if one is not an actual immigrant or expatriate, it is still possible to think as one, to imagine, and investigate in spite of barriers, and always to move away from the centralizing authorities towards the margins, where you see things that are usually lost on minds that have never travelled beyond the conventional and comfortable.”

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Summer of Discontent

It’s been quite a summer. The BP oil spill, the pending confirmation of Elena Kagan, falling poll numbers for the president…. The approval rating of politicians in this country has plummeted. Most people, when asked, think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Why is this, and can anything be done? I believe there are 3 major problems in the country today.

First of all, for all its claims to the contrary, America has ceased in some important ways to be a democracy. What the public wants, they usually don’t get. The founding fathers wanted to temper democracy and keep us from the tyranny of the majority. Many Americans are racist: consider the approval of Arizona’s SB1070, the “show me your papers” law, which has been put on hold. Most Californians voted against gay marriage, due in no small part to the lies put forth by Mormons, Catholics, and fundamentalist Christians. And yet, the majority of Americans voted for Barack Obama. We want change, and many, maybe most, don’t believe we’ve gotten it. The entrenched powers of corporations are strong in this country. When you explain to people what single payer health care actually is, they want it. Yet Medicare for all was taken off the table. In some ways, “health care reform” has been a gift to the insurance industry. Campaign finance reform has been outlawed by a right wing supreme court, and now, corporations are actually “persons” and can spend limitless amounts on the candidate of their choice without disclosing their contributions. This isn’t the “change” people signed up for.

Second is the problem of economic disparity. The top 1% of the population is getting fabulously wealthy, due in no small part to the Bush tax cuts. When the Republicans take back the House, which they will, they will probably be able to pass an extension of these tax cuts. The wages of the poor and middle class are basically stagnant. America is the only industrialized nation with this disparity of wealth. The last time there was such a gap between rich and poor was in 1929, according to Robert Reich. We know how that ended.

The third and greatest problem the country faces is imperialism. It’s time to cease calling America a “super-power” and call it what it is: an empire. As in Rome, when a country becomes an empire democracy ends. Our infrastructure and schools are crumbling, but we are fighting 2 useless wars overseas, and we have over 750 military bases all over the world. The only product America manufactures is weapons. Any war being fought anywhere in the world is being fought with guns and bombs made in America. It is our only expertise--- the other jobs have been outsourced.

Imperialism, lack of democracy and economic disparity suit our corporate overlords. Profits are up up up. Fox News and the teabaggers are successful in pitting Americans against each other: it’s the classic divide and conquer approach. Whites are pitted against African Americans, immigrants are the great bugaboo. Why let people discuss actual issues, when you can make them hate each other? It’s a simple strategy, and it usually always works.

I believe the President Obama is a good man, and has integrity. I think he has been powerless in the face of the corporations and their extremely wealthy shareholders. He has worked for change, but it has not been possible. Meanwhile, he has been constantly undermined by racism, and strange questions about his birthplace and other such nonsense. He hasn’t tried to eliminate the empire and bring back democracy. Maybe it can’t be done.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Nebraska-- Part Deux

Each year, my family goes back to Nebraska. This year we went at Memorial Day. In addition to eating great food and visiting relatives, we went to the small cemetery in Table Rock where my ancestors are buried. My father and grandmother are buried there, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, aunts and uncles all the way back to 1880. We planted begonias at my father’s grave, and geraniums at my grandparents’ tombstone. There are tall pine trees in the graveyard, and it’s shady and cool, even on hot days. It’s peaceful. I am comforted visiting the graves of my people. I will be buried next to my parents: about two years ago I bought a small granite marker with my name and birth date. At this point, more of my immediate family members are dead than alive, and I want to be with them when I am gone. I understand that strange “vampire” longing to lie in my native soil. The earth of Nebraska is my flesh, the trees are my bones, the cool creek is the blood that rushes through my veins.

Life and death are difficult topics. It’s hard to talk about deep things, and the longing I have for Nebraska is complicated. It’s a place of happy memories, and it’s tied to my family, my childhood, and the land itself. Years ago I heard a Nebraska artist say that Nebraska is pretty, not beautiful. It’s understated. I think I know what he meant. The landscape isn’t the drama of the Rockies. It’s the soothing calmness of green rolling hills, trees, and creeks. They say the Platte River is a mile wide but just a foot deep.

Some of my happiest memories are visiting my grandparents’ farm. It is small: by the time I was born they were no longer to make a living from it. My grandfather was older, and it would have taken a large capital investment of expensive new farming equipment to make the small acreage profitable. In the 1960’s, many small family farms were abandoned, and agribusiness was born. The farm house was left standing for about 10 years after my grandparents moved to town. It was vandalized, and my grandmother’s collection of pink Depression glass, which she didn’t have room for in town, was all broken. Reluctantly they tore the house down. The old place was said to be haunted. As a child, it both thrilled and terrified me. There were old bookcases filled with old books, a few bedstands, and lots of small, worn out toys from all the children who had played there over the years. I would walk through the mostly empty rooms of the old place, and bring an old book or toy back to town when the visit was over.

In summer, my grandparents, along with my grandmother’s parents, would take picnics down to the creek near the farm. I was lucky enough to have my great-grandmother alive till I was 30; my great-grandfather passed when I was 8. My grandmother baked homemade bread, and packed sandwiches of summer sausage, the bread slathered with butter. They were delicious. I can still picture those picnics in my mind. We would ride together down the dirt road to the empty farm house, and park the car next to the creek. Then my grandmother or her mother would spread out a large blanket, and we would enjoy the feast she brought. What happy times, what blessed memories.

When we go to the farm now, I become melancholy. I think of those old times. I have regrets, and wish I had been more attentive to my older relatives. The only consolation I have is the thought that “without remorse there is no virtue.” That line, from a poem by Elena Rivera, consoles me with the thought that because I have regret, maybe at least I have become a slightly better person than I was then. Small comfort such selfish thoughts are.

This year the farm has been planted with wheat. For the last several years it has had acres of corn, but apparently that is less profitable. The nation’s food policy is a mess: crop subsidies favor large agribusiness. A few companies like Monsanto set the country’s policy, and are largely responsible for our obesity and poor health. The food that is the cheapest is the least nourishing and our consumption of corn and wheat is responsible for both our girth and diabetes. The farmer that plants the crops for my mother is a kind, good-hearted man. Most all the people in Nebraska are good and decent. They will gladly give directions if you are lost, are eager to engage in friendly small talk, and will always be helpful and generous. Yet the minute the conversation turns to politics, these good folks will spout nasty right wing talking point. Don’t even bother to ask what they think of President Obama. It wouldn’t be fit to print. Yet these same farmers see the mess created by Republican economic policies. But the smirking monkey George Bush did no wrong, and the Dems can do no right, even when they do the right thing. It’s hard to reconcile the kindness of these good farm folks with the ugly politics they spout.

