Sunday, December 30, 2012

On the Dignity of Humankind

So far as we know, we are the only things in the universe lamenting over how small and insignificant we are.

The most distant object ever observed, a galaxy 13.3 billion light years from earth

Friday, December 28, 2012

Gay Marriage in 1975 and Now

Richard Adams demanded and got a license for his marriage to Tony Sullivan in Boulder, Colorado in 1975.  When the State of Colorado refused to recognize their marriage, they sued.  So far as I know, they were the first to take legal action to establish their right to marry.  Richard Adams died December 17th at the age of 65 after 43 years of marriage to Tony.

Richard Adams, right, with Tony Sullivan, center, and their attorney David M. Brown in 1975

I've written about same sex marriage before, most extensively here.

We forget that not so long ago, the very idea of gay marriage was unthinkably freakish. I think that the reason we have it anywhere at all is because the gay/lesbian rank and file wanted it and demanded it. Gay politicos were very reluctant to waste political capital on something that seemed so impossible when there were more urgent matters or more attainable goals out there like ending employment and housing discrimination and enacting hate crime laws. Gay intellectuals scoffed at the very idea of marriage. Why would any self-respecting Queer want to have anything to do with so patriarchal and proprietary an institution as marriage?

And yet, people really wanted it, and in big numbers.  As I remember, everyone was taken by surprise when crowds of couples turned out and lined up around the block when San Francisco briefly married gay/lesbian couples, and when Massachusetts began same sex marriage.  I notice that the people who pushed hardest for marriage were older couples who had been together for years, and even decades. In some ways, they had the most to lose if marriage initiatives failed. They had households with inheritance issues to think about, and medical issues to think about like access to loved ones, treatment decisions, and care-giving; things most younger people don't have to think about (at least not yet).  A problem faced by a lot of same sex couples, young and old, is hostile families determined to screw the partner if something happens to one of the couple.

Pointless rutting is great when you are young (I certainly enjoyed it, even when I was not so young anymore), but like youth itself, it can't last forever, and most of us would like someplace to go home to when it's over. No one (not even Andrew Sullivan) wants the gay version of the Victorian Domestic Ideal with the regal Patriarch lording it over offspring minions together with the virtuously subservient "Angel of the Household" (who must paradoxically play the role of Tower of Strength when catastrophe strikes the family).

We are all trying to find better ways to live with each other and to make happiness together. We forget that people marrying because they love each other in large numbers is a very recent and very modern innovation going only as far back as the late 18th century.  The historical record reveals that, far from being constant and unchanging, marriage is a very mutable institution.  The institution changes as people adapt to and take advantage of changing circumstances and expectations of life.     Many choose to be alone, but no one chooses to be lonely. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas 2012

There is a special sadness and poignancy to Christmas this year.  In this country, the recent massacre of small school children in Connecticut casts a very dark shadow over one of the two most important feast days in the Christian religious calendar; Christmas when every child is the Christ Child.

We cannot help but remember those children, the 20 who died so horribly, together with 6 of their teachers and staff.  I'm puzzled as to why the first victim of the shooting rampage, Nancy Lanza, the murderer's mother, is not included in the tally of victims.  Perhaps it is in our nature to always second guess parents of the infamous, but all the accounts from witnesses describe a loving and conscientious mother.

As our favorite atheist, IT points out on her blog, if we Christians really believe what we claim about God's love being infinite and all powerful, then we would include Adam Lanza in our prayers for the dead.  We don't know what drove him to do this horrible thing.  We may never know.  There might not even be a "why."  But whatever the case, we proclaim that nothing can separate us from God's love, not even crime and evil.  Why should we be so stingy with something that God gives out so prodigally?

May this horrible event make us mindful this Christmas of the millions of children in this country and around the world who know violence, exploitation, neglect, and scorn as daily companions.

God, according to our Gospels, did not come into this world in any glorious theophany as irresistible destiny.  Who knows if there is anything literally true about the Gospel birth narratives (not much I would guess).  But the accounts of His birth tell us just what kind of messiah this was to be.  He was definitely not the radiant all-powerful champion on a fiery horse riding out of the sky who will set everything right that we all expect and we all want.
The Son of God was born in scandal and destitution, on the run with a price on His head, in a small country under foreign occupation.  God entered the world as a helpless infant who needed to be fed, kept warm, and cleaned just like all infants.  Our disappointment says more about us than about Him.

