Friday, December 2, 2011

The Populist Party and Occupy Wall Street

Conservative ideologues pine for the halcyon days of the gold standard. Historically, the gold standard was a disaster, especially for farmers. It was responsible for the volatility of the 19th century American economy. This volatility, combined with drought and the growing inequity between rich and poor, resulted in the creation of the Populist Party. In addition, a prolonged depression rocked the first years of the 1890's.

The Populists were arguably the most numerous and successful third party in American history. In 1892, Populist Party presidential candidate General James Weaver received well over a million votes, and by 1894 the party had six senators and seven representatives. In addition, many Western states, including Nebraska, Kansas and Wyoming had either Populist governors or Populist control of state houses. Populists had a decade-long presence, with members in the 53rd to 57th Congress.

The Populist Party was officially constituted in 1891 by the merger of the Knights of Labor, Farmer’s Alliances, and some Grange members. Populists were agrarian, their power confined largely to the South and West. They were frequently ridiculed by citizens of the northeast coast, decried as hayseeds and rubes by the urban press.

Populists called for the end of the gold standard; graduated income tax, and nationalization of railroads, telegraphs and telephone. The party platform of the Omaha Convention of 1892, available online, seems modern, almost prefiguring demands of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The preamble of the Populist Party decries a government where “Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and even touches the ermine of the bench.” From “the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes--- tramps and millionaires.” But just as government has caused the current crisis, it can be reformed: “We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people--- should be expanded… to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”

The two party system failed: “the struggles of the two great political parties [are] for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people…. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform…. They propose to… destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires.” Little has changed in the past century.

The official platform ends with the “Expressions of Sentiments,” including solidarity with striking workers. It calls for a “rigid enforcement of the existing eight-hour law.” The 9th resolution could have been written today: “we oppose any subsidy or national aid to any private corporation for any purpose.”

The party benefited from the skill of gifted orators. One of the most famous was Mary Lease. She observed, “We are confronted with glutted markets and idle labor. It is a condition that makes it possible for a few men to become landlords of a proud city like this [New York] while God’s poor are packed into slums…. Once we made it our boast that this nation was not founded upon any class distinction…. Here in this country we find in place of an aristocracy of royalty and aristocracy of wealth” (speech given at Cooper Union Hall, August 12, 1896).

The complaint of a detractor, Henry Demarest Lloyd, in the September 1896 Review of Reviews, is noteworthy in the light of OWS demonstrations: “Everyone commented on the number of gray heads--- heads many of them grown white in previous independent party movements. The delegates [of the Populist Party convention] were poor men. It was one day discovered that certain members of one of the most important delegations were actually suffering for food. They had no regular sleeping place.”

Historians have debated the legacy of the Populist Party. It is impossible to dismiss its impact: most of its demands were adopted. The gold standard was abolished, a graduated income tax was put into place, and statewide initiatives and referendums became legal. The Progressive movement incorporated most of the Populist Party platform, though Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt ridiculed the Populists. While the Populists were rural, the Progressives were urban, and enjoyed more favorable press.

By 1908, the Populists became allied with the forces of Nativism, xenophobia, and the Klan. The 4th resolution of the platform demanded “the further restriction of undesirable immigration.” Then, as now, big business brought in immigrants as cheap labor; people despised the immigrants rather than those who exploited them. Populists, allied with others, succeeded in passing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, renewed in 1892 and 1905. This law forbade most Asians from becoming U.S. citizens or even owning land, and wasn’t repealed till 1943. The 1924 Immigration Act, as well as the Galveston Laws of 1900, effectively kept Jews from immigrating.

A rural phenomenon, the evangelical vernacular of the Populists is striking. Populist speakers and writers seemed oblivious to any separation of church and state. Mary Lease excoriates corporate capitalism as “a travesty upon the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Lease had severed ties with organized religion by the time of this 1896 speech. William Jennings Bryan was perhaps the most famous Populist, and the candidate of both Populists and Democrats in the 1896 election. Today Bryan is remembered not as a radical but as the sentimental lawyer who defended the teaching of creationism in the 1925 Scopes trial.

