Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Man-time, Woman-time

Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with someone of the opposite sex about your relationship with this person (sigh!)? If they're talking of their future together, he is thinking of next week and she is looking to that distant time in which they'll both be rocking their chairs on a porch.

You have entered (clear throat, put on Rod Serling voice) the man-time, woman-time zone.

Time isn't an absolute. As a reporter I learned there's journalist time, for example. You're a reporter, you go interview people or you go to the scene of the fire, whatever. You go back, write the story and move on. Next morning a reader picking up the paper exclaims: "Look at that, Martha, the old train depot on the other side of town burned down!" That's the public's news; your news as a reporter is the story that will come out the following day. So journalism time is always ahead of public time.

OK, you'll say that with 24/7 Internet coverage that's a thing of the past. Still, face it, the news you're reading in the fastest news site is "olds" to the reporter who wrote it five minutes ago, who is now working on the story you'll read several hours or days from now. The reporter is always a step ahead.

Much the same happens with men and women. At that first long, warm kiss, the guy is wondering what she'll be like in bed on the third, seventh or umpteenth date; the woman is designing her future bridesmaids' outfits.

That's not just because guys tend not to think of marriage, but merely a function of how far ahead they each think.

In one group of which I am a member, women have to be told that they can't sign up for an event a month ahead, while organizers find themselves pleading with men to RSVP at least two days before.

Why is that? I'm not exactly sure.

Part of this may have to do, of course, with a difference in time pressures. A study published some time ago in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that while women and men had similar amounts of free time in 1975, by 1998 women had 30 minutes less leisure time per day than men.

However, last fall the Bureau of Labor Statistics' second annual American Time Use Survey revealed that women spend an average 42 minutes a day more than men caring for children and their households, while men spend 34 minutes a day more on the job. The net yield is that women's leisure time is, on average, 8 minutes shorter every day.

Deborah Tannen, author of several books on the differences in male and female behavior, focuses on qualitative distinctions. Women spend more energy connecting with others, men spend more energy focused on particular tasks that may or may not involve others.

We're still at sea as to why the different perception and use of time -- much less what to do about it. I suppose first comes awareness of the difference, which of course is somewhat stereotypical and need not apply to every last individual man or woman.

It helps to know that when I think future and she thinks future, we mean entirely two different things. My inclination is to deal with the immediate before the long-range.

"In the long range we're all dead," remarked John Maynard Keynes.

I may well be hit by a truck tomorrow; so if I worry too much about the day after tomorrow, what a waste of today that is!

Monday, May 29, 2006

Ratzinger at Auschwitz

This Sunday's papal visit to Auschwitz was marked by a clever speech of shameless self-promotion in which Papa Ratzinger never once apologized for his own supportive role in the regime that brought about the death camp.

His speech begins by stating that words fail before the horror of Auschwitz, then he launches into about 2,000 of them. (You can read the full text here.)

Ratzinger distances himself from the events: he refers to himself as "a pope from Germany" as if he were speaking of a coincidence, as if he had not worn a Nazi uniform and uttered and performed Nazi salutes and marches and songs. What does he think we think Hitler Youth did all day?

Throughout it all, there's not one word of personal shame. To the contrary, he praises himself for going to the site of the death camp, not once but several times.

The deafening arrogance of his speech is so overpowering that observers have already strained to hear humility where it was entirely absent. In an Agence France-Presse story run by the Brussels-based European Jewish Press the curious following sentence appears: "He asked God why he remained silent during the 'unprecedented mass crimes' of the Holocaust." One oddly placed pronoun suggests that Ratzinger engaged in a public soul-searching wholly absent from his speech.

Of course, he could not have done so. Not only was Ratzinger not silent while the ovens were burning people, he was lending his voice to sieg heil. Now Ratzinger feels entitled to pose the psalmist's rhetorical questions concerning God's silence and responsibility, but conveniently the pope evades his own, or that of his country and countrymen.

Instead, Ratzinger has cleverly turned a moment that should have been of repentance into one of whitewashing. In his roster of victims the first is a Polish priest -- Maximilian Kolbe. Then the Poles, "along with the Jewish people." Indeed, in bringing up the figure now synonymous with the Shoah -- the 6 million -- Ratzinger applies it to "six million Poles"!

The next group of victims is -- hold on to your hats -- the Germans. Welcome to modern history according to Ratzinger: those poor witless people who by the millions marched all over Europe killing, raping, pillaging and, yes, exterminating a few million Poles (and, oh yes, some Jews alongside for the ride), did all that because they had been promised "future greatness and the recovery of the nation’s honour, prominence and prosperity." Oh, the suffering!

