17 July 2012

To Jimmy Scott, on His 87th Birthday

Do a search for "Why Was I Born?" at Wikipedia, and you end up with this sparse bit of information:

"Why Was I Born?" is a 1929 song composed by Jerome Kern, with lyrics written by Oscar Hammerstein II.
It was written for the show Sweet Adeline (1930).
Not a whole lot of information there for a song whose very title invokes one of the central questions of human existence, eh?

The first time I recall hearing the song was on the compilation album Everybody's Somebody's Fool, which collected some of the early recordings of Little Jimmy Scott. (Here's a long version, recorded more recently, I suspect.)

Jimmy Scott turns 87 today. Over his life, he's had reasons to ask the simple question contained in that song's title: The loss of his mother at an early age, as detailed in his biography Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott, and the subsequent scattering of he and his siblings; the issues associated with Kallman Syndrome (a genetic condition in which males usually do not hit puberty, and I only just now realized it's also marked by a lack of sense of smell); and the circumstances of a career in which he achieved early notoriety but was blackballed by the music industry for the audacity of sticking up for his own interests and thus basically vanished from sight from about 1962 until he sang at Doc Pomus' funeral in 1991.

Even if you're not a fan of jazz music, you should read Faith in Time. It'll tell you as much of the story as possible without hearing the music.

But what music it is, what a voice it is. Why was Jimmy Scott born? He was born to make us question dichotomies of gender, even if he was pretty clear that he was drawn toward women (including his wife and manager Jeanie Scott, who I'm proud to know through Facebook). The sharp-dressed thin man with a voice some have likened to Billie Holiday was drawing not always friendly attention on the chitlin circuit decades before  before Antony Hagerty, Grace Jones, David Bowie, or Laura Jane Grace (born Thomas Gabel, lead singer of Against Me!).

Why was Jimmy Scott born? He was born to teach us that not only is patience a virtue, but that slowness has its own unique beauty; perhaps in part because of his life's story, a dream deferred that looked for years like it was a dream lost, his recordings since his comeback have tended to be long, luxurious affairs, every bit of emotion examined in the lyric. His voice does big things, but there's a subtlety, a wisdom, a self-discipline that "divas" and "divos" who mistake adding syllables to words for emotional depth could stand to emulate.

Why was Jimmy Scott born? He was born to show us how to face disappointments in life without bitterness. The gratitude toward life, the faith that things will work out the way they're meant to work out, shown in his conversations with biographer David Ritz is humbling. The man was done wrong like a long line of African-American musicians, but his "faith in time" has allowed him to move past it.

In mystical Judaism, there's the story of the Tzadikim Nistarim -- the 36 hidden righteous people whose purpose is to justify the continuing existence of humanity. I don't really believe that's literally something that is going on in the world, but I do know the world is a better place for having Jimmy Scott in it, that my own life and the lives of everyone who knows and loves his music have been enriched in ways that defy words.

Why was Jimmy Scott born? He was born to sing "Why Was I Born?" and so many other songs from the great American songbook: "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," "Mood Indigo," "At Last," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "When Did You Leave Heaven?," "You Don't Know What Love Is," "The Way You Look Tonight," "You Never Miss the Water ('Til the Well Runs Dry)," "Smile," and so many more.

Jimmy Scott was born to turn unexpected songs into jazz standards: "Heaven," "Jealous Guy," "The Crying Game," "Nothing Compares 2 U," "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," "On Broadway," "Unchained Melody," and numerous gospel songs and spirituals. He was a show-stopper on Twin Peaks and the highlight of Lou Reed's deeply powerful album Magic & Loss (which was where I first heard Jimmy), he paired with Flea of all people to redeem the Captain and Tenille's "Love Will Keep Us Together,"  and it turns out his name is the answer to the question "what's the only thing that could make Pink Martini's music even better?"

Why was Jimmy Scott born? He was born to prove F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong, I think: There are second acts in American lives. And like any great concert, some of the most interesting parts come during the encore. I'd say we're tremendously lucky to have been able to hear it; he and Jeanie might attribute it to grace. Whatever it is, I celebrate it, I celebrate Jimmy, and I celebrate his music.

Happy birthday, good sir. May love and happiness dwell with you and Jeanie for all of your days to come. And for the rest of you: Go familiarize yourself with this American treasure if you've not already done so. There's no time like the present.

13 July 2012

Facebook relationship options we need

Shockingly, this is a blog post that is NOT recycled content from State of Formation. Will wonders never cease? Recently, I joined a Facebook group titled "There should be a relationship status for 'I don't even know what is going on'" because, well, been there, done that, the T-shirt wasn't available in my size (ain't that always the way).

A few things got me thinking about Facebook's relationship status options; one was seeing posts from this group pretty regularly, another was the re-entry of a former girlfriend into my circle of connections there just before she got engaged and having to stifle a moment of bile over the way she never changed her status from "divorced" when we were dating but did change it to say "engaged" (which I ultimately decided shows growth on her part and isn't about me -- I hope it works out for them), and another was realizing at an embarrassingly late period after making someone's online acquaintance that she was one of the partners of a former college roommate of mine who's a polyamorist.