After the precipitous decline of the party in 1908, many adherents joined the Progressives, others became Socialist. Others joined the Prohibition Party, the Anti-Saloon League, or the Klan. Thomas Frank, in What’s the Matter with Kansas, brilliantly explains how wedge issues derailed the once liberal politics of the Midwest. While Populists may be ancestors of today’s Occupy Wall Street, they no doubt spawned another, less savory movement. The xenophobia and religiosity of the Populists are visible in the Tea Party.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Thoughts on Occupy San Diego

My first contact with Occupy San Diego was on Yom Kippur. A liberal Jewish congregation holds Kol Nidre services downtown at the Civic Auditorium. Civic Auditorium plaza is also where Occupy San Diego meets. OSD didn’t realize that it was the holy days, and the rabbi met with the organizers, who were thoughtful and accommodating. That particular evening, OSD agreed to meet a block away. There were 2,000 Jews headed downtown, and the Civic plaza isn’t large enough to accommodate both groups. OSD even asked the senior rabbi to convey apologies for their insensitivity. He was very impressed with the group, and spoke well of them during the service.

This simple act of kindness of OSD speaks volumes. I’ve been following OSD on Twitter, and recently had the opportunity to go down and see the group. I was struck by several things: the crowd is young and diverse. There was a sea of rainbow faces that reflects the wonderful ethnic diversity of California. OSD has made common cause with the homeless, and feeds about 100 homeless people daily. I couldn’t find any specific OSD press release or statement; the group appears to stand in agreement with Occupy Wall Street, and there were copies of OWS’s declaration of demands and principles of solidarity.

Visiting the plaza, I noticed the overwhelming presence of law enforcement. The occupiers are a peaceful lot, committed to nonviolence. There were no displays of armed citizens familiar from teabagger days. I estimate that there was one policeman for every 4-5 protesters. Is the intent of law enforcement to intimidate and discourage the curious?

It’s hard to know what the future and impact of groups like Occupy San Diego will be. Allying with the homeless and impoverished seems natural. Chris Hedges writes “The best opportunities for radical social change exist among the poor, the homeless, the working class and the destitute. As the numbers of disenfranchised dramatically increase, our only hope is to connect ourselves with the daily injustices visited upon the weak and the outcast. Out of this contact we can resurrect… a social ethic, a new movement” (Death of the Liberal Class).

I admit to being hopelessly bourgeois. Chances are, you won’t find me in a sleeping bag downtown. I may not always march with the group, even though I’m in sympathy with the cause. Each of us has to find a way to contribute. I’m heartened to see the mantle of change and progress taken up by the young: the future belongs to them. We old white guys have had our chance to muck things up, and it’s time to learn from our youth. Let’s hope Occupy San Diego and the many similar groups around the country can usher in the real hope and change this country so desperately needs.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The New Anti-Semitism

I was 17 years old before I realized that people didn’t like Jews. I’d read books of course, and had history classes. I’d learned, intellectually, about anti-Semitism. I knew about racism in America from programs like “All in the Family;” but I never personally experienced anti-Semitism till I visited Europe. In Paris, I was called “sale youpin,” or “dirty kike” for wearing a star of David as I traveled. In Spain, too, I heard nasty comments about Jews. I continued to visit France throughout the 1980’s when the synagogue in Paris was bombed, and LePen was becoming a political superstar.

Historically, France has been a hotbed of anti-Jewish sentiment. “Scientific” anti-Semitism, which so influenced Hitler and racists worldwide, originated in France with de Gobineau. Jews, he “proved,” were genetically inferior. The French national anthem, like the original German one, is rife with xenophobia. The last line of the Marseillaise cautions against letting “impure blood” dilute the veins of France. Unlike Germany, which has come to terms with its anti-Semitic past, France still has work to do. I recommend seeing “Sarah’s Key” (Elle s’appelait Sarah) for a fictional but well-researched consideration of the topic.