As I do every year, I post my 2 favorite Christmas hymns:

A Blessed Christmas, a Happy Holiday, and Best Wishes for a Happy, Peaceful, and Prosperous New Year to all of my readers.

The Portinari Altarpiece, painted by Hugo Van Der Goes around 1475 for an agent of the Medici banking interests in Bruges, Tommaso Portinari who appears in the left panel;  Van Der Goes was a monk in a monastery near Brussels, and is recorded to have suffered severe and even suicidal depression in the course of his life.  The painting arrived in Florence in 1483, about the time that Van Der Goes died.  It was installed over the altar of the church of San Egidio.  The painting created a sensation and was widely praised and imitated by late 15th century Florentine painters.
What is so striking about this painting is that The Virgin Mary, the angels, the shepherds, and even the Portinari family with their patron saints, stand together in the same circle as equals before the newborn Christ.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Friday, December 21, 2012

Mutual Assured Destruction for Everyone

... That is basically what the NRA proposed today, and is the position of all those on the far right who believe that Liberty comes through the barrel of a gun.

The armaments industry laughs at us all the way to the bank.

There is only one true guarantee of Liberty, and that is the rule of Law.  As Montesquieu said, "Outside the Law is Tyranny."

The power of the Law is our consent to live by it, and once that is gone, then all the firepower on earth cannot bring it back.  Without the Law is Hobbes' life in the "state of nature:" the "war of all against all" in a world where life is "nasty, brutish, and short," and hardly worth the bother of living.

So, who's the real "conservative" here?  Me or Wayne LaPierre who would have me pack a pistol every time I taught class?  Which one of us really values order over chaos?

This is the seldom seen East Pediment of the Supreme Court Building in Washington DC.  The East Pediment sculpture was designed by Hermon A.  MacNeil, a sculptor working with the architect, Cass Gilbert.  It expands upon the inscription on the entablature beneath; "Justice The Guardian of Liberty" composed by Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes in 1932.  In the center is Solon of Athens flanked on the right by Moses and on the left by Confucius.  On the left are allegories of criminal law and enforcement.  On the right are allegories of civil law with mercy and prudence.

Oh Crap! It's Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Penultimate Day

"Don't they know, it's the end of the world..."

Some are saying that the Mayan calendar says that the world ends tomorrow.  Meanwhile, the Mayans themselves are still making plans.

Millenialism is a funny thing.


And you know that you're going to hear this all day tomorrow:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Consolations of Mary Cassatt

As the residents of Newtown bury their dead this week, Mary Cassatt's paintings are much on my mind, especially her paintings of mothers and children.  Her paintings are perhaps even more consoling in this day and age than the older religious paintings.  These are familiar experiences, even to those of us who are not parents, and they require no mythic or credal understanding.  They are deeply humane images of our most basic experience of love and affection, as children and as parents.  They quietly declare these experiences to be good and valuable for their own sakes.

Sometimes Mary Cassatt's paintings of mothers and children are secularized and updated versions of the old Madonna and Child theme.  She takes on the old Renaissance painters on their own turf and acquits herself magnificently.  Other times, her paintings are more modern candid glimpses into the intimacies of private family life.  Sometimes, her paintings are more complex combinations of a variety of influences from the Italian High Renaissance to photography to Japanese prints.

Always her paintings are affectionate without resort to sentimentality.  It is a strange irony that this most poetic painter of motherhood was herself childless.

As time goes on, I have a growing respect and affection for the work of Mary Cassatt.

Baby's First Caress, 1890

The Bath, 1891

Sleepy Baby, 1910

Breakfast in Bed, 1897

Mother and Child

The Family, 1887

Mother and Child, 1890

Young Mother Sewing, 1902

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

An Ancient Crime Discovered ...

... and an ancient mystery perhaps solved.

The BBC and other news outlets are reporting this morning that recent CT scans on the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses III reveal a large and deep cut across his throat that was probably fatal.  The Pharaoh apparently was assassinated.  Until now, the fate of the Pharaoh Ramses III was largely unknown.  All of the surviving ancient records describe an attempted coup in 1155 BCE by one of his 2 wives, Tiye and by one of his sons, Pentaweret.  The records agree that the coup failed.  Prince Pentaweret was captured and committed suicide.  The assassination now appears to have succeeded.

The mummy of Pharaoh Ramses III; the linen around his neck cannot be removed because of preservation issues.  Until now, it hid the fatal injury in his neck.