Tom Frank’s book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas” offers an explanation of how and why good, decent people will eagerly vote for a corrupt party whose economic policies hurt them. Republicans have successfully used social issues like gays, guns and abortion as hot button topics that get otherwise sensible people to vote against their own pocketbooks. You see the same thing even in mainline churches. Conservatives use the issue of gays to divide and change religion. In my grandmother’s small American Baptist church, a new pastor came to town and tore her church in half over the issue of gays. Now, how many gay people actually live in Tecumseh, Nebraska, and just how exactly do gays pose a cataclysmic threat to the rest of the town? Please, please explain it. My grandmother stopped going to church, and never went back. She knew the brouhaha was ridiculous, a tool used to create a diversion from more pressing social issues.

After visiting the cemetery and the farm, I went with my mother to her ?th year high school reunion (she wouldn’t be happy if I told what decade it was). There were 24 in her high school class. The school was so small they hold all the reunions together. The oldest alumnus was from Table Rock High School Class of 1936. The event was held at the Table Rock Hotel, where the downstairs once housed the movie theatre. Unlike most banquets where you choose between leathery steak and tough chicken breast, the meal featured both meats, and both were delicious. There was an actual salad, not just a wedge of iceberg lettuce. There was fresh fruit. The cost was $11. The caterer was the same person who cooks the lunch at the senior center, where those well-fed oldsters can eat for $3. The conversation was fine as long as we stayed away from politics. One old geezer felt compelled to say how much he supported Arizona’s discriminatory SB1070. He had nothing to worry about, this old white guy driving a Buick.

There was an “illegal” immigrant scandal recently in the Nebraska state prison. It turns out they had been hiring undocumented Eastern Europeans as guards, and one was a drug-dealing kingpin. These immigrants, however, where white, so I guess that made it OK. People in rural Nebraska tend to look alike: big, tall, stocky, white, elderly. Nebraska is one place I can go to and feel young. I also feel elfin, as most folks tower over me and outweigh me by a hundred pounds. They are mostly blond, and it’s creepy being surrounded by giant Aryans. I have to confess that those Gerber blonde hair blue- eyed babies chill me to the bone. Yikes.

Mostly, Nebraska fills me with a sense of loss. I miss my loved ones who have passed on. My great-great grandparents moved to the state in 1871 to build a Utopian paradise. My great-grandfather was an officer in Nebraska’s Socialist party in the 1930. Those days are long gone, ended with the hysteria of the McCarthy years. Looking across the gentle, rolling hills, I feel a deeper loss. The state was founded on a forgotten crime. The land never belonged to the Europeans. It was stolen from the Indians. Abraham Lincoln, the sainted man, enacted the Homestead Act shortly before his assassination. It was believed that the native peoples didn’t deserve their land because they hadn’t developed it. Sure, they had lived there since time immemorial, but they hadn’t made any capital improvements. Where were their houses, factories, farms? And now the peaceful Ponca, the hunting Pawnee, the colorful Lakota are gone, all gone.

The prairie grass is mostly gone. When the native grasses were gone, the buffalo disappeared. The first nations were rounded up and exiled to Oklahoma and the Dakotas. Now the land is dotted with farms. You can see where the small farms are: they are surrounded by trees. There are few native trees in Nebraska, tree were brought in by the legendary Johnny Appleseed and other Europeans. The majority of the old farm houses are in disrepair, and the land is dotted with crumbling houses and barns. Small family farmers have left, replaced by factory farming and agribusiness. Sadly, too many have gone along with these changes, and even voted for the politicians that displaced this way of life.

In the last hundred years, two ways of life have left the prairie. The Indian nations were displaced by small family farms. Small family farms have been replaced by agribusiness. With a smile, we’ve voted for gangsters who have stolen the land yet again, diverting us from their crimes by telling us the real problem is gays and abortion. So we’re eating poisoned food, and spreading pesticides everywhere. But at least the gays and “illegal” immigrants have been put in their place, thank God. At this rate, all life will be gone from the prairies in the next hundred years.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Eating My Way through the Heartland

It’s easy to discount the Midwest. Flat, boring, rural… Every year, my family goes to Nebraska. My family has lived there for over a hundred years. Almost 50 of my family members are buried in a small, lovely cemetery near Table Rock. Maybe I’m prejudiced, but I love Nebraska. Here’s a rundown of my annual trip there, which I call “eating my way through America’s heartland.” Let me point out that, sadly, I receive no compensation for plugging some outstanding restaurants. I think they owe me some free meals!

Omaha has a lot of great places to eat. The steakhouses are best known, but there is so much more. I have to confess I’ve never been to a steakhouse in Omaha. Growing up, we ate a lot of Nebraska beef. In Nebraska, cows outnumber people 4 to 1. Try the other restaurants. I recommend Big Mama’s first. It serves some of the best soul food I’ve eaten. Big Mama is the name of the cook (Big Mama is Southern for Grandma). Big Mama learned to cook from her grandmother, Miss Lillie. It is housed in a community center, and is hard to find, since you can’t see the street number of the community center. The fried chicken is famous. The batter on the chicken was really good, but mine wasn’t piping hot when it was put on the table. I asked for dark meat, but got white. The specials are excellent, though, and I recommend them. I had the oxtail soup. It was the best I’ve ever had. It’s a lot of work to make, and mine isn’t as good as Mama’s. Be sure to try the fried green tomatoes. You will thank me for recommending them. I love the atmosphere of Big Mama’s. Nebraska tends to be white, conservative, and the demographic changes the rest of the country has experienced haven’t reached Nebraska. Why is it that African Americans and Latinos are so much more welcoming than white people? If you want hospitality and friendliness, you will find them at Mama’s. It’s nice to be in a place where interracial couples and friends of all kinds can be together.

No stop in Omaha is complete without going to the Bohemian Café on 11th Street. (Czech out their website for the exact address and hours.) The atmosphere is relaxed and European. It’s been family owned and run for almost 50 years. The décor is charming, and the food is great. In any restaurant, you’re advised to try the special. We were there on Thursday, and the special was grilled chicken. It was tender and full of flavor. Every entree comes with side dishes that are a meal in themselves. The Czech kraut wasn’t as good as I remembered it--- it was a little sweet. The bread dumplings are unique. I’ve tried making them, but I have never been able to make them as well as the Bohemian Café. They also serve duck (delish!), and Czech goulash made with pig’s cheek. The chicken liver soup is excellent. Look, you’ll be stuffed, so don’t even try to eat it all. Take a box home. NO meal would be complete without a kolacy. I like the poppyseed best. Mmm. They can even package them to take back on the plane with you, and we usually do. A kolacy is a pastry made with yeast dough and filling, like a hamentoshen made with yeast dough.