By this logic Lt. William Calley and Spec. Lynndie England, since they surely were promised something akin to honor, prominence and prosperity by George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson, shouldn't have to bear responsibility for the My Lai massacre or Abu Ghraib torture. Who, then, is responsible for anything?

Finally, after their brief cameo appearance beside the six million Poles, come the Jews, whom an unnamed "ring of criminals" wanted to "cancel."

Hitler Youth indoctrination was obviously quite effective. Decades after it, Ratzinger cannot bring himself to utter the word "Nazi" until the 8th of the 11th paragraph in the official English text of his speech. He cannot acknowledge that Auschwitz was constructed primarily to murder Jews -- not Poles, not Gypsies (another group upon whom Ratzinger lavishes attention as soon as he dispatches the requisite brief mention of Jews).

He wraps everything up speaking of "reconciliation," but again he botches it. Ratzinger is so uncomfortable talking about what his fellow Nazis did that he misses the one thing that could make reconciliation possible: repentance.

This is basic Catholic theology and he is the pope. Shouldn't he know this?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Fact, Fiction, Religion

In one response to my last post, a friend wrote that my arguments against the “Da Vinci Code” work because I know more than the average person, but that surely some other equally informed person could demolish my points.

Whenever we enter the realm of religion it seems that way largely because religion, at the core, is not about facts.

Most religions begin with one or several charismatic figures, historical or mythological: Abraham, Gautama Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed. These figures utter delphic words about what life is, where we come from and to where we are going after death, and provide some cryptic guidelines for living.

Then come a class of imams, lamas, rabbis, priests or whatever else they may call themselves. These people -- traditionally male only -- wear certain special ceremonial or occupational clothes, perform or lead in certain ritual actions. The scholarly among them codify, interpret, canonize certain sayings of the religion's founder(s) along with words attributed to divinity and ultimately the code or interpretation or book -- the Bible, Talmud, Quran, Vedas -- becomes the object of veneration.

Moreover, the overwheling majority of people use religion for fairly simple things: propitiation, social discipline, self-satisfaction and a sense of security in a troubling world. They want pain removed, if they have pain; they like ritual acts that make them feel good about themselves; they want doctrines, teachings or holy writings that assure them that they are right. Very few people actually believe there is someone other than themselves in charge or seek enlightenment or submit to a whole-hearted life conversion -- especially if that endeavor might disturb them from continuing along they way they are.

The reason arguing about religion seems endless is not because people really care about religion, but because the facts are never really quite clear -- inevitably, but also conveniently, so. Does God exist? Did Jesus or Abraham? The evidence for a historical person named Mohammed who wrote the Quran is overwhelming, but obviously not for his divine inspiration. Gautama Buddha's tomb can be located, although we don't know for certain whether what we know about his life is accurate.

Even if we accept God, Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammed as reality, what did they actually mean to tell us?

There are literally hundreds of Christian churches, each proclaiming themselves to be somehow the "bestest." There are at least a half dozen forms of Judaism. There are about as many variants of Islam and Buddhism. Can all of these be equally true and right and, indeed, bestest?

The quest is on ... endlessly.

You could not, however, easily find a lot of people who would tear down what I have said in my last post. Indeed, yesterday NBC aired an impressive documentary piece on its Dateline NBC show in which viewers were shown that the storyline of the DaVinci Code (click here to read the NBC story) is just what author Dan Brown said it was: fictional. Most historians agree that the facts are just not there.

Let's examine critically the notion of fact, just as we did with religion.

The idea of a fact is a relatively new, 18th century development from empiricism, the proposition that truth can be grasped through objective and verifiable observation. Western societies worship at the altar of facticity, yet facts aren't necessarily true.

You slap a table and decide that it is solid. But actually it isn't. There's a proportionally huge space between the electrons and the nucleus of atoms, so that the actual hard matter is really much less solid than our touch suggests. The actual pure mass of a transatlantic ship, say the Titanic, would be about the size of a baseball, if you managed to eliminate the subatomic empty space.

Even more, at the quantum level the physical laws that objective and verifiable facts confirm otherwise no longer apply, which is why modern physics has become the modern philosophy. Truth is a bit of a Russian matrioshka doll.