Facebook offers several options for defining one's relationship status (see image at right), and I gather that a non-single person can define with whom he or she is in a relationship, at least of a monogamous sort. (My former roomie's page just says he's in an open relationship; I didn't look at his partners' profiles to see whether either of them has him listed or each other listed or whatever because that would be dangerously close to doing actual research when my real point is to get to a list of absurd suggestions.)

For most of my time on Facebook, as indeed for most of my life, my status has been welded to Single. For a little while, it was set to "It's complicated" or "In a relationship" but didn't list the name of the woman in question, and I learned just how quickly word can spread if you change the status back to Single after agreeing to break up but don't have a public relations firm and grief counselors standing by for all the rubberneckers concerned friends out there. (Mistakes were made, and Matt Groenig was right.)

As lists of options go, Facebook's is a good one in the sense that it recognizes the variety of human relationships, monogamous and not, heterosexual and not. But it fails to recognize nuance, by which I mean grueling psychological turmoil and/or stuff that's funny to witness when it happens to someone else. So "I don't even know what's going on" would be a good starting point, but look for a few other relationship options Facebook should consider after the jump.

11 July 2012

Moving from sibling rivalry to religious solidarity

Presented is my fourth State of Formation posting as a contributing scholar. I suppose in retrospect it should have been obvious that I would not grow up to be an Islamophobe despite living in the Bible Belt; not only was one my favorite teachers a Christian woman married to a Muslim man (who later became another of my favorite teachers), but my earliest memories were of a time when there was a real-life superhero at the height of his fame. Ahmad Afzali was the first Muslim I met, and I think the world of him and Betty, but Muhammad Ali was perhaps the first celebrity to enter my awareness at all, and though I'm past an age where such a sentiment may be voiced without some irony or suspicion thereof, he's still my hero.

Public domain image of
Muhammad Ali from
U.S. Congress, courtesy
of Wikimedia Commons.
As part of my navel-gazing over the notion that “I don’t not believe in God” (at least not anymore), and the logical subsequent question of whether I do believe, I’ve been thinking about what sort of religion I could live with if Unitarian Universalism or Ethical Culture somehow ceased to be a good fit for me.

It would have to be a religion that’s familiar with the relative breakability of a single stick versus a bundle of sticks. You can try this for yourself and see what I mean: One stick by itself is easy to break, two are a little bit harder, and a whole bundle of sticks clumped together will make you put up a fight if you succeed at all.

To me, the holiest aspect of any religion has to be the sense of solidarity it creates, while still recognizing that the various components are unique. The religion that would fit me best would be one that not only allowed for freedom of inquiry among its members but also stood in solidarity with suffering people of other traditions or none at all.

The Interfaith Alliance (of which I am a paid-up member) and the women’s interfaith book group Daughters of Abraham are obviously not religious groups in their own right, but they do bring together voices from a variety of perspectives and create safe places for dialogue and (in the former case, at least) shared action for the common good.

I was temporarily very excited when I heard in a recent episode of the radio show State of Belief (hosted by Rev. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance) about the Shoulder to Shoulder campaign to oppose Islamophobia here in the United States, and I still like what I see about this group even after realizing that my uncharacteristically optimistic view of their purpose was too broad. From their site:
Shoulder-to-Shoulder is an interfaith organization dedicated to ending anti-Muslim sentiment by strengthening the voice of freedom and peace. Founded in November 2010 by over 20 national religious groups, Shoulder-to-Shoulder works not only on a national level, but offers strategies and support to local and regional efforts to address anti-Muslim sentiment and seeks to spread the word abroad.
It’s an impressive goal, and they’ve rallied a wide array of groups to their cause from the three main Abrahamic religions and, through some interfaith member organizations such as the Interfaith Alliance, somewhat beyond.

What I’d like to see, though, is a solidarity movement that puts serious money into the mix.

In the course of researching a 2011 paper on Islamophobic depictions in comic books and graphic novels, I found myself distraught over the amount of money I’d shelled out on material that I found loathsome. So I resolved to give at least an equal amount of money to anti-Islamophobic efforts when I had the means to balance the scales.

And so in 2012, I joined the Council on American-Islamic Relations as a dues-paying member. I donated money to the embattled Islamic Society of Murfreesboro, Tenn., as it fought bigots who were opposing the construction of a new mosque and community center.

The spree of donations in 2012 that has I’m sure earned me an FBI file wasn’t my first experience giving to a religious or quasi-religious group whose beliefs I didn’t necessarily share; I was a freethinker in the Bible Belt for more than a decade! I’ve bought baked goods and such from church groups outside a store, I bought popcorn from the Boy Scouts when dating a den mother, and I’d even donated to the Park51 Community Center in New York just to spite Fox News back in 2010. But now I was doing it with intention and seeing a possibility for something larger.