Before I stop my happy tales of good food in Omaha, let me give two more recommendations. Goldberg’s Grill never disappoints. There are 2 locations, I like the downtown one. We started going there originally because we thought it might be a kosher deli, it isn’t. The atmosphere is lively; last time I was there the woman at the next table was talking about the 9/11 “conspiracy.” You don’t expect that kind of conversation in quiet Omaha! I always get the Montana Reuben, a Reuben made with turkey instead of beef. It comes with their home fries, but I am usually too full to eat them. For dessert, try the bread pudding. I’ve never paid $10 for a delicious meal at Goldberg’s. Once you go there, you’ll be hooked.

Runzas are a specialty of both Omaha and Lincoln. There are a lot of fast food runza places: if one is better than another, send me an e-mail. Runzas are a kind of beef sandwich casserole, like a Cornish pastie. Yummy!

There are a lot of restaurants in the old town area of Omaha. It’s pretty, all the buildings date from the 19th century, and are made of brick. The crowd there in the evenings is sometimes a little rough. I have no problem with bikers, but there was a biker group there last time I visited that made me uneasy. There are white supremacists in Nebraska, just like there are in California and Texas. Maybe the times I visited the old town the crowd wasn’t typical, but it’s not fun to be the only yellow-skinned gay gimp half-Jew at a Klan picnic.

Before leaving Omaha, visit the Joselyn Art museum. It’s a beautiful building, and they have a lot of art that features native Americans of the region. One 19th century collection of native Americans was donated by Enron. It’s nice to know they were using all that money they stole from California consumers went for a good cause…
Omaha can be paradoxical. It’s the birthplace of both Malcolm X and Gerald Ford. You have wonderful, welcoming Big Mama’s Café, and then you have racists and tons of Republicans. The people are kind and friendly, but I heard more Rush Limbaugh talking points spouted in Nebraska than I heard in the South. The metro area has almost 800,000 people, but it feels like a small town.

But back to food. I’ve spent most of my time in southeast Nebraska. After Omaha, we ate our way to Lincoln. The old town area of Lincoln, called the“Haymarket,” is small but nice. Again, it features lots of restaurants and shops. It’s brick, 19th century, and you can visit the train depot. Go to the state capitol. Its style is art deco. We had a young, enthusiastic tour guide, which made it even more enjoyable. Nebraska is unicameral, no state assembly, just senate. It’s a pay-go state, so the capitol took 10 years to complete. I can’t really comment on the restaurants in Lincoln; usually we eat wonderful home cooked meals with relatives.

There are excellent restaurants in small, southeast Nebraska towns that deserve mention. In Auburn, check out Arbor Manor. It’s housed in a Victorian mansion built in 1910, and there’s a hotel and bar adjacent to the old house. The fried chicken is served hot, and it’s delish, with a light batter. I also recommend the spaghetti. Most salad bars in Nebraska will give you iceberg lettuce, and Arbor Manor is no exception. The soup of the day, though, never disappoints. When we went, it was tomato and pasta. Very nice. When I was a child, my grandparents took my parents there for their anniversary, and it was too special for us children to go along. (My brother is horrified to think that the folks left us alone, but they did. We were 12 or so, why not?) Most any place in Auburn will serve homemade onion rings and deep fried mushrooms--- you can get those at the equivalent of any Dairy Queen. You won’t be disappointed, but you’d better be prepared to loosen your belt.

Some final notes on eating in Nebraska. If you find yourself traveling down Hiway 50, stop just north of Tecumseh at Frazer’s Café. It’s known and loved by all the locals, with good reason. Go with the daily special, but I don’t think you can get a bad meal there. I usually associate the South with fried food, but the Midwest shouldn’t be overlooked. The onion rings at Frazer’s are superb, as is the fish and chips. The food is served piping hot, and everything is homemade. The pies are fantastic. It was started by a couple of friends who do all the cooking, and has the feel of a family place. In Nebraska, most people are friendly, and will strike up a conversation. Frazer’s is no exception. People will be glad to recommend items on the menu, and tell you which meals are their favorite. Our waitress was a beautiful young woman from Tecumseh. She’s leaving, though; she joined the army so she can go to college. I wish her well--- safety and godspeed.

When you visit southeast Nebraska, be sure to visit the town squares of the county seats. Tecumseh is the county seat of Johnson County, and has a picturesque red brick Victorian courthouse. The streets are cobblestone. There is a nearby Walmart, so many of the shops along the square are closed. It’s a shame, and the pattern is repeated in every small town. Pawnee City, the county seat of Pawnee County, is also charming and has a great local café. My great-great grandfather was a k’nocker, and was some kind of county commissioner as well as the superintendent and meteorologist. He was also a surveyor, and laid out all the roads in Pawnee County. I’m proud to say that the roads are good and straight.

Lest it seem that all I care about is food, in Part Deux of Eating My Way Through The Heartland, I’ll offer some reflections on life and attitudes in the Midwest.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Why Arizona SB 1070 Is Wrong

Last month, Arizona passed a new law, SB 1070. This bill was signed by the Republican right-wing governor, Jan Brewer. She’s Palin’s new best buddy, which tells you everything you need to know about her. The law states that people must carry documents with them at all times to prove they are legal residents. Officers who don’t do this can be sued by private citizens. Brewer et al claim that this will not lead to racial profiling. It’s hard to see the new law as anything other than racial profiling. Proponents of the law claim that you can tell who’s a citizen by the shoes they wear, for instance. SB 1070 is a legal mandate for racism, and is mean-spirited.

America is a country of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty invites everyone to come and seek freedom. Despite this open invitation, our country has a history of racism and nativism. The country was created on the twin crimes of ethnic cleansing and slavery. It must be noted that French, English, and even Spanish settlers did marginally better than Americans in their interactions with first nations. The United States has had no qualms about breaking treaties, claiming land, and massacring native Americans. African immigrants were brought forcibly to this country, and enslaved. This is our past, our heritage. As more English and German settlers came to this country, there were backlashes against immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. In 1880, for instance, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law defined Chinese, and eventually other Asians, as a distinct, inferior race. Chinese immigrants could not become citizens, and in many parts of the country, notably California, could not own land. The 19th century was the time when the concept of “race” was created. Jews were seen as subhuman. The concept of “moron” came in to existence, and people of certain ancestries were considered stupid and impossible to educate. When the IQ test was invented, the basic Stanford test, it was used to bar immigrants to this country. A patrol of female bureaucrats waited on Ellis Island to deny entry to those they thought were “morons”, based on a visual inspection. Others were given the Stanford test. Since most didn’t speak English, they didn’t do well on the exam. Nativist hysteria culminated in the Immigration Act of 1924, which mandated limited quotas of immigrants of despised ethnicities. American eugenics was in full swing.

Jews were the target of much of the racist anxiety. In France, writers like de Gobineau and Chauvin (from whom we get the term “chauvinism”) considered race prejudice scientific. Jewish immigrants were eventually barred from disembarking in New York City, and were sent to Galveston instead. It was believed they would assimilate faster there. Newspapers like the New York Times blamed Jews for slums and illiteracy. They were thus guilty of living in the circumstances society proscribed.

