Saturday, July 30, 2011

Politics. . . Where Has All the Fun Gone?

I used to think that politics are fun.  Back in the Summer of 1973, I would rush home from work every night, grab dinner, then turn on PBS for a replay of the day’s Senate Watergate Hearings.  I though for a while that I was the only nerdy person to be doing this until, one day, I was invited to a “gavel–to–gavel” party after work, at which a whole bunch of 20–somethings would have dinner together and watch the Hearings.  It was a blast.  Alone or with the group, the Hearings were more fun than anything else I could have done.

The characters!!!  Sam Ervin, the Chairman and an old country lawyer from North Carolina who seemed to know the entire Bible by heart.  John Dean, the whistle–blower, nervously giving his testimony while his gorgeous wife, Maureen, watched in a chair nearby.  Howard Baker, the senior Republican, who coined the phrase that has been copied frequently since: “What did the President know and when did he know it?”  Alexander Butterfield, the retired military officer who calmly told the Senate Watergate Committee and the country that President Nixon taped all his meetings and phone calls.  Sam Dash and Fred Thompson, the Committee’s counselors, who quietly but effectively kept things going and who seemed to work together so well.

The Senate Watergate Hearings, which led to the Nixon Impeachment Hearings, were amazing.  They were generally bipartisan and always well–run.  Senators Ervin and Baker made a seamless leadership.  For me, at the age of 25, this was political theater in the raw and politics working for the greater good.  As dangerous and deluded as I thought President Nixon was, the Senate Watergate Committee showed me what the U.S. really was like, what the U.S. stood for, and what the U.S. just would not tolerate.  Naive as I was, I thought this was what politics always are:  the eventual triumph of the good over the bad.

Now comes the Summer of 2011 and the Debt Limit Crisis.  What a difference 38 years have made!!!

Evil seems to be winning out over the good.  Admitted ignorance is valued highly, much more highly than hard–gained knowledge and understanding.  Racism is barely hidden.  Religion is trumpeted from the housetops by know–nothings who claim a love of Jesus but who seem never to have studied his teachings.  Sam Ervin quoted the Bible, but applied the Constitution.  Michelle Bachmann and others quote the Constitution incorrectly, but apply their skewed and inaccurate understanding of the Bible.  The federal government is being held hostage by people who were elected with the belief, and on the basis of the belief, that any federal government is evil, except the part of the federal government that goes to war.

Nixon was a dangerous president, even, in the end, the arch–conservative Barry Goldwater admitted this fact.  President Obama is a good, decent, psychologically healthy, and highly intelligent President whom the Republicans want to get out of office regardless of the damage his removal might cause the country overall.  Tea Party members, in my opinion, see this President as the most egregious sign of the waning of the straight, white, male majority.  By eliminating him, they hope to return the country to its rightful owners:  straight, white, males. . . themselves.

I grew up valuing education, learning, and knowledge as the most important attainments for me as a person.  I have lived, and live today, a life based on the conviction that learning and knowledge free human beings of superstition, error, prejudice, and intolerance.  I value the diversity of American life because that diversity has so enriched my life—in music, in films, in literature, in religious practice, in food, in language, and in patriotism.  Seeing a political playing field in which a significant and powerful percentage of the players value none of these things—hate them, even—makes politics something that depresses me, saps my energy, erodes my hope for the future.

I cried the night the President Obama was elected.  I never thought I would see the day.  An accomplished, intelligent, and eloquent African American was President of the United States.  All my optimism for this country was affirmed by that election.  Then it started.  Even before he was inaugurated, Rush Limbaugh and others were hoping that Mr. Obama’s presidency would be a failure.  The racism, the cynicism, the hatred. . . it’s evil.  Where is Senator Ervin’s idealism (“God will not be mocked,” he told one of Nixon’s young henchmen, “that which you sow, that also shall you reap.”) Where is Senator Baker’s collaborative and conciliatory spirit?  Where is John Dean’s bravery?  I hate to think that the best politics were practiced in 1973, and that all we have left is the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, Michele and Marcus Bachmann, and Rush Limbaugh.

Politics are no longer fun.  They are deadly and depressing.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Federal Debt Ceiling and Me

I went to work for the Federal Government in 1970.  I worked as a Federal civil servant until 2010—40 years.  By the standards of my family, I did very well.  Only one of my generation in the family—my cousin Dan—had a higher salary than I did, and that was only before his conviction as a cocaine dealer.  I generally have been able to have vacations with my family, provide nice homes, and allow my family and myself some, but not all, of the nice things that life at the end of the 20th century afforded Americans.