Real religion, to me, lies not only in speaking up with another religion is victim of vandalism or slander – though that’s an important first step – but also in walking over with a paint bucket and offering to help cover up the hateful graffiti, in offering the use of classrooms while a group is displaced, in rallying for prosecution of anti-religious hate crimes, and in doing all of this even when it’s someone else’s religion, even if members of that religion might not show the same hospitality to members of your own in other places on the globe.

Jews, Christians, Muslims, Ethical Humanists, Unitarian Universalists, and Baha’is all claim the lineage of Abraham explicitly or implicitly. The Baha’i extend that lineage out to the rest of the world’s religions, saying that all prophets known or forgotten are representatives of the same creator, and science reinforces our shared ancestry. We’re all brothers and sisters, our religions tell us in their best moments, but we spend too much time living out the “squabbling in the back seat” aspect of our sibling relationship, too little on the “milk and cookies before bedtime” aspect, and we almost entirely ignore the “cut it out, or you’ll have to deal with both of us” aspect that seems to me to be the most important.

We need a well-funded, well-organized interfaith group that goes a step beyond Shoulder to Shoulder and the Interfaith Alliance. Such a group would provide seed money for interfaith discussion groups, yes, and it would engage in humanitarian work, no doubt, but it would also provide matching funds to help congregations install security cameras, plant seed money in the reward fund for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of those involved in violence or vandalism against religious groups, and donate to repair structures damaged in hate crimes with the understanding that all have helped contribute to the toxic environment from which such actions arise.

Such a group would move beyond sibling rivalry to true solidarity and go beyond saying “I’ll pray for you” to say “I’ll work for you." Or, if the group managed to get my dream spokesman Muhammad Ali to be its public face, maybe even “I’ll fight for you” -- with the usual caveats about the importance of nonviolence, of course.

03 July 2012

Wanted: More bully pulpit, less bullying

Here's the latest post from my work as a State of Formation contributing scholar. Like the last one, I thought this would generate some backlash from my atheist friends, but so far, nothing. Summer must be distracting people, or perhaps I'm suffering delusions of adequacy to think they'd notice, anyway.

In ranking American presidents on the he-man macho scale, Theodore Roosevelt will score pretty high on almost any judge’s sheet. But when he talked about using the “bully pulpit,” he was using the first word in that phrase to mean “excellent,” like when David Bowie sang “Bully for you, chilly for me” (“good for you, bad for me,” roughly) in the song “Fame.”

What Roosevelt meant was that the position of the presidency gave him an advantage in raising issues for public debate that might go unaired if mentioned by people who weren’t president. Though he talked about speaking softly and carrying a big stick, the term “bully pulpit” had nothing to do with beating people over the head with a wooden structure in the White House briefing room.

We need more of the bully pulpit, less bullying from the pulpit.

Valerie Terico published a piece at AlterNet on May 27 of this year titled 8 Ways Christian Fundamentalists Make People Convert – to Agnosticism or Atheism. I recognized a lot of the trends she identified from my childhood, still others from my time moderating a daily newspaper’s web forums; there are cautionary tales to be found there for the religious leader who’s humble enough to look.

Part of the problem is not interfaith but intrafaith; when I was still going to a General Baptist church, I had a Southern Baptist acquaintance who was always trying to convert me to being a “real” Baptist. (At the time, the church I was attending was probably more conservative than his.)

We saw more “Mormons aren’t Christians” talk in the Republican primary process than we’ll see through November, I suspect. Most of those who used that line of attack against Mitt Romney will fall in line and support him, party loyalty trumping religious purity. And of course, it’s a two-way street there; while some LDS missionaries may be dispatched to isolated regions occupied by animists, others end up in Catholic neighborhoods or at a Methodist preacher’s door.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was disinvited from speaking at Temple Israel in Miami in May after a member of the synagogue quit in protest. He had wanted a chance to rebut her speech if it touched on the state of Israel, and leaders had turned down his request.

The internal politics of the American Jewish community over Israel are as dangerous a minefield as I can imagine, making Catholics’ perspectives on birth control and abortion look genteel and unified. In both those cases, one side seems to see the other as members of a completely different faith.

The Qur’an mandates that “there shall be no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2.256) and later that “We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another” (Qur’an 49:13); the latter strikes me as a particularly beautiful sentiment, Babel in reverse.

Yet stories of apostasy trials pop up in the news from time to time, though I’d add that the news media has ignored plenty of parallel behavior; the news media sees Muslim communities as more safe to criticize than fundamentalist Christian churches or ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclaves. Women’s status in Islam is as complicated as it is in any of the other western monotheistic religions, though Ikhlas Saleem gets it right when she argues that much of the criticism of Islam’s treatment of women has a core of colonialism at its base.

These religions tend to talk to varying degrees about free will. Sin is defined by some as a misuse of free will to rebel against the will of God. Some secular forces say there’s no such thing as free will, that this is just another thing the superstitious religious folks got wrong a long time ago.