America’s past informs the current immigration debate. This country has a history of racism and discrimination. Leave it to a bunch of old white folks in Arizona, and elsewhere, to revive the same stereotypes of the Other. (As an old white guy, I can freely call them out.) Everything Jan Brewer and Sarah Palin say about Mexican workers was said of Jewish, Chinese, Italian, Polish immigrants. Immigrants are stupid, lazy, violent. Same racism, different day.

Eleven cities are boycotting Arizona, and hopefully others will follow suit. No doubt the country needs immigration reform, and that is a complicated topic. Racism has to be taken out of the discussion, or reform can’t happen. SB 1070 inserts prejudice into the debate, and must be seen for what it is, namely, legally sanctioned discrimination.

America’s racist past must be acknowledged. But history isn’t destiny. Fortunately, we live in a country where we can express opinions on this law. When you look without, you are also obligated to look within. To say that we are “colorblind,” or that we “don’t have a racist bone” is not realistic. Growing up in this society, we have ingrained racist attitudes. It’s important to eradicate the racism within.

The insidious thing about SB 1070 is that it purports to address immigration issues, but instead condones racism. It’s an issue that calls us to examine the history of our country, as well as inner prejudice. By doing this, maybe, just maybe, we can move towards the world imagined by John Lennon when he sang “imagine there was no country… nothing to live or die for, and no religion, too…”

Thursday, April 29, 2010

19th Century Medicine

Last month I did research on 19th century medicine. I was reading a diary of a minor historical figure working on the Underground Railroad. Edmund Howe died at the age of 19, probably from malaria, in 1849. Malaria was rampant in America in the 19th century. Although this disease wasn’t indigenous to the continent, it was another little gift brought by European invaders, probably the Spanish. Once it gets into a population, it is spread by mosquitoes. In the first part of the 19th century, medicine was practiced very much as it was for a thousand years in Europe. Diagnosis was based on “humors” or “tensions.” The cure for any ailment was opium and, more often, blood-letting. It’s a wonder that anyone lived. It didn’t help to drain the blood of people who were already weak.

In the 1840’s, medicine was not a well-respected profession. There was little that doctors could do. Surgeons removed broken or septic limbs and some external sores, but they never washed their hands, and there was no anesthesia. Surgeons were prized only for their strength and their speed. The American Medical Association came into being in the late 1840’s. Orthodox physicians wanted to distinguish themselves from non-traditional practitioners. Some doctors even noticed the obvious, namely that blood-letting didn’t help. The A.M.A. conducted modern trials of blood-letting in the 1850’s, and eventually, later in the 19th century, the practice was discontinued.

There was a lot of what we would today call alternative medicine in the 19th century. It’s not clear why some doctors wanted to distinguish themselves from others. Some alternative medicine may have actually been more effective than traditional medicine. In the late 18th century, an American doctor named Thomson developed a system that was eventually named after him: Thomsonian medicine. Thomson told people not to go to doctors, but to cure themselves with the help of plants and herbs. Some Thomsonian medicine helped. Thomson had a system of natural herbs that he told people to take for illness. He said his cures came from watching native people’s use of medicinal plants.

Homeopathy began to be practiced in the 19th century as well. It is still practiced today. The theory is that by giving people a small amount of something, they will build a resistance.

Two other courses of alternative medicine were used by Edmund Howe and others in the 19th century. Howe went to a spa where he took hydrotherapy, or water cure. Patients were given steam baths and cold plunges alternately. Howe was awakened every morning at 4:00 by an attendant who helped him up, and then poured cold water on him. After that, he was wrapped in hot towels, and left to sweat for an hour.

One of the more unusual medical theories was Grahamism. Like homeopathy, some aspects of it are still practiced today. Rev. Sylvester Graham was a Presbyterian minister who taught that the way to health was vegetarianism, whole wheat flour, and frequent bathing. It sounds reasonable, but Graham wanted people to be vegetarians because he thought meat inflamed passion. Graham feared that even dairy products would cause people to masturbate, and he taught that masturbation led to insanity. He invented the Graham cracker. Few people who eat them today consider the cracker an anti-masturbatory victual. Americans bathe more frequently than anyone else in the world, another legacy of Reverend Graham. Grahamism fell out of favor in the 1850’s, since Graham himself died relatively young. Vegetarianism, sexual abstinence and frequent baths didn’t guarantee him a long life, as he taught.

In the 1880’s, germs were discovered, almost independently in America, England, and France, with the invention of the microscope. It was much later when viruses were discovered. Antibiotics weren’t discovered till the late 1930’s, although the sulfa drugs became available after 1920. The early sulfa drugs had the side effect of turning people red.

With the discovery of germs, hygiene and sanitation became important to people. By 1900, doctors began wearing gloves before surgery. Ether was discovered, and this put people to sleep--- sometimes permanently. Eventually better anesthetics were developed. Sewers were becoming the norm even in small towns. London was the first Western city to get them, in the 1860’s. Before that, waste flowed down a trench in the middle of the street. Concepts like public health were developed, and this gradually became the task of the state.

Healthcare reform in America is not very progressive, and it’s hard to know what the fuss is over. The new system, when and if it takes effect, offers little cost containment, and isn’t as good as the worst European model. But it’s a start. Considering where we’ve come from in the last century and a half, it’s pretty good.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Republican Gomorrah

At the end of another newsy week, I wonder who will be able to repair their reputation first: Toyota, Ratzinger, or Massey Energy. Of one thing I am sure, none of these criminals will go to jail. If you or I were to murder workers, kill unsuspecting drivers, or abuse children, we’d be in the klink. If we were African American or Latino and did one of those things, we’d be on death row. But as someone once said, the opposite of rich isn’t poor, it’s justice. The rich rarely see too much justice.

Enough of that screed. Last week a friend lent me “Republican Gomorrah,” by Max Blumenthal. It was a great read. Blumenthal is a good writer, and his research is flawless. He documents the infiltration of the Republican party by the religious right. It’s chilling. Like Jane Mayer’s excellent “The Dark Side,” the subject matter is nauseating, but it’s so well-written you can’t put it down. It’s like seeing a car accident—you want to turn your head, but you can’t quite.

“Republican Gomorrah” is published by the Nation. Whether or not you agree with the Nation’s politics---I usually do—their writers and researchers are among the best. Blumenthal weaves primary sources, interviews, and social theory into a terrifying tale with implications for us all. He uses Erich Fromm’s “Escape From Freedom” to explain the behavior of authoritarian types. Fromm maintains that those attracted to fascism, in its many manifestations, display clear sadomasochistic tendencies. Through allegiance to a strong leader such people hope to find a “magic helper” because of their own “inability to stand alone and to fully express [their] own individual potentialities.” Often these sadomasochists have been abused as children.