How times have changed.

I retired in 2010.  When I retired, my income was reduced by 40%, a fact that I had included in my retirement planning.  In the past year, however, one of our two real estate holdings—holdings I had used as an investment—tanked, and I am now stuck with a significant monthly cost I never expected.  Gas and food prices have increased beyond anything I imagined.  Utility costs—once really low here in West Virginia—have increased significantly.  The cost of main–stream books for my Kindle has increased by $3 a pop.  Everything costs more, it seems.

I rely solely on my Federal annuity for monthly expenses.  It’s a good annuity and I’m lucky to have it.  Given what’s happened over the past year, though, it is hardly luxurious.  Beni relies on my annuity, too, plus a small social security payment she receives each month.  Over the past several years, there have been no increases either in my annuity or in Beni’s social security.  The possibility of increases next year is slim.

Now, along come the Tea Baggers to make my life a possible living hell.  Unwilling or unable to grasp the impact of not raising the debt ceiling, they spout their childish and totally incorrect economic and historical theories.  Unwilling to accept the fact that their refusal to pass a debt ceiling increase will destroy our economy and the economies of other countries, they instead fight to outlaw abortion and allow the teaching of creationism as science.  That such fools hold my well being in their hands is something that makes me really unhappy with each and every person who voted these idiots into office.

My annuity is paid from Federal funds.  It’s paid on the first of each month, so I’m hoping I will get my August annuity payment on schedule.  Beni’s social security payment is made on the 7th of the month, so it’s very possible she won’t be paid in August.  As small as her social security payment is, it still makes a big impact on our combined budget.

If I don’t get my annuity check, I have no idea what I’ll do.  I have some cash available that should get me through one month, and probably two months, but that’s it.  That’s all I have, and all Beni has.  And we are relatively lucky for people our age.  There are many people in our town who, if social security and medicare are unfunded in August, will not be able to pay their rent, buy food, or get their needed and usual medical care.

I have heard all my life about middle–class people who were destroyed in the Great Depression.  My parents came of age during the Depression and told my brother and me these stories as cautionary tales.  I always thought that such people must have done something wrong.  They must have planned badly.  They must have lived way beyond their means.  Now I’m beginning to see their experience from another point of view.

Beni and I didn’t live a lavish life.  We stayed together after I came out for one main reason: we had four daughters to put through college.  We did that.  But tuition and related costs for four kids, plus other costs of raising a family, took most of our savings.  I don’t regret it one bit.  Our kids were able to have an education without having to take out loans that would burden them for years to come.  (Three of them took out loans anyway, but that was their choice.)  My thought at the time, as I used our savings for education and other kid–related expenses, was that Beni and I would be fine because of my annuity.

Now that safety net—a net that each month seems to provide less and less safety—is in jeopardy, as is Beni’s smaller net.  And why?  Because we have 60–some tea bagger idiots in the House of Representatives who are willing to ruin the lives of millions in this country because of their ignorance, their foolishness, and their bigotry.  I never thought I would write a piece like this.  I’ve always been comfortable enough not to have to discuss my finances.  That’s just one more part of my American dream that the bigoted and intolerant rednecks are taking away from me.  I am very pissed.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Fear of God?

I was 12 or 13 years old.  I had had yet another sexual experience with my best friend, Bobby, who was a year older than I was.  I was scheduled to serve Mass the next morning, so I went to confession that Saturday night.  I wanted to receive Communion at Mass, so I had to confess the mortal sin of my sex act.  The young priest, Fr. John Foley, to whom I usually confessed wasn’t hearing confessions that night.  The only priest there was the old pastor, Fr. Leo Massey.  As I stood in the long line waiting my turn, I got more and more afraid.  I felt like I was going to have an attack of diarrhea while I stood there.  Finally, it was my turn, and the screen slid back and there was Fr. Massey.  I confessed my horrible sin.  Fr. Massey asked me a lot of questions.  How often had I done such things?  Was it with one boy or several?  Had I ever confessed such a sin before?  Did I enter the body of the other boy, or did he enter mine?  After I answered all his questions, Fr. Massey, speaking for the Holy Trinity, the Forgiver of sins, told me I was a disgusting person and that I was surely headed for a life of “dissipation” (I remember that word). Then he said what I have always remembered, throughout the more than 50 years since that confession: “If you don’t love God, at least fear Him.”