An image of that sort is what a charismatic religious leader would have conveyed in a pre-scientific world. In such a milieu it was accepted that demons and angels pulled us this way and that. It was also understood that we really don't know very much, that the storyteller is not as important as the story, and that some wholly invented stories teach truth.

Religion, in its theistic and atheistic forms, has never been about facts, but about what we intuitively find to be true. It takes wisdom to tell them apart.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Da Vinci Code Syndrome

All of a sudden, people who can't tell a cardinal from a monsignor, or a gospel from an epistle, feel perfectly comfortable pontificating about the Catholic Church's alleged conspiracy to suppress the story of Jesus' supposed marriage to Mary Magdalene.

The source of this malady? The DaVinci Code Syndrome. The symptoms are factless obsession with the Opus Dei, incongruous suppositions about the monolithic unity of the Catholic clergy, and conclusions drawn from fiction that don't hold water to the simplest critical analysis.

Don't get me wrong, I have plenty of sharp rocks of my own to hurl at Rome's stained glass windows, but these cream puffs from Dan Brown's work ... amateur hour!

The Opus Dei (Latin for "Work of God"), in which my mother and one of my colleagues once held the lowly rank of "cooperators," is indeed a hide-bound organization led by Spanish, fascistoid ninnies who delight in all manner of subtle code words and secrets. Their members once held a majority in the cabinet of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. They are exerting influence today on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and other Catholic, right-wing officials in Washington, and they have their point men in the Vatican. The Opus has an uncanny amount of money and assets; on occasion they have been blamed for the kind of brainwashing that made the Moonies and similar cults suspect.

Yet -- Deo gratias (Latin for "thank God") -- the Opus Dei does not yet control the Catholic Church by a long shot. To get a realistic sense of this, I recomment you read one of the best articles available today on the subject, written -- oh, surprise! -- by a Jesuit. Find it here.

As to the clergy, I wholeheartedly agree with Emile Zola that "civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest." Yet the Catholic clergy -- as its most recent set of scandals amply shows -- are a motley group of solipsistic egotists, mediocrities who could never make it in secular life, and an occasional exceptional talent as the exception to bolster the rule. The latter are often found in religious orders, such as the Jesuits, whom several popes felt they had to suppress to keep control.

Clergy plot? Good luck with that.

Finally, there's the whole-cloth story of Mary of Magdala, wife of Jesus, which is extremely old and hoary. In the past century alone it was floated as a revival of the 1956 Priory of Zion hoax in the 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail. More memorably for literature, a more intriguing and less conspiracy-ridden version of such a relationship appeared in the 1951 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ, for which the Greek Orthodox Church excommunicated him in 1955.

Still, there is no independent evidence that Jesus of Nazareth ever lived (or for that matter, Moses or Abraham), let alone a woman whose story is a wispy thread as a cameo player in the Galilean woodworker's drama. This is all fantasy and, in Kazantzakis' case, good literature.

So it annoys me no end when some wannabe Vaticanologists, who don't know spit, throw some easily dodged shots that make idiots of all Church critics. It gives apostasy a bad name.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Mothering and Fathering

The Mothers' Day just passed and the impending Fathers' Day turns my mind to the notion of mothering and fathering, so essential to all of us at some points in our lives.

Without both we would not be here. Without a mother we likely would not have survived our first year; without a father we can stumble through adult life. The roles are traditionally different. The mother nurtures the young, the father sends off the young adult into the world outside the family.

In families in which one parent is dead or absent, as the one in which I grew up, often a mother or a father will try to do both and ease the heartbreak in both child and parent. For there is no greater hole in the heart than when father is no longer sitting at the dinner table on Fathers' Day or when mother is gone from the hearth on Mothers' Day.

Yet I can attest, also, that the hole closes and heals when you begin to father or to mother your own child, or someone else's. Then, by happy and unintentional coincidence, you end up parenting the child inside you.

There is, of course, a certain mother and father chauvinism at work in how we recall our progenitors. My mother, now dead for years, used to think Mother's Day was better than Easter or Christmas; in my teenage years I thought that was a bit self-serving. Of course, the greeting card companies agree and the politicians would have nothing but good to say about fighting for apple pie and Mom.

But that's not how Mother's Day started.

Originally, it was a call for peace and disarmament. The holiday was first celebrated in Grafton, West Virginia, in 1908, under the leadership of by Anna Jarvis, who had begun organizing women to improve sanitation in 1858 and to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors after the Civil War. Her appeal to motherhood as an ideal of peace was embraced by Julia Ward Howe in a poetic proclamation of Mother's Day in 1870.