You would think, then, that the freethinker community would be the most supportive of a right for people to change their minds about religion with impunity. They’d almost have to be, right? They have the word “free” in their name, for Pete’s sake.

Sadly, you would be wrong. Blogger Leah Libresco recently announced that she plans to convert to Roman Catholicism after blogging for some time as an open atheist, and while the sky has not exactly fallen, the responses from her friends in the atheist community have been less than ebullient. “You're wrong” was one of the nicer replies; the notion that just about anything would be preferable to the Catholic Church was a recurring theme in articles I read.

Freethinkers are free to go wherever their questions about truth and meaning take them, it seems, as long as the path doesn’t lead up to a house of worship. I’ve written in the past about distancing myself from “movement atheism” (NSFW language at the link), and reactions like those faced by Leah Libresco at Patheos, or Ikhlas Saleem in this space, reinforce that instinct to cast off the scarlet letter A (for atheism, get your mind outta the gutter) I once wore proudly.

My beliefs on religion are evolving, as I’ve said before. I cannot speak as certainly on ultimate questions as I can on other matters: I believe The Wire is the greatest American television show ever made, I believe that a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup chased with a York Peppermint Patty is a legal psychedelic experience, I believe a classmate’s bumper sticker is right that “When Jesus said to love your enemies, he probably meant don’t kill them,” and I believe that while not Jewish, jazz singer Jimmy Scott is regardless one of those people whose life justifies our continuing existence as a species. And like Chris Hedges said: I don’t believe in atheists.

Warning: The citation of both Teddy Roosevelt and the former Ziggy Stardust in the same paragraph is recommended only for trained professionals. Image source for "Theodore Roosevelt laughing" is Tom (via Wikimedia Commons).

19 June 2012

What I'd Tell 12-Year-Old Me

Here's the second of my State of Formation blog entries, and one that I expected to stir up a shitstorm among some of my Facebook connections, to be honest. So far, nothing.

Why did I expect this to stir up a shitstorm? You'll have to read it carefully and see if you can guess what I thought would be controversial.

(Chances are this is just a reminder that as Mark Twain once said, we wouldn't worry so much about what others think of us if we realized how seldom they do so.)

"Multiverse" by Silver Spoon (via WikiMedia Commons)
As a man reaches a certain age -- the age when peers start losing their parents -- there are lines of thought that start to recur whether he likes it or not. How many people are left carrying on the family name, and what are the odds it will survive past my nephew’s generation? Is the work I’m doing making any difference at all? If I’d known in the past what I know now, would things have turned out any differently?

Harlan Ellison’s story “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” (and a subsequent New Twilight Zone episode from the 1980s) explores the latter question through the device of time travel. An adult man meets his childhood self and gets to impart some wisdom. Mark Waid would later riff on this idea for an issue of DC Comics' The Flash, now that I think about it. And in a way, the It Gets Better campaign is based on a similar conceit: advice one wishes had been available in youth, minus the temporal paradox.

If multiverse theory is right -- and I think every comic book fan out there hopes it is because we got there first -- there are probably multiple worlds out there where someone kinda like me has one or more kids. Here’s what I’d tell them, or the younger me, for that matter:

Follow your heart, and let other people deal with their own prejudices. If you meet and start to fall for someone who’s of a different religious background or ethnicity than yourself, you owe it to yourself to give the relationship a chance to flourish … and to give those whose judgment you fear a chance to rise above their first instincts and learn to love someone outside their normal parameters. Trust me when I say that “What if…?” will keep lead to many more sleepless nights than “Why did I…?”

Do for the underdog what you would wish a bigger dog to do for you. OK, so that’s an awkward phrasing, but it’s a more proactive form of the Golden Rule. As a school kid in the waning days of the Cold War, I saw classmates who were Jehovah’s Witnesses harassed and called communists because they did not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance; Mormon classmates were ridiculed over their faith, and evangelical Christianity was privileged in ways I realize in hindsight were wildly unconstitutional in my K-12 education. I'm ashamed to admit that I didn’t speak up, though I did at least not let others' ignorance stop me from becoming close to high school teachers who were Jewish and Muslim (and friends to each other). But it wasn’t until I started a Unitarian Universalist student group in college -- and was labeled a cult leader by the Southern Baptist campus ministry -- that I met the Other and saw my own face.

You’ll learn some things you wish you didn’t, but there’s no such thing as learning too much. The story of Adam and Eve puts learning in a dim light, of course, raising the issue of who benefits from telling such a story. We recently lost Christian theologian John Hick, whose book Evil and the God of Love put a different spin on the doctrine of the primordial fall -- he called it the felix culpa or “fortunate fall,” arguing that free will and a capacity for evil gave the humanity’s good deeds and cleaving to God a moral consequence lacking from automatons. As theodicies go, it’s the one I can most easily swallow, even though I don’t believe in a literal Garden of Eden, Adam, Eve, or talking snake. Similarly:

Don’t let someone else’s fear stop you from asking questions. Some parents resist having their children learn that other religions, sexual orientations, political ideas, etc., even exist out of a fear that their children will be led astray if that happens; to them I say, if your faith is that weak, perhaps you’re better off without it.