The mummy of Ramses III was among the New Kingdom royal mummies discovered all together in a single tomb in the cliffs of Deir El Bahri.  Priests from a later dynasty removed most of the royal mummies from their tombs in the Valley of the Kings in order to protect them from looters (perhaps from mobs of looters descending on the Valley during a time of political and social disintegration).  When the cache was discovered in 1875, another mummy was discovered near Ramses III's mummy of an unknown man in a plain unadorned coffin, the Unknown Man E, better known as the "Screaming Mummy."

Unknown Mummy E, "The Screaming Mummy"

His mummification had been very hastily done with no evisceration.  The embalmers wrapped his body in a goat skin (considered very unclean by the ancient Egyptians) before putting it into the unpainted coffin with no inscriptions.  The hands and the legs of the body were bound with leather thongs.  He was very young, only about 18 years old.  The circumstances of the burial and the striking expression on the withered face gave rise to all kinds of speculation that he had been buried alive.

Recent forensic DNA tests on this mummy indicate that he was from the royal family, and directly related to Ramses III.  Scholars now think that this is the mummy of Prince Pentaweret who led the coup attempt.  This would explain the shabby treatment of this mummy by the embalmers.

Ramses III was the last great king of the New Kingdom period of Egyptian history.  Even before his death, Egypt began to suffer economic decline and foreign predation.  Most of his reign was consumed in warfare, repelling invasions by the neighboring Libyans and by the Sea Peoples who may have been seafaring Greeks enduring their own dark age in the wake of the Dorian Invasions.  Though ultimately victorious for Egypt, these wars were hard fought and very costly in terms or lives and treasure.

Pharaoh Ramses III's mortuary temple at Medinet Habu near Luxor is the last great monument from New Kingdom Egypt.  The king was buried in a secret tomb in the Valley of the Kings, but in this massive temple on the west bank of the Nile, resident priests perpetuated his cult for centuries.

The granite sarcophagus of Ramses III in the Louvre

The mortuary temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu

The entrance to the temple of Ramses III

A relief sculpture from the temple showing the Pharaoh killing captured enemy soldiers


The mummy of Ramses III was the inspiration for the extraordinary makeup for Boris Karloff in the 1932 movie The Mummy.


Paintings from the tomb of Ramses III in the Valley of the Kings:

Monday, December 17, 2012


I don't really believe in "recovering" from grief.

Our culture does not like grief, and puts a lot of pressure on the bereaved to "find closure" (whatever the hell that means), and to get on with life.  The angry cynic in me asks, "in whose interest is it to 'put this behind and to get on with life'?"
Sure, we recover from the loss of those we love, like we recover from an amputation.  Life goes on, and so do we, but we are never really whole again.

Nothing in this world is worse than for parents to see their children die before them.  That is worse than death itself.  And now scores of parents are going through that worst of pain right now in Connecticut.  I can't imagine anything we could say or do that could possibly mitigate that suffering other than to offer our sympathies and to share their sorrow as best as we can.

For the rest of us who have not been directly touched by this horrific event, but who have been preoccupied with it, here are some images in which we may find some consolation.

The first is by Adolphe Bouguereau, The Virgin of Consolation from 1875.

I must confess that I'm not all that fond of this picture.  It's beautifully painted, and yet the sentiment rings hollow.  But it is a painting specifically about the loss of children.

At first I thought it was striking how few images there are in art about grieving for the loss of a child, especially from ages where child mortality was much more commonplace than in our time or in Bouguereau's time.  Then I realized how much religious imagery really did address that subject directly and indirectly from numerous versions of the Massacre of the Innocents to the Pieta. 

Probably the most common image intended to console the bereaved over the death of children was the Madonna with the sleeping Christ Child.  A sleeping Christ Child always foretells His death, which tradition says His Mother foresaw.  I've already reproduced one of the finest of these by Giovanni Bellini in a previous post.  Here are some others.

Andrea Mantegna

Piero della Francesca
In this case, the sleeping Child refers to the recent death of the Duchess of Urbino, Battista Sforza.  Her namesake saint, John the Baptist points to the Child and to the empty place where she should be in the painting opposite the armored Duke, Frederigo da Montefeltro, who commissioned the painting.

The 17th century artist Sassoferrato painted a number of these, many very beautiful like this one.