One of the main villains of the books is James Dobson. Dobson advocates severe corporal punishment of children--- and dogs. Dobson is the creep with the soft sing-song voice I tend to confuse with Pat Robertson. The only way I know to tell them apart is that Dobson most often advocates violence, and has less of a southern twang. The not-very-Reverend Dobson once interviewed the serial killer, Ted Bundy. Bundy was a psychologist and assistant director of the Washington state Republican party, something rarely discussed. Dobson later did an interview with David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam Killer. That interview is still for sale on Dobson’s web site. While Dobson advocates the death penalty for most people, he wanted those two serial killers spared because of the born again experience they claimed to have. As Blumenthal notes, few things are more important to a serial killer than publicity, which Dobson gladly gave them. Yet when a female serial killer wouldn’t get born-again, Dobson wanted her fried. For Dobson, as for the religious right in general, saying the magic words about being born again is more important than deeds.

Blumenthal does a great job of detailing the many, many, sexual perverts, both gay and straight, in the Republican party. Typically, it’s the born-again who are into the kinkiest sex. But if they say the magic words, and “repent” all is forgiven. Talk about cheap grace. Blumenthal discusses the right’s strange love of W, and W’s peculiar pathology. Un-recovered addicts and alcoholics are drawn to born again right wing religion. Robert Minor, a U of Kansas scholar of the subject, notes, “The convert maintains the same addictive thinking as before…There’s a similar level of intensity in their dependence upon religion as in their dependence upon the previous addiction.”

“Republican Gomorrah” was published in 2009, and ends, fittingly, with Palin. Palin is a “third Wave Pentecostal,” something I don’t understand. According to Blumenthal, this cult maintains that Eve had sex with the serpent, and that’s how Cain was born. Whatever. Blumenthal couldn’t foresee Palin quitting her job and becoming a media whore. He certainly saw the hateful rhetoric she bandied carelessly about. I understand people who don’t like to discuss her or the drug addled gas bag or crazy Glen. But in all 20th century genocide, hate talk on the radio and television has condoned violence and cruelty. As Daniel Goldhagen notes, whether it’s in Rwanda, Guatemala, Bosnia or Nazi Germany, hate talk in the media has been with the murderers every step of the way. That’s something we all need to be aware of. Blumenthal has done the patriotic thing by documenting the rise of the religious right in the Republican party. America, be very careful.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Should We Waterboard All Christians?

Yesterday I got an e-mail FW from a Republican friend of mine. Yes, I do have Republican friends. I even have a few Republican relatives. Normally they know better than to send me their political schlock, but the flesh is weak, and it’s sometimes tempting to do what is unwise. The only way I know to maintain cordial relations with Republicans is to never, ever, discuss politics. It doesn’t end well. But he was weak, and in a moment of weakness, I bothered to reply. Oh, it was the same nonsense we’ve been hearing, nothing new. Obama is taking away our rights, he hates Christians, etc. For eight years I was angry at my government, it is comforting to see the shoe on the other foot. The right wing is having conniptions. Obama is clever: even though he is Kenyan, he managed to place a birth announcement in the Honolulu newspaper. That was good planning. And he’s a sly one: all those years he went to a Christian church, even though he was secretly Muslim. Oh, he’s a cagey one, that Barack HUSSEIN Obama. Reverend Wright was a Muslim imam.

At this sacred time of year, I have a few thoughts on Christianity. I’m not referring to Easter or Passover, the first of April is a holy day in my book, and so, considering Christians are in the news, I have an idea. What with the Hutaree Christian militia, and the crimes of the Vatican, I think the time has come to employ the wisdom of the Bush administration. In Bushworld, if there are a few extremists, it means the whole lot is guilty. A few nutty Muslims attacked the World Trade Center, so we invaded two Muslim countries, one of which had nothing to do with the hijackers. It’s time for us to waterboard all Christians. What with the pedophiles and the militia, all Christians are guilty, and I’m sure they are conspiring. John Yoo told us that water torture isn’t torture, so there’s no problem with waterboarding people. Never mind that our government prosecuted Japanese soldiers who used water torture on us. When we do it, it’s OK. And didn’t Rummy say waterboarding was just a little dunking? Christians already baptize, is water torture so very different? Maybe we can use the baptismal fonts in churches and convert them to waterboarding facilities.

I confess, I have ties with the Presbyterian church, even though it’s a love/hate relationship. I will have to stop tithing, since churches are terrorist organizations, right? I prefer not to be waterboarded, but anything for my country. Probably, like a lot of people, I will end up confessing to all kinds of things, especially if I am waterboarded 150 times. I am no doubt guilty. The important thing to remember is that the Hutarees and Bishop Ratzinger aren’t just a few bad apples. If one is guilty, then all are. It’s the prime principle of Bush world. And at a time like this, we need W’s wisdom. Bishop Ratzinger has a lot to answer for, in my humble opinion. Maybe it’s not a good idea to keep promoting someone who was a member of a Hitler youth group. When our soldiers invade the Vatican, there may be some looting. There was when we invaded Iraq. But when the Iraq national museum was vandalized, and the history of Western civilization and the earliest forms of writing were lost, Rumsfeld said that when people are free, they sometimes do bad things. That Rummy. Such a way with words. Like when he told the soldier you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.

I hope no one thinks this is an extreme reaction, to hold all Christians guilty for the crimes of a few. Rove told us that we are no longer living in the reality based world. If my suggestion to waterboard all Christians seems surreal, well, just go with the flow---- so to say. The Hutaree are dangerous, and that can only mean that all Christians are dangerous. There are criminal priests, so all clergy are criminal, right? As Rude Pundit suggests, if the child abuse scandal had occurred in the Muslim community, we would invade every single Muslim country and burn all the mosques in America.

There’s a poetic circularity in taking waterboarding back to the Vatican. They are the ones who perfected water torture for the Inquisition. Bush taught us that we don’t need trials: thankfully he dispensed with Habeas Corpus. Round’em up now, charge and try ‘em later. It’s a good thing we didn’t close Guantanamo. It won’t be large enough to hold all the guilty Christians, but we have a lot of prisons here. Maybe we can convert some of the tax payer funded ball parks to detention camps.