Fear God.  That was easy for me to do.  My father was a fearful man.  He had some internal problem with me that made me his whipping boy.  I lived in a constant tension whenever my father was at home, never knowing when he might feel the need to attack me in his strange anger.  So, when Fr. Massey advised me to fear God, I had absolutely no problem transferring the fear I knew every day with my father to the heavenly Parent, God.

I left home at 14 to be a Franciscan friar.  I know now that part of the reason I was so anxious to start my vocation at such an early age was to get away from my father, and from the toxic family life in our home.  I did manage to get away from all that.  My life improved a thousand times over from that point on.  My father never touched me again.  What stayed with me, though, was the fear of God that was every bit as debilitating to me as had been the fear of my father.

Wikipedia, in its article on the fear of God, writes: “Throughout the Bible it [the fear of God] is said to bring many rewards. Conversely, not fearing God is said to result in Divine retribution.”  Proverbs 9/10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. . .”  In theology, I was taught that fear of God was one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.  In the Summa Theologica, I studied Question19, “The Gift of Fear,” where I learned from Thomas Aquinas that the highest kind of fear of God, “filial” fear (fear that a child might feel in the presence of an awe–inspiring parent) would persist even into eternal life with God in heaven.  As an habitual sinner, therefore, I was taught to have all kinds of fear of God, of God’s punishment, and of God’s eventual rejection of my sinful self.  Not only was I taught these things for my own spiritual “good,” I was taught that, as a priest, one of my jobs would be to inspire the fear of God into the people I sought to help.

Starting at age 19, when I was a Franciscan novice, I gradually formed my own idea of God.  St. Francis called his friars to know and live the Gospel, so it was from the Gospel that my personal knowledge of God developed.  I began to see God as a mystery, not a God made in man’s image, and certainly not a God made in the image of my father.  Over the years, I condensed my understanding of God to what is in the scripture at 1 John 4/16, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.”  Because I knew I was gay, I left the friars, but I took with me this understanding of God.

My understanding of God, though, is just that: understanding.  It is a grasp of the concept of God by my mind.  It’s intellectual.  Deeper down, where the emotions and the indelible emotional memories live, I have always feared God, just as the little boy I used to be feared his father.  Coming to understand that dichotomy of psychological structure, by myself and with a therapist, has helped me start to move away from the residual fear.  But some of it remains.

For many reasons, I have come to a point where I have to say that I don’t know whether a god exists.  How much my uncertainty depends on my residual fear, I don’t know for sure.  I am certain, however, that fear is a part of my inability fully to believe.

I wonder about little kids and religious instruction.  Are they still being taught to fear their God?  Does the fear of God mean something different to kids who are not physically abused?  Is a life lived in fear of eternal punishment really a religious life?  Shouldn’t Christian kids be taught that the essence of the God that Jesus preached is love?  Is a life spent trying to do good not worth anything, ultimately, if the person doing the good hasn’t been taught to fear, hasn’t been taught that original sin is damning from the get–go?

As it stands now, I don’t have a whole lot of fear of god.  I do, though, have a great deal of fear of the godly. . . those who believe that fear is holy and a holy motivator.  I have a friend who is an expert dog trainer.  He can get the wildest, most undisciplined dogs to behave almost perfectly.  He tells me that the secret of teaching good behavior to dogs is two–fold: (1) overwhelm them with kindness; and (2) never make them afraid of you.  Shouldn’t the churches adopt a similar philosophy in teaching kids about god?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Accessory to Murder: RIP Ryan Skipper

I am not au courant.  It takes me a year or two or three to catch up with our culture, even my own gay culture.  So I wasn’t at all surprised when a lesbian friend told me in March that I had to see a movie, made in 2008, entitled, Accessory to Murder: Our Culture's Complicity in the Death of Ryan Skipper.  Typical of me, I just this week sat down to watch it.  Today I finished my third viewing of this painful and remarkable documentary.

Ryan Skipper, 1981-2007
Ryan Skipper was a 25–year–old gay man who lived in Polk County, Florida, a rural “redneck” part of that State.  On March 14, 2007, after having dinner with a friend, Ryan was murdered.  Two local men, William Brown, Jr. (20 years old when he murdered Ryan), and Joseph Bearden (21 years old when he murdered Ryan) were convicted of the murder in 2009 and both of them are serving life sentences.

Almost from the time Ryan’s body was discovered, his murder has been treated as a hate crime.  The two murderers told people before the murder that they were going out to “get” a gay man.  After the murder, neither man tried to hide the murder; both of them practically bragged about it.  They were arrested soon after the murder.

