Thursday, December 21, 2017

Entitled Impunity

No, he can't really get away with murder. He just thinks he can.

Nothing says "Trump" like impunity.

The man blusters, blows, blabs as if he believes himself to be untouchable. With his entire regime under federal investigation, he regularly self-incriminates via the Twitter account his handlers have struggled in vain to regulate. By the reckoning of the New York Times he will, by the end of his first year in office, have told well over a hundred bald-faced lies, many of them repeatedly and with a clear effort to convince his most rabid followers of their veracity. In contrast, the Times found that, over the course of his entire Presidency, Barack Obama had told at most 16 falsehoods. Arriving at that number meant, in some cases, stretching the definition of falsehood to include exaggeration. On top of that, when notified he had been caught in a lie, Obama was quick to apologize and correct the error. Trump's response is to double down and insist all the more vehemently in the accuracy of his alternate world view, blasting the fact-checkers as tools of the Fake News Media.

Trump's public life has teemed with impropriety. He burns through marriages, deeming a woman only worthy of his wealth as long as she is hot enough. He has driven casinos and an entire football league into bankruptcy and liquidation with his penchant for expensive lawsuits and refusal to accept blame for the colossal errors he makes. His legal team's response to the ongoing investigation of his and his campaign's involvement in the Russian rigging of the 2016 election has been the public obstruction of the rule of law by every means possible, including smearing the highly respected, Republican-appointed investigator and, most ridiculously of all, to insist that he is incapable of obstructing justice because, as President, he is justice. His response to a host of accusations of sexual harassment has been to deny every one of them, threaten them with lawsuits, and libel the accusers.

These are just a few examples of the impunity Donald Trump believes himself to enjoy when it comes to the norms that every prior Presidential administration--including those of couldn't-keep-his-pants-zipped-if-his-life-depended-on-it Bill Clinton and plunge-the-country-into-the-worst-quagmire-since-Vietnam-on-false-pretenses George W. Bush--held itself to, with the help of official Presidential ethicists. It is the last one, though, that I wish to highlight in this essay, as it speaks most clearly to the paradigm shift the nation is undergoing.

But first, let's look more closely at the source of Trump's impunity, which I define as freedom from the fear of consequences for one's actions. As I stated a few paragraphs earlier, Trump has acted his entire life as if he need have no fear, ever, of consequences for his actions. As a real estate mogul, he engaged in racially discriminatory ways that were already illegal. As a celebrity, he's felt entitled to walk, unannounced, into the dressing rooms of beauty contestants, and to grope and kiss any woman he finds attractive. He's held back payment to contractors who worked on many of his properties, forcing them to sue and, ultimately, accept a reduced amount in settlement. He can get away with many of these misdeeds because he can afford to hire better lawyers and to keep cases in the appeal circuit long past the point at which the complainant can afford to continue.

And how can he afford to use the court system as a mop to clean up his messes? Quite simply, he was born into money. He's never had to want for anything: never had to choose between getting a cavity filled and paying his rent, buying groceries or repairing his car, sending his kids to school in worn-out jeans or filling the heating oil tank. Growing up free of want, he's come to take all these privileges for granted, as things he's entitled to. He belongs to the entitled class, and with that entitlement comes impunity.

Yes, I'm using the word "entitlement" to mean something other than the basic provisions our welfare state makes for retirees not born wealthy to have meager income, for children born into poverty to have some food on the table and medical care, and for veterans to have some benefits in return for their often life-wrecking service. The entitled class--the conservative monied elite who run this country's industries, financial institutions, and the Republican side of Congress--have been successful for decades at referring to, and getting the rest of us to refer to, government-sponsored social programs as "entitlements," services that we haven't earned and are picking their undeserving pockets to pay for. The just-passed Republican Donor Relief Act (they're calling it "tax reform") redistributes much of that money back into the pockets of the Uber-rich, and, if Paul Ryan has his way, will in the future be paid for with further reductions in the already scanty safety net for the poorest of the poor.

That's a sidebar, but it does place Trump in the context of his people: entitled robber barons who consider themselves immune to prosecution due to the sheer size of their treasuries. Most of them are born into this wealth; and while the Republicans were not wholly successful in their latest bid to eliminate the estate tax, they did manage to exempt even more of these incredibly wealthy people from having to pay a penny for inheriting millions of dollars they never lifted a finger to earn--at the expense of middle class taxpayers who will be finding their net tax rates, not to mention the cost of their health care, increasing in the near future in order to pay for that regressive redistribution.

That's where the impunity comes from. In my youth, it was not unusual to hear the children of the wealthy referred to as "spoiled rotten": they never lacked for anything, never had to fear consequences, and lived their lives accordingly, going on benders and sprees that would've landed anyone without a trust fund in jail. It's not considered polite to use the term "spoiled" anymore, but "entitled" fits the bill even better. Again and again, for his entire adult life, Trump has acted as an entitled jerk, unafraid of paying anything but a lawyer bill for his misdeeds.

Apart from the vindication we hope will eventually come in the form of indictments from the Mueller investigation, there is one thing, in this entire moral morass, that could bring an end to Trump's smug entitled impunity: the collective slap in his face that the women he's groped and molested are beginning to deliver.

There has been a sea change this fall in the way this country deals with sexual harassment. One by one, public figures, many of them pillars of the liberal elite, have been fired or forced to resign in disgrace. A very few conservatives have faced them same judgment. The GOP has been counting on its belief that, somehow, being elected to office absolves a politician from any accusations of sexual misconduct that may have been made public. Thus, the theory goes, Trump has been pardoned by his success at gaming the electoral system, even though it was only a minority of the plurality who voted in the election that put him over the top in the only way he could win.

"Not so fast!" shouted the women whose honesty he had impugned. Their accusations have the ring of truth, as did those of the accusers of Roy Moore, who just barely lost his bid to become the junior senator of Alabama thanks to his predilection for pederasty. These women are not just going away, however inconvenient their testimony may be for Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan.

If this had happened a year earlier--if the paradigm shift of women not just coming forward, but being believed by and large--we might not be in the mess we're in. If the public ethos then had been what it is now--if we had become, in 2016 rather than 2017, a nation whose patience with workplace molestation has finally run out--then we would have, rather than a sexual predator, a strong feminist occupying the Oval Office.

But that's not what happened. And even if the election were to be relitigated post-Harvey Weinstein, it might not look any different; because in this one way, out of all the ways I've mentioned, of enjoying entitled impunity, Trump is far from alone. Most American men, especially white American men, even those of us earning below the median income, were born into this particular entitlement: we are privileged over women simply because we are men.

Growing up privileged, it's not surprising we come to take this entitlement for granted, and to be surprised when women call us on it. We're startled to learn, not just that women earn less money for doing the same work, but that those doing different work also expect to be equitably paid. We're shocked, sometimes even hurt, when women call us on the sexist jokes we like to tell. Some of us are angered that their aggressive office flirting is considered offensive by their female coworkers just trying to do their jobs.

The truth is, though, that half of Americans, whether rich or poor, of color or white, speaking English as a native or second language, have been born into the privilege of the Y chromosome. We didn't as for this privilege, for much of our lives may have been oblivious to it, but it's there.

Until it's not. Women are finally standing up to the inequality they've experienced both in the workplace and at home, fighting back against the sexual aggression of their male coworkers and superiors, and are insisting they be accorded the same dignity and respect every human being deserves. It remains to be seen how far this battle may go toward reversing a trend that is as old as civilization.

But maybe, just maybe, it'll be enough to topple a President. And if it can accomplish that, who knows how much more good it may do?

Monday, December 11, 2017

Baking the Damn Cake

I rarely post memes, but this one grabbed me, and went straight to my Facebook feed:

The issue addressed by the meme is a case before the Supreme Court: Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker and owner of Masterpiece Cakes, refused to bake a custom wedding cake for two men on the grounds that he was religiously opposed to gay marriage. Colorado has a non-discrimination law that applies to businesses, and the couple complained to the state's Civil Rights Division, which found Phillips to be in violation of the statute. Phillips has now appealed that decision to the highest level, and sometime in the next year, we will learn whether public businesses can discriminate against protected minorities by appealing to the First Amendment.

The case is complicated by many factors, including the conflict it presents between the freedoms of expression and religion, and the right of state governments to offer a higher standard of protection to historically victimized minorities than that provided under federal statute. Acknowledging I am, at best, an amateur when it comes to legal analysis, I'm not going to attempt to parse the case itself. I am, however, a degreed theologian and Biblical scholar, so I feel very comfortable critiquing the religious argument being presented by Mr. Phillips.

Quite simply, he hasn't got a pot to piss in.

At least, that's my sermon sentence, the conclusion I'm going to build up to in the course of this essay. Now you know where I'm headed, I'll go at it systematically, as any serious preacher would do.

