Friday, January 27, 2006

Passion meets a Pope

The topic of this pope's first encyclical letter Deus est caritas, reminded a friend of the 1931 song by Jean Lenoir, which has recently been sung memorably by Quebecois chanteuse Renee Claude.

Parlez-moi d'amour,
Redites-moi des choses tendres.
Votre beau discours,
Mon coeur n'est pas las de l'entendre.
Pourvu que toujours
Vous répétiez ces mots suprêmes:
Je vous aime.

(Speak to me of love / Tell me again tender things / Your beautiful colors, / My heart won't tire of them. / As long as you always / repeat these majestic words: /I love you.)

Only the French could sing so bold a declaration without blushing. Yet I fear they are right: every woman wishes to hear entreaties of love, however purple. Every man shakes and quivers at the consequences. All of us still like to be liked and love to be loved.

So it's cleverly seductive of Papa Ratzinger to chose love as the subject of his first lecture.

Predictably, the pope spends the bulk of his letter urging upon his church a greater sense of charity (caritas), the love he deems best, but he begins -- and catches my eye -- in his attempt to tame Eros, the Greek god of love, the form he likes least. In outlining the various forms of love, of course, the pope lags by decades behind the Anglican C.S. Lewis ' work The Four Loves which explores family love, love among friends, erotic or romantic love, and altruistic or self-giving love -- in Greek: storge, philia, eros, and agape, respectively.

In the Greek conception, it was not God who was love (or the image of love) as Ratzinger states in his opening, but loving that was divine. Divinity meant freedom from the chains of Fate and mastery of one's own destiny. What modern psychiatrists call the break of ego boundaries at the point of orgasm, from which bursts forth a torrent of sensations, feelings and thoughts that convey a sense of freedom, unity with another, pleasure and more, is what the Eros myth is all about.

"In the [pre-Christian] religions," Ratzinger asserts, "this attitude found expression in fertility cults, part of which was the 'sacred' prostitution which flourished in many temples ... this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it. Indeed, the prostitutes in the temple, who had to bestow this divine intoxication, were not treated as human beings and persons, but simply used as a means of arousing 'divine madness': far from being goddesses, they were human persons being exploited."

Ratzinger cleverly elides the fact that cultic sex -- which is inappropriately called "prostitution" given the modern connotations of the term -- was often understood as a god-human sexual encounter conceptually similar to that implicit in the story of the Catholic Church's own divinely impregnated Virgin Mary. To top it off, Ratzinger, has the temerity to adopt an ersatz "feminist" stance -- Women's Ordination Conference, take note! -- in stating that "the prostitutes in the temple ... were human persons being exploited."

Need we note that Ratzinger is the very man who tried to infallibilize Pope John Paul II's letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination To Men Alone) -- which Papa Wojtyla pointedly declined to do himself? Oh, the crocodile tears Ratzinger sheds for the exploitation of the priestesses of the very same female sex he does not deem worthy of ordination in his own religion!

To critics of the Church's anti-sex catechetics and teaching, Ratzinger offers another deceptive admission: "Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed."

You think that's an admission? Think again. He's pointing to manicheism and other views that he can safely distance himself from because august church bodies of the past have declared them "heretical."

In sum, Ratzinger would have you believe that the same religion that burned witches and insists on denying that women can serve as priests has fought sex in the name of concern for the dignity of women. This is true, so long as you understand that implicit in the bargain of Ratzinger-minded Catholics is that women abide with the confines of, as the German slogan had it, Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). Ratzinger the pope doesn't quite come out and say it.

Ratzinger does make a stab at connecting his domesticated eros with the somewhat different notion of agape. That's another excursion for another day.

At the core of everything Ratzinger is saying about eros, it seems, is the fear that strikes the heart of a powerful white septuagenarian upon coming across the unfettered passion in the words "Je t'aime" (I love you).

Friday, January 20, 2006

Hispania, Historia

A recurring set of personal struggles that touch upon who I am ethnically prompts a meditation on these two Roman words, which lie at the roots of the Hispanic identity.

Hispania because the common characteristics of all who are imbued with this identity are linked in some way to the peoples, the peninsula and the variegated parlance of Spain. Historia because hispanidad (or "Hispanicity") is a collective story that goes as far back as the caves of Altamira.

Let's dwell on these two thoughts.

Although both these words are in Latin, the people themselves are not really "Latin" or Latino, as dubbed by the American newspapers whose ranks of reporters are kept well shy of any proportional number of people who could be identified as such.