It’s easy to point fingers at the racism of other countries. Our own nation was built on the twin crimes of genocide against native people and enslavement of Africans. America has a significant population of Jews, and anti-Semitism hasn’t had a strong footing here, except among fascist sympathizers like Lindbergh and Ford.

But anti-Semitism here and abroad never seems to run its course: it re-invents itself. Throughout the West, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab feeling is on the ascendancy.
We are at war with God knows how many Muslim countries from Afghanistan to Libya. September 11 was a great pretext for anti-Semitic sentiment directed at Arabs. Never mind that Christian extremists are a far greater threat domestically than Muslims. Muslims are just “different,” we are constantly told--- some of the people who tell us this are Jewish. It’s sad and sick, a family feud. The Christian terrorist in Norway cited American anti-Semites in his tiresome manifesto. One of these writers was Jewish.

In Europe, as well as America, the right and left can agree on one thing: Muslims are just “different.” They are extreme, they are medieval, they refuse to assimilate.
Anti-Semitism is an insidious racism with an almost 2,000 year history in the West. When Christianity became Rome’s official religion, those who wouldn’t convert were ostracized or executed. The exception was the Jews, who were kept around as an object lesson for the unrepentant. Jews served as convenient scapegoats for everything from missing children to the plague. Then there were the Crusades, and Westerners got to direct their racism at another group of Semites.

One of the most insightful explanations of anti-Semitism I’ve come across is from Jonathan Schell, who wrote an article on the topic for the Nation. “Conspiracy theories are appealing not despite their nonfactuality but precisely because of it. When the longing for illusion--- a hardy perennial in political life--- arises, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which almost flaunt their defiance of the actual world, are ready and waiting to satisfy the need. Casting off factuality is then not a burden but a release from a burden--- a palpable liberation from the ever-difficult, ever-frustrating efforts of seeing things as they are.”

Well said, Mr. Schell. When things go wrong, blame a Jew--- and if that is too uncomfortable or inconvenient, blame a Muslim. Without them, we’d have to look at ourselves.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Presbyterians and Ordination of Gays and Lesbians

This month, July 2011, the Presbyterian Church PC(USA) took another step in its 30 year debate on gay ordination. (The Presbyterian church is America’s incarnation of the Church of Scotland, with Calvinist theology and low-church order of worship.) The denomination reversed its earlier decision, and will permit regional bodies and local churches to choose if they want to ordain gays and lesbians. PC(USA), the largest Presbyterian body in the country, formed in 1980, when the northern and southern churches joined. They separated during the Civil War. The southern church was perceived to be more conservative than the northern body, and gays were sacrificed on the altar of expediency. Prior to 1980, individual churches chose to ordain whoever they wanted. After the merger, gays were excluded from ordination. This month’s decision simply reverts to the earlier position.

My father was a Presbyterian minister; like my mother, he had a Jewish parent. He was a gentle, loving man; when I was young, I thought I’d follow in his footsteps. After my undergraduate degree, I applied to a Presbyterian seminary. Because I am half-Jewish, I had no genetic link to the denomination; my family isn’t Scottish. I was raised in a traditional home, which wasn’t necessarily conservative, and certainly wasn’t doctrinaire. I never believed that one religion was any better than another. I liked the Presbyterian church, because during my childhood, it was a fairly progressive body. The northern denomination to which I belonged channeled a small sum of money for Angela Davis’s defense fund.

I wasn’t accepted into seminary. I believe one of my references “outed” me. At the time, I was sad and angry. It seemed unfair. I’m not unique in this experience: dozens of worthy people have been denied entrance to seminary or denied ordination because of the denomination’s policy.