First, consider Jack Phillips's sectarian persuasion: as an evangelical, Phillips professes a faith that is Bible-based. I've long wrestled with the evangelical embrace of scripture, especially with those who claim (as a former parishioner of mine once did) that the Bible "says what it means and means what it says." In fact, depending on the presuppositions of translators and interpreters, any given passage of the Bible can be interpreted to mean many different things, especially when its taken in the light of its historic and literary contexts. Add to that the incredible diversity of the Bible--its writers span a thousand years of ancient history, and their ideas run the gamut of the Hebrew, Israelite, Palestinian, and Gentile cultures that gave birth to them. Simply put, then, an appeal to the literal meaning of any Biblical text demonstrates a profound ignorance of the nature of that text.

All that aside, there is simply no text in the Bible that tells business owners to turn away clients based on their perceived morality, or any animus they may feel toward them. Quite the contrary: the Torah contains many directives to include foreigners in festivals and Sabbath observances, making it clear that they are to be treated as fairly as fellow Jews. (e.g., Exodus 12:49, "there shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.") If anything, Old Testament law specifies that those who are part of the covenant shall make no distinction when it comes to strangers, treating all with dignity and respect.

Now, while evangelicals are quick to cite Old Testament passages that appear to condemn homosexuality, they are just as quick to brush off those that condemn them, claiming that the rule of Christ exempts them from such strictures. I find this practice infuriatingly hypocritical; but rolling with it, I think it's quite fair to say, as the meme does, that Jesus would just bake the damn cake. Some cases in point:

Jesus heals a woman whose chronic hemorrhages have rendered her ritually unclean. (Mark 5, Matthew 9, Luke 8).
Jesus heals a Samaritan leper (Luke 17).
Jesus chides the Pharisees for being less righteous than tax collectors and prostitutes (Mark 21).
Jesus turns away men who would stone a woman caught in adultery (John 7).
These are just a few of many stories in which Jesus scandalizes the business and religious leaders of his time by socializing, ministering to, and accepting hospitality from people who, for one reason or another, were deemed unworthy of participation in polite Judean circles. Again and again, Jesus makes it clear by his actions that, like his divine father, he makes no distinctions. There is equal protection under the Gospel.

Contrast Jesus' hospitality and generosity toward those he was culturally conditioned to fear and avoid with the "right to refuse service" being claimed by Christian merchants like Jack Phillips, and it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that rather than being guided by the faith of Christ, they are hiding behind the banner of Christianity to justify actions Christ would find abhorrent.

That's why, in previous Supreme Court decisions expanding the protections of the Constitution to include gays and lesbians, Justice Kennedy has been particularly critical of the animus aired by conservatives like Phillips. The only religion being espoused by Phillips and his evangelical ilk is bigotry, elevated to the status of dogma.

And yet, before we simply dismiss the rightness of Phillips sheltering his odious business practices beneath the shield of religion, we have to acknowledge something huge: he's far from alone. In fact, there are millions of Americans who, believing their bigotry to be a Biblical doctrine, are fully on board with what he's doing, and consider him a martyr to the cause of religious liberty.

Typically at this point in a piece like this, I find myself launching a screed about all that is wrong with Christianity, and not just the modern variety. I've written in the past about the integral link between the anti-Judaism of Martin Luther and the Holocaust; the persecution of Jews, Muslims, and pagans by both Roman Catholicism and Protestant churches; and the ways in which Catholics and Protestants have taken turns persecuting each other. Bigotry is hard-wired into Christianity, just as it is, in one way or another, into every world religion. Pakistan and Bangladesh exist because Gandhi couldn't convince Indian Muslims and Hindus they could live together in peace. The Baltic wars were, to a large extent, religious conflicts. As atheist comic and commentator Bill Maher is fond of pointing out, the one thing almost all conflicts and mass persecutions have in common is religion.

But that's not where I want to go here. In fact, as I hope the passages referenced above indicate, today I'm feeling much more sanguine about the roots of the faith I was raised in. As one of my seminary professors liked to say when systematically vivisecting a fellow student's naive beliefs, "Give me that old time religion, the religion of Jesus and Paul, before the church got hold of it and turned it into this nonsense." For all the problematic passages in the ancient scriptures, they are still primarily a history of the evolution of loving, ethical living, of a community whose God was big enough and inclusive enough to embrace every human being, no matter how screwy their own beliefs might be. These are not just airy-fairy, pie-in-the-sky Hallmark sentiments, either: every major religion at its best promotes generosity and compassion toward strangers.

That's what empowers me to say that honoring diversity and welcoming sojourners are not just an extreme, radical concept that liberals are forcing on conservatives. As I wrote just yesterday, the arc of the moral universe is bending this way. Deep down, we know that the grace we extend to people who are just like us is far cheaper than that we are called to extend to those who are different from us.

It's not just that we're called by scripture and tradition to offer hospitality to strangers, making no distinction about their class, creed, ethnicity, or orientation. The practice of hospitality is profoundly reciprocal. I have found myself welcomed and ministered to by people of other faiths, gay men and lesbians, Jews and Gentiles, churches composed almost entirely of African-Americans or Hispanics, Ghanaian animists, British Thatcherites, and on and on. Experiencing hospitality, I find myself prompted to practice it. The Bible references this reciprocity as far back as the book of Exodus, which reminds the Israelites that they, too, were once strangers in a strange land, having to rely on the hospitality of strange people who had strange beliefs but were, nonetheless, good generous people.

So I don't just think I'm right: I know this is the future toward which the arc of the moral universe is bending. Which is precisely why Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and the evangelical community are poured their prayers and gifts into pushing Jack Phillips's case all the way to the Supreme Court, and are so delighted that the Republicans succeeded in keeping a moderate like Merrick Garland off the court. They are afraid of a future in which the fig leaf of religion can no longer hide the ugliness of bigotry, a future in which they must learn to live with people who don't believe in their small-minded God, preferring to worship a God who's much bigger and more inclusive--or no God at all. They are conservative in the worst sense of the word, clinging to the old chauvinist, hateful ways because it's just more comfortable to be around people who are just like them, rather than waking up to the diversity of the world we really live in.

The power of this frame of reference is crumbling. Gay and lesbian people are getting married, and increasingly, America as a whole is fine with it. Women have been getting legal abortions since 1972, and America, again, is largely just fine with it. In fact, in case after case, the majority of Americans are significantly to the left of the evangelicals and Republicans who claim to represent true America, and who are scrabbling to hang onto its hateful traditions. Out of desperation, evangelicals have been embracing politicians who are ethically and morally bankrupt. For all his insistence that he bases his actions on scripture, Roy Moore is as anti-Christian a politician as has ever occupied a space on an American ballot--as is his sponsor and chief campaigner, President Donald J. Trump. Evangelical leaders turn blind eyes to the daily misbehavior of their corrupt champions, ignoring the hateful tweetstorms, the adultery and sexual abuse, the careless throwing around of nuclear threats, the dismantling of government programs that care for children and the elderly, that sum up the platforms and identities of these monsters. All that matters is that they will enact the reactionary throwback agenda of America's theocrats.

It's leading some in the evangelical community to walk back from the word "evangelical." Believing, as the Bible teaches them, that they are called to open-hearted love, rather than bigoted rejection of the other, they are opting to call themselves simply "Christian"--and not in the way Jack Phillips uses the word. They are also coming to find the Republican party, once the champion of evangelicalism, to be an uncomfortable place to faithful persons with integrity.

The Christians I admire have big hearts and open minds. They know that the morality of another person is a matter best left to that person and to God. The humble ones even acknowledge, with fear and trembling, that they could turn out to be wrong about homosexuality, just as their Southern ancestors were wrong about slavery. And when someone whose sexual orientation is different from their own walks into their place of business and puts some money on the counter, they provide them with the same quality of service they give to anyone.

It's not just that Jesus would bake the damn cake. It's that anyone who claims to be a Christian, and operates a cake shop, would bake the damn cake.

Here's hoping the Supreme Court agrees.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Bending Toward Justice

Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. 
Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.
These words come from a sermon by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian Minister, Transcendentalist, and Abolitionist. They first saw print in a collection of sermons published in 1853, and, quoted by essayists, preachers, and politicians, were ultimately boiled down to this aphorism: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." In that form, the quote found its way into the sermons of many a preacher of the social justice era, culminating in Martin Luther King, Jr. There is also an echo of it in these words of Mahatma Gandhi:
When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it--always.
I've been clinging to these thoughts since 2010, the year the brief hope of the Obama election was shattered by the populist movement known as the Tea Party. At its roots, the Tea Party was a reactionary tantrum over the election of this country's first non-white President, coupled with a misperception of how the Great Recession had been precipitated (in a nutshell, not by federal deficits, but by greedy capitalists). The movement was cynically manipulated by the same wealthy elites who had caused the economic collapse in the first place to dilute and over-complicate the two great progressive policies of the Obama administration's first term: the economic stimulus and the Affordable Care Act. Both these policies, once enacted, improved the lives of millions of Americans who had been victimized by the Recession, not to mention by generations of abuse and neglect from the health care industry. Many of their beneficiaries were the same Tea Party protesters who most vehemently opposed them, who went on to, over the course of the next three elections, remove from office the moderate, pragmatic Democratic legislators who'd limited the scope of the programs. Increasingly empowered by these victories, the leaders of the Republican party doubled down on their opposition to anything that originated in the Oval Office, forcing President Obama to impose policies by executive orders that could be all too easily reversed by his successor.