The important thing is to own your journey, to engage it actively and not just remain a bystander to your life. I’ve been an uninformed believer, a somewhat informed seeker, a nihilistic atheist, an accommodating skeptic, and now as a seminarian I sense myself shifting into some other mode yet to be defined; when a friend recently told me she wished I believed in God, my first reaction was to think, “Well, I don’t not believe.”

Has this life been easy? No. To be a freethinker in my native South is to embark upon one of life's more solitary callings, like being a lighthouse keeper on the world's most isolated island or an ethicist on Wall Street. But the most lonely moment on that journey has been more fulfilling to me than the alternative: to remain sitting in the pews of my childhood church, hearing a message that the world will be ending in about three weeks, give or take, and you know it’s true because the guest preacher’s sweating and out of breath. That’s not insight; that’s too much fried chicken.

A steady dose of “the end is nigh” religion might be appropriate for a room full of seniors for whom the end really is nigh, but that’s no message for a kid who’s never been on a date or learned to drive. When I was a kid, my family told me I could do anything. The shouting guys in the suits said there was no point in trying to do anything. In that light, it’s no wonder I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up; I was weighed down too long with the notion that I never would.

Religion worthy of the next generation should aim a bit higher, don’t you think? And less rhetorically: What advice would you give to your 12-year-old self?

05 June 2012

Meet the Press (What's Left of It)

The following article was originally posted June 3, 2012, at State of Formation, where I'm now a contributing scholar and will be writing at least once a month. Posts will follow here a few days after initial publication there.

“It’s 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing… Who do you want answering the phone?”

Thus began a Hillary Clinton ad during the primary season for the 2008 presidential campaign. (The ad’s stock footage, embarrassingly enough, included a young girl who’d grown up to be a Barack Obama supporter. … Mistakes were made.)

For those readers who are or aim to be in leadership of a community built around religious or humanist values, the phone will ring for thee one morning. Only it’s not likely to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; it’s going to be a reporter from a local newspaper if you still have one of those, or a web site, radio station, or TV news desk.

What you say next is going to have consequences for you, for the community of choice you lead, and possibly for people in the broader community in which you reside. Your county government has voted to declare secession from the United States to build an independent state based on the Pastafarian religion, and it’s up to you to say how your Lutheran church, your Reform synagogue, your mosque or sangha will fit into this new world order encompassing 37 square miles.

(If of course you’re the president of the local freethought society, you’ve already issued your press release welcoming your new Flying Spaghetti Monster overlord, because you were there in full pirate regalia when the coup was planned. Go back to sleep. You’ll need your rest before the FBI gets here.)

OK, odds are your interactions with the news media are going to be slightly more mundane. But as a recovering journalist, I was very interested in the recent spring convocation at Andover Newton Theological School. The keynote speaker was Rev. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, who focused largely on the dangerous intersection of government and religion; two subsequent panels discussed interactions between religion and the news media, one from the pastor’s perspective and the other from the news gatherer’s side of the camera.

The message was pointed at a largely Christian and Unitarian Universalist audience, but the principles apply to leaders of a variety of religious and nonreligious intentional communities:

Cultivate relationships with the news media before a crisis erupts. That reporter whose slow news day led her to attend your congregant’s speech about her HIV prevention clinic in Africa will think of you when the Arab Spring spirit spreads to that country, but you might also come to mind when your state’s lawmakers slash programs for the poor. But if the reporter only has your church office number and can’t reach you at home or on your cell phone, he’ll call the leader of the other group down the road who disagrees with you fully on this issue and never returned your lawnmower.

Know what you want to say and stick to it. The Rev. Barry Lynn (UCC minister, president of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, radio host and probable workaholic) has said on his program Culture Shocks that on the rare occasion he’s invited onto Fox News, he walks in knowing what point he wants to make, and he repeats it every time the hosts let him speak, even if the interviewer goes on a tangent. Your interaction with the press may not be fraught with tension is being a top liberal on a conservative news channel, but you should know that the media has as its agenda not telling the truth but selling advertising, and controversy is key to making that happen. Don’t get played.

Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know,” but don’t end things there. Even if the reporter says she has to have your quote right now about this incredibly complex and nuanced issue you’ve never thought about, chances are that you can arrange to call back in an hour after doing some serious Internet searching, or the next day at the latest. There’s no shame in admitting you don’t know the answer, especially if you can point the reporter toward someone who will give much better quotes than you could muster: If the supreme ruler of Absurdistan has declared he will destroy America with a horde of flying monkey-hippo hybrid creatures, you might want to direct the reporter toward a member of your community who’s a retired biologist and could discuss the aerodynamics of such a creature. The worst thing you can do is not comment or point the reporter toward a good source of information, because the words “declined comment” (or, if the news outlet doesn’t even pretend to be objective, “refused to comment”) carry with them an unstated message of guilt.