President Bush Sr.'s vice president, Dan Quayle, was hilariously wrong, of course: speaking Latin would not really help in Latin America. Indeed, Hispanic America is Latin America only to the usurpers of the name America, the Anglo-Americans and those who have subsumed their own very different identities into that of the Anglos. To them, any other part of the continent named America long before the first Englishman set sail westward, must be "Something-else America" ... 'cuz we all know 'murrica is the USA, right?

So, no. Hispanics.

Of course, this does not mean that Hispanics are Spaniards from Madrid. Just look at us. Hispanic skin comes in a veritable ice-cream bazaar's palette of hues, from the pale pink called "white," to various shades of brown through the sepia "yellow." However, the commonality goes back to Hispania, itself another mosaic including the Celts from Galicia, the Lusitanians or Portuguese, the Basques and Catalonians, in addition to the Baetic, or central, Spaniards, whose Castillian tongue is the third most widely spoken language in the world, behind Chinese and Hindi.

At the heart of the story of Hispanics is the dazzling historical intermingling of Africans, Asians and Europeans -- a development that was never again matched -- in the world's first empire upon which the sun never set. In America -- the small U.S. of A. America of the Anglos -- such a thing remains what Martin Luther King, Jr., called a "dream," but what many in power today regard a nightmare.

The history of Hispania suggests that the peninsula's people were uniquely prepared to carry out the first global fusion of the long parted branches of the human family. Hispania was always a crossroads and a shelter, beginning with the first post-Neanderthal humans who had reached Europe from the steppes of Central Asia and sought refuge from the last ice age in the mountainous peninsula, in whose caves they left some of the world's oldest art works. Celts, Phoenicians, Israelites, Egyptians and Carthaginians followed, then the Romans, Visigoths and Moors. (Incidentally, the first Arab Muslim attack on a Western society took place in Spain.) Finally, under the Hapsburg dynasty, Hispania set sail around the world all the way to islands named after King Philip II, the Philippines.

There are, to be sure, shameful episodes as well as heroic and noble in this lengthy Historia. No Spaniard relishes a return of the Inquisition (although they know that it started in France). No Hispanic today wears the expulsion of Jews as a badge of pride (although we know that England preceeded Spain in the very same legislation and policy by two centuries). Colonization, the process named after the adoptive Spaniard Cristóbal Colón, involved tragedy and irretrievable loss (although without the deep ethnic strife that every single former English colony has known even in recent memory).

Why does all this matter? After all, ethnicity is not an inherent trait. Even Osama bin Laden was human and male before he was Arab and Muslim. Ethnicity is one of many sets of identities available to us. Incidentally, this term "identity," which we use to distinguish ourselves from one another, comes from the Latin idem, "the same"; all of which means that we set ourselves apart from some when we find commonality with others.

Yet living in the USA, as a USA-American, the paradox seem lost to the society around me. I keep witnessing the Orwellian erasure of my distinctive people and their history, as if Hispanics were cultural blank slates and counted for nothing.

(This post is retroactively part of Julie Pippert's Hump Day Hmm and BlogRhet's "Let's Talk About Race, Baby" week long initiative.)

Saturday, January 14, 2006

On Becoming a Woman

"I miss Lapwing," some folks have written to me. I miss Lapwing, too, even though I was (am?) that insouciante young woman inside the skin of a much crankier middle-aged man.

Who was Lapwing and who is Lapwing? I've already explained the origins of the name and it's author (see here), and when people say they miss Lapwing they don't mean either. They mean they miss the distinctly female personality of Lapwing.

I didn't set out to create a female Lapwing. Indeed, I never came out and told anyone Lapwing was female. When some curious souls asked whether Lapwing's relationship with Cecilieaux included bed, I adopted a Sphinx-like silence.

It was men, men who wanted to know whether the author of Lapwing's e-mail and Lapwing's blog was a man or a woman, men who wrote to meet Lapwing, men who began referring to "her" while Lapwing made strenous efforts to write without using personal pronouns ... they were the ones who made Lapwing feminine. Then there were some women who believed the men or to whom Lapwing sounded female.

Truth in labelling: I belong to the male persuasion with no interest in changing. I am heterosexual.

And yet, and yet ... Lapwing seemed to be female. She was a 30-something know-it-all young woman. A bit biting at times, yet a softie in the end: a pacifist, a person concerned for children. Stop the presses: I have those qualities.

Lapwing, however, had a lighter touch than I and when she was insulted or hurt she would not let the sun go down on her wrath. She did not return rudeness in kind. Lapwing ended up, by acclamation, becoming a woman.

It was quite an experience. I never lied. I never invented things to trick people. These were my honest feelings, the honest facts (with a small genital omission).