So now we have a President who cannot open his mouth, or apply his thumbs to his phone, without alienating allies, inflaming the most deplorably know-nothing core of his base, and endangering lives; a Supreme Court the majority of which was stolen by Republican delay tactics; a Cabinet of secretaries whose first priority is dismantling the agencies they head up; a Congress that, almost halfway through its biennial session, has yet to pass a significant piece of legislation (whether the fundamentally flawed and abysmally unpopular tax "reform" can survive the reconciliation process remains to be seen); white supremacy groups marching in the streets of university towns; national monuments and wilderness areas opened up to fossil fuel exploitation; nuclear sabre-rattling; a frantically overheated economy that could, at the drop of a Presidential hat, sink into a worse downturn than the one that gave birth to the Tea Party--it's a list that could go on and on. Every day brings new horrors, signs of apocalyptic times that could spell the end of the American experiment, the collapse of the Republic into an authoritarian nightmare, and the ultimate dissolution of the United States, not to mention the post-war international community.

It's very hard, in times such as these, to feel hope, to feel that the arc of the universe bends any way except toward chaos.

And yet, in the last month, I am finding hope in some of the very unraveling that is adding to my despair. I've written recently of my sadness at the fall from grace of a number of political and cultural liberal icons, all of them either being ejected from their positions of power or stepping down in the face of multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. This has been especially galling when compared to the apparent ability of conservative politicians to brush off similar accusations, and of the willingness of their most ardent supporters to overlook their depravity. Seeing so many fall--including a number of the most potent voices for progress--I cannot help but grieve, not just at my disappointment in these formerly great men, but in what their collapse means to the cause of progress.

Except--and here's the key point--the downfall of progressive sex abusers is, itself, a sign of progress. It's an ancient piece of wisdom that one cannot remove the mote from another's eye without first extracting the log from one's own; or, as I'm reminded by flight attendants every time I board an airplane, to, in the event of cabin depressurization, put on my own oxygen mask before helping a seatmate. Blinded by my own failings, I have no right to pick at the flaws of an opponent. Unconscious, I can't lift a finger to save the stranger, friend, or loved one beside me.

The tide of sexual abuse has finally turned. Whether it will sweep away the racist pederast seeking an Alabama Senate seat or his buddy, the demented huckster in the Oval Office, remains to be seen; but in the light of what continues to happen in the upper echelons of every sphere of American society, as previously unassailable executives, entertainers, politicians, artists, and more are brought down for behavior that just a few years ago was laughed off and ignored by everyone except its victims, I find hope shining through my tears. This is not the evidence I sought of the truth proclaimed by Parker, Gandhi, and King, but it is evidence nonetheless. And if we can bring down the sexists and molesters, who is to say we cannot do the same with the racists, homophobes, autocrats, oligarchs, and theocrats clinging to power in Washington?

I am hopeful that justice will continue to prevail, one besieged status at a time. I do see the arc bending in the way it must. I see the signs that the tyrants will fall, as they always do. At the same time, though, I tremble; for, as Theodore Parker observed in the second half of the quote--the part not carried over into its more succinct, King- and Obama-embraced version--"Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble." Reading the signs of the times, Parker knew there was a reckoning coming for a young nation that had chosen to postpone the dismantling of slavery. Eight years later, the Civil War began; and, as Charlottesville, the ascension of Roy Moore, and the Presidency of Donald Trump indicate, the wounds laid bare by that conflict are far from healing.

Reading the signs of these times, I find myself feeling very much like Theodore Parker in 1853: the mismanagement of things is accelerating, putting it on a collision course with justice. All the efforts of the Trump movement will ultimately prove futile. Women will step up to claim their share of power, and probably, in the vacuum left by so many men being driven from office, a bit more than their share. At the same time, the shrinking straight white plurality will find its clingy fingers pried away from the levers of power. There will be no more denying that this is a diverse nation, and thought it ought to be governed by diverse leaders. The only question is whether we will arrive at this future civilly, as perpetrators voluntarily step down or are voted out of office, or the hard, bloody way that should cause us all to tremble.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

#TooManyMen Making #TooManyExcuses

A perfect fit.

Birds of a feather, peas in a pod, two putrid tastes that taste even worse together, a match made in the second, fourth, and sixth circles of hell: ex-Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore and President Donald J. Trump. The two have so much in common: an utter disregard for common decency, contempt for the U.S. Constitution, the fanatical embrace of the most deplorable segments of the American electorate, a steadfast conviction that the norms and laws of 21st Century American culture do not apply to them, impulsively violating those laws and norms with impunity, and a predilection for accosting, ogling, and fondling attractive women without their consent--including some so young they couldn't legally give it if they wanted to. No wonder Trump has, after weeks of squirming under the counsel of his staff and Congressional allies, enthusiastically endorsed the racist demagogue in his campaign to fill Jeff Sessions's Senate seat. In the process, Trump has dragged the Republican National Committee along with him, bringing its formidable campaign engine to bear in the tight contest. There are even odds that, come January, Republican Senators will again be holding their noses and acceding to the presence of yet another embarrassment into their midst for the sake of advancing their pro-wealth, pro-gun, anti-social-justice agenda. They need Moore's vote to pass their diluvian legislation almost as much as they need Trump's pen to sign it into law, so they'll look the other way as he foams at the mouth about Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, atheists, and anyone else he deems unworthy of being an American. And don't get me started on his increasingly-well-documented history of preying upon teenaged girls.

On second thought, that's the rancid kernel at the heart of this abomination, so yes, let's wade back into the morass of molestation entitlement. This country is having a moment that is becoming a movement, perhaps even an era, as women who have been silent or ignored are coming forward to denounce the impunity with which men have abused them. Many of those men are famous and powerful, but don't think for a moment that this is solely the province of prominence: sexual harassment runs through American culture like mold through blue cheese. It's been present in every walk of life that brings men together in hierarchical relationships with women, not to mention men who work with teenagers and adolescents (and yes, when we talk about the molestation of young adults and children, we have to include boys, as well as girls, as victims).

With the inclusion of those young people--and we have Roy Moore to thank for that, though our President's habit of barging into junior beauty pageant dressing rooms meshes well with Moore's dating preferences--as well as the more aggressive acts of these perpetrators, we enter the land of the illegal. Sexual contact between an adult and a minor is a crime, something Moore, who was a prosecutor at the time he was dating teenagers, should have known well. Alabama laws may have been laxer in the 1970s than they are now, but Moore's predatory behavior was creepy enough that it got him banned from a shopping mall.

In the case of Trump, and of most of the men whose public careers are ending over the allegations that continue to emerge, the behaviors in question probably did not cross any legal lines, though they may have violated workplace codes of conduct. That's been the excuse of many of the perpetrators: "I didn't do anything illegal." When caught breaking professional rules, many have turned to binding arbitration, paying out settlements in exchange for nondisclosure agreements.

If this was just about crime and punishment, we wouldn't be having a national moment that will hopefully signal the dawn of a new era of respect and equality. There could be talk about expanding definitions of sexual assault, and of stiffening penalties for those crimes, and that would be the end of it. But this runs much deeper than drawing lines around certain acts and consigning them to the realm of the criminal justice system. This is about what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior in all realms of life. The ever-growing tide of accusations and revelations of sexual aggression in all walks of life signifies a paradigm shift: women are fed up with brushing off unwanted advances, uninvited groping, and covering up assault for fear of recrimination. Empowered by the public humiliation of so many famous men, women are demanding a complete rewrite of the social code.

The excuses men have so often made--and which many continue to cling to--are providing less and less cover for their boorish conduct. It no longer takes being convicted of a sex crime to lose one's job: simply being accused by enough people can end an entire career. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, John Conyers, Al Franken, Matt Lauer, James Levine, Garrison Keillor, on and on and on the list grows of men discovering boundaries they once took for granted have retroactively shifted, and yes, they are accountable for actions they had previously believed would be consequence-free. In some cases, these may even be acts they have forgotten they committed. I was reminded yesterday of details I had completely forgotten about a minor trauma--the loss, then recovery, of a family pet--that occurred 38 years ago. I can imagine the same is even more true of persons in their 60s, 70s, and 80s.

It may seem harsh to demand the resignation of a statesman like Al Franken for acting in ways consistent with men of his generation so long ago that he has difficulty remembering his sins--especially when one considers what a force for good he has been since entering politics. And yet, the women he touched, kissed, badgered into doing things they really didn't want to do, but felt they could not say "no" to, deserve some semblance of justice. Reparations, restitution, restoration, redemption, whatever you call it, there must be consequences. Going on with their lives, continuing to pretend or deny that anything happened, that there should be no loss of esteem or power as a result of abuse, is simply no longer acceptable.