Our convocation theme was “Politics, Pulpit, and the Press,” and it could not have been timelier. As a recovering journalist, this election season has seen God mentioned more often and with less insight than any I’ve watched since I started paying attention to politics in the 1980s. Sure, there were the rumors that a Southern Baptist preacher in my college town used his pulpit to inform parishioners that a toasty seat in perdition awaited anyone who voted for Bill Clinton back in 1992, and the Internet Infidels types snickered when the Texas governor declared Jesus Christ to be his favorite philosopher, but today we have the first Mormon major-party candidate running against an incumbent whose religious identity has been the subject of lies for years now.

We leave in interesting times, and you who are or aspire to be religious leaders will, eventually, get a phone call for comment. Will you be prepared?


Thanks to Josh Stanton for the invitation to join the State of Formation team. I could not be more honored to be in such company. And, need I say it, views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of Andover Newton.

This image by Orin Zebest on Flickr Commons.

11 February 2012

Deaths in 2011: October

As usual, this (seriously overdue) entry is not an all-encompassing roster of newsmakers who died in the given month; look to Wikipedia if you want a broader compilation. Rather, these are the ones that struck me as particularly important or notable or poignant or otherwise meriting comment here given the themes that interest me.

  • Scottish folk musician Bert Jansch (3 Nov. 1943 - 5 Oct. 2011) was one of the greatest guitarists I'd never heard of until after news of his death. A major name in the 1960s folk revival in Britain, he was a founding member of the band Pentangle and saw his work ... urm, let's say "repurposed' ... for an early Led Zeppelin hit.
  • There's now a vacancy for "Square-Jawed Military Man With Stick Up Ass," as Charles Napier (12 April 1936 - 5 Oct. 2011) died the same day. Even if you didn't know his name, chances are you've seen him and loathed him in one appearance or another.
  • And I defriended a couple of people at Facebook after the death of Apple marketing maestro Steve Jobs (24 Feb. 1955 - 5 Oct. 2011) led to their making some truly assaholic comments.
  • Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi (born in June 1942, killed by rebels 20 Oct. 2011) was the worst threat to America ever! Except when he was our buddy. Then he was a bad guy again. And I think he also worked in a few films under the name Danny Trejo, but I could be wrong. This shit gets confusing, you know?
  • Shirley Becke (29 April 1917 - 25 Oct. 2011) was the first woman to reach the rank of chief officer in British policing, a distinction she earned with her 1969 promotion to commander. Her law enforcement career including being the final top officer in an all-female division of London's police department that was dissolved and folded into the larger body. This would make her a bit of an inspiration for Prime Suspect character Jane Tennison, one suspects.
  • Gay rights activist Aristide Laurent (15 Sept. 1941 - 26 Oct. 2011) helped co-found in 1967 The Los Angeles Advocate, which lives on today as The Advocate, a leading news, entertainment, and political magazine for the LGBT community. As such, some people will see his life's legacy as contributing in some way to the downfall of America, when that "honor" actually belongs to ...
  • Economist William A. Niskanen (13 March 1933 - 26 Oct. 2011), an architect of Ronald Reagan's economic programs that are continuing to wreck havoc on American lives. From 1985-2008, he chaired the libertarian Cato Institute and helped perpetuate the ruinous policies of deregulation that have allowed the wealthy to amass ever more capital while starving out people who actually work for a living (or at least would like to do so).
  • Sir Jimmy Savile (31 Oct. 1926 - 29 Oct. 2011) was a longtime British media personality whose work included hosting the music charts show Top of the Pops.
  • Axel Axgil (3 April 1915 - 29 Oct. 2011) was a Danish gay rights activist. He and his late partner, Eigil Axgil (1922-2005) had been together for four decades when they were finally allowed in 1989 to enter into a legally recognized domestic partnership, making them the first known same-sex couple to do so in the modern world.
  • Tom Keith (21 Dec. 1946 - 30 Oct. 2011) was a longtime collaborator with Garrison Keillor, from their college radio days up through working as a producer on the live radio and stage show A Prairie Home Companion and appearing on stage as a voice actor and sound effects artist.
  • And Alfred Hilbe (22 July 1928 - 31 Oct. 2011) was a former prime minister of Liechtenstein, the only country to my knowledge created out of comic book panels. (I should verify that.)

11 January 2012

Here's a letter that my hometown newspaper (The Camden Chronicle) and former employer (The Jackson Sun) were both too cowardly to print:

Dear editor,

While spending the last 18 months studying at a seminary outside Boston, I’ve been keeping track of events back at home in Benton County. And as I’ve lived in Boston and seen how the descendants of the original Tea Party participants run things, I’ve come to realize the folks back at home have some misunderstandings.