Another version of the picture above, the same composition reversed

Giuseppe Maria Crespi

My personal favorite consoling image, much on my mind lately, is this detail from Rembrandt's famous "Hundred Guilder Print" showing the entire 19th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

Rembrandt shows verses 13 and 14 in this detail:

"Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them.
But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven."
A mother presents her infant while Peter tries to send her away.  Behind her, another mother with an infant is directed by her toddler who eagerly strides toward Christ.  His dog wonders at the commotion.
Behind them, the Rich Young Man sulks after getting an unwelcome answer to his question.  The Scribes and Pharisees plot to catch Jesus with legal sophistry.  To the right of Christ, the sick and suffering plead for relief.
None of these children is particularly darling except maybe to their mothers.  They do nothing to plead for our sympathy or to tug our heart-strings.  Rembrandt shows sympathy without resort to sentimentality.

The Right Lost the Election Because They Can Be Such Assholes, Part 2

Adam Lanza didn't kill all those kids in Newtown, CT.  No no.

Secularists and gays did it:

That's right people, it's all your own fault for being such wild lustful pagans.  God smacked some sense into you by killing 20 small children and 6 of their teachers.

Sounds familiar.  Where have we heard this before?

Oh yeah!  Here eleven years ago:

So who's really politicizing a catastrophe here?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

We are a Brutal and Brutalized People

From DDay at Firedoglake:

Somehow, the tea leaf-reading of what frontiersmen living 230-plus years ago thought about gun ownership takes precedence over the actual consequences of a current situation where guns are so easily obtained and used. Just to pick at random, here are a couple headlines at the Hartford Courant site just from the past 24 hours: Woman Shot, Man Dead After Standoff In Rocky Hill. Armed Robbery At Hartford Bank, Two In Custody. It’s not that school shootings like this are abnormal. They are depressingly normal. The fact that there were no shootings in one day in New York City recently was seen as a major achievement, which shows you how desensitized we have become to gun violence as a normal occurrence of daily life.

Massacre of Innocents

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Massacre of Innocents, 1566

"We build a fire in a powder magazine, then double the fire department to put it out. We inflame wild beasts with the smell of blood, and then innocently wonder at the wave of brutal appetite that sweeps the land as a consequence."  
-- Mark Twain, 1907

Yesterday's massacre in an elementary school in Connecticut is very much on my mind today, and preoccupies just about everyone else I've been in contact with over the past 48 hours; Facebook friends, colleagues at the college, and my students talk about nothing but, and in shocked and astonished tones.

The mass murder of teenagers in a high school, of college students in class, of people out to watch a movie are all unbearable, but the senseless murder of 20 children, and small children at that, and 7 adults is beyond the usual bloody spectacle of so much American public life.  I don't think I've ever seen a President of the United States publicly so close to tears as I did yesterday.  While parents feel the shock and horror of this most immediately, those of us who are not parents are amazed and horrified at this catastrophe.

There are the furious arguments over fire-arms policies in the USA.  There are preemptive attempts to shut this discussion down out of consideration for the feelings of the bereaved (so it is claimed), but as Ezra Klein said so eloquently yesterday, the aftermath of a gun massacre is not too soon for such a discussion, but too late.  James Fallows pointed out yesterday that a recent rampage in China injured 22 children while the rampage in Connecticut killed 20 children; that's the difference that guns make.  My own views on guns are starting to harden in the wake of this massacre.  I've always thought that assault weapons should be off the market, and now I'm willing to entertain the idea of a handgun ban along the lines of Britain's 1997 fire arms law enacted in the wake of a similar massacre of children at Dunblane in Scotland in 1996.  Our stubborn refusal to do the obvious, even after the bodies pile up higher and higher after each bloody rampage is insanity.

Even beyond the issue of guns, there's our country's deeper addiction to violence.  The Marquis de Sade answered Jean Jacques Rousseau's claim that nature knew no crime with "Nature averse to crime?  I tell you Nature yearns in all her pores for bloodshed!" and it seems so do we.  Entertainment here consists of gladiatorial combats of one form or another, and the revenge fantasy is the bread and butter of movies and television.  There is the action movie, the most formulaic of all movie genres, that always centers around the impatient Man of Action heavily armed who deals with obstacles to the course of Justice by blasting through them.  The impact of guns and grenades, their consequences for both the dead and living, are minimized in order to focus on what Walter Benjamin called the "fiery orchids of machine guns," the compelling aesthetics of mayhem.
The entertainment industry feeds off the fantasies of frustrated young men, and in turn feeds all the rest of us with fantasies of power and revenge without consequences.  And we eat it up like candy.  We sit in our office cubicles or work the fryers imagining ourselves as our own Rambo taking out bad guys, enemies, aliens, communists, terrorists, and anyone who stands in our way (even if that turns out to be an elementary school).