This is what makes this a watershed: these powerful men are being judged based on the acceptability, rather than the legality, of their actions. This sets a higher bar than statute alone, and Republicans embrace its application to the opposition party at their own risk. It's why conservative cretins like Moore and Trump have chosen outright denial as their response to the large numbers of women accusing them of sexual misconduct: just as with the rapid embrace of same-gender relationships, the American ethos is turning, almost overnight, against masculine sexual aggressiveness. Trump has recently been denying it was even his voice on the infamous Access Hollywood tape--in effect, retracting the apology he made in October, 2016, when the tape was released. Behavior voters were willing to forgive just a year ago is, in the wake of the ongoing revelations of male sexual transgression, now considered unacceptable by even the voters of deep-red Alabama, where voters rejected arguments that Roy Moore's underage predation was nominally legal at the time it took place; hence the shift to accusing every single victim of lying, regardless of the evidence she speaks the truth.

The Trump legal and PR teams' efforts to mitigate the Russia scandal have followed also stressed, especially as earlier denials have been revealed to be outright untruths, that collusion is not in and of itself a crime. In doing so, they make impeachment even more essential to correcting the insult to the body politic that is the Trump regime: the framers created impeachment as a corrective to "high crimes and misdemeanors," sins against the state that need not fall under the rule of statutory law. Acting in ways that undermine the republic, including colluding with a foreign power to dilute an opponent's voter base, make Trump's ascent to the Presidency in and of itself a high crime. The unacceptability of his actions as a candidate parallels that of his misogynistic, opportunistic assault on women, and establish the criteria for how American society needs to handle future assaults by powerful men not just on women, but on society itself.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Him, Too

Garrison Keillor during a performance with the Seattle Symphony

The list continues to grow.

Pixar's John Lasseter. NBC's Matt Lauer. And now, just minutes ago, Garrison Keillor.

Add them to the shameful snowball of probable sexual harassers whose careers in the media have been endangered, if not ended, by allegations of inappropriate conduct around co-workers and employees. Lauer lost his job with the Today Show yesterday. Last night, I saw Lasseter's name in the credits of a movie that moved and amazed me--Coco--and found the wonder I'd felt at its craftsmanship and humanity tainted by thoughts about how he'd abused his power to make unwelcome advances. And today, eating lunch in a hospital cafeteria (as I write this, Amy is having bi-lateral knee replacement surgery), the headline about Keillor popped up in my news feed: he'd been fired by Minnesota Public Radio, a powerhouse of thoughtful audio content whose reputation rests almost entirely on the four decades during which it was the base for Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, on charges that have not been made public, though he has issued a statement about having a gesture of support misinterpreted by a coworker. I doubt MPR, or any responsible employer, would have taken such extreme action on something as easily open to interpretation as what he described, so I expect there's much more to the story than that.

But back to the snowball. For the first time in over a year, headlines and news feeds are not being dominated by news of the Molester In Chief. Instead, we're seeing accusations of conduct like that the President now denies he ever engaged in leveled against male celebrities and politicians, many of them icons of the liberal intelligentsia. The severity of the behavior in question runs the gamut from indecent exposure and unwanted flirtation to pedophilia and sexual assault, and the responses of the accused have ranged from blanket denial to seemingly heartfelt remorse. What they all have in common is the generation and power of the man in question: all of them I'm aware of are middle-aged and older; and all are, in one way or another, figures of authority, persons who, at any time prior to the last month, would have been accorded a sizable presumption of innocence.

But we live in a different time now. Donald Trump may have been the last prominent American man to be accorded the benefit of the doubt by the people from whom he derived his power--in his case, the core voters who gave him just enough margin in the right states to become President, despite losing the popular vote by millions. Harvey Weinstein was not accorded that benefit. Nor was Al Franken, whose admitted missteps pale in comparison to those committed with impunity by comedians just a few years older than he is. Roy Moore may, yet, win a special election for U.S. Senator despite the preponderance of evidence that, as a younger man, he preyed about teenaged girls to the extent that he was banned from the shopping mall that was his favorite hunting ground.

I won't shed any tears if Roy Moore goes down to defeat for the error of his ways--though I wish Alabama voters had rejected him for his abominable views and the professional misconduct he engaged in as a judge long before these allegations were made public. I don't carry if Harvey Weinstein rots in a jail cell for the rest of his life. I'm upset about Louis CK who, while his humor at times made me squirm, I found, for the most part, to be a perceptive and sympathetic voice. I'm much more saddened by Al Franken's fall from grace: I've been a fan of his since my college days.

But Garrison Keillor? Let it not be so! Why, the next thing you'll be telling me is Bill Cosby is a serial rapist.

Oh, right. That really is a thing.

It's been three years since I wrote about the Cosby allegations, and how shattering I found them. Cosby and Keillor were models for me, voices I first encountered in my youth, who shaped my identity as a preacher and performer. Both specialized in a kind of confessional storytelling, drawing on their own experiences to spin out long form pieces about growing up, parenting, and being a man in modern America that were simultaneously hilarious and melancholy. Their style was so casual, natural, and conversational that it felt at times like I was being personally addressed by them. When, in my second year of seminary, I began to shape my identity as a preacher, I drew on their examples, crafting a style that was intimate, personal, and, when it was humorous, only at my own expense. One of the highest honors I ever received was to have one of my sermons compared to "News from Lake Wobegon," Keillor's signature form. Beginning in 2000, I began a professional transition from ministry to music education. As with preaching, I early on chose to be a storyteller rather than a book reader; and I'm well aware that the techniques I use whenever I tell a story to children are modeled on Bill Cosby's delivery of stories like "Chocolate Cake for Breakfast" and "Natural Childbirth." 

It's excruciating, then, to learn of accusations against these idols. I find myself wondering whether, in the quest to immerse a congregation in whatever story I was telling, I crossed an emotional line. In fact, when some colleagues came to evaluate my preaching prior to my ordination as an elder, one of them told me, "What you do is powerful. Please use it for good." For the remaining five years of my career, I backed away from some of the more personal illustrations I'd been using. That caution carried over into my classroom storytelling: I only tell fictional stories now, never about myself.

That's beside the point, though, which is simply this: professional mentors, people I looked up to for their artistry and virtuosity, were not, in fact, as open, vulnerable, and humanistic as their stage personae suggested. I know this is an often-played trope in the arts--it played out last night in the plot of Coco, for instance--but it's still just as shattering every time it happens. It hurts when we find out a hero is actually a cad, because this is someone we want to be like. I want to tell the stories that make people laugh and cry, that inspire them to become better people themselves. That's what Cosby and Keillor used to do for me. I wanted to be more like them.

But that's exactly where I find hope in these revelations: I'm not like them in these ways. You might be thinking, "Of course you're not! There aren't any crowds paying exorbitant amounts of money to see you perform!" But that's not what I'm getting at. Since my earliest memories, I have striven to be something better than a cad. I have aspired to being a good Scout, trustworthy in all my dealings, respectful of others, generous in judgment, loyal to my loved ones, cautious in taking risks, asking permission before making advances on anyone I hope to be romantic with. It hasn't paid off in fame or fortune, but I have at least been rewarded with a life I can look back on with few regrets.

Yes, I did say "few." There have been relationships that ended badly, times when I was passionately convinced I was in the right about something that was far more nuanced than I could admit, times I fought for a cause I later realized was not worthy of my attention. Those are moments and times in my life that will haunt me to my last breath.

But aspirationally, I'm on the right heading to have taken the good from my clay-footed mentors--not just Cosby and Keillor, but many others not as well-known, but significant contributors to my professional identities--and have not needed to discard it upon learning there was a sordid hidden life beneath the brilliance I so admired. Realizing this, I can go on doing the things they taught me to do while drawing lines around the behaviors I abhor. It's not as hard as it sounds: that in each of these people that I aspire to is a public face. The fact that their misbehavior has taken so long to be revealed is proof that it was saved for their private lives. For all my disappointment at learning that the private did not measure up to the public, I think I knew this all along. It's not as if I knew any of these people as a friend: their public face was the only face I saw, so modeling myself on it kept me from the abuses they committed in the shadows.

There is still tragedy in the relationship I have with these publicly admirable cads: once I learn of who they are in private, I can never enjoy their performances in quite the same way again. I haven't watched a Cosby episode or routine in years. I won't be playing the Garrison Keillor CD I got for Christmas last year anytime soon. And even being reminded in the end credits that John Lasseter was involved in Coco as executive producer tainted my experience of that lovely film.