The protest against taxation without representation was not a protest to end ALL taxation; the New England patriots just wanted the money spent more fairly, closer to home, rather than in England. So I think in the interests of accuracy, the modern-day Tea Party should embrace the ideals of the philosopher who’s so inspired them, the Russian-born novelist Ayn Rand.

Rand was a staunch capitalist and rugged individualist who admired bold thinkers, such as a serial killer of her era whom she praised for knowing what he wanted and going out to get it. She would surely look on approvingly at efforts to defund our local library (and provoke the state to remove books for the first time in state history) so as to ensure the future generation could be raised uneducated and thus better fit to serve those in power.

Rand was not a Christian; she saw Jesus’ advocacy of helping others as a sign of weakness. She’d thus admire the bold fight against providing health care to the poor, feeding hungry children, extending unemployment benefits, or helping provide health insurance to public workers, all Tea Party positions that ask “What would Jesus do?” and then propose to do the exact opposite thing.

Tea Party politicians cannot follow Rand and Jesus, but they don’t have to reject religion entirely; indeed, they’ve worked hard to instill religious values in our government, just not the religion you’d expect. Anton Levay based many of the teachings of the Church of Satan on Ayn Rand’s principles. So I encourage the Benton County Republicans to change their name to the Satanist Party and proudly present their true face to the world as they battle to preserve wealth and success for themselves, poverty and underperformance for the rest.

Jason Tippitt
Newton, Mass., originally from Camden

05 November 2011

What addiction is depends on who you are

The major textbook for my Justice Matters course this semester is Margaret Urban Walker's Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics. Her methodology can be applied to issues that extend well beyond race, however.

A thought hit me in the half-awake time this morning: What addiction is -- whether it's a disease or a moral defect -- depends on where you are in the power structure. Walker talks a lot about power structures, where those at the top have the epistemic authority -- high-fallutin' talk for the ability to define themselves and those below them. One way this is done is by defining its own ways of being as the norm, so that anything deviating from that standard is thus seen as inferior. For example, she argues that a definition of rationalism has been used to shut out women and ethnic minorities whose legitimate concerns are dismissed as signs of "moodiness" or "hot-headedness."

The nature of addiction became a source of tension between an ex-girlfriend and me. Her mom was a 12-stepper; I happened to bring up, just for consideration (and not necessarily in agreement), the arguments made in the episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! that took a skeptical view of 12-step programs and the notion that addiction is an illness. (Their take was that the way to stop drinking was to stop drinking; but again, I'm not endorsing that, as I have many problems with the way the libertarian Penn Jillette sees the world.)

Walker explains that power structures are preserved by what she calls necessary identities (necessary not for those upon whom they are grafted but for the interests of those defining the marginalized) and that those necessary identities are preserved in a number of ways -- what she calls epistemic firewalls -- that move the power dynamic out of sight or otherwise keep people from talking about it. Stereotypes are one useful tool for changing the subject or showing why it's only normal that "those people" would be at a lower level in the social structure.

Wealthy white conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh is found to have a bunch of oxycodone and hydrocodone obtained illegally. Though he shows no mercy toward ethnic minorities and the poor if they drink to excess, use illegal drugs or abuse legal ones, he's allowed to go into a recovery program. He spends about an hour in jail before bail is posted; he keeps his radio show, eventually becoming for some time the de facto head of the Republican Party.

Wealth of course plays a part in Rush Limbaugh's not picking up an alias of Prisoner #12483649468345 or a new understanding of same-sex relationships during a stay in a correctional facility. But race is surely a part of it as well. Ask African-American actor Sam Jones III -- who played Pete Ross on Smallville and a recurring role on late-days ER -- once he gets out of the federal prison where he's spending a year for a small part in an oxycodone trafficking ring (and could have served up to 20 years).

Intent to distribute plays a role there, sure. But apples to apples, our society tends to look at a privileged person's illegal drug use or excessive drinking as signs of a disease called addiction and at a less privileged person's parallel activities as proof that "those people" make poor decisions, lack moral fiber, are naturally inclined toward bad behavior.

Remember what Walker said about declaring a narrowly defined elite group's behavior as the rational norm. If addiction is a disease, then it can be treated through a process and does not reflect poorly on the moral character of the addict; it was the disease that missed the children's sporting events and sold the items bequeathed to the spouse by a deceased grandparent, not the addict himself of herself. But when the poorer addict missed those sporting events and pawned off items that the spouse had worked hard to buy, it's all on the addict.

These dynamics underlie much of our drug policy. Powder cocaine is imagined to be a drug of wealthy white persons, crack cocaine as the drug of poor blacks, and so there are vast differences in legal severity for possession of one versus the other. I imagine a look at the court system, specifically at who is allowed a pre-trial diversion to drug treatment, would suggest racial disparities as well. And while one need only look at death row to see how the color of skin affects sentencing for identical crimes, the readings in my spring course Mental Illness and Oppression in the United States also showed how a white person and a black person engaging in the same behaviors will be diagnosed differently by the mental health care system -- with the black patient always at a greater risk of being labeled violent, which again (Walker would say) illustrates a perceived and/or projected deficit of rationality.