There remains the intractable mystery of evil.  We may never really know what drove the murderer, Adam Lanza, to do this.  There may be no reason beyond the delusions of a diseased mind.  We inevitably think how something like this could happen, how does this reflect upon the world we live in?  How could a loving God permit this to happen?  For that matter, why is there even this dust?  The secular explanations about evolutionary advantage or disadvantage are no more satisfying than the anodyne formulas of conventional religion.  None of them account for the presence of evil in our midst, or for why it too frequently succeeds in its destructive designs.

I think the worst thing to say is that all of this madness is somehow "God's Will" or part of His mysterious design.  God is not a monster.  God is innocent of our evils.  I've never believed in an all-controlling deity who causes everything that happens to happen.  We are free to choose love and glory as well as grief and infamy, and we all go through life sampling from each.  We make our own beds that we lie in.  Nature follows its own catastrophic path to self-perpetuation.  We suffer from its power not because Nature is furious, but because we are in its way.  We suffer evil, pain, and death not because we are wicked, but because we are mortal.  Terrible shit happens to us, and it means nothing other than we can't last and we must die.  And yet I can't believe that disasters like this are our final end.  Our lives end, but they don't necessarily conclude.  In the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, I still believe that Love is stronger than death.

Elie Wiesel once told a story (that he later included in The Night) about how in the concentration camp, he and the other prisoners were forced to watch the SS hang a young boy for a minor infraction.  One of his fellow prisoners jabbed him in the back and hissed "Where is your God now?"  Wiesel's answer many years later was that God was there on the scaffold waiting to be hanged with that boy.

Mahler, from Kindertotenlieder:

"In diesem Wetter"
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus,
nie hätt' ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus;
man hat sie getragen hinaus,
ich durfte nichts dazu sagen!
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Saus,
nie hätt' ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus;
ich fürchtete sie erkranken,
das sind nun eitle Gedanken.
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Graus,
Nie hätt' ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus;
ich sorgte, sie stürben morgen,
das ist nun nicht zu besorgen.
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Graus!
Nie hätt' ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus!
Man hat sie hinaus getragen,
ich durfte nichts dazu sagen!
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Saus, in diesem Braus,
sie ruh'n als wie in der Mutter Haus,
von keinem Sturm erschrecket,
von Gottes Hand bedecket.

"In this weather"
In this weather, in this windy storm,
I would never have sent the children out.
They have been carried off,
I wasn't able to warn them!
In this weather, in this gale,
I would never have let the children out.
I feared they sickened:
those thoughts are now in vain.
In this weather, in this storm,
I would never have let the children out,
I was anxious they might die the next day:
now anxiety is pointless.
In this weather, in this windy storm,
I would never have sent the children out.
They have been carried off,
I wasn't able to warn them!
In this weather, in this gale, in this windy storm,
they rest as if in their mother's house:
frightened by no storm,
sheltered by the Hand of God.


The names of the victims have now been released.  The children were all 6 or 7 years old.  All of the victims were shot multiple times.

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna of the Meadow, circa 1505, a painting about death and dying.  The late autumn landscape, the bare trees, and above all the sleeping infant direct us to meditate upon our end.

Raphael's Sistine Madonna from about 1515, another painting about death and dying.  The bed curtains part and Our Lady and Our Lord, together with Saints Sixtus and Barbara, descend out of the realms of light to greet us at the hour of our death; a Christian painting for the time of death similar to a Japanese Buddhist raigo painting.

The Heavenly Life

 Caspar David Friedrich, The Evening Star

Das himmlische Leben
Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden,
D'rum tun wir das Irdische meiden.
Kein weltlich' Getümmel
Hört man nicht im Himmel!
Lebt alles in sanftester Ruh'.
Wir führen ein englisches Leben,
Sind dennoch ganz lustig daneben;
Wir tanzen und springen,
Wir hüpfen und singen,
Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu.

Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset,
Der Metzger Herodes d'rauf passet.
Wir führen ein geduldig's,
Unschuldig's, geduldig's,
Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod.
Sankt Lucas den Ochsen tät schlachten
Ohn' einig's Bedenken und Achten.
Der Wein kost' kein Heller
Im himmlischen Keller;
Die Englein, die backen das Brot.

Gut' Kräuter von allerhand Arten,
Die wachsen im himmlischen Garten,
Gut' Spargel, Fisolen
Und was wir nur wollen.
Ganze Schüsseln voll sind uns bereit!
Gut' Äpfel, gut' Birn' und gut' Trauben;
Die Gärtner, die alles erlauben.
Willst Rehbock, willst Hasen,
Auf offener Straßen
Sie laufen herbei!