From my middle-aged perspective, I am grateful that I was not accepted. I left the denomination; and, while I was often in a spiritual wilderness, I was also free. I was liberated from organized religion, and able to explore alternative spirituality. I was able to study my Jewish heritage, and read about Eastern religion. If I’d gone to seminary, I would have become a different man. There’s a stanza of an old hymn that says “trials that seemed the most distressing, in the end have proved a blessing.” I give my personal thanks to the church that wouldn’t have me. It set me free.

Being outside the church, I was given the opportunity to grow in a way I never could have inside organized religion. I learned more outside the church than I could have inside. Being an outsider, for whatever reason, isn’t bad. Edward Said wrote: “Even if one is not an actual … 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 traveled beyond the conventional and comfortable.”

I don’t know what the future will hold for anyone, much less the Presbyterian Church. This new-found tolerance could be reversed by the steady stream of disaffected Baptists entering the denomination. Discrimination has hurt many people; the church has wasted 30 years debating a silly policy, and has neglected larger issues: economic injustice, healthcare, hunger. During that time, the denomination, like most, has steadily declined in membership. The Presbyterians are too liberal for the hardliners, and not liberal enough for the progressives. Decisions about gay ordination haven’t changed this fundamental tension.

I respect anyone’s choice to join a church or to leave one. I am sorry for the hurt that has been caused on both sides of this debate. As a gay man, it is difficult not to personalize homophobic attacks. People who want gays out of the church are ignorant, and, sadly, in some cases willfully so. Using the Bible to justify prejudice is problematic; check out for proof. As in the case for gay marriage, gay ordination should be possible for anyone who wants it.

For me personally, I had to leave the church to find God. I’m grateful for the Presbyterians’ discrimination. My view of God is far less parochial than it would have been otherwise. Someone said “they drew a box that kept me out, but love drew a circle that took them in.” I couldn’t say it better.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

God Beyond the Book

How can anyone of average intelligence believe in a superstition like God? How can there be a God in such an unjust world? What about the inconsistencies in the Bible? Those are good questions, and I won’t pretend to answer them. I respect and admire atheists and agnostics, and their arguments make a lot of sense. Still, I believe in God. I’m not sure I can explain why, but here goes…

Experiencing the divine has nothing to do with any book. It’s a mere accident of birth if your book is the Torah, the Christian Bible, the Quran, or Bhagavad Gita. These scriptures may not help you experience God. You cannot find God by just reading a book; if you find God at all, it might be in spite of books rather than because of them. The god of the book is often vengeful and temperamental. If that’s all god is, then I’m with the atheists--- I don’t want anything to do with it. God, I think, can occasionally be found in the margins, in the ellipses, in the deletions of the book. When people say “Torah is absolute truth,” or, “I believe in the Bible as the literal word of God,” I’m wary. When debating a Baptist minister, Bishop Spong asserted anyone who believes the Bible is the absolute truth clearly hasn’t read it. And that goes for all the books, not just the ones we read in the West.

If I were starting from scratch, instead of my own dual traditions, I would join the Friends, Quakers. They have no dogma or doctrine; rather, they rely on the inner voice and an absolute commitment to peace. That is God, as far as I know. God is in the silence, when you have peaceful thoughts and hear that “still small voice.” I know what some will ask: what if you are Charles Manson, or George Bush, and your inner voice tells you to kill people? The rabbis tell us that taking one life is as bad as killing the whole race. Clearly some people are damaged and can’t rely on their inner voice, whether due to psychosocial factors or chemical unbalance. We have an obligation to care for damaged people, and make sure they can’t harm anyone, including themselves. In order to help others, we have to find our moral bearings.

The people who wrote the books were trying to find god. Their search was honorable and earnest. We have their wisdom and experience to rely on, and their successes and failures. We have the teachings of the three great Jewish prophets: Jesus, Marx, and Freud. If you can’t “do” Jesus, then try Hillel or Philo of Alexandria. Same message, different vocabulary. Jesus and Hillel were concerned with the heart; Marx wrote about politics, and Freud explored the mind. Use their expertise: in your experience of god, you don’t have to start from scratch.