Two years after Jarvis' West Virginia celebration, Sonora Smart Dodd celebrated her father, William Jackson Smart, who had raised her and five other children in Spokane, Washington. Mothers' Day was officially proclaimed a holiday by President Woodrow Wilson, Father's Day by President Lyndon Johnson.

Parenting is about peace and disarmament, about nurturing, inspiring, and simply being there, all with no thought of recompense or reward. If the commercialism wears on you, you are not alone. Anna Jarvis protested against Mothers Day in the 1920s, once the holiday took off and commercialization set in.

Yet we all can celebrate motherhood and fatherhood in everyday ways -- without a holiday. I can paint no better picture of it than what I saw recently upon approaching the home of a friend I intended to drop in on by surprise one evening.

I approached the house and saw my friend teaching her young teenage daughter dance steps, her son prancing about, perhaps mockingly, yet in utter, unabashed joy. At one point another child, an older daughter, came over to enfold everyone in her arms. It was a charming, warm scene that I knew my arrival would only disrupt. So I stood there a few minutes peering in, as if I were watching a Disney movie about an idealized family having clean fun on a Saturday night ... only this was real.

I recalled a few moments of the sort that I had experienced with my sons and I envied that she still had that priceless time. Then I tiptoed to my car. In my last quick look everyone behind that window still looked happy and loved and warm.

And they were.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Do you love me?

Spring makes even an old coot's thoughts turn to love, to the meaning of love, to what love really is. We need not even consider love for a child or a parent, a friend, or even humanity in general, all of which are self-evident, so let's focus on love of and for one person, romantic love.

In The Fiddler on the Roof there's a scene in which Tevye and his wife Golde come face to face with the shift from the arranged marriages of their era to the romantic love that would become the basis of their children's relationships, and their grandchildren's. "Do you love me?" he asks and she responds with a series of evasions until under his persistent questioning, she breaks into song:

Do I love you?
For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cow
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?

Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I've lived with him
Fought him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that's not love, what is?

I'll tell you what that is in the language of cinema: it's "My Beautiful Laundrette" as opposed to "A Man and a Woman."

Love, in my not so humble opinion, is not what you do. It's what you say, it's how you kiss, it's an openness to sharing your innermost feelings. It's physical and emotional; it's chemistry. And if you wash clothes and cook meals but don't say "I love you," it's a great master-servant relationship, but it's not love.

Then there's love denied, love lost, love crushed, love spirited away in misunderstanding. The aching, searing pain when we lose someone we love. Isn't that love, too?

Love is a rollercoaster. Hang on for the ride.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Assimilate to what?

Given that bringing up immigration summons the cry for assimilation, let's consider a pertinent question I don't often hear answered: to what should immigrants assimilate?

The verb to assimilate has five meanings. Physiologically, it refers to consuming and incorporating nutrients into the body after digestion and the process of anabolism. Figuratively, it refers to incorporating and absorbing knowledge into the mind. The word also means to cause something to resemble another. In linguistics, it refers to altering a sound by assimilation, as happens when a language adopts foreign words (for example, the Spanish lazo and the English lasso).

The fifth meaning, also figurative, is what people have in mind in the immigration debate: to absorb immigrants, or a culturally distinct group, into the prevailing culture. Yet in all the meanings of "assimilate" something is consumed, absorbed, incorporated (literally, to become part of a body), after some process of digestion and alteration.

All of this, means B becomes somehow enmeshed in A.

In the case of a country, for example the United States, the question is: What is that A and why does it deserve pre-eminence? The answer is more complicated than it sounds.

History tells us that the first U.S. inhabitants were the Indians. The European colonists did not assimilate into Indian society. Are anti-immigrant advocates suggesting that we at last show some respect for the native inhabitants? Somehow, I think not.

History also tells us that what is today the United States became the colonial territory of three European powers: England, France and Spain. Which one of these countries' cultures deserve predominant respect? On what grounds?

Let's try history again. In thirteen of the North American English colonies, a civil war broke out in the 1770s, with the population so divided that an estimated 100,000 loyalists fled abroad at the end of the conflict. Moreover, cultural roots among whites were about evenly divided at that time between England and Germany, to the point that the issue of a national language for the United States was deferred in all the foundational discussions as too divisive.

(We might be singing "O, sagt, könnt ihr sehen" on the Fourth of July had the Deutsch, or "Dutch" prevailed, but then we're forgetting the "other Persons" of the Constitution, who were African and spoke multiple languages.)