The Polk County Sheriff, Grady Judd, an obvious good ole boy born and reared in Polk County, saw Ryan’s murder and its status as a gay hate crime as his ticket to national fame.  As soon as the two murderers were arrested and gave their statements, Sheriff Judd was holding press conferences telling the press as facts the version of the crime that the murderers had set forth in their statements.  No investigation had been done.  No sheriff’s deputies had attempted to verify the murderers’ accounts.  No one had spoken with Ryan’s family or his friends.  As a result, the press reported as fact the version of events that Sheriff Judd—and the murderers—had put forth: they said that Ryan had gone “cruising for sex” and had just “picked the wrong people.”  The murderers further accused Ryan of complicity in drug dealing and a plan to forge checks, lies that the Sheriff reported to the press as fact.  Later, officials of Polk County, but not Sheriff Judd, withdrew this version of events invented by the murderers and said outright that the two felons had invented this story to try to ameliorate their guilt.

In a rural, inhospitable environment, then, Ryan Skipper not only was the victim of a hate murder, he also was the victim of a hateful homophobic Sheriff who clearly identified with the murderers and easily thought the worst of the victim.  The film makes the point that wide–spread hatred of gay people is very common in rural communities all across the country and that our whole country, because of the way in which we view gay people, is an accessory to such crimes.

The experts in the film—psychologists, law enforcement officials, media experts, government administrators, religious ministers, and gay rights activists—all point to three aspects of our common American culture that creates the environment where this kind of crime can occur:

1.  Parents.  Parents teach their children to hate gay people.  Little kids aren’t born with this hatred, nor is such hatred automatic as kids grow up.  This hatred is taught!!!

2.  Churches.  In Ryan’s neighborhood, as in neighborhoods throughout the country, there are “Christian” churches that teach that gay people are an abomination, that their “chosen lifestyle” is satanic, and that practitioners of this “lifestyle” are evil and headed straight to hell.

3.  The Republican Party.  I was astounded that the careful “talking heads” in this film actually named the Republican Party as an accessory to anti–gay hate crimes in this country.  It’s true, of course, but I was surprised that these experts had the balls to say it.  One woman, a think tank person, quoted George W. Bush’s views of gay people in remarks he made during his second term, the time during which Ryan was murdered.  Gay people have no “special rights,” Bush said, as he promised to veto the Matthew Shepherd Act that would extend federal hate crime protection to gay people.  Marriage cannot include unions between gay people, Bush said, so the Constitution would have to be amended to prevent this travesty.  When the President of the United States over and over again marginalizes, demeans, and insults gay people, then two young rednecks in Florida have the highest authority in the land on their side.

As with almost any documentary like this one, at the end the experts try to give advice on how things can improve.  In this film though, the advice was the best I have heard in any of the films having to do with anti–gay hate crimes, bullying, or bashing.  The psychologist, an expert in hate crimes from Rollins College in Polk County, said that, when asked, residents of rural communities almost to a person say that they do not know anyone who is gay.  They know gay people, of course, they just don’t know that some of the people they know are gay.  The psychologist said that this distance from gay people does several things: it makes it easier to demonize gay people because gay people are an abstract concept similar to an ogre in a childrens’ fairy tale; it makes it easier to do harm to a gay person when one is discovered because such a person really isn’t a person, he or she is just an idea; and it makes it easier to continue to hate gay people because the haters aren’t really hating people, they’re hating evil itself.  The way to change this, the psychologist said, is for gay people to have the courage to identify themselves to their families, friends, and coworkers.  Coming out in this way gives being gay a human face and a textured personality that in all ways conflicts with the evil stereotypes the haters have been taught by their parents, their Churches, and the Republican Party.

I have seen a number of films about anti–gay hate crimes, and I have read a number of books on the subject.  Accessory to Murder: Our Culture's Complicity in the Death of Ryan Skipper is only 70 minutes long, but I believe that—in its understated, factual, calm way—it is the best of all of them.

One final word about Ryan Skipper.  He came from a loving and accepting family.  His parents and his brother loved him, and told him they loved him.  He had many, many friends and was by all accounts a generous and loving friend.  Like so many victims of anti–gay crimes, he seems to have been a sweet, somewhat naive and trusting young man.  One friend said of him, “Ryan was tender.  Some people think that being tender isn’t manly.  Actually, being tender makes a man a very special man.”

Rest in peace, tender Ryan.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

An Idea about Christian Fundamentalism

This is probably stating the obvious, but it was a new thought for me. . .  Happy 4th to all!!!