I deplore sarcasm and humor of any kind. I hope no one thinks I'm writing this in jest. This will be a good time for me to return to my Jewish roots. We know that Jews have never committed any crimes, and anyway, they’ve been punished enough.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Water Wars

If you love the beauty of the desert, you’ll enjoy reading books written by Craig Childs. Childs is a natural history writer and hiker. Recently I re-read the “Secret Knowledge of Water.” Childs has always lived in the desert, and has a unique understanding. His books aren’t academic, they’re poetic. The subtitle of “Secret Knowledge” is, “There are two Easy Ways to Die in the Desert: Thirst and Drowning.” Childs discusses this paradox throughout the book. The first section of the book discusses his expeditions in the state and national parks of Arizona. He is charged with finding natural water sources for the wild sheep, verifying that they don’t need human intervention. (They don’t.) Animals have a knack for finding water in the driest places, and Childs often discovers artifacts from native peoples in the water formations that act as natural cisterns for the rainwater. These natural cisterns are called tanks or tinajas. Tinajas are most often cone shaped, and can hold gallons of water in the driest places. Immigrants and hikers often perish in these unforgiving lands, but older peoples knew of the existence of these tinajas. The human artifacts are indecipherable, but clearly the same spots have been used for centuries. Childs describes the difference between a spring and a drip: to be labeled a spring, a source must produce a litre of water per minute. Drips, more common than springs in the desert, produce far less, and are sometimes just a trickle. Desperate hikers look for water in desert valleys, but it isn’t there. To find water, you have to look in the mountains, where water can often be found.

Just as dangerous as lack of water, too much water can kill. Flash floods claim as many lives as dehydration. Sudden summer thunder storm, incorrectly called monsoons, drown hikers in arroyos. These sudden storms are called “chubascos.” They account for much of the desert’s annual rainfall, and target certain spots unpredictably. Again, native peoples have a healthy respect and fear of water; Tohono O’odham Indians sing a lullaby which advises children “Do not drink too much water.” If you see dark clouds in the desert, again, your best and safest bet is to seek elevation. Rainwater can collect fast and furiously in arroyos and ditches, and often hikers are drowned in a matter of seconds.

California, like the rest of the Southwest, is in the middle of a ten year drought. In the early 1990’s, San Diego politicians and leaders called for mandatory water conservation. Many of us remember the days of “if it’s yellow it’s mellow….” You know the rest. Unwisely, this rationing was lifted when there was a very wet El nino winter. The bottom line is, San Diego is in the desert. This isn’t the Midwest. There isn’t enough water, period. San Diego, especially, is at the tail end of water pipelines. We are experiencing extreme rate hikes for water use, but there has been no wise plan proposed by city leaders. That’s short sighted. Phoenix and Las Vegas have water rationing, and residents no longer plant grass lawns there. Ironically, both Phoenix and Las Vegas have access to more water than San Diego, yet no one will have the leadership here to outlaw grass lawns.

If you want to know why government doesn’t work, try living in a condo homeowner’s association. My building is the very last one in the neighborhood to have a grass lawn. When last year’s board proposed desert landscaping, xeriscaping, we had a little contingency of Midwesterners throw a tantrum. Most Midwesterners are good, sensible, people. I’m from the Midwest. But we have a certain sociopath here from Kansas City who got himself elected HOA board president, on the issue of keeping the grass. Strangely, all the lawn happens to be in front of said new president’s unit. The rest of us don’t have access to it, but we are all paying higher dues so his grass can remain nice and green.

Future historians will debate the wisdom of irrigation in California. We are a breadbasket for the country, and our fruits and vegetables are delicious. Nonetheless, the irrigation needed for agriculture in the state is not sustainable. Still there are places like San Diego that allow large grass lawns, while farmers are closing their farms due to lack of water. Water rationing is coming, and politicians will have their hands full of people like the HOA board president here. I would like to have water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and washing clothes. There probably is not enough water long term for those necessary activities, as climate change contributes to the drought.

In the past, wars were fought for salt. Salt, necessary for life, and a preservative for food before refrigeration, was considered sacred. The words “salvation” and “save” come from the Latin “sal” for salt, and the importance of salt can be found in words like salary, salad, sausage, sauce. Today, salt is easily mined, and wars are fought for oil. Scientists and theoreticians foresee a time when wars will be fought for water. In some places, that is already happening. The melting of glaciers in the Himalayas has repercussions for densely populated India and China right now. Our time is coming. It may be too late for California now.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Age of Unreason

Susan Jacoby’s “Age of American Unreason,” and Charles Pierce’s “Idiot America” ask fundamental questions about our country, and the disastrous course the nation is on. Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas” was one of the first books to analyze the power of the right wing in America. Frank notes that Republicans successfully used the wedge issue of abortion to inflame otherwise normal people, and make them work against their own economic interest. Pierce traces the history of American “cranks,” and the book’s subtitle says it all: “How stupidity became a virtue in the land of the free.”

Jacoby takes a sweeping historical perspective. She notes that though this country was founded by Enlightenment intellectuals, today “intellectual” is a dirty word. She observes that right wing intellectuals, those neo-liberals or neocons working in think tanks like Cato, Heritage, or AEI, paint themselves as average people. Neocon intellectuals hide in their right wing ivory towers, and label the left “elite” intellectuals. They use the word ‘intellectual” interchangeably with “liberal,” another demonized term. How is that George Bush, a child of privilege and wealth, who went to Ivy League schools, posed as an ordinary Joe people wanted to have a beer with? It’s unbelievable.

Jacoby faults the American system of education with the proud stupidity of its people. When the framers were creating our government, they ceded public education to local, state control. European countries have national education standards, and no European country scores as poorly in math, science, or history as America does. Americans balk at the notion of national standards, but nationalized education should be considered. Students in economically underprivileged neighborhoods don’t do well on standardized tests; usually their school budgets are limited. Local control hasn’t served the country well. With national standards and funding, students in economically challenged areas could do as well as their middle-class counterparts. This is easier said than done. Local control is the sacred cow of the right. Religious fundamentalists have chosen local school boards as the launch pad for their political careers.

Frank, Pierce and Jacoby all fault American religion for instilling ignorance in its adherents. America is the most religious of all the developed countries. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; but considering the harm that fundamentalism has done to our politics, it must be examined. Social issues like abortion and homosexuality brought disparate groups together: right wing Catholics joined forces with Protestant fundamentalists and Mormons. It is shocking that a majority of Americans believe creationism should be taught in school, and that so many profess belief in the literal truth of selected Bible verses. Those who claim to believe all of the Bible literally don’t: none are advocating stoning of adulterers or disobedient children. Literal interpretation only covers creation and condemnation of homosexuals. It doesn’t apply to divorce, which Jesus strongly condemns.

Religious extremism has not served the country well. A better education in civics might help the majority understand that we are not a Christian nation, that the founders wanted a wall between church and state. Currently, six of the nine supreme courts justices are Roman Catholic: five of the justices adhere to an extreme form of the faith. While Americans are religious, the majority of citizens are not ardent Catholics. The court should reflect national consensus: this court does not. Americans must have the courage to challenge religious extremism in all forms. We are quick to label Muslims terrorists: we must apply the same standard to our own fundamentalists. American fundamentalism can condone, even encourage violence. Consider McVeigh or Dr. Tiller’s murderer.

Spirituality is personal and individual. Those who have been accosted by proselytizers know how hurtful the experience can be. Evangelizers believe they are following Jesus’ commission to “make believers of all nations.” Attempts to change others’ beliefs must be discarded in today’s world. Missionaries no doubt believe they are doing the right thing, and are surprised to find their efforts appear arrogant and supercilious. Better secular education might discourage parochialism, as would emphasis on foreign language and travel. Jimmy Carter established the “Friendship Force,” a low-cost form of travel and exchange that encouraged Americans to visit other countries. It is too bad the program did not continue after his presidency.