At Passover this year, I had the privilege of sitting at the children’s table, no small feat for a middle-aged man. I visited with a young loving couple: he was Native American, she was Orthodox. His father, like mine, was clergy. Those two lucky people found each other, and respected each other’s tradition. The most cruel lie in all the books is the exhortation of tribalism, the idea that you must only be with others of your same tradition, endogamy. It’s a sad lie, and a terrible loss. This couple knew that God is god is G-d is Allah. They knew that if God is love, then love is God. Whenever two people love each other, God can be born--- it doesn’t matter if it’s a man and a woman, an Indian and a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian, or two men.

These days it seems that the only God we hear about is the God of the Book. If you don’t worship the books, you supposedly can’t experience god. God, it seems to me, has little to do with any book. Belief is a personal matter, and it alarms me to hear it discussed by all the politicians. If that is God, then count me among the atheists. It well may be that some are pre-disposed to believe in God because of genetic propensity or fluke of evolution.

In our post-Greg Mortenson era, I’m reminded what the rabbi taught: white-washed tombs hide inner rot. The people who talk most about God and pray the loudest probably know the least. In the end, it’s not what you believe, but what you do. John Lennon said “In the end, all the love you take is equal to all the love you make.” Buckminster Fuller said that “To me, it seems, God is a verb, not a noun.” God is peace, love, and everything good. Even talking about God seems to obscure the already obscure. God is above, beyond, and just out of grasp. Be careful of people who say God, God, God—-like I'm doing. Find out for yourself. Maybe you’ll find it, maybe you won’t. Some who think they haven’t found it already have, and people who say they have, haven’t. Listen to the inner voice, the stillness. When you hear it, the domain of the divine is here, and the revolution begins.

Friday, March 25, 2011


I recently visited the Unitarian church, and listened to an excellent sermon on Temperance. It’s not a popular topic, and one I had never heard addressed at a liberal church. Temperance is moderation, and while that may not be popular thing, moderation is a virtue worth espousing. In America, Temperance has come to mean abstention from alcoholic beverages, and it’s not a widespread practice. Temperance, teetotaling and Prohibition are distinct historical movements.

I come from a long line of teetotalers. I had a visit from my beloved cousin last week, and we had a chance to discuss family traditions. 150 years after my ancestors first advocated that position, Temperance is still practiced. For my cousin, Temperance involves abstention from hard liquor, and avoiding public drinking. My cousin has, I think, stayed true to the political and practical origins of the movement. My ancestors wrote prolifically on the topic of Temperance, and it was one of the many liberal causes they espoused.

It seems strange from today’s vantage to see Temperance as progressive. In the 19th century, however, it was a liberal cause. In the early 19th century, potable water wasn’t always available, and where it was, it often had a brackish, mineral taste. In America, the two most popular beverages were whiskey and hard cider. Wine wasn’t widely available, nor was beer: that would change in the latter half of the 19th century. It’s estimated that Americans over age 14 consumed around 7 gallons of pure alcohol annually between 1800-1830. That’s a lot of alcohol. In war time, soldiers were paid partially in whiskey, and given a daily ration of whiskey and hard cider. In addition, wages were paid in whiskey. Public projects like barn raisings and even canal digging involved prodigious amounts of drinking.

Against this background, reformers sought to change drinking patterns and public drunkenness. By 1830, liberals, and some religious conservatives, took what was known as the “short pledge.” The “short pledge” was a pledge to avoid drinking hard liquor, and abstaining from public drunkenness. There was no concept of alcoholism as a disease, and excess drinking was seen as a personal moral weakness.