Twelve-step programs do help some people. Some people are able to just quit on their own if they like. Dogmatically clinging to 12-stepping or dogmatically opposing it is naivete, either way. Until we solve the problems of inequality and human suffering that lead some people to a point where the only way they can see fit to survive is by numbing themselves, we're going to have the problem.

09 October 2011

Deaths in 2011: September

As usual, this is not an all-encompassing list of notable people who died in the month in question. (See Wikipedia for that.) Rather, it's just a summary of the ones who struck me as particularly consequential or who meant something to me personally.

  • Michael S. Hart (8 March 1947 - 6 Sept. 2011) invented the e-book and founded the Project Gutenberg endeavor, which made its offerings available for free.
  • Actor Cliff Robertson (9 Sept. 1923 - 10 Sept. 2011) was one of the last of the square-jawed movie stars, with roles ranging from a young John F. Kennedy in the war movie PT 109 to playing Peter Parker's beloved Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy.
  • Welsh-born Australian actor Andy Whitfield (17 July 1972 - 11 Sept. 2011) was best known for playing the title role in Starz's drama Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which had to be detoured (into a prequel miniseries and re-casting of the lead role) after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Character actress Frances Bay (23 Jan. 1919 - 15 Sept. 2011) started her career in her 50s and made her mark playing quirky characters in projects such as Happy Gilmore and Blue Velvet and, more recently, as a patient who seemed unable to die on Grey's Anatomy and a silent aunt on the TV comedy The Middle.
  • Cartoonist Tom Wilson, Sr. (1 Aug. 1931 - 16 Sept. 2011) was creator of the long-running comic strip Ziggy and drew the feature until 1987, when art duties passed along to his son.
  • Jack Adler (1 July 1917 - 18 Sept. 2011) was a longtime DC Comics cover artist and colorist who retired as production manager and vice president of production. He was also a cousin of radio shock jock Howard Stern.
  • Leroy Schweitzer (who died 20 Sept. 2011 at age 73) was a member of the "Christian Patriot" (which is, actually, neither) secessionist cult the Montana Freemen and died in prison due to his and the group's criminal activities leading up to and during a 1996 standoff with federal authorities.
  • Rock 'n' roll photographer Robert Whitaker (13 Nov. 1939 - 20 Sept. 2011) helped create album covers including those for Disreali Gears by Cream and the infamous "butcher shop" image for The Beatles' compilation album Yesterday and Today.
  • Sept. 21 brought about two instances of state-sanctioned murder in the United States. Lawrence Russell Brewer (age 44) was an unrepentant killer who participated in the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Texas back in 1998. Troy Davis (born 9 Oct. 1968) was probably wrongly convicted of killing a Georgia police officer in 1989 -- he might not have even been present at the time -- but matters like that don't deter the American system. Your Humble Blogger opposes the death penalty in all cases; life without parole is a real punishment for the guilty, not an early exit, and it can be reversed in cases of wrongful conviction. (Shockingly, neither of the persons whose deaths prompted these capital sentences returned from the dead after the executions. All either action accomplished was bloodying the hands of every Texas and Georgia resident who didn't actively oppose the executions.)
  • Sergio Bonelli (2 Dec. 1932 - 26 Sept. 2011) was an Italian comics writer and later publisher whose works included the long-running adventure titles Mister No and Zagor.
  • India-born Canadian actress Maple Batalia (who died 28 Sept. 2011 at age 19) was a rising actress who had a small role in the comedy Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (her sole credit at IMDB.com). She was fatally shot on the campus of Simon Fraser University in Surrey, B.C., with her family blaming her death on a male classmate with an unrequited crush.
  • Remember the cross-eyed opossum that became an Internet sensation about a year ago, even inspiring a viral video? Her name was Heidi, and she was born in America but lived in the Leipzig Zoo in Germany. The opossum was euthanized 28 Sept. 2011 at age three after suffering undisclosed medical problems.
  • Music executive Sylvia Robinson (6 March 1936 - 29 Sept. 2011) was founder and CEO of the pioneering hip-hop label Sugar Hill Records; this after a singing career that included perhaps the most annoying single ever recorded, "Love Is Strange" by Mickey and Sylvia (and, improbably enough, co-written by the usually quite cool Bo Diddley).
  • Marv Tarplin (13 June 1941 - 30 Sept. 2011) played guitar in Smokey Robinson's Motown band The Miracles and helped co-write many of the band's hits between its founding in the 1950s and his exit in the 1970s. (Among his other co-writing credits: "One More Heartache," covered in a rockin' fashion by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.)
  • And Ralph M. Steinman (14 Jan. 1943 - 30 Sept. 2011) was a Canadian immunologist and cell biologist who was announced as a Nobel Prize winner three days after his death.