It's been understood for generations that great art can come from monstrous people. Beethoven was, by all accounts, a horrible person to be around, but the music he created is nothing short of transformative. He was not alone in that apparent mismatch: as long as there has been art, there have been artists whose sublime output belied the ugliness within its creator. In time, we can accept this about the great masters.

It's just a bit early for me to be able to make this distinction with Cosby, Keillor, Franken, Lasseter, Spacey, and any of the other performers and creators who, in this time of sea-changing revelations, will be shown to be far uglier on the inside than their public personae even hinted at.

Friday, November 24, 2017


Al Franken. Roy Moore. Donald Trump. Louis CK. Charlie Rose. Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby. Jeffrey Tambor. George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton. Clarence Thomas. Dustin Hoffman. 

That's just the names that pop into my head at this moment. You know what they've got in common: every one of them has been accused of touching women without their consent. There's a spectrum of misbehavior--some are serial offenders who've broken laws; others playful gropers who got just a little too handsy; still others sick people who need psychiatric help. Some have issued deep apologies. Others have spun stories. Some have threatened to sue. Some are Democrats, some Republicans, some defy partisan labels.

But back to the commonalities: they're all men. More specifically, they're middle-aged and older men. They're men with power: actors, prominent comedians, members of Congress, news anchors, judges, Presidents of the United States. Something about the power they had led them to believe they could just grab, fondle, molest without fear of consequences. It was a perq, something that came with having paid one's dues and ascending the ladder of success, or with having been born into wealth and power, or by being famous, popular, respected, idolized.

Some of the names have been bouncing around for decades. I think I became aware of Bill Clinton's far-too-liberal touch at around the same time I first heard his name. Some of them, joining the list in the last few weeks, shocked me. How could George Bush think it was okay to just grab a woman's bottom as she was posing for a photograph with him? Why would any man, however powerful, think that masturbating in front of a coworker, an employee, a protege, was all right with her?

All the men on this list are heterosexual, but it could be expanded to include Kevin Spacey, an actor who chose to spin his own unveiling as a predator of young men as an occasion to come out as a gay man. In the case of Roy Moore, his enjoyment of teenaged girls would, if he acted on it today (as opposed to in the 1970s and 80s, when he was banned from a shopping mall for being too creepy), get him prosecuted as a pedophile. Bill Cosby was a serial rapist. Louis CK and Charlie Rose appear to have been exhibitionists.

George Bush and Al Franken, on the other hand--no pun intended, but if I had intended it, it was the perfect one--appear to have just gotten a bit too familiar, turning hugs into gropes.

These too-tactile men are just poster boys for a problem that runs deeper than many of us men had ever imagined. Oh, we knew that masculinity had an element of sexual opportunism tied to it: I'd heard stories all my life, and while the friends I had were not, as far as I knew, inclined to grope without permission, we all knew guys who had done so. It's not that long ago that molestation was a socially acceptable part of masculinity. The sexual revolution and the modern women's movement began to put an end to that sense of sexual entitlement, but as current headlines are indicating, it's a stubborn vice, in no mood to go gently into that good night.

And while the men I've called friends, and I personally, have erred on the side of respect in our interactions with women--I remember at least one woman I dated concluding I just wasn't aggressive enough for her--that doesn't mean the impulse to touch hasn't been there. I have my parents to thank for indoctrinating me to be respectful to a fault. But there were certainly times I wanted to misbehave.
Clearly that puts me in a minority--a minority, I'm increasingly realizing, is far smaller than it should be.

Women have been trying to make this an issue at least as long as I've been alive, struggling to get men to listen, to understand that the word "No" is not an invitation for even more aggressive behavior. Anita King's accusation against Clarence Thomas inspired many women to run for office, and those inroads began remaking American understandings of gender roles and sexual ethics. There was hope, then, that society was beginning to turn, that men were beginning to acknowledge the rights of women not to be molested, to have a say in whether and when a relationship would become physical. The impeachment of Bill Clinton was a significant step in this painful reckoning; the downfall of Bill Cosby another. But it took revelations about Donald Trump's cavalier, entitled attitude toward grabbing women whenever he felt like it, and his victory in the 2016 Presidential election despite those revelations, to finally stir women and their allies to pour into the streets of every American city to march and cry out.

It still took time for the movement to pick up speed. The outing of Harvey Weinstein as a lifelong user of power imbalances to foist himself on women rendered the movement nonpartisan, and began the snowball effect. The #metoo campaign added fuel to the fire. Even women who had no idea what a hashtag was began to come forward, speaking for the first time about how often they'd been handled, mauled, abused by men. The feeble comeback of #notallmen quickly lost steam in the face of the shear number of prominent men, some of them progressive, pro-feminist icons, who had crossed the line at some point in their careers.

That's why I'm using a hashtag as the title of this essay. No, it's not all men. Some of us get it, and while we've been shocked to learn just how widespread the problem is, we've always known touching others sexually is not a right that comes with having a penis, but a privilege that comes with mutual consent. So no, it's not all men who do this. But it is clearly too many of them who do. Far too many.

And yes, there are occasional women who cross lines and become involved with underage men, but those really are the exceptions to the rule. They make news by being exceptions. The cavalcade of prominent male sex offenders, on the other hand, is the rule.

It's time to change that rule. Men who have broken sexual assault laws need to be prosecuted, no matter how important they may be to a political movement. Men who committed acts that were, at the time they committed them, not yet illegal, or for whom the statute of limitations has run out, still need to face consequences for what they did. And men whose unwanted advances do not rise to the standard of illegality but were, nevertheless, childish, boorish, and rude, still need to face the medicine of public humiliation. They've hurt far more people than just the women whose bottoms they squeezed, and they need to be held accountable for the ripple effect of those indiscretions.

That's the painful side of this moment. The hopeful side is with the empowerment I saw last January, as all those women in their pink hats packed the streets of Portland on a cold, wet day. I was humbled to be a part of that demonstration. I expect some of those women will be running for office in the coming months, and I look forward to seeing some of them replacing the chauvinist demagogues who've been holding up progress in the House and Senate; and, the sooner the better, the Oval Office.

That may, in the end, be the one really positive thing to come out of the Trump regime: a galvanized resurgent feminism that finally shifts the balance and gives women the voice and power that should have been their birthright from the beginning of time.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Repentance Matters

Is his apology sincere? Does it matter?

Before becoming a Senator, Al Franken had a life in entertainment.

Wait, it gets worse: he wasn't just an entertainer. He was a comedian. Worse still, much of his career was spent writing for the often disappointingly unfunny Saturday Night Live. In fact, my first and only consistent experience of SNL, during my freshman and sophomore years of college, came as the original cast was falling away, leaving just Franken to carry on. His appearances on camera then were limited to the midnight "Weekend Update" news bit, where he played a comedically exaggerated version of himself doing commentary on the "Me Decade." I loved these moments, which were frequently the only funny bits in an entire 90 minutes of misfires. They were thoughtful and clever, the whole joke hinging on the insertion of his name into a rhetorical question, thus changing its meaning from the general to the specific. He'd summarize a current political issue--a bill before Congress, a policy statement by the freshly minted Reagan administration, some international development--and then say, "I know what you're thinking: what does this mean for me...Al Franken?"

Getting the joke--which, unlike other SNL bits, never got tiresome--created a warm place in my heart for Al Franken. I know he want on to play other characters on SNL, all of them carefully observed and with a depth and humanity frequently lacking in late night comedy, but I remain fondest of Franken being himself. That's been true of his more recent appearances as, well into his second term, he has been loosening up and telling jokes once more.

And now we learn that, like so many male entertainers whose careers began in the latter half of the 20th Century, his humor was often in questionable taste, and his jokes sometimes came at the expense of the women with whom he performed. Worse, as a touring entertainer performing for troops in the early part of the 21st Century, he at times took advantage of his senior status to subject some of those women to unwanted physical advances, as well as, at one point, allowing himself, in flight to another appearance, to be photographed with his hands close to or on the breasts of a fellow entertainer who had fallen asleep. It was the kind of sexist stunt that would be par for the course at a fraternity party, but unbecoming of a man who would soon be representing Minnesota as a U.S. Senator.

As word of unwelcome kisses and that picture spread yesterday, I found myself revisiting feelings of disappointment and disgust I had previously felt toward other prominent people I had admired and who had, it turned out, done things undeserving of my admiration: Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Bill Cosby. Every day it seems more men are added to this list. But hearing yesterday that Al Franken--Al Franken!--had been accused was like a last straw, a shattering revelation about a man who had overcome tremendous odds to become a thoughtful, humane presence in a government that has increasingly been consuming itself with toxic partisanship.

Franken issued a statement almost immediately. It was evasive and incomplete. Later yesterday, he again made a statement, apologizing deeply for the photograph not just to the woman whose trust he had violated, but to all the women who found the stunt nauseatingly familiar. He went on to say that there was much in his pre-Senate comedy that he now regretted, and he offered himself up to the Senate Ethics Committee.