Temperance was linked to the women’s movement. While my ancestors didn’t identify as Christian, organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union advocated women’s suffrage, as well as ending poverty. The motto of this organization was “Do Everything,” and these worthy women did. Social reformers like Jane Addams supported the work of the WCTU. Susan B. Anthony supported the cause of Temperance, and my ancestors joined an organization called the Independent Order of the Good Templars, a Temperance group that was open to both sexes, something rare in that age.

Gradually, Temperance and Teetotalism joined forces. There was no consensus, though; some individuals took the “long pledge” which was the renunciation of all alcoholic beverages. These folks were called the “cold water people,” because that’s what they drank. Temperance and Teetotaler advocates began to espouse prohibition by the early 20th century, and the movement changed from a personal perfection campaign to a political one. We tend to lump Temperance, Teetotaling and Prohibition together; they were originally distinct, and there was never complete agreement among the three movements.

My family were not all in favor of Teetotalism; my great-great grandmother left many recipes that required a “rich wine sauce.” That being said, I don’t recall seeing liquor in either of my grandparents’ homes. Public drinking was taboo, and my grandfather would sooner go hungry than get a hamburger from the town bar, which he disparagingly called “the tavern.”

Radicals like Carrie Nations have given Temperance a bad name. She was not typical of the cause; Temperance advocates did not take hatchets to every unlicensed saloon in town. Most Prohibitionists wanted to close taverns for two good reasons: they did not allow women, and were owned by brewers. Before Repeal, all saloons were owned by distillers, and bartenders were encouraged to sell product at all cost. Saloons did contribute to drunkenness.

Prohibition was, by and large, a failure. Closing saloons didn’t eliminate organized crime. Rather, crime syndicates branched out from prostitution and gambling to selling bootlegged liquor. Prohibition advocates sought to close saloons and eliminate hard liquor. It was doomed from the start because of the Volstead Act. The Volstead Act limited the amount of alcohol in beer to .5%, near beer. Normally, beer has about 5% alcohol. By limiting the amount of alcohol to .5%, Prohibition criminalized beer and wine, something Temperance advocates were divided over. Also, it was never illegal to have liquor in the home, and personal consumption of alcohol was never outlawed. Buying liquor for distribution was illegal. Churches, doctors and pharmacies were exempt, along with personal home use.

What does Temperance mean today? Was Prohibition a total failure? To answer the last question first, Prohibition accomplished two things. When it was repealed, bars could no longer be owned by distillers, and weren’t forced to sell product. Today, alcohol consumption is half what it was in the early 19th century: Americans over 14 drink less than 3 gallons of pure alcohol a year. As for advocating people to take either the short pledge or the long pledge, that’s not my business. Temperance, moderation in alcoholic consumption isn’t a bad idea, and temperance in all aspects of our lives is a worthy goal.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Why Men Support Planned Parenthood

When I was 12, my dad gave me a booklet about sex. He told me if I had any questions, to ask him. I am grateful to him for a frank, informative discussion about human sexuality. My father was a clergyman, and I suspect that when it came to sex, he’d heard it all; nothing I asked shocked him. This was before Oprah and Dr. Phil, and today, people discuss the most personal aspects of their private life on TV. Some of today’s discussion seems vulgar, or tawdry and sensational. Maybe that’s just an indication that I’m old.

One summer, I spent time with my grandmother, my father’s mother. She lived in an old farmhouse in the hills of southern Missouri, just north of the Ozarks. My dad had four brothers and sisters, and the farm wasn’t large. During the Depression, times were hard. I was an impertinent teenager, and I asked my grandmother why she and my grandfather had so many children. She had a bad heart, and the each pregnancy had been difficult.

My grandmother told me that back in the bad old days, the 1930’s, birth control was illegal, except in certain cases. Although her doctor advised her not to have children, he could not refer her to a clinic until after she had five children. I had no idea things had been so bleak, and I’m glad she told me.