Jacoby, Pierce and Frank don’t give reasons for optimism. They have done the first step, though, identifying the problem and its causes. A majority of Americans still believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. It is not just intellectuals who sense that something has gone wrong. After eight disastrous years of the Bush administration, it is hard to hope that a new president can turn things around. It cannot be done quickly. Some, notably Noam Chomsky, believe that the country’s misdirection is nothing new. Our bloated military budget, and the entrenched power of weapons manufacturers (so-called “defense” contractors) are discouraging. If change is to occur, real, lasting change, we must all work hard. This includes discussion of our educational system, and how to temper the political advances of religious extremists.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Free Love for Valentine's Day

In 1878, my great-great-great grandfather, Eber Howe, wrote his autobiography, including his recollections of the War of 1812. He explained his thirteen point credo, which is similar to that of Andrew Jackson Davis. In this statement, he expresses belief in God, spiritualism, and his rejection of orthodox Christianity. Point number eleven is: “I do not believe in free love.” Who knew that free love was being discussed in the nineteenth century? I didn’t.

Free love in the nineteenth century was different than the free love movement of the 1960’s. It was part of a progressive agenda, and a controversial offshoot of women’s suffrage. The nineteenth century free love movement reflected a belief in individual sovereignty, and eschewed “external moral systems like organized religion and social convention,” according to an historian in the article “Feminism and Free Love.” Advocates of free love worked to overturn laws prohibiting divorce and contraception. Free love communities arose in New York and Ohio, the most famous being the one in Oneida, New York. When men advocated free love the emphasis was on sexual enjoyment and serial monogamy. When women advocated free love, their concerns were property rights, childbirth, and forced sexual relations within and without of marriage.

The most famous female free love proponents were Mary Nichols and Victoria Woodhull. The two were accused of advocating promiscuity, which they did not. Victoria Woodhull ran for president of the U.S. on the free love platform. Nichols and Woodhull, along with other women, sought to change divorce laws, women’s property laws, and promoted voluntary motherhood (free love proponent Margaret Sanger changed this term to “birth control”). Until 1848, divorce was virtually illegal, and married women had to turn all property over to their husbands. By 1850, men and women were marrying less, and the birth rate lowered. Free love philosophers were discussing ideas that were very much in the air at the time. Birth control was of concern for both men and women: some advocated withdrawal, sexual interruption, over condoms or sponges.

Politicians became concerned about free love, and in 1873 Congress passed the restrictive Comstock Law. This legislation limited discussion of birth control and sexual matters in print and speech, the way the later Hayes code prohibited elaboration on these topics in film. Woodhull became a victim of the Comstock Law. She accused the clergyman Henry Ward Beecher of hypocrisy for criticizing her free love beliefs as immoral, while Beecher was discovered to be carrying on an adulterous affair. Society was unkind to both Woodhull and Nichols. Both women eventually married, and renounced their earlier convictions.

Free love didn’t die. By the 1930’s, divorce laws were changed, property rights for women modified, and Margaret Sanger successfully sued to have enforcement of the Comstock Law abolished. By the mid 1990’s, twenty-five per cent of men age forty had never married. It is jokingly suggested that the only people who want to marry these days are gays and priests. My ancestor, Eber Howe, was liberal and progressive in so many areas. I wonder why he opposed free love, since the Victorian version seems a matter of common sense. Only extremists today oppose birth control, and even hard core conservatives rack up divorces. How many failed marriages do Rush and Newt have combined?

I'm personally ambivalent about marriage. For me, it's something that belongs to someone else, to people who are young, attractive, idealistic. I have never sought it. Maybe if I lived in a liberal state like Iowa marriage might interest me, but not here in conservative California. Those who want marriage should be able to marry. Friendship is an incredible thing, and it’s more than enough for me. Eber Howe’s final personal philosophy, statement thirteen, is “I do not promise to believe tomorrow exactly what I believe today.” Ditto for me.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Gays and the Military

Seventeen years after its implementation, the government is reconsidering the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Colin Powell has changed his mind. As a liberal and pacifist, I am of two minds. Discrimination is always wrong. If gays and lesbians want to be in the military, they should have the right. As a pacifist, I worry about anyone being in the military. The United States spends more on the military than every other country in the world combined. You must never call America an “empire:” that’s a word that can’t be spoken. Instead, we are a “superpower.” Frankly, it doesn’t sound any better. As our economy collapses, many people have no choice but to become soldiers. It’s easy to think that our employment policies are geared to keeping people poor and uneducated, thus creating cannon fodder. So why shouldn’t gays and lesbians be as free as others to join the military-industrial complex, and be part of the imperial corporations who want to steal oil in the Middle East?

Gay marriage brings up a similar dilemma. I’m not sure what I think of a religious institution that has been used for centuries to ensure that women and children are the property of men. Cynically, comedians say that gays and lesbians should be free to become as miserable as heterosexuals. Civil rights are a matter of common decency, but it seems to me that questions about marriage and the military must still be asked. Maybe the government should be out of the marriage business, and domestic partnerships could be offered to anyone who wants them.

Last summer, Howard Zinn wrote an article for “The Progressive,” in which he challenged the idea of just war. Google it--- it’s worth reading. He discusses our most “justifiable” wars, the Revolutionary, the Civil, and WWII. As Zinn observes, other colonies broke away from England without a shot being fired. Most countries abolished slavery without bloodshed. World War II is a bit trickier; Zinn became a pacifist after being a soldier in that conflict. My great-great-great grandfather, Eber Howe, the Abolitionist journalist, became a pacifist after serving in the War of 1812.

We live in a country in which gays and lesbians suffer discrimination. In thirty-three states, you can be fired from a job for being gay. This congress barely passed a hate crimes bill for gays. ENDA is stalled. But then, we have not even passed an Equal Rights Amendment for women. We need a discussion about civil rights for everyone, gays and lesbians, people of color, women, the disabled. It’s too bad that the discussion of gay rights has to be tied to the military, as this prevents real discussion about the military industry.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Words Matter

In “The Wordy Shipmates,” Sarah Vowell writes about the beautiful words of the Puritans who founded Boston. It was John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts who compared America to a “city on a hill.” The idealistic and lovely words of the Puritans were at odds with many of their actions. Winthrop proposed a society based on biblical principles, where each person would take care of the other, a religious welfare state. (As Vowell points out, if you want to see such a society, go to Canada.) Winthrop, the eloquent preacher, punished a man who spoke against religion by cutting off his ears. Winthrop banished Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and condoned the massacre of seven hundred Pequot Indians, including women and children. His talk was pretty, though.

