Friday, November 7, 2008

3 Points of Darkness

There was much to celebrate on Tuesday evening, and many of us are still basking in the glow of its light.   There were also three points of distinct darkness and disconnect.  California, Florida and Arizona passed Constitutional Amendments barring Gay Marriage.  If we needed any reminder that the struggle is not over, that prejudice and medieval thinking is not restricted the shameful way in which our great democracy treated people of color, here it is.   Make no mistake; homophobia and racial bigotry are cut from the very same cloth. 

Language is something to be taken seriously and respected.  In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, what we say and how we say it can be as important as what we do, and we should be judged for it.  At the very least words can signal, often through the use of transparent code, how we really feel.  There is no more telling word when it comes to Gays than “lifestyle”.  The implication is clear, gay isn’t who you are, but you choose to be.  Of course, it’s a notion refuted by science, as if we really needed science to tell us that being attracted to the same sex is totally natural for a percentage of the population, and has always been.  Which brings me to the intersection of homophobia and racism.  One of the major arguments against same-sex marriage is that it will set an example for our children.  Somehow seeing the “Gay lifestyle” so publicly exhibited will be enticing, pushing our sons and daughters to the “unnatural” side.  That’s no different than the once popular racial-phobic notion that we dare not come into physical contact with our black neighbors lest their color literally rub off on us.  Yes, people actually believed that.

As someone who, by virtue of an ordination, is empowered to officiate at weddings, I’ve given a great deal of thought to same-sex marriage just as I’ve given thought to inter-faith marriage.  And don’t think there have not been strong taboos against the latter.  Remember too that interracial marriage was illegal in many states.  Had that prevailed, there would be no President-Elect Obama to celebrate.

The problem with issues like same-sex marriage is that we depersonalize it to the degree that, for example, being heterosexual means that it has nothing to do with us.  Really.  Well let’s look at it from this perspective.  I am Jew.  According to the recent Pew study, Jews represent about 1.7% of the American population.  So we’re a tiny minority in a very large country.  Nevertheless we demand our civil rights.  While there are no absolute figures, it is widely estimated that Gays and Lesbians represent 10% of the population.  Yes, you read that right, more the five times the number of Jews in America.  Pause for a second to take that in, then close your eyes for a minute and substitute the designation Jew (or however you identify yourself) with the designation Gay.   In other words, make it personal and see how you would feel.  During the campaign that just ended, we were told more than once by word or by symbol that this is a Christian country.  Let’s, for argument sake, concede that it is.  Am I as Jew denied the right to marry another Jew, or I as an ordained clergyman precluded from officiating at such a ceremony?  Of course not, nor would we Jews stand for such an infringement on our civil rights.  So, in that context alone, how can any of us, Jew, Christian or Moslem possibly deny 10% of the population the rights we demand for ourselves.  Remember that in some are of our life, even if only professionally, we are all part of some minority group.

The issue, however, goes deeper than that.  Marriage is a civil act.  When I officiate, legally it is as an agent of the state not as an agent of my religion.  To me, the same-sex marriage issue is not so much a matter of civil rights, though it is that too, but of protecting Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation.  Those who oppose these unions are imposing their religious views onto what is a civil matter.  We may impose our own religious values on marriage, imbue it ceremonially with religious content, but in the end it’s a civil legal contract.  While some religions grant ritualistic writs of divorce, they have no standing in an American court of law.  Only civil law can end a marriage.

So what happened in these three states reflects the larger attempted intrusion of religion on our secular society.  It is just another in a series of issues including abortion, end of life or stem cell research, when people of a narrow religious view seek to impose their ways on all of us, even a minority of us.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I think any religious group has the right to deny its members sanctioned marriage to same-sex couples, an abortion, birth control, assisted suicide and even treatments that may result from stem cell research.  I may violently disagree with them, but our Constitution protects their right to religious belief and practice.  I would go further, in saying that we should all be prepared to defend that right even if we are of a different religious point of view or are atheists.  I didn’t march for civil rights because I was Black, but because I was an American who believed in the promise of democracy.

After he gave his victory speech on Tuesday evening one couldn’t help but be moved by the cheers and, most especially the tears, in the audience.  I had some cheers and tears of my own.  But one of the most moving moments for me was when Michelle came back on stage and gave her husband a hug and kiss.  There was no microphone to catch their private words, but even if you ordinarily don’t know how to read lips it was impossible to miss the words she whispered in his ear, “I love you”.   While one never knows about other people’s marriages, it looks like these two have one that many would rightly envy.  In the end marriage has to do with friendship, love and mutual commitment.  All are challenging, a huge number of what, in code words, are called “traditional” marriages fail.  If we value marriage and hope for its success friendship, love and commitment are what count.  The more people who can achieve that, the stronger our society is likely to be.  Why should we deny that opportunity of strengthening all of us to 1 in every 10 Americans?  The answer is, we shouldn’t.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