After her 5th child, (my father), my grandmother’s doctor was legally able to refer her to Planned Parenthood. In 1916, Margaret Sanger and other progressive women formed that great organization to provide healthcare, including family planning, for women. Wealthy women always had more medical options than middle and working class women. Sheepskin condoms were a possibility for well-connected men, and some educated women were able to be fitted with diaphragm-like cups. Some women used sponges, but writing about these options was illegal.

There was an incipient women’s movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Some, even then, advocated free-love. Increasingly, people chose not to marry. Women knew that family planning was necessary to insure their physical and economic health. There were even a few states with divorce laws, and there were books that discussed, in veiled terms, how couples could prevent unwanted pregnancy.

This was before divorce was widely accessible. Married women, in the nineteenth century, forfeited their right to own property; all their possessions became their husband’s. Women could not vote. The fact that some people opted out of marriage provoked an extreme backlash, and the Comstock laws were passed in the 1870’s. These laws restricted divorce, and made any discussion of birth control illegal.

Due to advocacy by Margaret Sanger and others, these laws stifling laws began to be undermined in the early twentieth century. The Comstock laws were not completely done away with till the 1960’s, and today, conservative politicians are chipping away at these hard won rights. Some on the right are intent on reversing these legal victories.

My grandmother explained how Planned Parenthood saved her life by fitting her with a diaphragm. It was a shame she had to wait until the birth of her fifth child before she could access this service. During this discussion, my aunt, a right-wing Southern Baptist, entered the room and told me she made monthly contributions to Planned Parenthood, because they provided so many vital services for women’s health. In today’s toxic climate, I wonder if we could have had such a frank talk. It made an impact on me, and I am grateful to my grandmother and aunt for educating me.

Here’s a news flash: most men love women. Those of us who have opted out of traditional, heterosexual marriage still love women. If there isn’t a girlfriend, there’s a sister, a cousin, an aunt or mother. Since we love women, we want them to be well-cared for. Thank God for Planned Parenthood. For many, Planned Parenthood is the only place available for pap smears, mammograms, and family planning. It is tragic that a few confused politicians are using this agency as a prop in their war against women. Attacks on Planned Parenthood are attacks on women. It’s misogyny, and it’s shameful. People who picket outside women’s clinics should be truthful. They should admit that they hate women, and they want women to die. There are women who hate women, too. I’ve seen women-hating women marching outside of clinics.

In some cases, motherhood must be postponed. It’s not easy to talk about terminating a pregnancy. No one wants to have an abortion, it’s a lose-lose situation. No one makes that painful decision lightly. In many cases, the mother’s life is endangered. It is irresponsible and murderous to insist women risk their lives for the sake of a fetus. In some cases, there are economic reasons to terminate a pregnancy. To say that a woman should carry the fetus to term and give it up for adoption is also irresponsible. It’s simplistic. Sadly, adopted children, if they are lucky enough to be adopted, are not all loved and raised in good homes. Some get bounced around in foster care for years. God knows foster parents are hard-working and well-meaning, but many foster children never feel loved or wanted.

You know a woman who has been helped by Planned Parenthood. I know women who have used their services. You know women who have made the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. I know women who have had to do that, as well. Bad things happen: in the real world, there are diseases, there are unplanned pregnancies. These things happen; why pretend they don’t? There have been times I’ve suffered the unforeseen consequences of my actions, and such things have happened to people I love. If there were only wise people in the world, nothing would ever happen--- so goes a traditional African proverb.