Will it be enough to save his Senate career? It's hard to say. There have been several calls on the left for his immediate resignation. In them, I sense a fear of losing the momentum Democrats have been gaining thanks to the sexual peccadillos of Donald Trump, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, and Roy Moore. Democrats have been quick to condemn similar revelations about Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, trying to distinguish themselves from the "wait and see" approach so many Republican politicians have taken toward Roy Moore. We progressives hate to be caught being hypocritical: what's bad for the Republican goose is just as wrong for the Democratic gander. I understand this urge to distinguish ourselves from the two-faced right-wingers who make hay over homophobia, then turn a blind eye to a serial molester who, now that he's in the White House, could be the signature they so badly need on a corporate tax cut (assuming they manage to pass it).

I get it: we're not like them. What's wrong is wrong, no exceptions. And we have a lot to live down in the persons of two of our most popular politicians, the chronically adulterous Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton. But throwing out one of our most effective Senators the moment he's accused of--and admits to--some childish behavior that was part and parcel of the USO routine of the most sainted of touring comedians, Bob Hope, is, in my opinion, premature and dangerous.

Yes, I know this is a moment. The tide is finally turning, American culture is finally admitting its centuries of misogynistic exploitation of half the human race, and no act of sexual harassment should be glossed over or swept under the rug. But there are many shades of response between condemnation and acquittal, and if there's one thing that distinguishes the Democratic and Republican responses to issues, it's nuance. We on the left understand that things are rarely as simple as they seem.

To address the Franken allegations, I'm going to dust off my theologian hat and talk about repentance. Yes, I know that for many in the unchurched world, that word is freighted with brimstone-leaking baggage, associated with thunderous pulpit denunciations that are always tinged with prurience. In fact, though, repentance is an ancient concept that, for those of the Judeo-Christian tradition, dates back at least to the Prophets. To repent in the classic sense is to turn away from sin, while expressing regret for the error of one's previous actions. Senator Franken's second statement yesterday did both of those things. For religious communities in both Judaism and Christianity, repentance was essential to restoration of broken relationships. Members of the community whose sins had caused them to be excluded could return only with a sincere expression of regret, coupled with a promise to act differently in the future. The restoration often came with some sort of restitution: to make things right, the penitent had to perform a service for the community. The leader of the community--rabbi, priest, pastor--was tasked with choosing a penance appropriate to the sin that had been committed.

Al Franken, in offering himself up to the Ethics Committee, has acknowledged that it's not enough to repent. He needs to be examined by his peers, who may well decide that he deserves censure or even expulsion. I doubt that will happen--the incident in question occurred before he was a Senator, and the Ethics Committee has historically been an extremely lenient adjudicatory agency--but in the current (and, if the tide really has, finally, turned, future) climate, I expect they'll err on the side of harshness rather than let him go with a scolding.

Much has been made of the willingness of Evangelical voters to forgive and forget allegations of sexual misconduct by Trump and Moore. How can people who are vehemently opposed to the equal human rights of sexual minorities turn a blind eye to such flagrantly sinful behavior on the part of their political standard bearers? I'm appalled at the Machiavellian calculus at work here: as long as the GOP majority in the Senate, and the legislation-signing authority of the White House, remain in Republican hands, it seems not to matter to many in this community if their politicians are not, in fact, saints in their private lives. But the criticism many on the left are leveling at these voters misses some vital points. First, since the first days of the Reformation, the Protestant Church has made a distinction between the magistrate (what Americans call the state) and the church. The magistrate is a necessary evil, a sphere of human existence that is necessary to the ongoing existence of civilization; without it, society would collapse into anarchy. To remain a fair and impartial arbiter of the secular world, the magistrate must remain independent of the church. It cuts both ways: ideally, the state has no say in the policies and practices of the church.

I know what many of you are thinking: preachers across the theological spectrum have always felt free to condemn or endorse politicians. And that's true: the church has a prophetic role to maintain, and it can only do this independent of the state. But to maintain that independence, the church has to accept that social order is maintained by an entity that is atheological, amoral, and atheistic. That means the people who serve us in Washington need not be carbon copies of our own best selves. So long as my elected representative faithfully represents me on Capitol Hill, or the President I voted for on the basis of campaign promises works resolutely to fulfill those promises, it should not matter whether the politician is my kind of Christian, any other kind of believer, or a militant atheist. That's the political compromise these Evangelical voters have made. As much as we may condemn the boorishness of their politicians, these people are best judged on how well they perform the jobs they've been elected to.

That does not mean, however, that we should ignore the sins they committed as younger men (and no, I don't mean the archaic generic "men"; I'm writing specifically about the male half of the human race now), or continue to commit when they are not performing the duties of their offices. Al Franken is probably not, technically, subject to any actual legal discipline for his unwise pre-Senatorial comedic choices, except for how voters choose to reward or punish him in the next election. This is probably the case with Roy Moore, too, though the Senate does retain the rarely-executed right to refuse a seat to anyone it deems unworthy of a desk in its chamber.

But there is a difference between Franken and most of the other prominent men on the ever-growing harassment list: he has apologized, and stated his willingness to voluntarily be subject to whatever discipline the Senate chooses to dole out. Clinton, Trump, Moore, Weinstein, Ailes, O'Reilly, and many others have issued denials and worse--many of them have gone ahead and attacked those of their victims who, after years of fearing precisely that, finally found the courage to come forward. They've been attacked in the media, shamed, sued.

Many years ago, I realized something about myself: without an apology from someone who's wronged me, it's very hard for me to forgive. Over the last half century, there have been people who hurt me in ways they've probably forgotten. Some have expressed remorse to me; when they have, I've experienced an almost instantaneous healing, as our relationship was restored. In the case of those who've never apologized, the wounds have never completely healed. They may not all realize that what they did hurt me, or that there's a part of me that still longs for the healing that can only come with atonement.

That's the situation Al Franken found himself in yesterday. I suspect he had forgotten that he forced a kiss on that woman. He may never have seen the photograph of his groping prank. And then it came out. I imagine he found himself wracking his brain for a memory of the incident, and being a 66-year-old man with a storied career, did not remember many of the specifics. His victim, though, remembered it all too well. Ten years later, she still felt violated. Like many other women, she had allowed herself to suppress those feelings, lumping them in with so many others; but with so many coming forward about so many prominent men, she decided the time was finally right. She testified.

Realizing his initial response was terribly inadequate, Franken tried again. His second response seemed to satisfy his accuser. It didn't satisfy everyone: there are still calls, from within his own party, for his resignation. It may very well be a facile, political move to appear repentant. Given the thoughtfulness I have always experienced in Franken's interviews and remarks, I think he is, in fact, sincerely repentant, but only he can know that for certain. If he is just saying these things to save his career, he's hardly the first to do so. But as with a parole board, the ethics committee will be assessing how heartfelt is his penitence before they decide to issue either a reprimand or a reprieve.

To sum it up, then: I don't know if Al Franken was sincere when he repented. But I'm glad he did.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Fragile Idols: Flesh and Blood

Yes, these guys, too.

Three thousand years ago, the founders of Judaism had a breakthrough. It concerned a common practice in Bronze Age religion: the use of an item--a carving, sculpture, painting, found object, it didn't really matter what it was, just as long as it was visible and touchable--to enhance the religious experience, granting the worshipper some kind of tangible connection with the deity. The spiritually enlightened understood that these items were simply tools, aids in deepening the believers' experience of the ineffable. Unfortunately, trapped as they were in their tangible bodies, taking in information through the tangible senses that were all they had, humans quickly came to mistake idols for gods.

But idols are not gods. Made, as they were, of impermanent materials--wood, clay, stone, forgeable metal, canvas, paint--idols wore out. Drop the idol and it might dent or shatter; bring it too close to a sacrificial flame and it might be consumed; leave it out in the rain and it might rust. What kind of god is as subject to the elements as its puny worshippers? One that can be manipulated, coerced, bent to the will of the priests.

So these religious thinkers made a theological leap: to prevent the faithful from believing God was anything other than eternal, there would be no more idols, whether in the temple or the home. The God of Israel was invisible, untouchable, yet omniscient and omnipresent. There was no hiding from a God who was not limited to a physical location, who was, at the same time, a God who could be turned to at any time, any place, for support.

Humans being humans, though, the prohibition on idolatry had to be revisited every generation. This became true, as well, for Judaism's offshoots, Christianity and Islam, both of which reaffirmed the ban on images, yet found their own ways to fixate on tangible objects of one kind or another. The East-West schism that divided Rome from the Eastern Orthodox Church was in large part over iconography; the Puritan English strand of the Protestant Reformation was also iconoclastic. More recently, the Taliban movement in Afghanistan made a point of destroying Buddhist artwork, some of it national treasures hundreds of years old, considered idolatrous by fundamentalist imams.