Sollt' ein Fasttag etwa kommen,
Alle Fische gleich mit Freuden angeschwommen!
Dort läuft schon Sankt Peter
Mit Netz und mit Köder
Zum himmlischen Weiher hinein.
Sankt Martha die Köchin muß sein.

Kein' Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,
Die unsrer verglichen kann werden.
Elftausend Jungfrauen
Zu tanzen sich trauen.
Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht.
Kein' Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,
Die unsrer verglichen kann werden.
Cäcilia mit ihren Verwandten
Sind treffliche Hofmusikanten!
Die englischen Stimmen
Ermuntern die Sinnen,
Daß alles für Freuden erwacht.

The Heavenly Life
We enjoy heavenly pleasures
and therefore avoid earthly ones.
No worldly tumult
is to be heard in heaven.
All live in greatest peace.
We lead angelic lives,
yet have a merry time of it besides.
We dance and we spring,
We skip and we sing.
Saint Peter in heaven looks on.

John lets the lambkin out,
and Herod the Butcher lies in wait for it.
We lead a patient,
an innocent, patient,
dear little lamb to its death.
Saint Luke slaughters the ox
without any thought or concern.
Wine doesn't cost a penny
in the heavenly cellars;
The angels bake the bread.

Good greens of every sort
grow in the heavenly vegetable patch,
good asparagus, string beans,
and whatever we want.
Whole dishfuls are set for us!
Good apples, good pears and good grapes,
and gardeners who allow everything!
If you want roebuck or hare,
on the public streets
they come running right up.

Should a fast day come along,
all the fishes at once come swimming with joy.
There goes Saint Peter running
with his net and his bait
to the heavenly pond.
Saint Martha must be the cook.

There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Even the eleven thousand virgins
venture to dance,
and Saint Ursula herself has to laugh.
There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Cecilia and all her relations
make excellent court musicians.
The angelic voices
gladden our senses,
so that all awaken for joy.

---from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, German folk poems collected by Felix Brentano

Friday, December 14, 2012

Make It Stop

Today in Connecticut, the worst gun massacre since the Virginia Tech massacre, in an elementary school; so far reports say 27 are dead, 18 of those are children.  The gunman is dead and remains unidentified.

A Facebook friend says, contrary to conventional wisdom, that now is the perfect time to discuss gun policy.  I posted my views on the day of the Aurora, Colorado massacre here.  I haven't changed my mind.  Quite the contrary...


I'm not a fan of Mayor Bloomberg, but I think he's right in this statement from today:

With all the carnage from gun violence in our country, it's still almost impossible to believe that a mass shooting in a kindergarten class could happen. It has come to that. Not even kindergarteners learning their A,B,Cs are safe. We heard after Columbine that it was too soon to talk about gun laws. We heard it after Virginia Tech. After Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek. And now we are hearing it again. For every day we wait, 34 more people are murdered with guns. Today, many of them were five-year olds. President Obama rightly sent his heartfelt condolences to the families in Newtown. But the country needs him to send a bill to Congress to fix this problem. Calling for 'meaningful action' is not enough. We need immediate action. We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership - not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today. This is a national tragedy and it demands a national response. My deepest sympathies are with the families of all those affected, and my determination to stop this madness is stronger than ever.


Ezra Klein in today's WaPo:

"If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing. If terrorists were detonating bombs in port after port, you can be sure Congress would be working to upgrade the nation’s security measures. If a plague was ripping through communities, public-health officials would be working feverishly to contain it.
Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. But that’s unacceptable. As others have observed, talking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t 'too soon.' It’s much too late."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dan Savage is Right

... once again.

I've never written to or spoken to Dan Savage. I have spent an awful lot of time arguing with all those dreary troglodytes in the comment threads on Thinking Anglicans and on other Anglican/Episcopal sites.  The more I read their sour dismissive tone and their tangled legal and doctrinal arguments trying to defend the indefensible, the more I'm inclined to agree with HL Mencken's definition of puritanism as the haunting fear that someone somewhere is happy.  I may be a universalist heretic, but the idea of salvation by doctrinal soundness caused far more harm than good down through history.  Just ask Giordano Bruno or John of the Cross, or my Quaker ancestors who got run out of Massachusetts.