It’s time for a frank discussion about human sexuality. This doesn’t mean screaming at each other, and it doesn’t mean being lurid like Dr. Phil or the kids from New Jersey. There is no need to demonize gynecologists, and I don’t know what to say about the sick people who kill doctors. Whatever your point of view, it’s counter-productive to carry hateful signs outside women’s clinics. Most of us have had sex at one time or another, and we have to deal with the consequences of this activity. Women’s bodies need to be treated with care and respect, and no woman should have to go without medical care. No man can claim to love women if he doesn’t respect women’s bodies. If we aren’t capable of a frank, honest, non-accusative discussion about sex and its consequences, maybe we should just shut up.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Haunted America

Recently, while channel surfing, I was struck by the number of haunted house reality shows on TV. Four cable networks feature such programming: Syfy, Travel, Bravo, and Animal Planet all have their versions. Some weekends, these shows are played as a “marathons,” making me wonder, is every house in America haunted? I’ve expressed my own views on the supernatural elsewhere, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of most of these claims. I find it significant that so many people have had paranormal encounters, and I’d like to make some observations.

Although each network has a unique perspective, these shows are formulaic. The “disturbances” are first noticed by women, children, and pets, usually in that order. The women who report such incidents tend to be single or second wives. Children and animals are perceived to be in danger, and the husband always discounts the wife’s claims, at least, at first. Eventually an “expert” is called in. The experts are often students (in the case of Syfy, plumbers), and are intense, earnest, and likable. They seem to be well-meaning, and in reality TV, that’s a nice change from the inhabitants of New Jersey. The ghost hunters have all kinds of gadgets and devices, and attempt to find scientific proof of the phenomenon. Cameras are and voice recorders are installed, temperatures are measured. Often a medium or psychic is called, and if a phantom or other presence is detected, it is because someone was murdered on the premises. Sometimes an Indian battle was fought nearby, and other times spirits don’t seem to know they are dead. Some manifestations require the efforts of a priest, clergy, or shaman.

Supernatural claims have a long history in this country. The two most influential cases were Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690’s, and Hydesville, New York, in 1848. In Salem, young girls claimed to be bothered by witches. 19 people died as a result of these accusations; one of the children later recanted. The Hydesville incident is less well-known, but just as influential. In 1848, 3 sisters claimed to communicate with the ghost of a murdered man, a man who was killed in their house. The Fox sisters became celebrities, and some see this incident as the beginning of 19th century Spiritualism in America. One of the girls later recanted, and still later, recanted her recantation. In both Salem and Hydesville, the claimants were intelligent, educated girls, who may have been thwarted in their ambitions by the repressive climate of the times in which they lived. My great-great-great grandfather, Eber Howe, was a Spiritualist, as were his son and grand-daughter. American Spiritualism was linked to liberal causes, and Spiritualists supported Abolition, women’s suffrage, and Temperance.

Again, let me state that I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who claim supernatural visitation, and I don’t doubt that there are such things. I believe in God, so I’m not a skeptic. I’m also open to the possibility I am wrong about my beliefs. I am struck by the similarity, the formula, of these ghostly claims. The afflicted women usually say, “I knew something was wrong,” and then “Something didn’t want me here.” This strikes me as sad, and it reminds me of the confined, restricted girls of Salem and Hydesville. Are some conflating the paranormal with loveless marriages, or social conditions? Why are malevolent spirits murder victims, or unhappy native peoples? There are always claims of the proverbial ancient Indian burial ground.

America was founded on the violence of genocide. Do some haunting victims reflect a collective, residual guilt for what was done to the original inhabitants of this land? If there are indeed Indian spirits, they have every right to be angry. In the case of murder victims, isn’t it significant that America is one of the most violent countries in the world? We can talk about sex in this country much easier than we can discuss our proclivity for violent death. We are the world’s military, we make the bombs, we kill 30,000 of our own every year with legal handguns. The recent shooting of a Jewish congresswoman is but the latest in a long list of gun crimes. We spend more than every other country in the world combined on our war machine. We incarcerate more people numerically and per capita than any other country, and those we imprison are usually ethnic minorities.

Is America haunted? Maybe. Maybe every other house in the country is haunted. Maybe 2nd wives in unhappy marriages are targeted by the supernatural. But one thing I suspect is, if our country isn’t haunted, it probably should be.