President Obama

“....   did I ever dream, dear family and friends,  that I would pull a lever tomorrow to vote  for the president of these United States, Commonwealths and Territories and my candidate  looks like one of my children!”   These were the opening words of an email from my dear friend Toni Tyson on Monday.  Watching the results last night I found myself mostly speechless.  The enormity of the moment so transcended simply the election of a new President.   I thought of my father who shared the podium with Martin King before the Lincoln Memorial, but also of my mother and others who worked for this day and did not live to see it.  Our family came to this country from Nazi Germany, Jews who had to build a new life in a country that was at once welcoming and daunting.  My parents, even as new Americans trying to adjust to a new home instantly saw the connection between the long and often lonely struggle of Jews and that of African Americans.  In his autobiography my father tells of inviting a Black professor to his hotel room in Atlanta while there for a speech in the late 1930s.  His White Jewish hosts were mortified; he, an escapee from the Hitler regime, appalled at their reaction.  If he needed any prodding, that experience alone sealed forever his life long commitment to Civil Rights, and ours.

My response to Toni Tyson is, the new President looks like my children as well – he looks like the children of America, the one we thought never possible but the one that now is.  Those who have read these posts over the past two years know that I was convinced early on that Obama would win the nomination and this election, that he would be the 44th President of the United States.  I never had a moment of doubt – for historic reasons definitely, but mostly because of who he is and what we need at this time.   Never in American history have we kept the party in power in the face of an unpopular war or bad economy.  To say we have both is an understatement.  In that sense, Obama’s victory was inevitable.  But in the end what we have done is to elect an extraordinary man for an extraordinary time.   If he can be a Lincoln or a Roosevelt only time will tell.  He is certainly being provided the canvas on which to paint that kind of legacy.

The road ahead is not going to be easy.  Extricating ourselves from Iraq will be more difficult than any of us would hope.  Escalating our involvement in Afghanistan is fraught with danger – the record of outsiders prevailing there not encouraging.  Al Qaeda is stronger than ever and remains a real threat, as is the poisoning undercurrent of anti-Moslem prejudice that has come in its wake.  Israel and Palestine remain far apart.  All this and we haven’t gotten to the economy which not only has to be revived but whose ground rules have to be redrawn.  It’s likely to suck up much of his time, especially in those critical early days.  Healthcare needs fixing and whether we have the will to take it on, finally, remains uncertain.  And last, perhaps ultimately most, is the environment made even more fragile by eight years of official denial and what can only described as criminal neglect.  Time is running out.

President-elect of Obama speaks of hope, something which has eluded us in the nearly eight dark years since a partisan Supreme Court decision brought us the most divisive and inept administration in any of our memories, perhaps in the nation’s history.  He affirms that, in the face of all behind and ahead us, “yes we can”.   Let’s hope we and he can.  Of course, we have not choice but to prevail.  Not to do so is both unthinkable and unacceptable.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Bush Shushhh!

"Laura and I voted absentee…for John and Sarah of course.  Our kind of people.  Oh I know one of John’s five Secretaries of State said she wasn’t ready for big time.  You know the one who wears that suit and vest even in August, what’s his name…bird-burger or something like that.  Any way, as to not being prepared to sit in the Oval, I can relate to that.  The truth is, while I certainly don’t know her well, she sure reminds me of a Dick-in-the-making.  That’s good, isn’t it?  And speaking of Secretaries, can you believe that ingrate Colin?  Poppi and I made him what he is.  Any way, I actually wanted to vote in Crawford, have the kind of photo op that we like to have down there at the ranch.  I had planned havin a beer with the guys, but no one seemed to want to have one with me.  Hard to figure out what’s goin on.

You know the straight talker said he hoped I would come out and campaign for him…that is, if I could make time in my busy schedule.  Thing is, I’ve been so busy gettin reports from the Generals – I don’t make a move without their input – and watchin the economy crater.  Laura is relieved I don’t have to worry about my pension in this mess.   Any way, I do watch all of Hank and Ben’s press conferences, even caught a few minutes of them on C-Span testifyin up there on the Hill.  That Barney Frank really freaks me out.  And you know I have been makin some statements of my own, though I can’t quite figure out why they asked me to make them so early in the morning when half the country is still asleep.

Back to the campaign.  Oh, I love it out there on the stump, but I guess that Obama fella didn’t use Bill that much either.   At least he had a big in-person speech at their convention.  Why was it that I only could appear via Satellite?  I forget.  Any way, Laura went out there which was good and she appeared arm-in-arm with Cindy – our kind of people, the McCains.  Beer money, and you know how much I like havin a beer with the guys.  Not one appearance with good old John, odd.  OK, Bill and Obama haven’t been palling around either, but they did have that 11 PM hug in Florida the other night.  I haven’t hugged John since ’04 when he told me how much he admired me after all.  2000…well no hard feelings  he said, and any way he sure has learned how to campaign like the best of us.  Sock it to ’em John.  I wonder if Joe the plumber would like to have a beer?  My dad told me Dick Nixon got along well with plumbers, why couldn’t I?

Well better get back to work.  There are those toxic loans to clean up, though not as toxic as what I’m leavin behind for the next guy to sit in this place.  Wonder if he can do better than me?  Well you know what they say, Yes he can!”