Words do matter. I recently attended a large Protestant church in the area with a friend of mine. During the sermon, the pastor gave an illustration that involved Jewish refugees. His comment was not anti-Semitic--- if it had been, I would have left the service—but it was insensitive. This pastor believed that Christianity was superior to Judaism, a chauvinism I do not share. I would have a hard time going back to that church, even though the music is excellent. I don’t believe that one religion is better than another, or that one country is the greatest country on earth. That is tribal prejudice.

The same week, the owner/manager of a charity where I had been volunteering yelled at me like I was an incompetent three year old. Now, I was a volunteer there. I had been for almost a year, and she had never thanked me. She yelled at me. I haven’t been back. I don’t like to be the kind of hypersensitive guy that bristles every time someone looks cross-wise at me. But words matter.

It’s been a week of disappointment for liberal and patriots. A Republican took Ted Kennedy’s seat in the senate. The Supreme Court decided that corporations should have the free speech right to contribute unlimited amounts to political candidates. It’s easy to believe there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats. At least Dems say the right words, even when they don’t deliver. Words matter.

I’m a descendant of Puritans. My ancestor, Exercise Conant (there’s a catchy name!) came to America in 1623 on the ship Anne. He and his brother, Lot, built the first house in Salem. By the time of the War of 1812, my forebears had discarded their religion. But, like most Americans, I nonetheless share the Puritan legacy. Sarah Vowell writes of Reagan’s interpretation of John Winthrop’s speech. Reagan changed the words slightly, and spoke of the “shining city on a hill.” Reagan said some lovely words, but his actions were perverse. Reagan slashed the budget of H.U.D. (Housing and Urban Development) from $32 billion in 1981 down to $7.5 billion in 1988. It was during Reagan’s presidency that we began to have the epidemic of homelessness. Reagan had the gall to say, in 1984, that people were “homeless, you might say, by choice.” No. They were homeless because Reagan slashed H.U.D. funding.

Actions matter. Eliminating school lunch programs, increasing Pentagon spending, slashing social services--- those are inexcusable actions. Saying that the homeless live on the streets by choice is both stupid and cruel. Words matter. Calling America a “city on a hill,” a light to the nations, when you slaughter Indians and import African slaves is a sham. In her autobiography for her children, medieval Jewish mystic Gluckel of Hameln wrote, “God forbid that you should give out to people that you are one thing, but in your heart you are another.” Hypocrisy is when our words don’t match our actions. God knows I’ve said and done my share of stupid and cruel things, and for that, I am sorry. Words matter, and actions matter. When a country or institution lies, or is hypocritical, it’s sad. Calling America the “city on a hill” or “shining city on a hill” is problematic when that country tortures, ignores the Magna Carta and Constitution, and engages in unlimited war. It’s odd to claim superiority for one religion when that same religion has a bloody history.

We’ve got to pay attention to our words, and make sure they match our actions. God forbid we give out to people we are one thing, when in our heart we are another. Saying pretty words doesn’t undo the crimes of history. If our words are lies, maybe we should just keep our mouths closed for a few decades till we can get out house in order.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Christmas, Hannukah, and Football

ABC News reported that Rick Warren’s church was short on funds. Sadly, someone came to his rescue, and his little church has more money to bash gays and spread hatred with. James Dobson’s Locusts on the Family is spending millions on anti-abortion ads for the Superbowl. If their enterprises had folded during these times of economic stress, maybe some good might have come from the hard times. Warren and Dobson are turds in the punchbowl of American religion.

We made it through the holiday season. It’s a time of year when religion is in the forefront, from O’Reilly’s war on Christmas to the right wing chant of keeping Christ in Christmas. For those of us from mixed religious backgrounds, it can be difficult. For some Jewish friends, it’s a time of alienation. Although half of my background is Jewish, we never did much for Hannukah, and my Jewish relatives celebrated Christmas with gusto. Sure, we had ladkes, but we didn’t light candles. My relatives were from a different era of American Judaism, and sought to blend in with their Christian neighbors. Intermarriage is the ultimate step in religious syncretism.

It’s tempting for me to fall back into a “Cher” half-breed perspective. Sometimes it feels like “both sides are against me since the day I was born.” I’m neither fish nor fowl, and never at home with fanatics of either faith. Cher analogies are melodramatic, though: I prefer football metaphors.

During football season, my family is split between Cowboy supporters and Greenbay fans. Cowboys vs. Packers. Football rivalry can be both playful and vicious. In my own life, I’ve gone back and forth between rooting for both teams. They’re great teams. I don’t want to choose. When they play each other, it’s confusing. I have a cousin in pro football. (If you know what I look like it sounds funny, I’m a shrimp.) C.J. is a cousin by marriage, who started his career with the Cowboys, and now is with the Packers. I wonder who he’s really for, deep down inside. Does it matter to him? Does he have divided loyalties? C.J. is Swedish, and looks like a stereotypical Viking. He’s blond and huge. My great-great grandmother was born and raised in Sweden, and left in 1880. Some of her relatives stayed behind. She was an illegal immigrant, and never learned to speak English. She planned on returning to Sweden in her old age, but by 1930, Hitler’s regime was on the rise, and her relatives warned her to stay in America.

The Packers and the Cowboys both have good players. The two teams are a lot alike. So are Christianity and Judaism, and I wonder why people don’t see how similar they are. Jesus was a Jew. His teachings were in the Pharisaic, rabbinic tradition, like those of Hillel or John the Baptizer. Jesus wasn’t as urbane as Philo of Alexandria, and his teachings seem rural, homely. If not for the fall of Jerusalem, Christianity might have continued as a sect of Judaism. Sadly, Judaism and Christianity had a nasty divorce in the 2nd century, and have nurtured hard feelings ever since.

I’m not trying to trivialize either faith. I’m not trying to trivialize football. Maybe some people are genetically hard-wired to root for one team more than another. Maybe it’s part of our tribal heritage to think one group, our team, is better than another. I have mixed loyalties, and I refuse to take sides. The Cowboys and the Packers are both great. Judaism and Christianity are both good traditions--- so are Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.

Football fans might notice an inherent violence in the game: religious observers could draw the same conclusions about religion. I’ve written before about the inherent violence of the Abrahamic religions, which might be due to the legacy of human sacrifice in the Near East. Religion is good, but it has a dark side. Maybe being an outsider, I can critique both religions. Neither completely Jewish or wholly Christian, I’m a foreigner to both. That’s not a bad thing. It can be a gift. As Edward Said wrote, it’s important to “investigate in spite of barriers, and always move away from the centralizing authorities towards the margins, where you see things that are usually lost on minds that have never travelled beyond the conventional and comfortable.” Sexual minorities, the disabled, expatriates, all of us have an opportunity to move away from the “centralizing authorities,” and see new things. So, go ahead, root for the Christians or the Jews, the Cowboys or the Packers. But take a moment to see both “teams” from an outsider’s perspective.