And still we humans crave the tangible, no matter how angrily our prophets rail against confusing it with the holy. Earlier today, I wrote about how Americans have located their faith in cloth banners and holy books. The remainder of this essay will be about another form of idolatry, one that almost always ends in disappointment: our devotion for persons of great talent and accomplishment. Most specifically, I'm writing about two icons of American comedy, one a United States Senator, the other the leading voice in the confessional approach to stand up. Both of been leading voices for women's rights, and the importance of men acting and speaking in behalf of those rights. And both, we are learning, have feet of clay.

You know their names: Al Franken and Louis CK. The boorish behavior they committed in the past has come to light as part of a great house-cleaning kicked off with the revelation that Hollywood producer and Democratic donor Harvey Weinstein had been committing acts of sexual harassment and assault for decades. The avalanche of harassment revelations began with the Bill Cosby scandal, picked up speed with Fox News luminaries Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly, and with the inclusion of Weinstein, CK, and Franken, not to mention former President George H.W. Bush, Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and--lest we forget--the Predator in Chief, Donald J. Trump, spans the political and entertainment spectrum.

The tide really began to turn with the Women's March last January. Furious that this nation could elect an admitted harasser President (although, it could be argued, that had already happened in the person of Bill Clinton), women and supportive men flooded the streets of America on the day after the inauguration. I was part of the Portland march, and while it was about many things--I saw signs protesting Trumpist attitudes toward climate change, health care, immigration, and more--it was clear from the prevalence of "pussy hats" and explicit representations of the female anatomy that what had us most riled up was this country's embrace of molestation. The revelations of Weinstein's abuses kicked off a hashtag campaign--"#metoo"--as women from every walk of life came forward announcing that they, too, had experienced unwanted kisses, gropes, innuendo, propositions, and much more, often from men they did not even know but who were looking at proximity to them as an opportunity to harass. 

I can't begin to understand what this is like. I'm a relatively tall man with broad shoulders. While I know there have been a time or two when I was made nervous by a threatening stranger, by and large I feel comfortable walking through downtown Portland in the middle of the night without fear of molestation. And except for a pass made by a waiter at a gay restaurant, I have never felt sexually objectified by a stranger.

That's not the case for the women in my life. Whenever they go out, they are subject to unwanted sexual attention. It may be subtle, even invisible, but it's always someone.

I knew about this, but until the revelations about bad behavior by prominent American men, I had no idea how ubiquitous it was. It makes the loss of the election by a woman, to a sexual abuser, that much more tragic, especially in light of the behavior Hillary Clinton has had to tolerate in her own home, by her own husband.

It's bad enough knowing the President is, like so many before him, a sexual opportunist who, thus far at least, has gone unpunished for his abuses. Learning that men on the other side, not (apparently) monsters like Weinstein or Cosby, but spokesmen for progressivism and enlightened masculinity, have themselves exploited power imbalances with women to take advantage of them sexually is the sick icing on the revolting cake. It's just too much.

Which brings me back to my opening thoughts on idolatry: to some extent, both Louis CK and Al Franken have been idols to many of us of the left. CK's comedy often made me squirm, but I heard truth in what he said about the male psyche, and how important it was to control those feelings and keep the impulses in check. Learning that he was not practicing what he preached, that he had cornered so many women and acted on his perverse impulses without anything like consent from them, was as much a gutpunch as when I learned that Bill Cosby had been drugging and raping women for decades. Compared to CK's excesses, the incident Al Franken was implicated in--and has already admitted to--seems relatively minor, but it's still a blow to my respect for him. I can't imagine ever listening to another CK routine without feeling nauseated, and Franken's wry smile will never again trigger the same satisfaction I've had in having such a smart, funny man in Congress, speaking in behalf of progressivism.

I'm saddened by the fall of these idols, but far more depressing is the sense that I've been here before. And I'm not just talking about Cosby: as I said earlier, Bill Clinton is just as guilty of inappropriate sexual advances as any of the other clay-footed idols coming down around us now. I heard the stories, but voted for him twice, anyway. Then came the Lewinsky scandal. I believed him when he denied having sexual relations with her--words I now know were technically correct if one includes only intercourse in the definition of "relations," but in spirit as lawyerly a lie as one can make--and then shattered when the truth came out. As complicated as my feelings toward Hillary Clinton were, I gave her a lot of credit for emerging from the hell their marriage must have been to build her own successful political career in its aftermath, while reaffirming that marriage. She's a stronger person than I could have been in the face of such betrayal.

But Bill Clinton was not the first idol to break my heart. That distinction belongs to a beloved United Methodist minister, a mentor to many, who kept his double life of victimizing young boys--including many who I know who only realized what had been behind their discomfort with something he did long after the fact--a secret until his death from AIDS, a disease he gave to his wife who preceded him in death by a year. He passed away in 1992, just as the vote on an anti-gay-rights ballot measure was about to take place, and the Bishop debated keeping it a secret for fear of giving ammunition to the Oregon Citizens Alliance. In the end, he elected to call a special session of clergy, where he read a statement about what had just been revealed. I was in tears before he finished the first sentence of the statement.

That is the way of all idols: eventually, they let us down. Nothing tangible is eternal. In time, every person or object in which we place our faith will come to an end, and chances are good that, before they meet that end, they will disappoint. When they do, we will do the human thing, and seek out something or someone else to take their place: a new sports hero, a more trustworthy politician, a more sincerely holy spiritual leader, a less flawed mentor. Provided we've learned our lesson, that quest for another idol need not be a bad thing. No matter how pure and praiseworthy the new idol may be, he/she/it, too, will pass. Perhaps next time, we won't be as shattered. We'll be able to tell ourselves it's the way of all flesh, that to believe otherwise is vanity and a longing after wind.

Or we'll just pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and idolize all over again.

Fragile Idols: Fabric and Paper

I knew I wanted an opening image that combined the American flag with a Bible, but until I googled it, I had no idea something this perfect existed.

Yes, this is a thing. It's available on Amazon. It's not just Bible wrapped in a flag cover, mind you: it's the God's Glory Bible, and it's the King James Version (known in Britain as the Authorized Version), so it's all written in the language of the empire the creators of that flag revolted against. And all that irony is, I suspect, completely lost on the people who will plunk down $39.99 to own it.

I googled the image because I've had a Trumped-up controversy on my mind. I've already written (was it really just seven weeks ago? Seems much longer...) about the Trumped-up controversy around NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem, and I thought I'd said all I needed to at the time. But then I spent four days in Texas, and it all came flooding back: the three years I spent treading water in a sea of double-barreled fundamentalists, the feeling toward the end that expressing my skepticism toward either blind patriotism or Biblical literalism might put my safety at risk, and the relief I felt escaping all that. It's still there, now with the added threat of open-carry gun ownership; and as friendly and hospitable as the hosting Orff chapters (they're Orff teachers, after all), and the citizens of Fort Worth I encountered were toward me and my fellow conference attendees, there was no escaping the ubiquity of those influences. Flags were everywhere, buses carried anti-abortion ads and, as I related in my last post, the conference began with instructions on what to do if a shooter walked into the convention center and opened fire.

With some distance from that place, and another day at home (my students decided to honor my return to the classroom by awarding me the STREP prize), I'm ready to tackle one of my longest-running philosophical/theological passions: American idolatry; more specifically, the two symbols Americans are most likely to worship at the expense of the invisible God they profess to follow.

Honoring the American flag has been a part of my life since early childhood. My father became an Eagle Scout when he was 14, probably just a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. All five of us became Cub Scouts, then Boy Scouts, and ultimately, Eagles, a feat few Scouting families can match. Respect toward American institutions is an essential part of the Scouting ethos, and my father did nothing to discourage this. On Scout Sundays, we were part of the honor guard carrying the flag into the sanctuary of Dad's church. We did the same in local parades, marching flags down Main Street of whatever town we lived in. When in Washington, DC, whether individually or as a family, we visited all the shrines of American democracy. In some ways, we were more consistently faithful to civil religion than we were to the Methodism in which we'd grown up.

And it stayed with me: I still reflexively gasp when I see American flags attached to cars and trucks, being blasted to tatters by the wind. I don't like to see clothing decorated with the flag, either, except as a shoulder patch. Having it plastered across someone's chest or bottom feels wrong. My feelings about the flag extend to proper retirement of flags that have become too damaged by the elements to be displayed any longer: as an adult Scouter, I participated in a burning of such flags (the respectful way of disposing of flags).

And yet, there are lines that I draw. While I have often sung "The Star Spangled Banner" lustily, taught it to students, and played it countless times at the beginning of ComedySportz matches, I've become uncomfortable with the anthem, especially in light of the forgotten verses that follow the one we sing. There's some very bad poetry in those verses, but far worse, blatant racism and an endorsement of slavery.

The same could be said, of course, of the U.S. Constitution, though we have amended those ideas out of that foundational document. That is not the case, however, with respect to that other American idol: the Holy Bible.