So the English of the 1780s had deferred the language issue knowing they might not win; half of them wanted King George, anyway, the Germans didn't want to learn English (some of them still don't speak English at home).

Then they purchased land from France (the Louisiana territory) and Spain (Florida). By the 1840s and '50s, the third major European group of the early United States arrived: the Irish. They were certainly not English. They fled a famine induced by the British, the inventors of genocidal germ warfare, to dispossess the native Irish Catholic farmers of Ireland.

Remind me, in this mix of Africans, English, French, Germans, Irish and Spanish ... by what reason was only the culture and language of the English to be accorded legal supremacy, when even the English dared not debate it for fear they would lose a vote?

But wait, then there's the entire Southwest and West. That was stolen outright by war and conquest. The predominant language and culture there was not English. Why should the territory from Texas to California have to assimilate the culture and language of the last and most unlawful newcomers, the Anglos?

Much the same question could be raised about almost any corner of the Earth.

Take Israel. Jewish scripture says God gave them the land thousands of years ago. But those lands weren't uninhabited. If Jews can leave for 1,900 years and still lay a territorial claim upon their return almost two millenia later, what about the ancient Caananites and their descendants, who didn't leave at all? Who should assimilate to whose culture and language?

This is what 50 years of war in Palestine has been all about, proving once again the irrational, tribal and nonsensical nature of all the notions that one culture has an inherent right to dominate.

People have the inalienable right to their own language and culture. Asserting that right is in the best tradition of the United States (even though in many chapters of the nation's history it was not observed), as it is of the United Nations and of Lady Liberty, whose powerful gaze watches over both from her island.

Monday, May 01, 2006

A Dream of Lady Liberty

At the cutting edge of the debate impelling millions of immigrants in the United States to wrestle with staying home or going to work today, often a choice between a full stomach or dignity, is the question of what kind of society we want -- indeed what kind of world in the future. Yet it is also an argument about the past and who we are now.

This is why this is so emotional. At the core of the immigration debate lie images awash in our emotional freight about who we citizens of wealthy countries are as societies and our place in the world. This is not just a U.S. argument: in France they resent Arabic immigrants, in Germany it's the Turks, and even Italy, a net population loser for more than a century until the 1990s, now frets about Lybians and Albanians.

We nurture fond fantasies of who we are, the heirs of Napoleon and Goethe and Jefferson (but we don't claim Paisley, Stalin or Attila). Yet the G-8 countries have in common a history of expansionism, violence, enslavement of and disdain for people of other cultures. All immigration laws are everywhere, at heart, racist and xenophobic.

For example, the first U.S. immigration laws were enacted to keep out the Chinese, later darker nationalities who were not from Northwest Europe. Even U.S. humanitarian policy has always had the stench of selfishness and right-wing ideology. The USA would not admit the Nazi-fleeing Jewish passengers of the German transatlantic liner St. Louis in 1939; in 1980, the USA admitted 900 refugees from Communist Poland but only 1 from El Salvador, where murder and dislocation, at a rate of 300 dead a week, was U.S.-funded.

Not only are the myths misleading about the past, they do not contemplate a future in which the torch of power might pass to to another land, nor one in which the white northwestern European peoples of Europe and North America, no longer reproducing at replacement levels, become an imperiled minority.

Perhaps this is why this is such a hot button issue in Berlin, Germany as it it in Berlin, New York, because it summons our tribal instincts, our fears and preconceptions of ourselves.

It is also why the famous poem by Emma Lazarus, engraved at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, deserves a second read:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

We are so accustomed to thinking of the poor huddled masses that we forget the major paradigm shift Lazarus was proposing, in an age when it was still preposterous. Lady Liberty, more than 10 times taller than the Colossus of Rhodes to whom the poet compares her, is not merely one more male conquering giant, but a mighty woman who commands with her eyes while she sheds light in the world.

The USA, at whose eastern door she commands and gives light, is not merely a tribal extension of Europe, it is the first country formed as a state, without ever before having been a people, an ethnos, a nation. Its name is a concept: unity among various territories. How fitting that the locus of a dream of unity at a global level, the United Nations, is headquarters well within the gaze of Lady Liberty.

The United States and the United Nations stand as yet unrealized ideals of common human unity, the globalization of the altruistic impulse to rejoice, revel and develop resources together, thanks to our differences.

Are we ready for such a dream? Lady Liberty commands it from her serene perch.