Is there such a thing as a female personality? I used to think not. But I think now that there is. Or rather, that we assign to certain behavior the label feminine and to other the label masculine.

It was fun trying out being a woman without any messy biological work or serious legal complications.

Women can speak up gently, can embarrass, can call rowdy behavior to a stop with a figurative wagging of their finger. A woman never gets into a fight. She wins by raising her eyebrows. No one dares outright challenge a woman to go mano a mano.

There are, of course, a whole lot of troglodytes out there -- you know who you are -- who think nothing of belittling a woman in a way they'd be afraid to do so with a man. Yes, I learned that if you are a woman on the Net, at least the other women will always stick up for you. They won't pick up your cudgel and beat the brutes' brains out, as they deserve. No, they'll quietly send a little message of support.

At last, I had a sense of what women do among themselves. I experienced a little bit of the sorority, so healing, so supportive, so helpful, that binds women in a way that is not echoed in the male bond of fraternity.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Economic Insight

There must be a chemical in the brain that reacts to an enlightening presentation the way pleasure suffuses over the entire body when one takes refuge in an English country inn for the absolutely perfect cup of tea on a wet and miserable afternoon.

There's a similar chemistry in my brain connected to the "aha!" moment that occurs when some august theory can be applied to my entirely all too ordinary daily life.

This was what occurred to me this week as I was hearing Benjamin Friedman, a Harvard professor of economics, speak about his new book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, which -- in brief -- argues that economic growth brings greater social mobility, tolerance of diversity, fairness and robust democratic institutions, or what he calls "moral positives."

Challenged on that point, Friedman went on to explain that “what matters for happiness, or ‘satisfaction’ as pollsters put it, is not the absolute level of living, but the living standard relative to something else.” Research points to two powerful benchmarks of material well-being.

“Imagine that you were in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, where everyone is better off than everyone else,” Friedman said. “Then imagine a world in which everybody has a sense of being better off than in the past. Then they would experience less urgency for economic growth personally and be willing, as some have suggested here, to let other people come along for the ride.”

It doesn't really matter if I make X amount of money by itself. What matters is the psychic reward of knowing that it's more than amount Y made by certain people with whom I compare myself. Then there's the final Oedipal victory in discovering that not only is this Not Your Father's Car, he couldn't have afforded anything this good -- or it wasn't invented back then.

This certainly explains why, living comfortably in the richest country in the world, my peers so often feel poor. John D. Rockefeller was once asked what was his ultimate financial goal. "To have just a little more," he replied.

So what do I do with this? I'm not sure. Perhaps this is one of these moments in which an insight simply needs to simmer before we know what is to be done.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Ralph Reed's Wages of Sin

Now we know, the wages of sin are $57,000. Or so it would seem from what the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed was willing to take from Jack Abramoff.

Yet where is the Christian moral outrage? Why aren't the preachers who rend their garments at the thought of gay marriage or a Democratic president not having sex with that woman concerned about bribes?

An answer may be found in an article a neighbor passed on to me. In Harper's December issue , the piece titled "Jesus Without the Miracles," starts with an appreciation of Jefferson's editing of the gospels, extracting birth narratives, miracles and resurrection accounts into what is now published as "Jefferson's Bible."

A telling three sentences from the article struck me:

To read the Gospel of Matthew or Luke is to be dazzled by one miracle after another. But to read Jefferson's version ... is to face a relentless demand that we be better people -- inside and out -- than most of us are. Which leads, as Jefferson must have suspected, to this unfortunate conclusion: the relevance of Christianity to most Americans -- then and now -- has far more to do with the promise of eternal salvation from this world than with any desire to practice the teachings of Jesus while we are here.

Now I realize that propitiation is not exclusively an American phenomenon, but I find myself paying increasing attention to a divide between Jesus and Christianity, on which I mused some blog eons ago.

On one hand, you have essentially commercial self-serving churches, whose doctrines stress "pie in the sky, by and by," providing the illusion of divine favor to their customers ... ah ... members, and maybe a social club. Christianity has been responsible for wars, persecutions, mass murders, justification of slavery and racism, and in 20 centuries has served every miscreant in power.

On the other, you have an itinerant preacher of long ago, whose claims to divinity and Messiahship were ambiguous, to say the least, insisting on a conversion of life to which Christians never quite seem to get around.

In the itinerant preacher's grand vision, the order we know in everyday life is upturned:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall posses the land.
Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

As to the likes of Abramoff and his unctuous Christian buddies:

But woe to you that are rich: for you have your consolation.
Woe to you that are filled: for you shall hunger.
Woe to you that now laugh: for you shall mourn and weep.