There are many translations of the Bible available, but I'm thinking in particular of the King James. It's absolutely a Christian Bible, a translation based on the assumption that everything in the Hebrew scriptures was, one way or another, prophecy of the birth, live, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus Christ. More modern translations have sought to correct some of that bias, going after more accurate translations of both the Hebrew and Greek, and many in the Evangelical community have adopted one or another of those more recent versions. Even so, the archaic language and cadences of the KJV remain close to the heart of some of the most idolatrous of American churches, those who esteem this book more highly than God or Christ.

And yes, it is a book. During my seminary days at SMU, Professor John Holbert, my academic advisor, liked to talk about a previous Bible professor who, on the first day of class, would throw a Bible on the floor and stomp on it, shouting to the students that "!!!" Nobody at the seminary ever did anything that radical in my time there, but I appreciated the point of the story: however much we may honor and respect the scriptural texts, it is, ultimately, a thing, and thus not identical with the Almighty.

That's the irony in the way so many conservative American Christians act toward both the flag and the Bible: Christian teaching, and Jewish teaching before that, is utterly opposed to the use of any physical thing as an object of worship. The Old Testament goes to great lengths to ridicule the use of images by pagan religionists, and to condemn their intrusion into the temple, to the point of calling them an abomination. In the wake of the destruction of the temple, this became a far simpler thing for Jewish practice, though over time, respect for the Torah could be mistaken by some to be a kind of idolatry.

The church, growing up as it did in the far more idol-tolerant culture of the Roman Empire, quickly took on the trappings of the former pagan beliefs of its adherents. By the time of the Reformation, Catholic worship had so steeped in iconography and pageantry, leading English puritans to smash stained glass windows and discard altar crosses. That ethos traveled to America, and surviving colonial churches maintain the simplicity of the puritan esthetic. But human nature abhors a symbolic vacuum, and over time, Americans embraced both the Bible and the flag as objects worthy of worship.

So here we are today. There is no escaping the power of the flag as an idol of civil religion. Even those who burn it in protest are acknowledging that power, for if the flag was just a colorful piece of fabric, its destruction would have no shock value--and give no satisfaction to the anarchists setting it aflame. Similarly, the Bible is held in such high regard by American Evangelicals that defacing it in any way is considered a kind of desecration (a word also applied to anarchist treatment of flags).

The prophets and theologians who composed the Hebrew and Greek scriptures that became the Bible understood how problematic this can be. Valuing an object over the principles it represents has again and again been a hallmark of authoritarian movements: the Crusades, the Ku Klux Klan, fascism, and now Trumpism. Nationalism is an inherently idolatrous movement, advocating worship of the state and its leaders. Nationalism engulfs its adherents in passions within which the higher ideals of religion have no place. Thus, the Evangelical voters of Alabama don't just ignore the pedophilic history of Roy Moore; they circle their wagons around him to protect him against the accusations of his victims. It's a local version of the madness that overtook Evangelicalism a year ago as the most conservative religionists in America enthusiastically turned out for a Presidential candidate who was an unrepentant adulterer, molester, liar, cheater, thief, egomaniac, and bigot. By and large, they still support him, despite a year in which he has not walked back any of his excesses.

It's no surprise that Trump's embrace of the flag is blatantly idolatrous, or that he views the taking of a knee by a person of color as tantamount to desecration of that flag; or that his followers affirm those same fascistic opinions. What is startling is the extent to which Evangelical Christians have been willing to abandon one of the primary themes of the Bible they also claim to revere, and to follow him down the garden path to open idolatry.

There's a moment in the Exodus narrative that is becoming eerily prophetic: Moses has spent too much time on the mountain, talking to God. In his absence, the people have grown restless, and prevail upon Moses's brother, Aaron, to make them an idol they can see and touch, who is neither invisible nor absent. He does that, taking their jewelry, melting it down, and fashioning a golden calf. Finally returning with the tablets of the Law, Moses sees what the people of done and, horrified at their contravention of one of the central tenet of the Law, throws the tablets down, shattering them. What follows is a slaughter of the idolaters.

If Evangelicals genuinely believe that the Bible says what it means, and means what it says, they'd best reconsider their embrace of Roy Moore, Donald Trump, and the flimsy objects in which they've placed their trust. The time is coming when they will be held accountable for their neglect of the most essential commandments; and if Exodus is any indication, they're not going to like the outcome.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Active Shooter

Mourners in Sutherland Springs, Texas

There is no conference like an Orff conference. When music educators who practice the Orff philosophy gather, we celebrate. We play, sing, dance, laugh, and rejoice in the incredible privilege of sharing our love of music with children. For three days last week, that's what we did, and in every way except one, it was exactly the conference we all needed in this Age of Trump.

That one exception, though, was huge: this was the first time I've ever known a conference to begin with the host telling us what to do in the event of an active shooter.

The announcement could very well have happened anywhere the conference was held. It came, after all, just weeks after the worst mass shooting in American history--and just days after the second-worst shooting. In each case, a white American used assault weapons to slaughter innocent people who had gathered to celebrate. In the first instance, they were attending a music festival in Las Vegas. In the second, they were worshipping in a small Baptist church. And those are just the big ones: just today, there was a shooting at a school in northern California that took four lives. Every day, somewhere in America, random people are killed by bloodthirsty gun owners.

So in a time of NRA-approved terrorism, that announcement could well have been made had the conference been in Cincinnati, San Diego, or Atlantic City. That it was made in Fort Worth, though, made it even more frightening, because Texas is where the church shooting happened; but even scarier than that, of all the gun-loving states in the nation, Texas has to be near or at the top of the list.

Heading back to the airport at the end of the conference, I shared an Uber with two other teachers. As our gregarious driver maneuvered through the DFW traffic, he held forth on many things that startled us: his opinion that San Francisco was full of illegal aliens too lazy to work (he was, himself, an immigrant from India); the joy of hunting for and eating large game animals (his Hindu parents, he told us, would be horrified if they knew); and most of all, his dedication to gun culture. He and his wife both kept guns in their glove compartments (though not when he's driving for Uber; it's against their policies, though one of my fellow teachers told us that coming from the airport to the convention center, her driver had announced he kept a gun in his car, despite that policy). Texas is an open carry state, a state in which licensed gun owners can wear their weapons or, if they happen to be too large to wear (think, again, assault rifles), carry them, as some gun activists have done, to the consternation of the patrons of the establishments they carried them into.

The church shooting is already fading from the headlines, pushed out by underage sexual assault allegations against a gun-flaunting Alabamian Senate candidate. For the day or two that it was current, though, there was a statement by the President that managed, in just one breath, to call for prayers for the victims and insist that the rapid-firing, large magazine weapons that had indiscriminately mowed small children, grandparents, and everyone between those extremes as they cowered in the pews had had nothing to do with the death toll. It was, Trump insisted, all due to a faulty mental health system. And in fact, it was revealed a few days later, the perpetrator had at one point escaped from a psych ward, and according to Texas law, should not have been permitted to purchase the weapons he did. It seems the Air Force, from which he had been discharged after beating and seriously injuring his infant stepson, had neglected to notify the proper authorities of his conviction on assault charges.

In fact, though, that highlights the precise problem with the insignificant gun control measures that somehow have managed to squeak past the NRA's demonic devotion to absolute firearm libertarianism: reporting agencies make mistakes. People who should never be permitted to own a slingshot, let alone an assault weapon that can take 26 lives in a matter of minutes, slip through the cracks in the reporting system.

Suppose 26 people had died in the collapse of a bridge that had failed an inspection but, due to a reporting error, had not been closed for renovation or replacement. The scandal would lead to a complete rewrite of the codes that had permitted the disaster to take place.

And yet, week to week, year to year, the systems we have in place to monitor gun ownership permit mass murderers to purchase arsenals and turn them against innocent people. This particular murderer had traveled to the church to kill his former mother-in-law (after his abuse conviction, his wife divorced him); not finding her there, he nevertheless took 26 lives.

Simply put, systems and regulations to restrict and prohibit the sale of firearms to people who might use them against others are failing miserably. That these military-grade weapons are even available for purchase by the general public is an abomination. The only way to keep them from being used in the way they have been used over and over again is to stop selling them and require the forfeiture of those that are already in the possession of American citizens.

Perversely, the NRA takes every mass shooting as an opportunity to double down on its appeals to gun owners to lobby for even less restrictions on their bloody hobby. Rather than being martyrs to the cause of disarmament, those 26 dead Texans have been sacrificed on the altar of gun worship.

I had a wonderful conference, full of sublime moments of music-making and learning. I shared my hotel room with an Orff newby, who was attending for his first time, and who'd never taken any Orff workshops before. At the end of the first day, we were commiserating about the shock of that morning announcement, the dreadful state of American culture, and he remarked that what we were doing--creating safe spaces for children to learn to make music together--might well be the solution to all America's problems. I loved his idealism. I share it: my personal creed as a music educator is that I work to nurture an appreciation for truth and beauty in my students.

But all of that would be so much easier if we could just start to get rid of the goddamned guns.