I think a major weakness on the part of liberal Christians (and liberals in general) is the inbred imperative to be "nice," and confusing that with the necessary imperative to be fair.  As Hendrick Hertzberg pointed out, "niceness is the enemy of fairness."  It doesn't help that our enemies are so thin-skinned, that they can dish it out, but they can't take it.  Especially for those of us who are gay, they can beat the mother-fucking shit out of us and demand that we face the death penalty, life in prison, and any number of legal penalties (Hello Scott Lively and friends), but if we turn around and kick 'em hard in the shins and call them out on their shit, then they fall down in the street and scream bloody murder.  We do have to be fair.  We do not have to be nice.

As that very wise and learned Episcopal priest in the Bronx Tobias Haller pointed out, Jesus commanded us to love our enemies.  He never said that we shouldn't have any.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ravi Shankar, RIP

Krishna and Radha in the Moonlight, 18th century Mughal miniature

Monday, December 10, 2012

My Advent Tradition

Recently it involves piles of grading, last classes, final exams, term papers to grade, and lotsa meetings.  I don't usually get a chance to show my face around church until 4th Advent.  It looks like this year will be no different.

Sorry this blog has been so sparse lately, but I hope to have more frequent posting in time for Christmas.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Comment Notice

Because of the flood of commercial spam for the Xmas season, the comment section now accepts only registered users, including open IDs, but no comments marked "anonymous."  The junk is taking up too much space.

I don't want to resort to one of those eye-test word verifications to make sure comments aren't coming from robots.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Supremes to Decide on Marriage Equality

The Supreme Court decided to hear arguments on 2 cases affecting marriage equality:  Hollingsworth vs. Perry which challenges California's Proposition 8 banning same sex marriage, and United States vs. Windsor which challenges the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

I have a bad feeling about this.

What does it say about the current state of the Supreme Court that we know with reasonable certainty how 4 of those Justices will rule, even before the arguments are presented?  Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and probably Chief Justice Roberts will almost certainly vote against marriage equality.  Justice Scalia has practically announced his intentions since the Lawrence vs. Texas decision that ended the criminalization of gays and lesbians in which he was the most strident of the dissenters.

Justices Sotomayor, Ginzburg, Kagan, and maybe Breyer might be reliable for a favorable decision, but that is not certain. 

As usual, it all boils down to Justice Kennedy.

There is the possibility that the Justices could void all the existing policies in the 9 states that have marriage equality (an extreme measure that could have unintended consequences such as calling into doubt the Loving vs. Virginia ruling that voided state anti-miscegenation laws).  More likely, they will simply leave the status quo in place by saying that states do have a right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.  Both of those outcomes would be enormous setbacks that will last for decades.

It is also possible that whatever the ruling on Proposition 8, it will apply only to California (which raises the question of why they wanted to hear the case in the first place) and rule on DOMA separately.

It is also possible that the Court will throw out both California's Proposition 8 and DOMA and state unequivocally that 14th Amendment protections apply to gays and lesbians and other sexual minorities, that LGBTs are indeed full citizens of the United States and as such, should not be subject to any disabling or discriminatory legislation.

I'm not optimistic about that last outcome.  Whatever the decision, it's a safe bet that the Court will vote its usual 5-4 split.  The days when Supreme Court Chief Justices worked for consensus on the bench are long over.

The Supreme Court is as starkly divided as Congress, reflecting a sharply divided electorate.  There are 2 opposed and perhaps irreconcilable visions of the United States in conflict.  One is the USA as a white Christian republic where enfranchisement is a privilege.  The other is the USA as a cosmopolitan secular democracy where enfranchisement is a right.  My loyalties are firmly with the latter.


Linda Hirshman at The New Republic says that we should indeed worry about the Supremes taking on these cases.   She points out that Bowers vs. Hardwick, which was a devastating loss for gay rights upholding state sodomy laws, was a reasonable gamble that lost 5 to 4.

It Must Be Christmas ...

The commercial spammers are getting very aggressive.  Thanks be to Blogger for their spam detectors and for comment screening.

Here American Christmas gets the satire it so richly deserves.

