Sunday, June 28, 2015

As We Celebrate Marriage Legality

 To choose with whom we will forge a life in intimacy, with all its imperfect implications, is a remarkable human gift and, as we have learned, it is indeed not a blessing conferred by God but rather by social contract.

The Justices in dissent of the majority Supreme Court ruling have been able to deflect their moral and religious objections to same-sex unions and instead focus on the overreach of Court’s Constitutional role.  There were not merely four dissenters, there were four dissents, each of which made an implicit case for rejecting the collective social will.  Some commentators suggest an incitement to treason. (Look here:

But no matter how we construe their dissent, it is a thinly veiled religiosity that fuels their discontent.  Justice Scalia is simply the most undisguised and mephitic in his effort to impose his personal pieties in the guise of constructionist interpretation.  While same-sex marriage is now the law of the land there is every reason to believe that a significant minority of hearts and minds are non-consensual.  We can, of course, compare this week's events to the civil rights movement that has indeed shifted attitudes and values with a generational tide. But that tidal wave too has also seen new walls built to prevent the sea change: the Court’s regressive ruling concerning the Voting Rights Act along with Congress’s unwillingness to renew its critical provisions are supported by States imposing restrictive voting laws aimed directly at repressing minority voters.  Law may be a measure of progress but progress is not best measured by law.  Neither is what we teach our children the meaning of law; it is the difference between right and wrong.

There was a time not long ago when marriage was hardly the blessing or the gift it is today understood to be in America.  Especially for women.  We need only reference Emma Goldman’s remarks in 1910.

From infancy, almost, the average girl is told that marriage is her ultimate goal; therefore her training and education must be directed toward that end. Like the mute beast fattened for slaughter, she is prepared for that. Yet, strange to say, she is allowed to know much less about her function as wife and mother than the ordinary artisan of his trade. It is indecent and filthy for a respectable girl to know anything of the marital relation. … As to the protection of the woman—therein lies the curse of marriage. Not that it really protects her, but the very idea is so revolting, such an outrage and insult on life, so degrading to human dignity, as to forever condemn this parasitic institution.  (Cited from Lapham’s Quarterly.)

Goldman goes on to reflect on how women are left uninformed and made shameful of their sexuality.  How much of that has changed?  Even a brief look at the history of “marriageable age” reveals the depths of sexism that continue across the world.  Anyone with a cursory understanding of cultural anthropology knows that the legal age of consent has little to do with reality.  (  Once again, the law speaks to but one feature of civilization while culture speaks to so many others.

America has addressed an injustice and finally joined with Canada and much of Europe in a commitment to legal same-sex marriage (  Perhaps it’s also a good time to remember that there are seventy-nine countries in which being actively gay is still very much a crime.  (

Things have changed and the law speaks to change.  But the law is not all we must contend with.  Human decency has a far longer road to travel.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Our Complicated Lives

As Thomas Jefferson made clear the Constitution’s First Amendment intended to build “a wall of separation between church and state.”  Do note how Jefferson maintains it is possible to live in such a world:

Citing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, he writes to the Danbury Baptists:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

Mr. Jefferson’s own opprobrious history as a slave-holder, and far worse, is as much a part of our “complicated heritage” as the matter of institutional racism that encodes itself America’s DNA.   Should we consider theses matters in tandem, the issues become all the more contentious. Charles Blow offers up an insightful summary definition of institutional racism and its deniers. (

Do follow up with the reader’s comments on this piece to gather a better sense of how this debate is at once recognized as an American reality and then both accepted and denied with requisite resignation.

“Complication” is another way of describing our deep divides, under-developed conversations, and the unwillingness we share to educate each other. 

