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.