Yes, I'll have something to say about the Supreme Court, but in the meantime, I have to go to work.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Pearl Harbor Day

I remember today my Uncle Jim (James E. Cory) who was a Marine stationed on the Arizona that morning.  He was there when the bombs hit, and lived to tell about it.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Oscar Niemeyer

The great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer died yesterday at the age of 104.  A former protege of Le Corbusier, Niemeyer perhaps more than any other 20th century architect made International Modernism into a power style after World War II.  Until the end of the war, modern design was largely confined to commercial and domestic architecture.  You could use as much sheet glass and reinforced concrete as you wanted on a private home or a business, but city hall needed columns.  The combined forces of Hitler and Stalin killed off classical architecture, poisoning it as any kind of viable public architecture for generations to come.  Niemeyer shaped modern design to fill the vacuum in public architecture left by the destruction of classicism.  Niemeyer made great progress in solving the conundrum of how to make modern design -- the creation of the modernist project to collapse the distinction between form and meaning through reductivism -- articulate public meaning.
It turns out that political leaders of all types from British MPs to Chinese cadres loved this new style, especially as Niemeyer developed it into a magnificent ceremonial architecture, still with lingering memories of the old classical order (the ghosts of those columned peristyles persist in Niemeyer's buildings in Brasilia).  The new International Modern style said "Progress!" and "Science!" and "Technology!" The new style was as grand as the old, and seemed to look forward into a promised future rather than back into a glorious past.

Niemeyer was one of the original architects of the United Nations HQ in New York (together with Le Corbusier and Wallace Harrison).  The UN Building was the first use ever of International Modernism on a large scale to house a major public institution.  Governments and businesses everywhere immediately took notice when the buildings were completed.

The project that will forever be associated with Oscar Niemeyer is Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, and the largest and most ambitious project of International Modernism; an entire capital city built from scratch.

Juscelino Kubitschek became President of Brazil in 1956 and decided to fulfill an old ambition written into Brazil's 1891 constitution, to move the capital out of Rio de Janeiro to a place in the interior close to the center of the country.  Kubitschek wanted to build a new capital city in the middle of the Brazilian interior.  He wanted that new capital built in a new forward-looking modern design.  After a competition involving over 5000 entries, Lucio Costa was awarded the commission to design the new city's layout, and Oscar Niemeyer received the commission to design and build the city's major buildings.  For the first time ever, an entire capital city would be designed and built using the International Modernist style.  Brasilia would be Niemeyer's most famous and important accomplishment.  The city center was completed and ready to be occupied in 1960.

View of the center of Brasilia;  Costa and Niemeyer originally intended to have everyone from the most important cabinet ministers to janitors share neighborhoods in the new city.  Niemeyer was a true believing socialist all his life who wanted no segregation of the city by class.  Needless to say, Brasilia as built is just as segregated and hierarchical as any other city on earth,

The federal center of Brasilia with the National Congress buildings at the far end of a mall that looks to me like a derivation of L'Enfant's design for Washington DC.

Ministry buildings under construction in Brasilia in 1959

The National Congress buildings under construction in 1957

I must admit to very mixed feelings about Brasilia.  First off, I must confess that I've never been there.  I know the place only from pictures and second hand accounts.  Even so, to me the city now looks very dated.  Few things age more poorly than Visions of Tomorrow.  Niemeyer and Costa followed Le Corbusier's lead in city planning.  Everything would be planned around the automobile, just as in Le Corbusier's Voisin plan and in his idea of The Radiant City.  That idea of planning cities around cars is itself very dated.  Today, Brasilia is a notoriously hostile city to pedestrians as a result, and it's not that much more friendly to drivers with its broad boulevards and multi-lane highways constantly choked with traffic.  As beautiful as Brasilia can be, it is not very kind to the people who live there.  It also doesn't help that it is in so remote and isolated a place in the Brazilian interior, miles away from the nearest town of any consequence.

Dated as Brasilia is, some of its original state buildings designed by Niemeyer have held up remarkably well over time, and are still gratifying.

The National Congress buildings

The National Congress buildings with the Supremo Tribunal Federal to the right

The Supremo Tribunal Federal (Supreme Court)

The Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasilia:  Oscar Niemeyer was an atheist and a card-carrying Communist who had to flee the country after the 1964 military coup, and yet he designed some of the most original and beautiful religious architecture of the 20th century.

Interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral, Brasilia

The glass vaults of the Metropolitan Cathedral, Brasilia

One of Niemeyer's most beautiful buildings for Brasilia, the Palacio Alvorada, the official presidential residence

The reflecting pool of the Palacio Alvorada

The presidential chapel attached to the Palacio Alvorada, another one of Niemeyer's inventive church designs.

The grand entrance hall of the Palacio Alvorada;  I very much enjoy Niemeyer's flying ramps of thin reinforced concrete.

The state dining room of the Palacio Alvorada

The Obamas with President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil at the Palacio Alvorada


Brazil says farewell to Oscar Niemeyer.