All of those commitments would assuredly hurt, require time and effort, and cause the consternation of change.  Learning is not complicated: it is arduous and invites vulnerability because we might have to change our minds.  Complacency is as much the complementary infection of 21st century America, evidenced in everything from our pathetic voter turnout to the gleeful dismissal of electronic media for purposes of mere entertainment all the while deriding it as a cause of individual desolation.  We critique those immersed in electronic trivia as if looking at your cellphone were the reason we are so reduced.  We could be using the remarkable powers of this communicative media revolution for, you know, a revolution of ideas and a prompt to pay attention.  Instead? This coming fall semester I will ban the use of electronics in my college classroom because I simply cannot control the abuse of inattention.  The problem is not the media or our even attention span: it is our unwillingness to evolve a more serious self.  That would require a greater effort, ardor we apparently reserve for more pleasurable endeavors.

I am not much surprised that Americans of this age debate institutional racism.  Rather, I am acquiescent that our society is not on the brink of any important soul-searching.  There is no evidence of some new consciousness because the Confederate battle flag and its cohort are at last officially recognized as better museum pieces than representations of values.  Those values will persist no matter where politicians now resolve to put these egregious symbols of hate.  And as for any “heart-awakening"---or in the parlance of my work “yoga revolution,” I’m equally unimpressed that a World Yoga Day will do more than mix political exercise with unreflective meditation and produce instead only more embarrassing posturing.

Religion is always mixed with politics, if by “religion” we imply the original Latin etymology of the word “to bind together.”  Religions refer to what holds an “us” together.  And there is no “us” without a “them.”  So for all the ways that religions proffer identities construed to elevate the human condition to better intentions and actions, religion cannot help be just as much the mechanism of divisiveness.   We cannot keep religion out of politics.  But we can object to religions just as honestly as we object to politics.

All of us possess deep convictions and whether we call that our “religion” or something else, we are moved to act beyond our private conscience because we are necessarily social and political beings.  Mr. Jefferson’s admonitions notwithstanding, the issue is how we instantiate religious values in our politics.  To reduce religion to matters of private conscience or eschatology is a “thou doth protest too much” moment in which we mean to become exempt from the inevitable comingling of conviction with actions.  Alas, we act from what we believe, even when our beliefs are evidenced-based rather than reformulated from dogmas.  There’s no separation of religious ideas and feelings from our efforts to be human in the world.

For your bemusement have a look at the conundrum facing the current crop of Catholic Republican Presidential candidates as they answer to Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical Laudato Si, which also fingers corporate exploitation and income inequality.  These candidates will need plenty of yoga (how disputably “unchristian” of them) to create religious fealty and answer to their kleptocratic masters' efforts to purchase the government while satisfying their own grifting aspirations.  It’s no easy dance to criticize Il Papa but when there is that much cash on the table, it hardly requires a Rogers and Astaire.  For a tango of this, have a look at The National Review, with its Buckley-Catholic heritage conservative politics as an official response piece reflecting the oligarchy’s consternation with His Holiness.  (  Do get out the popcorn if you intend to watch Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, et. al. ---it is at present more of a lunatic bus more than mere clown car-- -explain away their religio-political conflicts of interest.  Note as well Huckabee’s virulent evangelical Protestantism in “I told you so” brimstone mode.  You know, those Papists aren’t to be trusted with the stewardship of the earth even if we can agree to agree that the church must control women’s reproductive choices.  (Of course, no one who lauds Laudato Si wants to take much note of The Church’s official stance on reproductive rights or same-sex marriage.) The real conflict between church and state is being played out everyday if we choose to pay attention.

Whatever happens to the symbols of religiously-justified ideology, such as the Confederate flags, the deeper issues are nowhere to be seen.  Nicholas Kristof makes this perfectly clear in today’s Times.  (

Kristof writes:
America’s greatest shame in 2015 is not a piece of cloth. It’s that a black boy has a life expectancy five years shorter than a white boy. It’s that the net worth of the average black household in 2011 was $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to census data.
It’s that almost two-thirds of black children grow up in low-income families. It’s that more than one-third of inner-city black kids suffer lead poisoning (and thus often lifelong brain impairment), mostly from old lead paint in substandard housing.
More consequential than that flag is our flawed system of school finance that perpetuates inequity. Black students in America are much less likely than whites to attend schools offering advanced science and math courses.
The one public system in which America goes out of its way to provide services to African-Americans is prison. Partly because of our disastrous experiment in mass incarceration, black men in their 20s without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated than employed, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
So I’m all for celebrating the drawing down of the Confederate battle flag, but now let’s pivot from symbolic moves to substantial ones.

So what do we care about?  And what are we willing to do about it?  We might ask ourselves too why these topics are untouchable.  For that we can return to a movie favorite (well, maybe that takes it too far) and the dialogue between Officer Jimmy Malone---finely casting the Scot Sean Connery as an Irish beat cop with Costner’s Eliot Ness:

Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I'm saying is, what are you prepared to do?
Ness: Anything within the law.
Malone: And *then* what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they're not gonna give up the fight, until one of you is dead.
Ness: I want to get Capone! I don't know how to do it.
Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. *That's* the *Chicago* way! And that's how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I'm offering you a deal. Do you want this deal?
Ness: I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I will do so.
Malone: Well, the Lord hates a coward.
[jabs Ness with his hand, and Ness shakes it]
Malone: Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?
Ness: Yes.
Malone: Good, 'cause you just took one.

Of course, this is precisely what has already happened but by those who would keep the Confederate flag and wave their guns as their emblems of freedom.  We are told in daily memes by those espousing Second Amendment rights that we must arm ourselves to protect each other from ourselves.  (

To face the deeper truths of our American sickness would require a revolution without the guns.  What is there to suggest we are prepared to do that?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Hope in the Age of Obama

Today America reacted again to redeem itself through sacraments of political exigency. I watched unamazed as the Governor of South Carolina, followed by a series of would-be Republican Presidential nominees each pursue their absolution and provide the required rhetoric. As Governor Haley surrounded herself with those appealing to hope to confer upon her newfound awareness the requisite gravity to carry forward the charade, I remained unconvinced. America will need to do more than hold news conferences and take down flags.

Yesterday’s ardent apologists have now made their rhetorical revisions to suit the faithful, all calculated to insure a commitment to deeper unfeigned change.

"Part of the problem why we continue to visit these moments is because there is of a lack of honesty about how we got here. Racism, bigotry, prejudice and hatred are elements woven into the fabric of this country. There can be no healing in this land if we are not honest about who we are."  --Rev. Michael A. Walrond Jr. (the pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, June 21 2015)
Both ideological constituents and financial directors can rest easy: the Governor's words will not overwrite the convictions Reverend Walrond, Jr. so well understands.  America's tortured reality will soon resume its natural course.  The Republican politicians fabricated duress will convert into more comfortable slogans or simply be elided from the next news cycle. This satisfying if not unexpected outcome is all part of the show for those for whom any change would be deemed bad for business.

As we see a potent symbol of our tawdry history disenfranchised for a brief, shining moment under the bright lights of the media’s imperative to reclaim America’s moral superiority, the more lasting message should not be mistaken: the solid ground upon which this Confederate battle flag stands is dutiful.  Its unapologetic meaning will endure even when it is no longer residing under the overt symbols of hatred sanctioned by the State. A significant portion of the American public today is as intractable in its inner volition as it is incapable of attending long enough to feel the discomforts deeper self-reflection would require. As Walmart moved to remove Confederate flags and decorations from its shelves, Amazon saw a 2,300% increase in sales: today.

Americans are not people for whom the realities of self-revision have much provenance beyond immediate economic gains unless it is to provide an update that reclaims old, well-founded prejudices. We prefer instead to act as if there were no yesterday, to pretend nothing endemic in the failure that lies at the root of our founding as a nation. To register “progress” because slavery has been abolished and racism is now beyond fashionable norms tells us less about what we have achieved than it does how much we prefer to refuse to understand. By next week, well, things will be just fine. Again. Lather, rinse, repeat.